The second major milepost of the regular season is at hand with the July Fourth holiday marking pretty much the mathematical midpoint of the 162 game schedule. The next key date will be the deadline for making trades without waivers, July 31.
Teams have nearly a full month to take stock of their position in the standings, weaknesses that need to be addressed and whether addressing those needs will be enough to propel the team into the Playoffs.
Teams that decide the Playoffs are unlikely will be sellers of players to contending teams, with an eye on usually acquiring young, developing toward in an attempt to build for the future. Contending teams will provide the buying market, seeking to fix a need or two that will be expected to make the difference between making the Playoffs or falling short.
Scoring is up considerably this season from 2015 by a full half run per game as teams are combining to score 9.0 runs per game, or an average of 4.5 runs per team. You may wish to use that 4.5 rpg as a guide when looking at whether teams have been average, above or below.
As we reach the season’s midpoint and consider the prospects for teams going forward, here’s a brief Division by Division look at what may happen over the balance of the season with some thoughts on teams that may be worthy of backing or fading going forward.
Baltimore leads Boston by 3 games with defending Division winner Toronto a half game further back. All three teams figure to be buyers at the deadline with a need for starting pitching as each team’s offense had been above average.
The Yankees are the key team in the Division and at 40-41 could be sellers as easily as buyers. Most observers believe the Yanks will part ways with one or two of their late inning relievers, Andrew Miller and/or Aroldis Chapman. But whether either is made available to any of the top three teams is questionable although Chapman, being a free agent at the end of the season, might not be a member of the team to which he is traded next year.
The betting odds hold Baltimore in the highest regard with odds of 7-2 to win the AL pennant. Toronto and Boston are each 7-1 and the Yankees are 25-1. With Buck Showalter the Orioles have the best manager but Toronto may be the most complete team and would be the midseason pick to win the AL East with none of the others earning a Wild Card.
Cleveland’s franchise record 14 game winning streak has made the Indians the current chic pick to win the AL pennant. Despite the winning streak ending with a pair of losses to Toronto over the weekend, Cleveland started the week with a 5.5 game lead over Kansas City. The two time defending AL champion Royals have endured injuries but have one of baseball’s best bullpens. Starting pitching has been a major issue that will need to be addressed in the coming weeks.
Both Detroit and Chicago have rosters talented enough to contend for the Wild Card but Cleveland should be the Division winner. Picked by many to win the AL Central back in March, the Indians have the best starting rotation in the AL, if not in all of MLB. The offense had been shaky but has gelled over the past few weeks. If they can acquire Jay Bruce from Cincinnati, rumored to be available, Cleveland can cement its position as top dog in the AL Central.
The oddsmakers have taken notice and only Texas, at 3-1 to win the AL pennant, has higher odds than the 7-2 currently being offered on the Tribe. Ably led by two time World Series winning manager Terry Francona, could this be the season when Cleveland wins a second major professional sports title within six months of ending a 52 year drought?
Texas has been the story the first half of season, fashioning the best record in the AL at 52-31 through Sunday. The Rangers made a strong run last season after trading for lefty starter Cole Hamels in July to overtake Houston. The Astros have overcome a terrible start to stand 43-39 through Sunday and are within a game of the second AL Wild Card. Seattle is tied with the Astros and those three teams figure to be busy at the trade deadline.
Of the three, Houston may be the best “play on” team over the second half of the season and Texas – who has rewarded backers with 27 units of profit to date – would be a “play against” team over the next few months. Seattle, with some young developing starters, is in excellent position to outlast Houston for a Wild Card with Texas likely the Division winner.
The Mariners have remained in contention despite ace Felix Hernandez on the DL for more than a month but likely to return just after the All Star break.
Washington entered July 4 with a 5 game lead over the New York Mets with Miami a game and a half further back. The Nationals have been the class of the Division all season with a balanced lineup and depth both in their starting rotation and bullpen. Still, the Nationals might be in the market for another starting pitcher as the trade deadline nears.
Along with Chicago, the Mets have the best rotation in the NL but there are lingering injury concerns with several of their starters. The offense has been an issue all season although the addition of Jose Reyes should provide a boost to that offense, which has been poor, averaging just 3.8 runs per game both at home and on the road. Another bat would help the prospects for a return to the Playoffs of the defending NL Champs, even though it might cost them starter Zach Wheeler who, despite a recent setback, is on course to return from Tommy John surgery in August.
Miami needs another starter to complement ace Jose Fernandez. The Marlins will also get 2B Dee Gordon back from his half season suspension, which will give further boost to an offense that has been below average. Washington is the pick to win the NL East but Miami will be the “play on” team over the second half of the season. If they are able to procure a top flight starter the Marlins would be a pick to earn a Wild Card with the Mets likely to also earn a Wild Card, even if they stand pat at the deadline due to their strong pitching staff.
The Cubs should win the Division easily although their recent slump has them on pace to win “only” 102 games with their 51-30 mark through Sunday. The addition of a solid bullpen arm would make the Cubs even stronger although they remain the betting favorites to win both the NL pennant (3-2 odds) and the World Series (3-1 odds). St. Louis and Pittsburgh are Wild Card contenders.
The Cardinals have the better roster but could use a boost to their offense, which started the season scoring runs in bunches but has slowed considerably over the past month. Given their history we can expect St. Louis to make moves that may fly under the radar that prove very helpful in their Playoffs quest. Pittsburgh’s need is in starting pitching, especially with ace Gerrit Cole not expected back until after the All Star break.
The Cubs may be a money losing proposition in July and August with their big lead and the fact their five man rotation has accounted for all 81 starts to date. Only St. Louis can make a similar claim at the halfway point. The Cubs will continue to be “overpriced” but have been just 26-24 over their last 50 games. Pittsburgh will be the “play on” team over the second half of the season in the NL Central assuming they are not sellers at the trade deadline.
The Giants appear to be the best in the Division although the second place LA Dodgers, 5 games behind through Sunday, were 10 games over .500 and held the top NL Wild Card by a game and a half. Of course the Dodgers have a huge concern with ace Clayton Kershaw on the DL for what is yet an unknown length. When Kershaw has started the Dodgers have gone 14-2; with other starters, just 33-35.
Considering their three World Series titles in the last five seasons, all skippered by Bruce Bochy, the Giants have to be considered legitimate contenders to win it all, especially with starters Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto having outstanding seasons to date.
The Giants should be a profitable “play on” team over the second half of the season. However, their 7-2 pennant odds and 7-1 World Series odds are a bit too short considering the stiff competition provided by the Cubs, Nationals and Mets. San Diego has played .500 baseball over the last 30 games and could be profitable through the end of August. Also, look to the OVER in Padres games, especially at home where they’ve gone 27-27-1 to the OVER through Sunday.
Here’s a preview of three weekend series that conclude pre-All Star break play with games resuming a week from Friday, on July 15.
Washington at NY Mets: These NL East rivals are meeting for their third series this season. Washington took 2 of 3 in New York when the teams first met in mid-May and the Mets returned the favor by taking 2 of 3 in Washington a week later. The Nats’ Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg average 6 2/3 innings per start. Look to play the UNDER at Totals of 7.5 or higher and either team as an underdog of +120 or more with one exception: Highly touted Lucas Giolito can be played as an underdog of +140 or more for the Nats.
Detroit at Toronto: In their lone prior series, the Tigers took 2 of 3 at home from Toronto in early June. For Detroit only young Michael Fulmer is having a strong season with veteran Justin Verlander showing too much inconsistency to be considered an automatic “look to play on” pitcher as he had been a few seasons back. The OVER will be the preferred play throughout this series, especially at Totals of 9 or lower. Fulmer, for whom the Tigers have won 10 of his 12 starts, will be attractive at pick ‘em or as an underdog. Toronto may be backed in starts by Marco Estrada, JA Happ or Aaron Sanchez against other than Fulmer if priced at -130 or less.
Atlanta at Chisox: Young Matt Wisler has also shown promise as a full time member of the Atlanta rotation. Lefties Chris Sale and Jose Quintana have been Chicago’s top starters with a huge dropoff beyond that pair. Quintana has made 17 starts this season and 15 have stayed UNDER the Total with just 2 going OVER. In playing this series consider the Braves as underdogs of +125 or more not facing Sale or Quintana. If Julio Teheran is +150 or more against Sale or Quintana, Atlanta is playable. Such a matchup would also support a play on the UNDER if priced at 7 or higher. Otherwise look toward Chicago as favorites of -150 or less not facing Teheran or Wisler and look to the OVER at Totals of 8 or less in starts not involving Sale, Quintana or Teheran.