Cueto to Royals, Tigers out of playoffs and more bold AL predictions
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 like even the best hitters, you’ll be off-base more often than not. The occasional right prediction will make you think you've cracked the code to this game long enough to get a false sense of superiority, but another one will be so star-spangled spectacularly wrong that it will be worthy of burial in an unmarked desert grave by season’s end.
Via my admittedly scuffed crystal ball, what follows here and in Wednesday’s companion piece are a fistful of predictions for the second half for each league, 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.
1. The Red Sox won't make the playoffs
I know, I know—that’s a bold statement about a team that's 42–47, last both in the AL East and in the entire league when it comes to run prevention. I'm inching out on this limb here for two reasons. First, it's a mea culpa for my own spring prediction that they would win the division—a prediction based upon the idea that at some point soon, they would trade for a frontline starting pitcher. Second, they've been playing well enough lately to inspire hope.
I’m not falling for it. The Sox are 15–9 since June 15, with a +19 run differential, but aside from the arrival of rookie Eduardo Rodriguez, their rotation hasn't improved. Joe Kelly is now in the minors, Rick Porcello has been getting roughed up, and Clay Buchholz, their best pitcher all season, is now on the disabled list due to a flexor strain. Meanwhile, Boston is getting significantly subpar offense at catcher, first base (Mike Napoli) and third base (Pablo Sandoval), and horrendous defense from the latter as well as from "leftfielder" Hanley Ramirez, negating the value of his bat. Even with an upgrade here or there, this just doesn't look like the Sox' year.
The second half of that prediction isn't such a reach, as the defending AL champions own the league's best record (52–34) and largest division lead (4 1/2 games). But after coming within one win of a championship last year, the Royals are quite rightly hungry for more. Though the loss of Alex Gordon to a groin strain is a serious one, particularly with rightfielder Alex Rios under-producing as well, Kansas City's bigger need is in the rotation. The unit's 4.32 ERA ranks 12th in the league, its 6.0 strikeouts per nine is just a hair above dead last, and the only ERAs below 4.10 among the starting five belong to reclamation projects Chris Young (3.00) and Edinson Volquez (3.79).
With no obvious choice to take the ball in a series opener, the Royals are among the teams aggressively pursuing pending free agent Cueto. Trading for him won't be painless, but given that this team is in better position to win now relative to the Astros, who also covet Cueto, bet on general manager Dayton Moore to bite the bullet to acquire an ace.
3. The Astros will trade for Scott Kazmir and make the playoffs for the first time in a decade
Now in its fourth season, Jeff Luhnow's drastic rebuilding effort is bearing fruit, but since jumping out to an 18–7 start, the Astros are 31–35 despite a +17 run differential. Their current six-game losing streak, meanwhile, bumped them out of first place in the AL West for the first time since April 18. Houston's boom-or-bust offense—first in the league in both homers and strikeouts—has struggled to score runs lately, but the bigger issue is the rotation. Dallas Keuchel was a worthy All-Star Game starter, but the rest of the unit has a combined 4.62 ERA, with rookies Lance McCullers (2.52) and Vincent Velasquez (3.94) the only ones below 4.46, albeit with a combined workload that amounts to one starter—and both will have their workloads monitored closely down the stretch.
It shouldn't be too hard to find upgrades given the meager performances of Collin McHugh, Roberto Hernandez and the injured Scott Feldman, but don't bet on Luhnow to clean out the farm system to augment this ahead-of-schedule bid for contention (it's not 2017). The mercurial Kazmir, who left his last start due to triceps tightness, has pitched very well this year (2.49 ERA, 3.18 FIP) and is a Houston native who could make a compelling addition beyond this year, though he'll be a free agent at season's end. Bet on him to help the team return to the postseason, even if the Astros can't hold off the resurgent Angels (currently on an 11–3 run) in the AL West.
The Southsiders were among the teams making a big splash this past winter, trading for Jeff Samardzija, signing free agents David Robertson, Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche, and boosting their Opening Day payroll nearly $29 million over last season. Though hardly favored in the AL Central, the team did appear likely to at least break .500 for just the second time since 2010, but so far, it's been an ugly mess. Even with nine wins in their final 12 games before the All-Star break, the Sox are 41–45 with a league-worst run differential (-73), offense (3.40 runs per game) and defense (.664 defensive efficiency). Among the regulars, only Jose Abreu (136 OPS+) and LaRoche (101) are producing at an above-average clip, and likewise for the rotation, where Chris Sale (137 ERA+) and Jose Quintana (101) are the only ones pulling in the right direction.
As July 31 approaches, bet on general manager Rick Hahn to flip Samardzija, a pending free agent, as well as Alexei Ramirez (55 OPS+, with a $10 million option for next year), because one team's under-performer is another's buy-low candidate. And don't be surprised if Ventura is shown the door, as the team has played just .458 ball on his watch; somebody has to take the fall here.
5. An era will end in Detroit
The Tigers have won four straight AL Central titles and gotten at least as far as the ALCS three times in that span, but since starting the year 11–2, they have the league's worst record (33–42) and second-worst run differential (-49). Miguel Cabrera could be out for another month due to a Grade 3 left calf strain; the rotation has been an utter disaster aside from David Price, with the unit's 4.48 ERA better than only the Red Sox; and the perennial tire fire that is the team's bullpen remains a perennial tire fire, because that's what tire fires do.
Owner Mike Ilitch's longstanding commitment to building a winner is admirable, but with the Tigers sporting a team-record $172.8 million payroll, their aging stars (including Justin Verlander, who's been limited to five starts) showing their wear and their farm system among the majors' worst, it may be that team president/GM Dave Dombrowski—who does not yet have a contract for next year—would rather face a new challenge than dig Detroit out of its current one. He won't lack for work if that's his desire; bet on the team to miss the playoffs and for Dombrowski to move on this winter.
At 44–44, the Orioles currently sit in third place in the AL East, four games behind the Yankees and 3 1/2 out in the Wild Card race. Their +39 run differential, the league's fifth-best, suggests they're better than that, and with the recent return of slugging second baseman Jonathan Schoop and the pending one of Kevin Gausman, who was last year's top starter but has been hampered by injury, the smart money here is that Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette will again find a way to get Baltimore to the postseason for the third time in four seasons.
As for the Twins (49–40), as pleasant a surprise as they have been under new manager Paul Molitor, they don't have enough above-average producers in their lineup even with the arrival of hotshot rookie Miguel Sano. They’ve turned the corner after some lean years, but the crystal ball says Minnesota will fall short.
7. An Alex Rodriguez home run will clinch the Yankees' first division title in three years
Because with the comeback from his year-long suspension and the resolutions of his milestone bonus for home run No. 660 and the return of his 3,000th hit—which together produced $3.65 million worth of charitable donations and saved the Yankees around $9 million—just about everything is coming up Milhouse for the going-on-40-year old slugger already.