Guessing game: Five second-half predictions
Angels will win AL West, Price will end up with Dodgers, Nats and O's both will prevail
Baseball is one big guessing game.
Hitters are trying to guess what the pitcher is doing. Pitchers are trying to guess what the hitter is thinking. The increasing prevalence of defensive shifts marks teams' attempts to guess where the ball is going. Managers are guessing which relievers will be effective in certain situations, fans and reporters are second-guessing the managers, and all of us are totally just guessing when we make our predictions about how things will all turn out.
Do you think this leads to a lot of incorrect guessing?
You guessed right.
But at least as we enter the second half of the 2014 season, we're making something vaguely resembling educated guesses.
Here, humbly and without any inkling of guarantee, is one man's stab at five guesses for the second half. Feel free to add your own in the comments.
1. The Angels will overtake the A's in the American League West.
I wish I had some diabolical statistical or analytic backing for this gut feeling, but that's really all it is -- a gut feeling. As much as I loved their aggressive play for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, there are fair questions about Oakland's rotation durability -- Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez are both venturing into uncharted innings waters, and Scott Kazmir hasn't crossed the 200-innings threshold since 2007. And we'll have to see how Shark and Hammel adjust to the AL. The slumping bats of Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes were also concerns going into the All-Star break.
It isn't that the Angels are in dramatically better shape, because they do have to get C.J. Wilson back on track, and Garrett Richards is going to fly well past his 2013 innings total, too. But the Angels have already addressed their most glaring deficiency -- the bullpen (Jason Grilli has already seemed to benefit from the change of scenery) -- and they might still add another arm (Ian Kennedy, perhaps?) to support a drastically improved rotation. They've also got the best player in the game in All-Star Game MVP Mike Trout, who fronts a potent lineup, and they were baseball's hottest team going into the break. Since the A's completed a sweep of the Halos on June 1, the Angels have gone 27-11 with a plus-59 run differential to close within 1 1/2 games of Oakland.
One way or another, both of these clubs seem to be safe bets for October.
2. The Dodgers will land David Price.
Though general manager Ned Colletti's public stance just before the break was that he's unlikely to trade top prospects for an elite pitcher, a match just seems to make too much sense. The Rays, despite improved play before the break, are still in better position to get an adequate return for Price now than they'll be in the winter.
In 17-year-old left-hander Julio Urias (who amazingly could be in the big leagues as soon as next year), shortstop Corey Seager and outfielder Joc Pederson, the Dodgers have three of the most highly regarded prospects in the game. Just as important, their willingness to invest big money in the here and now -- which is what it would take to acquire Price just before his final year of arbitration-eligibility -- is well-documented.
Every move the Dodgers have made the past two years has been tailored toward not just winning the National League West (which, for the record, I think they'll do), but winning a World Series. Anything short of that result will be considered a disappointment. Dan Haren's struggles and Josh Beckett's hip injury just before the break justified the early-season questions about the back end of the rotation's staying power. But if you put Price alongside Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in a unit that also includes Hyun-Jin Ryu, it would be difficult to label the Dodgers anything other than World Series favorites.
3. The Cardinals will survive the four-headed monster in the NL Central.
Maybe this is a difficult time to double down on the preseason prediction that the Cardinals will win what is a deep division, what with Yadier Molina potentially out for the rest of the regular season and the rotation impacted by the loss of Jaime Garcia and, more important, the uncertainty surrounding Michael Wacha.
But the depth that made the Cards dangerous to begin with still applies, as Carlos Martinez and Joe Kelly are worthy additions to a rotation headed by Adam Wainwright, who is on a Cy Young track. We'll see if Oscar Taveras can click at the big league level, but you have to imagine fellow outfielder Allen Craig puts himself back together eventually, don't you?
As for which of the division's other standouts -- the Brewers, Reds and Pirates -- is most likely to land a Wild Card spot, uh, your guess is as good as mine. But I don't see three teams advancing out of the Central like last year, because the East and West divisions -- with the Dodgers, Giants, Braves and Nationals -- are stronger than they were a year ago.
4. There will be dancing in September in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area.
Every team in the AL East is flawed in some way, but the Orioles, who went from five games back to four games up in the span of about four weeks, are simply in the best shape to survive. Their pitching staff is not overpowering, but it is sturdier than those of the Blue Jays and Yankees. And with third baseman Manny Machado, in particular, heating up, Baltimore's lineup is dangerous.
As one AL East opponent put it, "They're smashing the baseball and getting to the bullpen. It doesn't surprise any of us who see them on a regular basis."
Also keep an eye on what GM Dan Duquette does at the Trade Deadline and how right-hander Dylan Bundy progresses in his rehab.
The Nationals, meanwhile, are in a virtual dead heat with Atlanta in the NL East, but they've got the NL's best run differential at plus-61, compared to the Braves' plus-12. Washington's rotation depth might be the best in baseball, and it has outfielder Bryce Harper back in full health and, possibly, ready to spark the lineup now that he's got a few dozen at-bats under his belt.
Not to discount the Braves, who have survived so many hits to their rotation and kept coming, but the Nats strike me as the more dynamic team. The problem is they are 3-7 against the Braves, and that trend will obviously have to change when the two meet three times in August and six times in September.
5. The Royals will get off the schneid.
Vulnerable though they may be -- by their standards, anyway -- the Tigers aren't going to cough up the AL Central lead. That point was probably hammered home when Detroit took three of four from Kansas City last weekend.
But the AL's second Wild Card spot (assuming the Angels or A's claim the other one) is probably going to come down to the Mariners, Royals, Indians and whoever ends up the runner-up in the East. And as the Indians demonstrated last September, advancement in the expanded postseason is not just about how you play but who you play.
In addition to fielding a strong pitching staff, top to bottom, and one of the best defenses in the game the Royals, who have the potential to improve offensively if they add an outfield bat, probably have the softest schedule among the contenders, with just 20 games remaining against teams currently at or above .500. That could be a big factor as they seek their first postseason berth since 1985.
But, you know, that's just a guess.