With the all-star break upon up this week, we’ve reached the unofficial halfway point of the 2017 MLB season, even though all 30 teams have played more than half of their 162 games. So this is a good time to take a look at what the standings look like and see what teams appear to be contenders for playoff spots and which teams seem to be just playing out the string for the remainder of the regular season.
The Astros and Dodgers hold the best records in the American and National leagues, respectively. The Astros have a seemingly insurmountable lead in the AL West, 15.5 games ahead of the second-place Rangers entering Sunday. I picked the Astros to win the division in my preseason preview but didn’t expect them to perform this well. I thought they would win around 90 games, but they’re already at 59 wins with 74 games remaining. If they just go 32-42 the rest of the way, they’ll surpass that 90-win prediction. And they’re doing it all with their ace Dallas Keuchel on the disabled list for the past month. He is expected back shortly after the break and, if healthy, can provide a major boost to a team that is already one of the best squads in the majors. The Astros are for real and barring any major injuries the rest of the way should be able to play deep into October.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, hold a 6.5-game lead over the Diamondbacks in the NL West. They have come on strong in recent weeks as the D-backs and Rockies have faltered after fast starts. The play of rookie OF Cody Bellinger has helped propel the Dodgers to the top of the division. He has hit a team-best 25 home runs in 69 games since being brought up from the minors. Meanwhile 3B Justin Turner is hitting .375 on the season. In addition to getting strong pitching from perennial Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers are getting a surprisingly good performance out of SP Alex Wood this season. He is having a career year with a 10-0 record and a 1.67 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 80.2 innings. While there is more competition in the National League than the American League, the Dodgers look like they have the type of offense and pitching and could set them up for a long playoff run.
Perhaps the most surprising division is the NL Central, where the defending World Series champion Cubs are a game under .500 and 4.5 games behind the division-leading Brewers, who won 34 fewer games than the Cubs last season. 1B Eric Thames is having a breakout season, with 23 home runs so far. On the mound, the Brewers aren’t getting particularly strong pitching out of their rotation, but closer Corey Knebel has posted a 1.76 ERA with 72 strikeouts in 41 innings while recording 13 saves. For the Cubs, they are getting disappointing seasons from guys like 3B Kris Bryant and 1B Anthony Rizzo who were among the key pieces that led to ending the team’s infamous championship drought in 2016. And the disappointments extend to the starting rotation, with SPs Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta sporting ERAs of 3.94 and 4.35, respectively. The Cubs clearly aren’t a 108-win team like they were last season, but they’re also better than being around a .500 team so you can expect them to improve their record in the second half of the season. The question is will they be able to make up the deficit the Brewers have opened up. And the Cardinals are also lurking, currently just a game back of the Cubs. If the Brewers don’t add a starting pitcher before the trade deadline, I think they can be caught in the second half, especially if the Cubs get their act together.
The AL Central is essentially a three-team race, with three games separating the first-place Indians from the Twins and Royals. Of those three, I think the Indians are by far the best team and will likely hang out to win the division. The Twins were outperforming everyone’s expectations early in the season, but I think they’re going to fall further behind the Indians. And I don’t think the Royals have enough to keep up with the Indians through September. I don’t think the Indians have a good enough team to return to the World Series, though.
The Nationals hold an 8.5-game lead over the Braves in the NL East and, barring a major collapse, they should easily win the division. They’re similar to the Dodgers in that they have a couple of big hitters and OF Bryce Harper and 2B Daniel Murphy and good starting pitching with SPs Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, but their Achilles heel is the bullpen. The ineptitude of the Nats’ relievers has been well-documented this season and if they don’t make a trade for a good closer, the bullpen could prevent them from going far in the postseason. If they had a top-end closer, they would probably be my pick to make it to the World Series in the National League, but with the bullpen as it stands now that’s not the case.
The Red Sox lead the AL East with the Yankees and Rays 3.5 games and 4.5 games behind them, respectively. The Yankees have been falling in the standings over the last couple of weeks while the Red Sox are rolling. Yankees OF Aaron Judge is a star, but I don’t think the Yankees have enough pitching to catch the Red Sox. No Yankee starter has a sub-3.50 ERA and RP Dellin Betances has not looked good in recent appearances. If the Yankees don’t trade for a starting pitcher who can slot into the No. 1 or No. 2 spot in the rotation, they’ll be out of the race in the division. And I don’t think the Rays are for real. They’ll likely fall back in the standings over the coming weeks. I expect the Red Sox to ultimately win the division.
As for the wild cards, I think the Yankees and Royals are the frontrunners in the American League, while both National League wild cards will almost surely come out of the West. With the Dodgers looking like favorites to win that division, I think the Diamondbacks and Rockies get the wild cards. All the other contenders in the NL are too far back and have too much ground they would have to make up.
The Week Ahead
After Sunday’s action, there are no regular-season games until Friday after the all-star break ends. Before then, there’s the Home Run Derby on Monday and the All-Star Game on Tuesday so let’s break down those exhibitions.
They’re using a bracket format for the derby, with defending champion Marlins OF Giancarlo Stanton as the top seed in his home ballpark. He’ll face Yankees C Gary Sanchez in the first round. Other first-round matchups include Royals 3B Mike Moustakas taking on Twins 3B Miguel Sano, Bellinger against Rockies OF Charlie Blackmon, and Judge facing Marlins 1B Justin Bour. I expect Stanton, Sano, Bellinger and Judge to get past the first round.
That would set up semifinal matchups of Stanton against Sano and Bellinger versus Judge. I would give Stanton and Judge the advantage in those matches, giving us the finals that most people want to see — No. 1 seed Stanton versus No. 2 seed Judge. Both of those guys can hit the ball out of the park, but I think Judge would end up winning.
As for the All-Star Game itself, I think the American League has the better starting lineup as far as position players go, with the likes of Judge and Astros 2B Jose Altuve and OF George Springer, but I give the edge in pitching to the National League. With Kershaw, Scherzer and Strasburg leading the starting pitchers on the roster and two of the season’s best closers in Rockies RP Greg Holland and Dodgers RP Kenley Jansen, that pitching staff will be hard to beat. Good pitching typically beats good hitting, so I’ll take the NL to win the game.
And looking ahead to next weekend, the top series to look forward to when MLB resumes regular-season games on Friday are the Orioles hosting the Cubs in a battle of teams looking to stay alive in their divisions, the Yankees visiting the Red Sox in an important AL East battle.