With the second half of the MLB season under way this weekend, there is no shortage of story lines to sustain us for the next two-and-a-half months. Start with the fact that on Saturday morning, there were no fewer than 22 teams either in position for a playoff spot or within seven games of one. No, this doesn’t mean we think the Twins or the Mets are going anywhere, but if one of those fringe teams reels off five straight wins, there will be hope in their home ballparks.
This is what the second wild card gives us.
With that, some races — and other things — to keep an eye on.
Athletics-Angels: Is it possible the two best teams in the game start their games when the East Coast has gone to bed? This race pits strength against strength. Oakland leads the American League in ERA (3.08) and rotation ERA (3.13). The Angels lead the league in runs scored and on-base percentage (.334) and are second in both slugging percentage (.427) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.761). It pits two of the most intriguing players in the league — presumptive MVP Mike Trout and A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson — against each other. And it represents a high-revenue, sign-free-agents approach (the Angels’ payroll is roughly $128 million) against a develop-from-within, budget-conscious-signings tack (the A’s pay $77 million in salary).
National League Central: A year ago, this division produced three playoff teams and the NL champion. Now, four teams are within 3 1/2 games of each other. It may come down to who’s healthiest. St. Louis, the defending champ, must deal with the loss of the heart of its team, catcher Yadier Molina, for at least two months with torn thumb ligaments, and 2013 postseason stud Michael Wacha is still on the disabled list with shoulder problems. Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips could miss two months after thumb surgery, and first baseman Joey Votto’s bad left quadriceps has cost him two trips to the DL and more than 30 games. Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole, the most talented pitcher in the rotation, is working his way back from a lat strain; though he’s eligible to come off the DL, the Pirates haven’t yet activated him. Indeed, the division-leading Brewers could be the favorite on health alone.
David Price and the trade deadline: For a month or more, the Tampa Bay lefty has been the most interesting commodity (possibly) on the market, a pitcher who could completely alter a team’s future over the next season-and-a-half. But if Price doesn’t move by the July 31 non-waiver deadline, who will? The Cubs already dealt option 1a for teams looking for starting pitching (right-hander Jeff Samardzija), and there could be bit parts floating around (Padres third baseman Chase Headley, Red Sox right-hander Jake Peavey, etc.). If Tampa stands pat, the contending teams may be the contending teams.
The Astros and Aiken: This is, admittedly, well off the field and will have no impact on this year’s pennant races. But Houston’s inability to sign No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken, a high school lefty from San Diego, will reverberate throughout the sport. Aiken’s signing seemed to be linked to Houston’s fifth-round pick Jacob Nix, who is also represented by adviser Casey Close. The players’ union is already decrying the fact that Houston made Aiken an offer and then balked, supposedly because of concerns about his pitching arm. Most in the game expect a grievance to be filed. But the case could lead to changes in the draft system, including a medical combine that would subject potential draftees to all kinds of exams. The on-field implications: After showing promise following a complete rebuild, the Astros’ progress stalls, and their reputation takes a hit with players and agents.
BY THE NUMBERS:
1.016: Mike Trout’s OPS over the last calendar year (July 18, 2013-July 18, 2014), the best in the game during that period.
2.53: ERA for Nationals RHP Tanner Roark over the past calendar year (prior to Saturday’s start). Only two pitchers with enough innings to qualify have posted a better number: Clayton Kershaw (1.68) and Zack Greinke (2.53).
1.381: OPS for Nationals OF Jayson Werth in July, the best in baseball in that time. Werth’s .909 slugging percentage also leads this month.