Cincinnati Reds (7/6/17)

It’s crazy to think that just a month ago, the Cincinnati Reds sat a mere 3 games out of first place in the National League Central. Sure, at the time, the club was still three games below .500, but it marked the first time in four seasons that any Reds team had been remotely close to the top spot through June 6. Oddly enough, that 2013 Reds team was still 3 games back of the St. Louis Cardinals, despite a 36-24 record, and would finish the season in third place. Interesting to note, the Reds 90-72 record that season was only a hair worse than the National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers who finished at 92-70.

This 2017 Reds squad seems unlikely to finish the campaign with 90+ wins, but there are plenty of reasons for fans to be excited in the months and years that follow. After a flurry of moves landed the Reds breakout stars in the form of Scott Schebler, Adam Duvall, and Scooter Gennett, the Reds finally look to be ascending from the ashes of their rebuild. The Reds have also capitalized on their home-grown talent too, as Zack Cozart, Joey Votto, and Billy Hamilton have all put together outstanding seasons to this point.

The Reds offense has been so potent, they rank 11th in batting average (.260), 10th in home runs (119), 12th in runs (406), and 1st in triples (24). While not eye-popping, the numbers do show a team that sits at or near the upper 40% of the league in most key statistical categories. Considering the average age of the entire Reds roster is 27.5, there seems a strong chance for these numbers to hold, if not improve, over the coming few seasons.

Among the most compelling stories out of Cincinnati has been the success of native son, Scooter Gennett. After being cast off from Milwaukee, the Reds claimed Gennett on March 28 and have enjoyed his production. The 27-year-old is batting .317 with 46 RBIs and 14 home runs in 199 at-bats this season, and has played a utility role in the field, seeing time at second base, third base, and at both corner outfield positions.

Gennett’s most amazing feat this season came exactly one month ago when he became the 17th player in major league history to hit four home runs in a single game. The historic output was part of a 5-5, 10 RBI night for the 5’10 Gennett, who also happened to be playing in the outfield for the first time in his four year career. Sports coverage across the country deemed Gennett the least likely to accomplish the feat, only days after weighing in on former Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips criticism of him donning No. 4 (Phillips’ old number). While Phillips’ tenure in Cincinnati was filled with greatness, I don’t recall him ever hitting four home runs in a single game while wearing any number.

The Achilles heel for the Reds has flat out been their pitching. While carrying one of the league’s top bullpens, the Reds have had difficulty putting together a competitive starting rotation. The brightest spot for the Reds has been 34-year-old Scott Feldman. Many scoffed when Feldman was named as the opening day starter this season, but despite leaving his initial outing with a 5.79 ERA, the righty finished the month of April sporting a 3.25 ERA. From that point, Feldman’s season has been enigmatic, posting a 5.08 ERA in May, only to rebound with a 2.97 ERA in June.

The up-and-downs of Feldman’s numbers might as well be an indicator of how the entire Reds rotation has fared too. With the loss of Brandon Finnegan for the foreseeable future due to shoulder injury, and the almost inconsequential loss of Bronson Arroyo, the Reds have relied on a number of young arms and reclamation projects the same. Homer Bailey, the one time Reds ace, has had a disastrous return from a series of injuries and setbacks. In three games, Bailey is 1-2 with 7 strikeouts, and a 12.66 ERA in 10.2 innings. While the case could always be made that the sample size is too small and Bailey is certainly still adjusting back to the majors, the righty’s return to the lineup has done little is anything to keep pressure off of the bullpen.

But there is hope, especially in the arm of Dominican-born right-hander Luis Castillo. Despite an 0-1 record and 4.41 ERA through three games, Castillo’s metrics show he may soon find himself near the top of the Reds rotation. Looking at Statcast data, we see that over the 198 times Castillo has thrown a four-seam fastball, he has averaged a pitch speed (97.64 mph), a perceived pitch speed (96.72 mph), a spin rate (2279 rpm), and an exit velocity (92.91 mph) that are considerably above league average. What’s been more impressive to his teammates and coaches however is Castillo’s composure and demeanor throughout his career progression.

Only time will tell if Castillo and his fellow fresh call up Sal Romano can make the most of this opportunity. It goes without saying that Cincinnati could benefit greatly from the fire-throwing righties. The Reds currently sit 9.5 games out of first after defeating the Colorado Rockies 6-3 in today’s contest. Romano threw 5 innings of 6-hit ball, giving up 2 runs while striking out 6, in route to his first career win. The Reds continue their road trip tomorrow in Arizona, where they open a weekend series against the Diamondbacks. While Arizona is currently locked in a duel for the National League West, the Reds will hope to build on today’s success and enjoy the hitter-friendly confines of Chase Field.

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Chicago White Sox (7/5/17)

Over the past few seasons, the Chicago White Sox have tried just about everything under the sun to win. In 2015, the ChiSox brought in Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, and Adam LaRoche with much fan fare. MLB pundits anointed the roster moves as the perfect answer to an American League Central that was witnessing the torch being passed from the Detroit Tigers to the Kansas City Royals.

Of course, the moves didn’t pan out, much like the addition of Todd Frazier and James Shields has brought more of the same. It seems as if the White Sox are stuck in a perpetual state of middling. Such becomes the status quo when a general manager refuses to blow things up and completely rebuild. And it’s not like general manager Rick Hahn doesn’t have what others want.

It seems as if we’ve heard constantly about Jose Quintana being a trade target, much like the endless speculation over Chris Sale before he was shipped over to Boston this past winter. The ChiSox could sell relatively high on Jose Abreu, before his numbers dip even more from his stellar rookie season. Todd Frazier has a very appealing price tag attached. At 1yr/$12 million left on his contract, he would be the perfect addition for a playoff team looking for some pop. Any of these moves could bring some sizeable returns.

Yet when the White Sox do make moves, they seem to sit on the pieces they acquire, favoring roster control over results. Players like Yoan Moncada, who has spent the season, much like the last, watching as players like 23-year-old Corey Seager and 21-year-old Cody Bellinger mash their way into record books. It would be an entirely different matter if Moncada wasn’t clearly ready. The numbers he’s put up at every stop along the way has been more than enough to prove he’s prepared, but the White Sox seem destined to hold off on his promotion until after the All-Star break. If the ChiSox do delay Moncada’s arrival to the big club, they can stave-off his free agency for an additional season.

It may seem a moot point to argue against another year of control for a team heading down the reboot rabbit hole, especially when considering the chances of making the postseason, even at this early point of the season, are all but gone. However, it feels worth noting that when the waiting game is played on the Southside of Chicago, things haven’t generally seemed to pan out.

All criticism aside, the buzz about the future for the White Sox, should the best of intentions actually play out, is worth the attention. It won’t be long until we again find ourselves awash in lofty predictions and expectations for this franchise. Should the likes of Lucas Giolito, Dane Dunning, Reynaldo Lopez, Victor Diaz, Michael Kopech, and Yoan Moncada successfully traverse through the White Sox system, Southsiders will carry Rick Hahn through the streets on their shoulders.

Chicago Cubs (7/4/17)

I’ll admit, I was rooting for the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series this past Postseason. Sure, when the Cubs achieved possibly the most iconic baseball feat many of us had ever witnessed in our entire lives, I was rapt in awe. I was misty-eyed, thinking about every Cub who’d fallen short of that moment throughout history, and the fans who gutted each woeful season out. Many of those people have passed on, never knowing what would transpire in a glorious early November night amidst the rain and wind. And to see those who remained, the look on their faces, and the unity a child’s game could provide for an entire city, if not an entire sport, was nothing short of overwhelming.

But I did want Cleveland. Not because I thought the Indians deserved to win more than the Cubs, in fact, I thought both teams deserved the title. My decision to pull for the Indians was out of sheer expectation of the Cubs being in a better place to at least repeat a World Series appearance. Not that I wrote Cleveland off as a Cinderella story, but the recent years of growth and dominance in the North side of Chicago had been impossible to ignore, much less discount.

However, the adage, “Oh, the difference a day makes” might as well translate to a year in length. The Cubs of 2017 have been a far cry from the club that broke a 100+ year’s curse. Not that there has been much of a departure of talent, save for Aroldis Chapman and Jorge Soler. Instead, injuries have depleted Chicago to the point of a 41-41 season as the All-Star break approaches.

The Cub’s rotation has taken the brunt of injury this season as Kyle Hendricks and Brett Anderson find themselves shelved. Much more concerning is the increasing vulnerability of the starters who remain. Jake Arrieta has not been the same pitcher who just last year through a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and while his 4.33 ERA is far from his career worst, the mark is considerably higher than his career average of 3.65 over seven seasons.

38-year-old John Lackey hasn’t fared any better, posting a 5.24 ERA in 16 starts, good enough for a record of 5-9. Much like Bartolo Colon, many times over, insiders and fans alike have falsely concluded Lackey’s numbers to spell out a bitter end, only to be wrong. But the question remains to be contradicted by either this year as to whether they can get off the proverbial mat and fight back. Playing in his 15th year, Lackey has only posted a losing record twice, once in 2003 with the Anaheim Angels (10-16), and in 2013 with the Boston Red Sox (10-13). But the Cubs didn’t sign Lackey as an ace, rather to eat innings and provide solid upside as a workhorse.

The brightest spot in the rotation remains Jon Lester, who at 33-years-old is 5-4 in 17 games, posting a 3.69 ERA and 104 strikeouts. Lester’s consistency has kept Chicago in contention as the rotation’s other pieces continue to iron out their wrinkles. Lester’s June should be enough to keep the resonant embers going of the fire that once was hot. In six outings the southpaw went 2-1 with a 3.41 ERA, while striking out 37 and walking 10.

As the pitching does its best to keep the hinges screwed, Cub hitting too needs to find consistency. The continual mystery that has become Jason Heyward, which was once again advertised this season as new and improved, has been much of the same. Taking nothing away from the 27-year-old’s dedication or the massive amount of work that has seemingly been attached to every off-season, his output seems to deem the numbers he put up in 2012 (.269/28HR/82 RBI) as a fluke.

On the plus side however, the most recent adjustments made to Heyward’s swing seems to have paid off well, as he is one home run shy of matching last season’s high of seven. Such progress is warmly welcomed for an offense that is ranked third in runs scored among the National League Central.

The overall picture is not bleak however. With plenty of games remaining and plenty of time left to turn their fortunes around, the 6-game deficit separating the Cubs from the Milwaukee Brewers for the top spot in the Central doesn’t have to resemble a mountain. The bottom line remains that the cubs have a deep roster and some of the best pitching by name in the entire league. Those pitchers will return to form, and the Cubs will make this a race, sooner than later.

Boston Red Sox (7/3/17)

Having won 7 of their last 10 games heading into July 3 and a 3.5 game lead over the New York Yankees for first place in the American League East, the Boston Red Sox have finally rounded into the form which carried them into the American League Championship series last October.

With acquisitions such as Chris Sale and Mitch Moreland more than paying their dividend this season, the Red Sox (47-35) are poised to make another deep run. The early season injury to David Price and slow start from Rick Porcello has been weathered, and the young bats which seemed to be mired in a sophomoric slump have awoken to propel the club.

Far and away, the most impressive member of the Red Sox throughout 2017 has been pitcher Chris Sale. The southpaw has registered double-digit strikeout numbers in 11 of the 17 games and 166 total in 17 starts this season. Sale has pitched with such ferocity and aggression, analysts have theorized that he might be taking out a frustration over being traded to the Red Sox this past winter, while on the mound. Sale, who is known for being stand-offish toward the media, has given very little reason on the mound for Boston-area journalists to complain about. His rotation mate David Price has been an entirely different story.

Price, who is in the second year of a 7yr/$217-million dollar deal with the Red Sox, has been a lightning rod of controversy off the field. Spats with the media, and inconsistent pitching has made his tenure in Boston tumultuous. His refusal to speak with media on days which he doesn’t pitch and his July 1 confrontation with Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley on the team flight from Boston to Toronto, have overshadowed his return from injury.

In the 7 games since his return from a disabled list stint which pushed his season debut to May 29, Price has posted a 3-2 record, striking out 36 batters and responsible for a 4.61 ERA over 41 innings pitched. While those numbers might seem a little high, especially for a pitcher making something in the neighborhood of $30 million per season, Price’s most recent outing has brought dollar-for-dollar value to the club’s rotation. The lefty tossed 7 innings of 3 run ball, compiling 7 strikeouts while giving up a pedestrian 6 hits.

Despite those numbers being a far cry from those routinely put up by Chris Sale, it does offer an intensifying guiding light to predict how the rest of the Red Sox season might transpire. If Price and Sale are able to remain consistent, Boston could certainly find themselves playing in the World Series. And the timing of such has never been more contemporarily relevant in Boston as Price’s 2018 opt-out clause looms, magnifying a mutual interest for Price to play nice with the Boston media, and the club to get all they can out of a player who seems to already have one foot out the door.

In accordance with a return to the postseason, the Boston bats have come to life recently, and Mookie Betts has returned to improve on his magical 2016 campaign. After getting off to a slow start, outfielder Mookie Betts sits on 15 home runs and a .286 average while on pace to flirt with a 30-30 season. After last season’s power surge, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think the speedy all-star could swat 30 home runs while swiping at least 30 bags.

Of course, the biggest buzz throughout the Red Sox organization has been outfielder Andrew Benintendi. Playing in his first full season, the 23-year-old is batting .274 with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs. While Benintendi still has some growth ahead of him, his ability to impact a game with his bat and glove are an important factor in determining the long-term future of the young core being cultivated in Boston.

If the Red Sox can stay on course, expect a photo finish by season’s end. The American League East has been crowded with powerful teams for the past few decades, and this year is no exception. The power pitching and still emerging roster depth puts the Red Sox in a great position to come out on top of the fray, but not without consistency, timing and a little luck.

Baltimore Orioles (7/2/17)

Another season in Baltimore hangs in the balance, and it’s not even August yet. The pitching woes plaguing this Orioles club have been the same for years now. Of course, injuries to Chris Davis and Zack Britton haven’t helped the situation, but in order to truly contend, this song cannot remain the same.

Starting with Ubaldo Jimenez, who turned back the clock in his last outing, tossing 8 innings of 2 hit ball against the Toronto Blue Jays. That outing, in which he struck out a season-high 8 batters, could easily be considered among his best in an Orioles uniform. Jimenez has struggled with fastball velocity, registering an average perceived speed of 89.37 MPH. Considering the league average is 91.78 MPH and the spin rate on Jimenez’s fastball is 130 RPMs fewer than the league average of 2140, it’s no mystery why he is projected by MLB.com to have given up 26 home runs by season’s end.

While keeping Jimenez in a starting role should come with a bottle of extra-strength Excedrin, using him in a relief role has been a relative success this season. When coming out of the pen, Jimenez has given up a total of 8 runs over 16.2 innings. While the 4.44 ERA attached to that seems high, the 7.10 ERA he’s posted as a starter is far more detrimental. However, transitioning Jimenez to the pen in a full-time capacity does require some stability in the rotation, something somewhat non-existent in Baltimore this season.

When Chris Tillman returned to the rotation May 7 and recorded a win on the strength of 4 strikeouts and three walks over 5 innings, many believed the rust was getting knocked off an arm that has been a staple of success in Baltimore since 2012. However, by Tillman’s June 10 outing in New York, alarm bells were blaring. While Tillman’s season has been the worst of his career to this point, there is still plenty of time to either trade Tillman for what value his history will bring, or wait in hopes that these first 11 outings was that proverbial rust. If his last two outings are any indicator, there may be hope yet for how the season progresses.

Ultimately, taking into account Tillman’s insanely cheap contract and current production levels, it would be hard to believe he ends the season anywhere else but Baltimore. But moves must be made. Remaining in this holding pattern with regard to the rotation will only force the issue of what is beginning to take the shape of a rebuild.

With an average age of 29.2, the Orioles are in a position that requires them to succeed or dismantle in the very near future. With a farm system that is listed near the lower rungs of the rankings, it seems doubtful a successful youth movement might occur without making some trades or smart draft decisions. The most glaring difficulty of having such a low-ranked system is the lack of viable prospects to entice or include in a deal.

Coming into the 2017 season, the top ranked players in the Orioles farm system were catcher Chance Cisco and righty Cody Sedlock. With Sedlock still in single-A and predicted to be a year or two removed from the majors, the O’s could conceivably package either Caleb Joseph or Wellington Castillo with Sedlock to make room for Cisco. Regardless of how well Cisco replaces either Joseph or Castillo behind the plate, the pitching return would be worth the minute decline in offense.

While trades may stave off the rebuild, it is fast approaching. This likely won’t be the season we see the departure of Manny Machado or Adam Jones, they will need to be moved to prevent another period of decline and eventual cellar-dwelling in a difficult American League East.

Atlanta Braves (7/1/2017)

It’s been nearly four seasons since the Braves last winning campaign. At the close of 2013, the Braves had won their 17th division title with a record of 96-66 and boasted a roster with the likes of Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, Brian McCann, and both Melvin (known as B.J. at the time) and Justin Upton. Despite expectations of a deep October run, the Braves fell just shy of defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.

Now in 2017, the Braves have plenty of fresh faces and veteran stewardship to build into the National League’s next dynasty. While still in the infant stages of reaping the reward of their investments, the future appears bright for a young core that includes Dansby Swanson, Freddie Freeman, and Ender Enciarte. By placing veteran bats such as Brandon Phillips and Matt Kemp around them, the offense has steadily improved. As Julio Teheran continues to find a sense of consistency, the flashes of extraordinary talent that has kept his name in trade rumors of recent years has begun to shine through.

Recent call up Sean Newcomb, acquired in the trade which sent Andrelton Simmons to the Angels, has done nothing less than stoke the fire. Despite a 1-2 record, the 24-year-old southpaw has struck out 21 batters while posting a 1.48 ERA in only 4 games. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey has begun to rebound after a shaky start to the season. Dickey has won back-to-back outings, ending June with a 3-1 record while striking out 28 batters. While Dickey’s June ERA was a less-than-stellar 4.07, that number is down considerably from the 5.70 ERA he posted in May.

One of the few deals made by the Braves that hasn’t gone according to plan is Bartolo Colon. When Colon signed with Atlanta this past offseason, hopes were high that his age-defying consistency and workhorse history could eat innings, if not excel. Instead, Colon has been a disaster, going 2-8 with an 8.14 ERA in 13 games. After fighting an oblique injury, the Braves have designated Colon for assignment, possibly ending the 44-year-old’s tenure with Atlanta and perhaps punctuating the final lines of “Big Say’s” storied career.

As a complete unit, the Braves have hung tough in a division wrought with power pitching and big bats, sitting 8 games back of the Washington Nationals with a record of 37-41. While these Braves may be a far cry from the “team of the nineties” many of us grew up with, they are gritty and determined. No longer are they cellar-dwellers, or the doormat of the National League East. Through intricate trades and patience, the Braves have put together something that will spell disaster for everyone else. It still might be a few years down the line from now, but the Braves are coming.