By Steve Silverman
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It’s been a season of surprises in the major leagues so far. While there have been plenty of disappointments — the Boston Red Sox have been dreadful until the last three weeks and the highly-thought-of Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres have failed to live up to their potential — there have been some excellent developments that have been noteworthy in the first half of the season.
Start off with the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs. At the start of the season, both of these long-suffering organization — the Cubs have been in pain longer than any other sports franchise — were thought to be on the upswing, but still a couple of years from contending.
However, both have advanced their timetables dramatically. The Astros won 14 of 15 games early in the season and punished the Angels, Rangers Mariners and A’s when they played their division rivals. The Astros have the best all-around second baseman in the American League in Jose Altuve, who led the league in batting average last year and is once again the team’s spark plug with a .299/.344/.761 slash line.
They also have two brilliant young players in George Springer and Carlos Correa, and those two could lead this team all the way to the playoffs. The Astros wouldn’t be going anywhere without pitching, and they are getting plenty from Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers.
Keuchel gives the Astros a consistent effort every time he goes out to the mound, and his 11-3 record, 2.14 ERA and .99 WHIP are testimony to his ability to make the big pitch at the right moment.
Unlike the Astros, the Cubs are not in first place. But they have a legitimate chance at winning a wild-card spot thanks to the play of young players Kris Bryant and Addison Russell. They have solid starting pitching and the sophisticated touch of manager Joe Maddon.
Since being brought up from Iowa early in the season, Bryant has lived up to his enormous potential by belting 12 homers and knocking in 49 runs with a slash line of .275/.380/.852. Russell has not put the same kind of numbers on the board while playing second base, but he makes game-changing plays in the field and his enormous potential is obvious every time he swings the bat. Forget the .227 batting average, because Russell looks like he can’t miss.
Jon Lester may have a 4-7 record, but he has pitched much better than that and should turn it around in the second half. However, there are no worries about Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel, who have both exceeded expectations.
Maddon is one of the highest-profile managers in the game, but none of the plaudits and accolades he receives tell the full story. He has brilliant interpersonal skills and he handles the media to perfection. Maddon understands all the nuances and vagaries of the game, but his best skill is when and how to talk to his players. He always manages to say and do the right thing.
There’s something hugely surprising going on with the Yankees and Alex Rodriguez, and it is one of the biggest stories of the first half.
After sitting out in 2014 because of the Biogenesis scandal, everyone expected A-Rod to have a disastrous season and get booed out of every stadium that he entered.
The words that capture Rodriguez’s season are consistent and productive. He has a .280/.387/.892 slash line with 16 homers and 47 RBIs. Joe Girardi could not have thought that A-Rod would come close to those figures in the first half of the season, but he has been a revelation for the Yankees.
Rodriguez is not the only superstar to have a bounce-back season. The Angels are finally getting the kind of power they expected when they signed Albert Pujols prior to the 2012 season.
Pujols has an American League leading 26 homers and 56 RBIs at the midway point, and he is going to start at first base as a result of Miguel Cabrera’s injury. Pujols was clearly having an All-Star season, but the injury gives him a chance to regain some of the luster he regularly displayed with the St. Louis Cardinals during the first 11 years of his career.
But the biggest surprises for New York baseball fans may occur in the second half of the season. The Yankees are in first place in the struggling AL East, and they could hold on to their position since the Blue Jays, Rays, Orioles and Red Sox all have flaws. Based on how they played last year, that would be a surprise.
And what of the Mets? The starting pitching may be the best in baseball, but the offense just isn’t there. Still, they are one game over .500, and bringing in just one big-time hitter could allow them to make a run at the Washington Nationals or the wild card.
If that happened and both New York teams made the playoffs, it would be a true shocker!