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July 17, 2013
The Lineup Card
Nine Second-Half Storylines
1. A Triple Crown Double-Dip for Miggy?
He leads the majors in batting average by a comfortable margin (.024 over Yadier Molina) and in RBI by a less comfortable margin (two) over Chris Davis—that pesky Chris Davis, who’s not only nipping at Miggy’s large heels in that stat but well in front of him in the mucho-macho home run category (37-30).
So it would seem that the question of whether Miguel Cabrera is going to win the Triple Crown may come down not to anything he does himself, but to what Chris Davis does from here to the end of the season. It certainly seems like precedent favors Cabrera, but are we seeing the emergence, finally, of what a healthy Chris Davis can do? He has never played in more than 139 games in a season. Cabrera has never, since his age-21 season nine years ago, played in fewer than 150. Sheer durability and stamina are underrated aspects of Cabrera’s greatness.
Presumably, no one will complain about Cabrera’s legitimacy as the MVP if he accomplishes the damn feat again. And if Chris Davis keeps him from doing it, the PED rumors about Davis can be expected to get louder and louder. We’re never very far from away from baseball’s ugliest specter.
Some records are so sacrosanct in the annals of baseball that you don’t even have to say what the record is, just the player and the number. Joe Dimaggio and 56. Cy Young and 511. Nolan Ryan and 383. Other records might not readily summon a number to mind but are held by iconic names. Ty Cobb, Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, and a host of other all-time greats hold records for which we might have to look up the final total, but have a fairly strong awareness of the feat.
Then there is Earl Webb and the single-season record for doubles.
Every few years, a player comes out of the gate quickly, hits a significant number of doubles, and the name Earl Webb comes out of mothballs ever so briefly. His 67 doubles in 1931 are impressive enough, but few dig deeper into Webb’s colorful history because most challenges to Webb’s record are short lived. Since 1946, no hitter has topped 60 doubles; Todd Helton came the closest in 2000 with 59 doubles. As the likelihood of catching Webb recedes into the distance in August and September, Webb becomes a historical footnote once again, a minor piece of history quickly forgotten.
As with a lot of strong first halves, it’s more likely than not that Machado fades Post All-Star and the record stands. But here’s hoping Machado at least gets close enough to have a fighting chance in the final weekend. Whether Machado gets there or not is less relevant than the idea that the baseball world needs to be reacquainted with the story of Earl Webb.
He was born two centuries before ours, at the end of the 19th century. The son of a coal digger, Webb worked in the mines himself. In the days before farm systems and multi million dollar signing bonuses, Webb didn’t start playing professional ball until he was 23…or 22, depending on which legal document you believe (for the purposes of continuity, I will use the older age).
The New York Giants expressed interest in Webb, but he was reluctant to leave his rural Tennessee for the big city and didn’t finally acquiesce to the Giants until he was 25. Completely overwhelmed by the big city, Webb found himself lost in Penn Station…until he ran into Babe Ruth, who helped Webb and took him to his hotel.
More than 82 years separate Earl Webb’s accomplishment in 1931 and Manny Machado’s 2013 season. Webb played in what seemed like a different universe, a place where players were plucked from coal mines and farms and sometimes found by chance. While I doubt Machado approaching Webb’s record would spawn legions of Earl Webb fan clubs, here’s hoping a Machado run at his record reinvigorates interest in a forgotten man from an era that continues to disappear into the rear view window of history.
3. The Biogenesis Scandal's Next Chapter
This is the obligatory Biogenesis entry. I don’t want Biogenesis to be a second-half story. You don’t want Biogenesis to be a second-half story. Even Bud Selig doesn’t want Biogenesis to be a second-half story (though he has a funny way of showing it). But it will be.
The first report on Major League Baseball’s plan to suspend 20-plus players for their involvement with the Biogenesis clinic suggested that the announcements of those suspensions could come within two weeks. It’s been six weeks since then, and outwardly, at least, we’re no closer to knowing which players will face suspensions, let alone when or how the whole Biogenesis saga might reach a resolution.
Most of the questions asked of Bud Selig and Michael Weiner at the BBWAA luncheon in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday were about Biogenesis, and most of the answers offered further uncertainty. Selig said the investigation is still ongoing and offered no timetable for its completion. Weiner said the Players Union hasn’t heard which players will be implicated. I left that luncheon wondering what we do know. We definitely don’t know how long the suspensions will be, or whether the names will be announced before the appeals take place, or how long the appeals process might drag on. And not only do we not know the answers to those questions, but the parties involved aren’t sure, either.
That hasn’t stopped anyone from speculating so far, and it probably won’t stop anyone from speculating now. Even though it seems likely that any suspensions—should there be any—won’t be served until 2014, some members of the media will make sure we rehash the potential outcomes over and over until then. Here’s hoping that in a season of almost unprecedented parity, the promise of several exciting pennant races still takes center stage.
4. Can the Tigers Hold Off the Upstart Tribe?
The storyline for Detroit is a bit boring and expected: they blow away the competition in the first six innings, but not so much in the final three. Can they align the bullpen to succeed and manufacture late-inning runs? Probably a little. They will be fine.
The X-factor which makes this race interesting is Cleveland, which in the last two seasons went 91-83 in the first half and 57-93 in the second. The difference, we have been told, is the presence of savior/manager Terry Francona, energizing personality Nick Swisher, seasoned role players Jason Giambi, Ryan Raburn, and Scott Kazmir, and Kenny Lofton's horcrux, Michael Bourn. This is likely a one-playoff-bid division again, so the race remains a true one.
On paper, it boils down to the Indians' run production and starting pitching—fronts that didn't hold up well for the Tribe in past years—but ultimately the winner will be whoever beats up on the Twins and White Sox more. You know... the big games.
5. Clayton Kershaw's March Toward History
In the 1990s, there were four pitchers who could reasonably claim to be (depending on your definition) in the top 10 or so of all-time: Clemens, Pedro, Maddux, and Johnson. Those four guys won the ERA title 20 times, and the Cy Young Award 19 times. Since their peaks, though, we've seen a strange pitching parity where every good pitcher wins a Cy Young and every good pitcher wins an ERA title, but nobody really wins a bunch; nobody's ever the Tiger Woods against the field sort of favorite. Since 2005—eight years—eight different pitchers have won the ERA title in the AL, and seven have won it in the NL. The repeat (besides Johan Santana, who won it in each league) was Clayton Kershaw, who won it each of the past two seasons and is poised to win it again this year. In the same eight seasons, only Tim Lincecum has won a Cy Young twice, and Kershaw is poised to win his second one, with a second-place finish in between. There have been plenty of great pitchers in that era, but even the best are a shade below the true legends. Roy Halladay is more like Kevin Brown than he was ever like Pedro or Clemens; Verlander is more David Cone than Maddux or Johnson. Kershaw, at 25, is the first pitcher who seems like he could be legendary, even 50 years from now, in the same way only a dozen or so pitchers ever became. Plenty could go wrong, but a strong second half, a second Cy Young, puts him on the cusp.
6. Will Oakland Bring its 'A'-game Again?
Lost in all the stories about the Pirates on the verge of finally snapping that string of losing seasons, there's another team that has quietly had a surprisingly good season, especially since (once again) they were expected to be the third wheel in the Rangers/Angels fight for the NL West at the beginning of the season. The A's seem to have a pink heart, orange star, yellow moon, green clover, blue diamond, and purple horseshoe of late. Josh Donaldson has emerged into stardom. The Yoenis Cespedes thing worked. Jed Lowrie has reminded us again that he's a good hitter and not really a shortstop, but he hasn't gotten hurt. The bullpen has been really good, but bullpens are always small sample size wonders. Bartolo Colon. 'Nuff said. And the supporting cast has been solid. Not spectacular, but solid and that gets the job done. So, in the second half, we have to wonder whether Donaldson will turn back into a pumpkin, Lowrie will get hurt, Father Time will catch up with Colon, and the bullpen will regress. Or maybe it'll be real. Want a second half story line to follow?
7. A National Uprising
The Nationals are just 7-7 in July and only a game over .500, at 48-47, for the season. If a climb up the standings that puts the Braves, who currently enjoy a six-game lead in the East division, on notice is imminent, we have not seen any signs of it yet.
But Bryce Harper is off the disabled list and—if his Home Run Derby performance is any indication—ready to produce as he did early on. Dan Haren supplied some reasons for optimism, namely 14 strikeouts in 11 homer-less innings, in his first two starts after a two-week stint on the DL. Ian Desmond, with 2.5 WARP to his name through 94 games, is proving that his breakout campaign last year was no fluke. And general manager Mike Rizzo, who added Scott Hairston just before the All-Star break in an effort to improve his lineup against left-handed pitching, could further augment Davey Johnson's roster if earlier needs, such as rotation, remain on the shopping list come July 31.
The Nationals were a popular choice to repeat as National League East champs before the season, earning first-place nods from 36 of our 42 pre-season predictors. The team that elicited those lofty expectations is largely intact and now healthy, with reinforcements from the farm system in the form of Anthony Rendon. Anything short of a second-half surge that brings playoff baseball back to D.C.—a challenge given the Pirates' first-half success and the Dodgers' recent turnaround—would rank as a disappointment.
8. Clayton Richard's Potential Indignity
It's unfair to pick on Richard; he's been hurt for a good chunk of the season and sits on the disabled list at the moment. Still, keep an eye on his numbers, because for the time being, his run-to-strikeout ratio exceeds his strikeout-to-walk ratio. That tends to be a bad sign, even if it is pretty trivial.
9. A Three-Horse Race in the National League Central
The odds to win the NL Central don't exactly tell the same story as the standings. The Cardinals are big favorites at 2-3, with the Pirates lagging at 12-5 and the Reds 3-1 per Bovada. That tells the story of a semi-strong hold on a division with a couple teams chasing. Yet the Pirates are only a game back, so Las Vegas thinks you're hardly a believer in Clint Hurdle's bunch.
While Cincinnati is still very much a factor as the preseason favorites sitting only five games back, Pittsburgh-St. Louis will be the matchup to watch, and we are blessed with quite a few of those matchups in the second half. They meet 14 more times including a five-game set in four days later this month at PNC Park. The Cardinals have clearly been the better team, +127 in run differential compared to +46. But if the Pirates have a chance, July 29-Aug. 1 will go a long way in deciding that.
And what if the defection of the Astros actually is followed by the first three-playoff-team division but it was the one they left rather than the one they joined? Intradivisional matchups will add some difficulty, but the third-place Reds are five-games clear as second wild cards right now.