Although it seems like just days ago the 2010 MLB season began, the mid-season All-Star break is now upon us. Looking back on the season’s first half, there have been both surprising stories and those that have disappointed. Certain players and teams have exceeded expectations over the first three months, while others haven’t lived up to their billing.
Each new season sees certain teams perform above expectations to capture division leads and cause problems for the annual contenders. These three teams have more than surprised everyone in the league with their unexpected first half performances.
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1. San Diego Padres
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Sitting at a 51-37 record (through July 11th), the Padres are tied for the 4th best record in baseball and hold a two-game lead over the Rockies for 1st place in the NL West. What was supposed to be a year mired by financial struggle sin the front office and mediocre play has turned into one of the most intriguing stories of the year. Breakout performances in the rotation by Mat Latos, Wade LeBlanc, and Clayton Richard have kept the Friars in the running for their first playoff berth since 2006. With Adrian Gonzalez producing as always and the new triple threat of arms, the Padres could be a bat away from posing a real threat in October.
2. Cincinnati Reds
As one of those teams that has been the dark horse pick for years now, it’s still surprising to see the Reds capture the NL Central lead, and stay there. With up and down performances over the last couple of years from the likes of Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto, Cincy has finally found some consistency, supporting their early season run. Cueto has found his form after injury, while young starter Mike Leake is making a strong case for Rookie of the Year. On the offensive side, the Reds are getting production from nearly every position: Brandon Phillips remains a threat, Scott Rolen is having a resurgent year, Johnny Gomes is providing unexpected power in the outfield, and Joey Votto continues to state his case as one of the best players in the game, merely at the age of 26. Look to Votto as a barometer for the rest of the Reds’ season, for if he can support the offense, Cincinnati could well hold off Albert and the Cards for the Central title.
3. Atlanta Braves
To make it a solid 3-3 of NL Division leaders, the Atlanta Braves have suddenly become one of the most intriguing teams in baseball. The Braves seem to be getting it done in a way completely unlike the projected NL East champion Phillies. While the Braves do have their stars, it is the role players’ contributions that are making Atlanta’s season. True, Brain McCann and Chipper Jones are playing decently, but greater help is coming from Martin Prado (.851 OPS) and the thought-to-be-dead Troy Glaus (14 HRs). Not to mention Tim Hudson looks as if he’s simply been on vacation and not recovering from major surgery, posting a 2.30 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. If the smaller names can continue playing this well head-to-head against Halladay and the Phillies, it’s easy to see the Braves making noise on their way to the playoffs.
As these National League leaders continue to surprise, there have been just as many teams that have disappointed both fan and pundit. With their share of stars, these three teams should be much closer to the top of their divisions, and will need a big second half push to get there.
1. Chicago Cubs
While the Cubs may have been expected to be near the top of the NL Central once again in 2010, some performances have left them well short in the first half. Players such as Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, and Ryan Theriot are hurting more than they’re helping, while the whole Carlos Zambrano ordeal put some unneeded stress on the team. Some uplifting production is coming from unexpected sources, though, like from starters Carlos Silva and Tom Gorzelanny, and catcher Geovany Soto, who has recovered well from a less-than-great sophomore campaign. If the Cubs’ stars can get back on track, the 2010 season might not be lost. But with Pujols and the Cardinals and the upstart Reds ahead of them, it might be another tough winter on the North Side.
2. Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies definitely have their share of good performances this year, as always, but there still seems to be some disappointment surrounding the team. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are still powering a great offense, and Roy Halladay is doing his best to destroy NL hitters, but they currently sit 4.5 games behind the Braves in the NL East. Not only that, the Mets also sit a half a game ahead of them. The season is long and the Phillies have the pieces to overcome their deficit, but after acquiring Halladay in the offseason, all expectations had them far ahead of every team in their division by the break.
3. Seattle Mariners
Even though the Angels have won the AL West in 5 of the last 6 years, the Mariners were supposed to make a jump this season to contend for the playoffs. They had won 85 games in 2009 under manager Don Wakamatsu, a 24-game improvement from 2008, and had just acquired ace lefty Cliff Lee from Philadelphia at a great price. With a phenomenal tandem of Lee and Felix Hernandez in the rotation, Safeco Field was supposed to contain opponents while lifting the Mariners. However, nothing has quite worked as it was supposed to. Seattle’s offense was never special, but it’s reaching historical lows in 2010; King Felix struggled out of the gate and is only just now putting it all back together; and while Cliff Lee picked up right where he left off in the 2009 playoffs, Seattle has already thrown in the towel, trading him to Texas for prospects. The rain’s not all that’s bleak in Seattle at this time of year.
Not only have some teams not performed as they hoped they would in the first half, but some key players have failed to meet expectations as well. Here are some that have disappointed so far in 2010:
Room for Improvement
1. Chone Figgins – 2B Seattle Mariners (.608 OPS)
Seattle’s biggest offensive acquisition of the offseason hasn’t performed as planned. Figgins was supposed to provide added speed to the top of Seattle’s order while getting on base at the near-.400 clip he did in 2010. Instead, he’s striking out more than he’s walking and is struggling to reach base 1 out of every 3 times.
2. Aramis Ramirez – 3B Chicago Cubs (.648 OPS)
For a guy who had been a near lock for 25 HRs and a .900+ OPS for the last 6 seasons, Ramirez has experienced an enormous falloff in 2010. Barely breaking the Mendoza Line, Ramirez is going through his worst season and is might be damaging the Cubs’ chances at October baseball.
3. Adam Lind – DH Toronto Blue Jays (.640 OPS)
After a breakout season in 2009 in which he seemed primed to take over the title as the game’s best DH, Lind has done nothing to improve on his status. Lind has struggled to get to 1st base, let alone past it, so far in 2010, and signs aren’t good. Even with the Major League leader in home runs, Jose Bautista, Toronto could clearly use Lind’s presence back in the middle of the order.
4. Pablo Sandoval – 3B San Francisco Giants (.704 OPS)
In the dog fight that has become the NL West, Sandoval’s lack of production has certainly hampered San Fran’s chances of coming out on top. For a team that already lacked punch, Sandoval’s abysmal .382 slugging% is holding the team back.
5. Joe Mauer – C Minnesota Twins (.792 OPS)
Yes, many Major Leaguers would love to be posting a .293 average over the first few months, but the fact is, it’s far out of character for Mauer. Mauer’s normal line usually includes a .330+ average and .400+ OBP, but he’s been struggling at the dish so far. The Twins need him to bounce back to his 2009 AL MVP form in the second half if they’re going to challenge the Tigers and White Sox in the AL Central.
While these big names need to rebound to benefit their teams in 2010, not all the headlines have been disparaging. Many breakout and surprise player performances have uplifted their teams into contention. These are the most notable:
1. Jose Bautista – RF Toronto Blue Jays (.903 OPS)
The career journeyman is currently having a breakout season, sitting atop the MLB leaderboard in home runs, with an OPS above .900. While he’s not hitting for a great average, he’s getting on base at a respectable clip and is helping Jays fans overlook Lind and Aaron Hill’s poor performances.
2. Scott Rolen – 3B Cincinnati Reds (.909 OPS)
Cast off from those same Blue Jays because of injuries and lack of production, Rolen has been hitting like he was back on the Second Coming of Murderer’s Row in St. Louis. The Reds are one of this year’s surprise teams, and probably wouldn’t hold the NL Central lead without Rolen’s resurgence.
3. Carlos Silva – SP Chicago Cubs (3.45 ERA)
No one would have thought the Cubs would be getting an ace in return for the dumping of Milton Bradley’s ego. A career disappointment, Silva came to Wrigley and immediately made an impact. Only time will tell if Silva can maintain his career-high numbers.
4. Adrian Beltre – 3B Boston Red Sox (.907 OPS)
Beltre was picked up by the Sox mainly as a defensive option, but more and more it seems as though Safeco Field in Seattle was just holding him back. Now, Beltre’s name should garner serious MVP consideration if he keeps raking in Fenway.
5. Vladimir Guerrero – DH Texas Rangers (.919 OPS)
Thought to be over the hill and done in Anaheim, Vlad was picked up at a bargain value by the Rangers. Coincidentally, Vlad’s resurrection has led to the largest division lead in baseball over, guess who? Vlad’s old LA Angels of Anaheim.
Looking Ahead to the Second Half
While these teams and players have certainly generated debate and discussion, there is still time for things to settle in Major League Baseball’s 2010 season. Some of this year’s breakout performers could fall back to the pack while we may see some of the game’s stars surge back to the front of leaderboards and standings. If there’s anything one should know, it’s that nothing is guaranteed at the midpoint of the season. Plenty of intrigue should follow in the coming months as teams set their eyes on October. Here are some of the stories that will draw my attention most:
- The Year of the Pitcher: Pitchers have been having success at an unprecedented rate so far, and it will be interesting to see if it continues. With four no-no’s already thrown (including two perfect games), one should probably start taking bets on who will be next. My money’s on St. Louis’s Adam Wainwright, who has quietly surpassed several pitchers in Cy candidacy.
- The AL East: Three of the best five teams in baseball reside in this division, with the Blue Jays certainly causing trouble for at least one down the stretch. The AL’s Wild Card team will most definitely come from the East, as per usual, so keep an eye on the trade deadline. Whichever of the three can improve the most may just have a breakthrough to Fall baseball.
- Rookies: 2009 didn’t have many rookies that were considered for the award, but 2010 is wealthy in that department. There are pitchers and positional players alike who will vie for the trophy, and don’t be surprised if some of the candidates play a vital role for some playoff teams as well.
- Padres and Rangers: For two teams that are reportedly in deep financial trouble, their players sure aren’t watching the news. The Rangers hold the most commanding lead in MLB and the Padres continue to win on young pitching. It’s very possible that both make the postseason, which may not bode well for other contenders. Young upstart Mat Latos in San Diego and newly acquired ace Cliff Lee in Texas both pose dangerous potential matchups.