Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a look at five topics shaping the week ahead in Major League Baseball.
1. The race… for relief?
We'll stop short of saying "comfortably," because nothing in baseball clearly rates as comfortable in the middle of July. But the Cubs (eight games), Nationals (six) and Giants (5 1/2) all have sizable leads in the three National League divisions, at the moment, making them the Senior Circuit's surest stalwarts. Per the latest FanGraphs data, the Cubs have a 94.3 percent chance of winning the NL Central, the Nats an 89.7 percent chance of winning the NL East and the Giants a 67.3 percent chance of winning the NL West.
Pretty good odds, all things considered.
But two weeks away from the Trade Deadline, good odds aren't all these clubs have in common. They share a need, as well. These are all superior squads that could stand to round out their relief corps, perhaps even with a premium piece. So in the NL, in particular, the division races are arguably less interesting than the race for 'pen improvements.
The stakes are high in all three spots. Every club wants to win the World Series, of course. But in Washington, San Francisco and the North Side, there is particular emphasis on, at the absolute minimum, a pennant-winning performance. The Giants win it all every other year. Anything short of even-year exultation is anticlimactic. The Nats only seem to reach October in even years, but their fans are fed up with those October entries falling flat in the first round, and so advancement is expected. And the Cubs, as you know, were Vegas darlings, their 2015 surge equipping them with the weight of expectations that "next year" is this year and that professional sports' most notorious championship drought will finally come to a conclusion.
Now that we're at the two-week warning when it comes to this non-waiver trade period, it will be interesting to see how Brian Sabean, Theo Epstein, Mike Rizzo and their respective crews navigate the trade waters. It's no secret that, every summer, there are under-the-radar relief acquisitions that change hands and change fortunes. Sabean knows this as well as anyone. In retrospect, how big was the "John Bowker and Joe Martinez for Javier Lopez" trade in 2010? Lopez was a relief linchpin for three championship teams.
So it might not take an Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller, even if those are, of course, the names will gravitate toward. Maybe it's Will Smith, Joe Smith, Jake McGee, Marc Rzepczynski or Fernando Salas. Maybe Fernando Abad wouldn't be a bad pickup. Or maybe the upgrade rests within (the Nats are calling up prospect Reynaldo Lopez, who we listed as one of our second-half X-factors, to start Tuesday, though he could eventually shift to their 'pen).
Whatever the case and whatever the option, baseball's best three records currently reside in the NL, which portends to an epic October. And as we've seen, sometimes the biggest October victories come in July.
2. Pom Pom
When Drew Pomeranz was traded to the Rockies on July 30, 2011, he was the can't-miss kid from the Cleveland system, a year removed from being taken with the fifth overall pick in the draft. He was Colorado's key consolation for dealing ace Ubaldo Jimenez. But because part of what made Pomeranz so enticing -- his developing curve -- was the very kind of pitch known to be neutralized by Coors Field's conditions, there was legitimate reason to wonder if this trade was the worst thing that ever happened to the kid.
Five years later, we can say, unequivocally, that Colorado did not work out for Pomeranz. He had to rebuild his value as an A's swingman before this breakout 2016 season in which he used 17 starts for San Diego to become the summer's first -- and possibly biggest -- starting pitching trade chip. And it's the emergence of the curveball, a pitch that, for the first time in his career, he is using more than any other, that Pomeranz has to thank for his sudden rise in stock.
Pomeranz's curve rates as a relatively hard breaking ball offering, though he's taken a little bit of velocity off it this year to get more downward drop. And the Red Sox believe the strength of the curve and the cutter -- a pitch that, as the above graph shows, is also a more regular part of Pomeranz's 2016 repertoire -- can overcome the questions about his shift to the American League. Pomeranz walks 10 percent of the batters he faces and throws the third-most pitches per plate appearance (4.13) of any qualified starter in the bigs. So there is inherent question there about how he'll handle the shift from the NL West to the deeper lineups of the AL East.
Then again, conveniently enough, Pomeranz's Boston debut comes against -- you guessed it -- an NL West squad, with the Giants in Fenway this week and Pomeranz on the hill Wednesday night. As for what the Red Sox gave up in this deal -- 18-year-old pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza -- that's a steep price to pay for a guy with track record and volume questions. But right now, one thing we can say about this deal from Boston's perspective is that Dave Dombrowski has a history of faring well in prospect-for-big-leaguer swaps and that Pomeranz himself, from the 2011 experience, is proof that prospects don't always pan out on the perceived timetable.
3. Climb that Hill
There's a good chance Rich Hill is the next arm to move. He made what might have been his last start -- if you can call it that -- for the A's on Sunday. It lasted just five pitches. Hill had to come out because of a blister on his finger, an issue that had pushed the start back a couple days in the first place. Hill also missed time earlier this year with a groin injury.
The blister isn't expected to affect Hill's trade value. Heck, in a weird way it might enhance it, because, at this point, better Hill expend his pitches for a contender than for Oakland.
One of the worries about Hill is that this is probably going to be his first 20-start season since … wait for it … 2007. He pitched 195 innings for the Cubs that year. Since then, he's exceeded 100 innings just once, in 2010 (99 in Triple-A, four in the bigs). At one point last year, he was pitching in independent ball. In other words, it's absolutely fascinating and absolutely scary that Hill is such a huge trade chip right now. The A's ponied up $6 million for him at a time when the industry, at large, wasn't sure of the value of his four strong starts for Boston last September, and now they stand to reap the benefits. When healthy, Hill has been nothing short of one of the best pitchers in baseball -- a 2.25 ERA, 10.7 strikeouts per nine, an adjusted ERA 85 percent better than league average and a specific predilection for infield popups (14.5 percent of balls put in play). Beyond the Box Score had some good data on how Hill is throwing more pitches in the zone and, weirdly, getting fewer swings.
Billy Beane told Peter Gammons that the A's would absolutely make Hill a qualifying offer, should he remain with them through year's end, which means the A's can guarantee themselves a Draft pick should he sign elsewhere. But in this market, a trade seems the better way to go. Because Hill is a rental, the A's won't be in position to command one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, a la the Padres in the Pomeranz swap, but they can certainly aim high in a shallow market.
4. Return of the King
The Mariners are a team at a genuine crossroads, a team general manager Jerry Dipoto says is really good when healthy but also one that has not yet demonstrated itself to be worthy of genuine October hope.
"We have to determine whether that dream is real before we start chasing," Dipoto told reporters.
Perhaps more concrete answers will arrive with the return of Felix Hernandez, who comes off the disabled list (calf strain) on Wednesday against a White Sox club that, come to think of it, is at a pretty obvious crossroads itself. Just as the Sox have seen their season sullied after a strong start (the AL's best record in April), the Mariners have been a far different ballclub in summer than they were in spring. They were nine games over .500 the day Felix hit the DL. They are 16-23 since.
As we saw when he was healthy, it's asking a lot of Felix to be a savior at this stage, given the continuing decline in velocity that has caused him to remake and reshape himself once again. But with a 2.86 ERA and 145 ERA+, he's obviously still capable of delivering quality innings, and an M's team that has seen its starters -- the group that was supposed to be the strength of this ballclub -- go just five innings or less 34 times already this year, that's encouraging. It's hard to find similar encouragement in the situation enveloping what was supposed to be a breakout year for Taijuan Walker, whose ongoing foot issues will likely necessitate offseason surgery.
The M's, as you've no doubt noticed, have the game's longest ongoing postseason drought. There are rumblings that they could start to sell off some pieces if they don't improve their standing soon. And given the state of the farm system and the age of many of their key contributors, you wonder if the opportunities to end said drought in the King Felix Era are dwindling.
5. In the zone
A memo sent from chief baseball officer Joe Torre to the 30 managers was obtained by the Associated Press, unveiling a directive to cool it on the arguments with umpires over balls and strikes, calling such conduct "detrimental to the game."
To say technology has impacted umpire-manager relations is an understatement. It's made balls and strikes one of the last bastions of beefs. Replay reviews make it unnecessary to fight over safe/out calls and simultaneously add sophistication to strike-zone judgment within dugouts. Umpires are given the task of competing with the concept of technological perfection, an unwinnable war. And as MLB players association chief Tony Clark pointed out at the All-Star Game last week, the change from having AL and NL umpire staffs -- inevitable given the Interleague overlap -- to crews that navigate both leagues affected relations, too.
"I also think the positioning of the umpires has affected calls," said Clark, citing change made with respect to the dangers of concussions. "Add to that the analytics and the talented arms we have in the game, and you appreciate on some level that there are misses along the way, despite how good they are or the challenges that exist. We continue to have dialogue to help everyone be as efficient as possible, but balls and strikes always have been and will continue to be one of the most difficult aspects of our game. Because humans are involved."
You can't expect humans to be anywhere near as perfect as PITCHf/x. Then again, you can't really expect passionate people not to argue, either.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.