Now that the final home run balls off Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Pete Alonso’s bats have fallen, it’s time we look ahead to the second half of the season and the teams we should we keep an eye on as the pennant races heat up.
Houston Astros — This is the best team in the American League, and it makes a strong case for the best team in baseball. Once they caught fire, it was clear they were the class of the AL West. Now they can use their all-around game to prove they’re the class of the junior circuit.
With the fourth-best batting average (.269), the second-best slugging percentage (.472) and second-best OPS (.816), there isn’t a pitching staff with strong enough handcuffs. Led by veteran Justin Verlander (10-4, 2.98), the Astros have the fourth-best ERA (3.86) and the second-most strikeouts (900).
Defensively, they have the third-best field percentage (.989) and are tied for the fewest errors (36). The Astros are the all-around package and should end up in the ALCS.
New York Yankees — Anyone else wonder what will happen when Giancarlo Stanton returns to this lineup? The Yankees look like a team with promise, rather than the annual disappointment that has fizzled of late. And it’s due to a supporting cast that includes Gio Urshela, Cameron Maybin, Domingo German, and Nestor Cortes. Blue collar work is what they call it, and this team is getting it on the mound and at the plate.
Aaron Judge and Edwin Encarnacion have had help with a team that ranks sixth in the league with a .265 batting average, while German is 10-2 with a 3.67 ERA.
Minnesota Twins — As good as the Astros and Yankees are in every aspect, the Twins might have the best offense in the league. From top to bottom, this lineup is lethal. They can power the ball out of the park, they can manufacture runs, and their timely hitting is unmatched.
While Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Jorge Polanco enjoy their breakout seasons, Eddie Rosario is making a strong argument for MVP with his .282 batting average, 20 home runs, 60 RBI and .841 OPS. The Twins also boast the sixth-best ERA (3.97). An acquisition of one more quality starter could be the clincher for a deep run into October.
Tampa Bay Rays — Since a sterling 14-4 start, they’ve just played .500 ball, for the most part. The Rays’ inconsistent hitting will be their downfall. It’s troublesome to know the Chicago White Sox have a better batting average, or that the Rays rank 11th in the AL with 112 home runs. If you’re going to compete in the East, let alone the American League, you must have consistent hitting. The No. 1 ERA in the league won’t mean a thing without the hitting to back it up.
Cleveland Indians — They had a nice run in June, sure. But they’re going to struggle down the stretch to earn an AL wild-card berth. One of the biggest differences will be Corey Kluber’s return to the rotation, but if Minnesota pulls away in the Central, and other teams have emerged into the wild-card race — ahem, hello Boston and Oakland — the Tribe will have an uphill climb with a rather weak offense that heads into the second half with a .244 batting average.
Oakland Athletics — They’ve been the biggest surprise heading into the second half of the season. Since a brutal start that saw them open the campaign 20-25 and in the AL West cellar on May 16, the Athletics are on a 30-16 tear and sitting in second place.
Yes, the rotation is the biggest question mark, but if a league seventh-best ERA of 3.99 in June and eighth-best 3.54 this month is any indication of improvement, don’t be surprised to see Oakland causing problems in September.
NATIONAL LEAGUE Contenders
Los Angeles Dodgers — If there is one team that can challenge the Astros for the “league best” title at the break, it’s the Dodgers. After all, they do have the best record in baseball, at 60-32, and arguably the best pitching staff.
National League All-Star starter Hyun-jin Ryu (10-2, 1.73) leads a staff whose 3.37 ERA ranks second in the league, while Cody Bellinger is making a strong case for MVP with his .336 batting average, 30 home runs and 71 RBIs.
With the highest winning percentage in baseball, they’re on pace for 105 wins.
Atlanta Braves — They’ve had one of the better first halves of the season among all division leaders and are fueled by consistency both at the plate and in the field. They started the season 18-20 and are 36-17 since May 10. The defending NL East champs have clearly emerged as the favorite to repeat.
The addition of Dallas Keuchel is proving to be a boon, while the promotion of prospect Austin Riley has given the lineup a solid boost that has the team ranked seventh in the bigs with a .263 batting average, and the league’s fifth-best .463 slugging percentage. Out of the break, the Braves will be ready to make a run.
Chicago Cubs — I was torn to include the baby bears in this category, but I know they’re not pretenders. I also wasn’t about to put any other team from the NL Central in this slot. Fact is, this is a team that has handled injuries well enough that it’s been in or close to first place the entire first half.
We’ve seen the Cubs streak to a 23-7 run during one stretch, and once the lineup is intact, we will see the mediocrity disappear. Chicago is hitting just .254 this season but has a .271 batting average this month.
The Cubs need a huge burst out of the break and must create space. A 5.0 or 6.0-game lead should do it, as their consistency will maintain the lead the rest of the way.
Washington Nationals — This must be one of the most confusing teams in baseball, albeit there’s no confusion in the lineup missing Bryce Harper. The Nationals are in the playoff hunt, for now.
But Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies are on their heels, and there are other teams on the senior circuit that could surprise us. Starter Max Scherzer might be the only bright spot since the start of the season, but after that there is no one person to speak of, who can carry the burden of leading the team to a deep playoff run.
Milwaukee Brewers — The defending NL Central champs enter the second half of the season just one-half game back of the Cubs, but they’re also just 1.5 games in front of the St. Louis Cardinals. Only 4.5 games separate the Cubs from the last-place Cincinnati Reds, so that’s how close this division is, and the Brewers might be the most vulnerable team. The offense has dipped to 19th with a .245 batting average, while their ERA ranks 18th at 4.61 and opposing batting average is 19th at .256.
I’m not sold on the Brewers this year and wouldn’t be surprised to see them slip over the next month.
Arizona Diamondbacks — If you would have told me the Snakes would be one game over .500 at the break, and sitting in second place in the NL West, in front of the rejuvenated San Diego Padres, I would have laughed. But the Diamondbacks closed the first half on three-game win streak, they have a +53-run differential, they have a winning road record (26-23), they have the league’s 10th best batting average (.259) and slugging percentage (.447).
If they can improve against teams from the West — they’re 19-29 against division foes — they can make a run to a wild-card berth.
Here are three games I like as the season resumes:
Astros at Rangers: Only one game for Thursday, and it’s in the Lone Star State. Given the Astros had six players performing in Cleveland at the All-Star Game, including starters Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them come out a bit flat for the second-half opener.
Texas is handing the ball to Lance Lynn, who is having a great season, and rolls into the second half after going 9-2 with a 3.09 ERA in his last 13 starts. He did lose his only start against the Astros this season, but he’s also 4-2 with a 2.20 ERA in seven career starts against them. Look for Lynn to pitch a gem. RANGERS
Rays at Orioles: The price will be steep, so beware here. I’m playing Tampa Bay on the run line, as I think splitting its first half ending, four-game series with the New York Yankees was monumental. Specifically, because the Rays won the last game, 2-1.
That should provide them with momentum to start the second half. Look for their spotty offense to come alive against Baltimore starter Dylan Bundy, who is 4-10 with a 4.65 ERA this season. RAYS RUN LINE
Astros at Rangers: We took Texas in the series opener. We’ll come back with the Astros in Game 2. After getting their wake-up call in the lid-lifter, the Astros will come to life Friday night in Arlington, victimizing Rangers starter Jesse Chavez, who will make his first appearance against the Astros since throwing one scoreless inning on May 11 in Houston.
In 18 games at home this season — only one of them a start — Chavez has a 4.26 ERA. This time around he opens against the top-hitting team in baseball. ASTROS
Last week: 1-2
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