What We've Learned:
1. I said that both the Astros and the Twins had loaded farm systems, but I thought Houston was a year away from being MLB-ready and Minnesota 2-3. Both have faltered a bit lately, but would be in the postseason were the season to end today. Score one for youthful exuberance over elderly caution.
2. Analytics and sabermetrics aren't dead, but they're coughing up blood. The bean (Billy Beane?) counters told us the following teams would be in contention: Red Sox, White Sox, Padres, Mariners, and Blue Jays. Ummm…no! And the team that invented painting teams by the numbers, Oakland, is execrable. Sabermetrics is proving to be a Dodge Neon, not a Maserati; it beats walking (building from the ground up), but you can't take it across country (a 182-game season). Scouts 5-Accountants 0.
3. Joe Girardi is seldom mentioned for Manager of the Year, but I'd give it to him right now. Many experts picked the Yankees for last and I picked them for fourth. I still think they'll falter, but raise your hand if you had them in first place at All-Star break. Girardi's handling of the bullpen and New York's perpetual injury woes has been masterful.
4. There is no clear favorite to win the World Series. In the NL, the Nationals have pitching galore, but their offense is often a no-show, the Cardinals are solid everywhere but spectacular almost nowhere, and the Dodgers are as likely to implode as explode. The team that's slowly gathering pace that no one wants to face is the Giants. The Mets, Pirates, and Cubs? Nice teams, but more holes than a bum's underwear. The American League is such a welter of mediocrity that everyone is within 8 games of a Wild Card bid. Parity 22, Talent 8.
5. Teams Most in Need of a Make-Over: Quite a few. Let's start with those that spent a lot of money and have gotten little from it: Boston, Detroit, Toronto, San Diego, and Seattle. Next toss in those whose rosters look great on paper and like dog poop on the grass: Marlins, White Sox, and Reds.
6. Managers Likely to Be Fired Soon: Number one is John Gibbons in Toronto, who has never been a good manager. Lloyd McClendon ought to be sleepless in Seattle. Brad Asmus doesn't have the Tigers by their tails, and Pat Murphy in San Diego and Dan Jennings (Milwaukee) will likely take the sword for management misjudgments. Boston's John Farrell is vastly overrated, but probably safe until the off-season when he and General Manager Ben Cherington might both walk the plank. Look for the bottom feeders to produce a few firings as well—though it's not their fault.
This and That:
Here in New England the question on everyone's lips is, "What's wrong with the Red Sox?" I admit I picked them (though I'm a Yankees fan). I did, however, sound the warning that things could go sour if the Red Sox: (a) spent too much money on too little talent, and (b) overrated that talent. This is precisely what has happened—as has my prediction that Red Sox defense would be an oxymoron. (Hanley Ramirez in left is truly a scary thing!)
The break results are of a franchise in a sinkhole as bad the one from which Theo Epstein once rescued them. Remember how Red Sox Nation used to moan about the Yankees $200 million roster? I'd have to say the Yanks spent their $200 mil more wisely. Rusney Castillo was signed for a king's ransom so the Yankees wouldn't take him—he's 28 at Pawtucket and the future looks dim. Pedro Sandoval? Not for the money he's getting paid. Hanley? Only if the Sox admit that Big Papi is Big Pooped Out and put Ramirez at DH. Other duds: Masterson, Napoli, Victorino—otherwise known as Time Marches On. Remember when Jackie Bradley, Daniel Nava, Allen Craig, Henry Owens, and Joe Kelly were "important pieces?" Now each is likely to exit in a fire sale. That may true also of Blake Swihart, who was exposed too early.
The AL East is so weak the Red Sox could still make a run. I still think they will, but the odds are very low. If one accepts the view that it will take 86 wins to capture the East, the Red Sox would have to play .600 ball (44-29) to get there. Possible, yes, but only two teams have played .600 ball thus far (St. Louis and Kansas City). They have to play on West Coast after the break (Angels and Astros), then come home to see the Tigers. Before the season ends they'll also have to maintain a .600+ record versus Tampa (9 games), the Yankees (9), Kansas City (3), the Mets (2), the Jays (6), and the Orioles (6). If this is my team, I'm selling assets.
As for the Yankees, I'm stunned they are in first. Give credit where it's due: Girardi, A-Rod as a man possessed, and relative health for RBI machine Teixeira. Miller and Betances have been spectacular, though reliever Justin Wilson is a candidate for team MVP. And then there's the unheralded but rock steady Brett Gardner.They'd need to go just 39-35 to win 87 games.
Can the Yankees win the East? They just might, but I'm still not sold. The temptation is there to gut the minors for a rental of Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto and the addition of 2B Brandon Phillips. I wouldn't do it as this still wouldn't be a championship club and assets such as Luis Servino, Jake Cave, and Aaron Judge are the future. Plus, the Yanks should save the cash to chase Bryce Harper in the off-season. The more prudent course would be to trim dead wood (Beltran, Capuano, and Drew) and let the kids play. There's zero excuse to waste a roster space on Drew—even an A-ball prospect would be an upgrade.
On paper, the Blue Jays have the best roster but—as I said in March—I'm done with these underachievers. The Orioles are a bat or two short, and the Rays' offense is even worse. The Yankees have a legitimate shot in the East. So too do the Red Sox, though they'll need to play like it's 1967 to get there.
The rest? The Mets have surprised and their young pitchers have been healthy (so far). With David Wright not in the lineup, though, I don't see much firepower. The revamped Braves manage to stay interesting, if not good. The Marlins are a mess right now and it wouldn't hurt to change managers (again). The Phillies are, simply, a joke at present. Changing GMs should help, though other teams want Cole Hamels, not detritus such as Howard, Revere, Ruiz, or Brown.
The Royals in the World Series? It might happen. I still don't think so. The Twins need to stay the course and be patient, the Tigers need to clean house (including the GM), the Indians, like Cleveland, needs a miracle; and the White Sox should admit their plan was flawed, keep Chris Sale, and put the rest out to competitive bid.
The Cardinals will, as usual, be in the post season—perhaps with division rivals Pittsburgh and the Cubs, though the latter has my vote for most likely to be knocked out of Wild Card contention. The Cubbies are responding to GM Epstein's grand plan, but the Giants still strike me as a superior team and the Cubs are still young bears. The Reds and the Brewers have rosters full of guys with inflated reputations that need to go elsewhere.
The Angels have overtaken the Astros and the franchise did the right thing twice already this season: unloaded addict Josh Hamilton in an addition-by-subtraction move, and kept skipper Mike Sciosia and fired the GM instead. I think they'll hold on in the AL West and that the Astros' wondrous first half will get them into the postseason, which will be brief. The Rangers have been about what I expected—as have been the A's, whom I predicted would be odiferous. The Mariners are a franchise in trouble. There's no way they can retain GM Jack Zduriencik, so why wait? Here's an audacious suggestion: offer Robbie Cano back to the Yankees. His salary is too rich for Seattle and he'd bring a bounteous exchange.
The Dodgers have the NL West in hand, though Puig is still a jerk and is wearing out his welcome. Lots of holes in LA, including the fact that rookie phenom Pederson is hitting long homers but not his weight, and Jimmy Rollins looks washed up. The Rockies and Diamondbacks are going nowhere slowly, and the Padres are the NL version of the Mariners: lots of splashy singings for lines such these—Upton .253; Kemp .250, Middlebrooks .215. He's on the DL, but when do we slap the "bust" label on Myers?