Baseball’s All-Star Game traditionally marks the midway point in its season. It actually takes place a little past the halfway mark, but the break provides a good opportunity to see what surprises have occurred and what developments have been about as expected. And by my count, there have been many more of the former than the latter. Here’s a look at the pennant races in each league.
In the American League, as expected, the Detroit Tigers broke out to an early lead in the Central Division. With a strong starting staff (anchored by Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez) and a powerful lineup (led by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez), the Tigers have only been threatened briefly to this point (by the Kansas City Royals, who have slipped since catching Detroit about a month ago). Cleveland, Chicago and Minnesota don’t appear to measure up as real contenders, although the White Sox have a rookie of the year candidate in power hitting first baseman Jose Abreu and a Cy Young-quality ace in Chris Sale.
Over in the West, the Oakland A’s have carried the best record in both leagues for over a month, and they’ve done it without any standout superstars (although third basemen Josh Donaldson is considered one by astute observers who look beyond his mediocre batting average). And then, just last week, General Manager Billy Beane (he of “Moneyball” fame) pulled off a legit steal of a trade with the Chicago Cubs, picking up two quality starters (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel) in exchange for a few highly regarded prospects.
The A’s chief competition in the second half of the season figures to come from the L.A. Angels (of Anaheim), who have the game’s best overall player (Mike Trout, this era’s Willie Mays) along with Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. The Seattle Mariners spent $240 million (for a ten-year contract) for former Yankees’ star Robinson Cano, who, together with ace pitcher King Felix Hernandez, has Seattle fans excited.
The East was supposed to be the AL’s strongest division, but it has been anything but that as all five teams have struggled. The surprise in the first half has been the Toronto Blue Jays, last year’s biggest disappointment after spending a bundle to load up some big names. This year they have actually produced, to a point. After surging to first place (behind sluggers Jose Batista and Edwin Encarnacion and pitchers Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey), the Jays have slipped behind the Baltimore Orioles. But the O’s hold on the lead may not last either. The division is really ripe for the plucking and the Yankees (old but still capable of scoring runs), Red Sox (underperforming as a team) and the Tampa Bay Rays (trying to crawl back after a horrendous first half) could all contend.
Over in the National League, the surprise team has been the Milwaukee Brewers, who broke fast and have maintained their hold on first place in the Central Division. But the other three contenders (forget about the Cubs, who are still building for a run at a title in two or three years – some things never change) figure to make significant runs before the season ends.
The Cardinals have been clobbered by injuries to the pitching staff (and, most recently, a devastating one to their all-star catcher, Yadier Molina) and have not hit their stride offensively, but they still have Adam Wainwright (a strong Cy Young contender), along with a rookie who could be another Mike Trout in Oscar Tavares. The Pittsburgh Pirates also have reasons to be hopeful, starting with last year’s MVP, Andrew McCutchen. And the Cincinnati Reds may just be getting their act together (although having Joey Votto on the disabled list right now isn’t helping).
For the second year in a row, everyone is waiting for the Washington Nationals to break away and become the best team in the league. They have all the ingredients, led by hitters Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Jason Werth and pitchers Stephen Strasberg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman, but under rookie manager Matt Williams, they have been hot and cold and are currently in another dog fight with the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves were hurt by season-long injuries to top pitchers Kris Medlan and Brandon Beachy, but they are still right there, led by pitcher Julio Teheran, first baseman Freddie Freeman and slick-fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons. The surprise team in this division is the Miami Marlins who have a group of young studs, led by slugger Giancarlo Stanton. But the loss (to season-ending elbow surgery) of last year’s rookie of the year, Jose Fernandez, probably keeps them from contending in September.
In the NL Western Division, the San Francisco Giants had the best record in baseball after 63 games and appeared to be running away with the N.L West (leading the Dodgers by nine and a half games), but, as they say, it’s a long season. And within the space of three weeks the Dodgers made up the deficit as they won 16 of 24 while the Giants lost 19 of 25.
Depending on which tea leaves you read, either the two teams will now engage in a dogfight for the rest of the season or the Dodgers, with a Yankees-like payroll, will pull ahead and win with relative ease. (The other teams in the division—Colorado, San Diego and Arizona—are headed for spoiler roles at best.) For their part, the Dodgers boast a pitching staff that could be the strongest in either league (led by all-stars Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke). And their starting eight isn’t too shabby either (with names like Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzales, Hanley Ramirez and a second-year player you may have heard of named Yasiel Puig).
Predictions are never smart in baseball, and over the years I’ve made a bunch of ridiculously bad ones. Just this spring, for example, I picked the Cardinals to beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series. A mid-season revision is definitely in order, so let’s go with the Dodgers over the A’s in a repeat of the 1988 series. That sounds about right, but, as they say, they gotta win ‘em on the field.