The first half of the baseball season offered some surprising winners like the Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds along with poor efforts from the Phillies, Cubs, Pirates, Angels and Indians.
Here’s a look at what some of the best teams will hope to do in the second half.
METS: Towards the end of last year, Pedro Martinez felt the team was not that far away and in 2006 they would be very good. In fact, New York has been the best in the National League, already with a double-digit lead in the East. Every other team has a losing record, so the Mets should be the first since 1990 to win the division other than the Braves.
The offense has power and speed (they lead the NL in steals). One potential weakness it’s that the pitching is being held together by aging aces, Pedro and Tom Glavine, and newcomer closer Billy Wagner. The Mets have been trying to piece together No. 4 and 5 starters after a string of early season injuries. The trade for Orlando Hernandez was a plus. However, teamed with 35-year-old Steve Trachsel, this rotation is aged — Pedro 34, Glavine 40, El Duque 36. Health is also question.
DODGERS: One of the more interesting teams trying for supremacy in the NL. This is a veteran offense with newcomers Rafael Furcal and Nomar Garciaparra joining sluggers like J.D. Drew and 2B Jeff Kent. They lead the NL in hitting, runs scored, on-base percentage and are third in steals.
Pitching, like the Mets, is top heavy. Derek Lowe and Brad Penny are throwing great, while ace closer Eric Gagne is back. The rest of the rotation is shaky, though acquiring underrated Mark Hendrickson from Tampa Bay was a good move. LA has a good record in spacious Dodger Stadium, mainly because of that strong offense, but started just 17-20 on the road.
TIGERS: Last year it was the White Sox coming out of nowhere to contend and eventually win the World Series. This season it’s Detroit. First-year manager Jim Leyland has walked into a great situation, but more credit should go to general manager Dave Dombrowski. He built the Florida Marlins championship team three years ago. This is a veteran offense behind established stars like Magglio Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez, but the real story has been the amount of outstanding young arms Dombrowski has added.
Jeremy Bonderman (age 23), Justin Verlander (23), Nate Robertson (28) and Zach Miner (24) have been strong. A huge acquisition was veteran lefty Kenny Rogers, who is a No. 1 starter and takes the pressure off the kids. Having deep bullpens have fueled recent World Series champions (2005 White Sox, 2004 Red Sox) and Detroit could be interesting in October with fireballers Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney bringing late inning heat.
WHITE SOX: With the focus on pitching depth fueling the run to the title last year, don’t forget Chicago leads the AL in runs and homers this year. Jim Thome has been a huge addition and might win the home run title. The pitching is still deep with Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle and Freddie Garcia, but the strong offense has painted over disappointing first halves from starters Jon Garland and newcomer Javier Vazquez. Still, the Pale Hose are likely to be playing in October. They have few weaknesses (other than Manager Ozzie Guillen’s big mouth).
RED SOX: In the logjam of the AL East, Boston has undergone a remarkable transformation in less than a year. In 2005, the defending champs were all offense, with little pitching and poor defense. The revamped infield is now the best defensively in the AL with newcomer 3B Mike Lowell, SS Alex Gonzalez, 2B Mark Loretta and 1B Kevin Youkalis, who went from third to first and has been sensational.
The pitching has seen 10-game winner Curt Schilling back to form after an injury-plagued 2005. Josh Beckett came over from Florida and matched Schilling’s 10 wins, while the underappreciated but valuable Tim Wakefield has been steady. Last month the Sox went to the farm and brought up 22-year old lefty starter Jon Lester, who has impressed, along with hard throwing relievers Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen.
While everyone will shop for pitching soon, Boston hopes to avoid that mad rush by succeeding from within. That’s something the Yanks and Jays probably can’t do.