Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Thoughts on the First Half

Baseball's best and brightest will gather in St. Louis tonight for that annual rite of summer, the All-Star Game. The AL will inevitably win, and the FOX broadcast team will inevitably make me want to pull my hair out. If you care about my useless opinions on the game, follow my Twitter feed for some live updates throughout the evening. At the very least, you'll get to see me make jokes at Joe Buck and Tim McCarver's expense all night.

With the first half of the MLB season behind us, let's answer some of the burning (or not so burning) questions about what's happened so far, with an eye towards what to expect in the second half. Without anything resembling ado:

Who have been the best teams in both leagues so far, and who's looking strong for a second half run?

The Kings of the AL in the first half were the Boston Red Sox, owners of a 54-34 record at the break and a three-game cushion on the New York Yankees in the East Division. They've overcome a mammoth drop-off from David Ortiz and early pitching inconsistency because of an incredible bullpen (though showing signs of wear lately, these four days off could not have come at a better time) and excellent offensive performances by Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay and Dustin Pedroia. Ortiz has broken out of his slump (hitting 11 HR with 29 RBI since June 1), and manager Terry Francona has used some out-of-the-box thinking to mold his lineup. J.D. Drew (.377 OBP) was inserted as the full-time leadoff man over Jacoby Ellsbury (.347 OPB) and it's added stability to the top of the order while Ellsbury adds needed spark to the bottom half.

The AL's only 11-game winners play for Boston, Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield. Beckett and Jon Lester are the club's two aces, and John Smoltz is poised for a great second half. This club is deep in starting pitching, deep in their bullpen and deep on their bench with the likes of Mike Lowell and Jed Lowrie soon to come off the DL. They'll be players in the trade market for some of the bigger names, but unless another injury comes up I doubt they will make a big move.

The Dodgers have been the class of the NL, sporting baseball's best record at 56-32 going into the break. Manny Ramirez and his 50-game suspension have dominated the headlines surrounding manager Joe Torre's club, but they've overcome the distractions and emerged as a deep, impressive team. Their offense has been well-rounded by the likes of Orlando Hudson, James Loney, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Casey Blake and the shocking turnaround for Juan Pierre (.387 OBP, 23 SB) who played LF in Ramirez's absence. The rotation has been spearheaded by Chad Billingsley, Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw, and the back end has been helped by surprising performances by Jeff Weaver and Eric Milton through the year.

They will be looking for bullpen depth to help out bull-like closer Jonathan Broxton and his band of heavily-worked relievers, and they might also be in the market for starters. But in a lousy NL, these guys are the only team that could compete with the best of the AL. And with Manny back, the sky is the limit for how far the Dodgers can go through the rest of 2009.

Look for a big second half from from Tampa, who have overcome their injury and inconsistency issues, and Colorado, who are one piece away from making the NL West and Wild Card races very interesting.

Who are the most surprising teams so far?

This is pretty easy for both leagues. I'll be the first to admit I was dead wrong about the Detroit Tigers. They are 3.5 games up on Chicago for lead in the AL Central, and they've been buoyed by something I never expected: strong starting pitching. Justin Verlander (10-4, 3.38 ERA, 149 K, 122.1 IP) and Edwin Jackson (7-4, 2.52 ERA, 97 K, 121.2 IP) have provided manager Jim Leyland with tremendous stability. Rookie Rick Porcello has lived up to his incredible hype with eight wins (they've also limited him to 87 IP so far, which can only be a good thing). Fernando Rodney leads a rag-tag bullpen that's been excellent so far, with Bobby Seay amongst the league leaders in holds (19). With a strong offense led by Brandon Inge, Miguel Cabrera and Curtis Granderson, I think the Tigers have potential to run away and hide in this poor Central Division. It remains to be seen if they can afford to add payroll at the deadline.

Over in the Senior Circuit, the San Francisco Giants have defied all expectations and find themselves up two games in the NL Wild Card race. Like Detroit, the Giants are led by their two aces, Tim Lincecum (10-2, 2.33 ERA, 149 K, 127.2 IP) and Matt Cain (10-2, 2.38 ERA, 95 K, 117 IP), the best 1-2 combo in the NL this year. Barry Zito as been uncharacteristically not terrible thus far, and with Randy Johnson and recent no-no thrower Jonathan Sanchez rounding out the rotation, this will be their strength going forward. The best hitter for the Giants has been Pablo Sandoval, a pudgy, versatile slugger lovingly nicknamed "Kung Fu Panda" with 15 HR and a .333 average in 2009. They need more hitting, but their pitching will keep them in contention all year.

Who are the first half MVPs and Cy Youngs in each league?

No question the NL MVP so far is Albert Pujols. Despite his protestations in a recent SportsCenter commercial that he's not a machine, well, the guy's a freakin' machine. The numbers speak for themselves: .332-32-87-73-10 with a 1.179 OPS and just 35 K in 307 AB this year. It also doesn't hurt that he's the NL's best defender at first base. It's hard to say if Pujols will be allowed to have a historic season because teams are pitching to him less and less. The Cardinals are leading the NL Central, and they're going to need Pujols to continue this line of production if they want to play in October. At 29, with 351 career HR, Pujols is undoubtedly the best player in baseball today and will soon enter the discussion of the best players to ever step on a field.

AL MVP is a bit tougher, but I'll go with Joe Mauer, even though his team has disappointed so far in 2009. Despite missing the first month of 2009, Mauer is leading the AL with a .373 average with 15 HR and remains the best catcher around. He is the heart of this team, and the Twins must do whatever it takes to keep him in Minnesota beyond the end of his current deal in 2010.

Zack Greinke is your AL Cy Young for the first half. The KC ace got off to a ridiculous start with 73 K and only 12 BB and six earned runs in his first 66 IP in 2009. We always knew what Greinke was capable of, but I never could have imagined anything of this ilk. He slowed a bit over the last month or so, finishing up at 10-5 with a 2.12 ERA with 129 K and 21 BB in 122.1 IP. Greinke and closer Joakim Soria are the only players worth a crap out of the 25 on the Royals, but if I was a Royals fan I'd be pretty psyched about getting to see Greinke pitch 15 times the rest of the season.

In the NL, it's meet the new boss, same as the old boss; Lincecum is on his way to a second consecutive Cy Young Award. When he's not busy looking exactly like Mitch Kramer and avoiding Ben Affleck's paddle, Lincy is mowing guys down as much as ever. I'm sure the Royals are happy they took Luke Hochevar in the '06 draft over him and Evan Longoria.

Who's going to get traded at the deadline? Better question: who's NOT getting traded?

Ever since J.P. Ricciardi flapped his yap and said he'd listen to offers on Roy Hallady, the rumor world has been aflutter with potential deals that could be made for one of baseball's best pitchers and the starter for the AL in tonight's contest. For the next few weeks you can expect to hear tons about possible landing places for Halladay. I'll tell you where he's going to end up: Toronto. Ricciardi might be a moron, but he's not stupid enough to trade Halladay for anything less than a king's ransom. Since that seems unlikely to happen, a Halladay trade will not happen until this winter at the earliest. But that won't stop the non-rumors and non-news and non-happenings in the coming days. Wonderful.

Matt Holliday and just about everyone of value on the A's will be available at the deadline. Other sellers will include Baltimore, Cleveland, KC, Washington, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Arizona with a few others likely to join before the month ends. This will be an odd deadline because there's a lot of parity this year and teams are not willing to give up young, cost-controlled talent for rentals. I really can't imagine a scenario this year where a team like the Brewers gives up a talented MLB-close prospect with no service time like Matt LaPorta for an impeding free agent like CC Sabathia, regardless of how important a piece like Sabathia is for a contender. It's because of this that I believe we'll have one of the most quiet deadlines in years. I could be, and home I am, wrong.

So who's winning the World Series?

The Red Sox, of course. Who else do you think I'd pick?

Enjoy the game tonight, and get ready for a second half to remember.