The Fourth of July means its time for fireworks, great food and ... a good long look through the MLB standings with the season just past the halfway mark. We've seen enough to know which teams we can believe in, and which teams are destined for a second-half collapse. We enlisted our experts to look into the standings and tell us where things are headed between now and October.
What's the first thing that jumps out to you when you look at the standings right now?
David Schoenfield: The American League wild-card race. With seven teams separated by just two and a half games for the second wild-card spot, my dreams of a seven-way tie still exists. Please, baseball gods, let this happen.
Eddie Matz: Just how mediocre the National League Central is. There isn't one team among the whole bunch that seems like it wants to win the thing. It reminds me of the 2010 NFC West, when the Seahawks took the division with a 7-9 record. Of course, the Seahawks went on to beat the Saints in the wild-card game. So really what I'm saying is, beware the NL Central. Not.
Scott Lauber: I agree, Eddie. And wasn't this the division that produced three teams with at least 97 wins only two years ago? At this rate, it might not even take 90 wins to claim the crown this season. As strange as it is that the Cubs are only at .500, it's more bizarre to see the Cardinals with a losing record. And don't even get me started on the first-place Brewers.
Which team is headed for a big rise or drop in the standings in the future?
Matz: Check out the freaky run differentials at the top of the AL Central. Even though the Indians are only two and a half games up on the Twins, they're plus-59 on the year, while Minnesota is at minus-55. That's a difference of almost 100 runs. It's just a matter of time before Cleveland runs away and hides.
Schoenfield: The Twins really aren't any good. They're 42-40 heading in Monday's game, but as Eddie mentions, they've been outscored by 55 runs. You can hate run differential, but it speaks to the talent level on the team. The rotation is bad, and Ervin Santana is one of the most obvious second-half regression candidates in the game.
Lauber: All along, most of us figured the Indians would run away with the AL Central. It still feels as though they will -- and not just because Edwin Encarnacion is heating up like the summer weather. While the surprising Twins won't compromise the future for short-term gains at the trade deadline and the Royals are stuck between making one more postseason run and selling off soon-to-be free agents, the Indians are fully committed to winning now. With 20 games left against the sure-to-sell White Sox and Tigers, the wins could really start pouring in after July 31.
Which team's place in the standings right now is the most disappointing (and do you think they can turn it around)?
Lauber: Surely there are other teams that expected to contend and have fallen short (the Mets and Blue Jays, to name two), but what in the name of Kyle Schwarber has happened on the North Side of Chicago? Look, there was always going to be a World Series hangover, and the injuries to Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Kris Bryant haven't helped. The Cubs are lucky that nobody has pulled away in the NL Central, leaving them plenty of time to kick it into gear. All eyes will be on Theo Epstein to bolster the roster at the trade deadline.
Schoenfield: The Cubs have been so disappointing that Cubs fans are starting to get cranky -- so much for the idea that winning a World Series leads to everlasting gratitude. Can they turn it around? I'm starting to have doubts, but it may take only 85 wins to capture the NL Central crown and they can get there. Then anything can happen in the playoffs!
Matz: The San Francisco Baseball Giants. I had them winning the West. Instead, they're threatening to win the top pick in the 2018 draft. They'll have to duke it out with bottom-feeders like the Phillies, Reds and Padres, but given the way things have been going for them (see: Madison Bumgarner, Mike Morse, Mark Melancon), I'm confident they can get it done.
Which team's place in the standings is the biggest surprise in a good way (and do you think they can keep it up)?
Matz: Nobody gave Arizona any preseason love, but in retrospect maybe they should have. Heading into 2016, fresh off the Zack Greinke signing, the D-Backs were a sexy pick. Alas, they crashed and burned. A year later, they're a post-hype juggernaut. The rotation, anchored by Greinke and breakout lefty Robbie Ray, is tops in the NL. The offense, led by the criminally underrated Paul Goldschmidt and slugging third baseman Jake Lamb, scores in bunches. Arizona is not going away.
Lauber: Anyone who watched Mike Hazen and Torey Lovullo do their respective jobs for years in Boston can't be too surprised by their success in turning around the Diamondbacks' fortunes. It just wasn't supposed to happen so quickly, especially after losing 93 games last year. Pitching has led the way, and as long as Greinke and Ray remain the dominant right-left punch at the top of the rotation, there's no reason at all that it can't continue.
Schoenfield: In some ways, the fact that the Mariners are still in the wild-card race despite all of their pitching injuries is a minor miracle. They've used 13 different starting pitchers, and their projected five-man rotation has started just 40 of 84 games. One of those five has a 6.06 ERA and is no longer in the rotation (Yovani Gallardo). Given Drew Smyly is now officially out for the season and Felix Hernandez still looks very hittable, it seems unlikely they can put together a big second-half push.
What do you think the Astros' final record will be and why?
Matz: 109-53. Nothing about them is a mirage. They finished June with a .671 winning percentage, and there' s absolutely no reason to expect that will change moving forward. If anything, once they get ace Dallas Keuchel back (Houston's 14-10 since he went down) and address their one missing piece by trading for a starter, they should be even better. Yikes.
Schoenfield: I'll go with 103 wins. The offense continues to lead the AL in runs, the bullpen is deep, and the rotation has remained solid even without Keuchel. Plus, the Astros are reportedly on the prowl for a top starter -- maybe somebody like Sonny Gray. The franchise record is 102 wins (set in 1998) and this team has a great chance to beat that mark.
Lauber: 103-59. If the Astros were going to fall back to earth, it would've happened in June, when co-aces Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. were on the disabled list at the same time. But Houston didn't have any problem going 16-11. McCullers is back, Keuchel will join him shortly, and all systems will be go again. The Astros might throttle back a bit in preparation for the playoffs, but that won't keep them from beating up on the mediocrity within their division.
What do you think the Dodgers' final record will be and why?
Schoenfield: 104 wins. They're on pace for 106 wins, and even if Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner slow down, there are others who may pick things up. Rich Hill, for instance, has been much better his past couple of starts. Joc Pederson had a big June after returning from his concussion, and look for Corey Seager to have a monster second half and become a major part of the MVP discussion. Oh, and the closer is pretty good. In a weak National League, the Dodgers should cruise to 100 wins.
Lauber: 102-60. Simply put, they're loaded. The Dodgers have four All-Stars and could easily have had six. The schedule also isn't exactly a bear. They have interleague games remaining against the White Sox and Tigers, not to mention 10 more games against the Padres, their personal punching bag.
Matz: Here's a scary thought: As good as the Dodgers have been -- and you have to be pretty darned good to win 16 of 17, as L.A. did recently -- their run differential says they should actually be two games better than their current record, which is already best in the NL. They'll finish 101-61, becoming the first Dodgers squad to break the century mark since 1974.
Do you think the teams currently in the NL postseason field will be the five we see in October?
Schoenfield: The Cubs edge out the Brewers and Cardinals to win the NL Central, but the other four teams -- including the currently stumbling Rockies -- hold on.
Matz: The Nats, Dodgers, D-Backs and Rockies will all make it, but the Brewers will not. Even though the Cubs' rotation is a shadow of last year's, the offense should gear up once they get Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber back. Look for Chicago to bounce Milwaukee from the playoff picture.
Lauber: They won't overtake the Dodgers in the NL West, but the Diamondbacks and Rockies sure have built a nice cushion in the wild-card race. Despite their late-inning relief issues, the Nationals are sitting pretty in the NL East. But with apologies to Bud Selig, it's still difficult to think of an October that features the Brewers rather than the Cubs. The champs will find their way into the tournament somehow.
What do you think we are more likely to see? The Royals or Blue Jays as trade deadline sellers or the Royals or Blue Jays reaching the wild-card game.
Schoenfield: The Royals will not sell. They are not going to get franchise-type prospects through trading Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, so they may as well ride it out and hope for the best (they're 20-10 their past 30 games). The next few seasons are probably going to be lean whether they trade those guys or not. I don't see the Blue Jays as sellers, either. Sure, Josh Donaldson would be attractive trade bait -- hmm, I know a certain division rival that desperately needs a third baseman -- but even if things don't work out this year, you keep Donaldson and re-tweak things for 2018. The Royals have the best chance at the wild card since their division is weaker, but I think both teams fall short.
Lauber: After going 17-9 in June, the Royals stand a better chance than the Blue Jays of recovering from their dreadful start and sneaking into the playoffs. They also don't figure to get significant returns for Lorenzo Cain, Moustakas, Hosmer or Jason Vargas, all of whom can be free agents after the season. It's no wonder, then, that GM Dayton Moore said he intends to keep the band together for one more playoff push. It might just happen, too, with the division title and both wild-card spots within reach.
Matz: Only two AL teams can make the wild card game. More than two AL teams will be sellers. Based on that math, I'll take option A, thank you very much.