What we've learned halfway through 2013
AL East is deep and unpredictable; Miggy got better; Machado is a superstar
The All-Star Game, still two and a half weeks away, is but a ceremonial acknowledgment of the season reaching the halfway mark. If we want to get truly technical, the actual midpoint comes Monday, and so this seems as good a time as any to take stock of what we've learned thus far in 2013.
And because this is the Internet, we'll take stock in list form:
1. The American League East is as deep and unpredictable as advertised.
It took some time to get to this point, as the Blue Jays were certainly slow to materialize. But here we are entering July, and none of the East's five teams is saddled with a losing record or even the most remote thought of conceding the division race. That's pretty remarkable given the utter lack of economic parity within that division, but the O's have proven that 2012 was not the fluke so many deemed it to be, the Rays have survived the loss of David Price (something I'll admit I didn't think they could) and a Blue Jays team that looked dead in the water rattled off 11 straight wins to sneak back into the thick of things. The Yankees not only survived, but thrived, on spare parts in the season's first month, but their injuries have certainly taken a toll. The Red Sox have rebounded in a big way from the disaster that was '12. If you know how this all shakes out, you know more than me.
2. The National League West is a different kind of deep.
Only one team over .500 (D-backs) and nobody -- not even the disappointing Dodgers -- out of the race. In fact, the Padres, Rockies, Giants and Dodgers are all further out of the Wild Card mix than the division title mix.
The Dodgers had enough question marks and the Giants had enough possibility for the "hangover" effect that you might have figured nobody would run away with this division. But the fact that the Padres and Rockies are hanging tough qualifies as surprising in some corners. The reason the D-backs currently control this division is that they are the only club in the West that has at least a remotely respectable road record.
3. Miguel Cabrera got better.
If you were expecting a downturn in performance after the first Triple Crown season in 45 years, you had at least some historical backing. None of the previous Triple Crown winners led their league in even two of the Triple Crown categories the following season, let alone three. Chris Davis -- and more on him in a second -- is doing everything in his power to assure Cabrera won't repeat, either, but you can make a strong statistical argument that Miggy's 2013 is even better than his '12.
According to FanGraphs.com, Cabrera's weighted runs created mark was 202. Maybe that sounds like gibberish (the stat seeks to assign a runs value to a player's total offensive contribution), but, for the sake of context, consider that only two other players since 2002 had sustained a weighted runs created mark of 200 or better in the first three months of a season -- Barry Bonds (in '02 and '04) and Jose Bautista ('11).
4. There's nothing wrong with a late bloomer.
Davis is proof. For whatever reason, it simply never worked out for Davis with the Rangers, a team with a history of churning out power-hitting first basemen. Though he had a ton of Minor League success, Davis whiffed on multiple opportunities to seize an everyday job in Arlington, and the Orioles bought low on him in the summer 2011 swap that also sent Koji Uehara to Texas and Tommy Hunter to Baltimore.
What a deal that's turned out to be for the O's, who have watched Davis blossom into one of the most productive players in the AL this season (only Cabrera can give him a run for his money right now). The man they call "Crush" has a Major League-best 28 homers and .712 slugging percentage. The Rangers can take solace in the fact that they gave Davis a viable shot and it simply didn't work out, but those numbers must be difficult for them to swallow nonetheless.
5. Baseball's best race is in the NL Central.
The Pirates and Cardinals have the best record in baseball, and so a Reds team that was a popular pick to win the NL Central sits in third with a .570 winning percentage that would put them at the top of either of the other NL divisions.
Beyond the records themselves, what makes this such a particularly provocative race is the depth of the rotations involved. The Cardinals (3.06), Pirates (3.32) and Reds (3.36) rank Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the Majors in starters' ERA. That's pretty incredible when you consider that the Cards lost Chris Carpenter before the season and Jaime Garcia in May, the Pirates have lost, well, pretty much everybody at one point or another, and the Reds have lost staff ace Johnny Cueto to the disabled list twice.
And here we thought the Astros' exit from the NL Central would hurt the records of the division's top dogs.
6. The rookie class of 2012 had (at least) one more superstar.
Not that we ignored Manny Machado's rookie contribution to a playoff-bound Orioles team last season (the O's were a completely different defensive club once Machado took over at third), but we certainly didn't give him nearly as much love as we did Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.
A correction is in order, as Machado's first half this season demonstrates. At 20 years old, he's had an AL MVP Award-type impact on an Orioles club that is once again a true contender. He's up there with Evan Longoria as one of the best all-around third basemen in the game. Not only did Machado enter Thursday with a double-digit lead on his next-closest competitor on the doubles leaderboard (Machado had 36 and Yadier Molina was second with 26), but he's put himself on pace to break the all-time record of 67 (set by Earl Webb 82 years ago).
7. Nothing is being handed to the Tigers.
Last year, a Tigers team widely expected to cruise to an AL Central title didn't take over for good until Sept. 26.
This year, the Tigers held a 5 1/2-game lead on the second-place Indians as recently as June 11, but a recent run of rotation woes (Justin Verlander has looked strangely mortal and Anibal Sanchez is hurt) and their continuing bullpen issues have helped whittle that down to 2 1/2.
The Tribe and Royals have been erratic enough that their paths are impossible to predict, but they are both certainly capable of pushing the Tigers the way the White Sox did a year ago. Odds are still strongly in favor of Detroit pulling away, but probably not without a significant relief upgrade at the Trade Deadline.
8. The state of the Cuban pipeline is strong.
We can quibble with the fact that Aroldis Chapman is not the overpowering force he was a year ago (though he is still striking out 15 batters per nine innings) and that Yoenis Cespedes has certainly endured some second-year adjustments in Oakland. But they both remain focal-point players, and now Yasiel Puig is the latest Cuban defector to dominate, proving the value of the enormous investments being made in talent from the island.
Little wonder that the bidding for 26-year-old right-hander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez's services, once he's cleared by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, is expected to be exorbitant. Beyond anything that happens at the Trade Deadline, Gonzalez is viewed as one of the summer's top prizes.
If only Cuban Cubs prospect Jorge Soler hadn't fractured his shin, costing him a Sirius XM All-Star Futures Game appearance and putting his season in jeopardy.
9. The pitchers are still ahead of the hitters.
Runs and hits are down. Again. The league-wide strikeout rate is up. Again.
We might as well get used to this ongoing era of offensive futility and just enjoy the fact that guys like Matt Harvey, Shelby Miller, Patrick Corbin and Gerrit Cole have entered an environment in which they are primed to shine at absurdly young ages.
10. Disappointment is not necessarily a death knell.
Not with two Wild Cards on the line, and certainly not on June 28. While it's easy to get wrapped up in the storyline of clubs that "won the winter" or were popular preseason picks but struggled out of the gate, the truth is that the Nationals, Blue Jays, Dodgers and Angels all have at least some semblance of a pulse.
As mentioned, the Dodgers are alive, if only by the graces of their not-too-daunting division. They might need rotation help (something that seemed inconceivable at the start of the season) and they definitely need more help in the health department, but they are far from out of it.
The Nats know too well how hard the injury bug can bite, and Harper's absence has loomed large over their sagging lineup. But the Braves are not exactly running away with the NL East (not with an offense that essentially went AWOL after an outstanding April), so the Nats still have plenty of time to assert themselves in the race if they can get back to full strength.
For the Angels, the hurdle is larger, saddled as they are with the dizzying downward spiral of Josh Hamilton, a rotation that takes (and gives up) one hit after another, and the simple fact that the Rangers remain elite and the A's are absolutely legit.
But as the Blue Jays proved with a two-week blast of brilliance, all it takes is one strong stretch to revive a wayward season.