Post-All-Star Break MLB Predictions for 2016 Trades, Playoff Races and More
You can't predict baseball.
Well, not with that attitude.
MLB resumed action Friday, starting the unofficial second half to 2016. Sure, every team has played more than 81 games, but the four-day reprieve created the feel of a fresh beginning.
Of course, not everything went according to plan before the All-Star break. Michael Saunders (16) has more home runs than Jose Bautista (12), and Tanner Roark (3.01) owns a lower ERA than Max Scherzer (3.03). Bartolo Colon homered. And obviously everyone knew Odubel Herrera, Adam Duvall, Steven Wright, Brad Brach and Eduardo Nunez would earn All-Star bids.
More wild events will occur over the next few months. Role players will play like stars and vice versa. Maybe Colon will hit a triple.
Let's not go down the wormhole of those bold predictions. Instead, let's examine some plots with a well-written first act that will pay off down the stretch. From deadline deals to pennant races to award battles, the meaty storylines are just beginning to percolate.
With an interest in making reasonable claims, these prognostications won't stray into postseason territory. Too many variables exist in a short series to guess how they will unfold in July.
Jose Fernandez's Innings Limit Derails Miami Marlins' Playoff Push
Despite a slow first half from Giancarlo Stanton, the Miami Marlins are right in the thick of the National League's playoff race. They showed they meant business by acquiring Fernando Rodney before the break, and Dee Gordon is eligible to return from his 80-game suspension on July 29.
Before getting too excited, remember Miami discussed keeping ace Jose Fernandez on an innings limit of 180. He's already at 107.1. Fellow Scott Boras client Matt Harvey pushed past the threshold in his first season back from Tommy John surgery last year, throwing 226 innings in the regular and postseason combined. His 2016 struggles could cause Miami to proceed with caution.
Skipping or prematurely shutting down Fernandez will hurt a rotation already needing help. The Marlins shouldn't make any aggressive moves at the August 1 trade deadline when finishing over .500 would go down as a successful season.
New York Yankees Sell at Deadline
According to ESPN.com's Wallace Matthews, there's a schism within the New York Yankees over whether they should buy or sell at the deadline. The baseball executives, including general manager Brian Cashman, want to explore offers for Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Nathan Eovaldi, Ivan Nova and Aroldis Chapman.
Owner Hal Steinbrenner and team president Randy Levine, however, believe the club remains in contention.
Steinbrenner and Levine better listen to the people who know baseball. The 44-45 Yankees, who sport a minus-36 run differential, trail the Baltimore Orioles by 8.5 games in the American League East. They're fourth in the division and eighth in the wild-card hunt.
The increasingly prudent franchise will realize selling is the right move, trading the expiring contracts of Beltran and Chapman to contenders.
Clayton Kershaw Wins NL Cy Young, Not MVP
Clayton Kershaw hasn't pitched since June 26, having gone on the disabled list with a back injury. No mortal can miss a chunk of the season and still win a major award, but the Los Angeles Dodgers ace will do just that barring a lengthy setback.
Kershaw is having one of the greatest seasons ever and is sporting a 1.79 ERA and 0.73 WHIP. His 16.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio is on pace to shatter Phil Hughes' single-season record of 11.63. Despite the missed time, only six starters have hurled more innings than his 121.
If he returns next week, as anticipated, according to Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register, Kershaw will edge out a fierce field of NL aces for his fourth Cy Young Award. Winning the MVP, however, might prove a tougher sell when a significant contingent of voters won't recognize a pitcher. He'll concede MVP honors to Chicago's Kris Bryant.
Mike Trout Caps Off Another MVP Season...Without Winning MVP
No big deal, but Mike Trout is hitting .319/.423/.561 with 18 home runs and 15 steals. He's also put up 5.5 WAR, which is tied with Clayton Kershaw for an MLB-best, per FanGraphs. Just another normal MVP-caliber season for the 24-year-old superstar.
For the fifth straight season, the Los Angeles Angels outfielder will submit a compelling case for AL MVP honors. For the fourth time, he'll fall short.
Voters still struggle to recognize baseball as a game with isolated individual outcomes. Anybody not on a playoff team must (unfairly) topple the competition to win the award. Unfortunately for Trout, there's always another stellar candidate on a postseason-bound squad.
Miguel Cabrera beat him twice, and Josh Donaldson edged out a neck-and-neck battle last year. If the Toronto Blue Jays replicate 2015's sizzling second half, the third baseman will go for a repeat.
If not, Manny Machado and Jose Altuve lurk. Francisco Lindor joins the fold among those who value defense, and David Ortiz will garner votes among those who don't.
Either way, there are options allowing writers to again shun Trout, the lone bright spot on a team so bad that onlookers wonder if it'll only improve by trading this generation's top star.
Houston Astros Return Favor with AL West Comeback
Last year, the Houston Astros entered the All-Star break with a 5.5-game lead over the Texas Rangers. This year, the roles are reversed.
Following a breakthrough first half, the Astros tumbled down the stretch as the Rangers roared to win the AL West behind Cole Hamels. Houston, which sat below .500 until late June, can gain vengeance with an identical second-half comeback.
It's not a mere matter of symmetry. Led by MVP candidate Jose Altuve, the Astros have won 16 of their last 21 games. A.J. Reed hasn't boosted the offense, but top prospect Alex Bregman might instead before 2016 wraps up. On Friday, they added more depth to a potent infield by signing Cuban star Yulieski Gurriel, as first reported by MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez.
More importantly to Houston climbing up the standings, the starting pitchers are gaining steam. Over their past five starts, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh have posted ERAs of 2.78 and 2.87, respectively. Lance McCullers has accumulated 72 strikeouts over 57 frames this season.
Meanwhile, Texas will need Yu Darvish to stay healthy, which hasn't happened since the first half of 2014. Getting another MVP-caliber half from Ian Desmond is even less likely. No American League team has outperformed its Pythagorean expected record more than the Rangers, whose plus-10 run margin indicates a 46-45 team rather than a 54-37 powerhouse.
Like the Astros last year, look for Texas to salvage a wild-card bid once Houston claims its first AL West crown since switching leagues and joining the division in 2013.
Oakland Athletics Clean House
After accruing a playoff bid and plus-157 run differential in 2014, the Oakland Athletics celebrated by trading Josh Donaldson. They weren't afraid to plan ahead after a winning season, so imagine what they'll do during a losing one.
Oakland is battling with the Angels to stay out of last place in the AL West. No AL club has scored fewer runs per game than its 3.95, and no defense has delivered less value. The A's are clear sellers, and they possess some of the top trade chips.
Teams without the aspirations or financial resources to target a top-flight outfielder will call for Josh Reddick, a pending free agent making $6.575 million this year. Batting .302/.381/.448 in 54 games, the 29-year-old represents an attainable upgrade who won't cost a front-line prospect. He's perfect for a mid-market contender like the Cleveland Indians.
Prematurely trading Donaldson backfired, but it would still behoove them to dangle Danny Valencia while he remains under team control. The 31-year-old outfielder and third baseman would make sense for multiple contenders, and his value may never lurk this high given his .855 OPS.
Chief among them all, starter Rich Hill will draw massive interest if he stays healthy. The 36-year-old has carried over his improbable comeback into 2016, recording a 2.25 ERA in 76 innings. Had the lefty not missed a month with a groin injury, he would have made and possibly started the All-Star Game.
Boston was a popular prediction before the Red Sox landed Drew Pomeranz, but there are plenty of other potential suitors. ESPN's Buster Olney said Hill will become Texas' top trade target. He could still wind up in the AL East if Baltimore or Toronto pays up, but Texas makes sense given its barren rotation and deep farm system.
They're under contract beyond 2016, but the A's would likely trade Billy Butler, Ryan Madson, John Axford and/or Jed Lowrie if given the chance. Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball wrote they will even discuss Sonny Gray, but don't expect those talks to produce a deal.
By August 1, Oakland will have unloaded multiple MLB contributors to get a fresh start.
Chris Sale Wins AL Cy Young Award in Down Year
There's a reason the AL's All-Star roster consisted of more relief pitchers than starters. The top 10 first-half leaders in ERA all resided in the NL. (Drew Pomeranz has since changed leagues.)
This led Chris Sale to start the Midsummer Classic with a 3.38 ERA and career-worst 3.75 fielding independent pitching (FIP). Even in a down year for his standards, he earned the nod with an MLB-best 14 wins. Will that same logic fly in the AL Cy Young race?
There's plenty of time for someone to emerge as a rightful champion. Nobody would have thought Jake Arrieta would claim the National League's honor at this time last year. Yet the options leave a lot to be desired.
Steven Wright and Marco Estrada won't pitch so high above their peripherals to merit the prize. Aaron Sanchez won't stay in Toronto's rotation. Danny Salazar is going to run into some trouble if he keeps walking 3.96 batters per nine innings. Same for Cole Hamels and his 3.78 BB/9.
Boston's David Price is poised for a second-half course correction, but there's too much damage done. Teammate Jose Quintana represents Sale's biggest threat, but will old-school writers sway away from a possible 20-game winner for someone who is currently 7-8?
The Cy Young is Sale's to lose, and it'll take a second half like last year (4.33 ERA) to squander the opportunity. He'll more than likely beef up his numbers enough to justify the honor, but it won't match his 2.17 ERA from 2014 or 2.73 FIP last year.
Mets and Royals Miss Playoffs
Don't expect a World Series rematch between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals. In fact, don't be surprised if they both miss the postseason.
Kansas City is treading water at 45-44, but its minus-28 run differential doesn't indicate a strong second half is coming. The projection systems were never kind to the Royals during their World Series runs, but FanGraphs' 4.3 percent playoff probability still isn't promising.
Although Kansas City's success stems from putting the ball in play, exceptional defense and relief pitching, the starting staff needs to improve. The starters haven't handed as many leads to Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis this year and sport a 4.96 ERA.
To win their third straight pennant, the Royals need to make another big acquisition on par with landing Johnny Cueto last summer.
Things look a little better for New York, but there are still some serious issues to contend with. After dropping three in a row to the Washington Nationals before the break, the Mets should set their main sights on the wild card. Washington is dominating the way everyone expected last year, and the defending National League champions are reeling with injuries to Lucas Duda, David Wright and Matt Harvey.
And Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard are both pitching (and struggling) with bone spurs.
The offense entered the break with a .238 batting average, spared by the Atlanta Braves' .237 clip from ranking last. They wield more power, but only enough to place No. 20 in weighted on-base average (.312).
New York doesn't have the depth to offset a growing injury list, and its bullpen—the one part of the club to exceed expectations—is due for regression with a 3.20 ERA and 3.70 FIP. Without another Michael Fulmer laying around to pawn for a major offensive upgrade, they won't replicate last year's late magic.
Star Outfielders Stay Put
Everyone loves a blockbuster trade, especially when it involves an All-Star or former MVP. Several marquee outfielders will dominate July's rumor mill, but that won't lead to changes of scenery in August.
Moving the top high-profile bats comes with complications.
For the Milwaukee Brewers, dealing Ryan Braun will be difficult because of his inability to stay on the field. He's hitting a hearty .310/.364/.509 when healthy, but he has already missed 14 games with an assortment of nagging ailments.
That's not what suitors want from a 32-year-old who hasn't played more than 140 games in a single season since 2012, especially when he's under contract through 2020 and sullied from performance-enhancing drugs. He has also stalled out with a .295 on-base percentage since June 1, so the sell-high opportunity has dwindled.
It wouldn't be a trade deadline without wondering whether the Colorado Rockies will move Carlos Gonzalez, who has hit 48 home runs over his last 162 games. According to Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball, the 30-year-old "has expressed an interest in going elsewhere and people around the team are aware of it." Gonzalez, however, rebuked those reports, per the Denver Post's Patrick Saunders.
“I don’t know when that happened," Gonzalez said. "Maybe I was asleep. Obviously, it didn’t happen.”
Colorado traded longtime star Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto in 2015, so perhaps CarGo will follow. Then again, the downtrodden franchise could reach 75 victories for the first time since 2010. Unless someone blows them away—which isn't likely given this year's .757 OPS away from Coors Field—the Rockies will wait and see if he he can lift them into the playoff picture next year.
As for San Diego's Matt Kemp, good luck finding someone willing to spend $21.75 million per season through 2019 (though L.A. is on the hook for $3.5 million of that per year) for a 31-year-old with a .275 on-base percentage and minus-0.4 WAR.
It's 2016. No MLB franchise still views him as a superstar because of his 16 homers and 59 RBI.
Cubs' Staff Continues Pre-Break Regression
The Chicago Cubs' 54-35 record doesn't reflect their true dominance. Their plus-145 run differential leads the majors, and the Nationals (plus-109) are the only other team above 90.
Entering the break second in runs scored and third in runs allowed, they have under-performed their Pythagorean record by five games. They can blame an atypical stretch right before the All-Star Game, in which they lost nine of 11 while allowing 7.2 runs per contest.
Per ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers, All-Star pitcher Jon Lester expressed hope of the second-half reset restoring the status quo:
You saw a spike in home runs and offenses and all this stuff. Hopefully they got that all out of their system and we can come back and get back to playing normal games. We usually don't play back-and-forth games like that. Maybe 3-2, not 7-6. I think every win in those last couple weeks was important to try and get us back going. Maybe Sunday was it. Our pitching staff was not its normal self. This break will be good.
Yet maybe that bump in the road was overdue. Despite their disastrous July, the Cubs pitching staff still wields the most favorable gap between ERA and FIP. They entered the break with a .258 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), the only team with one below .275.
Back in June, Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight wrote of Chicago's staff creating its own luck by curtailing opponents' exit velocities and launch angles. The group led by Lester and Jake Arrieta is too good to crumble, so expect a more reasonable decline.
This isn't a prophecy of doom. The Cubs' stellar offense and defense will hold the pitching afloat through hard times, and management will boost the bullpen with a deadline upgrade or two. They won't finish with a record-breaking scoring margin, but they'll keep winning enough games behind their All-Star infield to claim the NL Central.
Familiar Rivals Meet in NL Wild Card Game
The Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals have emerged as NL playoff staples, each making the past three postseasons. A rivalry brewed when they met in 2013 and 2014, matchups both claimed by the Cardinals.
They're on a path to a third meeting, this time in a winner-take-all showdown.
Despite ranking No. 24 in wOBA, the Dodgers control the first of two wild-card bids with a pitching staff first in FIP and K/9. Kershaw is on track to rejoin a rotation bolstered by the returning Hyun-Jin Ryu (shoulder) and Brandon McCarthy (Tommy John surgery).
If Adrian Gonzalez finds his power stroke and management acquires another bat, they'll maintain a spot in the play-in game as the San Francisco Giants win the NL West.
St. Louis must fend off the Mets, Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates without Matt Carpenter, who suffered an oblique injury shortly before the Midsummer Classic. The NL leader in on-base percentage clarified his status during Monday's All-Star media session, per MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch.
"It's going to be more than two weeks; we can guarantee that," Carpenter said. "Hopefully, it's less than four. I don't think it's going to be longer than five, but you just don't know."
It's a brutal loss, but one St. Louis can handle for a few weeks. Few teams have guys like Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk sitting around to resume regular playing time. For what they lack in star talent, the Cardinals make up for in depth and above-average contributors across the board.
The best part about this matchup? Kershaw gets a golden opportunity for revenge after yielding 20 runs over five postseason starts against the Red Birds. There's still no other pitcher alive a team would rather trot out in a winner-take-all game.