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AL West: Midseason Grades
The Angels entered this season as the consensus favorite, so it comes as no surprise to see them at the top of the heap. After playing musical standings for the first month-and-a-half, the Angels took sole possession of first place on May 9 and have held it since. Los Angeles owned a commanding eight-game edge over the rest of the division on June 24, but the Halos stumbled down the stretch, losing eight of their final 12 games.
The Angels' slide left an opening for the division's most surprising team: Seattle. The Mariners won 12 of their 15 games, chopping Los Angeles' division lead to just 2 1/2 games at the break. And, oh yeah, manager Mike Hargrove quit in the middle of this hot streak, citing a lack of passion. Does this type of turmoil instantly make Seattle a team of destiny? Meanwhile, Oakland finds itself at .500 after a first half that was marred by injuries and offensive ineptness. The good news: The A's were 45-43 at the break last season and went on to win the division title. The bad news: Last year's AL West was far inferior to the 2007 edition.
As for the Rangers … well, Texans, football season's just a few months away.
Los Angeles Angels
Record: 53-35, 1st place
Runs Scored: 437 (5th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 389 (3rd in the AL)
What went wrong: With a 1-2 punch of John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar, the top of Los Angeles' rotation has been as good as any in baseball. Unfortunately, the back end leaves much to be desired. Ervin Santana still struggles mightily on the road (1-8, 8.59 ERA), and former Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon's abysmal numbers (6.44 ERA, 1.62 WHIP) have many folks questioning whether his shoulder is fully recovered from a rotator-cuff tear.
What went right: The Angels' aggressive offense has proven highly effective through 88 games. Los Angeles ranks second in baseball in batting average (.284), sixth in runs (437), seventh in on-base percentage (.340) and second in steals (78). Orlando Cabrera, Chone Figgins and Reggie Willits have all served as prime table-setters and Vladimir Guerrero is enjoying an MVP-type season (.325, 14 homers, 75 RBIs).
What's next: With Juan Rivera expected to return in August, the Angels might not need to trade for a power bat to complement Guerrero. The Angels are far more complete than any division foe, so the AL West is theirs to lose. But a division title should just be the beginning, as this team has the makeup to play late into October.
Record: 49-36, 2nd place
Runs Scored: 424 (8th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 407 (8th in the AL)
What went wrong: Seattle regularly digs itself into an early hole by trotting out one of the worst starting rotations in the American League. The unit ranks 26th in ERA (5.07), 28th in WHIP (1.52) and 29th in batting average against (.295). Phenom Felix Hernandez started and finished the first half in dominant fashion, but in between, the 21-year-old struggled with his consistency.
What went right: Led by lights-out closer J.J. Putz (0.88 ERA, 0.59 WHIP, 24-for-24 in saves), Seattle's bullpen as been absolutely stellar. The Mariners' 'pen owns the best record in all of baseball (19-5) and ranks fourth in ERA (3.40). George Sherrill is one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball this season, and rookie Brandon Morrow excelled as a setup man for much of the first half.
What's next: Seattle has been one of this season's most pleasant surprises. By rallying at the end of the first half, the Mariners put themselves within striking distance of the division title and the wild card. At this point, the Mariners have a realistic shot at reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2001, but how will Hargrove's sudden resignation affect the team as the year goes on?
Record: 44-44, 3rd place
Runs Scored: 380 (13th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 357 (2nd in the A.L.)
What went wrong: For the second consecutive season, the A's have sent an absurd amount of high-impact players to the disabled list. Huston Street, Rich Harden, Justin Duchscherer, Mike Piazza, Milton Bradley, Mark Kotsay, Esteban Loaiza … and the list goes on. With this rash of injuries, Oakland's lucky to be .500.
What went right: Even without Harden's services for most of the first half, Oakland's starting rotation leads the majors with a 3.36 ERA. The lion's share of praise goes to All-Star Game starter Dan Haren, who leads the American League in ERA (2.30) and all of baseball in quality starts (17). Joe Blanton boasts the league's ninth-lowest ERA (3.28) and the 26-year-old has been a horse, pacing the league in innings pitched (134.1).
What's next: Oakland is nine games back in the division race and eight behind Wild Card-leader Cleveland, but if there's one thing we've learned in recent years, it's to never give up on the A's. This team must get healthy, though. Piazza is still trying to work himself into catching condition (a plan the A's may have to scrap). Street is aiming to return by late July, but Harden continues to feel discomfort in his right shoulder.
Record: 38-50, 4th place
Runs Scored: 440 (4th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 480 (13th in the AL)
What went wrong: There's no easy way to put it -- Texas' rotation is absolutely horrendous. Rangers starters rank dead last in, losses (40), ERA (6.19), WHIP (1.70) and batting average against (.304). Nobody in the rotation owns an ERA below 5.36. The teams top two pitchers, Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, own ERAs of 6.16 and 6.69, respectively.
What went right: Even after losing Carlos Lee to free agency, Texas' offense has produced the fifth-highest runs total in the majors with 440. While Mark Teixeira and Michael Young have been solid, the story of this offense has been the unexpected production of two stars from the past: Sammy Sosa and Kenny Lofton. Sosa paces the Rangers in RBIs (62) and is tied for the home run lead (14). Lofton may be 40, but his legs still work. The outfielder leads Texas in runs (53) and steals (20) and boasts a .301 average to boot.
What's next: The Rangers have been out of the playoff race for a good time, but they did win 12 of their final 18 games heading into the break. The second half will serve as a learning period for Texas' many young arms. But the Rangers could become major players in the trade market; there's heavy interest in Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagne and Akinori Otsuka.
Labels: AL West
NL East: Midseason Grades
Were the National League East a high school English class, it would drive its teacher batty. It would feature a bunch of students who have all the talent in the world, but appear to be satisfied to sit in the back row, passing notes and goofing off, and turn in Cliffs Notes-driven papers that are perfectly fine, but uninspired. Then it would feature the dunce who, even though he tries so gosh darn hard, still writes book reports that includes major revelations such as, “Holden Caulfield ain’t the mellowest dude around” and “Edmond Dantes is best known for inspiring a mighty delicious-tasting sandwich.”
How do you assign grades to a class like that? Well, you take out your massive "B" rubber stamp, ink it up five times, and head out to drown your frustrations (and maybe chat up that cute hippie art instructor) at teachers’ happy hour. Next semester, you pray, will be better.
New York Mets
Record: 48-39, 1st place
Runs Scored: 394 (10th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 371 (5th in NL)
What went wrong: The one aspect of the team about which no one worried during the off-season -- its offensive firepower -- has proven surprisingly troublesome. That at the All-Star break a club that features Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado and finished a 15-9 April ranked third in the majors in runs scored (132) now stands in baseball’s bottom third in the category must be considered a significant disappointment. Much of the problem stems from middle of the order’s continued inability to drive in runners in scoring position; as a team the Mets are hitting only .252 (seventh lowest in baseball) in such situations, and are even worse (.223) with men in scoring position and two outs.
What went right: One aspect of the team about which everyone worried during the off-season -- its Pedro-less pitching staff -- has proven surprisingly capable. The Mets rank fifth in the majors in both starters’ ERA (4.05) and overall staff ERA (3.91). John Maine, who rightly should have pitched in last night’s All Star Game, has emerged as a true ace: his 2.71 ERA is fourth in the NL, and he’s been consistent, with 13 quality starts in 17 outings. Pitching guru Rick Peterson has also worked his mojo with Oliver Perez (7-6, 3.14) and Jorge Sosa (7-3, 3.92), and even with wily vets like El Duque (4-4, 3.22) and Tom Glavine (7-6, 4.36). The bullpen, headed by All-Star Billy Wagner and middlemen Pedro Feliciano and Joe Smith, has been extremely efficient.
What’s next: Despite a 14-19 mark since June 1, even a Mets team that continues to underachieve offensively should have enough to take the NL East. However, their hitters should eventually progress to their career means with runners in scoring position, and the return from the DL of Moises Alou (and the possible promotion of injured prospect Lastings Milledge) will also boost them offensively. And of course, around the end of August, a certain jheri curl should once again be gracing the mound at Shea. Despite their first half struggles, Willie Randolph’s group remains the division’s favorite.
Record: 47-42, 2nd place
Runs Scored: 409 (6th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 408 (8th in NL)
What went wrong: The Braves have yet to come up with a suitable rotational replacement for Mike Hampton, who went down for the season in spring training. In 11 starts, the combination of Mark Redman, Anthony Lerew, Jo Jo Reyes, and Lance Cormier has gone 0-8, and none has an ERA under 7.70. Buddy Carlyle (3-2, 4.50 ERA) has been solid of late -- but now John Smoltz is on the DL with inflammation in his pitching shoulder, and they’re once again in need of another starter who won’t ensure an automatic L. In any event, fourth starter Kyle Davies (4-7, 5.50) hasn’t exactly been setting the league aflame. Meanwhile, Andruw Jones, despite being in a contract year, ranks fifth in the majors with 87 strikeouts and is hitting .211.
What went right: Last season’s major trouble spot -- the bullpen -- has been rectified in a big way. While Braves relievers compiled a 4.39 ERA and blew 29 saves in 2006, this year they’re at 3.69 (6th in the NL) and have blown only seven. Even though import Mike Gonzalez is out for the season and underwent Tommy John surgery, fellow newcomer Rafael Soriano has picked up the slack with a miniscule 0.83 WHIP, and Australia native Peter Moylan has been equally excellent (2.12 ERA). Braves hitters have been as good in the clutch as their Mets counterparts have been bad: They’re hitting .280 with runners in scoring position, second best in the NL, led by Edgar Renteria (.355 in such situations) and Jeff Francoeur (.340).
What’s next: An MRI on Smoltz’s shoulder last Friday showed no structural damage -- although it remains to be seen how quickly his 40-year-old joint will recover. The Braves’ fortunes seem to be tied to that of their ace. If he returns soon, Atlanta should remain in the thick of the Wild Card race (they’re currently two games behind the Dodgers). If he doesn’t, despite the outstanding years being compiled by Chipper Jones, Renteria, Francoeur, Kelly Johnson, and several others, it seems unlikely there will be any Tomahawk Chopping come October.
Record: 44-44, 3rd place
Runs Scored: 456 (1st in NL)
Runs Allowed: 463 (16th in NL)
What went wrong: Take a look at that “Runs Allowed” total and guess: the Phillies, quite simply, have the worst pitching in the National League. Apart from young Cole Hamels, their starters have been awful (the rotation’s ERA is nearly 5.00), and the staff, bedeviled by the bandbox that is Citizens Bank Park, has allowed a stunning 118 home runs (a dozen more than the team has hit).
What went right: Take a look at that “Runs Scored” total and guess: the Phillies, quite simply, have the best offense in the National League. Midseason MVP candidate Chase Utley (.325, 15 HR, 68 RBI), Ryan Howard (21 HR, 67 RBI), Jimmy Rollins (16 HR, 53 RBI, 15 SB) and Aaron Rowand (.310, 11 HR, 43 RBI) could have all made the All-Star Game (Utley and Rowand were selected), and role players such Greg Dobbs and rookie catcher Carlos Ruiz have made fine contributions.
What’s next: You might expect a team that scores 5.18 runs per game and allows 5.26 runs per game to be just around .500 … and you’d be right. Their offense cannot score enough runs to make up for their underachieving pitchers, and with Freddy Garcia apparently out for the season with a shoulder injury, and with the likelihood that few quality arms will be available at the trade deadline, that doesn’t appear as if it will change. Even the one storyline that makes the Phils worth following -- when the franchise will become the first in pro sports to reach 10,000 losses -- is soon to exhaust itself: they’re only one away. I’m guessing it will happen on Sunday evening, when Jamie Moyer – who’s actually Philly’s second best starter -- faces the Cardinals.
Record: 42-47, 4th place
Runs Scored: 424 (4th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 457 (15th in NL)
What went wrong: The Marlins are giving games away with their shoddy fielding. Their 73 errors lead the National League, and the infield has been particularly bad: third baseman Miguel Cabrera and shortstop Hanley Ramirez lead the NL in errors at their positions, with 13 and 16 respectively, and Dan Uggla has demonstrated Britney Spears-like range at second. All those booted balls explain why the staff ranks five spots higher in the NL in ERA (10th – 4.55) than in runs allowed. Despite an odd lack of run support, former Cub Sergio Mitre (3-4, 2.85 ERA in 15 starts) has been the rotation’s lone bright spot; ace Dontrelle Willis has struggled to a 7-7 record with a 4.72 ERA, and things just get worse from there.
What went right: Want to know why Cabrera, Ramirez and Uggla remain will continue to comprise the majority of the Marlins’ starting infield, no matter how many fielding miscues they make? It’s because they all knock the seams off the ball with their bats. Cabrera is on pace to hit .324 with 33 homers and 113 RBI; Ramirez has a .926 OPS from the leadoff spot and is second in the NL in runs scored (70); and Uggla ranks third in the league in runs (67), and may become the first player to hit 60 doubles since 1936. Left fielder Josh Willingham gives the Marlins four players in the NL’s top 41 in OPS
What’s next: With starter Josh Johnson, who allowed only two combined earned runs in his third and fourth starts after returning from an irritated ulnar nerve on June 18, back on the DL, the Marlins are in a similar boat as the Phillies: they can’t hit enough to compensate for their uneven pitching (and, in their case, their shaky glovework). Were Johnson healthy, they might have been able to challenge the Braves for the Wild Card -- after all, he went 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA last season. Without him, they’re sunk.
Record: 36-52, 5th place
Runs Scored: 326 (16th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 434 (11th in NL)
What went wrong: As anticipated by everyone, the Nats aren’t really very good at anything. Spring training’s Great Starting Pitcher Derby hasn’t resulted in much, and scads of injuries haven’t helped: only one of the nine men who have started games for the Nats thus far, Matt Chico, currently qualifies for the ERA title (and his 4.39 ain’t winning the thing), and the rotation as a whole has a 5.21 ERA and an MLB-worst 260 strikeouts. Only two hitters who have played more than 45 games are batting above .259, and the team has hit seven fewer home runs (54) than baseball’s second most powerless club, Kansas City. Washington’s one of two teams with an OPS below .700, and, at .678, they’re not even that close.
What went right: Four months ago, Dmitri Young was wallowing in Nats minor league camp in Viera, Florida, considered by the team to be too overweight to compete for the first base job with the likes of Larry Broadway (who is currently hitting .204 for Triple-A Columbus). Last night, Young played in the All-Star Game after a first half in which he hit .339 -- third-best in the NL. Young’s performance, along with that of Ryan Church (who’s on pace for 45 doubles) and Ryan Zimmerman (who after a miserable start is on pace for 26 homers and 83 RBI), is a big reason why the Nats have scored the few runs than they have and are not currently baseball’s worst team (that would be the 34-53 Devil Rays). An even bigger reason might be the performance of the bullpen. Despite being terribly overworked (a majors-high 321.1 IP), the unit has a sub-4.00 ERA, thanks mostly to the fine work of Jesus Colome, Saul Rivera, Jon Rauch, and closer Chad Cordero.
What’s next: The big question for Nats fans: Can their club stay beneath the century mark in losses? They’re currently on track for 96. That modest achievement could create some goodwill as the team opens its new ballpark next spring -- which is, I suspect, where most Washingtonians are already gazing.
Labels: NL East
AL East: Midseason Grades
The Yankees' run of nine consecutive American League East titles likely will come to an end this year. The Red Sox got off to a torrid start and hold a comfortable lead even though they played below .500 in June. It would take a massive collapse on Boston's part to relinquish first place, and they haven't hit like they can yet. New York would also have to play close to .700 ball for the rest of the season, and the Yankees have simply been too inconsistent to bank on that. When they pitch, they don't hit and when they hit, they don't pitch. The Bombers haven't missed the playoffs since 1993, and it looks like curtains for the Joe Torre Era.
Like the Yankees, the Blue Jays have been crippled by injuries. They have not folded but are essentially a .500 team. The Orioles and Devil Rays are mired at the bottom of the division once again, each consumed by their own controversies. The O's fired manager Sam Perlozzo and hired Andy McPhail to oversee baseball operations, while the Elijah Dukes fiasco everything good out of Tampa Bay, except their losing record.
Boston Red Sox
Record: 53-34, 1st place
Runs Scored: 435 (7th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 346 (1st in the AL)
What went wrong: Julio Lugo (.197/.270/.298) has been a major disappointment at shortstop and J. D. Drew (.258/.368/.391) has not hit for power, with just six home runs in the first half. David Ortiz has battled through injuries and hit only has 14 home runs; Manny Ramirez has just 11.
What went right: Mike Lowell is playing very well for a second-straight year in Boston, and, in spite of the drop in home runs Ortiz still has a .990 OPS. The starting pitching, led by Josh Beckett (12-2, 3.44 ERA) and Dice K (10-6, 3.84 ERA), has been stellar. Hideki Okajima (0.83 ERA in 43 innings) and Jonathan Paplebon (1.93 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 32 innings) have been devastating in the bullpen.
What's next: The Sox were nothing short of mediocre in June, posting a 13-14 mark, yet they still hold a double-digit lead over the Jays and Yanks. The hitting should improve in the second half and Boston should cruise to the division title.
New York Yankees
Record: 42-43 (10 back), 2nd place (tie)
Runs Scored: 464 (3rd in AL)
Runs Allowed: 392 (4th in AL)
What went wrong: Injuries hit hard this spring, but that doesn't explain Bobby Abreu's horrible first half. Johnny Damon and Robinson Cano have been subpar as well. Most of all, the bullpen has been terrible. Anyone imagine that the Yankees would ever be last in the league in saves (11) with Mariano Rivera still wearing pinstripes? Derek Jeter's fielding has been poor, a trend that is bound to continue. Surprisingly, Jeter also leads the league in times caught stealing (seven).
What went right: Offensively, Jorge Posada, Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are playing as well, if not better, than could have been expected. Rodriguez has 30 homers. Hideki Matsui is second on the team with 11. Without Rodriguez, the Yanks would be fighting to stay out of last place.
What's next: The Yanks face a long climb to make the postseason. It's unlikely that the Red Sox, Indians or the Tigers will fold and that's what has to happen for New York. Beyond that, they have Rivera and Posada to re-sign in the off-season. It's likely that both will remain in New York, at inflated prices. But the $64,000 question is whether or not Rodriguez stays. At this point, the Yankees can't afford to lose him.
Toronto Blue Jays
Record: 43-44 (10 back), 2nd place (tie)
Runs Scored: 415 (9th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 400 (6th in AL)
What went wrong: The Jays have been hampered by injuries. The biggest loss was closer B.J. Ryan, gone for the year. A.J. Burnett has been decent but he's hurt again and the decision to sign him has been publicly questioned by the general manager. Roy Halladay is 10-3 but he's got a 4.46 ERA in 16 starts. Vernon Wells (.253/.314/.443) is having a down year.
What went right: Alex Rios has rebounded nicely from a injury-plagued 2006 with 22 doubles and 17 dingers. Shaun Marcum has been a pleasant surprise as the number three pitcher in the starting rotation.
What's next: Everything needed to fit into place in order for the Jays to make a serious run this year and that just hasn't happened. They still might push the Yankees out of second place but they might be sellers (Glaus, Thomas) at the trading deadline.
Record: 38-49 (15 back), 3rd place
Runs Scored: 390 (12th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 403 (7th in AL)
What went wrong: The bullpen only has 15 saves, second fewest in the AL. Closer Chris Ray has an ERA of 4.89. Starting pitcher Daniel Cabrera has thrown a lot of innings and has a 1.43 WHIP but he continues to be a disappointment at 6-10 with a 5.04 ERA. Miguel Tejada was no longer an elite shortstop before he broke his hand, ending the fifth longest consecutive-games played streak in baseball history.
What went right: Brian Roberts is an All Star and deservedly so -- his 848 OPS leads the team. Erik Bedard has emerged into very good pitcher, with 149 strikeouts and a 3.40 ERA in 121 innings, while Jeremy Guthrie has a 2.74 ERA in 102 innings and is the team's second best starter. The hiring of Andy McPhail to run the baseball operations is a step in the right direction.
What's next: The O's have a couple of good young players (Bedard, Markakis) but they essentially need to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch. They'll play out the string and get to work trying to build a cohesive program for the first time in years.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Record: 34-53 (19 back), 4th place
Runs Scored: 408 (10th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 537 (14th in AL)
What went wrong: Rocco Baldelli got hurt again and then once more. Aside from Jamey Shields and Scott Kazmir the pitching has been awful. The Elijah Dukes story, a tawdry turn right out of Jerry Springer, has been a PR nightmare for a team with a lot of young talent that seemingly does little else but spins its wheels.
What went right: James Shields has been a horse, throwing 129 innings and he's been efficient with 116 strikeouts and only 19 walks. Scott Kazmir hasn't been as good but he does have more than a strike per inning. Al Reyes has been strong at the back of the bullpen with 17 saves and 38 strikeouts in 33 innings. Carlos Pena (.287/.395/.609) has been an unexpected treat at first base, leading the team with 20 homers, and B.J. Upton (.320/.396/.545) has been very good at second base.
What's next: The Rays continue to develop promising young players -- Dukes, Young, Upton -- but they have not been able to move any of that talent for what they need most: pitching. There are isolated performances that bear watching but collectively, the Rays are as bad as ever.
Labels: AL East
NL Central: Midseason Grades
No doubt about it: The Milwaukee Brewers were the story of the division in the first half. But does this budding Brew Crew have staying power? I spoke to several National League general managers for a GM poll for our magazine’s midseason report, and a number of them liked the Brewers to go far … in 2008. “They still might be a year away from making that big jump,” said one GM. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they perform under the pressure of a pennant race.”
Added another, “I’m not convinced they’re going to run away with it. It’s hard to imagine that all their young guys are going to keep doing what they’ve been doing. I think we’re already seeing them come back to earth”
The team to watch? “I’m telling you,” said a G.M., “the Cubs are a sleeping giant.”
So will the Cubs’ summer soap opera end happily? Can the defending champ Cardinals rise from the dead? Will Junior hit 50 bombs? Is this the summer Adam Dunn and Brad Lidge finally get traded? Will Derrick Turnbow finally get a haircut?
Record: 49-39, 1st place
Runs Scored: 430 (2nd in NL)
Runs Allowed: 388 (6th in NL)
What went wrong: Not much to gripe about when a team is off to its best start since the first term of the Reagan Administration. Rickie Weeks, however, failed to make the leap that young teammates Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, and Ryan Braun made. And the rotation aside from Ben Sheets was unspectacular -- Dave Bush, Chris Capuano, Jeff Suppan, and Claudio Vargas all posted ERAs north of 4.50.
What went right: Ask anyone in the Brewers clubhouse, and they’ll tell you: the key to their incendiary start was their mighty pen, anchored by Francisco Cordero and Derrick Turnbow. Hardy, Hart, and Braun were also revelations, and Prince has arrived as a bona fide star.
What's next: The Brewers may fall short of 90 wins but they'll still be tough to topple. They are, however, making a big mistake if they keep phenom Yovani Gallardo, who made three strong starts in June, in the bullpen. He’ll be one of Milwaukee’s key players in the second half. Prince and Hardy need to keep raking, but more importantly, oft-injured Ben Sheets has to stay healthy, and their eighth and ninth inning relief combo -- nicknamed C-squared -- has to continue to shine after showing signs of vulnerability down the stretch.
Record: 44-43, 2nd place
Runs Scored: 396 (9th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 368 (4th in NL)
What went wrong: There were more meltdowns in the North Side than in an episode of Hey, Paula, and yet the Cubs are still alive. Carlos Zambrano was a disaster in April and May, and with Alfonso Soriano looking like a big-time bust over two months, Chicago struggled to score runs. Chicago still has bullpen issues -- will Ryan Dempster be reliable when he makes his return next week? Rich Hill, after a hot start, has been sliced up over the last month.
What went right: Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez are putting together splendid seasons. Most importantly, Zambrano has rediscovered his curve and his swagger.
What's next: The Cubs will make the Brewers earn first place in the division, and they also have a team that seems to be built for October if they can get that far. "The lineup is scary, maybe as good as the Mets' when it gets going," says a GM. "I don't think anyone wants to see them in the playoffs."
St. Louis Cardinals
Record: 40-45, 3rd place
Runs Scored: 368 (13th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 432 (10th in NL)
What went wrong: It’s been disastrous first half for the defending champs. Injuries to Chris Carpenter and Jim Edmonds were devastating. Scott Rolen is hitting .267 and on pace for eight home runs. Dave Duncan hasn’t been able to work his magic on Kip Wells, Adam Wainwright hasn’t had the breakout season many predicted, and Anthony “0-10” Reyes is, well, 0-10.
What went right: Don’t blame Albert Pujols: the MVP is still on pace for another .300, 30 home run, 100 RBI season. Chris Duncan (.288, 16 home runs, 47 RBI) is for real.
What's next: If the Cardinals don’t fall too far out of it in the next two weeks, Walt Jocketty -- who has a brilliant summertime trade record -- could swing a blockbuster deal. But of top concern is the return of their ace. Most likely the only thing worth watching in St. Louis, however, will be the return of Rick Ankiel.
Record: 40-48, fourth place
Runs Scored: 367 (14th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 427 (7th in NL)
What went wrong: Where have you gone, Zach Duke? Where have you gone, Jason Bay? The Pirates’ other big masher, Adam LaRoche, is hitting .239 with a .329 OBP but has shown signs of life in recent weeks.
What went right: Freddy Sanchez wasn’t the best Tony La Russa could do for his obligatory Pirates pick in the All-Star game. Either Tom Gorzelanny or Ian Snell -- and not Sanchez -- should have been in San Francisco. Matt Capps has been a revelation as a closer.
What's next: The Pirates aren’t gonna make a run at first but with their young pitching there is, for the first time in a decade, reason for hope in the Steel City. If their big boppers get going, Pittsburgh has a legit shot at its first winning season since ’92.
Record: 39-50, fourth place
Runs Scored: 402 (7th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 441 (13th in NL)
What went wrong: A few years ago it appeared that Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane, and Chris Burke were the future of the Astros. Now none of them deserve a place in the lineup. Dreadful for two months, Lance Berkman has at last awakened.
What went right: Carlos Lee is living up to his $100 million contract. Hunter Pence has arrived as the next great Astro. Brad Lidge has rediscovered his slider. Craig Biggio got his 3,000 hit -- but his OBP is barely .300.
What's next: GM Tim Purpura is an anti-Monty Hall when it comes to making a deal, but even he will realize that trading Brad Lidge makes sense. The Astros have a knack for making miracle runs in the second half, but they don’t have the starting pitching to even break .500 this year.
Record: 36-52, sixth place
Runs Scored: 418 (5th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 454 (14th in NL)
What went wrong: Same old story in Cincy: all hit, no pitch. After a brilliant 2006 in Cincy, Bronson Arroyo has been bombed, and Kyle Lohse hasn’t amounted to much after a promising April.
What went right: Josh Hamilton was one of the best stories of the first half. Brandon Phillips has established himself as one of the league’s top hitting second basemen. And all smiles this summer, Ken Griffey, Jr. continued his rise on the career home run leaderboard.
What's next: Closer Eddie Guardado is scheduled to return soon, but it won’t be enough to save the Reds from a 100-loss season. Now the big question is how aggressively GM Wayne Krivsky shops Dunn and Griffey as the trade deadline nears.
Labels: NL Central
AL Central: Midseason Grades
With four preseason contenders (sorry, Kansas City), the American League Central was set to be baseball's most competitive division. In just the past two years, Chicago had won a World Series, Detroit had reached a World Series, Minnesota had won the division and Cleveland was one unfortunate late-season collapse away from the postseason.
But, as the story goes, a funny thing happened on the way to the All-Star break: Minnesota's been middling, and Chicago's been catastrophic.
That leaves a two-horse race down the stretch. Cleveland trails by a game in the standings, though two in the loss column. The Indians hold the head-to-head lead at 6-4 but won the first five meetings before Detroit went on its seven-game, mid-June winning streak and seemed to find its groove.
The Lake Erie neighbors have the AL's top run-scoring offenses, but both rank in the bottom half of the league in runs allowed, not to mention the game's two shakiest closers.
The Tigers would appear to hold advantages in starting pitching and lineup depth, but the Indians, for now, have a better bullpen in front of Joe Borowski than the Tigers do in front of Todd Jones. Still, no lead will be safe.
This scribe's prediction: Cleveland edges out Detroit by two games in the division, though the Tigers snare the wild card.
Record: 52-34, 1st place
Runs Scored: 512 (1st in AL)
Runs Allowed: 407 (T-8th in AL)
What went wrong: Not much, save the bullpen. Joel Zumaya remains on the DL recovering from finger surgery, Fernando Rodney is 1-5 with a 5.40 ERA and Todd Jones is, well, Todd Jones. That means he's effective (22 of 26 save chances) despite being scary (1-4, 5.20 ERA, 1.57 WHIP). Ivan Rodriguez has walked only five times in 301 plate appearances. Gary Sheffield had a horrible start -- a .193 BA and .265 SLG in his first 23 games -- but that's a distant memory, as he rebounded very well and might have been the biggest All-Star snub. He's up to a .303 BA, .410 OBP, .560 SLG, 21 HR, 58 RBI and even a team-leading 12 SB.
What went right: A three-game sweep of the Red Sox, who sport the majors' best record, means the Tigers entered the All-Star Game on a five-game winning streak and in first place of the division. Detroit has scored 512 runs this season, the most in MLB by 41 (over the Indians). Magglio Ordoñez is the first-half AL MVP, with preposterous numbers: .367/.446/.604, 35 2B, 13 HR, 70 RBI. Kenny Rogers has been dominant in all three starts he's made since beginning the season on the DL -- he's 3-0 with an ERA (1.04) almost as small as his tiny WHIP (0.98). He joins Justin Verlander (10-3, 3.14 ERA) and Jeremy Bonderman (9-1, 3.48) -- with supplemental help from Andrew Miller and Nate Robertson -- to form the most post-season ready starting rotation.
What's next: It'll be a dogfight with Cleveland in the second half, with the runner-up likely taking the wild card. The Tribe took six of ten from the Tigers in the first half, but they still have nine more meetings to go. Detroit begins with a tricky seven-game road trip to Seattle and Minnesota. As for its grade, the bullpen is still a question mark, and I'll try to resist that grade-school teacher temptation of weighing improvement too much over the whole body of work.
Record: 52-36, 2nd place
Runs Scored: 471 (2nd in AL)
Runs Allowed: 414 (10th in AL)
What went wrong: Jeremy Sowers and Jake Westbrook have made 21 starts, going 2-10 with a 6.65 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 109.2 innings. Third base prospect Andy Marte is batting just .180 in 50 at bats. And that horrible early-season snow storm forced the Indians to play three home games in Milwaukee.
What went right: For a team that crashed and burned despite high hopes last year (78-84, fourth place in the Central), it's hard to find fault with Cleveland's place in the standings: not just second in the division, but first in the wild card by 1.5 games over Seattle. The most pleasant surprise of the first half -- anywhere in the division -- is Fausto Carmona. After suffering one of the worst weeks in baseball history last season as a reliever, Carmona has been terrific as a starter: 10-4, 3.85 ERA and a 2.77 ground ball-fly ball ratio. He and C.C. Sabathia have been a great one-two punch. Though Trot Nixon has provided next-to-no pop (.335 SLG, 3 HR, 26 RBI), the three-headed combo of Ben Francisco, Franklin Gutierrez and Jason Michales are doing a more than ample job of holding down left field and supporting Nixon in right. Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez continue to rake, with Travis Hafner a little off his normal pace, and still the Indians have an AL-best 109 homers. For now, Joe Borowski continues to defy logic, saving 25 of 27 opportunities despite a 5.35 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. And that Rafael Betancourt, he's really, really good.
What's next: Continue chasing the Tigers. Cleveland starts with six home games against divisional doormats Kansas City and Chicago and follows that up with four at Texas, so it gives the Indians a chance for a fast second-half start. They still have eight games with the Tigers and, should, the wild-card standings hold, circle Sept. 25-27 on your calendar. The Indians will be playing four games in three days in Seattle, with one of those games originally having been slated for Cleveland before the aforementioned April snow.
Minnesota Twins Record: 45-43, 3rd place Runs Scored: 436 (6th in AL) Runs Allowed: 399 (5th in AL)
What went wrong: Jason Kubel (.250 BA/.302 OBP) and Nick Punto (.211/.313) are still everyday starters. Scott Baker, Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Kevin Slowey have made a combined 33 starts with a combined 5.82 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. Carlos Silva hasn't been a whole lot better (6-10, 4.58 ERA, 1.40 WHIP). Joe Mauer has missed 32 games. And they've been unlucky. Based on the Twins' Pythagorean winning percentage, they should be 48-40, trailing Cleveland only by a game.
What went right: Torii Hunter and Justin Morneau have been nothing short of spectacular, steadying that otherwise inconsistent offense. Their top six relievers, per innings pitched, all have sub-4.00 ERAs led by closer Joe Nathan (2.17 in 37.1 IP), Pat Neshek (1.70 in 42.1) and Matt Guerrier (1.70 in 53.0). Johan is Johan. (Quick aside: Santana was the AL's seventh-inning reliever last night. How amazing is that?) Oh, and just for the heck of it, Minnesota has the best fielding percentage in the league.
What's next: A second-half team, Minnesota could make a surge and reach the playoffs, even if Baseball Prospectus only gives that a 6 percent likelihood. Chasing both Cleveland and Detroit in the division and also Seattle in the wild card race might be too much.
Chicago White Sox
Record: 39-47, 4th place
Runs Scored: 354 (14th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 420 (11th in AL)
What went wrong: Not much. Easily the division's biggest disappointment, the White Sox have scored not just the fewest runs in the AL but in all of the majors. General manager Kenny Williams threatened a fire sale. Jermaine Dye's batting .214 (.271 OBP). Jim Thome has missed 25 games. Scott Podsednik missed more than two months. Joe Crede batted .216 (.258 OBP) in 47 games before undergoing season-ending back surgery. Jose Contreras is 5-10 with a 5.19 ERA. As a team, the Sox are batting .241 with a .314 OBP. Ouch. Chicago has a 7-12 record in one-run games -- the only Central team not at .500 or better -- and only avoided a failing grade thanks to a 10-5 stretch entering the break. Making matters worse, the Cubs are suddenly playing a lot better and no longer share half the city's negative headlines.
What went right: Mark Buerhle threw a no-hitter and signed a four-year contract extension. Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez are working on solid seasons, and Bobby Jenks, the club's lone All-Star, has been decent. And that's about it.
What's next: Thirteen games out of first place -- and 12 out of the wild card -- playoff hopes are on life support, so Williams is at a critical juncture: blow the team and get younger at the trade deadline and try to keep the core together for one more fun next year?
Kansas City Royals
Record: 38-50, 5th place
Runs Scored: 402 (11th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 437 (12th in AL)
What went wrong: It's hard to fault any one or two players on a team void of exceptional talents. Compile a roster of mediocrity and get mediocrity in return. Über-rookie Alex Gordon batted .327 in June -- but it's the only month he's been above a .200 average. K.C. has saves in 24 of their 38 wins -- but have blown 12 chances. The Royals have also been decimated by injuries.
What went right: The Royals are in last place but only 15 games out of first and two out of fourth; they were nine out of fourth and 27.5 out of first at this point last year. They have an AL-leading 28 triples. Joakim Soria has emerged as a reliable reliever. Gil Meche was an All-Star, and not quite so flagrantly because of the rule requiring a representative from each team. The $55 million man hasn't had much run support, thus explaining his 5-6 record, but his ERA (3.54) and WHIP (1.30) are solid, though a little short of spectacular. Catcher John Buck, with 15, has more than twice as many home run as his teammates, but his average (.245) and RBIs (29) are not as sparkling.
And let's not forget the the seventh-innings stretch song derby. In narrowing the competition to a final four, the fans wisely weeded out overplayed tunes like Cotton-Eyed Joe"and Sweet Caroline and are now choosing among Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire, ABBA's Dancing Queen and two songs called Kansas City -- one by The Beatles and one by Wilbert Harrison. My vote's still with Cash.
What's next: More playing time for the kids. Keep giving Gordon and Billy Butler at bats, hold major-league auditions for any prospect who seems deserving and make it a goal not to finish last, as they have the last four seasons.
Labels: AL Central
NL West: Midseason Grades
An afterthought for years running when it comes to postseason baseball, the NL West has pulled closer to its league rivals, if not ahead of them. Four of the five teams in the division are at .500 or better, and collectively the NL West is 105-81 against the NL Central and NL East.
San Diego quietly established itself as the best team in the NL in the first half of the 2007 season, leading the league in winning percentage and run differential. At the same time, the Padres are 15-15 over their past 30 games, so they aren't exactly running away with anything.
Los Angeles seems to have the greatest wherewithal to overtake the Padres, but the Dodgers' potpourri of strengths and weaknesses makes a post-All Star Break slump as likely as a surge. Arizona remains a contender, and Colorado -- yes, Colorado -- is only 5 1/2 games off the Padres' league-leading pace.
While the NL barely has any teams on pace to win 90 games, AL hopefuls should pay attention to the Padres. Facing the likes of Jake Peavy and Chris Young in the postseason could be death to anyone's World Series dreams.
San Diego Padres
Record: 49-38, 1st place
Runs Scored: 374 (11th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 298 (1st in NL)
What went wrong: The Padres have struggled offensively at a few positions, most notably thanks to the Giles brothers. Second baseman Marcus and right fielder Brian are well below league-average production for where they play, and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff took forever to get going. San Diego also hasn't been particularly lucky -- its record in one-run games of 15-18 has allowed division rivals to stay right on their heels.
What went right: Even accounting for the run-dampening effects of Petco Park, San Diego's pitching has been superb. The team's ERA+ of 130 (according to Baseball-Reference.com, with 100 being average) is tops in the league, and the Padres' are allowing only 3.69 runs per game on the road. Peavy came back from a subpar (for him) 2006 to become the league's leading Cy Young contender -- even while being outpaced in the ERA race by teammate Young (2.00). And the bullpen has allowed only 74 runs in 279 1/3 innings over 87 games (2.38 ERA).
What's next: New acquisition Milton Bradley will be given a chance to boost the offense while the Padres consider making a trade to solidify their playoff hopes. Expected to be a playoff contender, the Padres have more than met those goals -- yet some San Diego fans must be nagged that the Padres haven't stretched out their division lead even more.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Record: 49-40, 2nd place
Runs Scored: 400 (8th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 366 (3rd in NL)
What went wrong: Three hefty contracts handed out over the offseason were busts: Jason Schmidt was lost for the season after throwing 25 2/3 innings, Juan Pierre has a .311 on-base percentage in center field and Nomar Garciaparra, a returning free agent, is a corner infielder with a 72 OPS+.
What went right: The team trails only the Padres in fewest runs allowed per game, thanks in large part to Brad Penny (183 ERA+). Russell Martin (125 OPS+) turned the sophomore jinx on its ear, becoming an All-Star catcher at 24. Luis Gonzalez (123 OPS+) showed that the offseason wasn't a total bust. And just when they needed them to, minor league callups James Loney and Matt Kemp (each with on-base percentages over .400 and slugging percentages over .500) had massive Junes.
What's next: The Dodgers return to action with three-fifths of the starting rotation (Schmidt, Randy Wolf and Hong-Chih Kuo) on the disabled list, as well as lingering offensive questions. The urge to make a trade will be fierce, though whether there is anyone worthwhile out there who can be acquired at a reasonable price is dubious. The Dodgers currently hold wild card position in the NL, but with their payroll and farm system, Los Angeles has to be disappointed not to be in first place (no disrespect to the Padres).
Record: 47-43, 3rd place
Runs Scored: 371 (12th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 401 (7th in NL)
What went wrong: Randy Johnson pitched well but without durability, logging 56 2/3 innings while making repeat visits to the DL. And promising 26-and-under players like catcher Chris Snyder, shortstop Stephen Drew and center fielder Chris Young have disappointed so far this year. The Diamondbacks watched local hero Gonzalez go to the Dodgers on a one-year contract in large part to make room in the starting lineup for outfielder Carlos Quentin, who then went 42-for-200 with a .299 on-base percentage and .350 slugging percentage.
What went right: Arizona arguably has the second-best pitching in the NL. The Diamondbacks are tied with the Dodgers with a 114 ERA+, and their bullpen is deeper than it's been in ages. In addition, infielders Orlando Hudson, Mark Reynolds and Chad Tracy and outfielder Eric Byrnes have been steady.
What's next: Despite losing 19 of their past 30 games, the Diamondbacks are only 2 ½ games out of the wild-card lead and 3 ½ games out of first place -- with lots of room for potential improvement from their younger position players. Perhaps the growing pains were worse than Arizona hoped for, but unless the starting rotation collapses like Johnson's aging body, don't count Arizona out.
Record: 44-44, 4th place
Runs Scored: 428 (3rd in NL)
Runs Allowed: 438 (11th in NL)
What went wrong: Honestly, if All-Star closer Brian Fuentes (now injured) hadn't blown four leads over an eight-game stretch at the end of June, the Rockies might be the talk of baseball. Instead, concerns over a spotty starting rotation have extended to a relief corps ...
What went right: ... that otherwise has performed quite well. Overall, though, it's the offense that has carried Colorado, particularly Matt Holliday (145 OPS+), Brad Hawpe (141) and Todd Helton (137). At 31, Mets castoff Kazuo Matsui (108), along with 22-year-old rookie shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (103), have also shone.
What's next: No one expects Colorado to make the playoffs, so the team can continue to operate in stealth mode, counting off days of the schedule while trying to stay within shouting distance. But can the Rockies find the starting pitching to get them over the hump? This is a team that is young at its core -- the 33-year-old Helton and Matsui are the only regulars over the age of 30, so there's no urgency for the team to win now -- just impatience arising from the 12 years that have passed since Colorado's only playoff appearance.
San Francisco Giants
Record: 38-48, 5th place
Runs Scored: 365 (15th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 362 (2nd in NL)
What went wrong: Though 10 games below .500, the Giants have actually outscored their opponents, so their biggest problem has been waste. Outside of Barry Bonds, the lineup is about as unthreatening as they come, with longtime defensive whiz Omar Vizquel (54 OPS+) having the most egregious numbers. Meanwhile, mega-free agent signee Barry Zito hasn't been terrible, just wildly inconsistent. In 18 games, he has nine quality starts, but has allowed more runs than innings pitched in five other appearances.
What went right: Starting pitchers Matt Cain, Noah Lowry and Matt Morris, all with an ERA+ of 120 or more, have mitigated Zito's ups and downs. Ryan Klesko has had a late-career renaissance, with an on-base percentage of .385 and slugging percentage of .477. But the fact remains that without Bonds and his league-leading 191 OPS+, this might be the worst team in the NL.
What's next: The Giants will watch Bonds' pursuit of 756 while trying to play spoiler in the NL West race, but their main goal should be to make sure that rookie Tim Lincecum (79 strikeouts in 72 innings) is healthy for the 2008 season. With the starting rotation as its foundation, San Francisco should start the rebuilding process ASAP.
Labels: NL West
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)