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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.

Trea Turner hits for the cycle

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Nationals shortstop Trea Turner hit for the cycle on Tuesday night against the Rockies, becoming the first National to hit for the cycle since, well, himself back on April 25, 2017… against the Rockies.

Turner led off the bottom of the first inning with a home run to center field off of Peter Lambert. He singled in the second, tripled to lead off the fourth, and hit an RBI double as part of an eight-run seventh inning to complete the cycle.

Turner is the fourth player to hit for the cycle this season. The others:

After completing the cycle, Turner is hitting .286/.343/.494 with eight home runs, 25 RBI, 41 runs scored, and 20 stolen bases in 277 plate appearances this season.