Chicago Cubs set tone for upgrades

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It’s been slightly more than a week since the main event of the World Series of Poker got underway in Las Vegas. The utterance of the event’s catch phrase, “shuffle up and deal,” is analogous to the phrase “play ball” that is bellowed by the home plate umpire to start a baseball game.

The “shuffle up and deal” reference is even more appropriate to baseball at this time of the season with the approaching non-waiver trade deadline of July 31.

And, sure enough, the dealing has begun with the first major trade of the season taking place last Thursday as the All Star break was winding down.

The Chicago Cubs parted with a quartet of prospects to acquire arguably the best starting pitcher expected to be involved in a deadline trade, lefty Jose Quintana, from the crosstown White Sox.

Another National League contender, the Washington Nationals, made a move to address their glaring weakness by trading for late inning relief specialists – and potential closers – Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson – from Oakland. The Washington bullpen has been a disaster all season and could potentially be the cause of yet another early post season exit for the likely number two seed.

Over the next two weeks there will be more comings and goings as teams try to enhance their rosters – and their prospects – for what hopefully results in first making the post season and then going deep into that run.

The Wild Card chase in the American League should be much more interesting and contentious than the race in the NL. Through Sunday every AL team was within nine games of the second Wild Card.

Contrast that race with the Wild Card race in the National League. Arizona has a one game lead over NL West rival Colorado for the top Wild Card but no other team is within five games of the Rockies. The first team out of the Wild Card is Chicago. The Cubs, greatly encouraged by the outstanding performance of Quintana in his Sunday debut at Baltimore, start the week 5.5 games behind Colorado with surprising Atlanta a half game behind the Cubs with a .500 record.

Three Division races are virtually decided with roughly 70 games still left to play. Those races are so lopsided the Westgate sportsbook did not even offer odds to win the AL West, NL East or NL West when they posted revised Division odds during the All Star break.

Houston started this week with a 16.5 game lead over second place Seattle in the AL West. Washington had a 9.5 game lead over Atlanta in the NL East. And the Dodgers had a 10.5 game lead over second place Arizona in the NL West. What is impressive about that Dodgers margin is the second place Diamondbacks are 14 games over .500.

The Dodgers have the best record in baseball (64-29), which is a game and a half better than the best record in the American League, held by Houston (62-30). It will be interesting to track how both the Dodgers and Astros fare laying the run-and-a-half over the next six weeks through the end of August. Given the record of both teams each is likely to be favored in the overwhelming majority of their games during this time frame.

This pair of teams is blowing away the rest of MLB in terms of runs differential with the Dodgers plus 172 runs through this past Sunday (93 games) and the Astros plus 167 through 92 games. There is a huge gap between this duo and the team with the third greatest runs differential, Washington, which is plus 108. To put the accomplishment of the Dodgers and Astros into an even more impressive contest, consider that the worst team in terms of runs differential is San Diego. The Padres are “only” minus 121 runs with second worst San Francisco at minus 106.

We all know how the economics of baseball take precedence over putting the best possible product on the field and here is yet another example. On Sunday night the Yankees concluded a four game series at Boston in the second game of a day/night double header. The Yankees then had to board a plane to travel to play in Minnesota on Monday night.

Forget about the fact the double header was necessitated by an earlier rainout or the Yankees and Red Sox had played 16 innings on Saturday. Those things happen over the course of a baseball season.

What can be avoided is the type of scheduling that has a team playing a Sunday night game in one location and then playing the next night halfway across the country. The scheduling of the made up Yankees-Red Sox game could have had the teams  play later in the season, perhaps even scheduling a double header for the middle day of what was originally a three game series.

The most hideous example of a league not caring about the welfare of its players, which often translates to a poor performance on the field, can be found in the NFL. With all the concerns about concussions and other injuries and their long term effect on players how can the NFL justify having teams play on Sunday and again on Thursday, especially when one of the teams (sometimes both) has to travel.

The product – and players’ health – would be better served by only having Thursday games involve two teams that had byes the previous week. For many years the only Thursday games were on Thanksgiving. And for many years there were just two such games. Then a game was added for Thanksgiving night and then more Thursday night games became a regular part of the schedule, first for half a season and more recently the full season.

OK.

Here are looks at three series this weekend.

St. Louis at Chicago Cubs: These teams have played three prior series this season. The home team has won the last five games between the teams and six of the nine overall, including a three game sweep by the Cubs in early June, the only series of three played at Wrigley Field. The UNDER held a 5-3-1 edge.

If reasonably priced, the Cubs, laying -140 or less, are worth backing in any matchup. To be interested in the Cardinals they would have to be getting +150 or more and starting Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake or Lance Lynn. The wind always plays a factor in setting the total at Wrigley Field. If the Total is in a “neutral” range of between 8 and 9.5 consider the OVER except in starts by St. Louis’ Leake (11-6-1 to the UNDER) or Chicago’s Eddie Butler (9-2 to the UNDER).

Texas at Tampa Bay: These teams are meeting for the first time this season. Texas has a pair of quality starting pitchers in Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. Tampa’s best pitcher has been young rookie Jake Faria who’s posted a 2.00 ERA and 0.98 WHIP through seven starts, averaging 6.4 innings per start. Ace Chris Archer has been solid as has Alex Cobb.

In a matchup of Darvish or Hamels against Archer, Cobb or Faria look to play the underdog if getting +115 or higher, and in such a matchup look to play UNDER 8 or higher. Normally the guideline would be 7.5 but the Rays are 28-18 to the OVER at home. Texas is 26-20 to the UNDER on the road. Look to the OVER if none of those five named pitchers start. If one of the five pitches against a non-named starter, look to back the favorite if laying -140 or less and OVER 7.5 or less.

Oakland at NY Mets: The lone interleague series of the weekend pits a pair of teams likely to end their seasons after 162 games. Look to play on Oakland in starts by Sonny Gray and Sean Manaea as underdogs against any Mets starter. Otherwise, look to play the Mets as favorites of -140 or less in starts not involving Jacob deGrom, who can lay up to -160. If deGrom faces Gray or Manaea look to play the UNDER at 7.5 or higher. Otherwise, in most cases consider playing OVER 8 or lower.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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