What to watch for in the second half

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The season is far more than halfway over. The two and a half months after the All-Star Game, however, is traditionally called the “second half,” and given how much more drama we’ll see during that time, it’s worth the bump-up in significance. The second half will determine who wins divisions and wild cards, who wins awards, which teams go for it, which teams cut bait and will give us a glimpse into what might transpire during hot stove season come November.

As we sit here today, in mid-July, here are the things to watch in the second half:

Who Will Stay and Who Will Go?

The biggest name on the trading block — Manny Machadoalready seems to have a new team (all we’re waiting for is the official announcement). Machado is not the only big name who could be moved, however. His Orioles teammates, closer Zach Britton and outfielder Adam Jones, have been mentioned prominently in trade rumors. Britton, specifically, will be highly sought-after. Other big names who could be dealt: Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, Rangers starter Cole Hamels, Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ and Padres reliever Brad Hand.

How about the Mets’ aces?

In a different category altogether are Mets starters Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. While the Mets don’t have a compelling reason to trade either — they should, actually, be working to build a winning team around these two — the team’s lack of success and the front office’s seeming inability to build a winner has made many speculate that either of them or both of them could be traded. Just last week deGrom’s agent said his client would be OK with that, implying that the talks for a long term deal have not been going well. So far the Mets have leaned heavily on the side of saying neither deGrom nor Syndergaard will be available, but if that changes, they instantly shoot to the top of the list as we approach the trade deadline.

Oh, and as we saw last year with Justin Verlander going to Houston, the “deadline” does not just mean the non-waiver deadline at the end of July. Big trades may still very well happen through the month of August.

The surprisingly competitive American League West

Everyone knew the defending World Series champion Houston Astros would rule the division, but most folks assumed they’d be ruling it a bit more authoritatively than they have thus far. Don’t get me wrong: the Astros have been just fine. It’s just that the competition has gotten much tougher.

The Seattle Mariners have the longest playoff drought in baseball and they lost Robinson Cano to a PED suspension early in the season. Despite that, however, they are 58-39, only five games back of the Astros and three and a half games up in the race for the second Wild Card slot. Even more surprising is the team most directly challenging them for the second Wild Card slot: the Oakland A’s, who are  55-42. Both the M’s and the A’s are playing a bit better than their Pythagorean record suggests they should be — the M’s far more so than the A’s — but those wins are in the bank and, at the moment, the next closest competitor for that second Wild Card — the Rays — is five and a half back. I suspect Houston will slowly increase their division lead, but we could have a really fun race between Seattle and Oakland down the stretch, with the loser going home and the winner taking the second Wild Card.

The Red Sox and Yankees trying to avoid the best Wild Card team of all time

While the A’s and M’s are hoping for a Wild Card, both the Yankees and the Red Sox are dreading the possibility of winning one. Each team is aiming way higher than that, with Boston currently on a 112-win pace and the Yankees on a pace to win 106 games. Only one other Wild Card winner has won 100 games (Oakland, 102, in 2001) but one of these two teams is destined to do so barring an historic collapse. While that may not have been as big a deal in the past, the Wild Card format these days is one-and-done so, even with playoff spots all but assured, both the Yankees and the Sox have every incentive to step on the gas to avoid a single-game matchup against James Paxton, Sean Manaea or Blake Snell.

 

The rest of the pennant races

Before the season began it seemed like all but the AL East were going to be cakewalks for the favorites in each division. While most of those favorites — the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Astros, Cubs and Dodgers — are either in first place or are winning like crazy — there have been some surprises so far. Most notably in the National League East where the Braves have held first place for most of the first half, the Phillies hold it now and the favored Washington Nationals are scuffling along, five and a half games back. The Dodgers struggled early but have come on of late. Still, those early struggles have kept the Dbacks, Rockies and Giants within striking range. The Milwaukee Brewers, while trailing the Cubs, have looked like a strong playoff contender all season long. While there is less overall parity than we saw just a few seasons ago, more races look to remain competitive longer in the second half than the experts envisioned as the season began.

The push for postseason awards

We have had a great number of outstanding individual performances in the first half, particularly in the American League, so picking an MVP is going to be both fun and difficult. At the moment the top contenders for that award are, in no particular order, Mookie Betts, Aaron Judge, Jose Ramirez and Mike Trout. What’s more, a couple of those guys have teammates who are just as worthy of being included in the conversation in J.D. Martinez and Francisco Lindor. The Astros have a potential candidates too in reigning MVP Jose Altuve and All-Star Game MVP Alex Bregman. If the season ended today I think it’d come down to either Betts or Trout, but it’s really wide open.

The National League is not quite as explosive, but it could be just as competitive, with Lorenzo Cain, Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman, Jesus Aquilar, Max Muncy and even a pitcher, Aaron Nola, vying for votes. You could also throw in whichever Chicago Cub has the hottest second half and perennial MVP-contender Paul Goldschmidt, who shook off a slow start and has been mashing lately.

The Cy Young Award fields are less wide open but the winner is still up in the air. Max Schezer remains a strong contender in the National League but, unlike in the past two seasons, his top competition is not Clayton Kersahw. In fact, it comes from his own division in the form of Jacob deGrom and Aaron Nola. Jon Lester, Miles Mikolas and Mike Foltynewicz lurk. In the AL any number of pitchers have been called the favorite at some point this season. At the moment that title belongs to Chris Sale, but Luis Severino, Trevor Bauer, Blake Snell, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole have pitched like Cy Young contenders at various points on the year.

Managers on the hot seat

The most high-profile firing we’re likely to see in-season just went down when Mike Matheny got the axe in St. Louis. Earlier Bryan Price was made redundant in Cincinnati. A the moment there is no one really on the hot seat. That place is usually reserved for would-be contenders who are underachieving, and the clubs fitting that description — primarily the Nationals and, depending on your definition of “contenders,” the Mets — have new managers this year who will be given more leeway. A couple of old hands may either be shown the door or could find their way to an exit by season’s end due to a lot of losing baseball either now or predicted in the immediate future. Here I’m thinking Buck Showalter in Baltimore and, possibly, Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh, Don Mattingly in Miami and, perhaps, Ned Yost in Kansas City. All could probably keep their jobs if they want them but any might decide that a long-term rebuild or, in Hurdle’s case, organizational uncertainty is nothing they want to be a part of going forward.

So that’s where we are a day after the All-Star Game. Everyone gets a couple more days off and then it’s back into the breach come Thursday night for the Cardinals and Cubs, Friday for everyone else.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.