Biggest Winners and Losers of MLB's 1st Half

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistJuly 1, 2013

Biggest Winners and Losers of MLB's 1st Half

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    Just like that, half of the 2013 regular season is behind us.

    It doesn't feel like the season's at its halfway point, but for the vast majority of players and teams, the 81st game of the season has come and gone.

    With that being the case, now is as good a time as any to take a look at what we've seen over the past three months and figure out who exceeded expectations and who fell flat on their faces, both on the field and off.

Winner: Max Scherzer

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    You can't talk about the biggest winners in baseball this season without talking about Max Scherzer.

    Scherzer isn't only the first starting pitcher in baseball to start the season 12-0 since Roger Clemens accomplished the feat in 1986—he's the first pitcher in baseball history to be undefeated through his first 16 starts while striking out at least 120 batters.

    That's a pretty impressive accomplishment.

    But Scherzer's numbers are more than just wins, and he has to be considered in the lead for the American League Cy Young Award heading into the All-Star break.

    Take a look at how his first 16 starts of the season stack up against those of the last five AL Cy Young Award winners:

    David Price (2012) 11-4 2.92 1.22 104.2 35 97
    Justin Verlander (2011) 9-3 2.54 0.85 120.2 26 110
    Felix Hernandez (2010) 5-5 3.28 1.19 112.2 35 105
    Zack Greinke (2009) 10-3 1.95 1.02 115.1 18 114
    Cliff Lee (2008) 11-1 2.26 1.03 111.2 17 93
    Max Scherzer (2013) 12-0 3.10 0.90 110.1 25 131

    It's hard to argue that Scherzer hasn't been as good as, if not better than, every pitcher on that list so far in 2013.

    With Justin Verlander having a very un-Verlander-like season, Scherzer's ascension to becoming one of the elite starters in baseball couldn't have come at a better time for Detroit, a team that would not be in first place without him.

Loser: Alex Rodriguez

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    Without ever stepping on the field, Alex Rodriguez has managed to increase his already sizable lead over the rest of the field for the title of "Most Disliked MLB Player" over the first half of the season.

    His alleged ties to the Biogenesis clinic in Miami certainly don't help in the court of public opinion for an admitted steroid user, and if MLB has its way, a lengthy suspension could be in his future.

    If that weren't enough to disappoint and infuriate his current employer, A-Rod's Twitter declaration that he was ready to play games again was drawing the ire of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman: 

    Two days later, A-Rod told team officials that he didn't know when he'd be ready for game action, via ESPN New York's Wallace Matthews:

    "I'm not sure when I can come back," A-Rod is said to have told general manager Brian Cashman and team president Randy Levine on the three-way call. "It could be in July. It could be in August. It could be I won't be able to play at all this year."

    If that wasn't enough, there's the report from Bill Madden and Teri Thompson of the New York Daily News that says Rodriguez wants to come back as quickly as possible so that he can retire, enabling him to collect the $114 million that he's due over the next five years.

    Then there was this report from Matthews, also on June 27, which claims A-Rod believes the Yankees want nothing to do with him:

    According to the source, Rodriguez thinks the Yankees are deliberately slowing his return to their active roster in the hope they can have him declared medically unfit to play this season, enabling them to recoup 80 percent of his $28 million salary through insurance.

    There's probably some truth to that one, on both sides.

    But now, both sides have put their grownup shoes on and are waxing poetic about one another, with the team saying it needs A-Rod back and A-Rod claiming that he can't wait to rejoin the team.

    You can't make this stuff up.

    At this point, the best thing for Alex Rodriguez would be to say nothing.   

    Every time that he opens his mouth, he becomes less believable and less likable. That's never going to happen, of course, and A-Rod's already-tainted image will continue to take gut-wrenching shots in the court of public opinion with each passing comment.

Winners: Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The Pittsburgh Pirates finally have a real shot to finish the season with a winning record and be included in the debate over which team is the best in baseball.

    It's been a long time since we could say that without being laughed out of the room. That packs more punch than merely writing that it's been 20 years since the Pirates made the playoffs.

    Unlike the past few seasons, which have seen the Pirates tease a tormented fanbase with solid starts to the season only to have it all fall apart, this team is poised to finally end that postseason drought.

    Offensively, Andrew McCutchen is no longer being asked to carry the team, with players like Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez—especially Alvarez—picking up some of the load.

    But the real stars have been Pittsburgh's pitchers, who have risen to the challenge of continuing to win despite having four-fifths of the team's Opening Day rotation on the disabled list.

    Big-time performances from Jeanmar Gomez, Francisco Liriano and unheralded prospect Jeff Locke—who has the second-best ERA in the NL at 2.06—have kept the Pirates in games, while all top prospect Gerrit Cole does is win, undefeated through his first four major league outings.

    When A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez return to the fold, the Pirates rotation has a chance to be even better than it has been so far.

    Jason Grilli has been the best closer in baseball this season, more than effectively replacing Joel Hanrahan in the ninth inning, while Mark Melancon has turned into one of the premier setup men in the game.

Loser: Ruben Amaro Jr.

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    Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. needs to wake up—and fast—before he winds up driving the final nail into the coffin of a team that was once a perennial contender.

    When CBS Sports' Jon Heyman asked Amaro Jr. if he would sit down for an interview, Amaro's response was: "Yes. But I'm not trading anyone.''

    During the interview, the general manager expounded on his thoughts: "I never say never. But it's our job to win, and these are guys (Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon) who are hard to replace."

    That's true; players like Lee and Papelbon don't grow on trees.

    But as presently constituted, the Phillies are no better than a .500 club, and the thought that they can compete with Atlanta and Washington over the course of the season is a misguided one.

    Philadelphia has a rapidly aging core and lacks the quality prospects in the minor leagues with which to replace it. Yet the man in charge of putting it all together insists that the ship is not sinking, despite the gaping hole that is on the side of the hull.

    Outside of Domonic Brown and Cole Hamels, Amaro Jr. should be open to dealing anyone and everyone on the team's roster.

    While I can understand not wanting to admit that the players you have had success with in the past are no longer capable of delivering, it's a general manager's job to have the guts to admit that it's time for a change.

    It's time for Amaro Jr. to swallow his pride and do what needs to be done—sell off his veterans for younger, more athletic talent.

Winner: Rick Hahn

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    Unlike his counterpart in Philadelphia, Ruben Amaro Jr., White Sox general manager Rick Hahn knows that his roster is flawed and new blood is needed on the South Side of Chicago if the team is to return to the land of contenders anytime soon.

    That thinking was confirmed by CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, who reports that rival executives have confirmed that the White Sox are looking to sell and will discuss any player on the roster except Chris Sale and Paul Konerko.

    While Konerko has value as a trade asset, he's the face of the franchise and, like Derek Jeter with the Yankees, is more valuable to the White Sox than he would be to any other team.

    That said, Hahn has a number of players who are valuable trade assets, none more than reliever Jesse Crain, who is sure to be in high demand as the trade deadline draws near. Aside from Crain, players like Alejandro De Aza, Jake Peavy, Addison Reed, Alex Rios, Matt Thornton and Dayan Viciedo are sure to draw interest from multiple contenders as well.

    Cleaning house will allow Hahn to stockpile younger, more athletic talent with which he and manager Robin Ventura can begin to mold a winning roster.

    Credit has to be given to Hahn for realizing that his team wasn't going anywhere and having the guts to make the difficult but correct decision to blow the whole thing up and start over.

Losers: San Francisco Giants

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    Things haven't gone according to plan for the defending World Series champions this year, who sit three games under .500 and four games out of first place in the National League West, one game ahead of last-place Los Angeles.

    While the bullpen has been solid, the starting rotation, which was supposed to be the team's greatest strength, has been mediocre at best, going a combined 25-29 with a 4.47 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP.

    Of the group, only Madison Bumgarner is close to having met expectations:

    Player W-L ERA WHIP IP H BB SO
    Madison Bumgarner 8-5 3.08 1.00 111 78 33 107
    Chad Gaudin 2-0 3.38 1.08 21.1 19 4 13
    Matt Cain 5-4 4.29 1.07 109 87 30 101
    Barry Zito 4-6 4.53 1.60 91.1 112 34 59
    Tim Lincecum 4-8 4.64 1.43 95 95 41 93
    Ryan Vogelsong 2-4 7.19 1.73 46.1 62 18 40
    Michael Kickham 0-2 10.57 2.09 7.2 12 4 8

    That the offense ranks near the middle of the pack in runs scored (the Giants rank seventh in the National League and 16th in baseball with 333 runs scored on the season) isn't helping things.

    The Giants have been outscored by 21 runs this season, with the bulk of the team's run production coming from Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, who have combined to account for 25 percent of the team's runs scored (81) and nearly 30 percent of its RBI (90).

    San Francisco not only needs its starting rotation to step up, but for position players like Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt to start carrying more of the offensive load.

Winner: Chris Davis and Manny Machado

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    It's not often that you hear players of today compared to iconic figures like Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, especially the Gehrig/Ruth combination from the 1927 Yankees, considered by many to be the greatest team ever assembled.

    Baltimore's Chris Davis and Manny Machado are the exceptions to that rule.

    Davis, on pace for 110 extra-base hits, has already made MLB history in the first half of the season, courtesy of ESPN's Buster Olney. That total would be the third-highest single-season total in baseball history:

    Player Year XBH 2B 3B HR
    Babe Ruth 1921 119 44 16 59
    Lou Gehrig 1927 117 52 18 47
    Chris Davis 2013 (proj.) 110 49 0 61
    Barry Bonds 2001 107 32 2 73
    Chuck Klein 1930 107 59 8 40

    Not to be outdone, Machado has joined a pretty exclusive club of his own in the first half of the season.

    Like his teammate on the other side of the infield, Machado is looking to add his name to the record books, as he's on pace to shatter the single-season doubles record, one which has stood for nearly 90 years:

    Player Year 2B
    Manny Machado 2013 (proj.) 74
    Earl Webb 1931 67
    Joe Medwick 1936 64
    George Burns 1926 64
    Hank Greenberg 1934 63

    That's not the only record Machado has his eyes on, either.

    Only five players in baseball history who were 20 years old on June 30 finished the season with 200 hits. Machado, who doesn't celebrate his 21st birthday until July 6, is on pace to beat them all.

    Player Year H 2B 3B HR
    Manny Machado 2013 (proj,) 224 74 4 12
    Alex Rodriguez 1996 215 54 1 36
    Ty Cobb 1907 212 28 14 5
    Buddy Lewis 1937 210 32 6 10
    Vada Pinson 1959 205 47 9 20
    Al Kaline 1955 200 24 8 27

    Not only is Machado killing it with the bat, but he's arguably established himself as the best defensive third baseman in the game, no small feat considering that his natural position is shortstop.

    When it comes to dynamic duos in baseball in 2013, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more productive one than Chris Davis and Manny Machado.

Loser: Cole Hamels

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    While Cole Hamels has pitched better than his numbers would indicate (2-11, 4.58 ERA, 1.30 WHIP), the 29-year-old southpaw has not had the season anyone expected that he would.

    His strikeout rate is down, his walk rate is up and Hamels is getting less run support from his offense than he ever has before:

    Year Run Support (per game)
    2013 3.18
    2012 4.77
    2011 3.84
    2010 3.76
    2009 4.69
    2008 4.61
    2007 5.32
    2006 5.78

    That's not a combination for success.

    He's allowed at least four earned runs in six of his 17 starts on the season, already surpassing his totals from each of the past two seasons, putting him on course to match or set a new career high:

    Year Starts Games with 4+ ER
    2013 17 6
    2012 31 5
    2011 31 5
    2010 33 7
    2009 32 13
    2008 33 10
    2007 28 8
    2006 23 6

    As previously mentioned, Hamels has pitched better than his numbers would indicate, with a 3.82 FIP and 3.72 xFIP (via FanGraphs), but even those numbers are on the high side for a pitcher who had a career 3.34 ERA heading into the season and had a combined 2.97 mark over the past three years.

    While it's hard to imagine things getting much worse for Hamels over the second half of the season, if the Phillies decide to stick with the offense they currently have, that worst-case scenario could be right around the corner.

Winner: Miguel Cabrera

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    Miguel Cabrera had a season for the ages in 2012, winning both the American League MVP and Triple Crown, the latter the first since the coronation of Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

    Some regression was expected.

    No player has ever won back-to-back Triple Crowns, but Cabrera is making a run at the feat this season—and he's on track to eclipse his phenomenal numbers from a year ago:

    Cabrera (2012) .330 .393 .606 .999 84 (44) 139 109
    Cabrera (proj.) .373 .461 .680 1.141 94 (51) 166 130

    Granted, there are no guarantees in baseball and, as we've come to learn, anything can (and usually does) happen. Cabrera faces stiffer competition this season from Baltimore's Chris Davis than he did from Los Angeles' Mike Trout a year ago, with Davis currently six home runs ahead of Cabrera.

    Whether Miggy is able to make baseball history or not, nothing can take away from his remarkable performance over the first half of the regular season.

Loser: Corey Hart

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    For a player in the last year of his contract, nothing kills your earning potential like not playing and having a bad knee.

    That's exactly the situation that Corey Hart finds himself in. Yet to play this season due to surgery on his left knee, Hart's 2013 has gone from bad to worse.

    Hart, who has averaged a .279 batting average, an .857 OPS, 29 home runs and 83 RBI per season since 2010, was looking at a lucrative multi-year deal this coming winter.

    Now, he's likely to land nothing more than an incentive-laden one-year deal, hoping his knee stays healthy enough so that he can land a big payday following the 2014 season.

Winner: Carlos Gonzalez

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    For years, Carlos Gonzalez has been the poster boy for the home-field advantage that Coors Field offers batters.

    From the time he made his Colorado debut in 2009 through the end of the 2012 season—a stretch that included a National League batting title, a third-place finish in the 2010 MVP voting and an All-Star appearance in 2012—Carlos Gonzalez produced like a fourth outfielder outside of his home ballpark:

    Home .338 .394 .609 .943 65 229
    Away .258 .313 .421 .734 34 120

    That's a major disparity, and it makes his overall numbers less impressive than they were.

    But for whatever the reason, Gonzalez has reversed course in 2013, performing well at home but even better on the road:

    Home .280 .362 .598 .959 10 37
    Away .312 .365 .610 .976 12 23

    Among the league leaders in nearly every category, Gonzalez has once again emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate in the National League. The only difference between now and 2010 is that he's taken away his critics' biggest weapon—Coors Field.

Winners and Losers: Milwaukee Brewers

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    In 2012, Milwaukee's bullpen betrayed a formidable offense and decent rotation.

    In 2013, the bullpen has been the team's strength, with the bats and starting rotation failing to produce, leaving the Brewers sitting 16 games below .500 (32-48) and 18.5 games behind first place Pittsburgh in the National League Central.

    As a team, Milwaukee is hitting .257 with a .715 OPS, numbers that rank 13th and 15th overall—but the Brewers have scored only 317 runs, a total surpassed by 20 other teams. For a team that led the National League and finished third in baseball with 776 runs in 2012, that's a major disappointment.

    Granted, losing Corey Hart for the season hurt, but that's no excuse for such a precipitous drop in performance from what is essentially the same lineup.

    On the mound, things are even worse. 

    Milwaukee's starting rotation ranks 24th in baseball with a 4.18 ERA, 18th with a 1.32 WHIP. The Brewers have used 10 different pitchers to start games this season, and only one, Kyle Lohse (16 GS, 3-6, 3.63 ERA), has made at least five starts and has an ERA under 4.00.

    Trade rumors have already begun to circulate about multiple players on the team, including Yovani Gallardo, the ace of the underachieving rotation, Lohse and veteran third baseman Aramis Ramirez.

    Melvin told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt that, while he isn't looking to sell off Gallardo and Lohse, if a team comes to him with the right offer, he'd have to consider it.

    For as miserable a season as it has been for the Brewers, that's some good news. Melvin is being realistic about his team's chances and willing to explore making some major changes.

    Should those be in store, this next bit of good news becomes all the more important.

    Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura have quickly become two of the most exciting players in baseball, both hitting for average and power, while Jim Henderson looks like a long-term solution in the bullpen. Along with Ryan Braun, the Brewers have a solid group to build around.

    It's going to be interesting to see whether Melvin gives his current roster a chance to rebound in the second half of the season or if he's going to stockpile as much talent as possible with an eye toward the future.

Winner: Yasiel Puig

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    It's been nearly 90 years since baseball has seen a player break onto the scene like Yasiel Puig has since making his MLB debut on June 3.

    If that isn't impressive enough, take a look at how the start to Puig's career stands up against those of some other notable outfielders, both current and from the past:

    Bryce Harper (101 AB) .287 .901 4 11
    Mike Trout (100 AB) .220 .702 5 15
    Justin Upton (100 AB) .240 .303 2 9
    Yasiel Puig (101 AB) .436 1.180 7 16
    Hank Aaron (103 AB) .267 .721 2 5
    Babe Ruth (102 AB) .304 .909 4 23
    Frank Robinson (101 AB) .301 .987 8 15

    While I didn't pick Puig to make his All-Star debut this year—mainly because his major league career is four weeks old—it's hard to make a case against Puig being included on the National League's squad at future Midsummer Classics with numbers like that.