Pennant Races at the halfway point

by Dan M | Posted on Saturday, July 15th, 2017

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BY DIC HUMPHREY
DIC.HUMPHREY@YAHOO.COM

Major League Baseball’s “first half” came to a close last
weekend. First half is a misnomer, as the teams reached the halfway
point of the schedule – 81 games – a weekend earlier. MLB prefers to
refer to the games played prior to the All-Star break as the first
half irrespective of the mathematics of the situation.
The races for the five playoff spots in the American and
National Leagues are essentially 180 degrees apart. In the American
League, one team has separated from the pack and is clearly “in”,
while a case can be made that each of the other 14 teams has a
reasonable chance to play in October.
In the National League, the opposite is true. Four teams have
essentially claimed playoff berths, and there is only real race
remaining.
In the American League, Houston has run away from the pack.
They hold a 16.5 game lead in the West Division and would need to lose
their next 31 games to move their record back to .500. The Astros
have the best offense in the A.L. They lead in batting average (.289),
on base percentage (.355), slugging percentage (.500) and OPS (.855).
They lead in hits, doubles, home runs, runs scored and RBIs. They are
the real deal.
At their current pace, the Astros will end up with 109 wins.
The long and the short is that it will take a downturn of epic
proportions for Houston to fail to win the West and even more
gargantuan proportions to fail to make the playoffs. Put the Spacemen
down as the top seed in the American League playoffs.
After Houston, it’s a scramble for the other four playoff
berths. Chicago and Oakland are 7.5 games out of a Wild Card spot.
Detroit is 6.5 games out. Everyone else is either in a playoff spot
based on the standings as of today, or five games or less out in the
Wild Card race.
In the East, Boston holds a 3.5 game lead over New York and
Tampa Bay. Baltimore and Toronto are 7.5 and 8.5 games out. It’s
been a back and forth first half in the East. The 3.5 game lead for
Boston is their largest of the season. The Yankees have led most of
the year, but have stumbled recently. They fell out of first place
with a seven game losing streak and limped into the break with a 3-7
record over their last 10 games.
On paper, it looks like a three team race. Boston and New York
get the most attention, but don’t give up on Tampa Bay. They are tied
for second place in the division at the break, and tied with the
Yankees for the two Wild Card berths. They keep bringing quality
players to the Major Leagues from their farm system, and they are not
to be counted out of winning this division outright.
The Central Division was presumed to be Cleveland’s. The
Indians took a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series, only to see the
Cubs come back with three wins to eliminate them. However, this year
has been no day at the beach for the Tribe. Minnesota got off to a
surprisingly good start and has led most of the way. They trail
Cleveland by 2.5 games and the next two weeks will be telling for the
Twins. They are a young team on the rise. Do they stick to the plan
and wait for the nucleus they are developing to mature, or do they
make trades for veteran help to give the Indians a run for their money
this year? Former Ranger executive, Thad Levine, is Minnesota’s GM;
and he gets the big bucks to make such decisions.
Kansas City won the World Series just two seasons ago, but they
got off to a horrendous start. However, they have pushed their record
one game over .500 at 44-43 and trail the Tribe by just three games.
Cleveland on paper has the horses to pull away and dominate this
division over the final half of the season, but right now, it’s a
solid three team race.
In the West, no team besides Houston is even over .500. The
Angels and Rangers are three games out in the Wild Card race. Neither
has shown the potential to put together enough wins to get into the
playoffs. It’s not a problem so much of being three games out. It’s
a problem of having nine teams fighting it out for the right to play
in the Wild Card “play-in” game.
For the Rangers in particular, the next two plus weeks are a
conundrum. Texas geared up for this year with now seven players on
contracts that expire after this season. Do they hold the course and
try to add pennant chase help? Alternatively, do they run up the
white flag and sell veterans for prospects before August?
The 10-game road trip that opens the second half will go a long
way toward defining the Rangers’ course at the trade deadline of July
31st. But even if Texas is successful on this road trip, is playing
to make the playoffs this year the best course of action for this team
in the long run?
The bottom line on the A.L. Wild Card race is that nine teams
are in the hunt for two spots. The problem for any of these teams is
not making up five games or less in the standings. It’s playing
better than at least seven of the other eight teams in the hunt for
those two berths.
In the National League, it’s a year of surprises. Four teams
look to be locks for the playoffs, and two of them were not favorites
before the season began. Los Angeles has finally forged into the lead
in the West with a 61-29 record, one win better than Houston, for the
best record in baseball. Clayton Kershaw leads the starting rotation.
He’s regarded by many as the best pitcher in baseball, and he is 14-2.
Alex Wood has come out of nowhere to post a 10-0 record with a 1.67
ERA. Kenley Jansen is a perfect 21 for 21 in save opportunities as
the closer.
On the offensive side, the Dodgers – in a pitcher friendly ball
park – have six players with double digit home run totals, including
25 from exciting rookie Clay Bellinger. The Dodgers have all the
components to win the World Series.
They have been challenged in the West by Colorado and Arizona.
The Rockies have been grooming some young pitchers, namely Kyle
Freeland and Tyler Chatwood, to anchor their rotation. Reclamation
project Greg Holland has paid off in spades. He’s saved 28 games in
29 opportunities. Offense is never a problem in the thin air of the
“Mile High City”. Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado and Mark Reynolds
have combined for 56 home runs and 192 RBIs.
The Diamondbacks are an even bigger surprise. After last season,
they cleaned house at the top. GM Dave Stewart and manager Chip Hale
were ousted. Tony La Russa was reduced to consultant status after
being in charge of the baseball operations. On the field, the D-Backs
personnel is much the same as last year, but new manager Tory Lovullo
is the difference. He’s created an entirely new atmosphere.
Arizona trails the Dodgers by 7.5 games, and Colorado is 9.5
games behind. However, they have a huge lead in the Wild Card race.
Colorado is 7.5 games ahead of the nearest challenger. It will take a
serious meltdown for either of the Rockies or D-backs to get caught in
the Wild Card race.
In the National League East, Washington as expected is dominating.
The Nationals have a 9.5 game lead over Atlanta.
In the Central, there is another big surprise. The defending
World Champion Cubs were expected to dominate. They led MLB in wins
last year and returned all the key players. So far it hasn’t
happened. Early in the season, it was thought to be a slow start, but
that the Cubs would dominate in the end. However, 88 games into the
season, the Cubs are two games under .500 at 43-45 and trail Milwaukee
by 5.5 games. It’s not an insurmountable deficit, but the Cubs are
battling not only the Brewers, but also St. Louis, which is tied for
second with them, and Pittsburgh, which is just two games in the loss
column behind them.
The Cubs obviously believe catching Milwaukee is feasible. They
traded a king’s ransom to the White Sox for starting pitcher Carlos
Quintana. Two of the four prospects they sent to the South Siders are
ranked in the top 100 in the minor leagues. The pale hose now have
nine players ranked in the top 100 in their farm system. That ties
them with Atlanta for the most.
Milwaukee may be an even bigger surprise than Colorado and
Arizona. Eric Thames has come from nowhere to energize the offense.
He had hit 19 home runs total in four Major League seasons before this
year, but hit 23 prior to the All-Star break. Zach Davies leads the
rotation with a 10-4 record. Young Corey Knebel, who was born in
Denton, played at U.T., and was obtained from the Rangers in the
Jonathan Lucroy trade, has emerged as the closer. He’s converted 14
of 18 save opportunities with a 1.70 ERA and made the All-Star team.
The race in the Central is really the only race left in the
National League.
The Quintana trade coming down during the All-Star break is the
first blockbuster in-season trade. It won’t be the last. Over the
next two plus weeks, teams will get down to business on in-season
trades prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. It should be
an explosive trade market this year.

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