Tag Archives: postseason

World Series preview: Houston Astros vs. Los Angeles Dodgers — Another title drought ends

For the second straight season, we have a World Series consisting of two teams who have not won a championship in decades, with one team that has never won the Fall Classic. The Houston Astros, who are representing the American League after shutting out the New York Yankees 4-0 in Game 7 of the ALCS, have never won the World Series since entering the league in 1962 (as the Colts .45’s). This is just their second World Series appearance, having been swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005. On the National League side the Los Angeles Dodgers are playing in their 20th World Series, but it’s their first since 1988 when they won their sixth title. They advanced to the World Series with a 11-1 win over the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs in Game 5 of the NLCS.

Both teams finished the regular season with two of the three best records in MLB during the regular season. The Astros won 101 games, which was the third-highest total in the league, three behind the Dodgers’ MLB-best 104 wins. This is the first time since 1970 (and eighth time overall) that two teams that won more than 100 games during the season are meeting in the World Series. For the first time, the team with the better record has home-field advantage, giving the Dodgers Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 at home. If the old rule — the winning league in the All-Star Game gets home-field advantage — was still in effect, the Astros would have home-field thanks to the AL’s win in July.

Games 1 and 2 are at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday with first pitch scheduled for 8:09pm. After a travel day Thursday, the series moves to Minute Maid Park in Houston for Games 3-5 set for Friday through Sunday. First pitch for Games 3 and 4 is at 8:09pm, with Game 5 (if necessary) set to begin at 8:16pm. If the series goes beyond five games, Games 6 and 7 are back in Los Angeles on October 31 and November 1, respectively. First pitch of Game 6 would be 8:09pm with Game 7 getting underway at 8:10pm, if it’s played. All games are on Fox in the U.S., and all times are Eastern.

How did they get here?

After winning the AL West by 21 games, the Astros began their postseason run by beating the AL East champion Boston Red Sox, 3-1, in an ALDS before beating the East’s second-best team, the Yankees, in an ALCS that went the distance, with the home team winning all seven games. The Dodgers ended the regular season as NL West champions, winning the division by 11 games, then swept the division-rival Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-game NLDS. They then beat the defending World Series champion Cubs, 4-1, in a NLCS that was a rematch of last year’s series. Through their first two series of the postseason, the Dodgers have played just one game over the minimum.

Pitching

Some of the game’s best pitchers are in this series, with two of them scheduled to kick off the series on Tuesday. The Astros send 14-game winner Dallas Keuchel to the mound in Game 1 to face potential NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, who went 18-4 during the season. Game 2’s pitching matchup has Justin Verlander — who has been stellar since the Astros acquired him from the Detroit Tigers on August 31 — going up against Rich Hill for the Dodgers. The teams haven’t announced their starters yet beyond that, but the Astros are expected to go with Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. for their other two starters, with the Dodgers expected to use Yu Darvish, who they acquired at the July 31 trade deadline, and Alex Wood.

I give the Astros a slight advantage in starting pitching. Kershaw may be the best pitcher of the bunch — though Verlander’s 9-0 record and 1.23 ERA (including the postseason) since joining the Astros may have something to say about that — but I think the Astros have the better rottion overall. Verlander and Keuchel are a strong 1-2 at the top and the way McCullers pitched in the ALCS makes it seem like he’s healthy and has his stuff back, making him a better No. 3 in my mind than what the Dodgers have. Morton could be an X-factor. If he can have another start like he had in Game 7 against the Yankees, he would be a solid No. 4 for the Astros.

There’s no question the Dodgers have the advantage in the bullpen. During the season, they had the fourth-best ERA in the majors at 3.38, while the Astros ranked 17th with a 4.27 ERA. The difference is even more distinct in the postseason, with the Dodgers bullpen leading the pack with a 0.94 ERA. The Astros’ 5.03 ERA out of the bullpen ranks seventh out of the 10 postseason teams. Having RP Kenley Jansen in the closer role at the end of the game should give the Dodgers more confidence he’ll be able to close out games than the Astros have in their closer, RP Ken Giles.

Offense

The Astros had the best offense in the majors during the regular season. Among the offensive categories in which they led MLB were hits (1,581), doubles (346), RBI (854), average (.282), OBP (.346), slugging percentage (.478), OPS (.823), OPS+ (127) and strikeouts (1,087). They were also second to the Yankees in home runs. 2B Jose Altuve, who I think should win the AL MVP award, led the majors in hits for the fourth straight year and batting average for the third straight season. He also had 24 home runs, which tied his career high. Overall, the Astros had 11 players with double-digit home runs. OF George Springer led the team with 34, and SS Carlos Correa and utilityman Marwin Gonzalez — who led the team with 90 RBI — also had more than 20 home runs. The offense did go through a bit of a slump in the ALCS, including OF Josh Reddick going hitless until Game 7, but they scored 11 runs in the final two games of the season and it appears as though they are back to how they were during the regular season. In 11 games this postseason, the Astros are hitting .247 with 12 home runs.

The Dodgers didn’t have nearly as potent of an offense during the regular season, finishing outside of the top 10 in home runs and in the bottom third of the majors with a .249 average. Rookie 1B Cody Bellinger led them with 39 home runs, with OF Yasiel Puig behind him at 28. Their power was more top-heavy, with eight guys hitting at least 10 home runs and six of them at 21 or more. 3B Justin Turner led the team with a .322 average and 1B Chris Taylor was at .288 during the season; Turner and Taylor each hit 21 regular-season home runs. In the postseason, the Dodgers are hitting .273 with 13 home runs in eight games.

Now that it appears the Astros are out of their slump they were in at the start of the ALCS, I think they have the offensive advantage.

Defense

Although the Astros made some nice plays in the ALCS, the Dodgers are a better defensive team statistically. During the regular season, the Dodgers made 88 errors compared to 99 for the Astros. In the postseason, the Dodgers’ two errors are half of the four committed by the Astros.

Managers

A.J. Hinch, the 2015 AL Manager of the Year, is in his third season managing the Astros and fifth season overall as a manager. The 2016 NL Manager of the Year Dave Roberts is in his third season as a major-league manager, second with the Dodgers. Both are managing in their first World Series.

Prediction

I expect this to be a close series. One concern for the Dodgers is SS Corey Seager, who was left off of the NLCS roster as he dealt with a back injury. He is expected to be on the World Series roster and ready to play in Game 1 on Tuesday, but you have to wonder if he is at full health. I think the Astros have the advantage in starting pitching — assuming McCullers can pitch as well as he did in the ALCS — and on offense, where there’s no easy spot in the lineup for opposing pitchers to face. I’m going against the “pitching beats offense in the postseason” adage and the Dodgers having home-field advantage, but I think the Astros offense will be able to put runs on the board against Dodger pitching and will fulfill the prophecy predicted by Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter in 2014.

Astros in seven.

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LCS Predictions: Yankees-Astros and Cubs-Dodgers

With the division series in the books, we’re down to the final four teams in Major League Baseball’s postseason, with the Astros and Yankees battling for the American League crown and the Dodgers and Cubs in the National League as the Cubs look to continue their quest to repeat as World Series champs.

American League Championship Series

The Astros didn’t have much trouble taking care of the Red Sox in the ALDS and the Yankees went the distance, upsetting the Indians in five games. I think the Astros will take a 2-0 lead at home coming off what I expect to be strong starts from SPs Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in Games 1 and 2, respectively, of the ALCS. The Astros offense, which led the majors in most offensive categories, should be able to score against the Yankees rotation. The Yankees’ biggest advantage is the bullpen, but the Yankees may be playing from behind in most games, which would negate that advantage. OF Aaron Judge — who struck out more times in the five games of the ALDS than Tony Gwynn did in the entire 1995 season, 16 to 15 — should be able to do better against the Astros because, aside of Verlander, they don’t have the same type of strikeout pitchers that the Indians do. That said, I think the Astros win the series behind their top two starting pitchers with potential AL MVP 2B Jose Altuve, SS Carlos Correa and OF George Springer leading the way offensively.

Astros win in six games.

National League Championship Series

Like the Yankees, the Cubs needed to play all five games to beat the Nationals in the NLDS, and they needed some bad baseball by Washington to help them. The Dodgers, on the other hand, dispatched of the Diamondbacks in a three-game sweep. The Dodgers went on a lengthy losing streak in September but they seem to be back on track after that. Despite getting the win, Dodgers SP Clayton Kershaw’s postseason struggles continued in Game 1 of the NLDS, giving up four earned runs. But he’ll be on seven days rest when he takes the mound against the Cubs in Game 1 of the NLCS. Neither the Cubs offense — 3B Kris Bryant and 1B Anthony Rizzo each hit .200 in the series — nor the bullpen did well against the Nationals, and they won’t have much of a chance against the Dodgers if those struggles continue. The Dodgers are the better team right now, and I think that will lead them to their first World Series appearance since winning it in 1988.

Dodgers win in six games.

If the Astros-Dodgers World Series comes to pass, that means one team will win the championship for the first time in a long time; the Dodgers last won in 1988 and the Astros have never won a World Series title.

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MLB Postseason Preview: 2017 Predictions

Now that the Wild Card games are over and the division series are set, time to predict what’s going to happen in the rest of the postseason.

American League
Division Series
Astros beat Red Sox in 4 games
Indians beat Yankees in 4 games

Championship Series
Indians beat Astros in 7 games

National League
Division Series
Nationals beat Cubs in 4 games
Diamondbacks beat Dodgers in 5 games

Championship Series
Nationals beat Diamondbacks in 6 games

World Series

nationals

beat

indians

in 6 games.

I’m 2-0 after the Wild Card games, let’s see how I do with the rest of my picks.

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MLB Postseason Preview: National League Wild Card game — Rockies at Diamondbacks

This year’s Wild Card game in the National League pits two teams from the NL West who are familiar with each other as the Diamondbacks, who finished the regular season 93-69, host the 87-75 Rockies, who are making their first postseason appearance since 2009. The Rockies are giving SP Jon Gray (10-4, 3.67 ERA) the start and SP Zack Greinke (17-7, 3.20 ERA) gets the start for the home team in the winner-takes-all game.

The Rockies went 41-40 on the road this season, and the Diamondbacks were 52-29 at Chase Field.

Greinke has the distinct experience advantage over Gray, including in the playoffs; this is his 10th career start in the postseason so he knows what it’s like to pitch on a big stage like this. Greinke is 3-3 with a 3.55 ERA in the playoffs. Gray, on the other hand, is getting his first taste of postseason action. In his 20 starts this season, Gray recorded 112 strikeouts in 110.1 innings to go along with his 3.67 ERA. He has gone 13 straight starts without allowing more than three earned runs and only exceeded that number three times in 2017. Greinke struck out 215 batters in 202.1 innings over 32 starts in his second season with the Diamondbacks. Other than allowing eight earned runs in his penultimate start of the regular season, Greinke has also put up good numbers over the last several weeks. Both pitchers have put up good numbers this season, but I like Greinke in this game more because of his extended history of success in the majors, including in his nine previous postseason starts.
Advantage: Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks have a better bullpen, with their 3.78 ERA ranking as the fifth best in the majors this season with the Rockies’ relievers posting a 4.40 ERA that was 20th in MLB. Rockies RP Greg Holland recorded 41 saves this season, but put up a subpar 3.61 ERA in the process, which tied him with RP Jake McGee for the best ERA among the team’s main relievers. Holland recorded 70 strikeouts in 57.1 innings. Serving as closer for the Diamondbacks is veteran RP Fernando Rodney, who posted a pedestrian 4.23 ERA while saving 39 games.  He did strike out 65 batters over 55.1 innings. The star of Arizona’s bullpen is RP Archie Bradley, who had 1.73 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 73 innings over the course of 63 appearances. Relying on Rodney to save the game is worrisome, but I think Bradley is the best reliever on either team and could be called upon to pitch more than an inning if needed. He could be an X-factor in the game.
Advantage: Diamondbacks

On the offensive side of things, the Rockies’ .273 batting average was the second best in the majors while the Diamondbacks were just below league average at .253. The Diamondbacks have more power, though, racking up 218 home runs compared to the Rockies’ 192. A big factor in Arizona’s home run total was the July trade for OF J.D. Martinez, who knocked 29 balls out of the park after joining the team on July 19. He also hit .302 in the 62 games he played with the Diamondbacks. Diamondbacks 1B Paul Goldschmidt added 36 home runs and a .297 average for the team. The Rockies had three players who reached or surpassed 30 home runs — 3B Nolan Arenado and OF Charlie Blackmon each hit 37 and 1B Mark Reynolds got 30, with another 24 from SS Trevor Story, who had a disappointing season after a monster rookie year in 2016. I think the Rockies offense is more evenly spread out and less top-heavy than the Diamondbacks so I’ll give Colorado the advantage here, with the caveat that Martinez and Goldschmidt are each capable of hitting multiple home runs in the game.
Advantage: Rockies (barely)

The Rockies have the advantage on defense, with their 77 errors ranking as the third fewest in the majors. The Diamondbacks were in the bottom 10 with 105 errors.
Advantage: Rockies

I think Greinke will be able to outduel Gray and give the Diamondbacks the victory at home, earning them their first NLDS appearance since 2011. My biggest concern is having Rodney come in late in the game if it’s a close score, but he’s a veteran and I think he’ll be able to get the job done if called upon.

Whoever wins advances to the National League Division Series to play the NL West champion Dodgers. The other NLDS is already known and will pit the NL East champion Nationals holding home-field advantage in the series with the Cubs, who are looking to defend their World Series championship after winning the NL Central this season. Both National League series begin on Friday.

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MLB Postseason Preview: American League Wild Card game — Twins at Yankees

It’s October, and that means the Major League Baseball postseason is here. This is the third year of the expanded playoffs with Wild Card games in the American League and National League. For the second time in those three years, the AL Wild Card game is being played at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees lost the game to the Astros in 2015, but they seem to have an easier matchup this time, hosting the Twins. The Yankees are coming off a 91-71 season while the Twins finished the regular season 85-77, making the playoffs just a season after losing a MLB-worst 103 games in 2016.

The visitors are putting veteran SP Ervin Santana (16-8, 3.28 ERA) on the mound to oppose Yankees SP Luis Severino (14-6, 2.98 ERA).

The Yankees having home-field advantage in the game could come into play because even though the Twins finished the 2017 season a respectable 44-37 on the road, the Yankees were an impressive 51-29 in the Bronx during the regular season.

Santana has the clear experience advantage over Severino, as he is making his third career postseason start and ninth appearance overall, while Severino is playing in his first career postseason game, at any level of professional baseball. They both pitched well during the season, with Santana winning two more games and Severino recording a slightly lower ERA. Santana had a rough couple of starts in early September, giving up four earned runs in back-to-back outings, but he hasn’t given up more than three earned runs in four starts since then, and he went all of August without allowing more than three earned runs. Severino only had two games since the beginning of July in which he gave up more than three earned runs — a six-run outing on July 2 and an eight-run game on August 12. Severino has also been racking up the strikeouts in the second half of the season, totaling 123 since July 1, just 44 fewer than Santana’s total for the season. Advantage: Yankees

The Yankees have one of the best bullpens in the majors, and it only got better at the non-waiver trade deadline, with the additions of RPs David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to a bullpen that already had RPs Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman. Overall, the Yankees had the third-best bullpen ERA in the majors at 3.35 but the Twins were down at 23rd in the rankings, with a 4.42 ERA from their relievers.The Twins had more saves than the Yankees — 41 to 36 — but that could be a result of how the games went. If given a choice, I’d still rather have the Yankees’ bullpen.
Advantage: Yankees

Looking at the offense, both teams were in the top 10 in batting average, with the Yankees having a slight advantage, but the Yankees have a clear advantage in the power department, having led the majors with 240 home runs — thanks in large part to 52 off the bat of OF Aaron Judge — which was 36 more than the Twins hit, with their team high being 34 from 2B Brian Dozier. Yankees C Gary Sanchez was second on the team with 33 home runs, just one fewer than the Twins’ home-run leader. With so many more home runs for the Yankees, it’s not surprising that they also had a higher OPS than the Twins, with the Yankees ranking third in the majors in that category and the Twins being ninth. The biggest hole in the Yankees’ lineup is DH Matt Holliday, who hit just .230 in 104 games this season, with 18 home runs. The biggest offensive liability for the Twins is C Jason Castro, but that’s the position where most teams have their worst offensive production.
Advantage: Yankees

The Twins are one of the best defensive teams in the league, with their 78 errors being tied for the fourth fewest in the majors. The Yankees, on the other hand, made 95 errors, which was two more than the league average.
Advantage: Twins

The Yankees have the advantage in all major aspects of the game other than defense. As long as Severino can give the Yankees six innings and get a lead to the bullpen, I think the Yankees will win the game. If the Twins are going to have a chance to win, they’ll need big production out of the likes of Dozier, 3B Miguel Sano and OF Byron Buxton.

Whoever wins advances to the American League Division Series to play the AL Central champion Indians. The other ALDS is already set, with the AL West champion Astros holding home-field advantage in the series with the Red Sox, who won the AL East for the second year in a row. Both American League series begin on Thursday.

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MLB Weekly: One more week

Teams are making a final playoff push as the last week of the regular season begins in this week’s MLB Weekly.

Next Sunday, October 1, is the final day of the MLB regular season, which means teams in the playoff picture have just a week left to either qualify for the postseason or improve their playoff seeding.

All but one of the playoff spots have been clinched in the American League, with just one Wild Card spot up for grabs. But playoff seeding is still left to be decided among the Indians, Astros, Red Sox and Yankees, who are the four teams who have guaranteed their spots in October baseball. The Indians and Astros have clinched the Central and West, respectively, but they are fighting for the top seed in the American League, which would guarantee home-field advantage in the ALDS, ALCS and possibly World Series. The Indians currently lead the Astros by 1.5 games for the best record in the AL.

The Red Sox currently lead the AL East, but the Yankees still mathematically have a slight chance to pass them in the division, sitting four games back entering Sunday. The Twins are in possession of the league’s second Wild Card and are 4.5 games ahead of the Rangers, Royals and Angels, who have slipped in the standings after losing six in a row. In both cases, that kind of lead is hard to make up with fewer than 10 games remaining on the schedule. The Rays and Mariners are also technically still alive but need a lot to go right for them to make it to the postseason.

AL standings

In the National League, there is more uncertainty. The Nationals and Dodgers have locked up the East and West, respectively, but the Central and the two Wild Cards still haven’t been clinched. The Cubs, who have won eight of their last 10 games, lead the Brewers by 4.5 games and appear to be headed to their second straight division title on the way to defending their World Series championship. The Brewers are more likely to make the postseason as a Wild Card rather than a division winner. They are one game out of landing one of the NL’s two Wild Card spots that are currently held by the Diamondbacks and Rockies. The Cardinals are also part of the four-team race for the NL Wild Cards, just 1.5 games behind the Rockies. Every other team in the National League has been mathematically eliminated from contention.

As far as the seeding goes, the Dodgers still hold the best record in the NL despite being just 7-16 in the month of September. They are 4.5 games better than the Nationals and, barring another extended losing streak like they had earlier this month, should be able to hold on to the No. 1 seed in the National League playoffs.

NL standings

The coming week is critical to teams like the Brewers and Cardinals still hoping to make it to October. In the National League, the Cardinals host the Cubs for a four-game series starting Monday that could give St. Louis a chance at closing the gap in the division race if they can win at least three games, and that would also help them stay alive in the Wild Card race. The Brewers have Monday off before playing three games at home against the Reds from Tuesday to Thursday. The Diamondbacks and Rockies begin the week hosting the Giants and Marlins, respectively, Monday through Wednesday before getting their final off-day on Thursday. Then for the final weekend of the season, the Brewers and Cardinals play each other in St. Louis, while the Rockies host the Dodgers — who likely will have the top seed wrapped up and may be resting some of their stars — and the Diamondbacks visit the Royals.

Probable pitchers are more in flux during the last week of the season than usual, depending on how all the playoff positioning works out as the week progresses, but here’s how it currently looks. The Diamondbacks have their three best starters slated to go against the Giants, with SPs Zack Godley, Robbie Ray and Zack Greinke set to take the mound on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. They likely could have the first Wild Card wrapped up by the time the series with Kansas City gets underway. The Rockies are set to have SPs Tyler Chatwood, Tyler Anderson and Jon Gray go against the Marlins, with SPs Chad Bettis and German Marquez currently scheduled to face the Dodgers. For the Brewers, SPs Zack Davies, Brandon Woodruff and Brent Suter are scheduled to start in the Reds series, with SPs Chase Anderson and Aaron Wilkerson penciled in for the Cardinals series. The Cardinals have SP Luke Weaver scheduled to begin the all-important Cubs series on Monday, followed by SPs Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn. SP John Gant is currently slated to begin the Brewers series, with Weaver then set for a second start in the seven-game week for the team.

The schedule for the American League contenders sees the Red Sox hosting the Blue Jays Monday through Wednesday, then the Astros come to Boston for the final four games of the regular season. Interestingly, those two teams could also play each other in one of the two American League Division Series. Before the Red Sox series, the Astros are on the road against the Rangers for three games starting Monday. After an off-day Monday, the Indians have six home games — three against the Twins and another three against the White Sox. After visiting the Indians, the Twins host the Tigers for their final series of the regular season. And the Yankees have a makeup game against the Royals in the Bronx on Monday, followed by three-game series against the Rays and Blue Jays at home as they look to overtake the Red Sox in the division.

The Red Sox have a mixed bag of starters set to go this week, starting the week with SPs Drew Pomeranz, Chris Sale and Rick Porcello scheduled to face the Blue Jays and SPs Eduardo Rodriguez, Doug Fister and Pomeranz again set to go against the Astros. Indians SPs Mike Clevinger, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer are on tap to face the Twins with SPs Carlos Carrasco and Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber penciled in for the White Sox series, but if the Indians have the top seed locked up by then don’t be surprised to see that change. The Astros have set up their rotation to avoid having aces Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander pitch at Fenway Park, so they’ll take the mound against the Rangers, along with SP Collin McHugh, who’s slated to get a second start in Boston along with SPs Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock. The Twins have SPs Bartolo Colon, Adalberto Mejia and Kyle Gibson facing the Indians, with SPs Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios set to go against the Tigers. As the Yankees look to catch the Red Sox, they’ll send SPs CC Sabathia, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray to the mound against the Rays, with SPs Jaime Garcia and, potentially, Sabathia facing the Blue Jays.

With all of that in mind, I don’t think the Brewers or Cardinals will be able to sneak into the playoffs and all of the teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today will actually make the postseason when the season does end in a week.

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MLB Weekly: Midseason analysis, All-Star Game preview

Looking Back

The MLB Weekly takes a look at what teams are underperforming and overperforming at the all-star break and previews the All-Star Game.

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

Stanton HRD

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.

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