by Rob Joyce
The All-Star break is now in the rearview mirror, and the baseball regular season is starting to hit the home stretch. By next week teams will be hitting the 100-game mark, and the non-waiver trade deadline comes at the end of the month.
By now, teams and players performing above or below preseason expectations are no longer “flukes”. With about two-and-a-half months remaining, here are five burning questions that will go a long way towards determining what the October picture looks like:
1) Can the Dodgers or Astros threaten 116 wins?
The 2001 Seattle Mariners tied a Major League record with 116 regular season wins, tying the 1906 Cubs. In that time, only the 1998 Yankees and the ’54 Indians surpassed the 110-win mark. That select company could have at least one new member, potentially two, by the time the postseason rolls around.
The Astros, starting the week 62-30, have a 16.5-game lead in the AL West, with three of the top-10 players in the AL in OPS (Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa). They are in the mix for a starting pitcher at the deadline, but even if they stand pat their offense is far and away the best in the AL. Tying history, though, might be a little out of their reach, as they’d have to finish 54-16, a .771 win percentage.
Meanwhile over in the National League, the Dodgers have as much work to do. Winners of nine straight, Los Angeles heads into Monday at 64-29, meaning to tie the historic Mariners and Cubs they’d have to end the year 52-15, a .776 clip. That seems insurmountable, but consider that since April 27 the Dodgers are 54-17. Essentially, if they repeat the stretch they just had, they’d be on a legitimate chase. With the 1-2-3 combination of Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood and Rich Hill and a lineup with NL MVP candidate Justin Turner, rookie sensation Cody Bellinger and 23-year-old stud Corey Seager, it’s possible.
2) Is the National League wild-card game already set?
The Dodgers are running way with the NL West, but that doesn’t take away from the sterling seasons in Arizona and Colorado. The Diamondbacks (53-39) have a perennial All-Star in Paul Goldschmidt, and now has enough talent around him to make their first postseason since 2011. The D-Backs are fourth in the NL in runs scored. On the mound, the team is second in runs allowed, with a bonafide ace in Zack Greinke and a breakout talent in Robbie Ray.
They’ll likely face their division rival, Colorado, in the one-game playoff. A young pitching staff is starting to get worn down, leading to a limp into the All-Star break, but the offense could overcome their deficiencies on the mound. Third in the NL in runs scored, consider that they’re getting all this production despite Carlos Gonzalez hitting .214 with six homers, Trevor Story at .226 and Ian Desmond with 13 extra base-hits. With a 5.5-game lead for the second wildcard, the Rockies are in the driver’s seat for a postseason bid.
3) Can the Cubs catch the Brewers in the NL Central?
At this point it can’t be considered an accident that the Brewers hold a 4.5-game lead in the division, something no one saw coming in March and April. Alas, Milwaukee (52-42) is running and blasting their way towards October. They lead the NL in both home runs and stolen bases, and they are top-five in earned run average despite a fairly anonymous rotation (Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson would probably be the first two postseason starters).
That puts even more pressure on the defending champs, who are perhaps the biggest disappointment in baseball this year. Last year’s World Series was supposed to be the start of the Cubs’ dynasty, but they just haven’t clicked this season. They are league average in hitting and pitching and getting good-not-great seasons from Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Addison Russell. Kyle Schwarber was demoted at one point because of his hitting woes, and Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta both have ERAs over 4.10. A trade for Jose Quintana will help the rotation, but will that be enough to wake the North Side from their slumber?
4) Can Aaron Judge cap his historic season with AL MVP?
The Yankees’ budding superstar is already being talked about as “the face of baseball”. Despite a 1-for-18 series in Boston coming out of the break, the 25-year-old still leads the majors in home runs, slugging, and OPS, he’s tied with Jose Altuve for first in WAR, and he’s top-three in walks, total bases and on-base percentage. He’s got Rookie of the Year wrapped up. The only question now is whether he can join Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki as the only players to accompany their RoY award with an MVP honor. Jose Altuve is coming on strong in Houston, with fellow Astro George Springer maybe in the mix, too. But Judge right now is the frontrunner.
5) Who gets moved at the trade deadline?
Starter Jose Quintana already moved across Chicago, going from the White Sox to the Cubs. Consider that the first domino to fall over the next two weeks as teams go into full “buy” or “sell” mode. The best pitcher available is Oakland’s Sonny Gray, who is starting to revert back to his 2015 form. A team like the Astros or Brewers could use an added arm. JD Martinez is the only true middle-of-the-order guy rumored to be available as the Tigers start to sell, but someone like Yonder Alonso from Oakland could be a perfect fit in the Bronx, as the Yankees look for a first basemen.