All-Star Week festivities have now concluded and the true “second half” of the baseball season begins tonight with a full Friday Night slate of baseball. As we get ready to play ball through the remainder of July, into the dog days of August and roster-expanded September baseball, it’s important to notice that this year the contenders have stomped a mud-hole in the competition and separated from the pretenders far earlier than usual, at least in the American League.
We already know the four teams in the American League ticketed for the postseason it’s just a matter of which team will secure the final wildcard spot and get the honor to play in hostile territory against a wagon of a team in a one-game playoff. Good luck indeed. The Boston Red Sox are the class of baseball with a staggering 68-30 record entering play in Detroit tonight aiming for the franchise-record of 105 wins set way back in 1912, and still the second-place New York Yankees are within sniffing distance at 62-33. The defending champion Houston Astros are on pace to own the West yet again and are a force to be reckoned with in October, then the fourth horse of the American League are the Cleveland Indians leading the central division and adding pieces to help them break the longest championship drought remaining in the game.
Outside of the big four, there’s the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics in the West that will be vying for the final postseason berth when it’s all said and done most likely. Oakland has a good young core with guys like Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Stephen Piscotty and veteran All-Star Jed Lowrie leading the offense along with slugger Khris Davis. Add tough left-handed starter Sean Manea and nasty revilers Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino and the A’s have all the tools to fight for a postseason spot. Seattle has a good young pitching staff as well with flame-throwing closer Edwin Diaz, veteran reliever Alex Colome and a rock solid rotation with “Big Maple” James Paxton, veterans Mike Leake & King Felix, locked in young lefty Marco Gonzales and contributions from veteran Wade LeBlanc. On offense dynamic short stop Jean Segura leads the charge as we saw on display in the mid-summer classic. Even without the suspended Robinson Cano, the offense hasn’t skipped a beat with Nelson Cruz, Ryon Healy, Kyle Seager, Dee Gordon and All-Star Mitch Haniger. The M’s are no joke, and I could see them stunning the competition in October.
For the big four, let’s take a closer look at the Tribe. Cleveland has a 7.5 game lead in the Central at 52-43. President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti wasted no time this trade season in getting his man acquiring San Diego Padres left-handed closer Brad Hand for top catching prospect Francisco Mejia. Now the back-end of that bullpen will have Hand, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller when he returns from the disabled list. In the “bullpening” era, Skipper Terry Francona will have plenty of elite arms to deploy as he so chooses come the postseason and with an ace at the front of the rotation in Corey Kluber, opposing hitters will have their hands full against the Indians. Trevor Bauer has been locked in on the mound for Cleveland as well posting a 2.24 ERA in the first half of the season. MVP-candidate Jose Ramirez leads the offense along with superstar Francisco Lindor at short. Add in veterans Edwin Encarnacion, a healthy Michael Brantley and the Tribe are no joke. They may be better than the team that was in Game 7 of the World Series against the Chicago Cubs just two years ago.
Next up is New York. Luis Severino is in Cy Young form for the Yankees posting a 14-2 record with a 2.31 ERA in the first half. Unreal performance by the young right-hander, add that to the bullpen arms Aaron Boone can deploy in the second half and through the postseason and it’s no wonder why everyone fears the pinstripes. Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Chad Green, Dellin Betances… oh my! If Tanaka and Sonny Gray figure it out then the Yankees may stand a chance at catching Boston for the division. Giancarlo Stanton rebounded from his early skid and will no doubt show off his power through the summer in the second half, and Didi Gregorious and Aaron Judge will surely continue to produce and carry the New York offense on most nights. They may not be as good as Boston right now, but New York is a force and they will only get better. Brian Cashman isn’t done trying to improve this team and at least one big move is down the pipe. Keep your eye on the Bronx Bombers.
Next up, it’s time for the defending champion Astros. A team that won the World Series went out and added a horse in Gerrit Cole who is 10-2 with a 2.52 ERA. Justin Verlander is doing his thing as is McCullers, Charlie Morton was an All-Star riding his performance last October to an 11-2 record with a 2.96 ERA and some of the filthiest stuff in the game in his arsenal. The lineup is a murder’s row of right-handed hitters with All-Star Game MVP Alex Bregman, World Series MVP George Springer, perennial MVP candidate Jose Altuve, and dynamic short stop Carlos Correa who will soon be healthy. The only question with Houston remains the back-end of the bullpen, specifically the closer spot. Ken Giles has been a ticking time-bomb this year and was optioned to the minors to work through the struggles. Hector Rondon is filling in admirably for the time being, but if there’s one hole it’s the back-end of the pen which is so often called upon in October.
Finally, there’s the best team in baseball in the Red Sox. The 93-win team from a year ago added one of the best hitters in baseball this off-season in a deal that now looks like an absolute steal putting up the Triple Crown numbers J.D. Martinez is producing. He is tied for the league lead in home runs with 29, first in RBI’s with 80 and is third in batting average at .328. Fellow All-Star Mookie Betts is hitting .359 with 23 HR’s and 51 RBI’s from the lead-off spot while Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts, both All-Stars snubs are locked in and delivering for the Boston offense. Mitch Moreland made the All-Star team after a rock-solid first half both at the plate and with the glove. Chris Sale is coming off his third straight start in the game for the AL carrying a 10-4 record with a 2.23 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and league-leading 188 K’s. Craig Kimbrel has already hit the 30 save mark with a 1.77 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP solidifying his place as one of the game’s best closers. Rick Porcello and David Price have looked much better this season than a year ago, and we know Dave Dombrowski has at least one move up his sleeve to sure-up the 25-man roster and put Boston in the best spot to close the deal.
The American League is a four-team race to the top and we will all be sure to tune in come postseason time. For now, we will continue to see these four superstar team bludgeon the dreads at the bottom of the league and pile up the victories. Despite the Los Angeles Dodgers making the move to acquire Manny Machado, I’m going with one of these four to win the whole thing. I know, really going out on a limb with that one, but come the ALDS & ALCS, y’all better have your eyes glued to playoff baseball because we are witnessing four all-time teams battling it out in the same league. It’s going to be incredible.
Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank