MLB second-half preview: Answering baseball's biggest questions ESPN logo
Thursday, July 11, 2019

The All-Star break is over. Time to get back to work.

With the season officially resuming tonight,we look at the contenders, the train wrecks, the trade deadline and more.

The contenders

1. Midseason predictions reset: Who are your picks for the wild cards, division champs and World Series?

Jeff Passan: The New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros lead their respective divisions now, and they'll do so after the final day of the season Sept. 29. The two closest stragglers, the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox, will eke past Cleveland for the wild cards. The National League is a mess with one spectacular team (Los Angeles Dodgers), one very good team (Atlanta Braves) and one division where the pick is little more than a shot in the dark (Chicago Cubs, chosen with minimal confidence). The wild cards: the Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers. World Series: Third time's a charm for the Dodgers, over the Yankees in five.

David Schoenfield: After his miraculous run of picks at the All-Star Game (including predicting a 4-3 win for the AL), I should just copy Jeff's picks. I'll stick with the current leaders in the AL: Yankees, Twins and Astros. Indians and A's to win the wild cards. In the NL, I'm feeling the recent surge from the Nats, so I'll go with the Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers as division winners and wild cards for the Braves and (flip a coin) ... the Padres. Because I really, really want to see Fernando Tatis Jr. in October, even if for just one game. The World Series? I'll stick to my preseason pick: Astros over Dodgers. Or was that Dodgers over Astros?

Eddie Matz: The Indians, who've finally awoken from their annual early-season hibernation, sneak past the Twins, and join the Yankees and Astros as division winners. Minnesota and Tampa Bay get the wild cards. In the NL, division titles go to the Braves, Cubs and Dodgers. Washington and Arizona get the wild cards. Dodgers in six over the Astros.

2. OK, so it looks like it's the Yankees, the Astros, the Dodgers and then everybody else. What could derail the Big Three?

Passan: Plenty, of course, be it injuries, slumps, regression, clubhouse issues, rivals improving at the July 31 trade deadline and myriad other issues. The likeliest culprit, though, is perhaps the least satisfying: The complete crapshoot that is baseball's postseason. A five-game series? Then a pair of seven-game series? It means nothing, except for the fact that it means everything. Some teams, like the Red Sox last year, surmount it. Of the 22 teams with 100-plus wins in a season this century -- and all three of these teams should reach that mark -- only four have won World Series. Granted, three of those have come in the past three seasons, so perhaps it's trending less toward chaos.

3. What's more likely to happen to the Red Sox, rebounding for a deep October run or completely missing the playoffs?

Schoenfield: I've been trying to believe in the Red Sox all season, but they have yet to establish any sort of consistency -- and not just from the bullpen, which continues to rank poorly in FanGraphs' "clutch" measurement (23rd in the majors). Plus, guys like Marcus Walden and Matt Barnes, worked heavily so far, are showing signs of fatigue (Walden has an 8.22 ERA over his past 17 appearances and Barnes has an 8.79 ERA over his past 17 appearances). They'll probably add relief help and David Price has quietly been very good (as has Chris Sale since his rough start), but they've also played more than half their games against both the Orioles and Blue Jays. I think they win 90 games, but fall just short of a wild card.

4. And in the NL, the Central is incredibly tight. What's going to determine who wins the division?

Schoenfield: I'll go with the easy cop-out: starting pitching. But the best way to frame that is maybe starting pitching health and depth. The Cubs, for example, have required just five starts beyond their top five guys (although Cole Hamels is out at the moment with an oblique stain). The Brewers have received good work from Zach Davies and All-Star Brandon Woodruff, but have also used 10 starters. The Reds actually have the best rotation ERA in the division so far (3.60 versus 4.02 for the Cubs) and have needed just one start outside of their top five guys. That's why they're still just 4.5 games out, even if they're in last place.

5. Which NL East team is more likely to make the playoffs: Bryce Harper's current squad in Philly or his surging former team in D.C.?

Matz: I can't believe I'm saying this, but ... the Nats. Injuries/suspensions have absolutely wrecked Philly. The pen and the outfield are in shambles, and now Jake Arrietahas elbow issues. As for the Nationals, six weeks ago I was the guy driving the Washington-Is-Washed-Up train. But their turnaround is for real. Yes, their schedule has been Charmin-soft lately. Sure, the bullpen needs oodles o' help. But between a stacked rotation, a dangerous lineup and a sneaky-good bench (not to mention a watered-down NL), Harper's old co-workers have enough to make it to October.

The bad ... and the ugly

1. So, what the heck is going on with the Mets?

Passan: Jeff McNeil is hitting .349. Pete Alonso should exceed 50 home runs. Things are great. *Looks around* *No chairs flying* *Starts whispering* OK, things are definitely not great. The bullpen is an unmitigated disaster. Free-agent signings have flopped. The Edwin Diaz-and-Robinson Cano trade could only go worse if the prospects they gave up were any good. *Checks notes* Two of them were at the Futures Game. Well, at least the Mets don't owe Cano much. *Checks notes again* THEY OWE HIM MORE THAN $80 MILLION AFTER THIS SEASON?!!?!? WHAT!?!?? *Sees chair flying* Sorry gotta go good luck you'll need it they're trading Wheeler Thor might go too they probably should blow it all up ahhhhhhh ...

2. But they aren't the worst team by any means -- how many games could the Orioles and Marlins lose?

Matz: Technically speaking, they could lose 264 games combined. Of course, that would require both teams losing every one of their games in the second half, which (probably) won't happen. In fairness to Baltimore and Miami, both clubs have been playing better recently. Truth be told, if I'm picking a pair of teams to shoot the moon the rest of the way, I'd take K.C. and Detroit. But back to the original question, I'm putting the over/under for Birds/Fish combined losses this season at 225. (And I'm taking the over.)

3. Which managers could be managing for their jobs in the second half?

Matz: The three most caliente cushions are the ones under Mickey Callaway, Gabe Kapler and Joe Maddon. If the Phils and Cubs finish up strong and make the postseason, it's hard to imagine Kapler and Maddon getting axed (though not impossible). As for Callaway, the way things have unfolded in the four-ring circus that is the Mets, it's hard to imagine him not getting the boot.

4. Are there any teams at the bottom of the standings with positive signs for the future we should be watching down the stretch?

Schoenfield:Uhh ... do I have to answer this question? The Royals have Hunter Dozier and Whit Merrifield, but even Adalberto Mondesi has come crashing down and is hitting .268/.298/.445. The Mariners can point toDan Vogelbach's breakout season and J.P. Crawford is showing some positive signs, plus prospects Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn and Evan White all made the Futures Game (and outfielder Julio Rodriguez might end up being better than all of them). But that's at the minor league level. The Marlins have some nice young starters, but that offense is unwatchable. The Tigers can't hit. I won't even bring up the Orioles. The Blue Jays ... well, Vlad Jr. is fun to watch in Home Run Derby. So to answer the question: not really. (Although I do like to point out that the 2013 Astros lost 111 games and were in the playoffs two years later.)

The trade deadline

1. The deadline is three weeks away. How does the market compare to recent years?

Passan: Extraordinarily pitching-heavy. Which is not entirely coincidental, seeing as the bat-rental market has cratered -- remember what the Tigers got for J.D. Martinez in 2017? -- and teams are increasingly loath to give up young, under-control everyday players. It seems counterintuitive too, with good pitching such a limited commodity in 2019. Sometimes that's just how the market shakes out, and with Madison Bumgarner and Marcus Stroman almost assuredly on the move, Trevor Bauer, Mike Minor and Robbie Ray able to be had, andMatt Boydand Zack Greinke tailor-made for playoff rotations, it's a nice group -- and one with enough diversity in salary, years of control, handedness and stuff to satisfy every buyer. There are plenty of relievers too, and especially because of how they can affect postseason series, the prices on them could be even higher than some of the rental starters. The best rental bat, if you really want to know? Probably Nicholas Castellanos. The best available bat? Might be Hunter Renfroe. Like I said: pitching-heavy.

2. Is the new single deadline without August moves going to have a big impact on how teams operate?

Passan: Considering teams that previously could wait until Game 135 to make their buy-or-sell decisions now will need to do so around the 105-game mark, it most certainly will. Particularly in a year like 2019, when 17 teams went into the All-Star break with .500-or-better records, when an eight-car pileup for the NL's wild-card spots saw 2 games of daylight between the best and worst teams vying for it. Selling can be difficult to spin to fans, to ownership, to players in the clubhouse who for four months have worked hard to win. While the lack of August trades might not yet have transformed the psyche of general managers to embrace striking earlier on trades, it does theoretically place additional pressure to declare their current state of affairs in unequivocal fashion. Trading win-now players and still trying to, you know, win now does not tend to work.

3. Who are some buyers to watch?

Schoenfield:Who do the Nationals get to upgrade their bullpen? Are the Dodgers happy enough with their current bullpen? Do the Red Sox get a closer? The back of the Rays' pen is struggling as Jose Alvarado is suddenly getting lit and Diego Castillo is on the IL. The Twins' pen has been fine but you can never have too much relief depth. I sense a trend here.

4. And the sellers?

Matz:Come July, relief help is always the flavor of the month. That makes San Francisco a key player in this year's market. The Giants are headed into rebuild mode. Their bullpen ranks sixth in the majors in ERA (3.90) and is littered with sellable names that will make contenders salivate. From Will Smith to Sam Dyson to Mark Melancon to Tony Watson to Brian Wilson to Robb Nen, the possibilities are limitless. OK, those last two have long since retired, but you get the point.

The players

1. Who will be the MVPs, Cy Youngs and Rookies of the Year?

Passan: MVPs: Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger. Cy Youngs: Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer. ROYs: Yordan Alvarez, Fernando Tatis Jr.

Schoenfield: MVPs: Mike Trout, Christian Yelich. Cy Youngs: Charlie Morton, Max Scherzer. ROYs: Brandon Lowe, Pete Alonso.

Matz: MVPs: Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger. Cy Youngs: Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer. ROYs: Brandon Lowe, Pete Alonso.

2. Will anyone hit 60 homers this year, and how many could realistically reach 50?

Matz: In the upset of the year, not one single player will reach the big 6-0. But half the league will get to 50. (And by "half the league," I mean Christian Yelich and Pete Alonso.)

3. Vlad Jr. certainly made a name for himself on Derby night. Prediction for his second half?

Schoenfield: The Home Run Derby is not real baseball. I think Guerrero's second-half numbers will be a little better, but don't expect a sudden surge to superstardom. One issue -- and the scouting report is out on this -- he's had trouble on pitches up in the zone. All eight of his home runs have come on pitches in the lower half of the zone and he's hitting just .159 on pitches in the upper half. Young Mike Trout had some of these issues when he first came up. We'll see if Vlad can learn to adjust.

4. Young players have dominated the season, are there any more big names on the way?

Passan: Of course! What would baseball be without a new kid arriving every week who can hit a 450-foot home run or throw 100 mph? For the honorary Who's Going to Be This Year's K-Rod and Find Himself in High-Leverage October Innings Without Much Major League Service Time Award, keep an eye on Deivi Garcia with the Yankees and Ian Anderson for the Braves. At some point, Kyle Tucker will add to the Astros' incredibly crowded (and talented) outfield -- or join another team as the best prospect in the biggest trade of July. The Dodgers have a surplus of pitching; they've already called upon Tony Gonsolin for a spot start, and they might yet open the bifrost between Oklahoma City and L.A. and summon Dustin May, aka Gingergaard, whose flowing red hair, Texas roots and triple-digit fastball earn him some mighty comps. Two others worth noting: Jesus Luzardo (perhaps in September, if Oakland remains in the wild-card hunt) and Luis Urias (Padres second basemen this year: .229/.303/.372).

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