By David Mullen
The All-Star Game is usually looked at as the midpoint of the Major League Baseball season. But in reality, despite a record number of early season rainouts, all teams have played more than half of their games already, well in advance of the Midsummer Night’s Classic on Tuesday, July 17 in Washington D.C. Since the Fourth of July holiday is much more of a barometer for assessing the halfway mark in the 2018 season, let’s launch into the season to date, with (hot dog) relish.
Kaboom. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are living up to all of the preseason hype. They are both off to sizzling starts with an outstanding blend of young talent — are you listening, Jon Daniels? — and veteran players. Baseball’s greatest rivalry has not disappointed, and the only letdown is that one team must finish first and the other will finish second, taking the top wild card spot.
New York has made the most of their young players like Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Gleyber Torres and Miquel Andujar and then brought in Giancarlo Stanton as if they needed more power. Boston has youth in Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers and others, waited until late in spring training to sign veteran J.D. Martinez and then put the lineup behind an excellent starting pitching staff. The Red Sox are the team to beat out East.
But that doesn’t mean an AL East crown by Boston or New York is anointment into the World Series. The Houston Astros remain the best team in baseball, despite an East Coast media bias. The Astros are leading the toughest division in baseball with a winning percentage near .640, and though the pesky Seattle Mariners continue to challenge them, the unflappable Astros are ready for a runaway second half season.
Sparklers. The Atlanta Braves were supposed to be in a rebuilding mode. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the northern Atlanta suburbs. They started winning. No one seems to believe that this team can hold on for the full season, but at present they remain atop the NL East, besting another surprise sparkler in the Philadelphia Phillies.
No one took the Oakland Athletics seriously. But on July 1, despite having five starting pitchers on the DL, the A’s had the fifth best record in the AL and were doing it with a power offense, veteran leadership from the versatile Jed Lowrie and an excellent bullpen.
Even though they look up to the beasts in the East, the Tampa Bay Rays are right around the .500 mark, which absolutely no one in baseball predicted. And that appears to be exactly how the team wanted it. They have baseball’s third lowest payroll (behind Oakland and the Chicago White Sox) and play well in baseball’s worst stadium.
Firecrackers. Despite some early underachieving, the Cleveland Indians are ready away with the worst division in baseball. The top of the order of Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley, Jose Ramirez and Edwin Encarnacion is formidable. Lindor is baseball’s next superstar.
The Milwaukee Brewers, with players like Jesus Aquilar, Eric Thames and Travis Shaw, look like a beer league softball team, which is appropriate since they play in Milwaukee. But they have lots of pop, and while they may get caught be a late surge from the Chicago Cubs, they will make the playoffs and be a team no one will want to play.
The last team in first place in the NL West at the end of the season wins. It is conceivable that this is a four team race going into the last week of the season. But for now, it is the Arizona Diamondbacks and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is starting to heat up like the Phoenix weather.
Duds. Remember when the New York Mets started the season 11-1? Now look down to the bottom of the NL East standings and see what they have become. They spend way too much money to be this bad. Give Oakland or Tampa their budget and see what those teams could do.
The Washington Nationals were the pick of the pundits to win the National League. But they had disastrous months in April and June.
No team gets less out of more, and Bryce Harper is in his contract season. Doesn’t Harper know that you give it your all in your final contract year to maximize your offseason bucks?
The Minnesota Twins were last season’s darlings. Now they look like a team stirring a caldron.
Local parade. Daniels and the Texas Rangers should have a parade, a parade of high-priced talent to unload to other teams still competitive and looking to fill second-half holes. This is a team with no identity, and a last place position in the AL West to boot.
Flag waving. I still think the Houston Astros will win their second consecutive World Championship. Who they play from the National League is as unclear as barbeque smoke.
There are sure to be plenty more fireworks as the season comes to a climax.