If you're in the business of writing about baseball, you're expected to make predictions. Whether you arrive at your prognostications via mathematical measurement, gut feeling, or peyote-induced hallucination, history has shown that most of them will be wrong. At least one of them will make you think you've cracked the code to this game for long enough to get a false sense of superiority; I'll admit to feeling somewhat smug about my preseason pick for the Nationals as a sleeper team. On the other hand, at least one will be spectacularly wrong, worthy of burial in an unmarked desert grave when all is said and done; my first-place prediction for the Phillies is ready to eat sand, but in that I'm surely not alone.
What follows here are a handful of predictions for the second half, some bold or even outlandish, some a bit more off the wall. The only guarantee I can make is that by season's end, at least one of them will make me want to crawl under my desk, and serve as a cautionary tale.
With a league-best 49-34 record, the Nats have opened up a four-game lead in the NL East. Their success is no fluke; they've got the league's second-best run differential at +58, and they're an impressive 30-20 against teams .500 or better, second only to the Yankees. In his first full year back from Tommy John surgery, their ace has pitched a total of 99 innings, not counting the one in last night's All-Star Game, and all indications suggest the team will shut him down before October, if not exactly at the 160-inning mark bandied about since spring training. The fact is this: With this bid for contention, the Nationals' painstaking rebuilding process is well ahead of schedule. A chance at winning a championship doesn't come around all that often, but general manager Mike Rizzo and company aren't about to place their outside shot at one ahead of protecting a 23-year-old whose fragile arm is a major key to their long-term success. While the team does have a bit of depth in the rotation — John Lannan, who has 128 big league starts of more-or-less league average work under his belt, is being paid $5 million to cool his heels at Triple-A — the bet here is that Rizzo will go out and add another starting pitcher before the trade deadline to account for the loss of Strasburg. It will be the right call.
• The Red Sox will make a run at a playoff spot, but only after firing Bobby Valentine... possibly out of a cannon.
In parting ways with Terry Francona last fall, the Red Sox brass was trying to shake things up following an epic collapse. On paper, bringing in a voluble contrast in the form of Bobby Valentine seemed like a good idea; in the glare of the New York spotlight, Valentine had enjoyed more success than any Mets manager since Davey Johnson. Alas, Bobby V's tenure in Boston has been an unmitigated disaster. Not only did the Sox stumble to a 4-10 start, but Valentine picked a public fight with Kevin Youkilis, and lost Dustin Pedroia and probably several other veterans in the process. Certainly, injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Andrew Bailey, Pedroia and others have been a factor, but the roster is chockfull of expensive underperformers; of the team's 13 highest-paid players, only David Ortiz has been worth more than 1.5 WARP. Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are among those guilty of underproducing, and while Valentine has done a good job of juggling his outfielders and relievers to patch up some areas, the team is a disappointing 43-43 at the break. As their +43 run differential suggests, there's too much talent here for that, and they're still only 2 1/2 games out of a Wild Card spot, but the bet here is that the Sox won't hit their stride until they admit their mistake, jettison Valentine, and hire Gene Lamont, the runner-up in their managerial search.
At 46-40, the Giants are a half-game behind the Dodgers in the NL West, and a half-game out of a Wild Card spot as well. Their −8 run differential is deceiving; they have outscored their opponents by 36 runs in games not started by their two-time Cy Young winner, but have been outscored by 44 runs while going 4-14 in his 18 starts. Lincecum is still striking out a robust 9.7 per nine innings, but he's otherwise utterly lost, with career-worst home run and walk rates (1.0 and 4.7 per nine, respectively) en route to an unsightly 6.42 ERA. He has been smoked for a .338 BABIP, which may be due to some bad luck, but it's also due to bad location — too many pitches left for too long in the strike zone. He has been tattooed more often than a Bay Area hipster with men on base (.293/.399/.476), suggesting that his unorthodox mechanics are somehow out of whack. With Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgarner all excelling, and even Barry Zito holding his own with a 4.01 ERA, the Giants can afford to pull Lincecum from their rotation in the hopes that he can right himself in the bullpen. With Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier soon returning to the lineup, and ownership practically willing to print money to upgrade the roster, the first place Dodgers won't bring a spork to this western showdown much longer. Bet on the Giants to figure out that fixing Timmy now in the hopes that he can contribute down the stretch is the best course of action.
With the reality of their non-contention finally upon them, the Brewers (five games under .500, eight out in the NL Central, six back in the Wild Card) and Phillies (13 games under .500, 14 out in the NL East, 10 back in the Wild Card) will be forced to move the trade market's top two commodities for packages of prospects. The Rangers, with one of the game's top farm systems and a hunger to get over the top after back-to-back World Series losses, could put together a package centered around third base prospect Mike Olt in order to obtain Greinke. The Pirates, leading the NL Central at 48-37 and eager to break a 19-year losing streak, could sacrifice one of their blue-chip prospects such as Starling Marte for a chance to seal the deal with an ace.
• The playoff field, noted for posterity's sake but otherwise without comment beyond the aforementioned: the Yankees, White Sox and Rangers for the AL divisions, with the Angels and Red Sox for the Wild Card; the Nationals, Reds and Giants for the NL divisions, Braves and Dodgers for the Wild Card. The Pirates and Orioles will both miss out, but take significant steps forward by finishing with records above .500.
• Angry fans in Kansas City, broiled by the 100-degree heat and embarrassed by the team's continued lack of success, will burn Robinson Cano in effigy for slighting Billy Butler in the Home Run Derby, then go on to occupy the Royals' headquarters and depose general manager Dayton Moore. Jonathan Sanchez, the return in the Melky Cabrera trade, will be sent to a monastery for his own protection, while Yuniesky Betancourt's attempt to enter the Federal Witness Program will fail due to his unwillingness to walk 90 feet to an initial meeting point with FBI agents. There you have it, my half-dozen bold predictions for the second half. If they're even half right, we've got an entertaining stretch of baseball in store.