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Looking ahead to the second half

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There’s only one game tonight — Houston vs. Texas — so it may not feel like the All-Star break is over until tomorrow, but officially speaking the second half of the 2019 baseball season begins today. Let’s take a look at where we stand as the regular season’s final two and a half months or so gets underway.

The Races

Do we even have races? Yes and no.

Five of the majors’ six divisions feature first place teams with five and a half games or more and the Dodgers lead the NL West by a whopping 13.5 games. The one division that is close — the NL Central — is close by virtue of its putatively top three teams more or less sucking eggs for the past month and a half or so, with Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis all failing to gain any traction while, luckily, not losing much ground. Only four and a half games separate the entire division, top to bottom.

Still, there is some reason to believe that things might get a bit more competitive down the stretch.

The Minnesota Twins spent most of the first half with a substantial lead over the disappointing — and favored — Cleveland Indians, but Cleveland has come on strong of late. The Indians hit the All-Star break with a six-game winning streak and are 22-9 since June 1. That, along with some recent scuffling by the Twins, has cut the Twins’ once seemingly insurmountable 11.5-game lead to a far more manageable five and a half. That could be cut down even more this weekend when Minnesota comes to Cleveland for a three-game series.

The Washington Nationals have similarly righted their once foundering ship, going 23-9 in June and July to move up from fourth place into second place in the NL East. They are still six behind the Braves, who have remained strong, but they have overtaken the Phillies who were favored by some to rule the NL East in 2019. They also play Atlanta 14 times in the second half including seven games in July. It could be moving time for the talented Nats.

Similarly, over in the American League West, the Oakland Athletics, once 12 games back of the Astros, are a more reasonable seven and a half. They travel to Houston a week from Monday and will look to make their move.

The Wild Card is, as usual, something of a mess. Less so in the American League where there are only five non-division leaders over .500 it’s not terribly difficult to separate them into camps of contenders (Tampa Bay, Boston, Cleveland, Oakland and perhaps Texas) and pretenders (everyone else). In the National League, however, there are nine teams either in Wild Card position or within four and a half games of being so. The situation will likely remain as clear as mud until at least September.

 

The Trade Deadline

At the outset, let us be reminded that the trade deadline is different this year than it has been in the past. It’s a hard deadline now, with trade waivers eliminated. As such, no players able to be traded after July 31. If a player is placed on outright waivers, clears them and signs with another team he can appear in the postseason if he’s on the new team’s roster by September 1, but there will no longer be Justin Verlander-style August trades of star players to contenders.

That means teams will be forced to make some earlier decisions. Which, given how many teams are at least within striking distance of a Wild Card slot, makes some of those decisions difficult ones. Generally speaking, though, I think the buyers and the sellers break down thusly:

  • Buyers: Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Twins, Astros, Athletics, Braves, Nationals, Phillies, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers;
  • Sellers: Blue Jays, Orioles, Royals, Tigers, Mariners, Marlins, Mets, Giants;
  • Unclear: Indians, White Sox, Angels, Rangers, Pirates, Reds, Diamondbacks, Padres, Rockies

The buyer/seller breakdown is pretty straightforward, with obvious contenders buying and teams going nowhere selling. That third group of teams is hard to figure.

The Indians, as noted above, are contending — they’re in playoff position right now, actually — but they are rumored to be open to trading Trevor Bauer. As we discussed the other day dealing him could be characterized as a white flag trade or it could be characterized as a bold move to rejigger the roster with more offense for the playoff push. Either way, they could simultaneously be unloading talent to contenders, making them a seller, and acquiring talent for the home stretch.

Most of the rest of those clubs are in a weird middle ground where, on the surface they are in contention, but did not enter the season seemingly set up to contend. The Reds, for example, are only four and a half out in the Central, but they are widely expected to deal Yasiel Puig. But . . . what if in two weeks they have surged while the rest of the Central has faltered? Same goes for the putatively rebuilding Rangers who have surprised. The White Sox and Padres are on the rise but are building for something more in the future which could cut either way at the deadline. The Diamondbacks have sent mixed signals as to their intentions for much of the year. The Rockies are on a win-now footing but they have pretty consistently chosen not to improve themselves in ways that would seem to make sense. All of which is to say: who knows?

As for the top players available, relievers, as always, will be the most heavily-trafficked commodity. Leading that long list is Giants closer Will Smith, who the Dodgers covet, making for a very, very rare deal between historic rivals. The Padres’ Kirby Yates might also be had. Other relievers on the block include Tony Watson and Sam Dyson of the Giants, Jake Diekman of the Royals, Shane Greene of the Tigers, Alex Colome of the White Sox and Mychal Givens of the Orioles. Some have argued that a team would do well to acquire Orioles starter Andrew Cashner and move him to the bullpen as well. Though, to be fair, people have been saying that since his days with the Padres and no one has ever gotten around to doing it.

Sexier than the relievers are the starting pitchers on the block. The big name is the Giants Madison Bumgarner who would be a strong addition to any contender, even if he’d cost a lot to acquire. The Jays’ Marcus Stroman is likewise available and the native New Yorker has made no secret of his desire to join the Yankees. Mike Minor was talked about as a top trade target for much of the first half but, as noted, the Rangers have exceeded expectations and may not want to part with him as easily as previously suspected. Matthew Boyd of the Tigers could be had. Tanner Roark of the Reds and Jordan Lyles of the Pirates technically pitch for contenders based on the standings, but whether their front offices actually believe it enough to keep them off the market is an open question. If their respective clubs choose to eat a big portion of their big contracts it wouldn’t be crazy to see Danny Duffy of the Royals and Jeff Samardzija of the Giants bandied about in trade rumors.

There aren’t a ton of impact position players available, but look for their to be discussions about outfielders and free agents to be Yasiel Puig and Nicholas Castellanos of the Reds and Tigers, respectively, first baseman Justin Smoak of the Blue Jays and, perhaps, Whit Merrifield of the Royals. Pablo Sandoval has quietly had an excellent season in San Francisco, though given how he fared the last time he left the Bay Area it would not be shocking for contenders to be wary. Melky Cabrera is still chugging along and is hitting pretty well this year so the Pirates might see fit to send him to his ninth big league team. Dee Gordon of the Mariners might interest some contenders due to his speed and defensive versatility. The Orioles trading Trey Mancini might further demoralize an already demoralized fan base, but it might get them a nice haul as well.

Homers and the Battle for Individual Awards

Major league batters are on pace to hit 6,668 homers, which would shatter the record of 6,105 hit in 2017. While everyone is hitting big flies, it seems, and a few hitters — Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Pete Alonso, Mike Trout — project to 50 dingers or more if their current home run rates and health hold up.

Those homers — and their status as the big bats on contenders — makes Yelich and Bellinger the top candidates for the NL MVP Award. If they falter — and their teams surge into the playoffs — look for Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rendon to join the conversation as well.

In the American League we’ll end up having the same conversation we always have in which everyone acknowledges that Mike Trout is easily the best baseball player on the planet yet strains to find reasons not to give him the MVP hardware. Look for D.J. LeMahieu, Matt Chapman, Alex Bregman and Jorge Polanco all to get that kind of heat. If one of them or someone else goes on a serious tear in September while Trout remains merely, boringly amazing, I’m sure Trout will, once again, finish in second place. And we’ll all look back on it one day, shake our head and laugh.

As for the Cy Young Award, Mike Minor of the Rangers, Charlie Morton of the Rays, Lucas Giolito of the White Sox and, as always, Justin Verlander of the Astros currently look to be in the conversation. The National League Cy Young race looks way sexier, though, with Max Scherzer‘s dominant past month or two thrusting him into a nice race with the Dodgers Hyun-Jin Ryu. The overpowering future Hall of Famer or the finesse guy with pinpoint control? It’s a classic battle.

The Rookie of the Year race is not much of a race in the National League: they may as well give it to Pete Alonso now and save everyone some time at the awards banquet next winter. I suppose Fernando Tatís Jr. has an argument — and he’s a fantastic player — but his stint on the injured list early in the season probably ended his chances at anything other than a second place finish. In the AL, Brandon Lowe of the Rays seems like the man to beat, though you can be forgiven if you haven’t noticed that Orioles starter John Means has been fantastic this year as well.

If you care about the always-hard-to-figure Manager of the Year Award, just know that it usually goes to the guy whose team the so-called experts underestimated in the preseason. As such, it would not be at all shocking if Rocco Baldelli of the Twins wins it in the AL with Chris Woodward of the Rangers following him. If those surprise teams both falter the votes tend to fall back to giving it to the manager of the best team and/or the manager of the team which overcame injury and/or adversity. Put Aaron Boone of the Yankees in that picture on both counts. The NL is lacking in true surprise teams this year so figure Dave Roberts of the Dodgers to be the front runner.

So that’s where we stand on the last day without baseball until playoff off-days in October. We have that one game in Texas tonight and a full slate on tap for the weekend. Welcome to the second half.

Rays beat Mets 8-5, clinch 1st AL East title in 10 years

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK (AP) Confetti instead of champagne. Silly string instead of beer.

The Tampa Bay Rays, long accustomed to doing more with less, figured out a way to maximize the division-clinching celebration they were allowed to enjoy during a 2020 season shortened by the coronavirus.

Randy Arozarena homered twice and the Rays clinched their first AL East title in 10 years Wednesday night with an 8-5 victory over the New York Mets.

“I’m completely dry right now, which I’m not a huge fan of,” center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Rays player, said with a grin. “But you have to adapt to what we’re asked of.”

With teams instructed to celebrate in a muted and socially distant style, the Rays went old school – or maybe elementary school – with their clinching party.

The team filed slowly onto the field after Nick Anderson fanned Andres Gimenez for the final out. A couple of players shot off canisters filled with confetti that eventually dotted the grass and dirt at Citi Field. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged before the Rays doused one another with silly string and lit some cigars in the visiting clubhouse.

Later, hooting and hollering could be heard from the visitors’ dugout.

“We’re little kids trapped in grown men’s bodies,” Kiermaier said.

Joey Wendle and Brandon Lowe also went deep for the Rays to back Tyler Glasnow‘s six solid innings. Tampa Bay will be home at quirky Tropicana Field for a best-of-three first-round playoff series beginning next Tuesday.

It is the third division crown for the thrifty Rays, whose payroll this season is just over $28 million – more than only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles. Tampa Bay, which began play in 1998, also won the AL East, home of two big-spending powers in the Yankees and Red Sox, in 2008 and 2010.

“It feels great to win the division, no matter what division you’re in,” Kiermaier said. “But especially the American League East – it’s just a different animal.”

After missing a chance to clinch Tuesday, the Rays went into Wednesday again needing just a win or a Yankees loss against Toronto to lock up the division championship.

The Rays (37-20) broke a 2-all tie in the sixth on Arozarena’s two-run homer off Michael Wacha and pulled away, taking care of business themselves while New York was routed 14-1 by the Blue Jays.

“At the end of the day, a clinch is a clinch,” said Wendle, who homered in the second. “But to do it on a win – everybody’s kind of riding the high of winning the game along with the division. We didn’t want to see it come down to them losing a game.”

Tampa Bay also is closing in on wrapping up the top record in the AL and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

Lowe, who had an RBI fielder’s choice in the third, hit a two-run homer in the eighth. Willy Adames added an RBI single later in the inning and Arozarena homered again in the ninth.

The insurance came in handy for the Rays when the Mets scored three times off Oliver Drake in the ninth – via an RBI groundout by Robinson Cano and a two-run homer by Todd Frazier – before Anderson closed the door.

“I think we had the game pretty much in control (and) certainly recognized what was going on in Buffalo, but I don’t know if you can ever prepare for a moment like that – it’s pretty special,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

Glasnow (5-1) allowed two runs on three hits and one walk with eight strikeouts.

Gimenez and Dominic Smith homered off Glasnow in the final home game of the season for the Mets, whose long-shot playoff hopes were further damaged with the loss. New York began the day 2 1/2 games out of an NL wild-card spot.

“We still have a shot with the four games left and we’re competing,” manager Luis Rojas said. “We’ve just got to do what we do – just keep fighting like we did in the ninth.”

Wacha allowed four runs on six hits and struck out four in six innings.

STABLE SHIRT

Rays pitcher Charlie Morton sported a T-shirt picturing a stable of horses as he spoke with reporters during a pregame Zoom call. Morton did little to discourage the notion the shirt was inspired by Cash’s viral rant earlier this month, when he declared the Rays have “a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph” after Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman threw near Mike Brousseau’s head in the ninth inning Sept. 4.

“The stable shirt?” Morton said. “It was in my locker last week and I like horses.”

With a grin obviously growing even behind his Rays mask, Morton said he rode horses as a kid.

“So I was ecstatic to see this shirt in my locker and I wore it,” he said.

As for the fireballers on the Rays’ pitching staff?

“We’ve got some guys that throw really hard,” Morton said.

ANOTHER LOSING SEASON

The loss guaranteed the Mets (25-31) will finish with a sub-.500 record for the ninth time in the last 12 seasons – a total matched or exceeded only by the Chicago White Sox (nine), Miami Marlins (10) and San Diego Padres (10). The White Sox and Padres have already clinched playoff spots and a winning record, while the Marlins are in second place in the NL East.

New York made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons in 2015 and 2016 and went 86-76 last year.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Rays: LHP Jose Alvarado (shoulder, lat) is scheduled to throw batting practice to 3B Yandy Diaz (hamstring) and 1B Ji-Man Choi (hamstring) at Tropicana Field on Thursday. Cash said all three players are progressing and he hopes they are available for the playoffs. . Brousseau (oblique) missed a fourth consecutive game. Cash said he would have been available off the bench if needed

Mets: RF Michael Conforto (hamstring) returned to the lineup as the designated hitter after missing two games and went 0 for 4. . The Mets activated RHP Dellin Betances (lat), who last pitched Aug. 29, and optioned RHP Corey Oswalt to the alternate site.

UP NEXT

Rays: After a day off Thursday, Morton (2-2, 4.64 ERA) is scheduled to get his postseason tuneup in the opener of a series against the Phillies on Friday.

Mets: Rookie LHP David Peterson (5-2, 3.80 ERA) opens a four-game road series against the Nationals. Peterson struck out a career-high 10 against the Braves last Saturday.