Cubs comeback? Texas-sized milestone? Home run history? Second-half stories to watch
- The second-half to the major league season should be filled with plenty of intriguing plot lines, including the potential for mass chaos in the AL wild-card race, two teams vying for a record number of wins and an unheralded star chasing a major milestone.
The MLB season resumes on Friday. Before it does, we decided to check with our baseball experts to see what they are most looking forward to in the second half:
1. Whether the Cubs respond positively or negatively to the pressure of their standings. Chicago entered the All-Star break at 43-45, 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central. At this time last year, the Cubs were 53-35 and in first place by seven games. They're in even worse shape in the wild-card race, trailing the Rockies by six games in the loss column for the last playoff spot. There's still time for the world champions to regain their form of a year ago, but they'll need better pitching, better defense and more consistency from their lineup; Kris Bryant (.928 OPS) and Anthony Rizzo (.894) can't carry this team all by themselves.
2. The promotion of Mets shortstop Amed Rosario. The 21-year-old Rosario, the majors' No. 8 prospect before the season according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, is batting .327/.365/.474 this year in his first exposure to Triple A. The woeful Mets (39-47) don't figure to be a factor in the postseason chase, but getting Rosario up to Queens could be one of the few bright spots in their season.
3. Whether the Houston Astros trade for a pitcher who will start one of the first three games of the Division Series. Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers are a combined 16-2 with a 2.43 ERA. The team's other three starters to have made at least 10 starts (Mike Fiers, Charlie Morton and Joe Musgrove) are 15-14 with a 3.56 ERA.
4. A three-way tie for the AL wild card race. In the NL, no team is closer than 7 1/2 games in the wild-card race. In the AL, every team is within that distance. The Yankees and Rays lead for the moment, with six teams no more than four games behind. If the first-ever three-way tie for a wild-card spot does occur, here's what would be done in order to break it.
5. The win totals for the Dodgers and Astros. Both Los Angeles (61-29) and Houston (60-29) are on pace to win 109 games. Only one team this century, the 2001 Mariners who tied the 1906 Cubs' all-time record of 116 victories, have won more than two-thirds of their games. The Astros have a commanding 16 1/2 game advantage in the AL West, while the Dodgers are 7 1/2 games up in the more competitive NL West.
Game of Thrones, a demolition derby, pick your metaphor . . . the AL wild card race is going to be a glorious mess. While no current outsider in the NL’s playoff picture is closer than 7 1/2 games from that league’s last berth, every single team in the AL is currently within that many games of a spot. If fans in all 15 of its cities will be energized, its GM's will be tortured. Which club will sell despite still being alive—the A’s? Which will buy, and sacrifice its future, for a shot at a one-and-done October—the Royals? It’s a second half designed by Littlefinger, aka Bud Selig. Enjoy.
Aaron Judge certainly had an interesting week, didn't he? His victory in the Home Run Derby had many anointing him the new face of baseball, which led to a backlash to those proclamations, which then turned into more cynicism when Judge went hitless in the AL's 2-1 win in the All-Star Game. Forget all of that. Judge, 25, is the most exciting power hitter in baseball, with a major-league-best total of 30 that has raised the possibility that he will reach the hallowed ground of 60 home runs this season. That won't be easy—he is on pace for 57, and that assumes there's no drop off as he endures his first full MLB season and the adjustments pitchers are sure to make against him—but in a season highlighted by homers and in a sport that is looking for new heroes and still battling with the remnants of the Steroid Era, a clean pursuit of Babe and Roger is just what baseball needs.
Adrian Beltre is one of the best players in the game, and one of the most joyous to watch—that violent swing, the homers from one knee, the graceful defense, his ongoing comedy routine with Elvis Andrus. He’s a sure Hall of Famer (first ballot if the voters have a lick of sense), and at the break he is 22 hits away from No. 3,000. Watching him get there will be a pleasure.
Just how high can the Astros fly? We put our money on Houston going all the way back in 2014. Just four years after losing at least 100 games for the third straight season, the Astros are on pace to not only blow past the franchise record of 102 wins set in 1998 but also to become just the ninth team ever to win 109 games. Houston's offense averages nearly six runs per game, and if the pitching staff can get healthy and GM Jeff Luhnow can add a starter at the trade deadline, this club could make our prediction come true.
A handful of surprise teams have emerged as postseason contenders, but how many will be able to stay around in the pennant race? Impressive first halves by the Rockies and Diamondbacks were overshadowed by the Dodgers' remarkable closing stretch before the break in which L.A. went 26-4 and didn't lose conseuctive games at any point. Somehow, the Brewers are pacing the NL Central coming off an 89-loss season, and it's not particularly close with a 5 1/2-game lead over the Cubs. And don't sleep on the Twins or Rays either, with both teams already in playoff position or on the doorstep of it.