By the conclusion of Monday night’s action, every team in the major leagues but one (the Tigers) will have played at least 81 games, making this roughly the halfway point in the 2014 season. With half the season in the books, then, here’s a quick look at what to watch out for in the second half.
Hitter to watch: Bryce Harper
There wasn’t much opportunity to watch Harper in the first half, as he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb sliding head-first into third base on a triple on April 22 and hasn’t played since. What little we did get to see of him was underwhelming: In 22 games, Harper hit just one home run, battled a quadriceps strain and was pulled from a game for lack of hustle despite that injury. In his last 10 games, he hit just .216/.275/.297.
However, Harper hit three home runs for Double A Harrisburg on Saturday in the fifth and final game of his rehab assignment, during which he hit .643/.737/1.571, and will be back in the Nationals' lineup on Monday night for their 82nd game of the season. We know what Harper is capable of when healthy: He won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2012 and posted an .854 OPS as a 20-year-old last season. If he can stay in the lineup he could be a major force for Washington in the second half.
Pitcher to watch: David Price
Price has had a fascinating and confounding season thus far. The major league leader in strikeouts with 144, he has walked just 14 men in 17 starts (with one of those walks having been intentional), resulting in an absurd 10.29 K/BB ratio. That mark not only leads the majors, but would also make him one of just three qualified pitchers in the modern era with a K/BB over 10.0. He’s also atop the American League in innings per start with 7.3 and is one-third of an inning shy of Johnny Cueto’s major league lead in that category. In each of his last four starts, Price has completed at least eight innings and struck out at least 10 men, and he has struck out 10 or more eight times already this season.
Despite all that, a spike in his home run rate and bad luck on balls in play have kept Price out of the Cy Young conversation. A month ago, he had a 4.42 ERA on the season. Since then, however, he has posted a 2.31 ERA and struck out a whopping 11.6 men per nine innings. If Price can keep the ball in the park and his luck evens out, he could have a monster second half, during which he very well may be traded, setting up the potential for a stretch run for a contender to rival what CC Sabathia did for the Brewers in 2008.
Team to watch: Reds
The NL Central may once again be baseball’s most compelling division in the second half. The Brewers, as impressive as they have been, have been out-playing their run differential by roughly five wins, suggesting they could fall back into the pack a bit. The Pirates have rediscovered their 2013 form in June, going 17-10, and the Cardinals are simply too good a team and too deep an organization to count out despite the recent losses to injury of Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia.
The Reds are the team to watch, however, as they are tied with the Nationals (another team with the potential to have a big second half) for the second wild-card spot in the NL despite a first half that saw Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Mat Latos, Devin Mesoraco, Aroldis Chapman and Tony Cingrani all spend time on the disabled list. All are healthy now, with Latos having replaced Cingrani in the rotation. Leadoff man Billy Hamilton, who hit .247/.283/.343 through June 9, has hit .367/.390/.557 in 84 plate appearances since, igniting an offense that scored just 3.5 runs per game through the end of May. And in the rotation, Homer Bailey, who shut out the Giants on Sunday, has been very quietly recovering from a lousy April, going 5-1 with a 3.38 ERA in his last eight starts.
Manager to watch: Kirk Gibson
Back in March, Jay Jaffe and I agreed that Ron Washington was on the hottest managerial seat in baseball, but he is clearly not to blame for the injury-wracked Rangers’ poor showing this season. At that time, I argued that Kirk Gibson’s position was less precarious because of the degree to which his approach lined up with that of general manager Kevin Towers. However, the combination Tony La Russa's hiring as chief baseball officer in May and the Diamondbacks’ dismal showing this year have turned up the heat under both Gibson and Towers considerably.
In SI.com’s power rankings, Arizona has come in dead last eight times in 13 weeks, including each of the last two. It is currently tied with the Rays for the worst record in baseball and is all alone with the majors’ worst run differential. Injuries, particularly the loss of Patrick Corbin to Tommy John surgery before the season started, have played a role, but Gibson was hired halfway through the 2010 season and has managed a winning record just once since then. Meanwhile, team president Derrick Hall broke ranks with his manager and general manager on the subject of retaliation in the wake of Jonathan Lucroy’s grand slam two weeks ago.
Rookie to watch: Marcus Stroman
Gregory Polanco is the obvious choice here, which is why I went with the pint-sized Stroman, who is easy to forget amid an almost comically deep American League rookie class that includes Masahiro Tanaka, Jose Abreu, George Springer, Dellin Betances, Yordano Ventura, Xander Bogaerts, Jonathan Singleton, Brock Holt, C.J. Cron, Nick Castellanos, Rougned Odor and Kevin Kiermaier, among many others. The 23-year-old Stroman, a 5-foot-9 righty, joined the Blue Jays’ rotation at the end of May and has thus far posted a 2.48 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 4.00 K/BB ratio in six starts, five of which have been quality. Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said in March that Stroman will not have an innings limit this season, so the potential exists for him to be a key player in Toronto's efforts to remain in first place and reach the postseason for the first time since 1993.
Team to beat: Athletics
What's not to like? The A’s have the best record in baseball at 51-30; boast a run differential of +135 that is two and a half times greater than the next largest in the game (Dodgers: +54); are tied with the Brewers for the best road record in the game; are 1 1/2 games behind the Angels for the second-best home record in the game; lead the majors in run scoring (5.2 R/G) despite playing in a pitching-friendly ballpark; lead the majors in team ERA+ (121); and are second in the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency. But despite all that, they’re not untouchable.
The second-best team in the American League is arguably the Angels, who played 48 of their first 80 games without Josh Hamilton and gave 190 plate appearances to the since-released Raul Ibañez, who hit .157/.258/.265 in those opportunities. Los Angeles also lost four games in the first half that were blown by closer Ernesto Frieri, who was traded to the Pirates on Saturday. Oakland leads the major leagues in wins since the start of the 2012 season, but don’t be surprised if the AL West proves to be a tight division despite its excellence to date.