After the All-Star break, the real Major League baseball season begins.
It’s not that the first half doesn’t count. Teams establish their personalities.
Some have hot bats. Some play small ball with success. A lucky few boast brutal starting rotations. Others have bullpens to close the deal. A handful of teams can’t get any of this right.
And a few teams have it all — for now, anyway.
Teams will make adjustments according to whether they expect to contend for the playoffs or just need to cut their losses and prepare for the future. Some may sell off valued assets if they see little hope for 2015 success. Others will make strategic trades ahead of the home stretch.
A few things are obvious.
The Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers are both 19 or more games out of first place in their divisions. This is not their year.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Missouri’s two clubs, the Royals and Cardinals, have shown they are the teams to beat. They should face off in October if no one else steps up. While the Los Angeles Dodgers have a less impressive record, they’ve also put enough daylight between themselves and the rest of their division to be seen as true frontrunners.
The rest, even division leaders, are in the vast middle with some chance of making the postseason.
Though the clocking is ticking fast for the worst of these to make a move. Teams hovering around 10 games behind the division leaders and/or wild card slots, such as Oakland, Colorado and Miami, had better make noise before the end of July. Otherwise, expect them to fade rapidly into the ranks of the also-rans.
Fortunately for fans, more teams are flirting with relevance than mediocrity. We should expect competitive races.
AL East: The Yankees will hold a slight lead, but everyone is within striking distance. Even the last-place Red Sox, while a few games under .500, have a realistic shot at cutting in.
Boston has been the hottest team in the division over the last week. If they can sustain that momentum after the break, don’t be surprised to see them battle New York to the wire.
Toronto is one team that’s shown real potential. The Jays have outscored their opponents by more than anyone else except the high-flying Cardinals.
What Toronto hasn’t been able to do is win on U.S. soil. The Canadians are among the worst road teams in the Majors.
These East teams all trail the leaders for the AL Wild Card race, but could contending there as well.
AL Central: Playing .600-plus baseball has put Kansas City in the driver’s seat, but Minnesota remains well within striking distance and a Royal collapse would leave the door open for even the bottom three teams.
Still, Kansas City goes into the break in a winning mode and the wind seems to be at their backs. A solid performance through the rest of July might put the division title out of reach for the rest.
These teams are also part of the Wild Card conversation, though it’s taken a strong showing in the last week from the White Sox to put Chicago back into the reckoning.
AL West: Houston has been surprisingly good in the first half, putting them neck and neck with the L.A. Angels. But the Astros have shown signs of fading in the last week and I think they’re more likely to emerge as a Wild Card favorite than the division winner.
Texas and Seattle, or even Oakland, could surprise us later this summer if they can work out their problems. But they’ve given us little reason so far to expect much.
NL East: Every time it seems like the Washington Nationals are going to move away from the pack, they falter. Still, they’re the only division team with a positive run diffriential.
The New York Mets remain close, but were playing better earlier in the season. Meanwhile the Atlanta Braves have clawed their way back into contention, despite a little losing streak in the last week. They’ve got to shore up their pitching and show they can win on the road in the second half.
The bad news for these teams is that they’re unlikely to factor into this year’s NL Wild Card race. That raises the stakes for the division crown — win the East or go home.
NL Central: St. Louis has been firing on all cylinders. Other teams have to hope that the Cardinals are peaking too early and will run out of gas. Second-place Pittsburgh has been closing the distance and the Pirates seem ready to plunder the title if St. Louis doesn’t outrun them.
The Chicago Cubs jostled with the Pirates for second until recently, but now may have to settle for the second Wild Card spot. They’re in a good position to claim this prize if their current pace continues.
NL West: The Dodgers are ahead, but not far enough ahead of San Francisco and Arizona to say it’s over.
But the difference from the situation in the NL Central is that these teams are likely too far behind for the Wild Card race. If the Central teams lock down those slots in the next few weeks, then we could see a desperate attempt for anyone else in the West to catch the Dodgers.
Overall, the one thing I don’t expect is boredom. It’s a good year to be a baseball fan.