Baseball at the break: American League
The MLB All-Star break, arguably the most uneventful week on the sports calendar, is upon us. I say uneventful because the Home Run Derby and All-Star game, while often entertaining, are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Especially since the game no longer decides home-field advantage for the World Series. So while fans will “ooohhh” and “aahhh” during the Derby, and, hopefully, be treated to more Johnson/Kruk-type encounters, we’ll get to work doing what good sports writers do this time of year. Predictions.
Since Andy won the coin toss and chose the National League, thus earning the right to predict an epic second half swoon for the Pittsburgh Pirates, I’ll take a look at the first half in the American League and how I see the remainder of the season shaking out. Award winners will leadoff, followed by my picks for division, wild card and league champion.
AL MVP: Aaron Judge, NY Yankees
Judge has gone from potentially starting the season in AAA to taking the league by storm. He is the only AL player to enter the break in the top five in average, homeruns and RBI. He’s already set the Yankees record for most HR (30) by a rookie in the first half (surpassing Joe DiMaggio’s 29, set in 1936), won the 2017 Home Run Derby and has a realistic chance of reaching 60 by season’s end. He’s currently slashing .329/.448/.691, a far cry from the .179/.263/.345 he finished with after 27 games in 2016.
There are others having great seasons. Houston’s Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer all immediately come to mind, but the Astros would likely still be leading the AL West if one of them wasn’t in the lineup. I’m not sure the same can be said for the Yankees. With Gary Sanchez missing significant time already and Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda sporting inflated ERAs, the Yankees likely aren’t in contention without Judge.
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Boston
This could become a close race by season’s end. Jason Vargas has been a great first half story, but I don’t expect his numbers to look as good come October, especially if Kansas City decides to part ways with many of its potential free agents at the trade deadline. Corey Kluber is running a close second right now, and might be even closer if not for the slow start and time spent on the disabled list. But Sale has just been dominant all season. He’s started 18 games so far, 15 have been quality starts. He’s struck out 10 or more in 12 (and nine in three more). Sale pitched at least seven innings in nine of his first 10 starts. He has a 2.75 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and .200 BAA. Oh, and he’s on pace to reach 300 strikeouts on the season, currently at 178 to just 22 walks. Kluber has great numbers (2.80 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, .202 BAA with 123 strikeouts and 24 walks), but Sale has just been otherworldly to this point.
AL Rookie of the Year: Judge
Quick, name another rookie under consideration for this award right now. Andrew Benintendi, Trey Mancini and Matt Davidson have all put together solid first halves, but none are remotely close to Judge right now. Even a second half slump probably wouldn’t be enough to wrest this award from Judge.
AL Manager of the Year: Joe Girardi, NY Yankees
Minnesota’s Paul Molitor probably wins if the awards were handed out today. He might win anyway, but I don’t see the Twins keeping pace for the rest of the season. The Indians have already taken back first place in the division, and all the numbers point to a regression in Minneapolis. Finishing above .500 a year after losing 103 games is impressive and Molitor will certainly earn plenty of votes if that happens. But what Girardi has done in New York, with the struggles the Yankees have had in the rotation might be a bigger feat. Many prognosticators thought this would be a rebuilding year for the Yankees. Instead, Girardi has this team just 3.5 games behind Boston for the division lead and currently holding the first wild card spot. If the Yankees find themselves playing in October, Girardi will have earned this distinction.
AL East winners: Boston Red Sox
Boston seems to be putting things together following some early season struggles. If David Price can get back to form, the Red Sox should be able to hold off the surprising Yankees.
AL Central winners: Cleveland Indians
I’m not sure any other Central team has a shot at unseating the reigning AL champs. The White Sox are in all-out rebuild mode, and will likely try to unload more players at the deadline. Detroit will also try to get younger by the end of the month. Minnesota looks like a team poised to falter down the stretch and Kansas City may handcuff itself by waiting too long to decide whether it wants to take another shot at the postseason or unload expiring contracts. Meanwhile, Cleveland is getting back to the team that was a win away from winning the World Series.
AL West: Houston Astros
The Angels have done an admirable job of staying close to .500 following Mike Trout’s injury. But while they’ve been hanging on, the Astros have been running away with the division. Even Trout’s impending return likely won’t be enough to get them back in the hunt.
AL Wild Card teams: NY Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays
The East is far and away the best division in the AL, and will fill both Wild Card spots this season. If Boston stumbles at all in the second half, either of these teams could be ready to ascend.
AL Champions: Boston Red Sox
My heart says somehow the Indians find a way to get back to the World Series, but my head says Boston is just too tough, especially if Price returns to form. I think it would go seven games, but ultimately, Sale is going to have Bumgarner-type postseason, pushing the Red Sox into the World Series.