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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

4 MLB teams poised to surge in the second half

The Major League Baseball All-Star break provides a great opportunity for teams to rest, sit back, and reassess where they stand. Some teams know they’re out of it. Some know they’re performing a little above expectation and will have to work very hard to keep it up.

Then there are the teams who feel that they can do even more. Perhaps they had good, but not great first halves. Perhaps they were outright disappointments. They know, deep down, though, that they have the talent to do even better than they did — and will be looking to kick things into high gear once the second half starts.

Here are four teams that may well get hot in the second half.

4) Texas Rangers

It is far too late for the Rangers to catch the Houston Astros in the American League West, but if they play their cards right, they definitely have a chance to make an impact on the wild card race. There is a lot of talent here, and even some evidence that their 43-45 first half record is a bit unlucky.

Texas has been middling in all departments, but injuries have had a huge impact on their fortunes. On the pitching side of things, ace lefty Cole Hamels has made just eight starts due to an oblique injury. Hamels is 4-0 and his replacements haven’t really been able to hack it in the Texas rotation. A healthy Hamels, paired with Yu Darvish and a solid Andrew Cashner, would make the Rangers significantly better every fifth day — assuming Texas doesn’t elect to blow it up.

There are also indications that the Rangers are beginning to get their struggling bullpen in better shape. They’ve never been able to settle on a closer, but Matt Bush, Alex Claudio, and Keone Kela are capable of giving this team good relief innings.

Surprisingly, the Texas offense has been a real problem, sitting 14th in the American League in batting average at the break, making up for the deficiency with some power. Still, it’s easy to imagine how much better they’d be if they had some guys on base for those extra base hits, as Elvis Andrus is the team’s only .300 hitter. Adrian Beltre has appeared in just 35 games due to injury, and if they can keep him healthy, that will be a major improvement in itself. If the likes of Rougned Odor and Jonathan Lucroy can pick up their offensive numbers a bit, do not be surprised to see this team make a run.

3) Boston Red Sox

On one hand, the Red Sox are already in first place in the AL East, sitting three and a half games ahead of the New York Yankees at 50-39. There is even more here, though, and that was hinted at as Boston started to play much better just before the break hit.

The only complaint about Boston’s offense would be a lack of power, as the team sits ninth in the AL in slugging percentage despite top-three marks in average and on-base percentage. They’re still fourth in the league in runs scored, and if they can find a steady presence at third base via trade, they’ll have a solid lineup from top to bottom.

For the first part of the season, it was Boston’s pitching that was holding them back, at least as much as they were being held back. Chris Sale has been spectacular for them from day one, but David Price spent much of the first half injured and Rick Porcello looked nothing like the pitcher who won the AL Cy Young just a year ago. Things appear to be shifting back, though. Price is healthy and, despite a few media-related controversies, has pitched fairly well. Porcello continues to be prone to disaster starts, but he has a 3.71 ERA in his last four outings and may be finding his footing again. If that happens, this team could turn the AL East into a blowout fairly quickly.

2) Cleveland Indians

Like the Red Sox, Cleveland sits in first place in their division at the break, but not by nearly as much as many prognosticators would have expected. The Indians are 47-40 — 2.5 games up on the Minnesota Twins — and have spent much of the season being plagued by injury and inconsistency.

The pitching, thought to be the team’s strength, hasn’t quite been as deep as some expected it to be. Sure, the three-headed bullpen monster of Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen has been what they envisioned, and Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber have been superb atop the rotation, despite a brief spell on the sidelines in Kluber’s case. The problems have been with the back end of the rotation. Danny Salazar has taken a major step backward this year, becoming quite walk-prone and homer happy despite excellent strikeout numbers. He, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin all have ERAs over 5.00, and Salazar has found himself on the disabled list. Mike Clevinger has stepped up for them to provide some desperately-needed stability there.

The offense has taken a bit of time to come together, but Jose Ramirez is heating up, Edwin Encarnacion has found his footing, and Lonnie Chisenhall has been a pleasant surprise, posting a .953 OPS. This is all despite shortstop Francisco Lindor hitting an underwhelming .252 and a surprising lack of production from Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana, as well as struggles and injuries to second baseman Jason Kipnis. Fix a few of these problems and Cleveland will probably roll through the Central.

1) Chicago Cubs

We’ve been saying this for months, and it has to happen at some point, right? Nobody expected the reigning champions to be 43-45 at the All-Star Break, but here we are, and it’s safe to say the Cubs have been one of baseball’s biggest disappointments in 2017.

What has gone wrong? It’s really been a little bit of everything. The offense has been a huge disappointment, with pretty much everyone not named Kris Bryant failing to pull their weight. Anthony Rizzo’s power numbers are there, but his average has dropped to .256. Addison Russell is hitting under .230. Kyle Schwarber has been such a black hole that he found himself in the minors for a time. Javier Baez has an OBP of .295. Ben Zobrist’s offensive numbers have cratered. Only rookie Ian Happ has really provided an unexpected lift.

Yet it has been the pitching staff that has really let the Cubs down. Eddie Butler — of all people — is the starter with the best earned run average on the staff, as Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks have all seen their ERAs rise above four, and Hendricks got hurt. John Lackey’s is over five, and he, too, landed on the DL. Combined, the Cubs’ big four starters have a record of 22-25.

Recognizing the problem, Chicago has already aggressively moved to try to fix it. Jose Quintana will help, but to be blunt, the Cubs cannot get to where they want or expect to go without their existing talent looking more like their old selves. The young hitters need to step up. Lester and Arrieta, in particular, need to get back to pitching like the aces that they were looked at as when the season started. It’s very hard to dismiss so much talent, though, and the break — and the trade — may help the team both relax a bit and give some players a kick up the pants. This is a very similar team to what romped through the National League last season, and it’s hard to believe that a run isn’t coming.



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