As the season resumes, the Milwaukee Brewers are baseball’s biggest surprise team with the Minnesota Twins a close second, 2 1/2 games behind Cleveland in the American League Central.
The Dodgers were the first team to win 60 games and have the best record in baseball at 61-29. The Astros were the second team with 60 wins and have the best record in the American League at 60-29.
The Phillies are the worst team (22 wins). The Mets, Mariners and Giants are the three biggest disappointments, each with a list of injuries.
There are a lot of reasons the Brewers have overtaken the Cubs with a lead of 5 1/2 games when the season resumes.
The Brew Crew, leading at the All-Star break for the fifth time in their existence, is winning with a remade bullpen, a strong defense, youth and athleticism, and the fourth-best run producing lineup in the league (451), even though Ryan Braun has battled injuries and Eric Thames has had only one good month, that in April.
Thames, a left-handed batter, hit .163 in June and .221 in May. He hit 11 of his 23 home runs in April and he’s hitting .248 at the break. Braun played 40 games in the first half.
Closer Corey Knebel, with a 1.70 ERA, 75 strikeouts, 26 walks and 14 saves, made the All-Star team after replacing Neftalí Feliz.
Third baseman Travis Shaw, acquired from Boston in the offseason, was a steal of a trade. Shaw is hitting .299 with 19 home runs and 65 RBIs. He fits in with an air-tight defensive infield that has Orlando Arcia, Jonathan Villar and Thames.
The speed of Villar (16 steals) and Keon Broxton (17 steals) are reasons why the Brewers are tied with Cincinnati with 75 steals for the National League lead. Second baseman Eric Sogard hit .331 after coming up from the minors on May 21.
The question, as usual, is the rotation. Matt Garza is their most experienced pitcher. The Brewers have been waiting for Jimmy Nelson, 28, to come around, and this season, he’s the best All-Star not on the NL roster. He’s got 118 strikeouts and 27 walks with an 8-4 record and 3.30 ERA. Former Orioles farmhand Zach Davies has 10 wins.
The Brewers are winning with their best prospects. Their payroll is skimpy, so they could add a starting pitcher in the mold of Sonny Gray, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano or Jose Quintana - and maybe even Justin Verlander or Julio Teheran.
In the coming days, all those pitchers and more will be mentioned in never-ending rumor mill leading up to the non-waiver July 31 deadline.
Other questions that will affect the second half:
Q: Can the Cubs, the defending World Series champion, catch the Brewers?
A: The Cubs are two games under .500 and the fact that they had only closer Wade Davis on the All-Star team sums up the season. They aren’t the same team that dominated last season. Last year at the break, the Cubs led the NL with 460 runs and were second in ERA, 3.36. This time, they rank 11th in runs (399) and fifth in ERA (4.10). Jake Arrieta doesn’t have the same fastball. At 38, John Lackey has an 8.10 ERA. Kyle Hendricks has been hurt. There’s no fifth starter. Jon Lester has been their best pitcher and his ERA is 4.25 after giving up 10 runs in the first inning Sunday versus the Pirates.
Q: Wasn’t Cleveland, defending AL champion, supposed to be running away with the AL Central?
A: Yes, the Indians were the big-time favorite, but outside of Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, the rotation has been suspect. Trevor Bauer is pitching to a 5.24 ERA while Josh Tomlin is at 5.90 and Danny Salazar, in only a handful of starts, is at 5.40.
Q: What kind of closers market are the Nationals facing?
A: Could be the Nationals will look at the Orioles’ Brad Brach to fix their bullpen. The market for relievers and closers always favors the seller in July, but with Kansas City (Kelvin Herrera, 19 saves), Minnesota (Brandon Kinzler, 24 saves) and Tampa Bay (Alex Colomé, 25 saves) contending, the market for closers is even thinner, and that makes the asking price for bullpen help even more expensive for the Nationals. The Nationals could also look at the Reds’ Raisel Iglesias, who has saved 16 of 17 with a 1.69 ERA; the Padres’ Brandon Maurer, who has 19 saves; and the Blue Jays’ Roberto Osuna, who has a 2.06 ERA. Who knows, maybe the Rockies’ Greg Holland would be available?
Q: Speaking of the Rockies, what’s happened to them? They were one of the best teams in the NL early in the season.
A: The young pitching that had the Rockies leading the NL West has fallen apart. They had four rookies in the rotation and all of them - Kyle Freeland, German Márquez, Jeff Hoffman and Antonio Senzatela - have struggled in the last five weeks.
Q: Can the Orioles rebound?
A: The Orioles, who started 22-10, have what it takes, but one magical trade before the deadline isn’t going to solve the problem. The improvement enough for contention has to come from within. If the starting pitching settles down - and that’s a big if - all things will fall into place. Except for a spurt at the start of the season, the Orioles’ offense has been bad since the 2016 All-Star break. The defense is weaker because of the injuries to J.J. Hardy and Chris Davis. The bullpen has been a mess because the rotation has lacked innings.
Q: What’s the scouting report on the rest of the AL East?
A: In a nutshell, the Red Sox have taken over first place because David Price, Rick Porcello, Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz have been excellent in the last couple of weeks in the rotation. Doug Fister struggled his first start in the fifth spot and the Red Sox still have a problem at third base. The Rays, who beat Boston three of four to end the first half, are the team with the potential to surprise. They have 47 wins compared to 34 at the break last season. Their run production has gone from 344 to 428, thanks to Logan Morrison and Corey Dickerson. The Rays usually have strong pitching and no hitting. This year, they’ve done an about-face. Their rotation is getting better and if they strengthen their bullpen, they’re going to contend. The Blue Jays are likely sellers this month with Francisco Liriano, J.A. Happ and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki as possible trade chips. The Yankees traded Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Carlos Beltrán last July. But this season, with their team sliding, the Yankees say they expect to be cautious buyers before the deadline.
Q: The Dodgers were the first team to 60 wins this season. What will they be looking for in the second half?
A: Even though they have taken control of the NL West, they still need rotation help. All-Star Clayton Kershaw is a Cy Young candidate at 14-2 with a 2.18 ERA. Alex Wood’s funky delivery has made him a solid No. 2, as well as an All-Star (10-0, 1.67). Rich Hill and Brandon McCarthy are in the top four. Pedro Báez (1.43 ERA) and closer Kenley Jansen (0.96) anchor the bullpen.
Q: The Houston Astros are running away with the AL West, but how good is their rotation?
A: The Astros offense is loaded. Their bullpen is deep. They play good defense, but their rotation is a concern. Lefty Dallas Keuchel started 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA in his first 11 starts, but he starts the second half of the season on the disabled list. Their most consistent starter is Lance McCullers, but after that, there are more questions: Collin McHugh is out with an elbow injury and is expected to return in the second half. Charlie Morton is pitching better than he did at the start of the season, but is he reliable in a postseason game? Joe Musgrove, 24, is unproven. Brad Peacock has pitched fine, but he’s unproven as well. Mike Fiers has struggled, so it’s obvious that the Astros, with a deep farm system, will be looking for pitching ASAP.
Q: Are the Twins going to trade starter Ervin Santana?
A: The Twins are in a predicament: They are rebuilding and contending at the same time. They don’t have a rotation that would take them deep into October. Plus, they play the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers and D-backs in the first weeks after the break. The Twins will trade Santana, who has 10 wins and a 2.99 ERA, only if they get overwhelmed with a deal. Of course, they need pitching. Santana, 34, is signed for $13.5 million in 2018 and if the contract vests for $14 million in 2019 if he pitches 200 innings in 2018.
Q: Is it the same story with the Royals?
A: Yes. The Royals, 3 1/2 games behind Cleveland, have a list of potential free agents in Lorenzo Cain, Jason Vargas. Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, but general manager Dayton Moore says the Royals are all in for this year. So apparently, they aren’t worried about the future. It’s amazing that Jason Vargas has been one of their top pitchers.
Q: Are the Yankees’ Aaron Judge and the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger the AL and NL Rookies of the Year?
A: Duh, yes. Bellinger didn’t come up until late April and he’s got 25 home runs and 58 RBIs. And Judge is hitting .329 with an on-base percentage of .448 with 30 home runs and 66 RBIs. In any other year, the Orioles’ Trey Mancini (.312-14-44) would be the favorite for the award.
Q: Is Judge, who won the Home Run Derby Monday night in Miami, the favorite for the AL MVP?
A: He is, but three Astros - George Springer (.310-27-61), Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa (.325-20-65) - are candidates, as well. Altuve is hitting .347 with a .417 on-base percentage, 13 home runs and 18 steals.
Q: How about that NL MVP being an all-Nationals race?
A: It’s an amazing race. The top three hitters average-wise in the NL are Daniel Murphy (.342), Ryan Zimmerman (.330) and Bryce Harper (.325). Harper has 20 home runs and a .431 on-base percentage. Zimmerman has 19 home runs and 63 RBIs. Murphy’s on-base percentage is .393 with 64 RBIs. The only other non-Nationals candidates are Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt and Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon. Goldschmidt is hitting .312 with a .428 on-base percentage, 20 home runs and 67 RBIs. Blackmon, the leadoff hitter for the NL All-Stars, is hitting .319-20-61.
Q: Is the Nationals’ Max Scherzer going to win the NL Cy Young for a second consecutive season?
A: It’s close between him and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, who is 14-2 with a 2.18 ERA, 159 strikeouts and a 0.88 WHIP. Scherzer is 10-5 with a 2.10 ERA, 178 strikeouts and a 0.78 WHIP. Scherzer winning on the strength of his strikeouts is the prediction here.