Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a look at five topics shaping the week ahead in Major League Baseball.
1. End of the Rod?
Alex Rodriguez really opened a lot of eyes last season.
No, not with his 129 OPS+ in his age-39 season, though that was pretty eye-opening in its own right. But A-Rod's "performance" on the Fox Sports screen during the postseason showed the rest of the world what people inside the game have known for a long time -- the guy is unusually bright and gifted at explaining the intricacies of baseball. Should he desire to pad his retirement portfolio, he's going to make a fine, full-time TV analyst someday.
Now here's the bad news: That day is fast approaching.
Well, look, we knew this couldn't last forever, and A-Rod is a 40-year-old who thought so little of his natural ability in his younger days that he went to great lengths to skirt MLB's performance-enhancing drug policy. A-Rod's performance this year for these Yankees is much more in line with expectations than his 2015 (really, his first half of 2015) was.
And Joe Girardi has acknowledged -- in deed (i.e. lineup construction), if not in word ---that it's all but over for A-Rod in the Bronx. Though Carlos Beltran's recent hamstring issue allowed A-Rod a tiny bit more playing time than he would have otherwise received, he's proven almost unplayable against right-handed pitching (.203 average, .578 OPS), and he was already unplayable in the field. There is nothing more useless, particularly in an era when defensive versatility is valued more than ever, than a part-time DH.
No, wait, there is something more useless than that: a part-time DH who makes $21 million.
We've seen, with increasing frequency, teams -- even small-market teams -- just eating the costs of the final year of an unproductive player's contract, and there's some suspicion the Yanks could do just that with the $21 million owed to A-Rod in 2017. Perhaps somebody (the Marlins, in his native Miami, are a possibility) would give him another shot in such a scenario.
But A-Rod looks rather lost at the plate right now. His swing percentage on pitches outside the strike zone, according to FanGraphs, is 12-percent higher (37 versus 25) than it was just last year, and his swings inside the zone have decreased 5 percent. He seems to be making a conscious effort to commit early to fastballs down and in, because his bat speed -- as evidenced, perhaps, by his 6-mph decline in average batted ball velocity -- isn't what it once was. He's still 19 homers shy of catching Babe Ruth, and that feels like a world away.
At least, that's my analysis of the situation. A-Rod could analyze it better. We might be hearing more of his analysis soon.
2. L.A. Story
Clayton Kershaw -- the man who carried the Dodgers on his back for so long that he herniated a disk -- hit the DL last Thursday, and the Dodgers dismissed all the gloom-and-doom storylines by proceeding to win their next five games. They got some outstanding pitching along the way, including from the newly acquired Bud Norris and the newly activated Brandon McCarthy. Hyun-Jin Ryu will be back Thursday, so that's good news.
Kershaw's timetable is still very much murky, and of course a prolonged absence could catch up to this club quickly. But give the Dodgers credit for a strong early response to this adversity.
Unfortunately, as well as the Dodgers, winners of 15 of their last 20, have played of late, they've struggled to gain ground on the Giants, who won again Monday and continue to shake off injury adversity of their own in this even-year onslaught.
So L.A.'s continued roster response will be interesting. Let's face it: This front office's evaluative process is still very much under review. The Dodgers eschewed the top-end starting market on the trade front last summer and the free-agent front last winter, going quantity over quality in their rotation after Kershaw. When they were bit hard by the injury bug, that approach received considerable skepticism. And it's also worth noting that the Dodgers threw $30 million at Cuban import Yasiel Sierra this winter, only to outright him off the 40-man mere months later.
The Andrew Friedman regime, which is supposed to be baseball's most dangerous blend of brains and financial braun, has certainly had some early miscalculations.
None of that will matter if the Dodgers go the distance. But to do that will require not just more non-Kershaw outings like the ones we've seen in recent days but probably a ton of Trade Deadline-related creativity. The Dodgers are known to be kicking the tires on the Jonathan Lucroy market, given Yasmani Grandal's struggles behind the dish. They are certainly in the market for offensive support in what has largely been a lackluster attack. They could stand to add another reliever. And they desperately need better luck on the health front in their rotation, if not a viable upgrade altogether.
"As you get further into this month, things will start to crystalize as to what is more practical," Friedman told the Los Angeles Times. "But I think the strength and depth of our system puts us in a position that deals won't happen without us being in the conversation."
3. What a relief
Lance McCullers was dominant in the Astros' victory over the Mariners on Independence Day -- the beginning of a vital stretch for those two AL West clubs. Both are trying to make up ground lost to the Rangers and establish early traction in the Wild Card race and will face each other six times in 10 games.
But what happened when McCullers, who allowed just a run on five hits with 10 strikeouts in seven innings, turned it over to the 'pen was equally striking. Luke Gregerson retired the side in order in the eighth, and Will Harris set down Seth Smith, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz in the ninth.
If you're scoring at home, Harris is technically the third closer the Astros have had this calendar year. The widespread assumption was that trade acquisition Ken Giles would be filling that role after the Astros made a bold bid to pluck him from the Phillies. But then Gregerson, the 32-year-old vet whose fastball velocity is only a shadow of that of Giles, took advantage of Giles' rough spring to claim a job he felt was rightly his in the first place.
In early June, Houston made a change in the ninth, and it was Harris, not Giles, who was tabbed with the closing duties. Good choice. All Harris, a wily waiver pickup prior to 2015, has done in this '16 season is post a 0.74 ERA and 0.87 WHIP with eight saves, 15 holds and 36 strikeouts against six walks in 36 2/3 innings. He's been the magnificent member of an underrated 'pen.
Which American League 'pen entered the week with the FanGraphs-calculated staff Wins Above Replacement lead? Not that three-headed monster the Yankees possess, and not the Wade Davis-led unit that helped make Kansas City kings. It was the Astros' group, by almost a full win (5.1 to the Yanks' 4.2), and Houston also led the Majors in Fielding Independent Pitching (3.07).
Go back to June 1, and the best record in baseball belongs to an Indians team getting a lot of love in the wake of that absurd 14-game winning streak. (Personally, I wrote about the Tribe's run here and here.)
But the second-best record in the bigs in that span belongs to the 'Stros, who have now won 11 of their last 15 and 21 of their last 31 to shake off an abysmal April and climb back into the AL playoff hunt. There are many reasons this surge has taken place, including George Springer's move to the top of the order, Carlos Correa's recent uptick in output, the impact of McCullers' return to the rotation, etc.
The 'pen, though, might be the single biggest separator for the Astros, because their stark improvement in run-prevention has sparked this run. The Astros have gotten good work from rookie Michael Feliz (0.94 WHIP) in some high-leverage spots, Scott Feldman (2.76 ERA) has made the most of his demotion to the 'pen, Chris Devenski (2.45 ERA) has been an important swingman and Pat Neshek (0.87 WHIP) continues to deliver.
That 7-17 April is the stuff of distant memory in Houston. This club is a legit contender again, and the injury hits to the Rangers' rotation mean the division is possibly still in play, too. The Mariners, of course, are very much in the mathematical mix out West, as well, as evidenced by their recent sweep of the Orioles. But on Monday, they got a first-hand look at the improved pitching that has allowed for an Astros ascent.
4. Let's make a deal
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. Somebody really smart said that. I think it was Phil Davison.
The Rays' difficulty this season has been, well, winning. Their victory Monday was just their third in their last 19 games, which is why there are widespread reports that they are open for business. We discussed the rationale behind moving Evan Longoria in this space last week, but the most realistic opportunity probably rests with their pitching staff in what is a very thin market for starting help.
With Blake Snell in the bigs and Alex Cobb on the mend (he starts his rehab assignment following Tommy John surgery Wednesday), the Rays have depth in controllable assets. They're not likely to move Chris Archer, particularly not in a year in which his value has taken a hit, but they've got the ability to jump the market with the likes of Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore and Drew Smyly, all of whom will be arbitration-eligible at year's end. Moore is having another rough-and-tumble year -- his second following his own Tommy John -- but there were a lot of eyes on him Monday, when he held the Angels to a pair of runs on six hits with two walks and three strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings.
You know the division-rival Red Sox are one of the teams looking hard at the Rays right now, because Dave Dombrowski loves the quick, efficient strike in the trade department, and there's no doubt the Red Sox need a quick, efficient fix in a pitching staff that surrendered 21 runs to the Angels on Saturday. In Boston, the question is not just what the pitching staff will look like by month's end but if John Farrell will still be the guy managing it. Boston's June swoon has made Farrell's fate a daily topic of discussion.
Anyway, there's a lot of intrigue in the AL East right now, because the Rays and Red Sox are two clubs who, in their own way, have the resources to jump-start the trade market.
5. Star gazing
The Esurance All-Star Selection Show takes place on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday. One man's points of interest for the unveil …
Which NL starters get hosed? Kershaw's injury lightened the load a little, and the roster replacement process will probably solve one or more snub situations. But with Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg, Jon Lester and Jose Fernandez all clearly deserving, others like Carlos Martinez and Max Scherzer in the mix and the "every team must be represented" rule to be considered (Aaron Nola? Julio Teheran?), it's a tricky one for Terry Collins. The AL, by comparison, is weak sauce this season.
Will Eduardo Nunez bump Carlos Correa? The Twins, owners of baseball's worst record, still have to be represented by somebody, and Nunez is by far their most deserving candidate. Alas, with Xander Bogaerts and Francisco Lindor both in the mix at American League shortstop, there's a good chance Correa, who is viewed as one of the signature young stars in this sport, gets squeezed off or possibly relegated to the Final Vote.
Is there room for Jake Lamb? It hasn't gotten as much attention as it should in a D-backs bid gone bad, but Arizona's third baseman has racked up 19 homers and a .974 OPS. Unfortunately, he's at a position where Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado have dominated the voting and the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter is also very deserving.
How about Ian Kinsler? He's having probably his best season since 2008, but he was behind Jose Altuve and Robinson Cano in the voting and could get caught in the numbers crunch. Same with Michael Saunders, whose resurgent season with the Blue Jays might get lost in the AL outfield.
Was there enough late support for Trevor Story or Corey Seager to bump Addison Russell from the NL starting shortstop slot? Sorry, but there is really no reason for Russell to be starting this game.
For a rundown of how All-Star pitchers and reserves get selected, check this out.
And next week's All-Star festivities in San Diego will preempt the Rotation. We'll check back in with you on Monday, July 18.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.