Hi, hello & welcome back to THE USB Baseball Report! It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these things…with Predator hockey season lasting longer than usual, pro wrestling taking up more of my writing time these days and the Reds being uninspiring for most of the season, I haven’t had the time or the motivation to sit down and give you folks the baseball info you need to get through the week. But now that we’ve gotten halfway through the 2017 Major League Baseball season, it’s time to catch up on what’s going on and where we’re headed.
I think the easiest way to do this will be to break it down by who’s doing well and who isn’t. That’s the most basic thing people like to know about any sport, right?
Who’s good this year?
Houston Astros: The sexy pick to do big things in 2016 has come on strong in 2017. As I write this they sit 8.5 games in front of the second-best team in the American League. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody, as when you look up and down the Astros’ lineup all you see is good young talent, with the occasional Carlos Beltran & Brian McCann mixed in. People like to talk about how the Astros got all of this great talent by tanking and getting top draft picks. It’s true that they tanked. However, it’s one thing to get good draft picks and it’s quite another thing to make good draft picks. The Astros took the likes of Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman & Lance McCullers Jr. in the first round during this decade. They’ve panned out. There have also been the likes of Brady Aiken & Mark Appel that will never don an Astros uniform. There’s also Jose Altuve, who was an undrafted free agent that went to an Astros tryout camp. Dallas Keuchel went to the Astros in the 7th round of the 2009 draft. You never know how these rebuilds are going to shake out. You need to be smart, and you need to be lucky…the Astros have been both.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw has been Clayton Kershaw. Alex Wood has yet to lose a game. Kenley Jansen has not blown a save. Los Angeles really has one of the best rosters that money can buy. The story, however, is Cody Bellinger. He made his MLB debut on April 25 and he leads the National League in home runs. He has been absolutely insane and looks like he’ll be one of the future stars of his sport.
Washington Nationals: The Nats do this every year. They get off to a really good start and look like one of the teams to beat. They never get the job done though. Either they choke at the end of the season or they choke in the playoffs. Is this the year? Bryce Harper looks as good as he ever has, as does Max Scherzer, and the other fellas aren’t exactly doing bad either. Until they get it done, it’s tough to completely buy in…especially when Dusty Baker is at the helm. I’ve seen this movie too many times.
Arizona & Colorado: Two new contenders have emerged behind the Dodgers in the NL West. We expected the Diamondbacks to contend last year and they were among the biggest flops of 2016. 2017 is looking a lot better for them, with Zack Greinke finding Arizona much more to his liking and Paul Goldschmidt doing his usual thing and leading the offense. The Rockies have been building an offensive juggernaut for years now with Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and others, and their young pitchers are coming along nicely as well. One difference both teams share from their 2016 editions is a change in the manager position. Bud Black fits the Rockies like a glove, and Torey Lovullo’s approach is working a lot better than Chip Hale’s did in Arizona. Expect to see both men contend for NL Manager of the Year.
Yanks & Sawx: Look who’s at the top of the AL East! The media’s favorite teams! Both Boston & New York are powered by young stars. The Red Sox have Mookie Betts & Xander Bogaerts doing big things, and the free-agent acquisition of Chris Sale has taken the pitching to another level. The Yankees have a number of good young players, but they all pale in comparison to Aaron Judge, a man whose at-bats have become must-see television. When he gets the bat on the ball, it’s almost always out of the ballpark. Add in solid fielding and he’s one of the best young players I’ve seen in a long time. Looks like the Yankees will have another number to retire.
Who’s bad this year?
Chicago Cubs: The World Series Hangover gets the best of a lot of teams, and when you don’t win one for 108 years I guess it hits you even harder. Many (myself included) expected the Cubs to have another strong season and win north of 100 games. Sitting at 41-41 after 82 games, they’ll have to win 59 of their last 80 to hit that 100 win mark. Last year’s Cubs could have probably done that. This year’s? Might be a different story. The offense has been decent but not at the level of last year, while the starting pitching has been a shell of its former self. Jake Arrieta was a Cy Young candidate last year and has been miserable for most of this season. His main accomplishment was getting the Cubs’ resident malcontent Miguel Montero designated for assignment and traded to Toronto…perhaps his departure will be addition by subtraction?
The rest of the NL Central: One reason Cubs fans really aren’t worrying that much is the fact that the NL Central has been absolutely dreadful this season. The Reds have been very good offensively but their absolutely atrocious starting pitching dooms them to fifth place in the division. The Pirates are pretty much what we expected them to be, as are the Cardinals: teams that used to be contenders but are on the downswing looking for answers. The Milwaukee Brewers have stepped into first place and their offense and pitching both did well in June, but nobody really buys into them as a legitimate contender just yet. Somebody has to win this division. It’ll probably be the Cubs, but if they don’t want to do it one of these teams will.
Toronto Blue Jays: The Jays have been ridiculously streaky this season. They lost nine out of their first ten games, had two different five-game winning streaks in May, and entered play on Tuesday going 2-9 in their last eleven games. They’ve been a playoff staple as of late, but will be hard-pressed to get back unless they develop some consistency.
San Francisco Giants: The Giants have gotten on a bit of a roll lately, as they were on a six game winning streak heading into Monday. That brings their record to 33-51, which is well below what we’ve come to expect from them. The Giants’ offense has been ineffective and their pitching has been inept for the most part…there’s not one thing to blame their problems on because pretty much everybody can share in the blame.
Philadelphia Phillies: This one’s not a surprise, as everybody expected the Phillies to be bad. Maybe not “six less wins than everybody else at the halfway point” bad, but pretty darn close to it. Last year’s young Phils showed some life though, and the lack of any signs of improvement has to be a little troubling to Philly fans. Then again, maybe Philadelphia will Trust the Process in baseball too, and none of this means anything.
The 2017 Cincinnati Reds: Year of the Donkey
The Reds are what we thought they would be this season. They’re a little closer to the rest of the teams in the NL Central because the division is really bad, but they’re still well away from being a legitimate contender.
One of the goals of this season was figuring out who could be a significant part of the starting rotation in the future…so far, that hasn’t happened. Homer Bailey, Brandon Finnegan & Anthony DeSclafani were considered the three best starting pitchers going into the season, and each man has spent the lion’s share of the season on the disabled list. Bailey & Finnegan recently returned, but neither man has had anything close to a quality start since. DeSclafani may be back in August, but if the travails of the others are any indication we shouldn’t expect much from him. Their replacements haven’t done much to inspire any confidence either, in fact, the biggest names among the prospects have been among the most disappointing. Amir Garrett has been a disaster since his hot start. Robert Stephenson & Cody Reed are still in Louisville and haven’t even proved worthy of a look down there. When your starting pitchers are giving up more than five runs a game, it’s tough to be competitive.
And it can not be stated enough that the Homer Bailey contract signed in 2014 has been the biggest failure of a contract in Reds history. It kept them from having any chance of keeping Johnny Cueto around and Bailey has been a tremendous disappointment that has barely seen the field since signing. When he has been able to pitch, it hasn’t been good. Small market teams like the Reds get set back for years by contracts like this.
The one pitching prospect that I’ve been impressed with so far is Luis Castillo, one of two pitchers acquired in the Dan Straily trade. Since his call-up he’s gone to Washington to face the Nationals, pitched against the Brewers in Cincinnati and then got to go to Colorado to oppose the Rockies. Three of the toughest pitching assignments there are in 2017. He has 0 wins to his credit, but he hasn’t had a bad start yet. He’s held his own against some of the best teams in the NL, which is more than can be said for the other Reds’ starting pitchers save Scott Feldman & Tim Adelman, two journeymen that aren’t part of future plans but have at least brought the Reds some quality starts this season. Castillo may end up being the first pitching prospect acquired in a trade to pan out during this whole rebuilding process.
The Reds do at least have one thing going for them: their position players have been very productive. I had worried that Adam Duvall would be a one-season wonder, but so far in 2017 he’s picked up right where he left off and is having another good year. Scott Schebler has been productive over in right field with good fielding and has a knack for hitting home runs. Center fielder Billy Hamilton still needs to get on base more and while he’s stupid fast he sometimes thinks he’s even faster than he actually is and gets picked off or thrown out at inopportune times. Jose Peraza still needs some work but has been a fine replacement for Brandon Phillips, while Eugenio Suarez is solid over at third base. The catching platoon of Devin Mesoraco & Tucker Barnhart has been good as well, though Mesoraco has been nowhere near worth what they agreed to pay him in 2015.
Two Reds made the All-Star team, and both men were very deserving. Joey Votto has struggled during the first half of the last few seasons…that certainly was not the case this season. He leads the NL in home runs, slugging percentage, OPS & walks and is in the top five in most other categories. If the Reds were competitive you’d hear a lot more MVP talk for Votto, and as it is he’ll probably make the top five in the voting even if his team finishes in the cellar. Some Reds fans and announcers don’t like him because of his contract and their tendency to dislike star athletes due to jealousy or whatever, but to me he’s worth every penny and there’s no doubt that he is the greatest Cincinnati Red of the 21st century.
He’s also one of the most generous, as he’ll be buying his teammate Zack Cozart a donkey.
So what’s the deal with the donkey, anyway? Apparently the Reds’ shortstop has had something of an obsession with them for years now. There’s a donkey farm nearby the Reds’ spring training facility that he takes his son to in order to feed the donkeys and have a good time. According to Cozart, donkeys look like they’re real chill, which is a big part of the appeal. His teammates have wanted to give him a donkey for some time now. Adam Duvall mentioned that it’d be a great Christmas present in an interview with MLB.com during the off-season, and Joey Votto told Cozart that he would give him one if he made the All-Star team this season. That promise must have provided some great motivation for Cozart, as his .322 batting average is well north of his lifetime .246.
Oddly enough, Cozart’s improvement at the plate largely comes down to him being real chill. He’s firmly entrenched as the Reds’ starting shortstop, he hasn’t been dealing with any injuries for most of the season, and he feels freer to experiment with things at the plate. His laid-back approach to 2017 has resulted in more success. Cozart is obviously emulating his favorite animal, and it’s working for him. Now he’ll get one of his own.
The only problem seems to be where he’s going to put it. He’s talked about needing some land, and there’s also the matter of the Reds being where they are and not having that many more pieces to trade for prospects. Cozart has been part of trade speculation for a couple of years now, and you never really know when the Reds are going to pull the trigger and send him somewhere else. Hopefully they don’t, as he’s a favorite among the fans and his teammates, but the reality of small-market baseball is that he’ll likely be sent somewhere else before his contract expires. Especially if his donkeyesque approach keeps bringing him more success in the batters’ box.
All right, there’s everything you need to know about the first half of the Major League Baseball season! Any more questions? Hit me up on Twitter @stevecook84.