By: Chris Dagonas and Dan Grant
Dan: Hey Chris!
Chris: Hey Dan!
Dan: How about that Home Run Derby eh? My name is Yoenis!
Chris: I know! He sure hit some slobber-knockers! It seems like just yesterday that we were putting together our MLB season preview. Remember early April? A cold wind whipped through your beard, the Jays season looked so promising…
Dan: Don’t start with me about that.
Chris: Hey, I’m on that roller-coaster with you, buddy. Love the Jays! I’m currently drinking out of a Joe Carter coffee mug!
Dan: So, Reynolds has trapped us in this room, and he said he won’t let us out until we come up with a baseball article.
Chris: He really runs roughshod over this whole enterprise…
Dan: Yeah but he pays the bills.
Chris: YOU GET PAID?!?
Dan: Uh… no? Let’s get into it!
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Chris: This will be the toughest division to process. At the start of the season, everything looked so positive for the Blue Jays, and so negative for the Yankees and Red Sox. Two and a half months later, the Jays sit at the bottom of the division. Much has been made of their struggles around here, so I won’t say too much more. Their offense has been mediocre, though injuries to Jose Reyes and unexpected struggles from Brett Lawrie and JP Arencibia have played a pretty significant role in that. Their starting pitching has been atrocious, though RA Dickey’s progress over the past month is something to smile about.
The Yankees started the season as a bit of a joke, with minor league call-ups and veteran wanderers filling gaps left by injuries to Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and others. Their offense has performed pretty badly, sitting near the bottom of the American League in nearly every category. Their saving grace, so far, has been their pitching, especially their bullpen. They are 16-9 in one-run games, due largely to Mariano Rivera and company holding their opponents to about one base runner per inning. In short, you never count out a team that has excellent late-inning pitching.
The Baltimore Orioles are a sort of inverse Yankees. By now we all know Chris Davis and his monstrous season, but removing him from the equation would make the Orioles percentages about as bad as the Astros. Of course, that’s not really fair to do, but it goes to show that the Orioles might rely just a tad too much on Davis. Their team pitching is below average, hovering in the bottom 3 in the American League in ERA and opponents’ batting average. They were very lucky in one-run games last season, and this season have ridden the Chris Davis train to another unlikely season.
Tampa Bay always seems to get it right. They signed James Loney over the offseason, after he struggled in 30 games for the Boston Red Sox, and he responded by making a huge turnaround this season. Loney leads the team in batting average and on-base percentage. The Rays boast a top-5 offense, with Loney and Evan Longoria leading the charge. Their pitching has been even better, leading the AL in OBA and sitting second in WHIP. This is due in large part to the steady development of Matt Moore. Losing James Shields to free agency and David Price to injury has barely registered a blip. Young hurlers like Moore, Chris Archer and Alex Cobb have all filled in capably.
What the hell is going on in Boston? This team was supposed to be dead! They were awful last season, and didn’t even do all that much to get better! They currently have the most runs scored in the American League, the best team OBP, and the best OPS. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia have found the form, and the elusive health, that made them all-stars a few years ago, while newcomers like Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino have outplayed most expectations. John Lackey is back to his dominant ways on the mound, and reliever Koji Uehara has been nearly unhittable. As a team, their pitching stats are fairly average, but a handful of excellent performances have been enough to vault the Red Sox from the bottom of the AL East in October, to the top of it 10 months later.
Chris: I wish I could say that Boston hits the skids and plummets down to the bottom of the division again, but I don’t see it happening this year. The removal of Bobby Valentine and clubhouse cancer Josh Beckett seems to have renewed the energy of the Red Sox, and they should be sitting atop the division in October. I know last season I used this space to say the Orioles were not for real, and they proved me wrong, but I have to say it again. Their mediocre pitching won’t allow the Orioles to maintain their pace, and keep up with the Rays. Tampa will secure a wild-card spot along with an AL West team, either the Rangers or Athletics. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, should improve over the second half, but it is probably too late to make any postseason noise.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Dan: The Detroit Tigers were my pre-season pick to win the American League, and while they’ve been up and down a bit in the first half, they’re playing good baseball and lead the Central Division 95 games in. Miguel Cabrera has continued his otherworldly quest to terrify Major League pitching, Prince Fielder has provided steady protection behind him, Victor Martinez is driving in runs and is my pick for a second half breakout. With Austin Jackson and Jhonny Peralta providing depth, the lineup is downright scary. Justin Verlander has looked slightly less than godly this season, but he’s been picked up by an excellent ‘I’ve arrived’ season from Max Scherzer, stellar pitching from Anibal Sanchez (when healthy) and consistent efforts from Doug Fister and Rick Porcello. The Tigers only flaw remains their average bullpen, something they’re likely to upgrade at the deadline. I think the Tigers will cruise to the division title.
The big surprise so far in the central is the Cleveland Indians. With new manager Terry Francona on board many expected these Indians to spend the year rebuilding and finding their feet. The team is armed with young talent and in an AL Central division where everyone but the Tigers is either rebuilding or collapsing, the Indians are the best of the rest almost by default. Led by under the radar MVP candidate Jason Kipnis at 2nd base, catcher Carlos ‘Smooth’ Santana, and a motley crew of sneaky off-season acquisitions (Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Drew Stubbs) and castoffs (Mark Reynolds, Jason Giambi), the Indians are 5th in the majors in runs scored thus far. Justin Masterson has emerged as an ace and Ubaldo Jimenez has found some of the magic he had in Colorado a couple seasons back. The Indians look like a real threat for the wild card, but I expect them to fade down the stretch. Their core of talent (Kipnis and Santana, but also Michael Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera) is inexperienced, but given their presence Cleveland might make an attractive off-season destination for some big name free agents. These Indians looked poised to contend for the next several years.
As for the rest of the division, the rebuilt Kansas City Royals look silly (er) for giving up future star Wil Myers to the Rays in a ‘contend now’ move, as they’re well under .500 at the break. Ervin Santana and James Shields have pitched well, but the Royal anemic offense has wasted their efforts more often than not. Greg Holland has emerged as a legitimate stopper when Kansas City has given him the chance and despite his youth, he might be a piece that gets moved if the Royals continue to slide.
The White Sox and Twins don’t get their own paragraphs. They’re both atrocious and both for different reasons. The White Sox have an overblown payroll filled with veteran talent and we might see a fire sale there before the year ends. Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, Jake Peavy, Paul Konerko; all of these players might have new homes before the deadline. It says here that Rios is the most likely to move, as Dunn is owed too much money and Konerko is too old (and a career White Sock… Sox? Sock? Confused!) The Twins are basically down to Joe Mauer and not a lot else, as Justin Morneau is a shell of his 2006 MVP form. This was the fear when the Twins shelled out nearly 200 million for Mauer a few seasons back. While the team is ‘rebuilding’, their roster is stacked with veteran fill-ins and few players that look like they’ll be solid everyday regulars. The Twins are going to have to ask some hard questions at seasons end.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Chris: The Houston Astros are, to nobody’s surprise, just a terrible baseball team. They stink at home, they stink on the road, they stink in one-run games, they stink in blowouts. I won’t go on, but I could. On the bright side, this rebuild has allowed the Astros to find some potential future key players, like catcher Jason Castro (Houston’s only All-Star representative). Also, as we write this, the Astros are basking in the glory of Jarred Cosart’s dominant first career start. So while the present is pretty bleak, perhaps there is hope, ever so minuscule, on the horizon.
Seattle is sitting right where we all expected; they’re bad, but they’re not a joke, but they have not really improved since last season. They have received some excellent starting pitching from Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, but their team offense, aside from third-baseman Kyle Seager and re-animated zombie surprise comeback player Raul Ibanez, is pretty inconsistent. This should have been a rebuild season for Seattle, but some of their best players (Ibanez, Kendrys Morales) are veterans who will either be ineffective or too expensive by next season.
The Los Angeles Angels are the first of our disappointing big-budget teams (go to your room, Toronto, we’ll talk to you later). Last season, Mike Trout gave a glimpse of an extraordinary talent that could carry the Angels to the playoffs for years to come. They added Josh Hamilton, a move that flopped terribly. Hamilton has played barely above replacement-level baseball, and the Angels, who were looking so strong in April, are struggling through a .500 season.
At the break, the Texas Rangers are two games behind the Oakland Athletics for the division lead. Behind Derek Holland and Yu Darvish, Texas has amassed a team ERA of 3.75, third in the American League behind the New York Yankees and, guess who, the Oakland A’s. On offense, they are in the top 10 in the MLB in OPS. Texas is an excellent team, but are stuck in a division with another excellent team.
The Athletics surprised everyone last season by winning the AL West with an incredibly hot stretch in September. I was suspicious, and did not really have high hopes for this team in 2013. They have continued their winning ways, and they do it mostly through pitching. Bartolo Colon has emerged (re-emerged? re-re-emerged?) as an ace, a legitimate ace, with 15 quality starts already this season, and an ERA of 2.69. The staff leads the AL in WHIP and ERA. Meanwhile, on offense, Moneyball-ish characters Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie and, best name in sports, Coco Crisp keep the on-base parade going in Oakland.
Chris: Texas and Oakland will continue to battle it out for the AL West pennant, possibly right up until the last day. Whoever doesn’t win, should easily stroll into a wild-card spot. The Angels might spring back to life in the second half, but will really have to heat up, quickly and consistently, to catch up and make it a three-horse race.
Chris: Before the season began, Grant and I gave our predictions for various end-of-season awards. Now that we are at the midway point, we will check back on those predictions to see just how ridiculous they were.
Dan: I am ashamed by these for the most part.
AL BREAKOUT PLAYER
Chris: Manny Machado did play with the Orioles for two months in 2012, but what he’s done this season is still a huge leap forward. He’s still playing out of position at third base, but his range and throwing arm basically mean a ground ball in his direction is a guaranteed out. At the plate, he’s improved on his patience, getting on base more often and his 45 RBI right now put him on track for just about 75, which isn’t bad considering the way Chris Davis has been eating up all the RBI opportunities. He should also finish with about 15 home runs.
Since this isn’t a real award category, I’ll mention that Rookie of the Year attention should be paid to Wil Myers of the Tampa Bay Rays and Nick Franklin of the Seattle Mariners. Those two should be top contenders for the award in the fall.
Dan: Jurickson Profar has shown flashes of ability but at the age of 21, it seems my pre-season pick might need a bit more seasoning before he truly emerges as a star at the big league level. His glove has been strong enough that that Rangers are trying to find a way to keep him around as utility man, and Ian Kinsler’s fragility has basically ensured Profar will get his share of reps at 2nd base. That said, he’s unlikely to be the AL Rookie of the Year and his bat has cooled considerably of late.
Instead of Profar, I feel like this category, with respect to Chris Davis’ leap to superstardom, I’ll have to echo my cohorts love for Manny Machado, simply because there isn’t really anyone else worth mentioning. Machado is just 20 years old and is the heavy favourite to win the Gold Glove at 3B this season. With 39 doubles already, he leads the Major Leagues in that category and 11.3% of his total hits have gone for extra bases, which places him 9th in the majors. The American League record for doubles is 67, something Machado could threaten with a hot second half. He’s an absolute animal and as he grows into his body; a lot of those doubles are going to start clearing the fences. Along with Davis, the Orioles are going to have a devastating tandem in the middle of their lineup for years to come.
AL CY YOUNG
Chris: I predicted Justin Verlander, and he has looked incredibly human this season. Not bad, just average. Definitely not a Cy Young caliber season. Verlander’s Detroit Tigers teammate Max Scherzer looks like the sure bet at this point, while Felix Hernandez and Yu Darvish should also be considered.
Dan: I called Yu Darvish to win this award before the season started and I feel pretty good about this one! Darvish was on pace for more than 300 strikeouts this season before he went on the 15 day DL just before the All-Star break. His injury fell at just the right time for him to maximize his rest and if he can come back healthy, I’m going to stick with him to win the award. Max Scherzer definitely has a horse in the race but his win total is more luck than anything else. I’m not saying he’s not pitching well (he is) but wins are a team stat more than an individual stat, as AL Cy Young voters have recognized the past few seasons, awarding the Cy to Zach Greinke (16) and Felix Hernandez (13) in seasons when they didn’t have as many wins as their main competition.
Chris: Wow, was I way off on this one. Keeping in mind I expected the Jays to be leading the division at this point, or at some point this year, the Jose Bautista choice made a little more sense. He’s having a decent year, a little down from his peaks of 2010 and 2011, but the Jays are on absolutely nobody’s radar right now, so Bautista has disappeared from this race. Heck, Edwin Encarnacion would have made more sense.
Yeah, Miguel Cabrera, he’ll probably win it. He would probably be a runaway triple crown threat too, if not for that pesky Chris Davis and his 37 home runs. Cabrera’s .458 OBP and 1.132 OPS are video game numbers, on easy mode.
Dan: At least you didn’t pick Albert Pujols. Ugh. Because of that travesty, I’m not even qualified to pick this award, but for the sake of argument I’ll say that if Cleveland wins the Wild Card, Jason Kipnis will get some buzz for this award. The Indians 26 year old keystoner is hitting .301/.388/.514 and is on pace for 22 homers, 36 steals, 97 RBI’s and nearly 100 runs scored. Sounds like an MVP to me.
And that wraps up the AL League Midseason Report. Check back tomorrow as Chris and Dan fight over the National League.