Ben Stecker is a native of Colville, Washington. An avid sports and fantasy fan he occasionally contributes his commentary here at Herring Bone Sports. He passionately follows the Denver Broncos, Washington State University athletics, and the Seattle Mariners. Ben currently works on national campaign media in Washington, DC.
Midway: The battle of judging a team’s second half performance based on their first half.
I resisted the urge to use Journey lyrics in my title like every other All-Star break MLB summary, but I will take advantage of the break to try and look ahead at who will be living out the lyrics to a famous Queen song. There’s a thousand and six stories every April-June surrounding baseball, but we’ll focus mostly on three things: 1. Who will be able to sustain their records for the second half? 2. Who can come out of their early doldrums to win? & 3. What player moves could we see.
Two big time shockers in the playoff hunt right now - Baltimore sitting at 2nd in the AL East and a shocking, maybe not so much, Pittsburgh team with a two game lead in the NL Central. Any discussion about teams being for real has to begin here.
Clearly Baltimore thinks they can win, they said as much why they went out and got Jim Thome. Is Thome a guy who makes any team an instant World Series contender? No. But he’s also not the type of guy a seller trade and the Orioles were buying. Even if the Birds are buying, I’m selling them in the 2nd half. They have a ton of holes starting in their rotation. The staff ace is Jason Hammel, a 29-year-old righty who’s career ERA and WHIP are 4.80 and 1.44. Are we to believe he can sustain his breakout year through the dog days of summer pitching in not one, not two, not three, but FOUR extremely hitter friendly ballparks against three division rivals (BOS, NYY, TOR) who sport some of the best offenses in the game? And their #2 starter is rookie southpaw, Wei-Yin Chen who is about to go through the test phase of his season when he faces off against his division rivals for the 2nd, 3rd & 4th go-rounds.
After this overachieving duo, you find the struggling Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta in front of unproven arms in Tommy Hunter and Chris Tillman. Meanwhile their offense has as much power as the next team, but it does little good due to their struggles getting on base. Baltimore should be selling. Hammel, Chris Davis, JJ Hardy, and even Wilson Betemit might bring some useful pieces. The Orioles are improving and getting close, but they aren’t there yet. Another year without the playoffs at Camden Yards is more than likely.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are the other surprise team in MLB, but are in a far different scenario than the Orioles. It appears Milwaukee will be selling soon, judging by the plethora of Zach Greinke rumors, and that would leave the Bucs in a three-way race with St. Louis, and Cincinnati. Normally I would advise testing those waters because of the talent levels on both teams, but the Pirates are in a fairly unique position. They have a fantastic bullpen led by Joel Hanrahan and Jason Grilli, with a strong rotation that includes breakout pitcher James McDonald and a resurgent AJ Burnett. With Erik Bedard, Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens rounding out the staff, the Pirates have a steady stable of starters that could be enough to get the job done.
If they are going to make a run they MUST get MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen some offensive help. Garrett Jones, Casey McGehee and Alex Presly are not going to get it done. Even with Pedro Alvarez blossoming into the HR mashing and batting average black-hole we all knew he could be, Pittsburgh needs help. There are several options out there and I see Justin Morneau as a potential fit with Garret Jones moving to RF. Morneau would be relatively inexpensive and could thrive in a new, fresh environment. They have Starling Marte about ready to come up from the minors, where he’s been on fire, and that could help with the top of the order. The Bucs could also look to add another arm and you might seem them look for a cheap solution like Kevin Millwood from Seattle or go big after Cole Hamels from the Phillies. I think the Pirates are in a position to be buyers and not mortgage the future in the process.
The other team that could qualify as a surprise is the Washington Nationals. Really, fans and insiders have seen this coming for some time. The Capitol City ballclub has been slowly building a contender for the last few seasons now and it sure helps when you bottle lightening twice in two drafts with can’t miss prospects like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. Interestingly, even though they boast one of the best rotations in the country, there is talk that perhaps the Nationals should be buying on a starting pitcher and many are mentioning Zach Greinke for DC. These rumors are based off reports that the Nationals will shut down Strasburg at some point to avoid wearing his recently repaired arm out. Even without Strasburg, the Nationals rotation is strong. Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez form a dynamic duo that could anchor a playoff run with Edwin Jackson and Ross Detweiler making a very passable back of the rotation pair. Even without Strasburg, these four could easily go deep in the National League post-season.
I don’t see the logic in buying big on Greinke because the Nats would merely be renting him for 2 months hoping he has great performance in the playoffs. Suppose DC gets him by giving up prospects Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer or Michael Taylor in the process. What happens when DC finishes their run to the playoffs and Greinke lays an egg in Game 3 of the ALDS? When he’s off, he’s prone to be REALLY off. Will it have been worth it? I don’t think so, especially when you can likely win with the guys you’ve got. In addition, I really don’t believe they’ll actually shut Strasburg down. They may skip a start or two where it’s convenient, but they won’t shut him down. It doesn’t make any sense.
In the AL West we see the Angels attempting to catch the Texas after the Rangers scorching start. Albert Pujols was the big division storyline going into 2012 and for much of the first half in a completely different and unpleasant ways, but Mike Trout might be the first player to have a shot at winning his leagues ROY and the MVP in the same year since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Both teams are the complete package and the Rangers remain tough despite a rotation riddled with injuries. One of these squads is going to the World Series. I just pray that we don’t have to hear the words “Rally Monkey” ever again.
The Yankees have a stranglehold on the AL East (for now) and the AL Central continues to be the unpredictable mess it always has been. The Central’s only constant is the Kansas City Royals – while much improved, they provide no threat to those at the top. I’m not convinced the Chicago White Sox can hold off the Tigers down the stretch, but both ball-clubs are pretty darn good. Don’t be surprised if the Sox go buy themselves another pitcher to go with their newly acquired third baseman, Kevin Youkilis. Be wary of Detroit – judging by the astonishing splash the Tigers made in the offseason to get Fielder, tuck this thought away in the back of your mind: Zach Greinke to Detroit. Aside from the wildly inconsistent Doug Fister and Max Scherzer, the Detroit rotation is lacking. Rick Porcello is not the answer and I don’t think they want to lean on Casey Crosby and Drew Smyly come playoff time. Greinke to Detroit could be the sleeper move at the trade deadline.
The Giants and Dodgers are destined to fight to the finish in the NL West, but they may not be alone. There always seems to be a team in this division that makes a wild run late and Arizona could be that team if Justin Upton, Chris Young and the shaky rotation can figure things out. The Reds and Cardinals are as dangerous as ever, but they’ll have their hands full with the Pirates. I still like Joey Votto to will his team to another division title. The NL East will continue to get interesting as we enter the final weeks. I don’t think the Nationals can be caught at the top, but I do believe that Atlanta, Miami and the Mets will all be contenders for the wild card match up until the end.
A final pause is in order for the ridiculous awesomeness of one R.A. Dickey. If you’ve been living in a cave all year and haven’t seen the season the knuckleballer is having, you’re missing sports at its best. Do yourself a favor and tune in the next time the New York Mets send the 2012 All-Star to the hill. It’s a great story and fans of any team would be wise to cheer him on down the stretch.
Second Half Predictions
Love it? Hate it? Let me know below!
Comment With Facebook, Yahoo!, AOL, Hotmail