Bold predictions: Cubs, Royals, Yankees are playoff-bound; Dodgers will set a record; more
The passing of 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 July 31 trade deadline. In a grand tradition begun in 2012, it's also time for me to offer my bold predictions for the second half.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Predictions are a necessary evil in this industry. In the business of writing about baseball, you're expected to make 'em, and to wear 'em when they don't pan out, because hell hath no fury like a fan base armed with Google and a grievance. No matter how you arrive at them — mind-melding with Nate Silver, handing a 10-month old infant a few darts and a set of baseball cards, or referring back to last year's picks and doing the complete opposite — history has shown that most of them will be wrong anyway. A few will make you think you've cracked the code to this game for long enough to get a false sense of superiority. The majority will be star-spangled spectacularly wrong, worthy of burial in an unmarked grave in a distant sandlot.
What follows here are a fistful of predictions for the second half, all of them bold, some of them outlandish, maybe even a few of them right. The only guarantee I can make is that by season's end, somebody will have reminded me that I was wrong. After all, that's the entire purpose of the internet.
The Astros will trade for Sonny Gray
Houston's offense is a juggernaut, cranking out an MLB-high 5.92 runs per game. That's powered them to an AL-best 62-31 record while papering over a rotation that's a bit thin for playoff purposes. For as brilliant as Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers have been, they’ve combined for just 28 starts while each has served time on the disabled list for the second straight season. Keuchel has twice been sidelined by a pinched nerve in his neck and last pitched in a big league game on June 2. Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton are serviceable at the back of the rotation, but an upgrade is in order.
The 27-year-old Gray has bounced back from an injury-marred 2016 to pitch to a 3.72 ERA/3.46 FIP, and Oakland will reap a windfall by dealing him with three years of arbitration eligibility still ahead of him. The Astros’ deep farm system was ranked number three by Baseball America at the outset of the season, and they recently placed six players on that publication's midseason Top 100 Prospects list. It won't be painless, but Houston has the pieces to get a deal for Gray done, and an intradivision trade is no obstacle; the A’s and Astros have swung four of them since the latter joined the AL West in 2013.
Clayton Kershaw will lead the Dodgers to a franchise record for wins
With a 14-2 record and a 2.18 ERA, the 29-year-old southpaw certainly looks to be a candidate to win his fourth NL Cy Young, but by his own incredible standards, his ERA and 189 ERA+ would be his worst since 2012, and his 3.01 FIP his worst since 2010. He's struggled to keep the ball in the park, allowing a career-high 18 homers (1.2 per nine), and across the board, his numbers take a back seat to reigning NL Cy Young winner and All-Star starter Max Scherzer of the Nationals. Expect Kershaw to stamp out his gopher problem and overtake Scherzer for the league's ERA and WAR leads, while the Dodgers (64-29) will surpass both their Los Angeles win standard (102, last done in 1974) and their overall franchise record (105 wins in 1953), earning them home field advantage throughout the postseason as they vie for their first World Series championship since 1988.
Yonder Alonso (and Aaron Judge) will power the Yankees to a playoff spot
You read that right. The 30-year-old lefty-swinging A's first baseman, who in parts of seven previous seasons had slugged a combined .387 and never hit more than nine homers in a single year, has become a trade target thanks to his newfound power. After making some mechanical and philosophical adjustments, he's hitting more balls in the air than ever, and in this year of the home run (a record 1.26 per team per game), 21 of Alonso's fly balls have gone yonder, two more than from 2014 to '16 combined. The pending free agent will shore up a position where the Yankees have gotten an anemic .208/.295/.391 contribution from nine players, including the injured Greg Bird and the since-released Chris Carter, and help the Bronx Bombers claim a wild card berth.
As for Judge, the power-hitting sensation will tail off a little bit from his torrid first-half pace, but he'll still finish with 50 home runs, breaking by one the rookie record set by Mark McGwire in 1987.
The Pirates will hold on to Gerrit Cole but finally trade Andrew McCutchen
While general manager Neal Huntington hasn't sounded particularly inclined to move Cole amid a season in which he's yielded 1.6 homers per nine en route to a career-worst 4.35 ERA, the hard-throwing righty is now said to be available for the right offer. Cole still has two years of club control remaining after this season, and given that the Bucs view themselves as capable of contending next year, it makes sense to hold onto him.
As for Cutch, he just peeled off a 42-game, 11-homer, .403/.500/.718 binge that has lifted his overall line to .294/.382/.518, but much of his value has been negated by his defense in centerfield (-15 DRS, after -28 last year), the position he returned to when Starlin Marte was suspended for a failed PED test earlier this season. With prospect Austin Meadows still waiting in the wings despite a subpar showing in Triple A, it makes sense to trade McCutchen while his value is high; his salary (roughly $6 million remaining this year with a $14.5 million option for next) should facilitate a strong return. As to where he’ll go, the crystal ball is a little murky on that one.
Kyle Schwarber and a revitalized rotation will lead the Cubs to the NL Central title
With their offense, defense and rotation all having regressed significantly from last year's stellar performances, the defending champions' 43-45 first-half record left them 5 1/2 games behind the upstart Brewers at the All-Star break. Last Thursday's acquisition of Jose Quintana from the White Sox and the pending return of Kyle Hendricks should bolster a unit that's been lit for a 4.58 ERA this year, up from 2.96 last year.
Meanwhile, Schwarber has gone 6-for-26 with three doubles and two homers since returning from a two-week Triple A refresher course, and while his overall batting line is still a cringeworthy .177/.297/.399, the trend arrow is at least pointing in the right direction. The bet here is that everything is about to click into place for the 22-year-old slugger, and that the Cubs will get a chance to defend their title in October.
The Rockies will slip up and miss the playoffs, but the Brewers will hang on
As of June 20, Colorado owned the NL's best record at 47-26 (.644), one-half game better than the Dodgers and two games better than the Diamondbacks. Since then, the Rockies have gone an MLB-worst 7-15 to fall 11 games behind Los Angeles (which is 18-3 in that span) in the NL West, though they have maintained a 5 1/2 game cushion over the Cubs for the second wild card sot. Much of the credit for the Rockies' strong start belonged to Kyle Freeland, Jeff Hoffman, German Marquez and Antonio Senzatela, a quartet of rookie starters who are 22 to 24 years old and each of whom is preventing runs at a better-than-average clip and picking up the slack for the injured Jon Gray.
As strong as that group has been however, they're all heading for uncharted territory, innings-wise, in an environment where players fatigue more quickly. When combined with them getting above-average offense from only three regulars, that will be enough to sink them.
Meanwhile, the Brewers are ahead of schedule with their rebuild, sitting in first place in the NL Central despite having lost 89 and 94 games the past two seasons, respectively. They were reportedly aggressive in their pursuit of Quintana and are doing the same with Gray, so the bet here is that they will shore up their pitching staff by making trades for ex-Brewer Marco Estrada, now with Toronto, and All-Star Pat Neshek of the Phillies. That should be enough to help them hang on to a wild-card spot, which will be their first playoff berth since 2011.
The Cardinals will miss the playoffs and fire manager Mike Matheny
Last year's Redbirds squad missed the postseason for the first time since 2010, and this year's team (45-47) hasn't been above .500 since June 1. The bouncebacks of startersMike Leake, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha have been squandered by a squad that has drawn criticism for fundamental lapses and a bullpen that's been shaky at best. Matheny's handling of that unit, his lineup construction and his in-game maneuvers leave plenty of room for criticism; SI contributor Joe Sheehan recently ranked him 30th among current managers regarding his tactics and his handling of young players. Despite having been signed to a three-year extension last November, Matheny, like all managers, only has so much rope. It will run out long before his contract does.
The Royals will get one more shot in October before losing Cain, Hosmer and Moustakas
Through the end of May, Kansas City was an AL-worst 22-30, seemingly heading toward a deadline diaspora given the pending free agencies of longtime stars Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas as well as newly-minted All-Star pitcher Jason Vargas. Since then, the Royals have the league's second-best record behind only the Astros (23-16), and they're just two games out of the second wild card spot. Because approximately one billion Kansans and Missourians will take umbrage on social media otherwise, I am predicting that Ned Yost's plucky band of blue-clad baseballers will shore up their bullpen, convince Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar to hit again, and charge into the playoffs via a wild card berth.
It will be a fitting conclusion for the group that returned Kansas City to respectability and brought that city a World Series title in 2015, but it won't do anything to stop that aforementioned triumvirate of position players from heading for greener pastures in free agency.
Baseball Twitter will buy the Marlins and find Jeffrey Loria a new home
Forget those strange bedfellows who have been rumored to buy the team. Derek Jeter associated with a team besides the Yankees? Jeb Bush? Tagg Romney and Tom Glavine? Ivanka Trump and Greg Maddux? Ok, I made the last one up, but it's Loria who sounds as though he's ready to say "No, Mas" to the suitor with the deepest pockets.
No matter. Once the frenzy of deadline rumors and dumb trade proposals passes in late July, baseball Twitter will do something constructive. Driven by unironic love for the Dinger Machine and its foremost instigator, slugging outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, thousands upon thousands of users will band together via Kickstarter, raising not just a billion dollars to buy the team but the additional money to put Loria on a boat and push it off into the Bermuda Triangle.