By Cliff Corcoran
The All-Star break is next week, and the midpoint in the 2017 MLB season is upon us. With that in mind, here's a quick look at the most compelling team in each division at the midway mark.
AL East: New York Yankees
Bullpen struggles and mounting injuries have slowed the Yankees' roll over the past three weeks, as they've gone 6-16 since June 13 and slipped behind the preseason favorite Red Sox in the division. However, the Yankees hope to get Starlin Castro (hamstring) and Matt Holliday (illness) before the All-Star break. They were able to activate CC Sabathia (hamstring) and Adam Warren (shoulder), along with Jacoby Ellsbury (concussion) on the day they put center fielder Aaron Hicks on the DL with a strained oblique. What's more, after a rare turn as sellers at last year's Trade Deadline, the Yankees have one of the best farm systems in baseball, and you can be sure they'll leverage that depth to acquire some of the top talent available this July.
Still, the Yankees' position is tenuous, given their reliance on breakout performances (Aaron Judge, Hicks, Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery, Chad Green), the age of their veterans (Holliday is 37, Sabathia is 36 and Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Chase Headley are 33), and Castro's erratic nature. The advanced metrics still rate the Yankees as by far the second-best team in the American League, behind the Astros, who took two out of three games in Houston this past week, but no team in the East seems capable of a wider range of outcomes in the second half than the Yankees, and what they do will impact where everyone else finishes.
AL Central: Cleveland Indians
The Indians are the defending AL pennant winner, the team with the longest active championship drought in the Major Leagues and the only team in the AL Central with a positive run differential entering Wedensday's action. According to third-order record, Cleveland should be running away with the division with something on the order of a 10-game lead. Yet, because of an inability to win close games at home, stemming in part from the relative struggles of their elite relievers at their home ballpark, the Indians entered Thursday's action with a mere half-game lead on the last-chance Royals. The fate of the Central rests entirely with the Indians. If they can get their results to match their performance at home, they should start to pull away, but if they continue to scuffle, those upstart Twins or Royals could make things interesting.
AL West: Houston Astros
The Astros have the largest lead, 16 games, of any of the six division leaders, and, per Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds Report, a 100(!) percent chance of winning their division and a 100 percent chance of making the playoffs. Yes, you read that right. The big question now is just how good the Astros can be. Entering Thursday's action, they're on nearly a 110-win pace. They may not resemble the Mariners, who won 116 in 2001, but the only team to win more than 103 games since was the 2004 Cardinals.
What's more, the Astros have gotten to this point despite suffering injuries to 80 percent of their intended starting rotation. However, Lance McCullers (back) was activated a week ago, Charlie Morton (latissimus dorsi) is due back this week and ace Dallas Keuchel (neck) and Collin McHugh (elbow) are expected back soon after the All-Star break. The Astros also boast the third-best farm system in baseball, which should enable them to make impact additions via trade in July to further upgrade the rotation, add depth to the bullpen or add an extra bat to what is already one of the most potent lineups in the Majors.
NL East: Washington Nationals
The Nationals are the other team running away with their division (98.2 percent chance of a division win, 98.6 percent chance of a playoff berth, per Baseball Prospectus). However, unlike the Astros, there have been cracks in their foundation. Having already lost big offseason addition Adam Eaton to a season-ending knee injury at the end of April, the Nats lost shortstop Trea Turner to a fractured wrist when Turner was hit by a pitch last Thursday. Meanwhile, Washington has gone 12-13 since June 9 amid the implosion of its bullpen, most of that before losing Turner.
It's still unlikely that they'll blow the division in the second half, and Turner will return this season. Still, the Nats gave up three of their best prospects to get Eaton, and their remaining farm system is much shallower than that of the Astros or Yankees, putting them at a disadvantage as they look for July reinforcements. Given their history of early playoff exits (since moving to Washington. they have made three Division Series and lost them all), one wonders just how desperate the Nationals will be once the market for midseason relief help hits full stride.
NL Central: Chicago Cubs
Like the Indians, the Cubs are the defending pennant winners, world champs in this case, and a heavy preseason favorite that has thus far failed to pull away from an underwhelming division. Unlike the Indians, the Cubs have underperformed in a more obvious and straight-forward manner on both offense and defense (and both home and road), and thus are less of a sure bet to do the expected thing and break away from the pack in the second half of the season. They still seem likely to take the division -- they're simply too talented not to -- but right now, they're relying too heavily on Bryzzo and the bullpen. They need other players to step up, both in the lineup and the rotation. A year ago, the Cubs stumbled into the All-Star break, going 6-15 between June 20 and the break, but then they went right back to winning in the second half. Perhaps the All-Star break can provide a similar opportunity to reset for this year's team.
NL West: Colorado Rockies
The Dodgers and Diamondbacks are very good (actual, Pythagorean and third-order winning percentages all above .600) and near-locks for the postseason. The Padres and Giants have struggled all season. The Rockies are the variable in the division. They have spent 67 days in first place already this season, but a recent eight-game losing streak has contributed to a 3-11 record since June 21 and dropped them to third place, which is where the advanced metrics suggest they belong. By third-order winning percentage, the Rockies wouldn't even make the playoffs if the season ended now, though by actual record they'd sail in with nearly a seven-game game lead on the Cubs in the NL Wild Card race.
Are the Rockies regressing, or are they the hot-shot surprise contenders they appeared to be for their first 73 games? The answer to that question will determine whether or not there is any suspense in the NL Wild Card race this year, and it could change the complexion of the NL West race, as well.