By Mike Ivcic
One of the perks of writing a Monday baseball column is that I get a sneak peak at the weekend after the All-Star break before I have to produce my “second-half storylines,” and it did help to clarify just what players, teams, and scenarios I’ll be watching as the baseball season winds into its final two months. And, since I’m such a nice guy, I’ll share my top five storylines with you – free of charge! I know – so generous…
1) What will the ultimate final effect be from the Biogenesis scandal?
Ryan Braun has already been suspended for the rest of the season, a product of some sound legal advice and the prospect of missing games that will actually matter. Since Milwaukee’s postseason hopes were dashed almost two months ago, it’s not as if missing the final 65 games of the 2013 regular season is going to have a detrimental effect on Braun or the Brewers. In fact, some could argue the Braun suspension will help Milwaukee, who will have the opportunity to give some playing time to younger prospects who could either become regulars or be showcased and then dealt away in a package to bring back more immediate help in the offseason – all while taking the most potent hitter out of the Brewers lineup and all but ensuring a top five pick in next year’s draft. For the rest of the group, though, it’s unlikely that any suspension doled out between now and the end of the season would last without an appeal, thus virtually guaranteeing that no additional players will serve suspensions this season. The legal process will drag into the winter months, which could cause some severe agita for a handful of general managers trying to piece together lineups and pitching staffs for the 2014 season – and even then, that won’t be the last piece of the puzzle from Biogenesis. That piece will come whenever Alex Rodriguez enters his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame – and then we’ll really know just how far-reaching of an impact this entire ordeal had on the sport and some of its marquee players.
2) Will any or all of the three longest playoff droughts in American professional sports come to an end?
We are speaking, of course, of the Kansas City Royals (1985), the Pittsburgh Pirates (1992), and the Toronto Blue Jays (1993). No other team in baseball, football, basketball, or hockey has gone as long without playing a postseason game of some sort, and every other MLB franchise has played a playoff game in this century. Will one of these teams finally snap their unenviable streak? Smart money says only the Pirates will likely reach the playoffs this year, though it’s not as if the Royals and Blue Jays are totally out of it. The odds for either of those two teams to make a significant charge, however, will also be incumbent upon multiple teams fading down the stretch as opposed to just trying to catch one club. I do like Pittsburgh, though, despite their second-half collapses in each of the last two years, to snatch at least one of the Wild Card spots if they should fall short of winning the NL Central.
3) Can the Red Sox hold off the other four AL East teams actually go worst-to-first?
Winning two of three from the Yankees to open the second half is a nice start. Their bullpen is definitely suspect, and the continued absence of Clay Buchholz from the rotation isn’t exactly a good thing, but Boston seems to have rediscovered that mid-‘00’s mentality of hard-nosed, blue-collar workers that grind out every at-bat and out, forcing teams to earn victories – especially in Fenway Park. This is a gritty and determined team that always just seems to think they’re going to win, which in baseball is more than half the battle. Manager John Farrell has to get a ton of credit for helping to change the culture in the clubhouse, but all these good vibes won’t mean much if Tampa, Baltimore, or – heaven forbid – the Yankees manage to rally past the Sox. I think this team is far too mentally tough to fade out of the playoffs entirely, but with the math beginning to shape up as six teams for four spots (Oakland and Texas in the West, Boston, Baltimore, Tampa, and New York in the East) it wouldn’t be a total shock to see the Red Sox as one of the two teams on the outside looking in if their pitching starts to falter.
4) Will the next group of “stars” continue to rise or reach a plateau?
I’m looking at four players in particular – Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Matt Harvey. Each of these players saw at least some time last season, but all four are actually in what will technically be considered their first “full” season in the big leagues. The three position players have proven themselves to be legitimate building blocks for the Angels, Nationals, and Orioles, respectively, while Harvey – the NL starting pitcher in the All-Star game – is already the ace of a surprisingly solid Mets starting rotation. Still, all four have seen the spotlight only grow stronger as the year has processed, and how each player handles that ever-growing media and fan attention will be crucial for each of their respective organizations. Right now none of these players would actually qualify for the postseason, so if any of them are able to produce a second-half that helps to catapult a team into the playoffs, that might become the biggest storyline of the entire season – especially if it’s Harvey or Trout.
5) Who will be buyers and who will be sellers?
By all accounts, 26 of the 30 teams already know where they fall – and while some teams may not technically want to classify themselves as “sellers,” they certainly won’t be adding any big contracts or aging veterans before July 31. So in actuality, we’re only looking at a small handful of teams – namely, the Phillies, Giants, and Rockies – who are really trying to decide what to do. The Angels, Blue Jays, and Yankees have too much money invested to sell and really don’t have much to offer in order to be a major buyer, while teams like the Royals, Mariners, Mets, Padres, Twins, Marlins, and Astros will all technically be “sellers” though they don’t exactly have a ton of enticing assets to deal. The one “wild card” team here – Washington. Getting swept by the Dodgers coming out of the break wasn’t the way the Nats wanted to start their playoff push – not with the Pirates and Tigers coming up sandwiched around a visit from the Mets where they will see Harvey. The next ten games will definitely give GM Mike Rizzo a very good indication as to where he team stands, and even though they’re in “win-now” mode, the core is young enough with Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, and Jordan Zimmerman that dealing away a high-priced veteran for a player less than a year away from contributing to the big league club may not be out of the question.
Playoff “Dead” List
July 22 – San Diego Padres – They made a surge midway through the first half, and they still sit just 8.5 games behind the NL West-leading Diamondbacks, but they do unfortunately become the first team from the division to have their playoff hopes officially squashed. They’re simply not as talented as the other four teams in the division, though the San Diego front office has to be pleased with the way their young talent has matured, having put together a much more impressive season to this point than most prognosticators expected.
July 15 – Minnesota Twins
July 8 – Chicago White Sox
July 1 – Milwaukee Brewers
June 24 – Seattle Mariners
June 17 – Chicago Cubs
June 10 – New York Mets
June 3 – Houston Astros
May 27 – Miami Marlins
Three series to watch this week…
1) PIT @ WAS (7/22-7/25)
2) NYY @ TEX (7/22-7/25)
3) CIN @ SFG (7/22-7/24)
Three series to watch this weekend…
1) STL @ ATL (7/26-7/28)
2) BOS @ BAL (7/26-7/28)
3) LAA @ OAK (7/26-7/28)
If the playoffs started today…
1) Boston Red Sox
2) Oakland Athletics
3) Detroit Tigers
4) Tampa Bay Rays
5) Baltimore Orioles
1) St. Louis Cardinals
2) Atlanta Braves
3) Arizona Diamondbacks
4) Pittsburgh Pirates
5) Cincinnati Reds
Check out my weekly column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday at ultimatecapper.com
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