20 MLB stars facing the most pressure in the second half

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

While a lot of baseball has already been played, the 2018 MLB season still has a long way to go. The remaining season will be a bright spotlight on some of the game’s best players.

Of course, the spotlight will be on the players for different reasons. Houston Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel’s agent would probably appreciate a strong second half from him more than anyone. The same can be said for Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier.

Bryce Harper is also a pending free agent. But unlike those guys, his second half will go a long way in telling us how an entire era of baseball will be remembered in Washington. The same is true for Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles.

The reasons vary greatly. But these MLB stars will be facing the most pressure when the second half of the 2018 season gets going later this week.

Dallas Keuchel, starting pitcher, Houston Astros

While we normally wouldn’t associate pressure with someone on the defending champs, Keuchel is an exception. Keuchel posted a 3.75 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in the first half. As crazy as this is to think about, if he doesn’t turn those numbers around, he might find himself relegated to the bullpen during the playoffs. Also noteworthy is the fact that Keuchel is a free agent at season’s end. Struggling is the last thing anyone in a contract year wants. Especially a 30-year-old pitcher. So, there’s a lot riding on the second half of Keuchel’s season.

Josh Hader, relief pitcher, Milwaukee Brewers

In an era where relief pitchers are largely specialized and usually throw an inning or less, Hader is something of a throwback. He’s thrown 48 innings over 31 appearances. Hader has been exceptional in those outings, posting a 1.50 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, and a 16.7 K/9 rate. While a trade could change this, Milwaukee’s starting pitching is far from a strength. Even if a trade happens, Hader still figures to be called on to handle a heavy workload. How he handles that will have a lot to say about the Brewers’ chances.

Jason Kipnis, second baseman, Cleveland Indians

The offense has really kept the Indians going through much of 2018. This is despite Kipnis posting a rather poor .222/.312/.360 slash line in the first half. Cleveland shouldn’t have any problem winning the AL Central. But to really have a chance against the American League’s best, this team will need to find another level. Of course, the pitching will have to get better. But a strong second half from Kipnis will elevate the offense even more and maybe give the Indians an X-factor in the American League Playoffs.

Jacob deGrom, starting pitcher, New York Mets

If deGrom is moved, he’ll face the pressure of being a star acquisition going to a contender. Now, a trade doesn’t seem like a forgone conclusion. But even if deGrom remains on the non-competitive Mets, he does face some pressure. If New York doesn’t deal deGrom, he wants an extension. It’s clear as day that deGrom deserves big money and long-term security. But the Mets aren’t exactly big spenders. Given that deGrom has had some injury issues in his career, we could definitely see a second-half regression giving New York some pause. So, even if it’s not entirely fair, that adds pressure.

Felix Hernandez, starting pitcher, Seattle Mariners

The Mariners’ offense has weathered the Robinson Cano storm and is still scoring runs. The starting pitching, though, has struggled. With James Paxton on the shelf, more pressure is going to fall on the arms of pitchers like King Felix. He doesn’t need to revert back to the days when he was arguably baseball’s best pitcher. But Hernandez will need to vastly improve his 5.13 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, and 7.4 K/9 rate. If he can show significant improvement, we might see Hernandez in the playoffs for the first time in his career.

Ronald Acuna Jr., left fielder, Atlanta Braves

When Acuna got hurt, he was hitting .265/.326/.453 with five home runs in only 29 games played. He’s struggled in his return, hitting .212/.255/.404 with only two home runs in 14 games. In the 29 games prior to the injury, the Braves were 18-11. In his first 14 games back, they’ve gone 6-8. Now, we’re not trying to pin the struggles solely on Acuna. But clearly, him playing reasonably well helped set Atlanta apart. That’s going to be a necessity as the Braves try to fight through a competitive NL East race.

Sean Manaea, starting pitcher, Oakland Athletics

Oakland has been one of the more positive surprises of the first half. But generally, the starting rotation has left a lot to be desired. With a 3.42 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, Manaea has been an exception. That will need to continue in the second half. Obviously, it would be great for the A’s if Manaea could continue to pitch that well, or even better. But short of that, he’ll need to continue going deep into games. If nothing else, that will give Oakland’s bullpen some needed rest through the dog days.

Andrew McCutchen, right fielder, San Francisco Giants

The Giants enter the second half four out in the National League West and wild card races. Neither is an impossible mountain to climb. But the NL West race is four teams deep, while the wild card essentially amounts to eight teams fighting for two spots. The Giants aren’t out of it, but they need to get better. A lot of that will depend on McCutchen recovering from an average first half (.261/.352/.412, nine home runs). As if that wasn’t enough, Cutch is also a free agent at season’s end and will turn 32 in October. So, it’s important for him to leave a good final memory for the 2018 season.

Gary Sanchez, catcher, New York Yankees

Generally speaking, Giancarlo Stanton has overcome what was a rough start. That’s certainly helped New York’s lineup. But this lineup has another gear that it can reach. It’s hard to imagine that leap being made without Sanchez showing significant improvement from his first half (.190/.291/.433). And if that can’t happen, the Yankees could well find themselves starting the playoffs in a single-elimination game, which isn’t exactly ideal. Certainly, Sanchez coming back strong will be important for himself and his team.

Yu Darvish, starting pitcher, Chicago Cubs

Darvish was given ace money. He might be a Game 2 starter in a playoff series, but the hope with Darvish is that opponents would fear facing him essentially as much as Jon Lester. That has not happened. Darvish has been hurt for much of the year. When he’s been healthy, he’s struggled to a 4.95 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. Eyes will be on him when he comes back. If he comes back well, he could give the Cubs the kickstart needed to be the favorites in the NL. If not, things get much more compacted in the league and more specifically, in the NL Central with Milwaukee.

Matt Olson, first baseman, Oakland Athletics

As we’ve already detailed, a good second half from Manaea is important in helping the Oakland pitching staff. If the offense is going to improve, a good second half from Olson is vital. It’s not that Olson’s first half was bad. He has 19 home runs at the break, after all. But with a .235 average and .325 OPB, there is room to improve. If Olson can get on base more, then the A’s can go from a lineup that hits a lot of solo homers, to one that can hit the long ball with men on base. That’s how a lineup goes from very good to elite.

A.J. Pollock, center fielder, Arizona Diamondbacks

For much of the first half, the Arizona offense struggled. Predictably, things changed when Paul Goldschmidt finally got it going. Even still, the offense was still missing something with Pollock out. Now, he’s back. Pollock will need to do two things through the second half. One, stay healthy. That’s been easier said than done for him too often in his career. Two, he’ll need to keep his play up and provide a lethal 1-2 punch along with Goldschmidt. That, along with the pitching staff, would make Arizona awfully tough to beat.

David Price, starting pitcher, Boston Red Sox 

In a sense, Price is similar to Darvish. When things are going right, he can essentially be the co-ace of the Boston rotation. But with a 4.42 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, things haven’t exactly gone right enough. With a good second half, especially if he carries it into the postseason, Price can opt out and be in line for another good deal. If not and he opts back in to his contract, Price will still be in line to make a lot of money. But as bad as the first-three years of his deal in Boston have gone, it’d be hard to imagine the remaining years going any better.

Cody Bellinger, first baseman, Los Angeles Dodgers

Much of what was said about Olson in Oakland applies to Bellinger. There’s no doubt that the Los Angeles offense can score runs. But there’s also no doubt that things can get better. Bellinger improving in the second half would be a big part of that. We have no problem with 17 home runs at the break. But we’d like to see about 30 more points on the .245 average and/or the .327 OBP. If Bellinger can do that, the Dodgers become the clear favorites in the NL West. If not, they’re just one of many teams fighting for a playoff spot.

Brian Dozier, second baseman, Minnesota Twins 

Like any possible trade candidate, there’s a certain level of pressure that would come with being a big-name acquisition for a contender. But in the case of Dozier, this is all about the money. Dozier has 16 home runs, but he’s also hit .230/.314/.423. That’s not the kind of slash line that anyone, let alone a 31-year-old, wants to take into free agency. A second half resembling what we saw out of Dozier in 2016 and 2017 (.260/.341/.499, 92 combined homers) would earn the Minnesota keystone a lot of money this offseason.

Wade Davis, closer, Colorado Rockies

The Rockies gave Davis big money to be a lights-out closer. At the break, he has a 3.72 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and a 9.8 K/9 rate. Those numbers may not look bad. But from 2014-2017, Davis posted a 1.45 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and an 11.7 K/9 rate. Of course, there’s a lot of pressure on the pending free agents. But there’s also a lot of pressure on the guys who just signed big deals, especially to new teams. The pressure only gets ratcheted up if the new signees start slow. That’s the precise situation Davis finds himself in.

Masahiro Tanaka, starting pitcher, New York Yankees

Tanaka has been inconsistent in 2018. His 1.13 WHIP and 9.0 K/9 rate look nice. But it’s hard to put a positive spin on a 4.54 ERA or 1.9 HR/9 rate. The Yankees have a clear need to upgrade the rotation. The problem is that the help they need might not be available on the trade market. That means that the pressure is really on the starters behind Luis Severino to pitch better. C.C. Sabathia has been New York’s second-best starter this year. But he’s going to be 38 on July 21. He can’t be expected to improve that much. Tanaka is really the guy that this hinges on.

Bryce Harper, right fielder, Washington Nationals

If the Nats are going to win the World Series or even make the playoffs, Harper’s .214 batting average has to get much better. And while Harper is a free agent, this isn’t about the money. He’s getting paid in the offseason. Truthfully, this isn’t just about Washington winning in 2018. This is about an era of baseball. In 2012, Harper was a rookie and it seemed like the Nats were destined to become a dynasty. In 2018, Harper is in the last year of his contract and Washington has yet to win a single playoff series. If the Nats can’t make the playoffs in 2018, it’ll be hard to look back on this era positively.

Andrew Miller, relief pitcher, Cleveland Indians

In Cleveland’s recent run of success, it’s always had a dominant bullpen. That has been anything but the case in 2018. The season that Miller is struggling through is a big reason why. He’s been hurt for much of the year and when he’s been healthy, he’s struggled. Miller’s strikeout-rate (14.4) is fine. But he has a 4.40 ERA and 1.61 WHIP to go with it. This is a guy who had a 1.72 ERA and 0.79 WHIP from 2014-2017. A strong second half will not only get Miller paid in the offseason, but it will also give the Indians a chance in the playoffs.

Clayton Kershaw, starting pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers

If the Dodgers don’t win the World Series, it’ll be very hard to call the season a success. That’s a tough standard to apply. But this team has won five-straight NL West titles and was one game away from a World Series win last year. Nobody is more important to Los Angeles winning that title than Kershaw. He was generally good a season ago, but one big misstep likely kept the Dodgers from winning it all. Kershaw needs to stay healthy and pitch Los Angeles through a crowded postseason race. Once there, he needs to come through, removing the monkey from his back once and for all.