LEADING OFF: Bosox-Yanks open 2nd half; trade deadline looms

Can Xander Bogaerts and the Red Sox continue their impressive first-half run to capture a playoff berth for the first time in three seasons? This weekend’s series against the New York Yankees in New York may set the tone for the second half in the AL East.

Since Major League Baseball cracked down on the sticky gunk that many pitchers considered indispensable in recent years, batting averages have improved overall from a sickly .236 prior to June 3 to .246 lately. That’s a good thing for fans of offensive baseball who are sick and tired of the game seemingly being dominated by primarily home runs, strikeouts, and hitting into shifts.

Heading into Friday night’s return to action after the All-Star break, most teams had played somewhere around 90 games, so we’re definitely past the halfway point, and are just a couple of weeks away from the trade deadline.

With the NHL all done, the NBA playoffs just two or three games from completion, and the NFL preparing for seven weeks of sweating in the preseason sun prior to the season opener on Sept. 9, baseball is really the only game in town for the foreseeable future.

So what can fans expect to see happen in the remaining 70 games of the regular season?

In the National League, the division leaders are:

The 47-40 NY Mets, who haven’t won a postseason game since they reached the 2015 World Series, but are the only team over .500 in this mediocre division, and lead by 3 1/2 games over 44-44 Philadelphia;

  • Surprising Milwaukee (53-39), which has made the playoffs three straight seasons and lost to the eventual World Series champion each of the past two. the Brewers lead another surprising contender, the Cincinnati Reds, by four in the Central, with every other member of the division seemingly out of contention;
  • The surprise of National League baseball this season, the San Francisco Giants (57-32), who lead the defending champion Dodgers by a couple of games in the West. The Giants haven’t been relevant since their last playoff appearance five seasons ago, but they have the third-best team batting average in the NL (.245), and are second in the majors behind only the Dodgers on the mound with a 3.26 ERA.

San Francisco is led offensively by a trio of veterans, including the rejuvenated Buster Posey (.328), Brandon Crawford (.289), and Evan Longoria (.280), who have taken some of the onus off of slumping Mike Yastrzemski (Carl’s grandson), who is hitting a career-low .234 after batting .297 last season.

Can they hold off the Dodgers? Well, the Giants are tremendous defensively, and can match up with the Dodgers in power numbers, but so far the Dodgers have won six of the nine head-to-head matchups between the two teams, and LA came into the break on a 12-4 roll, so this race could go down to the final days of the season.

The Brewers were only 21-23 back on May 21, but in the past couple of months they’ve gone 32-16 to seize the Central lead, and there’s no reason to believe that they’ll completely collapse. Still, one can’t rule out the rebuilding Reds, who returned to the postseason last year after a seven-year absence, and had won eight of 10 heading into the break to move into position for at least a wild-card slot.

The other teams in the division — the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates — are all below .500, and the spiraling Cubs, losers of eight of 10, are likely to become sellers at the trade deadline, with such appealing pieces as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez on the offensive side, along with former Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel. All four are former World Series champions, but they are all unrestricted free agents at season’s end, and any significant return in trade could help the 2016 champions reboot after several years of underperforming.

For the Mets in the East, a lot depends on whether they can get a healthy Noah Syndergaard back this season after Tommy John surgery. He hasn’t pitched since 2019, but the Metropolitans have done pretty well without him, especially given that fellow ace Jacob deGrom has gone 7-2 with a borderline-historic 1.08 ERA. Everyone else in the division is at .500 or worse, and the Braves just lost arguably their best player, Ronald Acuña Jr., for the season.

Over in the AL, Houston has roared out to a 55-36 mark, good for a three-and-a-half-game lead over Oakland in the West, but Seattle (48-43), playoff strangers since (gulp!) 2001, are hanging around just seven back, and the Angels, perennial underachievers despite having two of the most exciting players in the game in Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, could make a second-half run with the returns of Trout, Anthony Rendon and Justin Upton from injury. Houston is the team to beat, though, not only in the division, but perhaps in the entire American League.

Then again, in the Central you have the 54-35 Chicago White Sox on the verge of running away with the division after building an eight-game lead over the hanging-in-there Indians. Chicago has been poised for greatness for years now, and this might be the season that their title hopes come to fruition for only the second time in 104 seasons. The White Sox’ division is eminently easier than the AL West is, so Chicago’s likely to enter the postseason much fresher and rested than Houston, which may be fighting tooth and nail down the stretch to sew up the division.

What to make of the AL East? There are certainly myriad questions that remain for each of the remaining contenders, who right now include the division leading Red Sox (55-36), followed by the surging Rays (53-37), and the potential-laden Blue Jays and Yankees, who should be a lot better than they are, which is eight games behind.

Toronto may very well be a year away from true greatness, and perhaps a lot of its underachievement can be chalked up to the fact that it has yet to play a game on Canadian soil, instead being forced to play in a spring-training facility in Florida and a minor-league park in Buffalo thus far. By the time the Jays are allowed to return to the Rogers Centre in downtown Toronto, it may be too late to make a significant-enough run that would even grab a wild-card berth in this competitive division.

The Yankees, injury-riddled as always, are still hopeful that ace Luis Severino can return to the rotation soon. As Severino was working his way back from Tommy John surgery this spring, he suffered a right Grade-2 groin strain that has the club concerned about rushing him back too soon. Severino is back to tossing bullpen sessions and could be cleared to face live hitters in the next few weeks, but even his return to the staff won’t change the fact that the Yankee hitters are batting at just a .236 clip, good for 17th in the majors, and the team has gone just 17-22 since May 27. Still, let’s see how the Bombers do right out of the second-half gate, which will see them match up with Boston seven times and the second-place Rays three times.

The defending AL pennant-winners, the Rays, seem to be solid as usual, but they’ve been particularly maddening in the last month, which has seen them put together a four-game win streak, followed by a seven-game losing skein, another four-game win streak, a five-game losing streak, followed by another six-game winning streak. Still, they pose the biggest threat to surprising Boston, because they’ve advanced deep into the playoffs the past two seasons, while Boston has been bitter disappointments since its championship season of 2018.

That is, disappointing until this season, and with the third-best batting average in the majors (.259) and the eighth-best bullpen (3.57, after a gruesome 5.79 ERA last season), this fun bunch could hang on and overcome its 21st-best starters’ ERA (4.47), especially if the Red Sox get back their ace, Chris Sale, who is making impressive progress from his Tommy John surgery, and also make some shrewd moves at the trade deadline. The Cubs’ Bryant and Rizzo in particular should be attractive targets for Boston, given the team’s struggles with production from the first-base position and the fact that Chicago’s GM is Jed Hoyer, who served with Theo Epstein in the Sox’ glory days of the 2000s.

If I had to make predictions, I’d give division crowns to Tampa Bay, Chicago, and Houston, and wild-card slots to Boston and Oakland in the American League, while the NL should see the Mets, Brewers, and Dodgers grab division honors, while the wild-card winners will both be from the West: the Giants and Padres.

Chris Young’s column appears Saturday in The Sun Chronicle’s Weekend Edition. He can be reached at ballparkfigures@comcast.net.

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