Picking MLB's Second-Half All-X-Factor Team, Position by Position
Parity has been the story of the 2014 season.
With a little more than two months remaining in the regular season, the Detroit Tigers are the only team with a division lead of more than three games, as they currently hold a seven-game advantage over the Kansas City Royals in the American League Central.
Elsewhere in the AL, the Orioles have a three-game lead over the Yankees and Blue Jays in the East, while the A’s sit three games ahead of the Angels in the West. In the National League, the Dodgers and Nationals lead the East and West by 1.5 games, respectively, and the Brewers are three games up on the Pirates and Cardinals in the Central.
Overall, 15 teams have at least a 21 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus’ postseason probabilities, via MLB.com.
While there is still plenty of time before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline for teams to improve their on-field products, the lack of big-name trade targets means that most organizations will be forced to rely on players on their current roster.
With that said, here is one player at each position that has the potential to be an X-factor—someone who can make or break his team's chances—during the second half of the season.
All stats up to date through July 23. Records up to date through July 24.
Catcher: Brian McCann, New York Yankees
The Yankees signed Brian McCann for five years and $85 million during the offseason with the hope that the left-handed hitting catcher would put up his usual .800-plus OPS and 20-plus home runs.
However, McCann’s first season with the Bronx Bombers hasn’t gone as expected, as he’s batted a pedestrian .239/.293/.371 with 10 home runs and 41 RBI in 91 games. If the season ended today, McCann’s .295 wOBA and 82 wRC+ would rank as the lowest totals in his 10-year career, per FanGraphs.
However, the Yankees still have won 45 of their 91 games this season with McCann in the lineup, and a closer look at those wins further highlights how crucial he is to the team’s chances of reaching the postseason.
The 30-year-old backstop has shown signs of life lately and is enjoying his best month of the season, with a .317/.343/.413 batting line, four extra-base hits and five RBI over his last 17 games. A strong finish to the season might not necessarily make up for McCann's rough first half, but it certainly could help the Yankees return to the postseason.
First Base: Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles
Speaking of down years—Chris Davis has struggled mightily this season after leading the major leagues in home runs, RBI and total bases in 2013, a performance that led to a third-place finish in the AL MVP voting.
The 28-year-old slugger spent time on the disabled list with an oblique injury early in the season, but that doesn't entirely account for his .202 batting average, .707 OPS (nearly .300 points below his 1.004 OPS in 2013), 16 home runs and AL-leading 116 strikeouts through 84 games.
Davis was bound to regress this season after posting career-best fly-ball (45.7 percent) and home run/fly-ball (29.6 percent) rates in 2013, but not to the extent he has. However, his .260 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and .192 (isolated power) this season both are well below his respective career averages of .326 and .240, per FanGraphs, thus highlighting his room for improvement during the second half.
The Orioles currently hold a three-game lead over the Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East, but they’ll still need Davis to return to form if they plan on playing deep into October.
Second Base: Marco Scutaro, San Francisco Giants
Second base has been a glaring weakness for the Giants this season, as the team has been forced to employ an unproductive combination of Brandon Hicks (.585 OPS), Joe Panik (.503 OPS), Ehire Adrianza (.637 OPS) and Joaquin Arias (.287 OPS) at the position in the absence of veteran Marco Scutaro.
Scutaro missed the first 93 games of the season while on the 60-day disabled list with a lower back strain, an injury that arose during spring training. But after a lengthy rehab assignment with several of the Giants’ minor league affiliates, the 38-year-old second baseman finally made his season debut on July 12, going 0-for-3 with a strikeout and walk.
Since then, however, Scutaro has made just one start and appeared in only four games, as a stiff neck has prevented him from playing on an everyday basis. Overall, he had one hit and three strikeouts in 11 at-bats since coming off the DL. On Friday, Scutaro was placed on the 15-day DL again with that same lower back strain, per MLB.com's Ryan Hood.
Even though Scutaro was a main cog on the Giants’ World Series-winning team in 2012, his age and ongoing health issues will make it difficult for the team to rely on him during the second half. However, with a career batting line of .277/.341/.388 in 1,391 games, Scutaro still should outproduce the team’s other options at second base even if he’s only semi-healthy. But that's a big if.
Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers
Hanley Ramirez was everything the Dodgers hoped he would be last year in his first full season with the organization. Though limited to only 86 games due to injuries, Ramirez still ranked as one of the more productive hitters in the game, with a .345/.402/.638 batting line, 20 home runs and 5.0 FanGraphs WAR. Suffice it to say the Dodgers had high expectations for their 30-year-old shortstop headed into the 2014 season.
Unfortunately, injuries once again have limited Ramirez’s playing time this season. More significantly, they’ve prevented him from matching his 2013 production.
Ramirez isn't having a bad season by any means, but he will need to stay healthy and show more consistency during the second half of the season if the Dodgers plan on making a run at the National League’s top record.
Third Base: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
Evan Longoria has been a model of consistency during his seven years with the Tampa Bay Rays, with a career batting line of .273/.354/.499 as well as a 162-game average of 31 home runs and 107 RBI, per Baseball-Reference.
But after posting an .842 OPS with 32 home runs and 39 doubles in 2013, the 28-year-old’s production has regressed considerably this season, as he enters Friday with a career-worst .728 OPS and 106 wRC+ to go along with 12 home runs and 16 doubles.
However, Longoria has started to show signs of righting the ship over the last week, with a .292 batting average, .542 slugging percentage, one home run, three doubles and seven RBI in his last six contests—each of which has resulted in a Rays win. And with the team currently playing the best it has all season, it goes without saying that Longoria will be the Rays’ X-factor moving forward.
Outfield: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
The Washington Nationals currently own the best record (55-44) in the NL East and hold a 1.5-game lead over the second-place Atlanta Braves. However, it’s scary to think of where the team would be right now had phenom Bryce Harper not missed a majority of the season.
Harper began his second full season in the major leagues by batting .289/.352/.422 with seven extra-base hits and nine RBI through his first 22 games. The 21-year-old outfielder then suffered a thumb injury (torn UCL) on April 25 that subsequently required surgery and resulted in a lengthy two-plus-month stint on the disabled.
Harper returned from the DL on June 30 against the Rockies to bat .150/.244/.250 with two extra-base hits and 16 strikeouts in 12 games before the All-Star break. However, the left-handed hitter used the scheduled time off in mid-July to rework his swing under the guidance of his father.
"He stood up just a touch more to get on top of the baseball," manager Matt Williams said after Washington's July 18 game in which Harper went 3-for-4 with a home run, via Bill Ladson and Daniel Popper of MLB.com. "He lowered his hands a little bit, probably a little more direct to the ball. He worked on that over the break and he looked good up there tonight."
Harper has looked like his usual self at the dish since making the adjustment, with a .412/.524/.647 batting line over his last six games. And with Ryan Zimmerman now on the DL for an indefinite amount of time with a hamstring injury, the Nats will need Harper to continue his hot hitting over the second half of the season.
Starting Pitcher: Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals
Wacha became a household name last October when he captured NLCS MVP honors as a 22-year-old and went 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA in five postseason starts. Though his success didn’t translate to a World Series title, it still gave the Cardinals (as well as all baseball fans) something to look foward to in 2014.
As expected, the now-23-year-old opened the season as the Cardinals No. 2 starter behind Adam Wainwright, and for the most part, picked up where he left off the previous year by posting a 2.45 ERA and 75-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 12 starts between April and May.
Wacha’s performance regressed in June, however, as he pitched to a 4.24 ERA and 8-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17 innings spanning three starts. What came next was a crushing blow, as the Cardinals placed Wacha on the 15-day disabled list on June 22 due to a stress reaction in his right shoulder.
Wacha recently underwent an MRI and CT scan that showed encouraging results, according the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and general manager John Mozeliak still believes that the right-hander could be ready to rejoin the Cardinals rotation in early September. And considering what Wacha did for the team toward the end of the 2013 season, when he basically carried it into and through the playoffs, it’ll need him fully healthy and at his best to enjoy similar success.
Relief Pitcher: Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles
Zach Britton, 26, has been outstanding since taking over as Baltimore’s closer in mid-May, recording 18 saves in 21 chances while pitching to a 2.45 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 29.1 innings. The left-hander’s ERA would be even lower if not for a pair of rough outings in which he allowed three and four earned runs, respectively. Overall, Britton has been scored on just three times in that span.
Yet, while Britton has made a smooth transition to his new role, it’s important to remember that he had zero closing experience headed into the season. Considering the Orioles previously explored other potential ninth-inning options such as Tommy Hunter and Darren O’Day before finding success with Britton, they’ll have no choice but to keep relying on the southpaw during the second half of the season.