By Cliff Corcoran
Exactly one year ago, the Chicago Cubs, a team that had looked like an unstoppable juggernaut for the first three months of the season and would go on to win the franchise's first world championship in 108 years, found themselves limping into the All-Star break. Entering the final Sunday before the break, the Cubs had lost five in a row, nine of their past 10, and 15 of their past 20. For them, the All-Star break couldn't come soon enough, but once it did, Chicago was able to use the four-day break to start fresh. Coming out of the break, the Cubs started 9-6, then peeled off an 11-game winning streak, going 50-23 (.685) overall in the second half.
For many teams, the All-Star break is a welcome reprieve in the middle of the long baseball season, a chance to rest and reset. For others, however, it can have the opposite effect, interrupting momentum. Here, then, are four contending teams who are likely thankful that the break is finally here, as well as four others for whom the break could be the equivalent of washing their lucky socks.
Gimme a break
New York Yankees
On Monday, June 12, the Yankees won their sixth straight game to improve to 38-23 (.623) on the season, sustaining a four-game lead in the American League East. Since then, they have gone 7-17 to fall to 45-40 (.529), 3 1/2 games behind the now-first-place Red Sox. They haven't won consecutive games at any point during that 24-game stretch, and their last series win was a sweep of the Orioles from June 9 to 11.
The Yankees' struggles have had two primary causes, both of which could be eased by the four-day break. The first is injury. In a three-day span from June 26-28, the Yankees placed Aaron Hicks (oblique), Starlin Castro (hamstring), and Matt Holliday (virus) on the disabled list, three players who hit a combined .290/.369/.502 with 37 home runs in the first half. Without them, the Yankees have averaged just 4.14 runs per game in July.
The second is the bullpen. Closer Aroldis Chapman hit the DL with shoulder inflammation on May 14. Adam Warren hit the DL with a shoulder injury of his own a month later. In their absence, the Yankees' ace set-up men, Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard, wilted. Clippard had a 1.08 ERA with outstanding peripherals through May 16, but has posted a 9.17 ERA with 7.1 walks per nine innings since then. Betances posted a 0.52 ERA through the end of May, but has posted a 7.36 mark with 17 walks in 11 innings since the start of June. Together, Betances and Clippard have been charged with seven losses since mid May.
Chapman and Warren have both returned to action, but Betances and Clippard clearly need a rest (such that one wonders if Betances will arrive at the All-Star Game with a "use only in emergencies" badge pinned to his jersey) and a reset, if not additional reinforcements via a trade. Meanwhile, Castro and Holliday should be activated to start the second half, with Hicks expected to follow before the end of the month. The Yankees will play four games against the Red Sox in Boston following the break.
The Nationals have gone 13-15 since June 9 thanks in part to bullpen issues of their own. Would-be closers Koda Glover (back) and Shawn Kelley (trapezius) hit the DL on successive Sundays in June, and Washington has converted just one save opportunity since. Meanwhile, the offense has managed just 4.2 runs per game over the past two weeks amid injuries to Trea Turner (fractured wrist), Jayson Werth (bone bruise in left foot) and Michael Taylor (oblique). The Nats won't get their injured players back as quickly as the Yankees hope to, but any opportunity to pause the season at this point has to be a welcome one for Washington, who at least have padding in their division with an 9 1/2-game lead over the second-place Braves.
One of the big surprise teams of the first half, the Rockies were 47-26 (.644) and in first place in the National League West on the morning of June 21. They have gone 4-13 since to sink to third place, 9 1/2 games behind the surging Dodgers. Of particular concern has been their offense, which has scored just 3.8 runs per game over those past 17 contests. A four-game break followed by series against the Mets and Padres, both of whom rank in the bottom four of NL teams in terms of runs allowed per game, could be exactly what the Rox require.
Chicago hasn't been able to shake mediocrity at any point in the first half, never exceeding four games over .500, and falling back below the mark at 43-45 with a brutal 14-3 loss to the Pirates on Sunday, in which starter Jon Lester surrendered 10 runs in the first inning. Given how little the core of the team has changed from last year, when they won 103 games, we know the Cubs are a better team than this, but the young bats in the lineup have struggled, as have the aging arms in the rotation. In terms of the latter, the Cubs hope to get Kyle Hendricks back from the DL early in the second half, which would allow Mike Montgomery (5.40 ERA in 6 starts) to move from the rotation back to the bullpen, strengthening both units.
Beyond that, the Cubs have to hope that their motivational genius of a manager, Joe Maddon, can be as effective in hitting the reset button for this team as he was last year. Starting the second half with series against the Orioles and Braves won't hurt.
Let's play through
While the Cubs are desperate for a reset, the team leading them (and the St. Louis Cardinals) in the NL Central would likely rather not give them that opportunity. The Brewers' lead in the Central is as large as it has been at any point this season, 5 1/2 games, and they've won nine of nine of the past 11. They would surely rather carry their momentum into their upcoming series against the Phillies on Monday, rather than having to wait until Friday to resume the season.
Kansas City Royals
Here's a quick snapshot of the Royals' season thus far:
|Month||Winning pct.||runs per game|
In last place in the AL Central as recently as June 6, the Royals spent four days in second place this past week, getting to within a half game of the division-leading Indians. The Royals may be eager to be free of their first-half concluding series against the Dodgers, which has knocked them back down to third place, but now is not the time for a four-game break for this team, particularly given the difficult buy/sell decision they will have to make coming out of that break.
Los Angeles Dodgers
If there's a juggernaut team right now, it's the Dodgers. L.A. has been five games better than any other team in the majors since April 27, going 50-17 (.746) over that span, and it just keeps getting better, with monthly winning percentages of .538, .679, .750 and .857. The Dodgers maintained that last mark for longer than the first week of July and last lost consecutive games on June 5 and 6. Since then, they have gone 24-4. That success has been driven in part by out-sized performances by rookie Cody Bellinger, 26-year-olds Chris Taylor and Alex Wood, and All-Stars Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen. Not that I'm terribly concerned that the Dodgers will turn into a pumpkin on the other side of the break, this is a legitimately excellent team with a soft schedule to start the second half, but why mess with success?
Boston Red Sox
Here, again, is a team that has steadily gained momentum as the first half has proceeded. The defending AL East champions and the heavy favorite in the division coming into the year, the Sox didn't stand alone in first place for the first time this season until June 20, and didn't hold that position for consecutive days until the final two days of June. They have since opened up a 3 1/2-game lead on the Rays and Yankees. But why let New York have a breather before the two teams go at it post-break? Why not start those games with Sale's scheduled turn on Tuesday? One thing's for certain, that Yankees-Red Sox series will be the series to watch to start the second half, a four-game set at Fenway stretching from Friday to Monday, the first four of 14 second-half contests between those two rivals.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.