Friday Fives: The MLB Second Half

He’s…still alive?

 

The All-Star Game has come and gone, and we’re at the point of the season where games start to matter. Yes, it’s nice to have momentum and a lead on your divisional opponents starting the second half, but as countless teams have shown us in recent years (Red Sox, Pirates, Mets), anything can happen after the break. Here’s what we’re most looking forward to in the dog days of August and beyond.

 

TED

WILL

GREG

5. The next breakout rookie sensation:  In 2007, Jacoby Ellsbury made his major league debut on the last day of June and hit .353 with a .902 OPS over 33 games for the eventual World Series champs, turning into a sometimes MVP-level player. In 2010, Stephen Strasburg debuted in June and hurled 92 K’s with a 2.91 ERA over 12 starts, helping ignite what looked like a Nationals dynasty-in-the-making until he turned into the next Mark Prior. Last year, Manny Machado got the call in August and swatted 50 hits and 7 homers over 51 games, helping keep the Orioles alive down the all-important stretch run and make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. He now has the second most hits in the majors and is on pace to break the single-season record for doubles. So who’s gonna be the next big late-season-callup-turned-star? It looked like Baltimore could strike gold for the second year in a row with Dylan Bundy (his two late September appearances last year notwithstanding), but then he had to go and get Tommy John surgery. Wil Myers is a solid candidate, though he debuted a month ago and has yet to display the power expected from him. Yasiel Puig has, of course, already taken the league by storm. Could the Red Sox pull a power move and call up uberprospect Xander Bogaerts when the rosters expand? Could the hopeless Twins throw caution to the wind and see how Byron Buxton fares in the bigs, only a year after drafting him #2 overall? Whoever it is, some young guy is gonna make a splash and turn some heads for a playoff-bound team, and I can’t wait to see who it is. 5. The Oakland A’s:  How the hell does this team keep doing this? Two of the team’s top players are Bartolo Colon and Coco Crisp! When you look through this team’s lineup, with the exception of third baseman Josh Donaldson, it has to be the most mundane lineup I’ve ever seen. There is no way an opposing pitcher would ever walk onto the mound preparing to face this team and be intimidated, and yet for the second consecutive year they are the front runners in the AL West and have the best regular season record over the past year and a half. Notice how the term “regular season record” had to be used. Despite the mystifying success of the A’s, their regular season success has yet to translate into any type of postseason success. As amazed as I am by this ragtag group of misfit toys and Dominican Santa Claus’, I still can’t believe this team can win in the postseason. But then again, I have no idea how they’re winning now, so who knows? 5. Clay Buchholz:  I have to start with my Red Sox because I have barely paid attention to this season, I’m not going to lie. I’m just super busy and baseball has a ton of teams, players, stats, and superfluous shit that I haven’t been able to follow, so the Sox are the only team I’ve really followed. Since Clay tossed a no-hitter back in ‘07 he has struggled to maintain consistency and health, but he started this year on another planet. He was arguably the best pitcher in baseball and the Sox are going to need his services if they want to maintain their hold on their playoff spot. Lester has been terrible since May, Doubront is still inconsistent but is turning into the reliable poor man’s Pettitte I thought he could be, but Lackey has kept the staff afloat while Young Buck continues the cunnilingus. Guy can’t stop. Take a break bro, she’ll be okay. If the Sox want to contend, Clay needs to play. I’m so good at rhyming words.
4. The Pittsburgh mothaf—-n Pirates:  Yeah, yeah, I know we should be suspicious. After all, the Bucs have carried a winning record into the All-Star break in each of the last two seasons, including last year when Andrew McCutchen’s breakout year and AJ Burnett’s resurrection put them 11 games over .500 at the break. Both times they imploded miserably in the August heat, solidifying two entire decades since their last winning season. Can they finally break that godawful curse this year? Well, they do own the second best record in the majors (which is absolutely mind-blowing considering they have one of the worst offenses in baseball by every measure imaginable). And they do have, statistically, perhaps the best pitching staff in the league, including a lights-out bullpen led by NL saves leader Jason Grilli and hold artist Mark Melancon. (Yes Sox fans, the same Mark Melancon who couldn’t even make the ATROCIOUS Sox bullpen last year was an All-Star this year. Go figure.) And they’re a great story, and have really likable players, and all that good stuff. But they also have waaaay too many games left against St. Louis and Cincinnati, the other two best teams in the National League who also happen to be in their division. And that offense is way too top-heavy, with 80% of its meager production coming from McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Starling Marte. So unfortunately, while they’ll finally break their ridiculous losing streak, I don’t see them making the playoffs. Which brings us to… 4. PED suspensions:  How sick of this story is everyone at this point? I’m not just referring to this latest Biogenesis case either. Rather, the entire issue of steroids in baseball is beyond played out and I’m just sick of it. At this point, we know so many players have done it and apparently will continue to try and do it. If players want to have massive bulbous heads and shriveled ball sacks, f— it, let them. The best and most memorable baseball season of my lifetime that wasn’t Sox-related was without question the Summer of ’98. Singlehandedly saved baseball which was still crawling out of the shadows of the ’94 strike and struggling to regain popularity. This new scandal represented by the faces of Braun and A-Roid needs to go away. If MLB is stupid enough to prosecute the players connected to Biogenesis it will cause the biggest in-season headache of Bud Selig’s career and completely distract from the fantastic baseball that is being played this season. Let Ba-Rollo Colon (stretch?) and the rest of the gang finish out the season uninterrupted so that the attention remains on the field where it belongs. 4. Will Manny play?:  By all accounts from my sources with the Round Rock Express, Mr. America is back. Manny is hitting .300 with three dingers and appears to be poised to make an impact for the middling Texas Rangers. The Rangers need a bat and Manny is the guy. And if Manny Ramirez is motivated, healthy, and pumped full of PEDs, no pitcher in the bigs will want to face him. I loveme some Mantics so I’m pretty excited to be heading back to Texas for the stretch run. Let’s just hope Manny isn’t tested any time soon.
3. The NL Central:  One division in the MLB is home to the two best records in the majors, as well as two of the top three teams in its league. Nope, it’s not the AL East. The NL Central boasts an impressive array of playoff-quality teams, and similar to the AL East, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that the top three will find themselves in the postseason. The Cardinals have one of the best all-around teams in recent memory: a top three offense, a top three starting rotation, a solid bullpen, and impeccable defense. They’re led by Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright and MVP candidate Yadier Molina, and just seem to be unstoppable. The Reds’ rotation is just as good, and their Joey Votto-driven offense isn’t far behind. The Pirates, who as I explained above will eventually fall short, are clearly blessed by a higher power and will take some valuable divisional games from St. Louis and Cincy, like a shitty presidential candidate stealing precious votes from a tight race. It seems all but certain that the National League World Series representative will come out of the Central, and at least two of those teams are highly capable of taking home the hardware. May the best city win, fellas. 3. Puigmania:  Snubbed or not snubbed? No matter your opinion, this dude can play. His play has not only been exciting to watch, but has rejuvenated the Dodgers as a team. They currently stand only 2.5 games behind the D’Backs for first in the NL West – and the D’Backs aren’t running away with this thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more debate or attention for a player who barely played over a months’ worth of games. But that’s how exciting this guy is. His average has begun to drop slowly, now batting only .394, but keeping up with his torrid pace of hitting close to .500 was simply unsustainable. But where does he level off? Is .375 in the second half reasonable? .350? Or does he fall off and dip below .300? By season’s end we will have a full sample size of Puig and just what he can do. Does that include keeping the Dodgers in the playoff hunt? For my preseason predictions, I hope so. 3. Justin Verlander:  Verlander has long been known as a workhorse who gets better as the game goes on. He often starts games in the low 90s and ends them near 100. But this year has been different. Verlander’s average velocity is down roughly 3-4 MPH and it has shown in his performance. His strikeout totals are down and his ERA and WHIP are up. Not a good sign. But although he’s not what he was even a year ago, Verlander is still one of the game’s best. However, the Tigers need a dominant JV, not a JV Verlander. They have the team (still no closer) to get back to the World Series, but Verlander must return to his Cy Young form.
2. Matt Harvey:  In a season in which the Yankees are freefalling out of the public eye, the rookie pitcher from that other New York team is taking the league by storm. He’s not really a threat to win the pitching Triple Crown because of his low win total for the offensively-retarded Mets, but the rest of his numbers are otherworldly. Of course it’s much too early to know for sure, and if he was smart he’d get out of Citi Field as fast as possible, but with Jeter nearing retirement, why couldn’t he be the new face of New York baseball? He’s a young stud banging a supermodel, he’s dominating the league as a rookie, and he’s a likable and recognizable dude. All he has to do is clinch the second straight Cy Young for the Mets (neither of whom would be named Johan, surprisingly enough) and the Big Apple will be bending over backwards for him. 2. AL East race:  Call me a homer if you want, but this may be the best division in baseball we’ve ever seen. At one point every team had a record over .500, and the Blue Jays are one good week of baseball away from making it happen again. Within the new playoff format it’s a very real possibility that a division will for the first time ever feature three playoff teams. Heading into the season the first-place Sox and last-place Jays were predicted by most to be flipped at this point (see Barry, Teddy). As a Sox fan I’m eagerly awaiting the start of this second half as their first 10 games out the gate go as follows: three vs. New York, four vs. Tampa Bay, and three vs. Baltimore. Tons of time left in the season and plenty of opportunities for teams to flip the script 1-5 in this division. It’s possible that in September at least four of these teams will be scoreboard watching each other, each trying to jockey their way to the front like Seabiscuit, trying to win that division crown and avoid having to roll the dice in a one-game elimination playoff to earn the true Wild Card berth. Prediction: Sox win the division (okay, that’s a homer pick) and Tampa Bay will edge out Baltimore for the Wild Card spot. 2. LA investments:  The teams out in LA have not been shy about spending money over the last two years, but it hasn’t quite worked out. Both teams have struggled and both have seen guys named Josh with large contracts spending that money while never really earning it. Well, I haven’t seen their budgets but I can imagine they aren’t being too frugal. Beckett is done for the year, but Hamilton has been showing signs of breaking out of his over-caffeinated slump for the hopeful Angels. But it’s funny seeing these teams overspending on “superstar” talent when both franchises had it all along in their farm systems. Just because you have the money doesn’t mean you need to spend it. But I don’t think the Dodgers could make a run in the second half and I’m sorry Angels fans, Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t walking into that clubhouse anytime soon.
1. The AL East:  The only division with four 50-game winners. Three teams within six games of first place, with Toronto not really that far behind. The worst-to-first Sox, the surging and always dangerous Rays, the upstart Orioles who are turning a miracle 2012 squad into an actual contender, the decimated Yankees hanging tough, and the big-money cellar-dwelling Jays, who less than a month ago reeled off an 11-game winning streak. Throw in the established rivalries, the larger than life personalities, some of the best managers in the game, the imminent returns of A-Rod, Jeter, and Buchholz, the Biogenesis scandal swirling around A-Rod, Francisco Cervelli, and Melky Cabrera (and Cano?), and you have the most entertaining pennant race in years, even for an outsider. We’ll be glued to our TVs for the next two months, just in time for the August heat wave. 1. Miggy/Crush:  This isn’t even close. In a very statistic-driven sport, these two are at the head of the class and fondling the sexiest of these stats. Miggy is aiming for back-to-back Triple Crowns after being the first since Yaz in ’67 to pull off the feat. However, there is a mammoth Reese’s-colored uniformed man named “Crush” Davis standing in his way. Crush has blasted the second most home runs before the break and is on pace to crack 60 homers and maybe even challenge the record. Which record you believe is the true record is up for debate. Ask Crush and he doesn’t hesitate: it’s Maris. So not only is this a race for MVP but perhaps a race for immortality. Cabrera can potentially win back-to-back Triple Crowns, an unheard of accomplishment in modern times, but in his way may be a guy that baseball fans can finally get behind as the true single-season home run king after the mess left behind by McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds. As we all know, if Crush does set the record, let the questioning begin. It’s not fair but it’s the world we live in. Either way, if these guys put up as exciting a second half as their first, we’re in for some special moments for the rest of the summer. 1. Playoff positioning:  The great thing about the MLB is that it has made the regular season more meaningful for average teams by adding an additional playoff spot so teams are more likely to be buyers than sellers come the trade deadline. This makes for great drama down the stretch as multiple squads will be pulling out all the stops to be playing after Game 162, and I like that excitement. It’s the same for me with hockey. I can’t really watch the regular season when it doesn’t matter too much, but once the playoffs begin I tune in. Once the calendar turns from July to August, baseball becomes watchable again. I’m just excited to have a few relaxing post-work adult beverages with my buddies and talk sports while we semi-pay attention to the game on TV. This is why I love sports and why I love life. Stay cool friends.
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