10 bold predictions (plus playoff picks!) for the rest of the MLB season
In my previous two seasons at SI.com, I've kicked off the season's second half with a handful of predictions, most of which are more outlandish than the routine fare of our preseason experts' picks, about which — at least in my case — the less said, the better. Earlier this week on SI Now, I offered Mike Trout finally bringing home the American League MVP award as my less-than-daring second-half prediction, but what follows here is farther out on the limb. Leaving out the question of whether I’ve come up with these via slide rule, dartboard or Stilton-cheese-induced hallucinations, this year's batch is guaranteed to produce the occasional guffaw by season’s end, if not right now. They are presented below in rough chronological order.
With Crawford's recent return from the disabled list, Los Angeles now has three expensive outfielders — Kemp and Andre Ethier being the others — vying for two spots (Yasiel Puig is also pricey, but he's not going anywhere). Crawford, who is making $20.25 million this year, has been told that he'll be relegated to the bench, making him the world's most expensive fourth outfielder.
Such a surplus is unlikely to hold, and with the Mariners' need for an outfielder so clear, a trade with Seattle makes sense. The M's are contending (51-44, 2 1/2 games up for the second wild-card spot) but getting unacceptable production from leftfielder Dustin Ackley (.225/.282/.335) and only slightly better performance from centerfielder James Jones (.287/.318/.352). Kemp is the most likely one to be outbound, since all three Seattle outfield regulars bat lefty. The Dodgers would have to swallow a significant chunk of the $107 million remaining on his deal to maximize their return in a deal.
Tampa Bay is just 44-53, 9 1/2 games out in the AL East and eight behind in the wild-card race, but it has gone 16-8 since June 18, with Price amid one of the best stretches of his career. Despite the ace lefty being the deadline's most sought-after pitcher and the Rays dearly needing the infusion of prospects that swapping him would bring back, the temptation to pull off another 2011-like miracle to reach the postseason will prove too great. The team will refuse to wave the white flag, significantly lessening its eventual return by holding onto him until the winter, and it will fail to reach the postseason, too.
At 42-53, dead last in the National League East, the Phillies are going nowhere, and even general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. finally realizes this. The team has several veterans whose services appeal to contenders, but Amaro will stop short of selling off Chase Utley or Cole Hamels. Papelbon, guaranteed $13 million for next year with a $13 million vesting option for 2016, clearly wants out, so his limited no-trade clause (he can block deals to 17 teams) won’t be a hindrance, and he’s pitching well enough (1.21 ERA, 2.33 FIP) that the Dodgers, Tigers or Angels could be a fit if Amaro throws in some money. Rollins is amid a modest resurgence (.246/.327/.391, 2.3 WAR) at age 35 and is very affordable, making $11 million this year with an $11 million vesting option, $8 million club option and $5 million player option for 2015; he has 10-and-5 rights but seems to know his future lies elsewhere. Lee is far less likely to be dealt given his two-month absence due to a flexor pronator strain, his remaining money (roughly $50 million guaranteed) and the impending disappearance from contention of the Yankees. Speaking of which...
4. Masahiro Tanaka will pitch again in 2014, but it won't help the Yankees
The tear in Tanaka's ulnar collateral ligament is small enough that the team hopes he can stave off Tommy John surgery with rest and platelet-rich plasma therapy and return after missing roughly six weeks. It says here that he will, but that it will be more for peace of mind than for a playoff push, since the Yankees (47-47, −37 run differential) just have far too many holes to stay afloat for very long without their best pitcher.
At 43-52, the defending champions are dead last in the AL East, and they know they're not headed for October. They've already ditched catcher A.J. Pierzynski, releasing him after designating him for assignment last week in order to give prospect Christian Vazquez a long look. And between now and the July 31 deadline, you can expect them to clear more playing time for other youngsters. They'll move Jake Peavy to open up a rotation spot for Rubby De La Rosa, have Xander Bogaerts take over for Stephen Drew at shortstop and give Brock Holt and Will Middlebrooks time at third base and Mookie Betts a chance in leftfield in place of Jonny Gomes or Daniel Nava.
One move Boston won't make is to deal the resurgent Lester, who's striking out 9.3 per nine en route to career bests in ERA and FIP (a closely matched 2.65 and 2.61 respectively). He's a pending free agent, and while the club has been reluctant to offer him anything close to market value thus far, keeping him around will give the Red Sox enough time to come to their senses and hammer out an extension before he hits the open market.
6. Somebody besides Rob Manfred will be the next commissioner of baseball
Manfred, currently the chief operating officer of Major League Baseball, has been considered the most likely successor to Bud Selig, who is retiring in January at age 80. As the key figure in negotiating policy in several areas — revenue sharing, drug testing, amateur spending limits, instant replay — he's been the commissioner's point man, and a promotion would provide continuity with the current regime, for better or worse. However, back in May, a New York Times report revealed that White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf — who helped topple Fay Vincent and bring Selig to power in 1992 — isn't onboard with the idea, or at least with his old ally hand-picking his successor. Since then, the search committee -- chaired by Cardinals principal owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and also including Reinsdorf, Rockies owner Dick Monfort, Phillies president David Montgomery, Angels owner Arte Moreno, Pirates chairman Bob Nutting and Twins CEO Jim Pohlad -- has been alarmingly quiet.
My prediction is that the group will turn to an alternative candidate, with the lesser-known Bob Bowman, president/CEO of MLB Advanced Media, or Tim Brosnan, Executive Vice President of MLB, getting the call instead (see Cliff Corcoran's breakdown for details on their credentials). The guess here is that a decision will be made sometime before the regular season so that the incoming commish can shadow Selig during the postseason, thereby presenting an image of continuity and transition.
7. The axe will soon fall upon Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson
The Diamondbacks’ general manager/manager duo has been on notice since the mid-May hiring of Tony La Russa as the team’s baseball czar, and while Arizona has played .500-ish baseball for the last 2 1/2 months, its playoff hopes are dead and buried. All that remains is the trade deadline sell-off. However, given that Towers couldn’t do better than replacement-level Vidal Nuno in return for Brandon McCarthy, that he considers closer Brad Ziegler one of his untouchables and that his character-driven trades of Justin Upton, Adam Eaton and Ian Kennedy look as bad in retrospect as they did at the time, it’s clear that somebody else should be doing the dismantling. Likewise for Gibson, who still hasn’t been able to wipe the egg from his face since ordering the plunking of the Brewers' Ryan Braun on June 17, then fist-bumping henchman Evan Marshall and having to watch Jonathan Lucroy hit a game-winning grand slam.
Gausman has been Baltimore's top starter since returning from the minors on June 7, though the Orioles have yo-yo'd him between the minors and majors in an effort to limit his workload and effectively expand their rotation and roster. The 23-year-old righty has weathered the chaos while putting up a staff-best 3.29 ERA and 3.56 FIP through seven starts while helping the team overtake the slumping Blue Jays in the division standings; since June 6, they're 23-13 while Toronto has gone 11-23. Machado has hit a sizzling .327/.369/.538 since June 10, the day his five-game suspension for bat-throwing and other stupidity was announced, and he is now the centerpiece of the team's offense. Look for those two to lead a sure-to-be-fortified roster to Baltimore’s first division title since 1997.
Bryce Harper has returned from thumb surgery, and while he has yet to find his groove (slashing .244/.316/.366), the lineup with him in center and throwing-challenged Ryan Zimmerman in leftfield makes more sense than putting the latter back at third base. Look for Washington to trade Span, who's hitting just .269/.319/.385 with 15 steals, at the deadline. He's affordable enough — making $6.5 million this year, with a $9 million club option for next — that finding a taker shouldn't be a problem, and a move would provide general manager Mike Rizzo the opportunity to upgrade elsewhere to help the team (51-42) stave off the Braves (52-43) in a race that's virtually tied at the moment.
10. The loss of Yadier Molina will cost the Cardinals a playoff spot
Last week, the All-Star catcher suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb and underwent surgery that will sideline him for eight to 12 weeks, meaning the earliest he could return is in September. Despite considerable organizational depth elsewhere, St. Louis (52-44) has underachieved relative to expectations, and Molina’s importance to both the pitching staff (which is down Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha) and the lineup won’t make things any easier, particularly given how thin the team is behind the plate. The Cardinals are only a game behind Milwaukee in the NL Central, but my crystal balls sees them fading and winding up on the outside looking in come October, for the first time since 2010.
Bonus: As for the remaining playoff slate…
Don’t expect big surprises. In the AL, the Tigers (Central), A's (West), Angels (first wild-card spot) and Mariners (second wild-card) will join the Orioles (East, above) in holding on to the playoff spots they currently occupy, though there are some fresh faces there; it will be L.A.'s first postseason appearance since 2009, and Seattle's first since '01. That's right, no glory here for the banged-up Blue Jays or the underachieving Royals and Indians. In the NL, the Nationals will edge the Braves, the Brewers will hold on in the Central and the Dodgers — 22-12 to the Giants' 11-22 since June 7 — will leave San Francisco in the dust out West, with the Braves and Reds getting in via the wild-cards.