The 2017 MLB season is half done, and what a first half it was. June yielded more home runs than any single month in MLB history. We’ve seen plenty of surprises, both positive and negative.
But now it’s time to look ahead to the second half.
What can we expect out of New York Yankees phenom Aaron Judge? What rare accomplishments should we expect out of MLB’s two western divisions? Which All-Star starter should be on the move? How many home runs will the Nationals hit? The Rangers and Cubs have been two of baseball’s most disappointing teams. Which one do we expect to turn it around? Which one do we think will stay out of the mix? What veteran team will blow the whole thing up? Which well known Minor Leaguer will get his call to the show?
We’ll answer all those questions as we make 10 bold predictions for the second half of the 2017 MLB season.
Aaron Judge wins the AL Triple Crown
When thinking of Judge, his power is the first thing that comes to mind. When he’s in the batter’s box, you have to pay attention, almost no matter where you are in the stadium.
Getting a snack on the concourse level?
— Cut4 (@Cut4) June 27, 2017
But the New York slugger has been far from this generation’s version of Dave Kingman or Adam Dunn. Granted, Judge does strike out a lot. But when he puts the ball in play, he hits it hard. He’s not up there just to swing for the fences and either strike out, homer, or pop the ball up to shortstop.
Per Fangraphs, Judge hits a line drive more than 24 percent of the time. Most of his swings go to left field, but he goes to center more than 32 percent of the time and to right more than 25 percent. That’s the sign of a good, well-rounded hitter.
The Triple Crown is rare in baseball. Miguel Cabrera’s 2012 Triple Crown was the only that either league has seen since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
While it’s close, Judge leads all three categories right now. When we consider how powerful he is, how balanced he is, the solid protection that his lineup offers him and his home park, it’s easy to see him sustaining all three leads and putting his stamp on MLB history.
Dodgers and Diamondbacks each win 100 games
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks have dominated the National League in 2017.
The Dodgers have baseball’s second-best record and are on pace to win 106 games. Still, they’ve gained only 2.5 games of separation from the Diamondbacks, who are on pace to win 102 games.
Now, crazy paces are not uncommon during the early season. We’ve played a lot of baseball, but there’s still a lot left to play. So, why aren’t we expecting a drop from either team?
One reason is that they’re both good, complete teams. They have deep rotations anchored by legitimate aces (Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke). Both teams have good offenses headlines by MVP candidates (Cody Bellinger, Paul Goldschmidt). More than pointing out their strengths, when looking over the rosters, it’s hard to find a glaring weakness.
The other reason that we’re not expecting a drop off is that these teams have each other to push them. If one team was running away with the division, it may look to rest starters down the stretch and settle for 96 wins. But that’s not really an option this year. Winning the division and avoiding the one-game wild card playoff is too big of a deal. Only one team will do it, but both will push.
Now, how rare would both teams winning 100 or more games be?
Since 2010, any team winning 100 games is noteworthy. It’s happened only three times. By comparison, it happened 11 times from 2000-2006. The last time two teams won 100 games was 2004. Since MLB went to division play in 1969, one division has yielded two 100-win teams only three times (1980, 1993, 2001). Throw in the Colorado Rockies (who are sliding but still on a 93-win pace) and the NL West has the potential to be one of the best divisions in MLB history.
Houston Astros win 110 games
We haven’t forgotten about Houston. As good as the Dodgers and Diamondbacks have been, the Astros have been a shade better. Houston has baseball’s best record, and with five All-Stars it’s not hard to see why.
You want to try to beat them in a slugfest? Good luck with that.
— MLB (@MLB) June 29, 2017
Maybe a hot pitcher can thwart them, but don’t expect that to happen often. No team has struck out fewer times than the Astros. Even if that strategy works, the Astros have MLB’s fifth-best team ERA. They’re well equipped for pitcher’s duels.
We’re not expecting any kind of drop from this team. Houston is on pace to win 109 games and if anything, look for that pace to get even hotter.
Now, we know that the Astros are good. But they’re also not being pushed. They’re 14.5 games clear of the second-place team in the AL West (the Los Angeles Angels) and are 8.5 ahead of the Boston Red Sox for the AL’s best record. If they’re not being pushed, why can’t we expect just a tiny drop?
First of all, Houston is so much better than most of its opponents that a drop just may not matter. Secondly, for the first time in MLB history, a team’s record will matter all the way through the postseason. Records have mattered when determining home field advantage in the league playoffs for a long time. But in terms of the World Series, home field advantage has always been predetermined by either the alternate year system, or the All-Star Game. That’s not the case any more. Home field will go to the league champion with the best record.
Do the Astros really want a Game 7 of the World Series where they’d have to bench two of Brian McCann, Evan Gattis and Carlos Beltran? With no DH, that’s a realistic scenario. Look for Houston to push hard through the second half to become only the seventh team in MLB history to win 110 or more games.
Reds trade Zack Cozart
It’s been a stellar season for Cozart. The Cincinnati Reds shortstop entered Monday’s action with 9 home runs, 33 RBI and a .322/.403/.555 slash line. He’ll start the All-Star Game for the senior circuit — something no Cincinnati shortstop has done since a Hall of Famer did it a long time ago.
Zack Cozart: can be 1st Reds player to start at SS in All-Star Game since Hall of Famer Barry Larkin in 2000 pic.twitter.com/8RvxUxGjOk
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 2, 2017
And unless Joey Votto wants to be exposed as a liar, Cozart will get a donkey for reaching the Midsummer Classic.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that despite playing in a mediocre division, the Reds are well out of postseason contention. Still, we expect Cozart to be in the playoffs in 2017 — just not with his Cincinnati teammates.
Contenders like the Diamondbacks and Minnesota Twins could use an upgrade at the shortstop position. Others may be set at shortstop but could use help elsewhere in the infield. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for a team to turn a good fielding shortstop into a second or third baseman.
Now, this idea seems to be somewhat negated by the fact that the Reds want to sign Cozart to an extension. According to President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams (per Zach Buchanan, the Cincinnati Enquirer), the interest is “mutual.”
But the better play for the Reds — who are still very much rebuilding — would be to trade Cozart and load up on young talent. If there’s truly mutual interest then Cincinnati would have an above average chance of bringing Cozart back in 2018 as as a free agent. That’s precisely what the Yankees did with Aroldis Chapman in 2017 and it’s worked like a charm.
So, we’re not going to predict that Cozart’s last game with the Reds will be in 2017. But we do think he’ll finish the year with another team.
Chicago Cubs will miss the playoffs
It seems so hard to fathom. The Cubs have a loaded roster and play in a division led by the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers at 45-40. How can Chicago possibly not fight through this rough patch to at least make the playoffs?
Quite simply, the Cubs have played 82 games and done nothing to indicate that they’re going to turn this thing around. Offensively, Chicago’s mighty bats have been stagnant. The Cubs rank 12th in home runs and 16th in runs scored.
Chicago is seventh in team ERA, which is good. But even that comes with an asterisk. While the ERA is fine, the Cubs rank tied for 21st in quality starts. This is the same rotation that was tied for the most quality starts in baseball a season ago and had three starters finish in the top-10 in NL Cy Young voting.
Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have both hit for power but haven’t hit for much average. Addison Russell has struggled at the plate, while Kyle Schwarber has been demoted. Jon Lester has been okay, but his ERA is more than a full point higher than it was a season ago. Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks have struggled. John Lackey has been awful.
The Cubs are only 2.5 out of the NL Central lead, but they are also closer to the third place St. Louis Cardinals.
That’s been the theme of Chicago’s 2017 season. Most positives have been accompanied by a negative. It’s just been a lackluster season, and it’s hard to imagine that turning around.
Now, if you’re a Cubs fan, buck up. The Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and got swept in the ALDS in 2005. The Giants won the World Series in 2010 and missed the playoffs in 2011. Yet Boston won the World Series again in 2007 and 2013, while the Giants won in 2012 and 2014. Both teams overcame that disappointment. So, an October without Chicago doesn’t spell long-term doom for the Cubs. But in 2017, it’s getting harder and harder to see them in the playoffs.
Washington Nationals set the NL home run record
The Nationals are team that features phenomenal power up and down the lineup. The headline grabber, of course, is Bryce Harper, who’s having a sterling season.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the Busch. pic.twitter.com/JKpmPLogFs
— #VoteRendon (@Nationals) July 3, 2017
Harper’s 20 home runs lead a team that’s hit 123 homers in 82 games. That’s just off the pace of the 2000 Astros, who hold the National League record with 249.
So, why are we so confident? As good as Harper is, he’s only one man. Besides, teams can just pitch around him, right? Well, they can, but would be doing so at their own risk.
Harper is one of only five Washington players with 10 or more home runs. Ryan Zimmerman has 19 home runs in what’s been a dream revival season. Anthony Rendon has 16 bombs, while Daniel Murphy and Michael Taylor have 14 and 11, respectively.
It’s just not a lineup that offers many breaks. These are not guys that pitchers want to face with men on base, so pitchers really have no option but to challenge.
The Nats may not be terribly well equipped to go on a long playoff run. Their bullpen is shaky, and as we’ve detailed, the National League is strong. But look for Washington to make its own place in MLB history by becoming the first NL team to hit 250 or more home runs.
San Diego Padres will post winning second half
It’s hard to call a season “disappointing” for a team that nobody was expecting much out of to begin with. But the 2017 season has been a letdown for the Padres.
Wil Myers is on a similar pace to what he did in 2016. He has good power but hasn’t developed into a better on-base guy. Star prospect Hunter Renfroe has 16 home runs but has struggled to a .236 average and .293 OBP. Fellow star prospect Manuel Margot doesn’t have Renfroe’s power and has only worked his way to a .279 average and .327 OBP. It’s not terrible, but you want more out of a guy who’ll do well to hit 10 home runs on the season.
Still, we have to remember that Myers is only 26. Aside from a brief run in September of 2016, Renfroe and Margot are in their first go-arounds as MLB players. Don’t let what guys like Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger are doing fool you. Rookies tend to struggle.
But Margot has improved as the season as gone on. Renfroe has been a little more erratic, but his power isn’t going anywhere. In fact, San Diego’s power has been decent. The Padres have as many guys with double-digit home run totals as the Nationals.
Look for these guys to put something together to spark this team in the second half. That doesn’t mean that the Padres will be playoff contenders. That’s well out of the realm of possibility. But look for them to put a good second half together and give the fan base genuine hope for 2018.
Texas Rangers will make the playoffs
It’s been a rough season for the Rangers. Texas was 13-20 at one point and has hovered a few games below the .500 mark for most of the season.
Despite that, the Rangers have the fifth-best run differential in the American League. Five teams sit between Texas and the Tampa Bay Rays, who currently occupy the American League’s second Wild Card spot. But the Seattle Mariners are the only one of those teams who does not have a negative run differential, and they’re at exactly even.
Some luck (or bad luck) has contributed to the current standings. Case in point, the Rangers have a 6-14 record in one-run games. Those five other teams, meanwhile, are 55-37.
Even acknowledging the bad luck, making the playoffs seems tough. Texas would have to hold off every team behind them (which is most of the American League) jump all five of those teams ahead of them and, of course, catch the Rays.
But despite all of that, only two games separate the Rangers from the second Wild Card spot. That’s quite a reasonable target for Texas, which has posted the American League’s best combined record over the 2015 and 2016 seasons, to overcome.
Expect it to happen.
Detroit Tigers will be aggressive sellers
Former owner Mike Ilitch wanted to bring a World Series championship to the Tigers. When he was in his 80’s, Ilitch made it clear that he didn’t want to be a part of any rebuild that he would probably not live to see the benefits of.
Unfortunately, Ilitch passed away before the 2017 season began. With his passing, Detroit’s organizational policy on rebuilding began to shift. The Tigers struggled out of the gate, and at the end of May they made it known that unless they had a good June some trades were going to happen. They didn’t have a good June, and while Detroit is far from the league’s worst team, it’s well out of the race. Even in a crowded American League Wild Card picture, the Tigers are fringe contenders.
It’s time to part ways with some of the veterans that have defined Detroit’s baseball’s team for the last decade. That means Victor Martinez, Justin Verlander and maybe even Miguel Cabrera.
Given that all three men have no-trade clauses or 10-and-five rights (which offer the same protection), that can be tricky. But Verlander has already made it known that he doesn’t want to be a part of a rebuild. It’s hard to imagine fellow veterans like Martinez and Cabrera differing too much from that opinion.
From 2011-2014, the Tigers won four-straight AL Central Championships, made three ALCS appearances and one World Series trip. But that run is over. Detroit has missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons and is well on track to make that three years in a row.
Expect a fire sale from the Tigers before the deadline.
Tim Tebow will get an MLB promotion
While he’s been in the minors for a short time, Tebow has been a consistent draw. With the Single-A Columbia Fireflies, he was helping his team (and the South Atlantic League in general) double its attendance. With the Advanced-A St. Lucie Mets, it’s been more of the same.
The Tebow Effect pic.twitter.com/19DYG30ARK
— Dave Hyde (@davehydesports) June 27, 2017
Now, a more skeptical person can look at Tebow’s stats and instantly shoot down the idea that he should be in the majors. He’s been better in a limited sample size in Port Lucie, but there are certainly more worthy players of getting promoted. Aside from running into the occasional pitch or making a highlight reel worthy play in the outfield, Tebow has struggled.
That’s all true. It’s also all completely irrelevant.
If the New York Mets were a winning team, it would be a fantastic argument. But they’re not. The Mets are well out of postseason contention and have done essentially nothing to show themselves capable of getting into the mix.
So, New York is facing a September filled with a lot of meaningless games. Think of all the competition in New York in the sports market alone. Now, think of all of the non-sports entertainment options that the fans have in The Big Apple. A non-contending team ending its season may not be too appealing. The people need to be given something special.
If you’re still not sold, think of it from this perspective. Tebow has a loyal fan base of people who will want to see him in the future. If he gets a September call-up and performs well, maybe those people are on to something. But if he struggles, New York would be easily justified in having Tebow in the minors for the 2018 season, if he’s in the organization at all. One of the benefits of a bad season is getting to resolve issues like that.
The only qualifier to all of this is that the Mets remain out of playoff contention. Assuming that happens, expect to see Tebow roaming the Citi Field outfield in September.