FIRST HALF OBSERVATIONS OF THE NATIONAL LEAGUE

SO HOW’S IT GOING?

Last week I offered my observations of the first half of play in the American League. This week I take a look at what has gone on in the National League as of the middle of the second week of July. Frankly, the story in the National League is quite different. The two leagues could not be having more divergent seasons.

It isn’t just the lack of the designated hitter and differing type of roster construction that separates the leagues, it is actually competitive balance as opposed to competitive imbalance that makes the National League different from the American.

The most obvious difference in the two professional baseball leagues can be found in the pennant races. Unlike the junior circuit, the National League has some intrigue, some competition and some excitement in all three divisions. Races for postseason play should keep fans in National League cities interested all season.

While I still feel the problems of baseball are inherent in both leagues, I feel the National League has more competitive balance at this point, but there are still issues to be addressed.

Perhaps the disparity in the two leagues can best be viewed by the progress made by transitioning National League teams from aging, also-ran clubs to teams that are near completion or already completed in their overhaul.

The American League is suffering now from several clubs just beginning or in the early stages of roster revision. For some teams it is a long, painful process. Other clubs make changes more smoothly and with less pain.

The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves have been churning their rosters for a couple of years. They have added pieces here and there and have climbed the ladder from having little success to being in consideration for postseason play. Those two teams have blended youth and inexperience with veteran players. While the Milwaukee Brewers didn’t do a complete and total makeover, the club has undertaken a transition that has resulted in a team that is leading the very tough National League Central as I write this.

It really is remarkable how Philadelphia, Atlanta and Milwaukee have taken on established rosters like the Washington Nationals, the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals, giving them fits at every turn and bringing out the competitive juices in their head-to-head series.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are trying to build on their postseason appearance from last year without the presence of slugger J.D. Martinez. Martinez, a second half of the season rental last year has departed the Diamondbacks for the Red Sox as a free agent. The Diamondbacks tried to retain him, but they couldn’t compete with the money and length of contract offered Martinez by Boston. The Dbacks turned to Steven Souza Jr. in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays to help add some pop and power to their lineup. While they realized he could never replace the departed Martinez, Souza Jr. was seen as a credible option to lengthen the team’s lineup. Arizona is competitive again this year, but they certainly will have a fight on their hands to get to the postseason as the second half rolls along.

ATTENDANCE

Last week I illustrated attendance woes for a good number of American League clubs. Eight clubs had not drawn a million fans at the time I wrote the story. They included some very storied franchises and some with not as much institutional history. The list: Minnesota, Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Kansas City, Chicago White Sox, Oakland and Tampa Bay.

The National League picture is a bit brighter. By the end of the first week of July, a comparable comparison in calendar to the American League, only three franchises in the National League had not reached one million in attendance. Those teams included:

Cincinnati Reds=953,924 or 20,296 per game.

Reds fans are very loyal and Great American Ball Park is a fun place to watch a game. In the beginning of the season the club was mediocre at best. In the past several weeks, however, Cincinnati has played outstanding baseball and they have given some of the game’s better clubs all they could handle in several June and July series. Teams like the Cubs, the Braves, the Indians and the Brewers have suffered losses at the hands of the Reds. While it may be very, very difficult for Cincinnati to escape 4th or 5th place in the NL Central standings by the time the season is over, it is not unrealistic to think the team is trending upward and better days are ahead. I credit much of their success to the departure of former manager Bryan Price and the hiring of new manager Jim Riggleman. Price, a former pitching coach was handed the keys to the manager’s office and things never went well. He had his difficulties with the media and the club just never really performed under his stewardship. While I can understand why the Reds hired him, I will never understand why he lasted as long as he did.

Price was hired in October 2013 when he replaced Dusty Baker. Price was terminated in April 2018. In April 2015 Price went into a tirade when he claimed reporters leaked information about players that would place his team at an uncompetitive disadvantage. It was one of the “lowlights” of his managerial career. He left the role with a 279-387 record (.419 winning percentage) in his three years and one month seasons with the Reds.

The Reds have enjoyed a tremendous season from Scooter Gennett, a one-time Milwaukee Brewers infielder who has seemingly reinvented himself since leaving Milwaukee. Gennett is showing a combination of a very solid hit tool with power with the Reds. Last year he hit a whopping 27 home runs, or 13 more than he hit in his last year with the Crew.

Eugenio Suarez, still only 26 years old has been a source of power for the team as well. Signed to a long-term contract, Suarez has played third base and played it well. He may in fact force the team to shift the position of highly touted third base prospect Nick Senzel, a very powerful right-handed hitter who is now injured in his minor league development program. Senzel has upper-body strength that should terrorize National League pitching once he graduates to the parent Reds. Either he or Suarez will have to find a new position.

Joey Votto remains a tremendous leader of the Reds club. A terrific power hitter, few baseball players have the patience, plate discipline and pitch recognition of Votto. While his home runs may be down a bit this year, he is still having a quality season.

Rookie Jesse Winker has played very well in the Reds outfield, showing more power than had been projected. He is hitting for average and driving in runs.

Jose Peraza and Billy Hamilton both offer speed to a team that has begun to make people take notice. Peraza has shown some real pop in his bat while remaining a solid base stealer. Hamilton has found his playing time threatened by his inability to get on base with consistency. When he does reach, he can still steal bases in bunches.

The Reds will have to shore up their pitching to become competitive on a consistent basis. It wouldn’t surprise if the team traded pitchers like closer Raisel Iglesias or lefty reliever Amir Garrett to add more pieces for the future. In my opinion, Garrett should be starting for the team. He has an outstanding arm and he is discovering some command and control.
The addition of Matt Harvey from the Mets has lengthened the starting rotation and has added some quality to the pitching staff. However, questions about Harvey’s ability to stay healthy remain.

While they hadn’t drawn a million fans in the first half of the season, I believe brighter days are ahead for the Reds franchise.

I give the Reds credit for trying to improve their club. They now have an estimated 2018 payroll of $100,643,832, so they aren’t really pinching pennies. They finished last season with an estimated payroll of $95MM. There is talk in Cincinnati that the Reds are going to do everything possible to shore up their club and build on this improved 2018 season.

Pittsburgh Pirates=744,625 or 17,729 per game.

I can’t blame the Pittsburgh Pirates fans for being totally turned off by the ownership and management of the franchise. Simply put, the team’s leadership is pathetic to my way of thinking. Here’s why. Andrew McCutchen had long been one of the best players in baseball. He was a powerful hitter with good speed, terrific defensive skills and an overall game that landed him as All-Star five times. He was the 2013 National League Most Valuable Player. He won a Gold Glove in 2012. He won four Silver Slugger Awards. Yet in 2017, the Pirates made it a mission to trade McCutchen rather than extend his contract. They very publicly advertised his availability as a trade chip. They made it very clear they were shopping McCutchen and looking for offers. McCutchen made it clear he was happy playing in Pittsburgh. After trying and trying to trade him, he ended up returning to Pittsburgh for the 2017 season. I think it must be pretty tough to play for a club that you know is overtly, publicly doing everything in their power to trade you. It really is one thing for the media to generate trade talk, but the Pirates made no secret of their mission to move McCutchen off their roster.

Why trade McCutchen? Well, McCutchen had signed a 7-year $66.25MM contract that went from 2012-2018. He makes $14,750MM a year. The Pirates wanted no part of that contract for what was perceived to be an aging player who in their eyes may no longer have that value or stardom associated with his play.

In the year they tried desperately to trade him, McCutchen returned to the Pirates and hit 28 home runs and drove in 88, stole 11 bases and made 650 plate appearances. And by the way, in that 2017 season, he was only 30 years old. In my view, the Pirates humiliated their best player by constantly talking about trading him but then bringing him back. Now playing for the San Francisco Giants, McCutchen may not be an All-Star, but he is bringing leadership and his playing ability to that National League West franchise. He may not be having the greatest year, but he still brings a solid game to a competitive team that is in contention for the playoffs.

Then there’s the case of Gerrit Cole, the club’s 1st round, and first overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft out of UCLA. Cole was traded by the Pirates to the Houston Astros in January this year for pitchers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, outfielder Jason Martin and infielder Colin Moran. Musgrove is a credible pitcher with a nice future. Feliz is a reliever who is scuffling with an ERA at 5.5 as I write this. Moran is playing regularly and is having a nice year.

Why trade Cole? He is due for a big raise with his very modest $6.75MM contract expiring in 2018. He will either go to arbitration or sign a long-term contract with his new Astros club. He isn’t eligible for free agency until 2020. The Pirates had a very, very solid No. 1 starter in Cole under their control for years that they let get away from them in a time when baseball teams are starved for high quality pitching. Teams seek a pitcher like Gerrit Cole every single day.

Gerrit Cole was an All-Star in 2015. At the age of 27, he is entering the prime years of his career. He didn’t have a great year in 2017 for the Pirates, as he was 12-12 with a 4.26 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP. Yet he started 33 games for them as a reliable member of a mediocre overall rotation on a mediocre overall team. But he was still young, under team control for years, a former No. 1 draft pick and a big, strong, healthy pitcher.

This year it is very probable Cole will help the Astros win another division title. He’s having a very good season for the World Champions. He is playing on a team with a better offense, a better defense and a much better management staff. And he’s showing he’s a winner.

Where are the Pirates without McCutchen and Cole? Right where they deserve to be near the bottom of the standings fighting the improving Cincinnati Reds for 4th place in a five team division.

I know I sound like a broken record, but I don’t feel sorry for owners in small market cities who claim their market does not dictate spending large amounts on team payroll. If you can’t afford to compete, you shouldn’t own the team. The Pirates are in a word….frugal, to be kind. Call it anything you want, words aren’t good enough to describe how they have not provided competitive rosters for their fans.

The estimated payroll by the end of 2018 for the Pittsburgh Pirates is $89,218,573. The estimated payroll at the end of 2017 was $101MM. They are certainly saving money this year, but they don’t have Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole either. Can a team compete with a payroll of $89MM? Only if they’re really smart.

Making a bad situation even worse, the Pirates failed to reach a financial agreement with their competitive balance Round A selection, Gunnar Hoglund in the First-Year Player Draft. He was the No. 36 selection in the draft. Instead of signing, he is likely headed to the University of Mississippi. That loss puts them further back regarding prospect development.

Miami Marlins=438,908 or 9.753 per game.

The Miami Marlins owners, Major League Baseball, and the good people of the greater Miami area should be humiliated. They should be beyond embarrassed. Imagine drawing less than 10,000 people per game to a major-league stadium. They have had crowds of less than 6,000.

Marlins ownership deserves all the criticism they are receiving. They have earned it. However, the great people of the greater Miami area do not deserve this current mess.

It certainly isn’t the first time Marlins ownership, regardless of their names and faces which were different every time, has torn out the heart of the franchise. This time around they broke up their team by trading Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. How do you do that and sleep at night with a clear conscience? That was the team’s entire starting outfield. Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna are each terrific players, all capable of playing in multiple All-Star games in the future. They got very few major league ready players in return.

Some scouts and analysts are high on outfielder Lewis Brinson who was among the best Milwaukee Brewers players when he was traded for Yelich. The Marlins also got outfielder Monte Harrison in that trade, an athletic player who I think may be better than Brinson when all is said and done.

Sandy Alcantara came to the Marlins in the deal for Marcell Ozuna from the St. Louis Cardinals. Another player in that trade, speedster Magneuris Sierra may offer future help as well. There were other nice prospects coming to Miami including right handed pitcher Jorge Guzman who went to the Marlins in the Stanton deal. Second baseman Isan Diaz came from the Brewers for Yelich. Right-handed pitcher Zac Gallen was included in the Ozuna deal. And veteran second baseman Starlin Castro was a major piece in the Stanton trade.

Yes, lots of new faces joined the Marlins as they tipped their roster upside down to shed future payroll under new Principal Owner Bruce Sherman and Chief Executive Officer/Owner Derek Jeter. Yes, Giancarlo would have added significant payroll to the team going forward. Ozuna and Yelich certainly would have gotten more expensive in the future. But each has star quality. Each is exciting to watch.

Fans may not realize that the estimated payroll of the Marlins at the end of 2018 should be in the neighborhood of $101,500MM. That isn’t the lowest in baseball by any means. Last year the Marlins ended the season at an estimated $109MM, so they did, indeed shed some money from the payroll. The implosion was all about the future payroll-in the eyes of the Marlins ownership they wanted no part of what Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna would be paid for their talent for years to come.

The question must be asked: Was it worth the reputation of the franchise to jettison players like Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna? And who will be next? All-Star catcher J. T. Realmuto who now makes $2.9MM this season but who will get more expensive every year going forward? The team has probably tried to trade expensive pitcher Wei-Yin Chen ($20MM in 2019) and third baseman Martin Prado ($15MM in 2019) who is now 34 and declining in skill annually. If there is no market for them, the Marlins will be stuck with a total of $35MM in salary for those two next year.

I scour the Marlins active roster and I don’t get excited about much that I see. I do like first baseman Justin Bour who has power to his left-handed pull side. Bour has 25 to 30 home run per season power. However, with little protection in the Marlins lineup for Realmuto and Bour, they don’t see many pitches to drive.

Castro is having a nice season in Miami. However, he’s getting expensive and he could be on the block to be moved whenever possible.

It should be noted that the Marlins have chosen to let Brinson play at the big league level this season. So far he is hitting .186 at midweek in the second week of July. He needed more development time. He didn’t get it. Brinson is now on the disabled list with right hip inflammation.

Marlins starting pitching is among the weaker staffs in the league-but they do show promise. While Jose Urena has potential as a 26 year old right-hander, he has a record of 2-9 with a fairly credible 4.18 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. Those are efficient numbers. Caleb Smith, a fairly reliable starter until he developed a Grade 3 left lat strain is out for the season. He left with a 5-6 record, a 4.19 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP.

Dan Straily, back after an injury is scuffling a bit. So is the aforementioned Chen who is getting paid a ton of money and has a 5.55 ERA and 1.51 WHIP. Other starters who have pitched in the rotation this year for the Marlins include Trevor Richards, Jarlin Garcia, Elieser Hernandez and Dillon Peters. To put it kindly, the Marlins starting pitching is less than settled. Alcantara, viewed as a solid prospect when he came over from St. Louis is suffering from a right axillary infection and is on the disabled list.

The future of the Marlins clearly lies in the skill and potential production of their young prospects. The list of new names in Miami will have to live with the echo of Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna ringing in the hearts and minds of the club’s fans.

Will Miami forgive and forget that three of their core players were dealt away in a salary purge during one offseason? I don’t think recovery and forgiveness will come any time soon. And I would guess more names will be packing their bags. Like Realmtuo for example.

PENNANT RACES

The National League is where baseball fans may find nail biting pennant races the rest of the season. Each division has intrigue as we enter the All-Star break. That is a huge difference from their current American League counterparts.

East:

Philadelphia Phillies

Consider that the upstart Phillies are giving the annual favorite Washington Nationals acid reflux. Young and exciting, the Phillies have been winning games with a nice young offense that has some power, some timely hitting and some speed. Five players are in double-digit home runs with Odubel Herrera leading the way, followed by Rhys Hoskins, Carlos Santana, Maikel Franco and Nick Williams. Carlos Santana hasn’t begun to hit for average as of this writing. He likely will. Maikel Franco has been criticized for a lack of production and he could be a candidate to be traded. However, his statistics have improved recently. Herrera has had a really fine season, hitting for power and for average.

Right-hander Aaron Nola is an All-Star. He is having a terrific season as the anchor to the rotation. Jake Arrieta has not been great, but his experience is important to a young staff that includes Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin. It really is a fine young rotation and with the exception of Arrieta their better years appear to be ahead.

If there is any current weak link on the club I believe it has to be the relief pitching. The bullpen needs reinforcements. The team could use a closer and at least one additional set-up reliever.

The Phillies are fighting the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals for the division leadership. Any of those three could get hot and run away from the pack.

Atlanta Braves

The big surprise in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse is veteran Nick Markakis. Markakis is having an All-Star year that has included both power and an outstanding batting average. He is scoring runs and driving in runs. Markakis, a former member of the Baltimore Orioles has shown young Braves players excellent hitting mechanics and the pathway to offensive success.

It’s very difficult to find a more consistent first baseman than Freddie Freeman. He does everything. He hits with power and he hits for average. He and Markakis hitting back to back in the Braves lineup makes it very difficult on the opposition.

But consider that the opposing pitcher doesn’t just have to face Markakis and Freeman. The opposing pitcher will see Ronald Acuna, Jr., easily one of the most exciting rookies to come along in a while. Injured earlier in his first season with Atlanta, Acuna is now back tormenting pitchers.

Ozzie Albies may very well be the next Jose Altuve. He’s small, fast, has power, has a great hitting tool and he can play defense. Albies has 20 home runs for the first half.
He has also stolen nine bases and has hit for a .288 average. He and the improving Dansby Swanson form a good combination up the middle.

Other than the surprise production of Markakis, consider that Ender Inciarte is running wild on opposing pitchers and catchers. He is playing excellent baseball on both sides of the ball and he sets the defensive pace in the outfield as well as getting on base and stealing. He has already stolen 23 bases while being caught eight times.

One cannot forget that the Arizona Diamondbacks traded Inciarte and Swanson to the Braves for pitcher Shelby Miller, who is struggling to find command after undergoing Tommy John surgery last season. It looks like Miller will once again be placed on the disabled list with elbow issues. The Dbacks-Braves trade remains a migraine headache for Arizona, with fans not forgetting what transpired.

The Braves rotation features veterans Mike Foltynewicz, Julio Teheran, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez and the younger Sean Newcomb. It is a nice rotation with good arms.

Washington Nationals:

Lots of recent losses in June and July to the Braves, Giants, Blue Jays, Phillies, Rays, and more recently the Red Sox have provided plenty of questions and concerns about the chances of the Washington Nationals. They got a get well card when they played the Marlins, but the Nationals aren’t making any of their rivals fear their existence. Just look at the monster two-home run, 10 RBI game against the Marlins for veteran Mark Reynolds as evidence of how great that series was with the Fish.

Granted, they have played without one of their best starters. They should improve once RHP Stephen Strasburg returns after going on the DL with right shoulder inflammation.

Juan Soto has energized the club. The young rookie outfielder has had a great beginning to his career. It will be very difficult for him to sustain the pace as pitchers adjust to him. He will have to return the favor and adjust to their adjustments. He is hitting .307 with 9 homers and 28 RBI after his first 166 major-league at-bats. It looks like he’s a special type of player.

How about the lift the aforementioned Mark Reynolds has offered? Could the team have asked for more after first baseman Ryan Zimmerman once again went on the DL?

Bryce Harper, discussed several times here at BBW, isn’t having a great Harper season. Either is Daniel Murphy who has been injured and had missed lots of plate appearances. They are hitting .213/23/53 and .256/1/10 respectively. Harper is still hitting homers and driving in runs. Murphy is doing very little.

I would be plenty worried about the surging Phillies and Braves if I were Mike Rizzo and his front office staff. Built on pitching and solid offense, the Nationals have laid an egg each of the past several years in the postseason.

They are still the team that will have a dynamic duo of Max Scherzer and Strasburg when he returns to make a stretch run. Gio Gonzalez provides a solid option as a starter, as does Tanner Roark. And don’t forget the team has an excellent bullpen with Sean Doolittle (now on the DL with a pinched nerve in his foot) as the closer.

Central:

Milwaukee Brewers

I really love to watch the Brewers play baseball. The Brewers don’t have to count on the same guy every night to produce or else they lose the game. Instead, they find a different hero every game. After not getting a chance to play for the Cleveland Indians because he was behind a player like Carlos Santana on the depth chart, All-Star Jesus Aguilar has been given a sustained opportunity to play. He adds tremendous power in the very hitter-friendly Miller Park home environment. And he is the first seed in the All-Star Home Run Derby.

Using the offseason to strengthen the club for a postseason run, the Brewers landed All-Star Christian Yelich in a trade from the Marlins that cost them quality prospects. Lorenzo Cain, also an All-Star, returned to the place he began his career by signing as a free agent. And trying to fill a hole at second base, the Brewers have gone out and traded with Tampa Bay to pick up Brad Miller.

Eric Thames, injured at the beginning of the season has returned to provide some very timely run production for the team. Between Thames, Aguilar, Yelich, Cain, third baseman Travis Shaw and the now-injured Ryan Braun, the Brewers have consistent, steady firepower.

Pitching was perceived to be an issue, but their starting rotation that includes Chase Anderson, Junior Guerra, Freddy Peralta and Jhoulys Chacin has been a pleasant surprise. Zach Davies, Wade Miley, Brent Suter and Jimmy Nelson are all currently disabled. When healthy, they sure have a lengthy group of potential starting pitchers.

Manager Craig Counsell has been masterful at handling the pitching staff, and the bullpen in particular. All-Star Josh Hader can likely close for many clubs, but the Brewers have Corey Knebel who is now in his prime in that role. Jeremy Jeffress could also close if needed. And it isn’t just the back-end of the pen that is strong. They have arms everywhere in the bullpen that can help the starters shorten the game.

There are plenty of rumors that the Brewers are in the hunt to bring Manny Machado over from the Orioles. If they are serious, they have depth in the organization to make a major trade to help shore up their shortstop position, which would further improve the overall club.

Chicago Cubs:

Clearly, most analysts see the Cubs and the Brewers fighting each other all the way to the end of the season for supremacy in the Central. Can the Brewer, up by one game as I write this, hold off any charge made by Chicago? They certainly have a well-balanced team with depth all around the diamond.

Probably the biggest surprise may be Albert Almora, a fantastic Gold Glove caliber center fielder. But this year Almora is showing his ability to hit the baseball. He doesn’t have great power, but Almora is hitting for a really solid batting average of .317 and making contact.

All-Star Javier Baez has shown the world what most scouts knew years ago. He’s a fantastic talent on both sides of the ball. A couple years ago Baez fixed some flaws in his swing and he is now a capable power-hitting middle-infielder who is also hitting for average. He’s the total package.

The team still has Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to produce runs from the middle of the batting order. They are feared by the opposition and make guys like Almora, Baez and shortstop Addison Russell and slugger Kyle Schwarber even more dangerous.

If the Brewers continue to show they have an offense that may be the equal to the Cubs, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that makes the difference. All-Star John Lester (he has been replaced as inactive on the team by Zack Greinke) remains reliable. He and fellow left-handers Jose Quintana and Mike Montgomery, along with Kyle Hendricks and Tyler Chatwood from the right side provide great balance in the rotation. The staff will be bolstered when Yu Darvish returns from his injured right triceps injury.

Brandon Morrow came over from the Dodgers as a free agent to assume the role as the team’s closer. He is joined in a very good bullpen by Carl Edwards, Jr., Pedro Strop and Steve Cishek, among others.

St. Louis Cardinals

I have learned through the years not to count the St.Louis Cardinals out of any pennant race. Now with righty Carlos Martinez returning to form, he provides the team with a solid No. 1 starter to lead the rotation. All-Star Miles Mikolas is having a nice year as a starter. He has since been replaced on the All-Star team, but he will help anchor the second half rotation. I don’t think the club has a deep enough rotation to chase either the Brewers or the Cubs down the stretch.

I am enjoying watching All-Star Matt Carpenter play his game. He’s a solid hitter and the team can rely on him for a super effort every game. But he isn’t alone. There is some smoke in the bat of Marcell Ozuna as well. Ozuna, who I think the Cardinals stole from the Miami Marlins may get on a second half role and drive in runs in bunches. The team also needs to have a healthy Paul DeJong and a consistent Tommy Pham at the plate if they wish to chase down the Brewers and Cubs.

I don’t see St. Louis winning the Central, but I would be remiss if I didn’t indicate their dangerous history in pennant races between and among two or three teams. These Cards just don’t fold easily.

West:

Arizona Diamondbacks:

The Diamondbacks have been hanging around the lead of the West all season. They were doing it when All-Star Paul Goldschmidt was struggling like a diver without a full tank of air.
Now, however, Goldschmidt has recovered his stroke and he is driving in runs with his usual consistency. But Goldschmidt really doesn’t get much help from highly regarded third baseman Jake Lamb. Lamb is brutal vs. left-handed pitching. His home run total isn’t what should be expected and the team could really be lifted if Lamb finds his swing in the second half.

Oft-injured A. J. Pollock is having a nice season, but he has missed plenty of time with injury, as has been the case the past couple seasons. Now in his “walk year” the team may not have the resources to offer Pollock a long-term contract.

David Peralta has been really solid this season with improved and changed hitting mechanics. But the production of highly regarded Steven Souza Jr., has been non existent (.176-1-5). Injured for most of the season, the team is not getting the offense they need from the player the Dbacks felt could help take some of the sting out of losing rental player J. D. Martinez to free agency. Martinez and Goldschmidt provided the 2017 Dbacks with excellent power and production. Now that duo is down to Goldschmidt alone and the results speak for themselves. The Diamondbacks offense is closer to the bottom than the top in the National League.

Zack Greinke is now an All-Star, replacing Jon Lester on the NL squad. Lefty Patrick Corbin is, in fact an All-Star as well. Along with lefty Robbie Ray, now healthy, the Diamondbacks have a very reliable trio of quality starters.

I really am still a believer in right-hander Zack Godley. Godley has had good games and bad this season. His inconsistency is troubling. And why in the world was the club so sold on starting righty Shelby Miller? He came off Tommy John surgery and was a nightmare in his four starts before leaving his last game after one inning with elbow pain (0-4, 11.40 ERA and 2.07 WHIP). But frankly, he’s been a mess most of the time since he came over in a very, very bad deal the Diamondbacks made with the Atlanta Braves. Miller has been placed on the disabled list with his elbow issue. It really is a sad situation. He worked hard to return, but perhaps he came back too soon. That’s often the case after shoulder, elbow or forearm surgery.

Archie Bradley, Yoshi Hirano and closer Brad Boxberger have been outstanding in the bullpen. They are a big reason, along with several of the starters that Arizona is going to fight for a Championship. The hitting might not be what was expected or what is needed to go very deep in the postseason, but perhaps that will improve in the second half.

There is a great deal of buzz that Orioles third baseman/shortstop Manny Machado will be traded to the Diamondbacks. I have no idea who the Dbacks would have to offer the Orioles in exchange. The Dbacks minor league prospect inventory is woefully depleted. But if they do somehow end up with Machado, what a difference he could make. He may be able to pair with Goldschmidt, as Martinez did, and boost the club to the postseason.

Recently the Dbacks have looked like a team hanging on to their status in the standings by their fingertips. They will have to fight to make the postseason.

Los Angeles Dodgers:

Max Muncy. He certainly wasn’t a household name when the season began. Actually, few people had even heard of Max Muncy. Well, as of now the baseball world is certainly well aware of the 6-foot, left-handed hitting third baseman, second baseman and first baseman. He has been a tremendous component of the Dodgers first half success. Muncy, 27, signed his first contract with Oakland in 2012. He was released in 2017 and was signed by the Dodgers. He appeared in 51 games for the Athletics in 2016 and hit .186 with three home runs. After signing with the Dodgers he spent 2017 at Triple-A Nashville where he hit .251 with eight home runs. Fast forward to this season. Muncy has been a lottery ticket for Los Angeles. He has played first, second, third and left field and has smoked 21 home runs already. He’s even stolen two bases. And he’s nearly doubled his last major-league batting average, as he is now hitting .272.

Max Muncy, the same Max Muncy who came to the season a virtual unknown will a) compete in the All-Star Home Run Derby and b) was a candidate to be the NL Final Vote representative in the All-Star Game. He lost to the Brewers Jesus Agular.

But Muncy isn’t the only reason the Dodgers are contending for yet another NL west Championship. Matt Kemp, he of the 8-year $160MM contract that expires after the 2019 season, is having a fantastic All-Star season. Kemp, closer to 34 than 33, is showing a new vigor as he returns to his original Dodgers playground. Hitting .316 and hitting for power and driving in runs (15/60), Kemp has added a potent bat to the Dodgers lineup. In 2017 the Atlanta Braves, a contender themselves now, shipped Kemp to the Dodgers in what was considered at the time to be a salary swap and dump deal. That may have been true on the Braves end, where they received Charlie Culberson, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy in exchange for the highly expensive and considered to be way overpriced Kemp. Culberson and McCarthy remain with the Braves organization.

The Dodgers have faced serious injury concerns all season. Shortstop Corey Seager ended last season with a bad elbow and ended up having Tommy John surgery this past May. He’s out for the season, and possibly part of next.

Yasiel Puig is fighting injury as well, but he is having a nice season with more capability in his game if he recovers from an oblique strain in the second half.

The Dodgers could use more offensive firepower heading to the second half. Might that be waiting in the wings in the form of Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado? The Dodgers have certainly been rumored as a favorite for Machado. Along with the Yankees and Brewers.

Dodger pitching has taken a huge injury hit. Ace Clayton Kershaw battled back issues last season, and they returned again this year. He has missed time and has made only 12 starts. He’s still effective, but his velocity appears to be reduced since his return the last week of June. Walker Buehler, a coveted prospect pitcher has suffered from a rib micro-fracture. Hyun-Jin Ryu, often injured in his stateside career is on the 60-day disabled list with a left groin strain. Highly touted prospect pitcher Julio Urias is disabled after having left shoulder surgery. The team is hoping he can return for the second half.

Ross Stripling has really stepped up as a starter/reliever, pitching so well that he has some folks baffled that he didn’t make the All-Star team when it was first announced. He has since been selected as a replacement for Miles Mikolas of the Cardinals.

After a slow start when people were wondering what was wrong with him, All-Star closer Kenley Jansen has returned to form to lead a bullpen that has enough arms to go the distance, but it wouldn’t surprise if the team fortified the pen before the non-waiver trade deadline.

So if Machado arrives at the doorstep of Dodger Stadium in July, look for the Dodgers to win yet another NL western crown.

San Francisco Giants:

This team has surprised me so far. I thought they would be fighting San Diego for the basement after they lost Madison Bumgarner to injury. But there they are fighting for a pennant in this even numbered year when they seem to thrive.

The arrival of Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates has given the team a very solid leader in the clubhouse. McCutchen isn’t setting the league on fire with his bat, but his presence has upgraded the team significantly. He and injured third baseman Evan Longoria were brought over to inject some new life to a dull club. Longoria may return to the team in August after having left hand surgery. That would give them a huge pennant race boost.

The team has lost second baseman Joe Panik to a left groin strain only recently, and it make take some time for him to return. In addition, pitcher Hunter Strickland is disabled with a fractured right hand.

Steven Duggar, a speedy center fielder should add a good glove in the outfield. He replaces Austin Jackson on the outfield depth chart after Jackson was traded to Texas (but advised not to report).

The return to the rotation of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija should really help stabilize the pitching staff. Their presence could allow the team to keep in the hunt for a postseason slot. However, it may be tough for the Giants to claim a Wildcard spot if they don’t win the division.

Andrew Suarez and Dereck Rodriguez have added a terrific boost to the starting pitching staff. They stepped up when injuries took out starters and gave the club excellent outings. It is difficult to imagine where the Giants would be without them.

Colorado Rockies:

The Rockies are hanging around the West, but is it realistic that they win their division? I doubt it. And I doubt they can fend off all the other clubs in the hunt for the Wild Card. But I must mention them because at mid-season they remain in the pennant race.

The Rockies boast one of the best players on the planet with All-Star Nolan Arenado holding down third base. I’m still not convinced bringing Carlos Gonzalez back to the club was helpful. He isn’t having a bad year, but I was under the impression the team had moved on from Cargo. Gonzalez is hitting .275 with 10 homers and 39 RBI, and that’s solid production for the first half.

I have no idea where David Dahl will play, if he will play at all on the 25-man roster when he returns from the disabled list with a right foot fracture. Or how about more playing time for Ramiel Tapia so they can find out what they have in him once and for all? Noel Cuevas is also on the roster, splitting platoon time with Gerardo Parra. The Rockies have outfielders to spare. And I didn’t even mention Mike Tauchman. But the team signed Gonzalez to a contract hoping he would lead them to the promised land. It hasn’t happened yet.

Pitching, as always, remains a problem. The bullpen, loaded with quality arms, has been a dumpster fire most of the time. Consider that Bryan Shaw left Cleveland to pitch at Coors. What was he thinking? Shaw, now returned from time on the disabled list with a right calf strain has a terrible 7.57 ERA and 1.96 WHIP. And that’s as a reliever. Chris Rusin is at 6.05/1.50 and Jake McGee checks in at 6.06/1.47. It isn’t pretty in the pen. Wade Davis has saved 25 games already, but he isn’t pitching like a star in the pen with his 4.04 and 1.21 WHIP. Adam Ottavino has had a very fine come back from a down 2017 by posting excellent numbers and giving the Rockies superb outings in this year’s bullpen. The bullpen is killing the Rockies.

Ian Desmond is recently reminding people that he can hit. Charlie Blackmon and All-Star Trevor Story add punch to the offense, but frankly, this club does not hit the way we are always led to believe. Even once reliable D.J. LeMahieu hasn’t been much to write home about yet, as he’s still hitting less than .270 at the halfway point. And his stolen bases have disappeared.

Tyler Anderson, German Marquez, Kyle Freeland and now Anthony Senzatela form a starting rotation that analysts seemed to like in spring training. Now they are meh with a good outing here and a clunker there!

HOW THE WEST WILL BE WON:

Good pitching can beat good hitting in a short series. The Diamondbacks have Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray and All-Star Patrick Corbin as a solid three starters. However, when he returns to health will they still turn to the underachieving Shelby Miller in the rotation or does veteran Clay Buchholz (now on the DL with an oblique strain) get that role. Clearly it would be Buchholz. Zack Godley has his moments. If Greinke stays strong and healthy and if Ray can once again find the strike zone that has eluded him this season, the Dbacks can hang in. But they must find at least one more bat and Buchholz must return strong to finish ahead of the Dodgers.
I just don’t see that happening.

The Dodgers have five starting pitchers of quality in Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling. That’s tough to beat. And if Matt Kemp and Max Muncy continue the roll their on, they would be tough to stop. And what happens if Cody Bellinger gets hot? Or Yasiel Puig turns it on when he returns? I think the Dodgers have too much for the Diamondbacks to fend off. I see the Dodgers winning the West and being the only west team in the postseason.

Bunts:

Next week I’ll dip into the rumor mill bit regarding the non-waiver trade deadline. But for now, there are a couple of intriguing morsels hanging around that interest me.

It is being reported the Baltimore Orioles have asked the Milwaukee Brewers for prospect pitcher Corbin Burnes, outfielder Keon Broxton, and shortstop Orlando Arcia in exchange for Manny Machado. Frankly, if they substituted Burnes, the Brewers may be tempted. The Orioles need pitching. Badly. If they would accept prospect pitcher Luis Ortiz or prospect pitcher Adrian Houser, maybe the Brewers would agree. However, I doubt the Brewers will trade Burnes, who is now on the parent roster and has huge upside.

There is word that the Orioles don’t want to trade Machado before the trade deadline and have their television market (shared with the Washington Nationals) see Machado in a different uniform at the All-Star Game. Especially if the Orioles trade Machado to an east coast team like the Yankees or Nationals.

I still think the Yankees will land J. A. Happ or Cole Hamels as the lefty pitcher that helps their rotation. The Yankees do need to find another pitcher to beat out the Red Sox for the East division title. I don’t think they can have confidence in Sonny Gray or Domingo German in a longer series. If I’m the Yankees, Happ is my man among the two and I leave Hamels on the table, waiting another suitor.

But in true disclosure, here’s what I would do if I’m the Yankees: I would go to the San Francisco Giants and offer them a package for Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner is signed thru 2019 at $12MM. The Yankees may be able to sign him to an extension. His 2019 contract is a club option. Of course, after I sent a bundle to the Giants, I would likely pick up his option. He’s still a high quality pitcher, but he has lots of innings on that left arm.

Obviously the Giants are in the midst of a pennant race and likely won’t trade Bumgarner. But I would sure try to get him if I’m New York. Maybe things will loosen a bit in the next two weeks at the trade deadline. Perhaps the Giants will fall 6 or 7 games out, making it tough to recover.

I would not substitute Johnny Cueto at $22MM per year thru and including 2022. He isn’t worth that amount of money for that amount of time. And he has a worse injury history than Bumgarner.

In exchange for Bumgarner I would offer the Giants Sonny Gray, either Albert Abreu or Chance Adams, and two from among Clint Frazier, Tyler Wade, Billy McKinney, Luis Cessa, and Tommy Kahnle. That’s a boatload of quality. But Bumgarner is a very fine left-handed starter. He’s just the guy the Yankees need in Yankee Stadium with that short right field porch.

The Giants would be getting four players for 28-year old Bumgarner. They can shore up their starting pitching with Gray and either Abreu or Chance, and their outfield. Then they could choose between Cessa, or Kahnle, giving them a third pitcher in the deal.

And the Yankees would still retain Estevan Florial, Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar, Ben Heller, Tyler Austin, Ronald Torreyes, Jonathan Loaisaga, Justus Sheffield, and Domingo Acevedo, among others. That’s a boatload of depth they would retain.

If either side doesn’t want to make that deal, I would go to the Diamondbacks with Sonny Gray and Clint Frazier to rent Patrick Corbin for the playoffs. I think that’s a deal that helps both teams. Especially if the Dbacks fall too far behind the Dodgers in the next two weeks. That may not happen, as the Dbacks are fighting hard to maintain their position in the West standings.

It is highly, highly doubtful the Giants will trade Bumgarner. Yet. But a great package from the Yankees might re-set the Giants for years to come so they can contend in the future.

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About The Author

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Bernie's work has been featured on MLB Pipeline, MLB.com and FanRag Sports, among others. You can follow Bernie Pleskoff on Twitter @BerniePleskoff