One Big Second-Half Liability for Every MLB Contender
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The second half of the 2012 Major League Baseball season starts today, Friday. As it does, over half of MLB's 30 teams are eying spots in the postseason.
The question isn't which teams are going to be in it to the bitter end; it's easier to ask which teams aren't going to be in it to the bitter end.
As far as the teams that are in the race right now are concerned, none of them can claim to be perfect (though the Texas Rangers are pretty close). The danger for all of them is that the problems they currently have could end up costing them a playoff spot. Other teams are in danger of seeing new problems arise that could have the exact same effect.
Here's a rundown of the one big liability each team should be losing sleep over as we head into the second half.
Note: All stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
New York Yankees: One-Dimensional Offense
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Standing: 1st in AL East
The Bronx Bombers are once again living up to their nickname this season. They've slugged 134 home runs so far, more than any other team in MLB, and they're on pace to surpass the 200-homer plateau for the fourth straight year.
That's not a bad way to generate offense. The Yankees' problem is that it's basically their only method of generating offense.
Their struggles with runners in scoring position have been well-documented. They're hitting .231 in such situations, 26th in Major League Baseball. They hit .273 with runners in scoring position in 2011, finishing second in baseball in runs scored.
The Yankees currently rank sixth in baseball in runs scored. The hits they're not getting with runners in scoring position are making a difference.
The Bombers are a virtual lock to make the postseason, but their RISP problem is without a doubt the biggest problem they have to solve in the second half. It's easy to hit homers in the regular season. It's not so easy to hit them in the postseason.
Baltimore Orioles: Hammel, Chen...and Who Else?
Thank goodness for Jason Hammel.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Standing: 2nd in AL East
The Orioles have not benefited from consistent starting pitching this season. Their rotation ERA is 4.77, 26th in all of baseball.
Things aren't getting much better as the season moves along. Orioles starters posted a 5.16 ERA in May, a 5.45 ERA in June and have posted a 4.72 ERA so far in July. It would be worse if it wasn't for two guys.
They would be Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, of course. Hammel has been consistently good and occasionally great, and Chen has been one of the American League's more underrappreciated pitchers thus far.
Outside these two, however, Baltimore's starting rotation has been a mess, and the O's have tried to solve their starting pitching woes from within. This effort has failed, and the Orioles have pretty much run out of options.
If they don't find pitching help from outside the organization, there's little reason to think the Orioles will be able to tread water long enough to finally break their playoff drought.
Tampa Bay Rays: Paging Evan Longoria
Evan Longoria has been missed.
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Standing: 3rd in AL East
Much has been made of Tampa Bay's defensive struggles, but they're not as bad as they seem. Per FanGraphs, the Rays rank fourth in baseball in defensive runs saved. That's a better measure of how good they are defensively than their fielding percentage, a figure that scorches the retinas.
The bigger problem facing the Rays heading into the second half is their lack of offense. They rank in the middle of the pack in runs scored, and they rank toward the bottom of the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
The Rays have been waiting patiently for Evan Longoria to return from the DL, but the latest word from Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune is that Longoria won't be back until August. It sounds like there's a chance he could be out longer.
The Rays don't have a lot of offensive firepower in their lineup without Longoria, and it shows. Only eight teams scored fewer runs than Tama did in the month of June.
Tampa Bay can still win games because of its pitching, but there will be a limit to how many games the Rays can win as long as their offense continues to sputter along.
Boston Red Sox: Underachievers Be Underachieving
We're looking in your general direction, Adrian Gonzalez.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Standing: T-4th in AL East
With players like Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Clay Buchholz and others set to return in the second half of the season, the Red Sox are about to get healthier and more talented than they were at any point in the first half.
Good health is only half of the formula for Boston's second-half comeback. In order to pull it off, the Red Sox need their underachieving players to start achieving again.
Chief among them is Adrian Gonzalez, who slugged just .416 in the first half of the season with six home runs. He did finish the second half on a hot streak, but it wasn't really a powerful streak.
The Sox also need more consistent work out of Jon Lester, who entered the break with a 4.49 ERA. His stuff has been good enough this season, but his mentality just hasn't been the same. He needs to snap out of it and go back to pitching like he did in 2008, 2009, 2010 and much of 2011.
Though he got shelled his last time out, Josh Beckett has actually turned things around after a slow start. The Red Sox merely need him to be consistent.
If the underachievers don't come around, good health won't be enough to save the Red Sox.
Toronto Blue Jays: A Call for Arms
The Jays need Brandon Morrow back.
Brad White/Getty Images
Standing: T-4th in AL East
The Blue Jays' disabled list is loaded with pitchers, and a couple of them will not be coming back this season. I hear the team is considering accepting applications for pitching positions (a joke, people).
The Jays are doing what they can with what they have in the meantime and, to their credit, haven't completely collapsed. This is largely thanks to their offense, which is nearly as powerful as that of the Yankees.
But just like how the Rays won't be able to do much without hitting, the Jays are only going to be able to do so much without strong pitching. General manager Alex Anthopoulos must find answers to Toronto's starting pitching woes, and it wouldn't hurt to add a reliever or two as well. Otherwise it will be the same old story: one step forward, one step back.
The Jays have a loaded farm system that Anthopoulos can use to acquire a big-name pitcher if he likes, but he needs to tread carefully. The Jays may not be able to re-sign free-agents-to-be like Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke. Moreover, there's really no need for the Jays to be in win-now mode when the organization's future is so bright.
Chicago White Sox: Where Have Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko Gone?
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Standing: 1st in AL Central
The White Sox have taken up residence in first place in the AL Central thanks largely to their powerful offense and their surprisingly deep pitching staff. And right now, the trade that brought them Kevin Youkilis is looking like a steal.
It's not all good for the White Sox, though. The two men who are supposed to be Chicago's best hitters have been two of their worst hitters for quite a while now.
Since the middle of May, Adam Dunn is hitting .177/.337/.427 with 79 strikeouts in 164 at-bats. Very quietly, he's reverted back to the 2011 version of himself, and that's not a good sign.
Meanwhile, Paul Konerko is hitting .236/.304/.325 since late May with just three home runs and nine RBI. He's gone from being an MVP candidate to being a major question mark.
The White Sox have been able to absorb the struggles of Dunn and Konerko to this point, but that doesn't mean they'll be able to absorb them forever. They need to get going.
Cleveland Indians: Pitching Talent Wanted in Cleveland
Justin Masterson has been an enigma this season.
Jason Miller/Getty Images
Standing: 2nd in AL Central
Indians starting pitchers have put together an ERA of 4.59 this season, and there's no guarantee that number is going to get any lower in the second half.
Cleveland's starting rotation has not been wrecked by injuries—its struggles have been a simple matter of bad pitching. None of the team's primary starters has an ERA under 4.40. Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez, who was optioned to Triple-A in late June, have ERAs over 5.00.
Staff ace Justin Masterson has been inconsistent; same goes for Ubaldo Jimenez, who has yet to live up to the big price the Indians paid to get him ahead of the 2011 trade deadline; and Derek Lowe has cooled after a hot start. These guys are supposed to be the core of Cleveland's staff, and they haven't gotten the job done.
The Indians have survived their poor starting pitching to this point, but things don't bode well for them in the second half with the Detroit Tigers breathing down their necks. All the inconsistencies need to go, in a hurry.
Detroit Tigers: Offensively Bad Defense
Miguel Cabrera is a great hitter, but a great defensive third baseman he is not.
Leon Halip/Getty Images
Standing: 3rd in AL Central
Detroit's pitching staff has managed to post an ERA of an even 4.00 this season, which isn't bad.
That number looks even better considering how poorly the Tigers have played on defense this season. They rank 20th in the league in team fielding percentage, and FanGraphs says they rank next-to-last in baseball in team UZR.
Austin Jackson is an above-average defender in center field, but few other Tigers can claim to be above-average fielders. The problem is particularly bad on the infield, where the Tigers have two of the worst defensive players in baseball on the corners in Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.
Numerous factors have contributed to Detroit's disappointing season. Bad defense is the one that's been overlooked the most.
It's not the kind of problem that will keep the Tigers from getting on a roll in the second half, mind you. But bad defense could be the difference between a win and a loss every day, and the Tigers are going to need as many wins as possible to win an AL Central race that could go down to the final day.
Texas Rangers: The Fear of Contentment
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Standing: 1st in AL West
The Rangers are as close to perfect as any baseball team can possibly hope to be.
They rank first in baseball in runs scored, batting average, OBP and slugging percentage; they have a rotation ERA of 4.08; their bullpen ERA is 3.16; and they have the fifth-best team UZR in baseball.
There's been buzz about the Rangers making a move for a starting pitcher at the deadline, and according to Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi, they have indeed been linked to the two biggest names on the trade block: Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke.
But with starters like Neftali Feliz and Colby Lewis and relievers like Alexi Ogando and Koji Uehara on the disabled list, the Rangers don't need to make a move at the deadline; they can afford to stand pat and wait to get healthy.
The team itself can afford to coast towards a third straight AL West title. They've been coasting for a couple months now, and the Angels have yet to catch them despite their Mike Trout-inspired surge. That's how good the Rangers are.
That's also the key danger with this team, though: They know they're good. That won't cost them a spot in the postseason, but the last thing Ron Washington wants is for his team to get content and complacent. His team has been to two straight World Series, but that doesn't mean it can take a third for granted.
Los Angeles Angels: The Fear of the Big Letdown
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Standing: 2nd in AL West
The Angels have been the best team in baseball since calling up Mike Trout in late April. He's put up incredible numbers and energized a lineup desperately in need of such. He's the American League's MVP for the first half, without a doubt.
Mark Trumbo's accomplishments have been overshadowed by Trout's epic first half. Very quietly, he hit .306 with 22 home runs and 57 RBI. He's proving that he's more than just a slugger. He's a great all-around hitter.
What the Angels should be worried about is how much longer this can last. Trout has been great, but what he's doing is totally unprecedented. It's hard to imagine him shattering expectations for much longer.
There's more hope of Trumbo staying on a roll, but he too is in uncharted territory. How much longer can he keep the production coming?
If Trout and Trumbo duplicate their numbers from the first half, the Angels are going to be a dangerous team. The issue is that duplicating their first-half numbers is next to impossible.
Washington Nationals: Clown Experience, Bro
Harper may be the best 19-year-old ever, but that doesn't make him experienced.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Standing: 1st in NL East
The Nationals have been baseball's most surprising team this season, riding great starting pitching and Bryce Harper's energy to the best record in the NL East. They'll start the second half with a comfortable four-game lead over the Atlanta Braves.
What you have to worry about with the Nationals is the fact that they have a lot of young players on their roster who have never experienced a pennant race before. Quality players over the age of 30 are hard to come by. Players with postseason experience are just as hard to come by.
The scary part is that Washington's two most important players are also its two youngest. Harper, 19, has been a major sparkplug for this Nationals team, but he's bound to hit a wall at some point. Stephen Strasburg, 23, is going to hit a wall at some point. Once he hits his innings limit, he's done for the season.
The Nats should be able to secure a postseason berth, but don't be surprised if their youth costs them the NL East crown.
Atlanta Braves: Ben Sheets? Seriously?
How much longer can the Braves stick with Mike Minor?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Standing: 2nd in NL East
Starting pitching has been an issue for the Braves thus far in 2012. Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson have been solid, and Jair Jurrjens has been very good since returning from the minors. But Brandon Beachy is lost for the season and the Braves can't rely on Mike Minor and Randall Delgado to produce consistently.
It's gotten to a point where the Braves are ready to resort to using Ben Sheets. He'll make his first major league start since 2010, according to the Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports). He didn't pitch in 2009 either, by the way. Evidently, he only pitches in even-numbered years. That's the only time his health agrees with him.
If Sheets doesn't pan out (and he probably won't), it's only going to be more obvious that Frank Wren needs to make a trade at the deadline to find a starting pitcher. Atlanta's starting rotation must be solidified.
If it is, the Braves should have little trouble qualifying for a playoff spot. If it isn't, they're not going to be able to outrun the upstart New York Mets.
New York Mets: Worst. Bullpen. Ever.
Frank Francisco is almost ready to return, but is that a good thing?
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Standing: 3rd in NL East
The Mets have the worst bullpen in Major League Baseball. Its 4.94 ERA ranks last in the majors, and it has also racked up 13 blown saves and 17 losses.
The Mets have managed to be a surprisingly good team anyway. You can only imagine what their record would be like if they had an above-average stock of relievers. Or even an average one, at that.
It is absolutely imperative that the Mets go out and find at least one arm to add to their pen. They've been able to skip by to this point, but R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana can't save the bullpen every night.
Kind of like how the Braves' starting pitching woes didn't kill their first half, the Mets' bullpen woes didn't kill their first half. That's no excuse not to fix it, though. The Mets aren't getting any postseason action unless they can solidify their pen.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Over-Reliance on Andrew McCutchen?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Standing: 1st in NL Central
For a while there, it looked like the only thing standing in Pittsburgh's way to becoming a really good team was offense. The Pirates were one of the worst offensive teams in the majors for the first couple months of the season.
But since the start of June, no team in baseball has scored more runs than the Pirates. This is largely thanks to Andrew McCutchen, who is hitting .401/.447/.730 with 10 home runs and 35 RBI since the first of June.
Fellow B/R MLB Lead Blogger Ian Casselberry thinks McCutchen is the NL's first-half MVP. He's not wrong, you know.
Still, one can't help but wonder about McCutchen. He's a little too hot at the moment, and nothing should be taken for granted after how he finished the 2011 season. After the break last season, McCutchen hit just .216/.330/.392. He seemed to fall in love with his power a little bit, and it showed.
The same thing shouldn't happen this year...but one never knows with guys who competed in the Home Run Derby during the break.
Cincinnati Reds: Enough Balance on Offense?
These three guys are great. The rest? Not so much.
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
Standing: 2nd in NL Central
There's not a whole lot to complain about where the Reds are concerned.
Their starting pitchers have posted an ERA of 3.64. Their relievers have posted an ERA of 2.77. Defensively, they're well above average. On offense, they have the game's best hitter in Joey Votto.
However, one can nit-pick a little bit when it comes to the Reds offense. Votto is outstanding, Jay Bruce is going to keep the power coming and Brandon Phillips is uncannily consistent, but the production beyond the three of them leaves a lot to be desired.
As good as the Reds' three big boppers are, there's a reason they rank 17th in baseball in runs scored. It's because the rest of the lineup hasn't held up its end of the bargain. They haven't gotten much out of their catchers, Scott Rolen has been hurt much of the year, Ryan Ludwick can't do much besides hit home runs and Drew Stubbs has been a massive disappointment.
The Reds are just good enough offensively to the point where they don't need to make a move for a hitter at the deadline, but that wouldn't be a bad idea. The Votto-Bruce-Phillips core needs help.
St. Louis Cardinals: Must Find Starting Pitching
Chris Carpenter is not walking through that door.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Standing: 3rd in NL Central
Starting pitching has been one of the Cardinals' primary strengths this season, as their starters have combined to post a 3.65 ERA while logging 52 quality starts. Their bullpen, though, has been a serious problem.
But they can't be worried about fixing their bullpen now. With Chris Carpenter out for the rest of the season and Jaime Garcia not due back until August, general manager John Mozeliak needs to go out and find a starting pitcher who can aid a waning staff.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mozeliak is not blind to the Cardinals' needs. In fact, he's apparently looking to kill two birds with one stone by acquiring a starter and then moving Lance Lynn or Joe Kelly to the bullpen.
He's not one to be underestimated. It will be very surprising if the deadline passes without the Cardinals making at least one deal.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Kemp, Ethier and Who Else?
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Standing: 1st in NL West
The Dodgers are due to to get Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier back healthy for the start of the second half. The two of them alone should solve the offensive problems the team has been experiencing for several weeks.
But only to a degree. Kemp and Ethier are a dynamic duo, but the Dodgers don't have a lot of talent around the two of them in their lineup. General manager Ned Colletti should be on the horn looking for bats in the next couple weeks.
A new bat is needed at third base, where the Dodgers have gotten very little production. James Loney hasn't provided any pop at first, so he can be replaced too. An upgrade in left field would also be welcome. With Dee Gordon on the disabled list with a bad thumb, a middle infielder would also come in handy.
The Dodgers have enough pitching to make it to the postseason intact, but they can't set their sights any higher than that until they round out their lineup.
San Francisco Giants: Bad Tim Lincecum Needs to Be Good Tim Lincecum Again
Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Standing: 2nd in NL West
The Giants rank in the top 10 in all baseball in team ERA, quality starts, WHIP and batting average against.
This is despite the fact Tim Lincecum has the highest ERA among all qualified major league pitchers at 6.42. As bad as he's been, the Giants have managed to post a winning record anyway. Most impressive. But if the season ended today, the Giants would not be in the playoffs. They would narrowly miss locking up the second wild-card berth.
The message here is quite clear: Lincecum needs to get his act together. The Giants aren't going to be a playoff team unless he does. As to how he's going to do that? Heck, there are no new theories left to be uttered.
The bright side, Giants fans, is that Lincecum's FIP is 3.98, according to FanGraphs. He's been bad, but he's also been very unlucky.
It stands to reason that his luck will even out in the second half. The Giants are obviously hoping it will.
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