Hope is the operative word for so many teams in the second half of the season, which, depending on your perspective, is either the dividend or curse of the parity Bud Selig has bestowed upon the big leagues. It feels as if everyone has a road map to October, including the Yankees. And, yes, we’re also looking at you, Little Blue Engine from Flushing.
Of course, there’ll be a couple of near-sure bets down the stretch. We can’t see the Tigers coughing up their lead in the AL Central, and we’re still betting on the A’s to hold off the Angels in the West. Otherwise, there’s plenty of room for imagination.
This list could stretch into infinity, but here are baseball’s top 10 story lines and how they’ll likely impact the coming pennant races.
1. Nelson Cruz’s power surge
No one will ever confuse the Orioles with the 1927 Yankees, but let’s face it, they’re playing better than anyone thought, even considering a mini slump before the break. They have a respectable lead in the East and have given up the fewest runs in the division.
The real narrative, though, is being written by Cruz, who was suspended for 50 games in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal last season and has returned with a vengeance. He’s slugged 28 home runs with 74 RBI so far.
Is it more than just “vengeance” though? Red Sox manager John Farrell made an oblique reference to Cruz “looking strong” during a recent series against Boston. Whatever is fueling Cruz’s production, it’s made the Orioles the team to beat in the East.
2. Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow injury
It’s going to be a tortuous wait for the Yankees, who keep praying for a best-case resolution to Tanaka’s partial UCL-tear. However, hardly anyone around the game thinks Tanaka will be able to avoid Tommy John surgery and that the Yankees are, in the words of one executive, “in a bad, bad spot” without their ace.
The Bombers are indeed still in a state of shock, but sooner or later they’ll get around to a deeper investigation of Tanaka’s injury. There are whispers he was already deteriorating after heavy use in Japan, but the real culprit might be the major leagues’ slightly bigger, heavier ball that blew out his ligament. If so, will the right-hander ever be the same?
3. The Red Sox’ belief in themselves (or not)
The Sox appear to be going nowhere except straight to pitchers and catchers next February, it’s only a question of when GM Ben Cherington makes a decision about being a buyer or seller at the July 31 trading deadline.
If the Sox indeed decide they’re out of the race, they could take the bold step of dealing Jon Lester, who is a free agent after the season and isn’t anywhere close to a new deal with Boston. It’s hard to imagine the Sox surrendering, but the hangover-effect of last year’s World Series has clearly come and gone. This isn’t merely a defending champion off to a slow start, it’s a bad team, period.
So, if Lester is ultimately made available, could the Sox totally break it down and be ready to deal John Lackey, too?
4. Mike Trout’s rise to greatness
Let’s rephrase that, because Trout is already a beast, evidenced by his performance in the All-Star Game. It might’ve been Derek Jeter’s night, but it was Trout who played in another dimension and ended up winning the MVP award (and a Corvette). If the Angels somehow catch the A’s, it’s because Trout single-handedly leads them.
Trout is still only 22, and has offensive numbers (more than 500 hits, 300 runs, 200 walks, 80 home runs) that match the early-career production of none other than Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Al Kaline and Ken Griffey Jr.
5. Curtis Granderson’s hot streak
We’ll admit, we were ready to abandon the Mets to the ash heap a month ago — heck, even two weeks ago. But they were resurrected in back to back series against the Braves and Marlins and, wouldn’t you know, they’re in third place, just seven games out with a plus 19 run differential. It’s not a chest-beating number, but the Yankees are minus-37 and are the worse of the two teams right now.
The Mets still have much to prove, however, especially on the upcoming San Diego-Seattle-Milwaukee road trip. One of the keys to keeping alive a wild-card run is Granderson, whose debut in Flushing was highlighted by one strikeout every three at-bats. Since May 1, however, Granderson has hit 13 homers.
6. David Price’s availability
Remember what we said about the Red Sox and Lester? Technically the Rays are in the same circumstance, tied for last with Boston, trying to decide whether to hold on to their assets for a second-half run or trade their soon-to-be-free agent ace as a concession to the standings.
Our hunch is that Price isn’t going anywhere, and that the Rays, still a much better team than the Red Sox, will be going for it. Tampa Bay has won 20 of its last 31, bringing the wild-card berth to within eight games. It’s not impossible. You’d be wiser to keep tabs on the Phillies, in last place in the NL East and truly in the cesspool, as they mull dealing Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins.
7. Clayton Kershaw’s curveball
There are plenty of folks – us among them – who thought Kershaw deserved to start the All-Star Game for the National League. Considering Adam Wainwright’s comments after grooving a fastball to Jeter, it would’ve been best for everyone.
Kershaw is simply the sport’s best pitcher, now that Justin Verlander is in the earliest stages of decline and, unfortunately, Jose Fernandez blew out his arm earlier this year. The Dodgers’ modern-day Sandy Koufax is the reason the race in the NL West is so tight, and why the Dodgers can prevail in any head-to-head, late-race matchup with their rivals.
After spending more than a month on the DL with a strained lat, Kershaw has returned to post even better numbers than his Cy Young campaign in 2013. He’s striking out more hitters, walking fewer, getting more ground balls.
The Dodgers can thank Kershaw’s curveball for that. Back in May, the home run he allowed to Brandon Hicks was the first in 2,173 curves Kershaw had thrown in his career.
8. The Yankees’ offense (or lack of)
A seems like a previous life when the Bombers envisioned an 800-run season out of their upgraded offense. How different the prism looks today; with just 375 runs, the Bombers are 13th in the AL and 22nd in baseball. Their .314 on-base percentage is 12th in the league.
Almost every guess made by ownership this winter has, to some degree, fallen short of expectations. Some, such as Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, have flat-out failed. We’ll see what that means in October and whether the Bombers are still playing. It could have a huge bearing on Brian Cashman’s job security.
9. The Brewers’ offense
This category should’ve actually been called “The Brewers’ offense and whether it can hold off the Cardinals” because … well, it’s self explanatory. The Brew Crew, second in the NL in runs, was still in first place at the break, only the fourth time in franchise history they’ve held the top spot this late in the season.
But this doesn’t feel like the same team that had a 6 1/2-game lead on June 30. Today, the Brewers are only a game ahead of the Redbirds, and according to ESPN’s calculations, St. Louis has a better chance of making the playoffs (54.6 percent to 52.7).
10. Justin Verlander’s slow, insidious decline
OK, let’s put this in perspective. Just about every team in baseball would like to be saddled with the Tigers’ problem, if we can even call it that. They have the biggest first-place lead in the AL, the division’s best offense, and an 81.9 percent chance of getting to the playoffs, according to ESPN.
So what’s the problem? It’s Verlander. He’s averaging just 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings, a 25 percent drop-off of his career norm, and actually under the league average of 7.36.
His fastball is down to 92.5 mph this year, the third year in a row it’s declined. Verlander says he’s not injured, but he’s not even the Tigers’ second-best pitcher anymore: Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello are statistically superior. Stay tuned.