Baseball at the halfway point: Lots to talk about

Tradition, a rather precious thing in this space, obliges a close look at the baseball season as the first checkpoint – the Memorial Day weekend heralding the nearness  of summer – comes and goes. And, with roughly 30 percent of the regular season having been devoured, it’s a nicely checkered and potentially convoluted scene that we have in 2017.

There have been especially interesting surprises. Houston in the AL and Washington in the NL have been far and away the class of their respective leagues, and it hasn’t been close. Further, who picked the Twins and Yankees to be leading their AL divisions this deep in the season, or the Brewers, Rockies, and Diamondbacks (managed by your old friend Torey Lovullo) to be doing roughly the same in the NL?

It has been rough sledding for the favorites so far. You have the Red Sox and Cubs – pre-season runaway choices of all the savants to dominate their entire leagues wire to wire – sputtering through the first quarter and still not free of “issues.” They probably have little to fear long-term from the Twins, but it’s noteworthy that the highly regarded Indians haven’t dazzled either.

Two other presumed contenders, the Giants and Mets, are 10 games under .500 and 10 games out of first-place, respectively, while  the ever under-achieving Tigers – Dave Dombrowski’s last great creation – are quickening their slide into mediocrity, while the Royals, world-champs just a couple of years ago, are back in their familiar role, festering in the cellar. Baseball remains the least predictable of the games.

It’s only June, you say, and it’s just begun to bust out all over. True!  But it should not surprise you when all’s said and done five months hence to find the Astros and Nationals the last two standing, slugging it out in a World Series that would be as much a triumph of the historically woebegone as last year’s loudly acclaimed epic proved. After all, it has been 93 years since Washington  boasted of a baseball champ, while Houston’s Astros, in their flat and boring portrayal of the consummate loser, hasn’t come close in their more than half-century’s existence.

If what you like about baseball is the fact that sooner or later every dog has  his day, Nats versus Stros should delight you. There’s no better lineup in baseball than Washington’s: Three of their batsmen (Brothers Harper, Zimmerman, and Murphy) are NL top-ten hitters, and a couple of ace pitchers (Strasburg and Scherzer) on track to win 20. As for the Astros, no AL team plays a more complete and  balanced game than Houston, although the recent visit of lefty-stopper Dallas Keuchel to the dreaded Disabled List somewhat curbs the euphoria that had rightly engulfed their cause. In the end, injuries will have much – too much – to say in the matter.

Also in the end, the Dodgers and Cubs will have the most to say about the Nationals’ lofty hopes, with the severest challenge to the Astros obviously coming from the Red Sox and Indians, with the Yankees having a faint chance of joining the party, and wouldn’t that be swell.  

If Boston gets its pitching straightened out the team will be hard to deny.  They also have to stabilize the infield and get more consistent offense, but the pitching, as ever, is the key with David Price the critical factor. It will take up to a dozen starts to determine if he’s remotely what they are paying for, let alone capable of staying healthy. Red Sox Nation will be on pins and needles until that hour arrives, if it arrives.

Also an issue, albeit one they loathe to acknowledge let alone grapple publically, is the manager. Upper-management can deny it until the cows come home. But if Torey Lovullo, lately re-affirming in Arizona what a fine manager he might have been in Boston, hadn’t been politely allowed to defect last winter, the Red Sox would be a very different team. Even without Lovullo as an alternative, John Farrell better have this $197 million (and counting) production in firm command of the pennant race by about the trade deadline. Or else!

If the Indians can find a way to arouse their $20 million a year investment in Edwin Encarnacion, currently hitting .217, while keeping ace Corey Kluber, just off the DL, healthy, Terry Francona’s team can again prove a genuine Boston nemesis. But an even more agreeable prospect rises again out of the Bronx. Are the Yankees, led by the improbable Aaron Judge, back? It has begun to look so, and well ahead of schedule at that.     

No scenario is juicier than a torrid Sox-Yank squabble raging bitterly into September. If the odds on that seemingly soar with first-place New York and second-place Boston dueling hot and heavy at the Memorial Day marker, that doesn’t mean it’s likely leading to another of those epic October showdowns that so mesmerized us earlier in this millennium. Not at least this season.

The Yankees have had a terrific two months. But sustaining such a wild and crazy magic-carpet ride another four months with their ragged pitching staff is asking too much. This ain’t Hollywood, old Sport.

If David Price rebounds and Aroldis Chapman does not, that will settle that issue. Period! Taking it a step further, just how the health issues of Kluber and Keuchel, Price, and Chapman, play out will determine the entire AL race, all other factors being roughly equal. It’s all about the pitching. What else is new?