Rene Rivera

MLB second half preview: Contenders and pretenders

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The All-Star break officially ends at 7:05PM Eastern this evening when the Cubs take on the Orioles and the Pirates take on the Cardinals. Five minutes later five more games will get underway and by the time we go to bed tonight all 30 teams will either have played or will be in action and the season’s second half will have commenced.

Let’s take a look at some of the burning questions for that second half:

Q: Who are the real contenders and who are the mere pretenders? 

The division races are pretty bad this year, my friends. The closest division is the AL Central, with the Indians holding a 2.5 game lead over the Twins and three games over the Royals. Next is the AL East, with the Red Sox holding a 3.5 game lead over the Yankees and Rays. Three divisions feature utter blowouts, with the Astros leading the AL West by 16.5 games, the Nationals leading the NL East by 9.5 games and the Dodgers leading the NL West by 7.5 games. The Brewers hold a 5.5 game lead over the Cubs and Cardinals.

Of the closer races, Boston’s lead seems safe for now, but the AL East has defied predictions in recent seasons. The Indians struggled early but I suspect they’ll hit a higher gear in the second half and pull away. If anything, I suspect the Royals to give them a tougher race than the Twins. I have not counted out the Cubs, especially given their pickup of Jose Quintana yesterday, but the Brewers have been surprisingly resilient so far. The Cardinals don’t scare me nearly as much as the Cubs do, but we could have a really interesting race in the NL Central.

As for the Wild Card: in the American League It’s probably easier to say who isn’t a contender there than who is. If I’m drawing the line I say you can realistically draw it where the Rangers sit, three games out, with the Orioles, Mariners and Blue Jays as marginal and the Tigers, A’s and White Sox out of it. In the NL it’s a bit easier: the Diamondbacks, Rockies and whoever doesn’t win the NL Central are the only realistic contenders.

All of that aside, we have two classes of teams this year: the class containing the Astros, Nationals and Dodgers on the one hand and everyone else on the other. It’ll be up to the GMs of the mass of teams huddling within 3-5 games of the Wild Card in the American League and the couple of teams on the margins in the National League to make deals to distinguish themselves.

Q: Whose schedule presents the easiest path forward? Whose is the toughest?

Let’s keep in mind that baseball is not college football, so strength of schedule is not exactly the be-all, end-all. Anyone can beat anyone at any time and there is enough parity in this game to where the differences between a tough schedule and an easy one are pretty small.

That said, FanGraphs rates such things and, according to them, the Indians, Astros, Royals, Rangers, Tigers and Twins have the easiest second half schedules in the AL with the White Sox, Orioles, Yankees, Red Sox and Rays having the toughest go. That’s suggests the schedules largely cancelling each other out given who has to beat who going forward.

In the National League the Dodgers have the easiest schedule in the second half and the Diamondbacks have the absolute toughest which may put the NL West “race” into perspective. The Cubs have the third easiest schedule, the Cardinals the fifth and the Brewers have the sixth hardest, which should make the Central race interesting.

Q: Who are the buyers at the trade deadline and what are they buying?

Just about every contender has some need. Even the Astros and Dodgers. As usual, it’s mostly pitching. People always need pitching. That being said, here’s what I see as each contender — or marginal contender’s — biggest need.

  • Nationals: A closer. This is the most glaring need among any contender. They cannot enter the playoffs with their bullpen as currently constructed.
  • Brewers: Bullpen help
  • Cubs: They filled their biggest need yesterday with the Jose Quintana acquisition. They could use a backup catcher. They could also use their existing bats to heat up.
  • Cardinals: A bat, bullpen help
  • Dodgers: They could use back-end rotation help. There’s a rumor that they could target Zach Britton or some other back-end bullpen help to give them a devastating 1-2 punch with Kenley Jansen. If you shorten the game you can make up for some weakness at the back end of the rotation.
  • Diamondbacks: Bullpen help. An infielder.
  • Rockies: Bullpen help
  • Red Sox: A third baseman now, as always. Bullpen help.
  • Yankees: They acquired a first baseman by trading for Brewers minor leaguer Garrett Cooper yesterday, but it remains to be seen if that hole is truly filled. They need a reliever not named Tyler Cippard. They need existing players like Matt Holliday and Aaron Hicks to come back (UPDATE: Holliday is coming back tonight). They need Dellin Betances to find the strike zone.
  • Rays: Middle relief, but I doubt they make any big moves. They may be more likely to sell than to buy.
  • Orioles: Starting pitching but, really, true contention seems like a pipe dream
  • Indians: Starting pitching. Or 2-3 of their existing starters to get healthy and/or stop sucking.
  • Twins: Rotation help (Bartolo Colon is not, contrary to popular belief, anyone’s savior), bullpen help. Don’t expect major moves, though.
  • Royals: Starting pitching
  • AstrosDallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers to be healthy. If that can’t be guaranteed — and it never can be — another starting pitcher would be nice.
  • Rangers: Bullpen help
  • Mariners: Pitching, pitching, pitching.
  • Angels: Starting pitching, though they could get several arms back from injury. Still, it’s unlikely that they’ll do much. They are marginal contenders at best and don’t have any prospects to deal. They do get a fella named Mike Trout back tonight. He could possibly help out. Hard to say.

Q: What players are available?

Theoretically: anyone. As far as the guys people are talking about, it breaks down thusly, in no particular order of ranking. Obviously these names can change as teams fall in and out of contention or decide to be buyers or sellers.

So that’s where we stand on July 14th as the regular season, thankfully, resumes.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 12, Rockies 6: Cody Bellinger hit two homers and drove in four and now he’s slugging a ridiculous .679. He also made news over the weekend by saying that he did not know who Jerry Seinfeld was. I’ll have some more thoughts on that later this morning. In other news, Colorado blew an early 5-0 lead and a later 6-4 lead and the Dodgers piled it on late with three in the seventh and five in the eighth. Oh, and closer Kenley Jansen doubled, driving in a run. It was only his eighth plate appearance in his career. Of course, dude used to be a catcher, so he knows which end of the bat is which.

Twins 4, Indians 0: Last weekend the Indians swept the Twins in Minnesota and took over first place in the AL Central. This weekend the Twins sweep the Indians in Cleveland and took over first place in the AL Central. Which means that you can probably ignore that stuff I said about last week being a turning point or order being restored or whatever the hell else I said. Probably a good policy regardless. Ervin Santana tossed six shutout innings and Jason Castro drove in three of the four runs. The fourth came via an Eddie Rosario homer.

Rangers 7, Yankees 6: It was Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, and Whitey Ford, Ron Guidry and Sparky Lyle were all on hand. Too bad they didn’t stick around because the Yankees might’ve been better off with them on the bump for the game that counted. Texas scored six runs off of Michael Pineda in the first two innings and seven over four, thanks in parts to homers by Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo and Drew Robinson. The Yankees made it close, adding four in the fifth and two in the seventh, but they’d fall one short. Next time, give it to Whitey.

Blue Jays 8, Royals 2:  Jose Bautista homered and drove in four. Francisco Liriano allowed two runs on six hits while pitching into the seventh to pick up his 100th career victory. In other news, Jays closer Roberto Osuna struck out three in a scoreless ninth inning a day after saying he was dealing with anxiety issues. Everyone is fighting a battle you don’t know anything about. Good to see Osuna having a positive day as he fights his.

Marlins 4, Cubs 2: Addison Russell left with a pain in his shoulder and the Cubs lost a game they probably should’ve won. Three of Miami’s four runs were unearned following a first inning error by Russell and the Cubs managed to turn eight hits and seven walks into only two runs. A Giancarlo Stanton homer in the seventh gave the fish some insurance. Ichiro started in center field, by the way, becoming the oldest man to ever start a game at the 8. He was 43 years, 246 days old yesterday. Rickey Henderson had the previous record for a center field start, doing so on the day he was 43 years and 211 days old back in the 2002 season with the Red Sox.

Orioles 8, Rays 5: It was tied at five heading into the ninth when Caleb Joseph and Seth Smith reached base in front of Joey Rickard‘s tiebreaking double which scored Joseph. Smith came in to score when Jonathan Schoop was hit by a pitch. Then Rickard scored on an Adam Jones sac fly. Joseph, Trey Mancini and Schoop all homered for the Orioles.

Angels 4, Red Sox 2: A week ago Parker Bridwell and Doug Fister were in the same dugout for the Salt Lake City Bees. Yesterday they faced each other following Bridwell’s callup and Fister’s release and signing by the Sox. Bridwell got the better of Fister, allowing two runs while pitching into the seventh. Mitch Moreland and Jackie Bradley Jr. homered for the Sox in a losing cause.

Brewers 7, Braves 0: Zach Davies tossed seven shutout innings, but he didn’t need to be that good given what his teammates did to Julio Teheran. Keon Broxton hit a solo shot and drove in two with a single. Travis Shaw hit a two-run shot to kick off the scoring. The Brewers snap the Braves four-game winning streak and salvage one in the three-game series.

Reds 6, Nationals 2: The Reds got pummeled by the Nats on Saturday night but they came out swinging on Sunday, putting up five runs in the first. Scooter Gennett had an RBI single in the first and hit homered in the second. Scott Feldman allowed two runs over seven innings.

Athletics 5, White Sox 3: There were rumors last week that some contender might trade for Sony Gray and make him a reliever. Seems fine as a starter to me: he pitched four-hit ball over seven innings. Oakland trailed until the eighth but took the lead on Khris Davis and Yonder Alonso RBI singles. They padded the lead in the ninth with homers from Adam Rosales and Matt Joyce.

Mets 8, Giants 2: Rene Rivera hit two homers. Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson each went deep once. Slackers. Or maybe Bruce was just more efficient because he drove in the same number of runs Rivera did — three — with one fewer dinger. Baseball: it’s full of mysteries. Anyway, the Mets sweep the Giants, who have lost five in a row and 12 of 13.

Astros 8, Mariners 2George Springer, Yuli Gurriel and Evan Gattis all went deep as the Astros finish up a 6-1 road trip. Emergency starter Francis Martes had a rough go of it, but four relievers combined to shut out the Mariners on three hits for seven innings. These guys have the best record in the game and, like, 80% of their rotation is hurt. Pretty scary team.

Diamondbacks 2, Phillies 1Daniel Descalso hit a walkoff single, scoring Paul Goldschmidt in the 11th. Goldschmidt knocked in the snakes’ other run earlier in the game. Arizona has won 11 of 13

Tigers 7, Padres 5Mikie Mahtook drove in three runs via an RBI triple in the fourth and a tiebreaking two-run single in the ninth to help the Tigers end their eight game losing streak. The Padres blew 3-0 and 5-3 leads.

Cardinals 8, Pirates 4: Down 4-2 in the sixth, a Randal Grichuk homer and a Jed Gyorko RBI double tied things up and then a four-run seventh inning put things away. Four Cardinal relievers combining to allow only one hit over three scoreless innings helped put it away too.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Nationals 5, Mariners 1: Anthony Rendon hit a three-run homer. He hit two homers and drove in five on Tuesday. Guess you can say he likes playing the Mariners. Then again, everyone should like playing the Mariners these days. They’ve lost five in a row and have been outscored 41-5 in that span.

Athletics 4, Marlins 1: Sonny Gray struck out 11 batters over seven one-run innings. Gray has only pitched five times this year but so far the results are pretty good, pointing to the sort of bounceback season the A’s were hoping for from their potential ace. He’s got a K/BB ratio of 28/8 in 29.2 innings, a WHIP of 1.08 and is holding batters to a .216 average.

Twins 4, Orioles 3: The Twins swept the O’s in Baltimore — the first team to even win a series there this season — but what I would really like to do is I to show you a couple of pitches Jose Berrios threw yesterday afternoon:

And this:

That game started at 1pm. I know the studies are inconclusive — and it may make me sound old fashioned — but I think it’s wrong to show this sort of pornography when children are awake and can easily stumbled upon it. Please, Paul Molitor, only allow Jose Berrios to pitch after dark.

Reds 4, Indians 3: Speaking of pornography, check out Billy Hamilton‘s speed. He beats out what would’ve been a game-ending double play if anyone else on the planet was running and then he scored from first base on a single (and outfield miscue by Michael Brantley) to help the Reds come back from a 3-2 deficit in the ninth inning to win the game:

That Brantley brain lock aside, I don’t think many other runners score on that play. Hamilton’s wheels won that dang game for Cincinnati.

Rockies 7, Phillies 2: Tyler Chatwood allowed one hit in seven scoreless innings and struck out eight as the Rockies continue to impress. They scored seven runs in the third, hitting, collectively, for the cycle in the inning. Carlos Gonzalez hit the homer, Ian Desmond hit the triple, Trevor Story hit the double and Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu and Nolan Arenado all singled. Fox executives are gonna jump outta windows when they see the ratings for this year’s Rockies-Twins World Series, but it’ll be totally dope for most of us if it happens.

Blue Jays 8, Brewers 4: Ryan Goins is gonna lose his job to Troy Tulowitzki soon, but he’s not letting that bother him. He hit a grand slam here and Kevin Pillar, Devon Travis and Jose Bautista went deep as well.

This has nothing to do with anything, but I want you to know that in the course of putting these recaps together I came across this ad at the bottom of a web page:

Given that he’s been dead for 11 years I’d say it’s understandable that fans were stunned regardless of the reason he left the show. And that’s the case even if the shuffling, decomposing corpse of Don Knotts were merely citing something boring like creative differences with Desilu Studios or a desire to more movies.

Working on the Internet is so cool. OK, back to the recaps:

Yankees 3, Royals 0: Luis Severino‘s year of fulfilling his potential continues as he allowed four hits over eight innings, striking out seven. The 23-year old is looking better than he did in his rookie year and way better than he did in 2016. On the bad side of things, Jacoby Ellsbury slammed into the wall while making a catch in the first inning and left with a concussion and sprained neck. It’s the second time this season he’s face-planted like that.

Diamondbacks 8, White Sox 6: The sweep. The Dbacks have won 8 of 9 and are ten games over .500 for the first time in six years. Five different Arizona batters drove in a run. Jose Abreu was 4-for-5 with a homer and three RBI in a losing cause.

Red Sox 9, Rangers 4: The Sox were down 3-1 in the bottom of the seventh but then they put up a seven-spot. Chris Sale struck out only six batters, snapping his streak with double digit strikeouts at eight, but I’m sure he’s cool with it.

Padres 6, Mets 5: Mets blew a 5-1 lead but had a chance to tie or win it in the ninth only to be smacked down by Brad Hand. New York loaded the bases with nobody out, but Hand struck out Curtis Granderson and Rene Rivera and then Juan Lagares flied out to end it. Losing a lead and seeing a would-be rally fizzle like that are demoralizing enough, but having them both happen in the same game is a real kick to the beans.

Pirates 12, Braves 5: Speaking of demoralizing: the Braves — whose bullpen has been pretty fantastic lately — had a 5-3 lead in the ninth inning only to see Jose Ramirez cough it up by surrendering a two-out, bases loaded single to Jose Osuna. The tenth inning was way worse, when Josh Collmenter came on for Atlanta and decided it’d be more fun to spread kerosene all over the place than to get dudes out. Collmenter allowed six hits — three of them homers — and seven runs in the final frame. The 10th inning dongs came back-to-back-to-back in the space of ten pitches. The men doing the yard work for Pittsburgh: David Freese, Osuna and Jordy Mercer

Rays 5, Angels 2: Steven Souza homered twice. Too bad he did it in May. Two months earlier and we could call him “The March King.”

Cubs 5, Giants 4: Anthony Rizzo homered twice and Kyle Hendricks allowed two runs over seven. Wade Davis allowed two runs over one, via a homer to Mac Williamson, but he got the save anyway.

Tigers 6, Astros 3Jose Iglesias finished a triple shy of the cycle — which is not a thing, even if it’s fun to say — and Ian Kinsler had two hits and scored twice. The Tigers snapped a three game skid.

Cardinals 6, Dodgers 1: Mike Leake allowed four hits over eight one run innings. His ERA is now down to 1.91 on the year. Yadi Molina homered and drove in two. Someone let me know if this game was more interesting to Bill Plaschke than Tuesday night’s game, which he found boring despite the fact that it featured a nine-inning pitcher’s duel featuring an all-time great and ended on a walkoff hit by the home team. As this one only took two hours and 44 minutes, I presume it was more pleasing to him.

Baseball writers, man. They’re the worst.