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Looking ahead to the second half of the season

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The All-Star Game is over and, though nearly 100 games of the 162-game season have already been played by most teams, we refer to what happens next as baseball’s second half. And we traditionally take this day — maybe the slowest sports day of the year — to look forward to that second half and see what it holds.

Some contenders are pretenders and some teams which claim to be buyers at the trade deadline probably actually won’t be. Let’s sort it all out.

THE DIVISION RACES — A BEAUTIFUL MESS

  • American League East

The Orioles sport a four-game lead and look to be the least-poorly-put-together team in a division in which every team has a flaw. The Rays are hot right now but they dug themselves a pretty big hole. Plus, as I’ll note below, winning could actually complicate their trade deadline plans. Trades will probably loom larger here than anywhere, as either the Orioles, Jays or Yankees getting a starting pitcher could change the complexion of the race. Well, maybe the Yankees could use three starting pitchers with the way things have gone for them, but the fact is that there is no dominant team here and anything could happen.

  • American League Central

This is the Tigers’ division. Everyone else is just living in it. The Royals dropped three of four to Detroit at home leading into the break and lack the consistency on offense, it seems, to mount any kind of sustained challenge. Not that the Tigers are invincible. The rotation seems more vulnerable than it has in recent years, particularly Justin Verlander’s slot, and as always, Detroit will use the second half to try to figure out the best way to deploy its bullpen resources.

  • American League West

The A’s are the best team in baseball and they sent more All-Stars to Minnesota than anyone. But, there they sit, only a game and a half up on the Angels, who have been fantastic this year to much quieter fanfare. And despite the fact that the Angels have a large lead as the top wild card team and a 90%+ chance of reaching the playoffs, they have a big incentive to actually win the division here. That’s because, if the season ended today, they’d play the Mariners in a one-game wild card playoff. The Mariners have Felix Hernandez, and if you have to win one game to survive you do NOT want to face Felix Hernandez to do it.

  • National League East

The Braves and Nats are in a virtual tie for the lead and no one else is particualrly close, but it sorta feels like the Braves have already lost their best chance to win this thing. The Nats were hurt and often looked confused in the first half, but Atlanta didn’t put any distance between them. Now the Nationals are getting healthy and, one feels anyway, like they’ll slowly start to build distance between themselves and Atlanta. One key to all of this, of course, is how hurt Jordan Zimmermann is. He missed the All-Star Game due to a bicep strain. Is that a cause for concern or wass it one of those “get me out of the All-Star-Game free” cards?

  • National League Central

This is gonna be crazy. The Brewers jumped out to a big lead and then slowly surrendered it, skidding into the All-Star Break. The Cardinals, Pirates and Reds started poorly and then righted their respective ships and now all four of these contenders are separated by only three and a half games. The key here is probably going to be health. The Brewers may have less overall talent than the other three teams, but they’re healthier. Yadier Molina, Michael Wacha, Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto and Aroldis Chapman are all key parts of the two most-talented teams which will be out of commission for a while. The Pirates probably have the division’s best player in Andrew McCuthen, but they have the biggest deficit too. If you were trying to properly weigh these teams like they were Pinewood Derby cars in an effort to create a total toss-up of a race for the second half, it’d be harder to do a better job than the fates have done here. Sit back and enjoy it as this chaos unfold.

  • National League West

A one game lead looks close, but these are teams heading in different directions. The Giants’ big early lead was built on a lot of unexpected power that didn’t seem sustainable and wasn’t. The Dodgers’ rotation is frankly ridiculous and, if they want to be total jerks about it, they have the talent and financial resources from which to trade and get more pitching. Or, if you’re the suspicious type, to keep pitching from going elsewhere. They could use the bullpen help, actually. If 2010 and 2012 meant anything it meant that you can never count out the Giants, but I sorta feel like counting out the Giants at the moment.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR AT THE TRADE DEADLINE

  • Gridlock

Don’t expect a lot to happen until the 11th hour before the trade deadline, as parity and the second wild card have created a situation in which far more teams believe they can win than in years past and are thus looking to be buyers. Or at least wanting to appear like they’re buyers for as long as possible so as not to signal to their fans that they’re throwing in the towel, thus leading to a drop in ticket sales.

  • The David Price Drama

He’s obviously the biggest name rumored to be on the block, but the Rays are always a bit hard to figure. They are winning an awful lot lately and, at least publicly, are talking like a team which thinks it can contend. If so, they may not be so eager to trade their best player. But that may be bluster, of course — I tend to think it is — and the Rays may very well be trying to shoot the moon in a deal. The Cubs got a tremendous prospect in Addison Russell when they traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Athletics. Given that example the Rays will likely want one — or, more likely, two — top prospects for Price. In an age where prospects are valued insanely highly — probably too highly — it may be difficult for another team to pull the trigger on that kind of deal. This one likely goes to the wire.

  • Bullpen arms are the most likely things to move

Well, the bodies attached to them too. Everyone could use a bullpen upgrade, always. Even teams with great bullpens. There are never enough arms to go around, it seems, but bullpen arms are reasonably priced enough that they tend to get traded often. I would expect most of the moves we see happen be the shuffling around of relief pitchers, most of whom aren’t household names.

  • Teams likely to be the most aggressive buyers

Yankees, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Braves and Giants. All of them either are or, in the Yankees case, think they are, contenders with a flaw or an injury which needs to be addressed and all of them are teams which have shown in the past that they will make a big deal if they need to. The Royals and Mariners, on the other hand, are teams that could use a player but which, historically, have not been too eager to add payroll or enter into blockbusters.

  • Players besides David Price most likely to move

Cliff Lee, Chase Headley, Josh Willingham, Adam Dunn, Erik Bedard, Matt Joyce, Dexter Fowler, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jake Peavy. Bats are in short supply and Headley and Willingham are talked about as candidates to move every year it seems. Eventually they have to be moved, right? The rest of the guys are either playing for losers or are close to walking in free agency.

It’s a two and a half month sprint to the finish, folks. Check back to HardballTalk every day between now and the end of the season for help in sorting out this wonderful, beautiful and unwieldily mess of a baseball season.

 

 

The Mets are among six teams that help Dominican prospects earn high school diplomas

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - APRIL 19:  A detailed view of the blackboard with theoretical physics equations in chalk by Alberto Ramos, Theoretical Physics Fellow and visitor, Antonio Gonzalez-Arroyo from the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid (both not in frame) at The European Organization for Nuclear Research commonly know as CERN on April 19, 2016 in Geneva, Switzerland.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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In a special for USA TODAY Sports, Mike Vorkunov details how six teams — the Mets in particular — provide an education program that helps their Dominican prospects earn high school diplomas. It seems like an obvious win-win: smarter players make smarter decisions, making them more likely to achieve their potential as athletes. That, of course, requires spending money, which is why only six teams make the investment. For the players, if baseball doesn’t work out, they are better able to support themselves in other ways.

Vorkunov lists the Pirates, Tigers, Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Mariners as the other teams who provide an education program for their Dominican prospects. We learned earlier this month that the Phillies were also investing in making sure their minor leaguers eat healthy. As Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “few teams” supply their minor league players with healthy food options.

Juan Henderson, the head of the Mets’ Dominican academy, said, “We see the benefit of it. I gotta tell you, we’re working with a new generation of baseball players. You see in the past that players just carry a bat and a glove and a helmet on the baseball field and in the academy. Those years, I think, are going to be pretty much over. Now they also do that, but they also carry books, they also carry an iPad, they also carry a laptop.”

Kudos to the six teams for making a great decision and here’s hoping the other 24 teams follow suit.

Video: Albert Pujols hits 569th career home run, tying Rafael Palmeiro

ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 22:  Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim returns to the dugout after scoring in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on May 22, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Angels first baseman Albert Pujols cranked out a two-run home run in the third inning against Rangers starter Derek Holland, breaking a scoreless tie. It’s the ninth homer of the season for Pujols and the 569th of his career, putting him into a tie with Rafael Palmeiro for 12th on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard.

Harmon Killebrew is Pujols’ next target at 573, followed by Mark McGwire at 583 and Frank Robinson at 586.

Pujols hadn’t homered since May 13. He entered Monday night hitting a mediocre .228/.309/.395 with eight home runs and 28 RBI in 188 plate appearances.

Alex Gordon to miss three to four weeks with a fractured scaphoid bone

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 22:  Alex Gordon #4 and Mike Moustakas #8 of the Kansas City Royals collide going for a foul ball against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field on May 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The White Sox defeated the Royals 3-2.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Monday has unfortunately been a day of injury news. Royals outfielder Alex Gordon is the latest to hit the 15-day disabled list, as he has been diagnosed with a fractured scaphoid bone in his right wrist. The club has recalled infielder Cheslor Cuthbert from Triple-A Omaha.

Gordon suffered the injury colliding with third baseman Mike Moustakas attempting to catch a fly ball on Sunday afternoon. He is expected to miss three to four weeks, MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan reports.

Gordon was having a tough 2016 campaign and the injury only makes it worse. He’s hitting .211/.319/.331 with four home runs and 10 RBI in 166 plate appearances on the year.

The Royals will likely use Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando in left field in Gordon’s absence.

Orioles trade reliever Brian Matusz to the Braves

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 17:  Brian Matusz #17 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches against the Seattle Mariners during the fifth inning on May 17, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Orioles announced on Monday night that the club has traded reliever Brian Matusz to the Braves in exchange for minor league pitchers Brandon Barker and Trevor Belicek. The Braves are also receiving a Competitive Balance Round B pick (76th overall) in the 2016 draft.

Matusz, 29, made his season debut on April 23 after battling a back injury since early March. It’s been a struggle, as the lefty has yielded eight runs on 11 hits and seven walks with just one strikeout in six innings. He is earning $3.9 million and can become a free agent after the season.

MLB.com’s Mark Bowman reports that the Braves are expected to designate Matusz for assignment. Essentially, the Braves bought the draft pick for Matusz’s remaining salary of $3 million of $3.9 million total.

Barker, 23, has been pitching at Double-A Mississippi after getting a taste of Triple-A last year. So far this season, the right-hander has a 2.00 ERA with a 40/12 K/BB ratio in 45 innings spanning eight starts and a relief appearance.

Belicek, a 23-year-old left-hander, has spent most of the year with Single-A Rome, compiling a 2.49 ERA with a 29/1 K/BB ratio in 25 1/3 innings over 11 relief appearances.