With the season just over halfway complete, it’s a perfect opportunity to take a look at some of the most pressing questions in baseball leading into what is sure to be an exciting push to October. With 21 teams in contention at the midway point, parity is at an all-time high in baseball. Teams from every sort of market and every sort of financial background are competing with each other, and the extra Wild Card spot has made contenders out of just about everybody excluding the Cubbies. Here we go:
Can the Pirates, Nationals, and Orioles keep it up to win playoff spots?
This is the biggest question going into the 2nd half, because if the season ended today all 3 teams would be in the playoffs. The Orioles don’t seem likely to continue their success, because their offense, which had been top-10 in baseball the first 2 months of the season, has fallen all the way to 19th in runs scored and their pitching staff ranks in the bottom 10 in the league in runs allowed. The only hold a 1/2 game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays for the final AL Wild Card spot, and a host of other teams including Toronto, Boston, Oakland, and Cleveland are within 2.5 games.
Pittsburgh, which appears to be a major player on the trade market this year, has a 1 game lead in the NL Central and a 2.5 game lead in the Wild Card race. Their offense has actually improved after posting a historically bad April, and if they can make a key addition or two, maybe Carlos Quentin and Ryan Dempster, the team could be a true playoff contender, because their pitching staff is lights out, allowing the 3rd fewest runs per game in the majors. Neil Walker’s play has been excellent of late, and his season line of .291/.357/.419 is excellent for a 2nd baseman. If Walker and Andrew McCutchen (.362/.414/.625 with 18 homers and 14 steals) can keep up their excellent play, the Pirates can stay afloat. They have some serious competition in the wounded St. Louis Cardinals and the up-and-down Cincinnati Reds, and those teams will probably be active at the trade deadline as well.
Washington has a 4 game division lead and holds the NL’s best record at 49-34 behind a strong pitching staff an a league average offense. Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman and Co. have allowed the fewest runs per game (3.49) in baseball to this point while compiling 8.3 strikeouts per 9 innings as a staff, good for 4th in baseball. The Nationals would seemingly have the payroll to make a big splash in the trade market and could look to upgrade their offense as well. Washington’s team OPS+ is 97, exactly the league average, and it could use an injection of life. If any of the potential American League contenders like Tampa Bay or Toronto fall out of contention, look for Washington to try to pick up a useful bat. The cost may be high, but when you have a chance to have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, you need to take it.
How will the Trade Market Shake Out?
With 21 teams in baseball either holding a playoff spot or within 5 games of one, it’s difficult to tell who exactly will be buyers, and who will be sellers in this year’s market. The obvious sellers right now are San Diego, Chicago, Minnesota, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Colorado. The Phillies may not want to be sellers with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley returning, but they may want to see what they can get for the disgruntled Shane Victorino and the soon-to-be-high-priced Cole Hamels. San Diego will probably get a nice package back from the growing field of contenders who need offensive help for the pair of Carlos Quentin (OPS+ of 160 in 138 plate appearances) and Chase Headley, (OPS+ of 121). Chicago will probably supply a couple of arms to the pitching market, in Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster, who has 27 straight scoreless innings currently. The longer that streak keeps going, the higher the potential return for Chicago could be. Both pitchers have proven to be reliable 200+ inning kind of guys, so both should bring back a solid prospect return. Boston, Detroit, or Baltimore could all pull the trigger on either of the two.
Could the aforementioned Phillies pull of the biggest comeback of the Wild Card era?
I will say this, I don’t want to completely write the Phillies off yet. A year ago we saw two massive comebacks over the last month of the season, with Tampa Bay and St. Louis climbing back from 9.5 and 10 game Wild Card deficits. The Phillies are currently 10 games out of a Wild Card spot, and 14 games behind Washington in the NL East after limping to the break losing 9 of their last 10. The Phillies current odds on coolstandings.com currently sit at 0.7% which are lower than the Cardinals were last year, albeit at a later point in the season.
Philadelphia does have some good news going for it. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have both made their ways back to the major league club, and should be able to provide some pop to an offense that ranks 9th in slugging percentage and 8th in home runs hit in the National League. Philadelphia received very little out of Freddy Galvis earlier this season, and Utley could provide a big boost, if he can regain his old form quickly. Howard would also be a huge upgrade over Ty Wiggington, who is poor defensively and doesn’t do anything above league average at the plate. He may not be able to lock in this year, having missed 80 games already, but whatever he can provide will come as an improvement of sorts. Carlos Ruiz is having a career year (.350/.412/.584 with 13 homers and 46 RBI) and Hunter Pence has been steady in the middle of the Philly order, so some talent is already in play. If the Phillies have already crept into the top half the National League in runs scored and if they can jump into the top-5 they are a legitimate threat.
Remember this team won 102 games a year ago, will be getting Roy Halladay back, they don’t have to trade Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee (1-5 despite a league average 100 ERA+) can’t be as unlucky as he already has been. The pitching staff has actually been the problem, ranking a shocking 12th in the National League in runs allowed per game, and the guys listed above are better than that. That ranking should improve simply because Lee is bound for some positive regression and Halladay will (hopefully) make more starts in the 2nd half. If any team can make this kind of historic comeback it’s the Phillies, especially when you consider the fact that the Nationals may be shutting Strasburg down at the start of September.
Can Mike Trout win the MVP Award, becoming only the 3rd rookie ever to do so?
Mike Trout is one of the 3-4 favorites for AL MVP at the mid-point, along with Josh Hamilton and Robinson Cano. Trout has been phenomenal since his call up, leading the AL in steals (26) and batting average (.341), while making highlights like this on a nightly basis. The only 2 other rookies ever to pull the ROY/MVP double were Fred Lynn and Ichiro, who pulled the trick after coming over from the Nippon League in Japan. Trout faces some serious competition, especially if Hamilton catches fire for another 3 weeks like he did back in May. Hamilton is one of the rare players in baseball history with the potential and talent to go on a league-leveling tear, and is probably still the favorite, but it’s shocking that Trout is even in the race after falling a month behind.
What will the playoff field look like?
Right now my gut is telling me something along the lines of this: Yankees, Rangers, White Sox win their divisions with the Angels and Rays sneaking into the Wild Card spots. I think the Angels will cruise to the 4th seed and maybe even challenge Texas down the stretch, and the Rays will emerge victorious from the AL East, due to their superior pitching staff and excellent bullpen.
Over in the National League, here’s what I think: Braves, Reds, Giants win their divisions, while Washington and Pittsburgh pick up the Wild Card spots. The NL Wild Card race will probably come down to the last day of the season, and I think it could involve 3-4 teams, that’s how closely they all are. The trade deadline will probably determine a lot in the National League, and whoever makes the correct pickup will have the inside track on a playoff spot. Teams who hold leads at the mid-point of the season have historically won their divisions about 66% of the time, so don’t be surprised to see most of the leaders in today’s standings hold on through the rest of the season. But at least a couple of teams are going down, that’s the beauty of baseball.