The second half of the MLB season kicks off later this week, and as usual the league only vaguely resembles the predictions we all made at the beginning of the year. The Texas Rangers have the worst record in baseball -- but the AL West is still one of the strongest divisions in the league. Two teams that most picked for fourth place in their divisions are sitting atop the NL Central and AL East. St. Louis Cardinal Pat Neshek is the best reliever in baseball.
Before the season picks back up again on Friday, here's a look at MLB at the halfway point -- both a look back at what's come before, and half a look ahead to what's coming up.
The Surprise Division Leaders
They no longer have the best record in the National League -- that belongs to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the moment, 54-43 to Milwaukee's 53-43 -- but the fact remains that the Brewers were the biggest first-half surprise of 2014. Can they keep it up in the second half, or will they flounder like a number of first-half wonders have? They already backed into the All-Star Break, going 2-10 in July so far. And the team still lacks a few key pieces -- they've gotten above-average pitching from Kyle Lohse and slightly-better-than-average performances from Wily Peralta, Yovani Gallardo and Matt Garza so far, but they lack a true ace and it's hard to envision any scenario in which they get one this season. The first base situation remains a compromise at best, with Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds reprising their platoon roles from last year on the New York Yankees to about the same muddled effect.
Still, the team has a core of three great hitters in Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun, and has gotten significant help this season from outfielder Khris Davis and third baseman Aramis Ramirez -- not to mention Scooter Gennett, who has quietly been one of the best second basemen in the game over the past season or so. If the Brewers played in one of baseball's weaker divisions, like the AL Central or (I can't believe I'm saying this) the AL East, there'd be little question of whether they'd make it to the postseason barring their own collapse. However, in a division with both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds -- along with the Pittsburgh Pirates playing a strong spoiler role and trying to sneak into the postseason again in their own right -- it'll take a little bit more than just not collapsing to secure a division win. Expect the fight between the Brewers, Cards and Reds to come down to the wire; it would not be entirely unsurprising to once again see both NL wild cards come out of the Central.
The only other real "surprise" division leader at the moment is the Baltimore Orioles, who are fighting off the Toronto Blue Jays for sole ownership of first place in the American League East at the moment. The Orioles and Jays both have quite a bit in common with the Brewers -- they're bat-first teams with a lot of competent-but-uninspiring pitching, all of which could be liabilities in a postseason series. It remains to be seen who finally takes the division crown in the East -- the New York Yankees are still in the hunt, too -- but the fallout seems pretty clear: Neither of the two AL wild cards are likely to come from the East, which is great news for teams like Seattle and Kansas City.
The Trade Deadline
Every year there exists the possibility that the trade deadline end with one team or another being massively shaken up due to the addition or departure of a superstar, and this year is no different. The major expected piece in play right now is David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays, who is the best arm available on what is currently a very weak starting pitching market. Boston's Jon Lester will be a free agent next year, but the Red Sox seem intent on keeping him and extending him. And Philadelphia's Cliff Lee, a perennial favorite in these talks, is currently struggling through rehab starts and unlikely to come back healthy before the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of July -- and even if he did, would be too much of a risky proposition to net much in return.
The dark horse is even bigger than Price, though. Troy Tulowitzki has made noise about being discontent with the situation in Colorado, saying he "doesn't want to be Todd Helton" -- suggesting he'd welcome a trade to a contender. It'll be hard-to-impossible to get fair value for Tulowitzki; of the teams in contention right now, the only ones with plausible farms to do it at the moment are probably the Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals, and the Orioles are likely out if just for financial reasons. The Dodgers theoretically could get involved if they were willing to move Joc Pederson and a couple other pieces. There are other teams with the raw talent on their farms to pick up Tulo in a situation where he's available -- the Chicago Cubs, the Houston Astros, the Boston Red Sox, probably the Texas Rangers -- but it doesn't make sense for any of those teams to go after him hard in the middle of the season. Unless Colorado is forced to take a major hit to the return to move him -- which they shouldn't, even considering the size of his contract -- it seems the pool of in-season suitors for his services is highly limited.
The Awards Chase
So far, the AL MVP race doesn't seem like too much of a race at all. Mike Trout is -- arguably for the third consecutive season -- the best player in baseball. But he won't win the award without at least something of a fight in the media. Someone in the AL will show up to allow some voters not to vote for Trout -- mostly likely whoever leads the league in home runs, so Nelson Cruz or Edwin Encarnacion (if healthy) are decent spoiler picks. A hot second half by reigning MVP Miguel Cabrera could bring him back into the conversation. But generally, for a guy to win an award like this consecutive times, he has to perform better in each consecutive season -- and that's going to be tough for Cabrera, who finished last season with a 1.078 OPS and only has an .898 OPS at the break. Of course, the best thing Trout has going for him this year (as compared to seasons past) is that the Angels are a good baseball team in 2014. That should keep up in the second half. We'll see.
The NL MVP frontrunner is still Troy Tulowitzki, but his hold on the spot is more tenuous. There's always the outside chance he switches leagues, or -- more likely -- gets hurt at some point, ceding ground in the race to Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and/or Yasiel Puig. McCutchen's had an otherworldly last six weeks himself (1.096 OPS in June, 1.296 OPS in July), though Tulowitzki's elite defense at short should still keep him in the driver's seat if he continues to hit at his own torrid pace (1.048 OPS on the season). Once again, far too much of the race depends on whose team is or isn't in contention to properly handicap the actual voting at the moment. But even if Puig's stats aren't quite as good as the others, if the Dodgers are the only ones headed to the postseason at the end of the year, he could get a substantial push.
The AL and NL Cy Youngs are essentially mirror situations, with an established frontrunner (Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright) and a contender with fewer innings pitched but great rate stats nipping at their heels (Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw). If everyone continues their current rates of production, Hernandez and Wainwright should take home the awards. If either stumbles or misses enough time to close the innings gap, Kershaw or Sale could easily take their places. The Reds' Johnny Cueto could also figure in prominently down the stretch. It's far less likely that Scott Kazmir of the Oakland Athletics or Mark Buehrle of the Toronto Blue Jays can do enough to make themselves more attractive candidates than Hernandez or Sale, but they should definitely figure into the down ballot voting with a strong second half.
New York Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka (can we call him that yet? I think we can at least take it for a test drive) was a shoo-in for AL Rookie of the Year and a good candidate for the AL Cy Young until he was sidelined with an elbow injury. Now all eyes turn to Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox as he continues to hit home runs at an All-Star rate. There are other good rookies in the American League -- George Springer (Astros) and Kevin Kiermaier (Rays), for example, and somehow Brock Holt (Red Sox) still qualifies -- but Abreu clearly leads the pack. Should he stay healthy, he should take down the award.
Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds is the trendy pick for NL Rookie of the Year. Not only is he hitting better than expected based on his minor league track record (.743 OPS), but he also plays a premium defensive position and has great speed on the basepaths. He is not, however, the base-stealing phenom some dreamed he'd be -- he has 38 stolen bases, yes, but he's been caught stealing a MLB-leading 15 times, giving him a SB percentage of just 71 percent. The eternal green light the Reds gave him in the minors is doing him no favors in the majors. Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Chris Owings is hitting better than Hamilton, also plays a premium defensive position where he's more than comfortable, and is a solid baserunner in his own right, though lacking Hamilton's speed. Hamilton has a gimmick that makes people remember who he is, while Owings is just another good starter on a last-place team. There's another complication in Owings' candidacy, too: He hit the 15-day DL on June 29 with shoulder issues and has yet to return. It couldn't have come at a less opportune time for him; he had a .968 OPS in limited action in June.
The Possible Call-Ups
As the second half rolls on, we're going to be hearing more about -- and eventually seeing more of -- a lot of the young players in the high minors who have been making noise for teams who could use a shot in the arm down the stretch. Three big names that might be up sooner rather than later: Francisco Lindor (Cleveland Indians, SS), Kris Bryant (Chicago Cubs, 3B) and Dylan Bundy (Baltimore Orioles, SP).
Lindor will be in the big leagues sooner rather than later. His two quickest paths to the show this year are as an Indian -- if Cleveland decides to sell at the deadline and trades Asdrubal Cabrera to a contender -- or as a player for another team if the Indians decide to go all in and are buyers. Even if Cleveland stands pat at the deadline and Lindor doesn't come up for August, it seems likely he'll get some time at short for the Indians in September once rosters expand; Cabrera's a free agent this offseason, and Cleveland would be better served handing the position to Lindor and spending their money on other roster needs.
Bryant is annihilating the minor leagues, with a 1.126 OPS this season across two levels. Yes, yes, PCL -- but even the PCL doesn't make hitters look this good if they're not already up to the challenge. (Take a look at how Bryant's teammate Javier Baez is doing, for instance: .753 OPS, 32 K%). The Cubs probably aren't going to call him up before September for roster reasons, but it's unlikely they're going to play many service-time games with Bryant -- they've already shown their preference for handing out long-term, set-you-up-for-life money deals to cover all of a player's years of team control.
Bundy's fate depends on how desperate Baltimore gets for pitching. They've already brought him up once to get a taste of MLB action, in late 2012 -- and now that he's back from Tommy John surgery with the same kind of overwhelming stuff as before, the Orioles might take a look at what can be had on the pitching market at the deadline and decide to add Bundy to their taxi squad right alongside starter Kevin Gausman, who has already been optioned/recalled 5 times this year. The Orioles will likely postpone any such decision until after the trade deadline passes -- not just for roster reasons, but to give Bundy some more time to get used to live games again -- but if they're in a tough division race at the end of the season, they're going to need the best pitching they can get, and Bundy's probably a better option right now than a number of the pitchers already on Baltimore's big-league roster.