by Tim Jeffery
As the 2017 baseball season sits just over two weeks shy of the all-star break it’s anyone’s guess who the favorites are to meet in the next World Series. And that is the true beauty of this sport.
Who didn’t know the Cleveland Cavs were headed for another showdown vs. Golden State in the NBA Finals? Unless you are a New England Patriots fan you probably wish to see someone else from the AFC represent in the Super Bowl.
Baseball doesn’t work that way. The game can humble the great teams or players from one season to the next.
Of the 10 teams who reached last year’s postseason, at least half are stumbling near the bottom of the standings.
Texas, Toronto and Baltimore from the American League and both the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants from the NL are headed for long summers. Mets’ fans can look forward to daily columns in the tabloids pointing out how awful their team has become, waiting for the fire sale of veteran players such as Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson and Lucas Duda.
The Mets still possess an array of good young starting pitchers but can’t keep more than a couple of them healthy at the same time.
What’s happened over the last month to the proud Baltimore Orioles franchise is historically bad.
The Orioles lost 15-5 to the Tampa Bay Rays Friday, and now have allowed five or more runs in 20 consecutive games. They have equaled the major league record set by the 1924 Phillies. It’s inconceivable a team could pitch so poorly day after day.
Baltimore played good baseball into early May but now there are even rumblings of trading its young phenom Manny Machado. Just 24, Machado has struggled mightily this season after most pegged him for greatness. He is one of the very few pieces the Orioles can offer to get pitching help.
With Baltimore’s struggles, rumors will start about its manager Buck Showalter. Long considered one of the brightest minds in the game, he will be grouped with others like Brad Ausmus of Detroit and possibly Clint Hurdle of the Pittsburgh Pirates as candidates to receive a pink slip this summer.
Houston, Milwaukee and the New York Yankees occupy top spots in their respective divisions, the latter two certainly in surprising fashion. The Astros, with arguably the biggest collection of young stars, were indeed expected to contend but they have owned baseball’s best record from day one while making a mockery thus far of the AL West.
Young sluggers George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman are destined for greatness in Houston. With seasoned vets like Jose Altuve, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann to guide the youngsters, it promises to be a serious cast to make noise this October.
The Astros have put together a runaway start even while working around injuries to their two best starting pitchers, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers. Both will be back in the mix soon, insuring this team isn’t going away.
The Sluggers around the league
New York’s Aaron Judge has been the game’s best player thus far in 2017, although Cody Bellinger of Los Angeles is right on his heels. Bellinger’s lefty swing is a thing of beauty as he has bolted to the top of the NL home run leaders. I see him as a better pure hitter down the road than Judge, although no one in the game matches the Yankee slugger’s brute strength.
Judge is listed at 6-foot-7 282 pounds which probably explains why MLB’s exit velocity stats (suddenly popular the last two years) show him as hitting the hardest home run, single and double in terms of speed off the bat this year.
Personally I’m all about sabermetrics as a way to determine a player’s value and strengths but the speed of the ball leaving the bat doesn’t do much for me. Hey they can all hit it pretty hard and far.
Does Judge really hit the ball any better (harder) than Bryce Harper or Mike Trout? The numbers may say so but Trout and Harper are proven as top five players in the game. If Judge continues on his current path, he’ll take home plenty of individual hardware.
The all-time Yankees’ franchise record for home runs by a rookie is 29, belonging to “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio. Judge is clearly about to blow by that with 25 before the season’s midway point.
One thing we know, Trout and Judge are 25 years old, Harper turns 25 in October and Correa is just 22. It’s going to be a ton of fun watching these young guys crush it over the next decade.
Certainly the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians remian in the discussion to return to the Fall Classic. Both are fortunate however no other team in their respective division has taken charge. The NL Central is probably baseball’s worst division, allowing the Cubs to meddle along near .500 and stay close to the top.
Not even current division leader Milwaukee appears capable of winning 87 games or getting 10 games over .500. It’s set up for the Cubs to get hot for three weeks and open a comfortable lead.
The Indians are in similar fashion with an upstart Minnesota Twins team and a resurgent Kansas City ball club pretending to contend, but Cleveland should win the AL Central by a sizable margin. It’s not a reasonable expectation for Minnesota to hang around when August arrives, simply not enough pitching but the Royals with the same core of players that went to consecutive World Series in 2014 and 2015, can’t be dismissed just yet.
The rest of the cast of contenders
The Dodgers and Washington could be headed for another battle in the post season. These two played a great five-game series last fall and a rematch might be even better. Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw have been equally great as the aces of their respective teams, but both rosters are dotted with exciting young talent.
After Friday’s start, Dodgers’ pitcher Alex Wood has dazzling numbers. The 26-year old lefty is 8-0 with a 1.86 ERA on the season. He doesn’t have enough innings yet to qualify for the ERA title after missing a couple weeks with inflammation in his SC (shoulder) joint. Friday’s turn came on six days of rest, and maybe that’s one key to his dominant numbers:
Of Wood’s 10 starts, only three came on four days of rest, one of those following a two-inning relief appearance. Before Friday, with an extra day or two of rest between starts, he has held batters to a .178 average and just two home runs. The rich just got richer.
While there have been some outstanding performances turned in by bullpen closers such as Greg Holland of Colorado with 25 saves, and both Craig Kimbrell of Boston and Tampa Bay’s Alex Colome posting 20 saves each to lead the American League, nothing stacks up to what Kenley Jansen is doing at the back end of the Dodgers’ bullpen.
He has enjoyed three straight big years with 47, 36 and 44 saves over the last three campaigns. Now he is even better. Over 31 innings worked Jensen has surrendered just 17 hits and three earned runs. Couple that with 50 strikeouts and zero walks making it a first half of historic account. Fifty strikeouts and zero walks doesn’t even seem possible.
Elsewhere I’ll keep an eye on two clubs with a good chance of playing October baseball. The Boston Red Sox remain the favorite to win the AL East with a lineup led by Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts and lefty pitcher Chris Sale, still as nasty as ever.
The other is the Arizona Diamondbacks. Only the great first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and ace hurler Zach Greinke are household names in the desert. Goldschmidt is currently fourth in the NL batting chase at .332 and leads the league in RBIs with 64. His teammate Jake Lamb is a terrific defensive third baseman and brings a lot of lumber as well, with 61 runs batten in.
The Diamondbacks swing the bats as well as any team in the majors. If young pitchers such as Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker continue to be solid behind Greinke, I like their chances.
Imagine a Houston vs. Arizona World Series if you will. It’s not that far fetched in the ever changing landscape of MLB.
(Feature Photo AP)