Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Halfway Home...

Round second we go as baseball continues its journey around the base path, halfway home to the season's finish. Thus far, the season has brought us milestones, unlikely heroes, new stars, and surprising turnarounds. And with each pleasantry, we have more incentive to watch in anticipation of the season's end. With the All-Star Game complete, and home field advantage for the World Series once again in the AL's possession, we can only wonder how the second half will play out. What milestones will be broken, which underdog will hold on, and which team will outlast the others? These are the questions we anxiously await the answers to; answers only the second half can bring. Fortunately for the people that cannot wait, I am here to put my baseball knowledge to the test, as I try to answer these questions.

However before I do, I think it makes sense for me to recap the first half of the season. I think a neat (yeah I said neat) way to do that would be to hand out some midseason awards. So here we go.

Surprise Team of the Year: Tampa Bay Rays
There’s no surprise with this pick. I laughed when I heard they took the Devil out of their name in an effort to do something for this cursed franchise, but hey, I guess the jokes on me now. The Rays enter the break a game behind the Red Sox in the AL East and at times held the best record in the majors this year. But does their 7-game losing streak before the midsummer classic hint at a possible fish fry in the second half?

Disappointing Team of the Year: Cleveland Indians & Colorado Rockies
I had to turn this category into disappointing teams rather than team, because their both just that disappointing. The Indians, fresh off their trip to the ALCS, now find themselves at the bottom of the AL Central. And with each regular season game that passes, the Indians find themselves deeper and deeper in a hole. In the final days of the first half, the Indians dropped 10 games in a row, and saw their long-time ace, C.C. Sabathia, depart. Colorado, the surprise team of 06-07, is just as bad. The World Series runner-up finds themselves at 16 games below .500. Fortunately for them, you can never count out an NL West team. Not one team boasts an above .500 record and at 41-57, the Rockies find themselves only 7 ½ games back. In short, the NL West is a joke.

The Feel Good Story: Josh Hamilton
If Josh Hamilton didn’t have the hearts’ of baseball fans before the All-Star break, after the Home Run Derby, he certainly does. Just two years removed from the streets and black abyss, Josh Hamilton is sitting on top of the world. The once heralded greatest MLB prospect of all-time is finally showing the world just why. After a long battle with drug addiction, specifically heroine, Josh has turned his life around and is sitting atop the baseball world. Recently voted as the second best player in Major League Baseball, behind the Yankees Alex Rodriguez, Hamilton is batting .307 with 21 homers and an MLB leading 95 RBIs at the break. He’s also the talk of the town after his record-breaking 28 Home Runs in the Derby on Monday. What a spectacle it was, as I watched in attendance, seeing Hamilton hit baseballs off the back wall at Yankee Stadium. He truly is a feel good story. You cannot help but root for him.

AL Cy Young: Cliff Lee / Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez
At 13-2 with a 2.29 ERA and 110 strikeouts, the AL All-Star starter Cliff Lee is the clear early favorite for the AL Cy Young award. Lee started off the year practically untouchable, with an ERA below 1.00 through his first nine starts. Since then, his ERA has slightly risen, but his dominance hasn’t skipped a beat. Lee is the only bright spot on the last place Indians. Francisco Rodriguez isn’t the clear favorite, but in many ways probably should be. Rodriguez, also known as “K-Rod”, is the closer for the Los Angeles Angels. It’s not everyday you see a reliever win the Cy Young, but this guy might really deserve it. With 40 saves in 43 chances, K-Rod is much of the reason the Angels hold the MLB’s best record. He’s been just as valuable to his team as any other ace in the AL to his own. With 40 saves, K-Rod is currently 8 ahead of the pace of Bobby Thigpen's record 57.

NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum
Lincecum, the only good thing the Giants have to talk about, is 11-3 with a 2.79 ERA and 143 strikeouts. The young gun has dominant stuff and has almost been unhittable this year. Then again, he needs to be with the lack of run support he receives from the Giants. Edison Volquez and Ben Sheets are right up there in the running, but I think Lincecum has been the most dominant thus far.

AL MVP: Milton Bradley / Josh Hamilton / Ian Kinsler
The Rangers “Big 3” has been dominant this year. They make up the heart of the order of the lineup that leads the MLB in offense. I apologize for the indecisiveness, but they all seem to be equally valuable to their team, and as of right now, the true MVP is too close to call between the 3. Their ability to come through both in the field and at the plate is above and beyond the rest of the AL this season. It should be interesting to see, which of the 3 emerges as the MVP, come seasons end.

NL MVP: Lance Berkman
Berkman has been the most consistent all-around star of the first half. Although Utley was the front-runner for this honor early on, he seems to have slowed a little as of late. Berkman is batting .347, with 21 homers and 73 RBIs. Add 79 runs scored and you have a heck of a baseball player. Look for Berkman to keep up the consistent play and finish the year with an NL batting title, falling short once again of the triple crown. Ryan Howard should give him no chance of winning the home run and RBI titles.

With my awards handed out, it is time to make some predictions for the second half. Here’s a look at how I think the standings will play out.

AL East: Boston Red Sox
The defending champion Red Sox have showed no signs of slowing down, and with slugger David Ortiz due back in the next few days, the Sox chances of making the playoffs should only increase.

AL Central: Chicago White Sox
With a late surge in the closing weeks of the first half, the White Sox appear to be the favorite in the AL Central. Their pitching has improved and their hitters have responded to Guillen’s outburst a few weeks ago. Look for them to outlast the Twins and hold off a late surge from Detroit.

AL West: Los Angeles Angels
The Angels were the fastest team to 60 wins and hold the MLB’s best record. In the last few years, the fastest to 60 has had great success through the playoffs. I would expect the Angels to keep that trend alive. A Harden-less Oakland won’t have enough to catch them.

AL Wildcard: New York Yankees
Call me crazy, but I think they can do it. Sure my fan-hood makes me cynical, but I don’t really care. It was just a week or two ago I declared them done, but I’ve changed my mind. Tampa Bay showed their first sign of weakness entering the break. It seemed like it would never happen, but it did. For that reason, I don’t think they’ll hold off the Yankees. Oakland lost a valuable asset in Harden, which should count them out. And lastly, Minnesota seems too weak to me in the absence of Santana and Liriano.

NL East: Philadelphia Phillies
This is the pick I am most unsure about. The Phillies appeared to be the best team in the NL East a few weeks ago, but as of late they have struggled. Combine that with a sudden resurgence in the Mets, and the Phillies might not have enough to take them down. In a déjà vu effect, I see the Phillies coming on late to hold off an underachieving Mets team yet again.

NL Central: Chicago Cubs
The Cubs have slowed down somewhat, but they still have a lead in the NL Central. Zambrano is back from injury, and with the recent addition of Harden, the Cubs seem to have the best playoff pitching rotation in baseball. When Soriano returns in the near future, the Cubs should look poised to end their 100 year curse.

NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Diamondbacks hot-start is history, and the Padres and Giants would probably struggle in the College World Series. Unless the Rockies pull out another 20 game win-streak, I think they fall short of contention as well. The Dodgers pitchers have really picked it up, flirting with no-hitters and perfect games on more than one occasion. I think Joe Torre will show the Yankees just what their missing as he leads a mediocre Dodgers team to the top of a weak division.

NL Wildcard: Milwaukee Brewers
In a Wildcard race as tight as can be, I look for the Brewers to prevail. The Cardinals consistent play and the Mets/Phillies offense and timely pitching should keep them in the race, but the Brewers pitching should give them the edge. With the acquisition of C.C. Sabathia it seems the Brew Crew has the final piece of the puzzle to turn this squad into a playoff team. Throw in the former face of the franchise, Ben Sheets, and an underrated lineup, and you could see the Brewers make a run in the playoffs.

Images taken from Yahoo! Sports

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