The passing of both the season's true midpoint and the All-Star break means that it's time to get serious about the playoff races, particularly as teams sort themselves into contenders and pretenders in advance of the trade deadline (Aug. 1 this year, so as not to interrupt Sunday afternoon games). So in a grand tradition begun in 2012, it's time for me to offer my bold predictions for the second half.
Predictions are a necessary evil in this industry. If you're in the business of writing about baseball, you're expected to make 'em and to wear 'em if they don't pan out, because hell hath no fury like a fan base that remembers whom you picked to win back in March and whom you snubbed. No matter how you arrive at them—crunching numbers via NASA supercomputers, holding a candlelight séance with the ghost of Branch Rickey, glancing at last year's picks and doing the complete opposite—history has shown that most of them will be wrong anyway. The exceptions will make you think you've cracked the code to this game for long enough to get a false sense of superiority, but the majority will be star-spangled spectacularly wrong, worthy of burial in an unmarked grave in a distant sandlot when all is said and done.
Via my crystal ball, what follows here are a fistful of predictions for the second half for in the NL—some founded in good old common sense, others from out of leftfield. The only guarantee is that by season's end, somebody will have reminded me that I was wrong, because that's what the internet is for. For my AL predictions, go here.
1. Giancarlo Stanton will build on his Home Run Derby victory and power the Marlins to a wild-card spot as the banged-up Mets fall by the wayside
The All-Star Game couldn't live up to the spectacle of the game's top distance slugger bashing a Derby-record 61 homers with an average distance of 446 feet the night before. After sinking into a mysterious (and perhaps injury-related) slump in May and June, the 26-year-old Stanton came into the All-Star Break hitting .329/.396/.683 with eight homers over his past 21 games, a performance that has helped the upstart Marlins (47–41) catch up with the Mets in the NL East standings.
The Mets are still living off their 15–7 April record; they were below .500 in May and June. Their situation is grim: They won't get David Wright and Matt Harvey back for the remainder of the season due to surgery, have to hold their breath as Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard pitch through bone chips and are relying on James Loney and Jose Reyes (aka Public Enemy No. 1) to be productive. It says here that the defending NL champs won't be able to keep pace with their garishly-garbed Miami rivals, who will find a way to patch their shaky rotation (aside from Jose Fernandez and Adam Conley) and ride a surprisingly effective offense (ninth in scoring at 4.22 runs per game but tied for third with a 100 OPS+) into their first postseason appearance since 2003. As the Marlins close in on a spot, manager Don Mattingly—whose success I didn't exactly foresee, in case you were thinking of wagering your child's college tuition on these predictions—will regrow his famous mustache for good luck.
2. Reigning MVP Bryce Harper will go on a tear and put himself back in the MVP discussion
Like Stanton, Harper has been in an uncharacteristic funk, hitting just .237/.391/.397 in 65 games since April 28—even before that early May series in which the Cubs walked him 13 times. As MLB.com's Mike Petriello pointed out a month ago, he's swinging at far fewer strikes; his in-zone swing rate this season is just 68.2%, compared to 72.5% last year, and his quality of contact has suffered.
The 23-year-old Harper is far too talented, however, to meander along as a merely above average player, and with four homers in his last 12 games, he's shown signs of breaking out. Expect him to go off in the second half, helping the Nationals distance themselves from the NL East pack and putting himself back into the MVP discussion.
3. Clayton Kershaw will return from his back woes to finish off the best season we've seen since Pedro Martinez
With a 1.79 ERA, 1.70 FIP and 16.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the three-time Cy Young winner was amid the most dominant season we've seen since Martinez's 1999–2000 peak when his season hit a minor snag: four runs allowed in one inning—sacre bleu!—followed by a trip to the doctor for an epidural injection to treat a mildly herniated disc, then a stint on the disabled list. The 28-year-old southpaw isn't ready to come off the DL yet, but he's progressed to the point that he may avoid a rehab assignment, suggesting that he'll be back before month's end.
The Dodgers (51–40) have managed to go 10–4 since Kershaw’s last start thanks in part to the solid return of Brandon McCarthy from Tommy John surgery, but they're still just 37–38 in games not started by their ace. What's more, they've received quality starts from their non-Kershaw pitchers just 36% of the time and outings of seven or more innings only six times, exposing the flimsiness of the bridge to All-Star closer Kenley Jansen yet again (somewhere, Mattingly is nodding).
Given Los Angeles' wide variety of woes, which extend to an underachieving offense that's 11th in scoring (4.20 runs per game) and 10th in OPS+ (92), the bet here is that the Dodgers lack the firepower to overcome their 6 1/2-game deficit behind the surprisingly resilient Giants in the NL West. Instead, they'll slip into the playoffs via the wild card spot, setting up a Kershaw vs. Jose Fernandez matchup that will be the most widely viewed in the format's history.
4. The NL Central will produce just one postseason team for the first time since 2010
The Midwest has been bulking up the Senior Circuit's October slate for half a decade, supplying seven of the past nine wild cards, including six of eight since the one-game play-in format was introduced in 2012; in '13 and '15, both participants came from the division. But that streak will end this season.
The Cubs, whose 6–15 skid cost them a shot at the 2001 Mariners' record of 116 wins, still have more than enough talent to win the division with 100-plus victories. Forget trading for Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller: All they need is for manager Joe Maddon to think up more creative motivational t-shirt slogans along the lines of "Try not to suck" and "If you look hot, wear it." The Magic 8-Ball won't tell us whether the Cubs will end their 108-year championship drought, but when I asked it whether the 62-year-old skipper would retire after the 2016 season to focus on running an apparel line, it responded with, "Without a doubt."
As for the division's other hopefuls, the Pirates' rotation collapse—four starters with ERAs above 5.00—will be too much for them to overcome, even with the return of Gerrit Cole and eventually (hopefully) Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. Pittsburgh will instead deal Francisco Liriano and perhaps a few other parts before the Aug. 1 deadline. The Cardinals have made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons and won the division in the past three, but they too will fall just short this year. They've survived numerous injuries thanks to incredible depth and resourcefulness, but the combination of the loss of Matt Carpenter to an oblique strain, the ongoing decline of Yadier Molina (whose intended backup, Brayan Peña, has played just four games between DL stints) and the fact that four-fifths of their rotation is carrying ERAs above 4.00 tells me that this just isn't St. Louis' year.
5. The Braves will hold onto Julio Teheran, further thinning an already weak crop of trade targets
I've spent the better part of the past month convinced that the rebuilding Braves will move their 25-year-old righty, not only because they're not near contending but also because his cost certainty—he's guaranteed a modest $26.3 million from 2017 to '19—will help them net a huge return in a trade market dreadfully short of reliable starters. But the firmness of Braves general manager John Coppolella's resolve and the necessity for the currently dreadful team (31–58) to maintain some shred of respectability as the franchise heads into its new ballpark next year are enough to convince me that Atlanta will keep him.
That will leave teams in need of a starting pitching upgrade at the deadline squinting at change-of-scenery candidates (Liriano, the Padres' Andrew Cashner, the Twins' Ervin Santana) and pouring stiff drinks as they contemplate guys with shaky health records (Cashner, the Athletics' Rich Hill, the Rays' Matt Moore, the Padres' Drew Pomeranz) as options. It won't be pretty, but with the upcoming free-agent market also bereft of top-line talent in the wake of Stephen Strasburg's extension, teams will grin and bear it, in many cases taking on salary in the hopes that they can survive a winter that promises to be bleaker than that in Westeros.
6. Last year's predictions regarding Bryan Price and Carlos Gonzalez will finally come to fruition
As a good friend of mine likes to say, "Go to the barbershop every day and sooner or later you'll get a haircut." Rather than dwell upon whiffing at a few prognostications in the past, I'll claim just to have been a year ahead of my time in predicting that the Reds would fire Price before season's end and that the Rockies would take advantage of Gonzalez's continued health, productivity and cost certainty to further their rebuilding efforts.
Price, for years an excellent pitching coach, has looked overmatched as the skipper during Cincinnati's decline from contender to rebuilder, and the Reds are currently just 32–57 for a .360 winning percentage, the second-lowest in the franchise's 134-year history. It's not all Price's fault: This team wouldn't be quite as bad if catcher Devin Mesoraco and starters Homer Bailey and Anthony DeSclafani had been available all season, and the bullpen is historically awful. Still, the roster has many underachieving youngsters who are supposed to help turn things around, and it's probably time for them to hear a different voice, particularly as their current squad becomes even weaker when Jay Bruce gets dealt later this month.
As for Gonzalez, the 30-year-old slugger is hitting 318/.367/.557 with 19 homers and a 123 OPS+ and has played in all but three games for the team. That's on top of last year, when he set career highs of 153 games and 40 homers and hit .271/.325/.540. The money remaining on his deal (roughly $7 million remaining this year and $20 million next year) isn't an insurmountable hurdle, and while CarGo has taken a Tulowitzki-esque passive-aggressive approach to being dealt, GM Jeff Bridich proved last year that he's unafraid to pull the trigger on a trade even without a star's full blessing.