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.

 

 

Pujols hits 703rd HR to pass Babe for 2nd in RBI; Cards lose

St. Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates
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PITTSBURGH – Albert Pujols hit his 703rd home run Monday night, breaking a tie with Babe Ruth for second place in career RBIs, but the St. Louis Cardinals lost to Pittsburgh 3-2 when the Pirates drew four consecutive walks in the ninth inning to force home the winning run.

The 42-year-old slugger connected off right-hander Mitch Keller, pulling a two-run shot into the left-field stands to snap a scoreless tie in the sixth. It was Pujols’ 35th career home run at PNC Park, his most at any visiting ballpark.

The drive gave Pujols 2,216 RBIs, passing Ruth on the all-time list. Hank Aaron holds the record with 2,297.

“Passing Babe Ruth is a big deal,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “Seeing him hit a home run in that situation was fun to watch. You feel pretty good about where you’re at whenever he swings, and his home runs have been very meaningful.”

Pujols, who plans to retire after the season, has 24 home runs this year – his most since hitting 31 for the Los Angeles Angels in 2016. He is one of four players in major league history with 700, joining Barry Bonds (762), Aaron (755) and Ruth (714).

Pujols, who did not speak with reporters following the game, had been hitless in eight career at-bats against Keller.

“It’s an amazing time to be around him and being around this team,” Cardinals starting pitcher Jose Quintana said. “He keeps believing in his abilities. The most impressive thing is he homers, then he’s ready for the next one. He wants to keep going.”

With the score tied 2-all in the ninth, the Pirates loaded the bases when Ke'Bryan Hayes, Miguel Andujar and Rodolfo Castro drew consecutive walks from Giovanny Gallegos (3-6).

JoJo Romero relieved and walked Oneil Cruz on four pitches to end the game. It was the first walk-off plate appearance of the rookie’s career.

Before the game, the Cardinals signed Gallegos to a two-year contract worth $11 million that runs through 2024.

Yohan Ramirez (4-1) pitched a scoreless ninth for the win.

“There were a lot of signs of resilience,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said of the winning rally.

The Pirates avoided a second straight 100-loss season – at least for now – by beating the NL Central champion Cardinals for the second consecutive day.

Paul Goldschmidt led off the St. Louis sixth with a single before Pujols connected. Keller was chased after giving up two more singles in the inning.

The Pirates rallied to tie it at 2. Bryan Reynolds doubled home a run in the sixth and Jack Suwinski homered off Andre Pallante in the eighth.

Normally a starter, Cardinals right-hander Miles Mikolas allowed one run in three innings of relief. He followed Quintana, who pitched three scoreless innings.

Mikolas reached the 200-inning mark, raising his season total to 202 1/3.

“It’s just a nice ending to the season to get there,” Mikolas said. “It’s a mark you don’t see a tremendous amount of guys get to anymore, so it’s always kind of nice to separate yourself from the pack.”

St. Louis used the starters in tandem as Marmol attempts to set his staff for postseason play. The Cardinals host a best-of-three wild-card series beginning Friday, and Marmol has not decided on his rotation.

“It allows us the flexibility to still start them in any game of that three-game set,” he explained before the game.

Keller allowed two runs and six hits in five innings.

PIRATES MOVES

RHP Nick Mears was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and RHP Luis Ortiz was optioned to the same club. Ortiz made his major league debut Sept. 13 and went 0-2 with a 4.50 ERA in four starts.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Cardinals: 3B Nolan Arenado was scratched from the lineup 15 minutes before the game because of a slight quadriceps strain. He might also sit out Tuesday night as a precaution. . OF Tyler O'Neill (strained left hamstring) went through a full baseball workout but the Cardinals are still uncertain if he will be ready to play by Friday. . RHP Jordan Hicks will either be activated from the injured list and pitch in Wednesday’s regular-season finale or throw a bullpen that day.

UP NEXT

Cardinals: RHP Dakota Hudson (8-7, 4.07 ERA) will start Tuesday night. He has allowed one unearned run over 11 innings in two appearances since being recalled from Triple-A Memphis on Sept. 21. RHP Jack Flaherty is expected to pitch in relief as a postseason tune-up.

Pirates: RHP JT Brubaker (3-11, 4.58) will come off the injured list and start. He has been out since Sept. 16 with right lat discomfort.