MLB Shootaround (the Horn): The Most Intriguing Second-Half Story Lines

After a painfully long All-Star break, baseball is set to resume on this joyous Friday. And even though we’re more than halfway through the 2014 season, mathematically speaking, we’ve unofficially and collectively agreed to refer to this next here stretch as “the second half.” So, what are Grantland’s baseball enthusiasts looking forward to the most in July, August, September, and beyond? Which fallen giants can we simply not let die? Which prospects are we already stalking on the fantasy waiver wire? Which hairdos are we absolutely certain are about to go mainstream? Glad you asked! Here are the story lines that most intrigue us heading into the second half.

The New Beane Town 

Ben Lindbergh: The A’s were one of baseball’s best first-half stories, for several reasons: Their team-building by trade in an industry populated by prospect hoarders; their commitment to platooning, dogged pursuit of multiposition players, and resultant depth; their 25th-place payroll; their knack for wringing value from former minor league free agents, waiver claims, and other castoffs acquired for cash considerations, like Brandon Moss, Dan Otero, and Jesse Chavez; and their MLB-leading .621 winning percentage and plus-145 run differential. Not since Moneyball helped accelerate baseball’s brains race has any team’s Pythagorean record evinced such strength; the last squad to outscore its opponents by as many runs through its first 95 games was Seattle in 2001, and those Mariners went on to win 116.

That sort of first-half success would make any club a compelling second-half story, but Oakland’s recent history adds extra intrigue. We know that Billy Beane can build AL West winners, an achievement that should come without caveats in a sport whose playoff hopefuls have to run a 162-game gantlet to get there. To those who ascribe October triumphs to roster construction rather than randomness, though, Oakland’s lack of postseason success might look like a black mark against Beane, who’s still seeking a ring for his GM résumé. Twenty-five seasons and nine trips to the playoffs after their earthquake-interrupted 1989 title, the A’s are tied with the Astros for the third-longest active streak of playoff appearances without a World Series win (the Cubs and Braves top the list with an unlucky 13), and only the Braves have a longer active streak of playoff appearances without a pennant. Any Royals fans reading this are thinking Cry me a river, or maybe something obscene, and with good reason: It’s better to have made the playoffs and lost than never to have made it to October at all. Still, after seeing so many successful regular seasons end in ALDS defeat, A’s fans can claim to have suffered their fair share of a different kind of disappointment.

Of the 14 expansion-era teams that boasted better run differentials than the 2014 A’s through the same point in the season, seven went on to win pennants and five went all the way. In a few months, we’ll find out whether the best team in baseball can reverse its recent October record and erase any asterisks attached to its architect’s legacy. By his own admission, Beane’s “shit doesn’t work in the playoffs,” but that doesn’t mean he can’t win once.

A Wild AL Wild-Card Race

Rany Jazayerli: Bud Selig’s dream of making MLB emulate the NFL in all ways is now complete. Following the NFL’s blueprint that any team can go from good to bad (or vice versa) in one offseason, baseball’s worst team by record is Texas, which went to the playoffs (or at least a Game 163) for four years running. Pete Rozelle himself could hardly improve upon the parity parade that is the 2014 baseball season. Nineteen of the 30 teams are within five full games of .500 in either direction, and thanks to the implementation of a second wild-card spot in 2012, the majority of MLB teams can still convince themselves they’re in a playoff race at this point in the year. (Including Philadelphia, because, you know, Ruben Amaro.)

The race for the second AL wild-card spot looks particularly fierce: While the Angels have run away from the pack and should easily hold on to the first slot — if not the AL West crown — a half-dozen teams are vying for the right to go to Anaheim to play a one-game death match. Adding intrigue is that the top three teams in the wild-card standings are the three teams in baseball that have gone the longest without a playoff berth: the Mariners (13 years), the Blue Jays (21 years), and the Royals (29 years). All three teams are flawed; the Royals have hit the fewest home runs in the major leagues, the Mariners have actually scored fewer runs than the Royals, and the Blue Jays have the second-worst record in baseball since June 6, having won just 11 of their last 34 games.

But in a season when 88 wins might be enough to squeak into the playoffs, teams don’t have to be flawless: They just have to possess fewer flaws than the other guys. What this race lacks in aesthetics it may make up for with sheer wildness: Every AL team except the two that play in Texas is within eight games of a postseason spot. We might all be holding our noses when a bunch of .500 teams are trying to conjure pennant fever in September, but the potential for one of those teams to end a long playoff drought may lend this race an unexpected — and, frankly, undeserved — level of excitement.

Brew Crew Believers

Michael Baumann: I didn’t really believe in the Milwaukee Brewers when they jumped out to an early lead in the NL Central, but at a certain point, it becomes impossible to look at a team with a 6.5-game division lead on July 1 and question whether it’s at least a little legit. After all, just about nobody else in the league has a 1-2-3 punch like Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun, and Jonathan Lucroy, and while the pitching staff lacks a true no. 1 starter, it also lacks a real weak point.

In the two weeks since my lightbulb moment, however, things have changed. In baseball, like in the Tour de France, July is the month when the stunning breakaway comes back to the pack, and Milwaukee is starting to look mortal as the peloton charges hungrily over the hill. There are now three teams within 3.5 games of Milwaukee, all of which include star power of their own and have been forged in the crucible of October baseball within the past two years. We’re at a point now when we could go into a four-game weekend series and have any one of four teams come out leading the NL Central.

These are very exciting times.

The Brewers are still the key team here, though: Neither the Cardinals, Reds, nor Pirates really lit it up to close the gap; the division is as close as it is because the Brewers endured a four-game sweep at home to the Phillies, one of the worst teams in baseball. If that was an aberration, we’ve really got something worth watching. But if it’s the start of a midsummer collapse, it’ll be a long road to Packers season. Either way, this is the best division race going right now.

The Good Jocter

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Jonah Keri: I’m excited about Dodgers prospect Joc Pederson for two wildly different reasons.

First, the 22-year-old Palo Alto native is Jewish. For a member of the tribe (not that Tribe) like me, that’s a big deal. I’ve spent hours making painstaking lists of top Jewish ballplayers. The only poster I have in my house is for The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (an amazing and hugely underrated movie that you should watch, by the way). When the opportunity to write about a Jewish baseball player isn’t available, I’ll just pick another sport. A player as talented as Pederson, who also played for the Israeli national baseball team in last year’s World Baseball Classic, is going to win me as a fan pretty easily.

Second, Pederson is a center fielder. This is significant, because the Dodgers have exactly zero players on the major league roster who are legitimate major league center fielders. Matt Kemp used to be, but that was a while ago. The speedy and rangy Carl Crawford has resisted the idea of playing center throughout his career, and asking him to suddenly man the position would be unfair. Andre Ethier has given it the old college try, but he hurts his team defensively when he’s out there, and if he’s going to keep hitting .253/.315/.379, he probably belongs on the bench. And when it comes to Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers probably want to leave well enough alone, given that he already combines defensive brilliance with a risk-taking nature that results in too many miscues.

In addition to becoming its only true center fielder, Pederson could become the team’s second-best all-around outfielder the moment he gets the call. He raked last year at Double-A as a 21-year-old, batting .278/.381/.497 with 22 homers and 31 steals. This year at Triple-A, he’s hitting an incredible .324/.445/.572 with 17 homers, 20 steals, and 63 walks in just 79 games. Even granting that those numbers come in the high-offense environment of Albuquerque and the Pacific Coast League, Pederson has more than enough bat to stick, and he plays the kind of defense that would make an already formidable Dodgers pitching staff even more effective.

But promoting Pederson would mean displacing one or more current outfielders, and therein rests the problem. In December 2012, I wrote about the Dodgers’ curse of plenty, and how L.A. signing Ethier to a five-year, $85 million deal was a terrible mistake, both because he wasn’t that good and because the team was locking up all of its starting outfield slots with players whose contracts guaranteed them gobs of money into their mid-thirties. The Dodgers’ current outfield roster forces them to find playing time for Puig, Ethier, Kemp, Crawford, and lefty-masher Scott Van Slyke, who’s proven to be one of the best part-time bats in the game. No one’s giving up anything of value in a trade for Ethier, Kemp, or Crawford unless the Dodgers throw in lots of cash to make the deal more palatable for the other side. Of course, the Dodgers aren’t short on cash, so the hope is that such a trade happens or that talent prevails in the end, the way it did when Puig became an instant star.

It’s unfair to project Pederson as another Puig, given that the Cuban star is already one of the 10 best hitters in the game at age 23. But Pederson would almost certainly make the Dodgers better this year, which seems like a worthwhile goal for a team that already has more talent than anyone else in the National League, and a real chance to win it all. And hey, if we get another based boychick in Dodger blue to follow in the footsteps of Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green, so much the better.

Red Sox, Blue Days 

Bill Barnwell: Favorites in most places to win the AL East before the season started, the Red Sox are now just about sunk. At the moment, FanGraphs gives the defending champs a 5.8 percent chance of making the playoffs. In terms of competitive baseball, there’s not very much to look forward to in Boston these days. So, as a Red Sox fan, what will there be to enjoy?

Lots of things! The subplot of angry John Lackey slowly realizing that he has a contract to pitch next year for $500,000, for one. The random Quad-A corner infielders and outfielders the Red Sox dig up to fill the roster in September (Ryan Roberts! Andres Torres! Mike Ca— oh, he’s already on the roster!), for another. More than anything, though, I’m excited to see the next three months of Jackie Bradley Jr.’s career as he tries to develop into a worthwhile outfielder and, perhaps more importantly, convince the assembled circus in and around Boston that he’s a worthwhile outfielder.

Bradley’s first 413 major league plate appearances have, well, not gone super great. He’s posted a 72 OPS+, struck out nearly once per game, and shown little in the way of speed or pop. Bradley at-bats in key moments invoke the same sort of emotions one feels watching Werner Herzog movies: despair, hopelessness, and the exhaustion of doing loads of tedious work for almost no payoff.

For whatever he can’t do as a hitter, though, Bradley has delivered on the scouting reports suggesting he could be a great center fielder. Bradley is wonderful in the most subtle of ways; he takes incredible routes to fly balls, making the spectacular look routine and the impossible look spectacular. Sox fans were mostly taken by his awful hitting to start the season, but as the year has gone along, his glove work has been too impressive to avoid noticing. Bradley has produced a 12.5 UZR this season, more than any other center fielder in baseball.

And now we’ll all watch to see if the bat comes around. There are some reasons to think it might. Bradley is hitting home runs on just 1.6 percent of his fly balls, the fifth-lowest rate in baseball. His contact rates both inside and outside the zone rank among the lowest in the league, especially among players who don’t make a cartoon cloud fly up in the air after they miss. The only hope that Sox fans have is a brief hot stretch in July just before the break, when Bradley hit .375/.429/.438 in nine games. If he can even advance from replacement-level to merely below-average, Bradley would deserve a roster spot. He might only have these three months to impress and remain Boston’s center fielder of the future.

Chasing Pinstripe Perfection 

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Mark Lisanti: You likely already know about the biblical maladies that have befallen the Yankees’ Opening Day rotation: Ivan Nova’s Tommy John surgery; Michael Pineda’s post-pine-tar facial shoulder strain; the knee that finally tired of a 300-pound CC Sabathia crashing upon it for 120 pitches per night; and, most heartbreakingly, Masahiro Tanaka’s partially torn UCL, now a lit fuse ready to detonate his elbow in the middle of a final playoff push should he rehab his way back to a mound sometime in August.

You may also know that the Yankees’ offense has, to quote the appropriate FanGraphs table, “totally blown,” putting up three-spot after anguished three-spot. Knock us over with a pinstriped feather to discover that’s what has befallen a lineup trotting out a 40-year-old shortstop; a Brian Roberts; a Carlos Beltran so hobbled that a trip to the batting cage is now a grave neurological risk; an underachieving big-money catcher whose old coach thinks he has panic attacks looking at a subway map; a third-base platoon engineered to make a onetime miracle rookie hit from his bad side to favor an out-of-position second baseman; and a right fielder who was tabbed as the team’s fifth outfielder behind the aforementioned DH-gimp and a veteran who was just mercy-cut because his premature swing-response was often triggered by the sight of a pitcher juggling a rosin bag behind the mound. Deep breath: At least one of these players is underachieving a little. (Hint: The guy who just fainted again from a whiff of a street cart Sabrett’s dog.)

Last year was kind of fun, in retrospect. Miss you, Over-boo.

So, given a rotation that starts nonprospect rookies two out of five days and an offense that starts a Brian Roberts five out of five days, what might the Yankees do in the second half to keep from falling out of contention in a bizarrely winnable division? Well, most likely, start emptying out the farm system in a trade for a salary-dump starter (New York’s not that scary, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels!), because the Future Is Always Right Effing Now. But the single most interesting thing that might happen involves some of those farm system guys. Two of the biggest current needs on the roster are a second baseman and a right fielder who can hit, and holy rudygiuliani moly, there are two youngsters who (both, sort of!) play those positions and are hitting Mr. Rawlings with very much goodness in the AAA! Will Brian Cashman, torn between his twin directives to (1) never give up on a season, and (2) never promote a rookie unless forced to by an otherwise empty lineup card slot, use some combination of Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder in the spots currently occupied by Roberts and Ichiro?

This is a fascinating question. A potential solution — and we must emphasize “potential,” because the Yankees have recently not “had any luck whatsoever” with positional prospects — looms at Scranton. Of course, one (or both) of those solutions might be dangled in the desperate and necessary search for a starter, because betting on David Phelps, Shane Greene, and Chase Whitley to continue to tread water would be insane, and the Babylonian death-god who has already consumed the rotation might circle back, blackened worm-tongue wiggling cutely inside his maw, for another offering of knees or elbows. (Note to Droogle the Insatiable: Please eat Brian Roberts instead.) But it might be fun to see one of these kids get called up and try to bump the Yankees into four-spot territory and give that rental pitcher some run support. Sorry we might have to feed you to the demon, Brian Roberts. You had a good run, but Droogle has a taste for mullets.

Buying and Selling in Arlington

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Bryan Curtis: Remember the Rangers? One of the most beautifully designed franchises, top to bottom, in the game? Remember their all-in offseason? How Prince Fielder was going to hit 40 homers this year? Yeah, them. The two biggest signs that things didn’t go according to plan is that we’re talking about Joey Gallo’s Futures Game homer and Fielder’s big, beautiful body in July instead of talking about the playoffs. This may be the month, however, when the Rangers again get interesting.

The writer Jamey Newberg — who brings us joy in times of sorrow, or at least a Chipwich to get us through the bottom of the ninth — suggested something interesting the other day: With 38 wins and the worst record in the American League, the Rangers would presumably be wearing “seller” name tags at the trade deadline. Want Alex Rios and his team option? Joakim Soria and his option? The whole bullpen? The Rangers could make a deal or two, recoup some of the talent dealt for Matt Garza last year, and effectively fold up their pup tents.

But Newberg suggested the Rangers could be buyers at the deadline, too. “I would hope,” he wrote, “if David Price or Giancarlo Stanton is open for discussion, and you can probably throw another few names of elite impact players with club control beyond 2014 in there too, that Texas gets involved even if that’s a bit unconventional for a club not positioned to win this year.”

That’s an interesting thought. What if one of Elvis Andrus, Jurickson Profar, or the fantastically named Rougned Odor is on the block, plus prospects (even if they dare not trade Gallo or catcher Jorge Alfaro)? The Rangers are loaded. They can put together one of the most tantalizing majors/minors packages in baseball. The market can dictate their decision. The default option is to lose Soria & Co.; the all-in (for 2015) move is to get into the bidding on Price. If all that stands between the Rangers and next year’s postseason is a handful of medical clearances, that almost makes the most sense.

This unusual flexibility is the sign that Jon Daniels and his minions have put together a great franchise … that just got swept by the Astros at home last week. See you at the deadline.

The Glorious Mane (and Aim) of Jacob deGrom

Sean Fennessey: Here’s a brief history of young Mets pitchers I’ve gotten excited about:

1995: Generation K (deceased)
2004: Scott Kazmir (vanished)
2012: Dillon Gee (worst beard of all time)
2013: Matt Harvey (maimed)

So that tends to happen. I was 2 years old when Doc Gooden strode upon the bump at Shea Stadium for the first time, eventually striking out a record 276 batters in his rookie year. (Context: It’s been 10 years since a National League pitcher struck out as many as 276, and Doctor K was just a seedling when he did it.) I don’t need to explain how things turned out for Gooden in later years.

So it is with grave reluctance and also unfathomable glee that I present this bro:

That second guy is Jacob deGrom, the 26-year-old rookie who’s holding down the fifth spot in the — surging(!), scrappy(?), solvent($) — Mets rotation. DeGrom, a converted infielder who has already undergone Tommy John surgery, is a bit old at 26, but he’s doing things few rookies have ever done:

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(Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal)

And while his velocity is strong and his aim is true, deGrom’s hair is his calling card. He’s got good hair, hair worthy of Fidrych, young Lincecum, and Coco Crisp. It’s not easy having head charisma when your skull is covered in New Era. But deGrom’s is catching on.

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And while the Mets’ future is full of promising arms (Thor coming!), deGrom is the least heralded, and therefore the most enjoyable. Considering recent history, he’s also very likely falling into a ditch and breaking both arms right now. But until then, #hairwego.

All Eyes on I-95

Mallory Rubin: I’m sorry. I know we’ve got a lot of AL East action in this post, and plenty of shameless homerism. We’re only human! I could try to help, try to talk about the Minnesota Twins or something, but I’m going to be part of the problem instead. Because my Baltimore Orioles are 10 games above .500 and four games up in the AL East.

Who cares? you ask. Don’t you realize the AL East is down this year? you say. Well I care, silly! I grew up watching years and years of terrible baseball. The 2012 playoff run brought me unrivaled bliss, despite how it ended, and if the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, and Jays all sucking means the O’s have a real shot at cracking that postseason barrier again, I’ll take it. I’m not proud. (Or sane.)

I am, however, utterly convinced that Kevin Gausman (can we please start calling him the Gas Man? Dude throws 97) is the real deal, and that Manny Machado is about to rip off a second half on par with his astonishing 2013 opening stretch. I know that Adam Jones will continue to perform like a superstar even though he’s one of the most underrated and overlooked players in the game. I’m certain that Chris Davis won’t flirt with the Mendoza Line all season, and that once someone quietly and kindly reminds him that he’s strong enough to hit one-handed homers, he’ll stop sweating the shift, start going the other way, and produce. Oh, and have you seen Jonathan Schoop turn a double play? I know that Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris won’t strike fear into too many hearts come October, but I also know that thinking about things like that in October is a real possibility, which is enough for now.

And you know what? I’m going to pop outside my Inner Harbor bubble after all, because there’s another team playing some pretty darn good baseball a stone’s throw down I-95. Sure, one of the Nats’ best players basically just said he hates baseball, but he’s got 103 hits, so maybe it doesn’t matter what he likes. Bryce Harper is back, which we seem to have collectively ignored in genuinely astonishing fashion, but if he can stay healthy while the Nats battle the Braves for NL East supremacy, he’ll be back on our Top 10 (and, presumably, Not Top 10) lists before long. And it sounds like Jordan Zimmermann, one of my favorite players in baseball and one of the few guys who’s even more overlooked than Jones, is going to avoid the disabled list, and that’s an exciting thing for pretty much everyone other than the Braves, Mets, Marlins, and Phillies.

Forget the national broadcast: Can’t wait to see you in the World Series, Awful Joint MASN Booth.

Filed Under: MLB, Shootaround, Shootaround (the Horn), Baseball, Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, New York Mets, Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals, Grantland Staff