(Editor’s note: I have a confession. I’m not as knowledgable about this baseball season as I should be yet. (I’m still just trying to wrap my head around living in world in which LeBron James has a championship ring.) So until I am caught up, I had to call up my buddy Dillon, one of the biggest baseball fans I know, to drop some MLB knowledge on us and give us an overview of this season’s first half. So today we will read about baseball’s top 12 candidates to pop champaign in October. Enjoy.)
1. Texas Rangers (52-34) – Eight — the number of All-Stars the Rangers will be sending to Kansas City for the mid-summer classic – lead by MVP candidate Josh Hamilton, who hit an unbelievable .368/.420/.764 through the month of May. The bottom dropped out from June 2 to June 23 (.188/.268/.344), but Texas was still able to find ways to win ballgames without their MVP (finishing with a 13-7 record). The injuries to Derek Holland and Colby Lewis have also been obstacles. History suggests that early-season adversity can lead to late-season success.
2. Washington Nationals (49-34) – From a sub-.500 season to the best record in the National League, these Nationals remain one of the best stories of the season to date. A healthy Stephen Strasburg and an electrifying Bryce Harper are due much of the credit for the Nats success. An impressive season from veteran Adam LaRoche (leading the team in homers, walks, and slugging percentage) and a breakout from shortstop Ian Desmond (.285/.316/.515) have also made a significant impact, not to mention a fantastic free-agent pickup in Gio Gonzalez has solidified a staff that hasn’t been good since the days of Pedro Martinez in Montreal. Remember, just three years ago Livan Hernandez, Kip Wells, and Jorge Sosa were starters in that rotation. Laughable. Now replace those three with Gonzalez, Strasburg, and a mature Jordan Zimmerman and you have a squad looking to give the nation’s capital it’s first playoff appearance since 1933.
3. New York Yankees (52-33) – It all depends on CC Sabathia. Don’t expect Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and Hiroki Kuroda to continue the success of their recent starts. The Yanks are right about on pace for their traditional 90-95 win season – certainly good enough to make the playoffs. But without any trade-deadline moves, don’t look for the Bombers to be a major threat to the AL West powerhouses in Arlington and Anaheim. On the other hand, If the Yanks can find a way to make a deal for the severely overpriced Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke they certainly will be World Series favorites.
4. Los Angeles Angels (48-38) – .341/.397/.562 — The numbers of Albert…errr… Mike Trout? This 20-year-old phenom started only three games in April and is now a leading candidate for AL MVP at the year’s halfway point with an AL-best average, stolen bases, and WAR (4.8) Insert link to explain WAR.With Trout out there everyday it changes the complexion of the season, especially when a rookie posts AL MVP numbers and defense like this. With a deep starting rotation and offense that finally got back on it’s feet after a shaky start, the Angels look like a wild-card lock and possibly even a threat to Texas in the AL West.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (48-37) – Once again the Pirates are the feel-good story of the first half, but this time a collapse doesn’t seem so imminent. The offense put together an outstanding June – leading the league in scoring and home runs. This all led by MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, who is hitting .362/.414/.625. Two All-Star snubs lead the rotation in veteran AJ Burnett (10-2 in 15 starts) and James McDonald (9-3 with a 2.37 ERA). Also, The recently returning, always crafty Jeff Karstens should give them some very valuable starts down the stretch. This Pittsburgh team finished one game ahead of their Cincinnati counterparts in the first half – going 5-4 (4 out of last 6) against them in the first three series. There’s your one game. The pieces have fallen into place for the Pirates lately but they must look to add (a) piece(s) a little more productive than the Derek Lee/Ryan Ludwick duo last year. Your move, Mr. Huntington. (*coughcough Josh Willingham).
6. Chicago White Sox (47-38) – Not much to say here other than they look strong at the halfway point. Chris Sale has proved to be one of the most promising young pitchers in the game and Jake Peavy continues to give the Sox valuable quality starts. Not to mention 4 times this season Gavin Floyd has gone 6+ innings allowing zero runs. In another 3-start stretch Floyd went 21 innings, walked just three, and allowed only 4 runs. In his other 9 starts Floyd has racked up an astounding 9.19 ERA over 47 innings. Floyd’s performance will play a large role in whether or not the White Sox can hold the division lead from Detroit, barring rookie Jose Quintana continuing his early career success.
Note: Great pickup in Kevin Youkilis. It seems his impact goes beyond the field; His blue-collar, gritty attitude is infectious in the clubhouse.
7. Cincinnati Reds (47-38) – .348/.471/.617 — You guessed it, these are Joey Votto’s numbers. This is my shocked face. An impressive and consistent starting staff led by Johnny Cueto (10-5 2.39 ERA) can always keep the Reds within striking distance which allows the offense and Votto/Bruce to lay low in the weeds, waiting to pounce. This means the playoffs are a very strong possibility for the Reds (barring any injury to Votto/Cueto). A few role-players by the trade deadline could set them up for the division title. Just don’t look for them to run away with it.
8. Los Angeles Dodgers (47-40) – The Dodgers were shut out five out of six games in the last week of June. They started fast with a 32-15 record in the first two months, but came back down to earth by ending the first half 15-25. The offense has struggled so much that the Dodgers tried to replace James Loney… with Carlos Lee – a 36-year-old Kenmore refrigerator with only five home runs. Still a half game ahead of their division-rival Giants, there is still plenty of hope. The pitching is still there, plus the return of the injured Matt Kemp and Andre Eithier should reenergize this anemic offense.
9. St. Louis Cardinals (46-40) – The Cards recently announced that Chris Carpenter undergo season-ending surgery. Last year, Wainwright, and now this? Lance Lynn has been impressive this year but his workload is going to, and has started catching up with him. Wainwright doesn’t seem to have the same stuff he used to. The curveball is still one of the best in the game but he still isn’t the same kid that carried them to the 2006 World Series. The only hope lies with the return of Lance Berkman and even more production from an already superior offense. Even without Berkman this is the best offense in the NL so look for them to hang around in August and September, although adding some pitching by the deadline could transform them into a pennant contender.
10. San Francisco Giants (46-40) – An impressive three straight shutouts of the Dodgers to take sole possession of first-place? None of those games thrown by your two best starters, Matt Cain or Madison Bumgarner? Yes please. Those two gems were followed up with Bumgarner hurling a complete game one-hit shutout of the Reds, making the Giants the first team since the ’95 Orioles to throw four straight shutouts? Check please. But not so fast. This team has been inconsistent all year. (Ex) ace Tim Lincecum has struggled massively and the offense is producing par with tradition. The big question remains whether they can hang with the previously unstoppable Dodgers. Much of this will depend on Lincecum His ERA is likely to improve unless he continues to melt down in pressure situations (batters are hitting .300/.444/.490 against him with runners in scoring position). We may not see the Lincecum Cy Young form again but remember, regression to the mean is as undefeated as age is. So don’t bet against him having a big second-half.
11. Detroit Tigers (44-42) – The fifth spot in the American League was a tough one. Any remaining AL East team may have been deserving, but, looking forward, I’m not so sure they will be able to keep pace with the Angels, Rangers, White Sox, Red Sox, and Yankees. The second-half of the season will pit division rivals against each other, meaning an onslaught will follow. But in this case, nobody wins. While the Orioles, Rays, and Blue Jays are arguing over the last wild card spot, the Tigers will slip right in and make a run (classic cartoon scene). Despite an abysmal first-half due to injuries, the Tigers seem poised to right the ship. With an above-average lineup including two of the best hitters in the AL in Fielder and Cabrera, The Tigers only need to see some more quality starts from their back end of their rotation (By back end, I mean everyone but Verlander).
12. Boston Red Sox (43-43) What a first half for the Boston Red Sox, somehow still in contention despite scraping the bottom of the barrel for talent. This wouldn’t need to be the case had they not crapped out multiple long-term contracts in John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Carl Crawford (for now at least). Also, GM Ben Cherington traded away the slugging duo of Jed Lowrie and Josh Reddick, which even further put them in a hole. The BoSox look like a Money Ball team assembled by Billy Beane at this point. Okay, maybe not but it seems so. The bullpen has cost next to nothing to assemble aside from Mark Melancon. Thankfully surprises Jarrod Saltalamacchia (17 HR) and rookie Daniel Nava. Read what Grantland’s Jonah Keri had to say this about Nava:
“And then there’s Daniel Nava. His pedigree was so modest that he …
• tried out for his college team at Santa Clara as a walk-on
• didn’t make it
• became the equipment manager
• left after two years because he couldn’t afford tuition
• transferred to junior college
• went undrafted
• signed with the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League
• got cut by the Outlaws after a tryout
• came back a year later
• and finally got signed by the Red Sox on the say-so of assistant director of pro scouting Jared Porter …
• … for $1.
Nava is now the leadoff man for the Sox, hitting .294/.411/.462 and making the league minimum, after J.D. Drew’s $70 million contract expired at the end of last season. The little things always matter. Even when you’re a team as flush as the Red Sox.”
As long as they don’t become sellers before the deadline, the Red Sox should be able to make things interesting with the recently added second wild card.