The season is halfway over and there are already a handful of dreams deferred, best-case scenarios and random occurrences presented in the 2012 season. For those of you who lost track of the major stories, here a refresher.
The Best Case Scenario Award
If R.A. Dickey was an everyday position player – who at age 37 all of a sudden turned a non-descript career into front-page news – well, we’d swear he was taking something. Thus is the double standard afforded to pitchers in the post-steroid era, but that isn’t Dickey’s fault.
Nothing should detract from what is turning into one of the true great stories of recent memory. The New York Mets themselves have surprised with their over-achieving ways, bolstered by the return to strength by third baseman David Wright and staff ace Johan Santana (who seems all the way from the Tommy John surgery). Dickey, however, is another story altogether.
He has a career record of 53-51, but this year is sporting a major league best 12-1 record, putting him on pace to be the first Met to start an All-Star Game since Dwight Gooden in ’88. This is the stuff big budget Hollywood sports flicks are made of.
Biggest Surprise Of The Season
Hard to figure out what’s more jarring between the ascent of the Washington Nationals and the current disarray of the Philadelphia Phillies. The Nats were supposed to be an up and coming team, taking baby steps while building for the future. Obviously, they didn’t get that memo, as they have held firmly atop the NL East for weeks now,led by young phenom Stephen Strasburg (NL strikeout leader), Gio Gonzales (2nd in the NL in wins), Ian Desmond (first in the NL in Doubles) and Bryce Harper (On-Base Percentage of .354, 8 HR’s, 23 RBI’s) they seem to be the only people in DC exceeding expectations.
The Phillies have been the opposite. They are in last place, with myriad issues holding back their usual bubbling swagger. 1st Baseman Ryan Howard is still out with injuries, 2nd Baseman Chase Utley just came back this week and all-world pitcher Roy Holladay has been on the DL since late May. Five consecutive NL East titles in a row give teams, writers and fan bases bloated confidence and while nobody is saying it’s over… look, it’s over. (The extra wild-card berth starts this year and the Phils are likely going to need it.)
Most Intimidating Pitching Staff
Unsurprisingly, the San Francisco Giants are getting another jealousy-provoking season from their starters. They are like the Braves of the 90s (just without Chipper Jones and David Justice). Any time a guy as good as two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum is week in/week out not even your second best pitcher (he’s only 3-9 this season), you know that if they get, even a smidgen of hitting, it will be on in the postseason. Scoring 3.96 runs a game is what they are getting and that might be just enough for Ryan Vogelsong, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner.
The “Yeah I’m Still Wet Behind the Ears, But I Will Still Smoke You” Award
Nats OF Bryce Harper just stepped out of central casting and has been everything he was purported to be—brash, talented and energetic. This guy is the real deal and, even with that, LA Angels outfielder Mike Trout is distancing himself more and more every day. The AL Rookie of The Month winner for both May and June, his numbers (10 homers, 36 RBI, 23 Steals and batting .343) and stellar defense are truly a sight to behold. Nobody is saying he’s Willie Mays and, yes, things can change quickly; but he looks like a generational talent. He’s been that good.
Best Player in the Game
There’s not a single guy playing better than Hamilton, this year. He’s on a three-year run of being the best position player in the game (Tigers ace Justin Verlander was off the charts last season, but he’s not an everyday player). It’s hard to ignore, however, that part of his greatness is the textbook American Dream stuff. High school prodigy, can’t miss prospect, substance addiction (hardbody stuff like cocaine and crack), spiritual rededication, career re-establishment and, now, an All-Star, who’s arguably the face of the league. There are talks of making a movie about his life. And you know what? I’d see it opening weekend.
The “We Don’t Usually Gamble But on the World Series But If We Did” Award
Look, the Yanks are the Yanks. They are going to reload with new players whenever they need to and they are going to stay in the race no matter what. They are top of the tough as nails AL East (no team in the division has a sub .500 record). Right now they are being carried by Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano. How good have those three been? So good that Alex Rodriquez’ decline isn’t a talking point in the tabloids and it barely registers that Mark Teixeira is struggling at the plate quite masterfully. Pitching wise they are still led by CC Sabathia big-game performances (though currently on the DL he’ll be back on the mound shortly after the All-Star Break) and getting solid outings by Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes. The team’s combined veteran savvy makes it highly likely that to get to the World Series you are going to have to go through the Bronx. But, I’m still going with Texas.
The Rangers, owners of the best record in the league, have been out here thumping on teams, led by Hamilton. The Rangers lineup is as imposing as it’s ever been and you can make the case that this is the best team ever in Arlington. Leading the majors, hitting .284, they’re also tops in OBP (.345) and Runs Scored (427). They are getting great production from guys like Adrian Beltre, David Murphy and Nelson Cruz. On the mound they’re fortified by Matt Harrison (11-3, 3.16 ERA) and newly signed Yu Darvish (10-5, 3.59 ERA, 117 strikeouts). Most notably they are getting impact numbers from former Twins closer Joe Nathan, who has saved 18 games, sporting an ERA of 1.87. Ron Washington’s group is primed and ready. Unless derailed by major injuries, they can start getting the confetti ready now.
Most Intriguing Development Going Forward
Stephen Strasburg’s innings pitched limit. The Nationals haven’t spoken about a specific number, but they’ve stressed all year that they will adhere to this rule regardless of what else is on the table. This is Strasburg’s first full year back after Tommy John Surgery and they smartly aren’t taking any chances. Right now he’s at 93 and has pitched in 16 games with a record of 9-3, 122 strikeouts and 27 walks. His era is a lean 2.81 and the Nats are up by 3 games at the break. There’s no way they let him pitch another 93 innings, so what happens in September when they are up by two games with the Mets or Phillies hard-charging? Would Manager Davey Johnson actually sit him knowing that a postseason berth lies in the balance?
Not a single Manager has been fired. Not one. I can’t decide if I’m impressed or depressed about this.
Free Agency Update
When Albert Pujols decided to leave via free agency and sign with the LA Angels, the move looked to take an already good team and make it grand. But the script has already had several re-writes – they’re now interviewing a new director.
For starters, Pujols started the season in a massive slump, hitting .217 in the month of April and actually went under .200 in the first couple of weeks of May. He didn’t hit his first homer until May 6. When players change leagues there is an adjustment period and for whatever reason Pujols took longer than anyone expected. Right now his numbers are respectable with 13 homers and 49 RBI’s but he’s still hitting at the lowest rate of his career. Right now he’s at .273, the lowest number he’s ever posted was last year’s .299. Thankfully the national media didn’t demand an inquiry but there’s no way Angels brass didn’t quietly panic in a couple of inner-office meetings.
There’s Always Next Year
The Chicago Cubs are having a very bad season – even by Cub standards – earning their mark as the worst team in the majors. And then we learn that Cubs ownership is beefing with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and President Obama. Geez Louise.
Don’t Sleep on Them in the 2nd Half
There are a lot of good teams who can be accused of underachieving, this season. A lot of it can be attributed to injuries and some of it is just bad line-ups. Teams like Boston and Detroit are primed for second-half surges, but I’d keep my eye on the Los Angeles Dodgers. Right now they are up on the Giants by a half-game, which is great considering all the injuries they accumulated this year. They started off April like they were on a mission, going 16-7 and at the end of May were 32-19 with the look of a team destined for big things. They were the trendy team of the early season, with splashy stories about realized potential and their new ownership group led by Lakers great Magic Johnson. Both Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw picked up right where they left off from their impressive 2011 campaigns and the sky was seemingly the limit. But, injuries have quieted the buzz and they’ve regressed since that hot start. They are still in a great position, however, and Kemp is supposed to make it back soon after the All-Star Game. His return should begin to solve the offensive problems they’ve had over the last few weeks and position them for a pennant run.