What to Watch in MLB
Jay B Webster highlights the key teams and players to look out for in the world of Major League Baseball
As we blow through the first third of the Major League Baseball season and plough on towards the All Star break, it's time to take a look at the main stories so far in the big leagues and what to watch for the rest of the way.
Curse of the World Series Hangover
After breaking their 118-year World Series drought and bringing a long-awaited title to Wrigleyville, the Chicago Cubs entered the new season as heavy favourites to win the NL Central. But things have become a bit rocky on their road to repeat.
So what's gone wrong? Well pretty simply, they haven't hit well, the starting pitching has not been particularly effective, and the defense has been porous: not exactly the kind of trifecta you'd be hoping for as defending champions.
The Cubs entered June hitting an abysmal .215 with runners in scoring position. Kyle Schwarber, Joe Rizzo and Javier Baez have seen their numbers dip, and the offense has missed Dexter Fowler's spark at the top of the order after the center fielder jumped ship to the rival St. Louis Cardinals.
On the mound, Jake Arrieta has seen his velocity dip, John Lackey's ERA has hovered around 5.00 and Kyle Hendricks' command has not shown its usual pinpoint accuracy.
A downright embarrassing 0-6 West Coast road trip dropped the Cubs two games below .500 and into third place in the division in early June. The Cubbies are lucky they are playing in the NL Central, however, where no team has been able to put much ground between themselves and .500. Can the Cubs turn things around, or come October will they be watching the playoffs on television this time around?
Houston, We Have Liftoff
Quick, who's been the best team in baseball this season? If you've failed to notice that it's the Houston Astros, you're probably not alone. The 'Stros haven't just had the best record in baseball for much of the season, they've had it by some margin. They hit June with a 40-16 record on the back of a 10-game win streak, becoming just the third team since 2000 to get 40 wins in 56 games. But somehow they still seem to fly under the baseball radar.
It's hard to believe that back in 2013 the Astros were losing 111 games, while Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez's $24 million salary was higher than the Houston's entire payroll. But the strategy of losing to win had already begun. The Astros' first two draft picks of 2012 -- Carlos Correa (1st overall) and Lance McCullers (41st) -- were this year named the AL's Player and Pitcher of the Month in May.
The offense sits atop the AL in most categories – led by right fielder George Springer, first baseman Marwin Gonzalez and Correa – while Dallas Keuchel, who started the season 9-0, and the pitching staff lead the league in E.R.A and strikeouts. It's time to sit back and see just how high this Astros team can fly.
Go West, Young Man
While the Nationals seem determined to run away with the NL East, and the NL Central has been mired in mediocrity, the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks have turned things into a three-way race with the Los Angeles Dodgers out West.
The Rockies were a trendy preseason sleeper pick, and they have obliged by getting off to the best start in franchise history. The offense, led by Nolan Arenando, Mark Reynolds and Charlie Blackmon, have performed in a typically Coors' Field-esque manner, but encouragingly have also been able to produce away from the thin, mile-high air of their home field. It has, however, been Antonio Senzatela and the pitching staff who have really been able to hold their own. If they continue to do so, look for the Rocks to keep pushing the Dodgers.
Perhaps more surprising has been Arizona, where Jake Lamb and Paul Goldschmidt, young gun Robbie Ray and a resurgent Zack Greinke have lead the way out in the desert, keeping the Diamondbacks in the hunt.
Court is in Session
What a difference a year makes. Last June, outfielder Aaron Judge was mired in an 18-at-bat hitless streak with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre which saw his average drop to .221. Turn the clock ahead a year and the 6-foot-7-inch, 282-pound Judge is the toast of the Big Apple, leading the league in tape-measure home runs and helping the New York Yankees to a perch atop the American League Central division.
The personable rookie, who wears 99 on his jersey, not only led the league in home runs, but has kept his batting average well north of .300 through the first months of the season. It will be fun to watch whether Judge is really the 'next big thing', but expect plenty of camera time for the young slugger during the All Star festivities in mid July either way.
There is plenty of ball to be played over the dog days of summer, as we sit back and watch the stories unfold.