Only one more day until the All-Star break is over and the second half gets well and truly underway. It's also just under two weeks until the trade deadline, that magical time of year when every contending team's fanbase slowly morphs into a giant baby wailing "MY PROSPECTS!" until July 31st comes along and somebody burps them. As luck would have it, there are just as many of those teams in the American League as there are in the National League -- and the playoff races are just as open.
It's still somewhat hard to take the Cleveland Indians seriously as a contender for the divisional crown -- I had one of the more bullish takes on their chances before the season began and even I had them topping out in second place in the Central, falling short of a Wild Card spot -- but when the league resumes play on Friday the Indians will be only a game and half out of first place behind the Detroit Tigers.
What the Indians need more than anything right now is consistent pitching, from both the rotation and the bullpen. There's a chance they could do a sort of modified "sell" to get some of that from teams interested in Asdrubal Cabrera -- Mike Aviles' bat doesn't play as well as Cabrera's in the everyday lineup, but a .670 OPS is acceptable for the shortstop position since Aviles can handle the position defensively and the Indians have Francisco Lindor waiting in the wings for next year, having just been promoted to Double A this past week. Corey Kluber perhaps embodies the frustrations the Indians have had with their staff all year -- some nights he looks like a guy who's striking out four times as many people as he walks, but some nights all of those non-strikeouts are getting hammered into the gap. He's still managed to be a league-average pitcher in terms of runs allowed, but a staff of five league average pitchers and a bullpen with serious injury and effectiveness problems isn't going to get it done.
The good news is that by the end of the year, Indians fans should be able to boast about their team having one of the best second basemen in the game -- Jason Kipnis seems legit -- and even if the playoffs aren't in the cards this year, Cleveland should already have a decent core of Kipnis/Santana/Swisher/Bourn for the next couple seasons. Also, Ryan Raburn's triple slash for the year so far: .267/.368/.540 in 174 plate appearances. He's also faced righties more than lefties this year and is hitting them pretty well so far. Cleveland might want to explore a bigger role for Raburn on this team in the second half until he proves he's not worth it.
Detroit is where they should be with a rotation and lineup as strong as theirs in a division as weak as the American League Central, though they're actually underperforming their Pythagorean win-loss record (based on the number of runs they've scored against the number of runs they've allowed) by four games. Some of this is due to poor luck, but history has shown that teams with bad bullpens and poor bullpen management will underperform their pythag -- and Darin Downs, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke and Bruce Rondon have all been ineffective this season. Three of the mainstays from last year's pen, closer Jose Valverde, veteran Octavio Dotel and right-hander Brayan Villarreal, aren't currently with the team. Villarreal and Valverde are both trying to regain their effectiveness in Triple A Toledo, and Dotel is on the disabled list for elbow inflammation. Downs recently joined him there with tendinitis in his rotator cuff; his replacement, Evan Reed, has been serviceable in his 14 innings this season. But the only two real solid bullpen arms the team has at the moment are Drew Smyly, who has righties facing him hitting like they're shortstops and lefties facing him hitting like they're pitchers, and Joaquin Benoit, who is now the team's closer like he should have been from the beginning of the season.
Benoit's done everything manager Jim Leyland could've asked for since being given that job, so while the Tigers still need relief arms they shouldn't find themselves in a situation where actually taking on Jonathan Papelbon's contract starts to look appealing. Instead, they should be able to chase down the Oliver Perez-types on the market (though apparently Seattle is asking the sun, moon and stars for Perez and the rest of their assets at this stage in negotiations for a number of reasons all probably involving job security).
The American League West is a two-team race right now, just like last year -- Athletics and Rangers -- and neither the Angels nor Mariners have much they can do about it. The Angels have been playing better over the past few weeks, mostly due to Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols sort of resembling Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols recently, while Mike Trout is once again having an MVP-caliber season that won't get rewarded as such. The team simply doesn't have the pitching to contend this year though, and doesn't have the means to reasonably acquire it at the deadline.
The Mariners might claim third place if things get truly dire in Orange County, but are highly unlikely to make any kind of noise beyond that. If they really are determined to hold onto veterans like Perez, Raul Ibanez, and even Jason Bay, they might approach .500 with a really good showing from their younger talent. The biggest question with the A's staff -- whether or not Bartolo Colon will be playing the rest of the season due to his alleged involvement in the Biogenesis scandal -- is out of their hands, though it appears that the league will be bogged down with appeals and possible suspension-related litigation through the end of the season. Two of their breakout outfielders from last season, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, are having bad sophomore years for the A's; if they're unable to turn it around in the second half, the Athletics might look to move some of their surplus pitching for another corner outfield bat. Josh Donaldson's move from catcher to third seems to have brought his bat to life, and if the A's want to make the postseason he'll probably have to keep hitting like he is.
The Rangers are a more complete team than the Athletics on paper, especially once their pitching staff gets healthy, and considering how the recent Koji Uehara and, to a lesser extent, Ryan Dempster trades blew up in their faces, combined with general manager Jon Daniels's extremely high opinion of his own prospects, it's likely that the Rangers will only make minor moves at the deadline, if any at all. That said, despite how poorly the last Cubs starting pitcher they acquired worked out for them (Dempster's ERA more than doubled between Wrigley and Arlington), picking up Matt Garza would make the Rangers not only the favorite for the West, but probably the top seed in the American League. Of course, if the Rangers aren't even willing to consider parting with Martin Perez for Garza, that's probably not going to happen -- and in that same spirit, don't be surprised if Jurickson Profar remains planted in left field or on the bench for the rest of the year.
Which brings us to the East. If they want to make a move, the Yankees need to do it now -- in fact, they probably should have done it a week or two ago. They're the only fourth place team in the American League that looks like a reasonable contender, but that won't continue much longer. The more time the Yankees take to do anything, the more games go by with the Rays, Sox, and Orioles playing better baseball than they are. At least one Wild Card seems destined to come out of the East, with the other likely going to the runner-up in the West, and every team has a different path to the postseason.
Along with the requisite reliever or two, the Red Sox need Jon Lester to figure things out and Clay Buchholz to get healthy. The Orioles need pitching in general -- for Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez to stay healthy AND for either Jason Hammel to figure his two-seamer out or someone from inside the organization (or outside, in case of another trade) to step up. Either way, Scott Feldman probably isn't that guy.
The Rays need a much stronger second half out of their rotation; going into the break they were one of the hottest teams in baseball -- 12-2 in July -- but so far this month they've only played the Astros, Twins, and White Sox, and that's not a run of scheduling that's going to continue. If Evan Longoria deals with his plantar fasciitis better than Pujols has, and the Rays can carry their recent effectiveness over into games against stronger competition, they could give the Red Sox echoes of 2011 all over again at the end of the year. As it is, I think the division will be a bloodbath down to the wire, but the Rays, Sox, Tigers, Athletics, and Rangers should all find themselves in the postseason when all's said and done.
Pending, of course, the trade deadline two weeks from now. Have I mentioned how much I can't wait for that to pass?