After an All-Star Game that spectacularly showcased our national pastime’s present and future stars — Mike Trout is both — we’re confronted with another theme of contemporary baseball: gridlocked standings, courtesy of competitive balance.
In the American League, for example, every team except the league-best Kansas City Royals has a winning percentage between .451 and .551. The Boston Red Sox are last in the AL East … but only 6½ games out of first place.
Less than three months from now, the ambiguity will be gone and the 2015 postseason will begin. Here are five teams that — on the field or through their front offices — will have an outsized influence on Major League Baseball throughout the second half.
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Yankees: They’re back … or something close to it. The Yankees entered the 2014 and 2013 All-Star breaks staring at five- and six-game deficits, respectively. Now they hold a 3½-game lead and own the AL’s second-best record since June 1.
Remember this: The Yankees haven’t failed to reach the postseason after leading the AL East at the All-Star break since 1987, according to STATS LLC.
Catalyst Jacoby Ellsbury returned shortly before the All-Star break, and the Yankees promptly went 4-1 with him in the lineup. Brett Gardner and Mark Teixeira were deserving All-Stars, and Alex Rodriguez would have been, too. While the rotation has had dominant nights — thanks mostly to Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka — the Yankees are winning because of a productive lineup and overwhelming late-inning bullpen. That should be enough to win the mediocre AL East, especially if the Yankees’ front office takes the familiar course of flexing its financial might in order to add payroll at the deadline.
Angels: Remarkably, the Angels arrived at the break in superb condition — psychologically and in the AL West standings, which they lead for the first time since April 17. A tense period of internal conflict ended with the resignation of general manager Jerry Dipoto on July 1; the Angels have won seven of 10 since.
Suddenly, we’re being reminded that the 2015 Angels have many of the same players who produced the best record in the majors last year. Trout is the sport’s most dominant player since Barry Bonds, with Albert Pujols — himself a future Hall of Famer — saying after the All-Star Game that he feels “blessed to have the opportunity to wear the same uniform.” And Pujols is not the type of man who offers a compliment of that sort without meaning it sincerely.
Trout’s greatness is not exactly a recent development, but the reliability of the Angels’ rotation has been. Hector Santiago made his first All-Star team after finishing third in the AL with a 2.33 ERA in the first half, and Andrew Heaney has a 1.32 ERA over four starts since joining the rotation in late June. If Santiago and Heaney maintain their current levels of performance, the Angels should be able to hold off the storybook Houston Astros.
Pirates: My preseason forecast of a World Series title for the Seattle Mariners won’t come to pass, and so it’s time to pick a new winner. Based on my track record, I wish to offer my apologies to the good people of Pittsburgh, because the Pirates are that team.
The Pirates have the best all-around player in the National League (Andrew McCutchen), an All-Star closer (Mark Melancon), and arguably the best four-man postseason rotation of any team in the sport, fronted by All-Stars Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett. The Pirates have an ideal combination of recent postseason experience and motivation to atone for early exits in both ’13 and ’14.
Emotionally, they ended the first half with back-to-back walk-off wins against the rival St. Louis Cardinals, serving notice that they may be ready to topple the NL’s dominant team of the decade. The atmosphere at PNC Park last weekend was so electrifying that McCutchen said the Pirates and Cardinals players talked about it during the All-Star Game festivities.
Reds: The fourth-place Reds aren’t going to the World Series, but they’ll be able to help a team (or two) get there by trading some combination of Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman, J.J. Hoover, Marlon Byrd and Jay Bruce.
It’s far from certain that Cincinnati will trade all six of those players, but general manager Walt Jocketty will receive scores of phone calls about Cueto and Leake in particular. And now that the All-Star Game is over, owner Bob Castellini is expected to give his blessing for the start of a measured (if not more dramatic) rebuild.
Dodgers: The Dodgers’ $270 million Opening Day payroll was the largest in MLB history, and most of the questions surrounding the team now are related to that fact.
How will front-office bosses Andrew Friedman (ex- of Rays) and Farhan Zaidi (ex- of Athletics) handle their first trade deadline as large-market decision makers? Will they attempt to trade the mercurial-yet-talented Yasiel Puig, as some baseball observers have advocated? Can Clayton Kershaw halt his postseason struggles against the St. Louis Cardinals? Will star prospect Corey Seager arrive in the second half and jolt the Dodgers’ inconsistent offense?
Cole Hamels, Cueto, Chapman … You name them, the Dodgers probably have the prospects — and money — to trade for them before July 31. No scenario is too grandiose for a team with proven front-office creativity and an apparently limitless budget.
Drama is certain to unfold at Chavez Ravine in the coming months … and the baseball games should be OK, too.