If the MLB season had ended at the All-Star break one year ago, the 10 postseason participants would have been Baltimore, Boston, the Chicago Cubs, Cleveland, Los Angeles, the New York Mets, San Francisco, Texas, Toronto and Washington. If those 10 teams strike you as familiar, that is because, of course, those are the 10 teams who did in fact make the playoffs at season's end. There is a temptation at this break to look at what has brought us to this point as prelude, and the rest of the season as the real story, full of final-act twists. But it is more likely that most of our tale has already been written: These teams, on the whole, are what they are.
Here's a division-by-division look at how this second half might go down, and where it might lead us.
American League East
It wasn't long ago that Baltimore was in first place in this division and Toronto was in last, but those two teams are essentially in the same boat right now: far behind Boston and squinting at the horizon. The Orioles are four games out of the Wild Card, and the Blue Jays five, so even though there are seven teams above them, you should probably expect each of them to attempt valiant marches these final weeks before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. (The Blue Jays theoretically could sell, particularly if someone blows them away with a Josh Donaldson offer, but it's unlikely. And at this point, what choice do the Orioles have besides flooring the accelerator right off the cliff?)
The Rays are finally looking like the team PECOTA had projected them to be for years, and they are in fact holding the second Wild Card spot right now. Their disadvantage is that they're not going to be big buyers at the Deadline, but the good news is that, honestly, who in the Wild Card race below them will be? Minnesota? Kansas City? The Angels? Texas? No one is going to be throwing in the towel, but the Wild Card race is full of so many middle-of-the-road teams that it's tough to see anyone (save maybe a truly desperate Seattle) having enough self-confidence to make a massive addition. So Tampa Bay, a young team that is essentially above average everywhere and has one of its best lineups in recent memory, is as good a bet for the second Wild Card spot as any.
But the first spot seems reserved for whomever places in the thousandth installment of the Red Sox-Yankees Derby. Boston began to pull away a bit from a New York team that was limping toward the break, but, conveniently, these two teams have a series starting immediately after the break that should have give us an idea of whether the division race is going to be a race at all. One of the bummers of the past few years has been the light fading of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and even though they're the two best teams in the division this year, it still doesn't feel like the flame has been reignited yet. Maybe someone will plunk Aaron Judge and it will start something; after all, there are not many places on this earth you can throw a baseball that are not at least slightly populated by one part of Judge's body. (He's big, you see.) Boston looks like the better team at this moment, but you get the sense we're going to be watching both of these teams deep into October this season, and well into Octobers in the future.
We spent most of the first half waiting for both 2016 World Series teams to shake off the cobwebs and finally take control of their divisions, and the Indians, at least, are finally obliging. Cleveland doesn't look as dominant as you might have thought coming in -- Francisco Lindor and the currently hurt Jason Kipnis are having down years, and the back half of the rotation is a mess -- but even at 85 percent, this is easily the best team in the division, and you should probably expect that to become more obvious in the standings in the next couple of weeks. The question is what scraps will be left behind.
The White Sox probably won't hang in, but they have been a tad more fun than you might have expected them to be and will become even more so when Yoan Moncada arrives, likely soon. The Tigers are theoretically in the Wild Card chase, but they're nine games under .500 and look like they're finally having that "fallen and they can't get up" season that's been expected (a Justin Verlander trade could seal the deal). Detroit had a great run but never quite broke through. It's a shame, but you can't say they didn't go for it.
So that leaves two teams on opposite sides of the contention window. The Twins have already had a successful season, recovering from a 103-loss campaign to become a .500 team while still working in their young talent and ironing out all the kinks in their development. On the other end, a half-game behind them, are the Royals, a team that is finishing up the most successful era in their franchise's history, one that sent them to two World Series and won them one title. The core players from that team -- Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas -- are all free agents after this season, and in a vacuum, you can see how the smart play would be for general manager Dayton Moore to trade those guys for the next generation of Royals stars. But this is a small-market franchise that loves those guys and might not love having their One Last Rodeo season interrupted by trades, particularly when the team is only 1 1/2 games out of the Wild Card. Moore probably should trade all those guys. But you can certainly understand why he wouldn't.
The Twins can sit on their hands and stay on plan; the Royals may have no choice but to sit on theirs, even if it costs them a future plan. One thing is certain: If Kansas City decides to go for the playoffs this year … it better succeed.
The best thing that could have happened for Oakland has happened, which is Sonny Gray becoming a key trade chip again. It didn't look like that was going to be the case a year ago.
Seattle has no choice, really, but to go for it, though it's a little frightening that this year -- in which it is four games under .500 and 17 1/2 games out of first place at the break -- is the Mariners' last best chance at contention before the wheels fall off. The Angels get Mike Trout back this week, and it's an indicator of how dire things have become in Anaheim and the rest of the AL that the major takeaway is that the Halos were only one game under .500 in his absence, as if this is a magnificent achievement. The Angels need Trout to be Trout immediately after the break, and also for everything else to go as perfect as it has gone in his absence. Again, the scary part here is that this might be their best chance at the playoffs before Trout's contract is up in 2020.
The Rangers look like the second-best team in the division, even though their offense has been deceptively average; other than Adrian Beltre, the team's best hitter has become Elvis Andrus. Still, there's clearly talent, and they've got a solid top three in their rotation. If I'm the Yankees and the Rays, this is the Wild Card contender that most concerns me.
Meanwhile, the Astros have been world beaters and will only get better once they figure out the right way to upgrade their rotation. Funny thought: Houston has already won more games than it did in 2011, '12 and '13. The Astros need to win only 42 games the rest of the way to tie the all-time franchise win record. This is what all the pain of the beginning of this decade was working toward. It's difficult to argue, now that the time has come, that it wasn't worth it.
National League East
The Mets, Braves, Marlins and Phillies are all long out of playoff contention, but they're all fascinating in their own ways.
The Mets have been ransacked by injuries and don't have much choice but to keep trudging out there and resting everybody they can. But the real question is: Will everything be in order to go for it again next year? (Get Amed Rosario out there, please.) The Phillies may not have expected to be in contention this year, but they could have at least hoped for a Twins-type season, where you saw the young talent at least take a step forward; instead, the whole team looks worse than it has ever been. What if you put together an Astros/Cubs-type rebuild but never, in fact, get good at the end of the cycle? The Phils are in danger of finding out. The Braves are about as respectable as you might have hoped they'd be in their first season at the new ballpark, but for the opposite reason they thought; the rotation has been a mess, but the lineup is solid, even assuming they trade Matt Adams to complete the second take-a-Cardinals-player-and-flip-him deal in two years. And the Marlins are either going to be a slightly scary team for contenders to play down the stretch -- the lineup remains intimidating -- or they're going to change the whole sport by selling their big names at the Deadline. Imagine how different things would be if Marcell Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton or even Christian Yelich are moved! Things are, of course, still in flux until we see what new ownership might look like.
That leaves the only true contender in this division as Washington, whose bullpen has been so bad and whose offense has been so good that players have spoken about having to "win games three times." What kind of trades will be available? Will Brad Hand be in a Nationals jersey in two weeks? David Robertson? Trevor Rosenthal? At this point, the Nats should just get as many relievers as they can. Bryce Harper is going to be a free agent soon, and this is as good as this team is going to get. Floor it now.
And … we come to the mess. Coming into the season, there were clear standout favorites in each of baseball's six divisions. Some of them jumped out to blistering starts, some of them were a little wobbly out of the gate, but by the All-Star break, five of the six had ascended to their expected spots atop their respective divisions. And then there are the Cubs.
It seems that every time the Cubs win a couple of games, we all assume they have turned the corner and now, now they're going to turn it on. Well, we're at the All-Star break, and they're 5 1/2 games out of first place, and with a loss Friday night against the Orioles, they would be three games under .500 for the first time in Joe Maddon's tenure as manager. Still, if you ask any baseball analyst who they think is going to win this division, they'll all say the Cubs.
It is worth asking why this is such a certainty. The Cubs are not underperforming their underlying metrics: They're a .500 team in the Pythagorean standings. Their offense has been a letdown pretty much everywhere; Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Ian Happ have been good, but most of the rest of the team is below average. One of the team's top hitters in OPS-plus was … Miguel Montero. And the team's best starter, seriously, has been Eddie Butler, and that's even allotting for John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks being on the disabled list. The bullpen has been the team's strength -- remember when that was the worry last year? -- but to believe that this is going to somehow just turn into last year's team overnight, like they're just waiting for Maddon to push some magic button, is folly, even with the aggressive Jose Quintana trade. (Remember: Quintana hasn't quite been the world beater everyone was expecting this year.)
That said, the Cubs could still win this division. The Brewers made a little run at the end of the first half, and the offense is strong, particularly with Ryan Braun back. And the pitching is a little better than many appreciate, particularly now that Brent Suter is in the rotation and Jimmy Nelson is turning into a top-shelf guy. They could probably use an innings eater at the back half, but even if they get one, it's difficult to see Milwaukee having the top-to-bottom consistency to run away with this division. It's worth nothing that Fangraphs actually has the Brewers as the third most-likely team to win this division, though the Baseball Prospectus folks have them as the favorites.
The Cardinals are still hanging around too, tied with the Cubs and playing some of their best baseball going into the break. Defense, the bullpen and (especially) baserunning have been problems, as have been the offensive struggles of expected producers Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk. But the Cards have found a boost from within their system, particularly from Paul DeJong, Luke Voit and Tommy Pham (who is actually 29 and has given the Cardinals an emotional spark it has desperately needed for several years now). The defense should be shored up when Kolten Wong finally returns, and the rotation might actually be the best in the division. St. Louis still has issues in the dugout and in that bullpen, but if those young guys can stay hot, the team could make a run. We'll know soon: The Cards have a 10-game road trip (Pirates, Cubs, Mets) right after the break, and if they go 3-7 on it, they could end up sellers. But 6-4 or better, and this team could be off.
The Reds have been fun but are still knee-deep in their process, and the Pirates, well, we're probably discounting a team that's only 1 1/2 games behind the Cubs and Cardinals that still has Starling Marte coming back soon too quickly. But put it this way: Nobody in this division is comfortable about anything.
The Dodgers looked unstoppable heading into the break. It hardly seems sporting that this team gets to have all this talent and have Alex Wood suddenly go 10-0 with a 1.67 ERA. Also, have you noticed that Rich Hill has started to come back around as well? Oh, and that Pedro Baez has a 1.43 ERA? And that Brandon McCarthy is pitching better than he has ever in his life? And that their lineup goes, essentially, 12 deep? Remember, the Dodgers were struggling to figure out all their disparate parts for the first half of the season and were still in first place in the most competitive division in baseball. Now that they've got it together? Everybody better duck.
It's a shame, because in any other context, we wouldn't be able to shut up about the Diamondbacks. Paul Goldschmidt is having an NL MVP Award-worthy, the lineup has speed, power and defense, and the rotation might quietly be the best in the Majors (outside their division rivals of course). The bullpen still has issues -- there's no way they're really going to head into the playoffs with Fernando Rodney as their closer, right? -- but this team looks as solid as any in the NL this side of Washington and Los Angeles. How did we not see this in the offseason? This team is sort of stacked.
The Rockies have been the lovely story of the first half, but you can see a falloff coming in the second half. Their lineup is an ultimate Coors Field-boost collection; only three guys (Nolan Arenado, Mark Reynolds and Charlie Blackmon) are even above-average hitters by OPS-plus. And as fun as Kyle Freeland, German Marquez and Jeff Hoffman have been, none of them have the strikeout rates that indicated sustained success, even with Colorado's improved defense. Jon Gray could be the ace of this team really soon, and they desperately need him to be. And even with the Rockies' expected drop-off … that 7 1/2-game Wild Card lead they have right now gives them a ton of second-half padding. They may need every bit of it.
Also, the Padres are going to keep playing games, and the Giants are going to forget this season ever happened.
Midseason postseason predictions
Wild Card Game: Tampa Bay at N.Y. Yankees
ALDS: Wild Card winner at Houston; Cleveland at Boston
ALCS: Boston at Houston
Wild Card Game: Milwaukee at Arizona
NLDS: Wild Card winner at Los Angeles; Chicago Cubs at Washington
NLCS: Washington at Los Angeles
World Series: Washington over Boston in 6
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