Weekend Watch: An eye towards the market
With two whole days since any kind of major league baseball was played, the back end of this year's All-Star break seemed to stretch into infinity, calling to mind Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby's famous quote about the offseason: "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." Fortunately, our wait at the window is over.
While this isn't exactly a marquee matchup, both of these teams are in interesting spots. Despite their sub-.500 record, the D-backs are tied for the NL West's top run differential at +10; they're a surmountable four games back in both the division and Wild Card races, particularly with the Cubs, Rockies and Astros as their opponents for nine of the next 13 games. Yet there's plenty of disharmony in the desert, with the heat centering around the news that general manager Kevin Towers is exploring the possibility of trading Justin Upton. Hitting just .273/.353/.401 with seven homers, the 25-year-old rightfielder is suddenly being viewed as an underachiever who needs a change of scenery; he's been called out by meddlesome managing partner Ken Kendrick, and booed by fans at Chase Field. At least he's helping more than the perennially underachieving Chris Young, whose best season (.257/.341/.452 in 2007) isn't much better than Upton's worst; his current .203/.297/.401 is the offense's true millstone.
As for the Cubs, they figure to be one of the most active teams at the deadline, with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza, who will start Saturday and Sunday, respectively, representing the trade market's two most desirable pitching commodities after Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke. Dempster returned from a three-week stint on the disabled list on July 8 and threw five shutout innings against the Mets, extending his scoreless streak to 27 innings and lowering his ERA to a league-leading 1.99. Also apparently a trade target is Bryan LaHair, a 29-year-old who has shed the "Quad-A" label to earn All-Star honors in his first season as a regular. He's been bumped to rightfield by the arrival of Anthony Rizzo, but in a first base market that's thinner than Old Style, it's not that surprising his name comes up.
Not only are the Bucs in first place in the NL Central, they've got the second-best record in the league, not to mention their best record since 1992, their last winning season. Clearly, they're in the hunt, and considering names like Upton and Carlos Quentin to upgrade their measly corner outfield production; their leftfielders have combined to hit .204/.250/.336, their rightfielders .262/.299/.440, with opening day starters Alex Presley and Jose Tabata having both been banished to the minors at some point (the latter is still there).
Meanwhile, the sub-.500 Brewers are teetering on the brink of selling. Their next nine games, all against Central opponents above them in the standings (Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati), should decide the matter; Milwaukee is eight back in the division, and six back in the Wild Card. Friday's game will mark top commodity Zack Greinke's third consecutive start of a game, something that no pitcher has done since Red Farber did so for the White Sox in 1917. On July 7, he was ejected for slamming a ball to the ground in frustration after throwing just four pitches. He returned the next day but was roughed up for three first-inning runs and departed after just three innings and 66 pitches. While general manager Doug Melvin has denied that his phone is ringing off the hook, he sounds resigned to the likelihood that his ace will test free agency, pricing himself out of the Brewers' range, and thus necessitating a trade.
The NL West-leading Dodgers are about to receive a bigger upgrade than anyone will get at the trade deadline, as they welcome Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier back to their lineup. Kemp has been sidelined for all but two games and five plate appearances since May 13 due to a pair of hamstring injuries; the Dodgers have gone 24-29 in that span while scoring just 3.42 runs per game on .242/.309/.337 hitting. They've been even worse since Ethier joined him on the DL on June 28 due to a strained oblique: 4-7 with 2.73 runs per game on .215/.272/.323 hitting. In addition to help in the rotation and at first base, the team is said to be looking for a fresh bat at third base, with the Brewers' Aramis Ramirez and the Padres' Chase Headley representing pricey solutions — the former in terms of cash, the latter in terms of prospects — at a position where Juan Uribe (.194/.250/.271) is only halfway through an ill-advised three-year, $21 million deal, having delivered −1.7 WARP for his efforts thus far.
San Diego clearly isn't in any kind of race, except to the bottom, with a .391 winning percentage that's lower than any other team besides the Rockies (.388). Though names like those of Quentin, Headley and oft-injured closer Huston Street are grist for the rumor mill, general manager Josh Bynes says his team doesn't need to trade anyone. One interesting sidelight to this series is that it's the first between the two clubs since Padres owner John Moores agreed to sell the team to a group led by Peter O'Malley, who owned the Dodgers from 1979-1998 after inheriting the team from his father, Walter O'Malley; the deal is pending approval of the other owners, but expected to go through next month.
Best pitching matchups of the weekend
Friday: Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals vs. Josh Johnson, Marlins. Lost behind All-Stars Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann has quietly delivered a 2.61 ERA and an 88 percent quality start rate, the league's second-best; while he's been helped by a .272 BABIP, his 1.8 walks per nine mark the second season in a row he's been under 2.0. As for Johnson, the Marlins' ace is carrying a 4.05 ERA, which would represent a career high, but his 71 percent quality start rate is tied for 10th in the league with the likes of Gonzalez, Hamels, and Matt Cain. Until his July 4 start, in which he allowed five runs in five innings against Brewers, he had gone exactly two months and 10 starts without allowing more than three runs, a span that shaved his ERA from 6.61 to 3.80.
Saturday: Yu Darvish, Rangers vs. Felix Hernandez, Mariners. Darvish may not have felt he deserved to be an All-Star due to his high walk rate, but he has curbed that tendency lately. Facing a relatively weak slate — Houston, San Diego, Detroit and Oakland — he's racked up three double-digit strikeout games and a 40/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his past 30 innings, pushing his walk rate below 5.0 and his strikeout rate above 10.0. He should make mincemeat out of a Seattle team that's hitting a record-awful .195/.273/.289 at home. The Mariners' haplessness is overshadowing Hernandez's typical dominance, with chatter over whether the team would be better off dealing him once again surfacing. Sunday: Jered Weaver, Angels vs. Ivan Nova, Yankees. Since coming off the disabled list on June 20, Weaver has allowed just one run and 16 hits in 27 2/3 innings, though the offenses of the Giants, Indians and Orioles (twice) have had something to do with that. His 1.96 ERA now leads the league. Nova, whose ERA is exactly twice that of Weaver (3.92), has been on a roll lately himself, delivering a 1.70 ERA across his last seven starts. The key to that has been avoiding the longball; he has allowed just four in that 47 2/3-inning stretch (0.8 per nine) after being rocked for 1.9 per nine prior. Coming off a 10-strikeout effort against the Red Sox, his strikeout rate has jumped to 8.2 per nine, miles beyond last year's 5.3.