Baseball is back: looking ahead to the second half

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The All-Star break officially ends at 2:20PM Eastern time today when the Rangers and Cubs begin play at Wrigley Field (thank you, Chicago, for day baseball on Fridays). Teams have played around 90 games or so, meaning the season is more than half over, but practically speaking, the second half is truly just now beginning. No playoff race has been decided and, with only a few exceptions, no one is really out of the running.

So: let us take a look ahead at what’s in store for the second half.

Wait, first, let’s look back.

Q: Just for fun, who are the first half award winners?

It’s always a little preposterous to do this, but why the heck not?

AL MVP: Flip a coin between Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson. Maybe do a round-robin with Jose Altuve
NL MVP: Kris Bryant, but there are a lot of good candidates, including his teammate, Anthony Rizzo
AL Cy Young: Danny Salazar or maybe Steven Wright
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
AL Rookie of the Year: Michael Fulmer
NL Rookie of the Year: Corey Seager
AL Manager of the Year: Terry Francona
NL Manager of the Year: Dusty Baker

That and a buck gets you a candy bar at the checkout counter. Let’s look forward now:

 

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

If the season ended today the division winners would be Baltimore, Cleveland, Texas, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco. The Wild Card teams would be Boston and Toronto in the American League and the Dodgers in the National League. The Mets and Marlins are tied for the second Wild Card.

As far as the division leaders go, Cleveland, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco seem like fairly safe bets to me, primarily based on the size of their leads but also based on the flaws of their pursuers. In the AL East, Baltimore, Boston and Toronto all have very similar strengths (offense or offensive potential) but similar weaknesses too (pitching mostly). Boston has moved aggressively to fill their holes via trade and Toronto, given their front office’s change of philosophy since last year is unlikely to make a big splash. Baltimore could definitely use a starter to take some of the pressure off of their very good but very taxed bullpen. I’ll give Boston the edge based on their great offense and the moves they’ve made, but the AL East is likely to be a dogfight for the remainder of the season.

The Rangers have a nice lead in the AL West but the injuries to their rotation make them vulnerable and Houston, I believe, has yet to play their best baseball. I think that division gets closer. The National League division leaders seem pretty solid and the teams chasing them all have injury problems.

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 the Yankees — who should be and may be sellers — and everyone with a record worse than them in the AL are really out of it (i.e. Athletics, Angels, Rays and Twins). In the NL it’s the opposite, with only five teams having realistic shots at the two Wild Card slots (Mets, Marlins, Cardinals, Pirates and Dodgers).

 

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

Let’s keep in mind, above all else, 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, over at ESPN Buster Olney broke down the remaining schedules for the contenders. The hardest schedules, in terms of the most games against opponents with winning records going forward, belong to the Tigers (54 games against .500+ competition), Astros (44), Red Sox (31, but A LOT of road games) and White Sox (51). The Yankees (58) actually face the toughest competition, but I don’t really consider them a contender. The easiest: Pirates (33, lots of home games), Dodgers (27), Rangers (36) and Mets (32).

 

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

Just about every contender on that list has some need. As usual, it’s mostly pitching. People always need pitching. That being said, here’s what I see as each contender’s biggest need. Obviously in some cases like with the Mets, Rangers, Mariners and Giants, simply getting regulars healthy is probably a bigger need than trade help:

Red Sox: Starting pitching, though they dealt with that yesterday
Orioles: Starting pitching
Blue Jays: Bullpen help, starting pitching
Indians: Reliever, bench bat, outfielder
Tigers: Starting pitching
Royals: Starting pitching, outfield depth
White Sox: Outfielder
Rangers: Bullpen help
Astros: Corner bat/catcher
Mariners: Bullpen help
Nationals: Outfielder
Mets: Bench help, starting pitching help
Marlins: Starting pitching
Cubs: Bullpen help
Cardinals: Outfielder
Pirates: Starting pitching
Giants: Bullpen help, maybe a back-end starter
Dodgers: Starting pitching, outfield depth

 

Q: What players are available?

Anyone could be available, at least theoretically. Here, however, are the most commonly mentioned bits of trade fodder available at the deadline, including some reaches in the event the Yankees decide to sell off:

Relief Pitchers: Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller (Yankees); Arodys Vizcaino (Braves); Daniel Hudson, Tyler Clippard (Diamondbacks); Joe Smith (Angels); Huston Street (Angels); Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress (Brewers); Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson (Athletics)

Starting Pitchers: Julio Teheran (Braves); Hector Santiago (Angels); Ervin Santana (Twins); Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, Nathan Eovaldi (Yankees); Sonny Gray, Rich Hill (Athletics); Jeremy Hellickson (Phillies); Andrew Cashner (Padres); Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore, Drew Smyly (Rays)

Catchers: Jonathan Lucroy (Brewers); Steven Vogt (Athletics)

InfielderErick Aybar (Braves); Zack Cozart (Reds); Mark Teixeira (Yankees); Danny Valencia (Athletics); Jed Lowrie (Athletics); Steve Pearce (Rays)

Outfielders/DH: Jay Bruce (Reds); Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies) Jeff Francoeur (Braves); Carlos Beltran (Yankees); Josh Reddick (Athletics); Melvin Upton Jr. (Padres); Desmond Jennings (Rays)

 

So that’s where we stand on July 15th as the regular season, thankfully, resumes.

Two injured MVPs is a major bummer for baseball

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Last week Christian Yelich‘s season ended with a fractured kneecap. At the time he went down he was neck-and-neck with Cody Bellinger — I think a tad behind, though people may reasonably differ — and, at least by my reckoning, a hair or three above Anthony Rendon, Ketel Marte and Pete Alonso in the race for the NL MVP Award. As I wrote last week, I think that means Bellinger is going to walk away with the hardware when the winner is announced in November. Yelich’s injury will prevent him from making a late season surge to surpass Bellinger, but I think it would’ve taken a surge for him to do it.

Over the weekend we learned that Mike Trout’s season is over as well. He’ll be having foot surgery to deal with a nerve issue causing him pain. At the time he went down he was the clear frontrunner to win his third MVP Award. Unlike Yelich, I’m pretty sure Trout will still win the trophy. Sure, Trout hasn’t played since September 7, meaning that he’ll miss more time than Yelich will, but strained articles stumping for alternative candidates notwithstanding, his lead in the MVP race was more secure.

Trout’s 2019 ends with him setting a career high in homers with 45 and slugging percentage at .645—both of which lead the American League. He likewise leads the league in on-base percentage (.438), OPS (1.083), and in both Baseball-Reference.com’s and FanGraphs’ versions of WAR at 8.3 and 8.6, respectively. With just under two weeks to go it seems likely that Jorge Soler of the Royals will pass Trout for the home run lead, but he’s not an MVP candidate himself. Alex Bregman will likely pass him in walks. Trout seems pretty certain to finish with his lead in all or most of the other categories intact. That’s an MVP resume even if he’ll only have played in 134 games. To give the award to anyone else would be an exercise in narrative over reason. Something born of a desire to reward a guy — like, say, Bregman — for playing on a winning team as opposed to his individual accomplishments. Sure, voters are allowed to do that, but they’ve mostly eschewed such tendencies in recent years. It’d be a surprise if they backslid.

Even if Yelich’s and Trout’s injuries aren’t likely to radically change the MVP race — again, I think the NL’s was Bellinger’s to lose — they’re both still lamentable separate and apart from the fact that all injuries stink. Lamentable in a way that, unfortunately, creates a downer for baseball as it gets ready for the postseason.

The Brewers won the game in which Yelich went down and have won four of five since then. In so doing they have remained close in the race for the second Wild Card and currently stand one game back. They also have an insanely favorable schedule the rest of the way, exclusively facing the weak sisters of the National League in the Padres, Pirates, Reds and Rockies. Even so, it’s no gimmie — those Reds and Rockies games are on the road, and Great American Ballpark and Coors Field makes those bad teams better — and the reward at the end of this is likely to be a one-game play-in. You want your best player in any and all situations and the Brewers don’t have theirs. And won’t, even if they make the postseason and even if they win the Wild Card game. Having one of the game’s brightest stars on crutches for the playoffs is not something anyone at the league office wants.

The Angels have no such postseason concerns and haven’t had them for most of the season. Once again they’re terrible. As they have been for almost the entirety of Trout’s career. They’ve made the postseason only once in his career — back in 2014, losing the LDS in three games — and do not appear poised to put a winner on the field any time soon. Trout is still in his prime, obviously, but like all players he’ll either slow down or break down eventually. Given the state of the club, I’m not sure I’d put a ton of money on them being good, let alone consistently good, while Trout is still the best or even one of the few best players in baseball. The upside to me seems to be an Al Kaline situation with the Tigers, in which the team finally put it together behind him only after he began to age and miss time to injuries. Having the best player in baseball outside of the playoffs looking in is not something anyone at the league office should want either.

Yet here we are.

Injuries happen. Every contender is missing at least one and in some cases several important players. But for one MVP candidate to miss the postseason this year and another one to miss the postseason every year is a major bummer for a league that has a tough go of it marketing itself even under the best of circumstances.