Atlanta catcher Brian McCann (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
With the second half of the 2011 season underway yesterday, division races, Wild Card races and the push for the best record in baseball begin to heat up. With just under 100 games out of the way, five teams jump out as the favorites to make the playoffs and do some serious damage in their respective leagues.
There really are no new teams in this year’s hunt. The Reds have stumbled in the first half of the season but are still four games out of first place in the NL Central. The Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants are riding their pitching to the best two records in the league.
In the American League, the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays are back at their three-way fight for the division and Wild Card while the Central and West are up in the air for two teams each: Cleveland/Detroit and Texas/Los Angeles.
The Wild Cards for each league will also present some interesting match-ups. Atlanta will have to battle with the NL Central if they can’t overcome Philadelphia and the Yanks/Sox/Rays may have some competition.
So with that, here are five teams to watch. This is not a Top 5 post but five teams who could make some serious noise in the second half of the regular season.
Atlanta Braves (54-38, 2nd in NL East) – This is the team I’m forced to watch the most because, well frankly, they’re in the same division as the Phillies.
Currently 3.5 games out of first, the Braves and Phils have battled back and forth through the first half of the season to a 6-6 series tie. The two teams don’t play their remaining six games until September, including the season ending three-game series in Atlanta.
With one of the best rotations in baseball, Atlanta is one of the very few teams that can go toe-to-toe with their division rival in the arms race. Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson are the two wily veterans on the staff and Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson are the future of this team. And don’t discount Brandon Beachy for he’s enjoying a strong season as well.
But the man to look at on this Braves team is Jurrjens. With a league-high 12 wins and 1.87 ERA – over half a run better than anyone else – Jurrjens is the main arm for the Braves and has launched himself into the Cy Young discussion (that post will come next month).
But the problem for Atlanta is the offense. Second-year future star Jason Heyward and top off season acquisition Dan Uggla have been struggling tremendously, with the latter hitting below .2oo. Brian McCann has been the lone offensive stud for the Braves, hitting .310 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs. Rookie Freddie Freeman is starting to pick up the production with 13 homers and 43 RBIs.
If the Braves can hit to go along with the pitching, they could be more than a Wild Card team. But for now, they are still playing in Philadelphia’s shadow.
Cleveland Indians (48-42; t1st in AL Central) – They proved through the first half of baseball that the incredible hot start was no fluke.
Cleveland is relishing in the fact they have some incredible young arms to rely on in the future. With how the game is changing, pitching is everything, and that is exactly how Cleveland should build their team if they want to be a World Series contender in the future.
Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
That doesn’t mean the Tribe won’t get it done this season. Josh Tomlin (10-4, 3.81) and Justin Masterson (8-6, 2.80) have been great for the Indians this season. Fausto Carmona has been struggling with a 4-10 record and 5.78 record but the second half presents to him a new beginning.
But despite the young pitchers, the team is lacking tremendously at the plate. In the bottom half of the league offensively, Cleveland still get some production out of DH Travis Haffner and SS Asdrubal Cabrera.
The Indians just have to worry about fighting off Detroit, who has played two more games than the Indians and are tied for the division lead.
Los Angeles Angels (50-42; 2nd in AL West) – The Angels have been on the heels of the Texas Rangers for the first half of the season and expect them to continue to try and win back the AL West.
With ace Jered Weaver leading the pitching front, LA has made things interesting in a division many thought was a lock at the beginning of the season. With an 11-record and 1.86 ERA, Weaver has been lights out for the Angels and most dominant pitcher in the AL.
Close behind Weaver is fellow staff ace Dan Haren. Haren is 10-5 with a 2.61 ERA. The Angels are hoping Ervin Santana can improve on his 4-8, 3.89 ERA start.
Howie Kendrick is the only Angel hitting above .300 and Mark Trumbo and Torii Hunter are the top run producers. But those guys aren’t producing enough and it won’t be long before Weaver and Haren can’t support all the weight.
With that said the only problem for LA is going to be when Texas turns on the burners and pulls away with the division.
Milwaukee Brewers (49-44; 2nd in NL Central) – The Brewers are too talented of a team, including boasting one of baseball’s best hitters and pitchers, to not be running away with the NL Central.
Prince Fielder is one of the most exciting players in baseball. In the top three with 73 RBIs, Fielder also has 22 homers and a .298 average to go along with the power numbers.
Ryan Braun (.323/16/62) is having another typical monster season for the perennial All-Star and Rickie Weeks is carrying his weight, hitting with 17 homers and 37 RBIs.
Milwaukee bolstered the bull pen when they acquired troubled reliever Francisco Rodriguez from the Mets on Tuesday. They hope he can shake the off-field problems and contribute in a positive way, unlike his stay in New York.
Zach Grienke has been less than spectacular for Milwaukee, who traded for the pitcher in the off season. Missing April with an injury, Grienke came back to go 7-3 with a 5.45 ERA. Yovani Gallardo (10-6, 4.08) and Shaun Marcum (7-3, 3.39) have been solid as well.
They are only a half game behind St. Louis in the division to start the second half. It will be an interesting race between the two teams as the final two and a half months wind down.
Tampa Bay Rays (49-41; 3rd in AL East) – Though six games back in the East and 4.5 behind the Yanks in the Wild Card, the Rays are too talented of a team to be forgotten about, especially in that division.
With the Red Sox and Yankees beating up on each other, it allows the Rays to remain close. But Tampa has to worry about those two teams beating up on them in return. In a triple-threat match each season, it’s a toss-up on which team or teams come out of that division as playoff teams.
Tampa Bay starter James Shields (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
After an incredible slow start, the Rays found themselves in first place in the division at one point this season before their recent struggles into the break put them a bit behind Boston and New York. But with 70 games to play, Tampa has plenty of time to make up the ground and possibly bounce one of baseball’s top two franchises from October play.
Matt Joyce has been the best hitter for Tampa this season. With a .290 average, 12 homers and 40 RBIs, he’s been their most consistent and balanced weapon. BJ Upton’s 15 homers and 50 RBIs lead the team and Ben Zobrist’s 10 homers and 43 RBIs have helped contribute as well.
The story once again is Tampa’s young pitching. James Shields (8-7, 2.33) and David Price (8-7, 3.30) have been holding down the fort for Tampa. They have gotten some tremendous support from rookie Jeremy Hellickson (8-7, 3.21) and Wade Davis (7-6, 4.25).
But Tampa is going to have to stay in the mix and hope that New York or Boston trips up. The AL is not an easy League to win in, especially when playing in the League’s toughest division.