11 biggest questions for the second half of the MLB season

Gentlemen, charge your cell phones.

The period between the All-Star break and non-waiver deadline always is one of the most frenzied on the baseball calendar, setting the tone for the rest of the season.

The first major activity came on Thursday night, when the Red Sox acquired left-hander Drew Pomeranz from the Padres for a highly regarded pitching prospect, right-hander Anderson Espinoza.

More trades will be discussed and completed — and actual games also will be played as clubs try to identify their needs with the non-waiver deadline looming on Aug. 1.

My biggest questions as play resumes Friday:

 

 

The question seemed laughable as recently as June 19, when the Cubs led the Cardinals by 12.5 games and the Pirates by 15. Since then the Cubs have lost 15 of 20, reducing their leads over the Cardinals to seven games and the Pirates to 7.5.

(Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The Cubs insist that all is well, that they simply got tired during a run of 24 games in 24 days, and maybe a little complacent, too. Perhaps, but keep an eye on the rotation, which had an 8.10 ERA in the final 11 games before the break.

The Pirates appear the most serious threat — they entered the break on a 12-4 roll, including 5-2 against the Cardinals and Cubs. The return of Gerrit Cole and ascents of several young pitchers should help, and nearly half of the Pirates’ remaining games are against the rebuilding Brewers, Phillies, Reds and Braves.

 

 

Most of us have an opinion on what the answer should be (YES!), but team president Randy Levine told me again on Thursday that ownership believes in the club and will wait until closer to the deadline to make a decision.

The difficulty of the Yankees’ schedule could make ownership’s decision easier — the team’s next 13 games are against the contending Red Sox, Orioles and Giants (all at home), then the Astros.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

One possibility that the Yankees are considering if they stay competitive, according to major-league sources: Signing potential free-agent closer Aroldis Chapman to an extension.

The team has yet to initiate any such discussions, sources say, and retains the option of trading Chapman and then re-signing him in the offseason without losing a draft pick.

 

 

I’ll bet it’s a surprise.

We’ve known for months that the market is thin. But general managers often are creative under such circumstances, and every year at the deadline, they make our heads spin.

Rockies right fielder Carlos Gonzalez probably is the best player among the current candidates to be traded. Yet even he ranks only 35th in Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement for position players (Pomeranz is 16th among pitchers). And the Rockies hardly are certain to trade him; Gonzalez is a free agent after next season, and the team does not need to escape his contract the way it did Troy Tulowitzki’s.

Carlos Gonzalez (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

No matter, big things will happen, things that none of us can anticipate. It’s that way almost every year.

 

 

The Padres already have sent Fernando Rodney to the Marlins and Pomeranz to the Red Sox. The Athletics will be busy, too.

It will be interesting to see if the trade of Pomeranz emboldens the Pads to make a similar move with infielder Yangervis Solarte, who is under control through ’19. The difference, of course, is that the demand for starting pitching is greater than the supply for hitting. Catcher Derek Norris, left fielder Melvin Upton Jr. and right fielder Matt Kemp also are trade candidates, though clubs likely would require significant cash in deals for the latter two.

The Athletics’ potential free agents include left-hander Rich Hill, right fielder Josh Reddick and left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski. A number of other pieces — most notably, third baseman Danny Valencia and righty relievers John Axford and Ryan Madson — also could be in play.

Right-hander Sonny Gray? He would need to suddenly rebuild his value in his final three starts before the deadline, but the A’s probably would command a higher return this offseason if Gray has a big second half.

Josh Reddick (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

 

 

Hill, unlike Pomeranz, is a potential free agent. But as I pointed out in my Full Count video on Saturday, any team that wants Hill should not expect anything close to a bargain.

Yes, Hill missed 3.5 weeks with a strained left groin, but he would lead the American League in ERA and rank second in strikeout rate if he had enough innings to qualify. His 2.25 ERA actually is lower than David Price’s was at this point last season, before the Tigers traded Price to the Blue Jays.

Hill obviously does not have as established a track record as Price, but he’s earning much less than his fellow left-hander was and he doesn’t need to be a rental; any team that acquires him would stand a chance of signing him long-term.

The Red Sox showed interest in Hill before acquiring Pomeranz and could always revisit those discussions, which almost certainly did not include Espinoza. The Rangers are another team interested in Hill, sources say.

 

Rich Hill (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

 

Put it this way: The Giants are 24-11 since losing right fielder Hunter Pence to hamstring surgery — and during that time they mostly were without reliever Sergio Romo and also lost second baseman Joe Panik, third baseman Matt Duffy and right-hander Matt Cain to injuries.

The Dodgers’ season is going fine — they are on pace for 91 wins and lead the wild-card race by 2.5 games. Left-hander Clayton Kershaw is on track to return before the end of the month, and the team will be targeting elite talent at the deadline.

Still, they trail the Giants by 6.5 games, and Pence and his injured teammates will be back soon.

Barring a series of unforeseen circumstances, it’s difficult to see how the Dodgers make this a race.

 

 

Clayton Kershaw (Harry How/Getty Images)

A case can be made that they already are crumbling, considering that since May 11 the Mets are only 26-29.

The season-ending loss of Matt Harvey, combined with the bone spurs in the respective elbows of Noah Syndergaard and Stephen Matz, only add to the tension surrounding this club.

The Mets entered the break tied for second with the Marlins in the NL East, six games behind the Nationals. The need for another starting pitcher, if only for depth, is rather evident. But the club, according to the New York Post, is focused mainly on relievers.

The lesson, which we learn year after year: It’s awfully difficult for a team to sustain success after playing deep into October.

 

 

The Indians are notoriously cautious in trade discussions, frustrating rival clubs with their reluctance to trade prospects. The Blue Jays’ top two baseball executives, Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, came from Cleveland, but are in a different position now.

Noah Syndergaard (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The Jays’ greater financial resources give Shapiro and Atkins the flexibility to be more aggressive, and the likely departures of Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and a number of other potential free agents only add to the team’s urgency.

True, former GM Alex Anthopoulos traded a slew of prospects last season to help the Jays reach the ALCS. Shapiro and Atkins can rationalize that the system is depleted and settle for moves on the margins, such as the acquisition of reliever Jason Grilli. But shouldn’t the Jays go big now and worry about replenishing later?

The Indians, meanwhile, are in a rare position, leading the AL Central by 6.5 games with prospects to trade. Another bat would help, considering that no one knows what left fielder Michael Brantley will contribute if and when he returns. The team also could use a left-handed reliever, the bigger the arm, the better.

 

 

The Rangers are in an enviable position, capable of moving an elite youngster such as infielder Jurickson Profar or infielder/outfielder Joey Gallo — or not, given the depth and quality of their farm system.

The problem with the current market is that the Rangers probably do not view any of the players who are known to be available as worthy of a Profar or Gallo. It’s the same argument the Red Sox could have made against trading Espinoza for Pomeranz.

Jose Bautista (Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

The other side, as Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski repeatedly demonstrates, is this: The rules of engagement are different when you’re trying to win. And the Rangers’ starting pitching, even with righty Yu Darvish returning on Saturday, is a bit of a mess.

The Rangers were on Pomeranz, and they’re on Hill. They figure to pursue any high-end reliever the Yankees make available. And they could use a catcher — preferably the Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy, but maybe the Padres’ Derek Norris.

A definite team to watch in the next two weeks.

 

 

We’ve already seen most of the top prospects make their debuts, but the White Sox are promoting right-hander Carson Fulmer on Friday and three other stars from the Future Games could reach the majors soon.

Alex Bregman should be the next to arrive, joining the Astros as a third baseman with Luis Valbuena moving to first and A.J. Reed to DH. Right-hander Alex Reyes could follow, bringing his 100-mph heat to the Cardinals’ bullpen, though club officials want him to build a foundation of innings so that he is ready to start next season.

Joey Gallo (Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

Outfielder Andrew Benintendi probably is the least prepared, with only 196 plate appearances above Class A. But the Red Sox already have tried seven left fielders, and Dombrowski has said he is not afraid to summon a prospect from Double A to the majors.

 

 

Fredi Gonzalez, fired by the Braves on May 17, could end up the only manager who is dismissed in-season. Industry sources indicated during the All-Star break that the D-backs’ Chip Hale could be in imminent danger, but team sources deny that is the case.

The Reds’ Bryan Price and Rockies’ Walt Weiss also appear safe for now, though — ike Hale — they could be casualties at the end of the season. Then there are the managers of contenders who could lose their jobs if their teams fail to meet expectations. The Red Sox’s John Farrell, Blue Jays’ John Gibbons, Tigers’ Brad Ausmus, and White Sox’s Robin Ventura all would figure to be on that list, and the Mets’ Terry Collins could be, too.

Alex Bregman (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Chip Hale