Second half starts with questions in every division
Boston's AL East lead, Bucs' pursuit of postseason berth among the things to watch
When Opening Day dawned, those many weeks ago, 30 Major League teams had postseason hopes, some more realistic than others. As the second half dawns today, 22 of those 30 are still within nine games or fewer of a postseason spot, and yes, some of those 22 have a more realistic shot than others.
The Major League season is so daunting that it does a fine job of separating the contenders from the pretenders. But even here at the ceremonial "halfway" point -- roughly 60 percent of the way through the 2013 season -- so much of that sorting has yet to occur.
So with the second half upon us, let's take a fresh look at each division and see where we stand.
American League East
Orioles All-Star Adam Jones was asked to describe the East.
"A gauntlet," he said. "September is going to be a gauntlet. Last man standing."
As it is, all five East clubs are still standing, just as many of us suspected going into the season. What you might not have suspected is that the Red Sox, who had to dramatically retool after the horrors of September 2011 and all that came after in '12, are standing firmly on top, and the Blue Jays, despite all their winter improvements, are at the bottom. The Blue Jays' divisional chances are murky, at best, as they are 11 1/2 back and haven't gotten any kind of consistency -- either in performance or health -- from their rotation. But they're 8 1/2 back of a Wild Card spot, and after they rattled off 11 straight wins last month, it's hard to completely discount them.
Every other East club is within at least six games of the Red Sox, who are in fantastic shape both in terms of their record and their resources to stock up at the July 31 Trade Deadline. The Yankees continue to battle injuries, absences and the performance decline of ace CC Sabathia, but they're still very much in it. The best thing about the East, though, is that the Rays and Orioles have, once again, definitively proven they belong in the hunt.
"It's not necessarily shifts in power, but shifts in talent," Jones said. "We're getting better. They're not getting worse, but we're getting better."
The Rays and O's have both done it this year with strong offenses supporting surprisingly unstable starting staffs. But the Rays got a huge pick-me-up with the return of David Price shortly before the break, and the O's, after already getting Scott Feldman from the Cubs, remain hot on the trail of starting help as the Deadline approaches.
Until -- or unless -- those mercurial Royals, currently eight games back, get some consistency on the offensive end (and don't rule it out), the Central is, at the moment, essentially a two-team race between the Tigers and Indians. The fact that it's a race at all qualifies as a surprise, because few would dispute that the Tigers, the defending AL champs, have the most talent in the division.
Once again, though, the Tigers have underachieved, to some degree, because their porous bullpen has prevented them from truly taking off. That's one reason the Indians, who have had bullpen issues of their own, sit just 1 1/2 games back, despite dropping nine of 12 to Detroit.
If Terry Francona's Tribe is going to last, a top-tier starter and another bullpen arm are in order. The Tigers are also expected to tinker with their 'pen before the Deadline, and they've certainly been in this position before (their battle with the White Sox last season wasn't decided until late September) and come out just fine. On the other hand, the Indians, who at one point lost 18 of 22 games, have endured some tough stretches but have never lacked confidence.
"Detroit's the one with the pressure on," Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "It's not on us. They're the ones with the targets on their back. We're the ones sort of playing loose and fun."
There was a time when the West was expected to revolve solely around the Rangers and Angels, but that was before midseason 2012, when another California club jumped to the forefront. Yes, the A's are for real. Their stunning second-half surge last season was not a mirage, for they entered this year's All-Star break a resplendent 17 games over .500.
The Rangers are right there with them, two games back in what could be another down-to-the-wire duel. The Rangers arguably have better depth and better resources to improve at the Deadline, and their pitching staff could dramatically improve if Colby Lewis, Alexi Ogando, Matt Harrison and Joakim Soria come back with full strength and effectiveness. But the A's, clearly, are not going away, and they have upside if Yoenis Cespedes, fresh off his Home Run Derby win, and/or Josh Reddick find their strides.
"At this point, even though there are some similarities to the way it ended last year with the Rangers, I don't think you get caught up in that until you get into the last month of the season," A's manager Bob Melvin said, referring to his team winning the division by one game over Texas last year. "There's a lot of baseball yet to be played, and I think the Angels will have something to say, too."
The Angels recently showed that they might have something to say, winning 11 of their last 17 before the break (though they dropped their last three) and finally getting signs of offensive spark from Josh Hamilton. That might not be enough, though, because the Halos have yet to show they have the depth of arms to hang with Texas and Oakland. The Mariners, meanwhile, have been done in by the lack of strides made by the young guys in their supposed offensive core. Right now, the West revolves around two teams.
National League East
The largest division lead in baseball belongs to the Braves, who have a six-game edge on the second-place Nationals and a 6 1/2-game lead on the Phillies.
Those standings, though, are somewhat deceptive, because the truth is that the Braves have lived largely off the fumes of a 13-2 start. Since April 19, these are the winning percentages of the East's three contending clubs:
And given the offensive issues the Braves are enduring, both in terms of health and the performance of several veterans, it's not out of the question that this race could get tighter and more interesting in the coming weeks.
The good news for the Braves is that their pitching staff has been one of the best, so any offensive improvement could allow them to coast into the postseason. They've seen improvement in recent weeks from Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla, who struggled mightily at the start of the season, but they undoubtedly need more from the brothers Upton. B.J. has had an abysmal season at the plate and is now on the disabled list, and Justin slowed considerably after an awesome April.
"I think the best is still ahead of us, offensively," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We've recently seen spurts where some guys are starting to swing the bats and drive the ball. That's always a good sign."
Good signs have been remarkably few and far between for a Nationals team that many labeled a World Series contender. But their best is yet to come if Bryce Harper, who missed much of the first half, stays healthy and the recent improvement of the bullpen holds up. The Nats also figure to be aggressive in the trade market.
And the Phillies? No telling which direction they'll go. Their aging roster has been battered by injuries, so it's actually remarkable that they're sitting at .500, all things considered. The Philly fire sale so many expected does not appear to be in the cards, because the division race is too tempting. It seems that division race remains more likely to come down to the Braves and Nats, but you never know.
It is entirely realistic that the NL Central will feature three 90-game winners this season, which is crazy. And it is entirely realistic that one of those teams will be the Pittsburgh Pirates, which is even crazier.
The Pirates' starting depth and defensive prowess has vaulted them into a neck-and-neck battle with the Cardinals, with the Reds looming close behind. This could be baseball's best division race, especially considering these three teams ranked Nos. 1 (Pirates, 3.27), 2 (Cardinals, 3.33) and 3 (Reds, 3.40) in starters' ERA in the first half.
And you don't have to reside anywhere near the Allegheny, Monongahela or Ohio rivers to be curious about whether the Pirates can avoid the collapses that plagued them in 2011 and '12, and end not only their streak of 20 straight losing seasons but also their postseason drought. That is, unquestionably, one of the most stimulating storylines of the second half.
"At the [All-Star] parade [in Manhattan], I had Yankee fans and cops yelling, 'Win it all, man!'" said Bucs closer Jason Grilli. "Maybe we're becoming America's team, because we've been an underdog so long and everybody loves an underdog. It's a really cool thing to see so many people behind us."
The Cardinals, though, are the more experienced squad when it comes to this sort of thing, and they've shown a knack in the clutch, both at the plate (they have a .337 team batting average with runners in scoring position, while no other team in the Majors is hitting better than .288 in those situations) and, generally speaking, in the postseason pursuit. The defending division-champion Reds, meanwhile, have been one of baseball's worst teams in the clutch-hitting department and have really felt Ryan Ludwick's absence since he got hurt on Opening Day. But they're still hanging around.
"I feel like our division has gone down to the wire every year for the past few years," Cards first baseman Allen Craig said. "We expect that."
And we expect the Central to be scintillating.
While the Central might have three teams break the 90-win threshold, the NL West is looking like it'll be lucky to have anybody do much better than .500.
Indeed, it's been a frustrating first half out West, where even the division-leading D-backs, who entered the break with a 50-45 mark and a 2 1/2-game lead on the second-place Dodgers, know they have not yet played their best ball.
"Some games we've got the pitching, some we've got the hitting," starter Patrick Corbin said. "We've got to start clicking together and put together a full game."
The Dodgers have started to click, especially since the arrival of the sensational Yasiel Puig (though he cooled just before the break), and they've already been aggressive on the trade front in landing right-hander Ricky Nolasco from the Marlins. Don't be shocked to see the Dodgers, who were tripped up by injuries and had to use the disabled list 22 times in the first half, remain aggressive through July 31, because they have invested an incredible amount of financial might into this club and there's no going back now. The D-backs will have to stave them off by improving their bullpen, which has been a weakness.
The surprising Rockies are lurking, just 4 1/2 games back, and their loaded lineup is finally healthy. They could use a starter to get them over the hump. And no one should rule out a run by the defending World Series-champion Giants, who are in the odd position (for them) of also needing some starting assistance. Even the Padres are only 8 1/2 back. The West has been so bad that it's completely up for grabs.
Of course, "up for grabs" describes a pretty wide swath as baseball's second half begins.