The Weekend Takeaway
On Thursday, Ben Lindbergh picked three players to rise and three to fall during the second half of the schedule, based on BABIPs, past performances, and expectations. One of his three risers was Brian McCann—and, right on cue, the Braves catcher has hit a home run in each of the team’s last four games.
Thanks in part to McCann’s efforts, the Braves enter this week on a four-game winning streak with things looking up for the second half. Fredi Gonzalez’s team is 46-39 at the break, four games behind the division-leading Nationals, and currently penciled in as the second Wild Card. That puts the Braves on an 88-win pace, but a hot summer from McCann would help them exceed it.
A week ago, McCann had a lowly 671 OPS, leaving fans wondering if he was playing through an injury. The 28-year-old has not finished a year with an OPS below 800 since 2007, when he was just 23 years old and nonetheless checked in at 772, so even his current 731 mark leaves plenty of room for improvement. When he’s healthy and going right, McCann may be the most reliable offensive catcher in the National League, and his apparent return to form is an excellent source of optimism.
Our playoff odds currently give the Braves a 67.7 percent chance of reaching the postseason, with roughly 30 percent of that coming from the odds that they overtake the Nationals to win the National League East. The 10 games immediately following the break could prove critical—as Atlanta hosts the Mets and the Giants, before heading to Nationals Park for four games in three days—so McCann’s surge may have come at the perfect time.
Things to Watch For in the Second Half
On the other hand, the Nationals enter the All-Star break leading the NL East by four games, and their schedule over the next few weeks gives them an opportunity to widen the gap. Davey Johnson’s team is relatively healthy, with closer Drew Storen currently on a rehab assignment, and 21 of its next 25 games are against intra-division opponents, including 10 against the Mets and Braves during a nine-day span beginning July 17. And it’s worth noting that, according to Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports, owner Mark Lerner is willing to expand his payroll to give Mike Rizzo some flexibility at the trade deadline.
Speaking of the trade deadline, a slew of starting pitchers could change uniforms before July 31. Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels are the big names, and both are likely to be moved if and when the Brewers and Phillies determine that they will be unable to extend them beyond this season. The Rangers are expected to be in the mix for both the righty and the lefty, and the Braves and Orioles are both rumored to have interest in Greinke. Other teams may enter the picture as the deadline approaches. But Greinke and Hamels are not the only pitchers likely to be on the move, and many contenders could be shopping for rotation depth. The Giants are struggling to find answers to the question marks that are Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito, while the Angels must temporarily forge ahead without Dan Haren, whose back injury has landed him on the disabled list for the first time in his career. The Red Sox, who will get Jacoby Ellsbury back shortly and could see Dustin Pedroia and Carl Crawford rejoin the lineup sometime in August, may also look to fortify their rotation if they are able to get salary coverage. And, don’t sleep on the Mets, who could use some help behind Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey, in addition to a right-handed bat and a reliever.
The Pirates and Orioles remain in the thick of the playoff hunt, but as Clint Hurdle’s team learned last year, those hopes can fade quickly as the summer wears on. Both Pittsburgh and Baltimore will need reinforcements to stay in contention, and while the O’s have their eyes on Greinke, the Bucs are said to be eyeing outfield help. Justin Upton could be the biggest name on the move this July, and the Pirates are rumored to be one of his suitors. General manager Neal Huntington is also looking at Carlos Quentin as he tries to bolster the team’s production from the corner outfield spots.
As far as disappointing performances from outfielders go, though, the Rays’ Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton are at the front of the dubious pack. The 25-year-old Jennings, after logging an 805 OPS in 2011 and projecting to develop into one of the top catalysts in the American League, has plummeted to a .231/.298/.353 triple slash in 2012. Upton started the year on the disabled list, and he has barely outperformed Jennings since returning to the lineup on April 20, logging a .248/303/.376 line. The duo has stolen 30 bases in 34 tries, but the Rays need both to contribute at the plate if they are to bridge the 7 1/2–game gap in the American League East.
The Dodgers have managed to tread water in the absence of Matt Kemp, whose remarkable start was marred by a hamstring injury that has left him sidelined essentially since May 13. Don Mattingly’s team enjoys a narrow 0.5-game lead over the Giants, with the Diamondbacks also on the periphery of the National League West race. Kemp should be back in Los Angeles’ lineup immediately after the All-Star break, and his timing could not be better, as the Dodgers face a 10-game trip to New York, St. Louis, and San Francisco from July 20-29. Nonetheless, don’t be surprised if general manager Ned Colletti deals for an infielder after failing to lure Carlos Lee to Chavez Ravine.
- Finally, the fate of the Tigers could rest on an upcoming run of games against junior circuit contenders. Jim Leyland’s team travels to Baltimore right after the break, before hosting the Angels for four and the White Sox for three. Then, a nine-game trip to Cleveland, Toronto, and Boston looms—and, as if that weren’t enough, the Tigers will return from that tour to welcome the Indians and Yankees to Comerica Park, before heading to Texas. It’s sink-or-swim time for Detroit, which takes a five-game winning streak into the break.