An editorial by Justin Cirillo
Just like that, we’ve reached the Mid-Summer Classic. A day after Giancarlo Stanton’s impressive display in the Home Run Derby, the biggest stars in the game (well, most of them) will all be on the field at PETCO Park in San Diego, CA later today. Sure, the substitutions can be confusing, and fan voting has its own flaws, but in my opinion the MLB All-Star Game has always been the best all-star game (although that might change if the NHL continues its 3v3 format).
The first half of the season saw the early dominance of the Cubs, the beginning of the Big Papi Farewell Tour, the continued dominance of Clayton Kershaw, and some surprising division leaders.
Even with a dismal 5-15 spell heading into the All-Star Break, it’s difficult to call the Chicago Cubs anything other than outstanding. Led by the best rotation in baseball (3.09 ERA) Joe Maddon’s team still holds a seven game lead in the NL Central. Even more impressive, none of their starters has a WHIP above 1.15. Their fourth and fifth starters (John Lackey and Jason Hammel) have given up roughly half of all the home runs their rotation has allowed. Offensively, Kris Bryant has crushed 25 home runs and is making a case to be the MVP, along with Anthony Rizzo, who has 21 home runs while batting just below .300. Ben Zobrist, re-united with his old manager from Tampa Bay, has fit in nicely with an OBP of .388 and the ability to play a multitude of positions. Their mediocre bullpen needs improvement. But with the ability to acquire bullpen help via shipping off prospects, and with the Yankees possibly wanting to move either Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman, it’s a flaw that could easily be fixed. Despite the bad end to the first half, there’s little reason to panic in Chicago.
The Cleveland Indians are probably the surprise team of the season. 2015 saw the Indians rebuilding for the future, which manager Terry Francona oversaw brilliantly. Francisco Lindor (age 22) was given more than a half of a season of pressure-free baseball at the major league level, and it has helped him develop into the All-Star shortstop he is in 2016. Alongside Jose Ramirez (age 23), who is batting .295 with 21 doubles, and the Indians have a bright future on the left side of the infield. Throw that in with familiar faces Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and the much-welcomed veteran bat of Mike Napoli, and the Indians have an offense good enough to contend. But what’s really made the Indians so dominant has been their pitching. With the second-best ERA in the American League, the Indians have risen to the top of a very competitive AL Central; the Tigers, White Sox, and reigning champion Royals are all above .500. Danny Salazar is 10-3 with an ERA of 2.75, Corey Kluber has eaten up innings (122 IP, 6th best in baseball), and Josh Tomlin is 9-3 and could be tons better if he figured out how to keep the damn baseball from leaving the ballpark (21 home runs allowed in 100 innings is not recommended). Cody Allen has done a decent job closing out games and Dan Otero and Jeff Manship have become a formidable partnership to set up their closer. They might need another bat or another arm, but they have the right manager for a pennant race. If they keep it up, LeBron might not be the only hero in Cleveland.
It’s an even-numbered year, so that means the San Francisco Giants are good. Really, seriously, good. At 57-33, they have the best record in baseball. With the fifth-best ERA in the game and Madison Bumgarner (10-4, 1.94 ERA) treating the regular season as if it were the 2014 playoffs, the Giants have quietly overtaken the Cubs as baseball’s hottest team. There’s more to the Giants than “Mad Bum”. Johnny Cueto (13-1, 2.47 ERA) has proven to be the best pitching signing of the off-season. They might lack rotation depth, but they make up for it with a very good line-up. Brandon Belt (10 home runs, .302 AVG) is an All-Star and Brandon Crawford (9 home runs, .281 AVG) is perhaps the most glaring snub in the National League. Plus, Buster Posey continues to be one of the best catchers in the league. The Dodgers will give them a considerable test in the NL West race, especially once Clayton Kershaw comes back from injury, but they have numerous question marks of their own. If the Giants make the playoffs, we all know what Bumgarner can do in October. That’s scary enough. If Cueto can be anywhere close a dominant, the Giants might keep their pattern going.
No team tried as hard to take the next step as much as the Arizona Diamonbacks did. And no other team has failed as spectacularly as they have. The D’backs finished only a few games under .500 last year and sought to improve their pitching by signing ace Zack Greinke and Tyler Clippard for their bullpen. Neither have been great. Yes, Greinke is 10-3, but with an ERA of 3.62. That’s more than twice of what it was during his 2015 campaign. Some of that is due to the ballpark, but by many advanced metrics, Greinke hasn’t been the same pitcher as he was with the Dodgers (he has the lowest swinging strike rate of his career since 2012). Clippard hasn’t done badly, but his numbers are slightly above his career average. Granted, the team did get very unlucky when A.J. Pollock was lost for the season with injury before it even began, but offense has hardly been their problem. Arizona has one of the best offenses in the game, but that doesn’t mean a lot when you’re going to see pitchers like Bumgarner, Kershaw, and Cueto at least three times a year a piece. Until they are able to develop good, young pitching, Arizona is stuck in neutral.
The Minnesota Twins are another surprise from 2015 that has not had a good 2016 season. After finishing just three games out of the second Wild Card spot last year, Minnesota now holds the second-worst record in the league. It’s mostly their pitching, whose team ERA has inflated nearly a run higher than it was last season. Kyle Gibson, who finished with a respectable 3.85 ERA last season, now has one over five. Tyler Duffey, a 3.10 ERA in ten starts as a rookie last year now has an ERA of 5.20 in 14 starts this season. That’s not enough when you’re in arguably the best division in baseball. The good news for the Twins is that they’re still in rebuilding mode, and have the seventh best farm system in baseball, according to Baseball Prospectus. And unlike the Diamondbacks, they didn’t offer any insane contracts out of desperation. Perhaps there was always going to be a step backward for the Twins in 2016. I just didn’t see it being this far of one.
When you have arguably the best player in the game, and arguably the best manager in the game, you’re expected to be a decent club. That has not been the case for the Angels in 2016. At 37-52, the Angels have been so bad that it warranted discussion (although probably not serious discussion) about trading Mike Trout in return for prospects to help give a lifeline to the worst farm system in the league (again, according to Baseball Prospectus). It was a year ago last week that manager Mike Scioscia won the power struggle against Los Angeles’ former GM, Jerry Dipoto. In stepped Billy Eppler in October. Since then, the Angels have done made some very curious moves, including sending their two best prospects to the Braves for defensive extraordinaire, Andrelton Simmons and a probably-inconsequential minor league catcher. The Angels neither hit, nor pitch well, but what has been very glaring has been their mental lapses. When I watched them play against the Yankees last month, Yunel Escobar’s lack of hustle or memory for the correct number of outs cost the Angels from turning a double play that would have ended the inning; it ended up costing them a run in a relatively close game. Then on Sunday, Escobar was ejected for drawing a diagram of home plate on the infield dirt in protest of umpire Tim Timmons’ strike zone. These mistakes shouldn’t happen with Scioscia as the manager. The Angels are in real trouble.