It's July 3, and some of the season's major storylines -- as seems to be required protocol for baseball on an annual basis -- focus on what I would term negative news:
• Year-over-year attendance is down more than 2 million, with only nine teams showing per-game increases.
• The Orioles and Royals are historically awful, on pace for fewer than 50 wins. In the divisional era (since 1969), only the 2003 Tigers have done that. The White Sox haven't been much better.
• As strikeouts continue to soar, we've seen more strikeouts than hits. The overall MLB batting average of .246 is nine points lower than it was in 2017 and would be the lowest average since the .244 mark in 1972.
• As averages sink, debates about changing the rules regarding infield shifts have grown more intense.
• The Mets.
These are important issues and in some sense are all interrelated. Less action on the field plus tanking teams equals a decline in attendance (yes, bad weather early in the season plus Netflix and big-screen TVs have contributed to the attendance issues, as well).
Anyway, I'm here with some good news: The pennant races look to be much more exciting than in 2017. Last season, if you recall, only the American League East race ended up closer than six games, as the Red Sox edged the Yankees by two wins. But even that one lacked the nervous energy of a great race, as the Red Sox led every day from Aug. 1 and the Yankees got to only two games back on the final weekend of the season.
This season, however, gives us the potential of five great division races, including an epic AL East battle in which both the Red Sox and Yankees could win 105 games. For all the negative publicity, there are still 18 teams with legitimate playoff hopes if you stretch hope down to the Rockies (six games back in the National League West) and the wild-card race in which the A's, Angels and Rays aren't dead should the Mariners fall back to the pack (certainly a possibility given Seattle's house-of-cards style of one-run wins).
The close races should make for a fascinating second half. Teams won't be able to coast into the playoffs. Last year, the Cubs used a six-man rotation down the stretch to rest their starters. The Dodgers incredibly lost 16 of 17 games in late August and September and still won their division by 11 games. The Nationals were able to start Max Scherzer on five days of rest throughout September.
Those strategies might not fly in 2018. Some thoughts on the second half:
AL East aces: This is getting way ahead of things, but the Yankees finish up the season at Fenway Park. If the division is still up for grabs, it will be fascinating to see how Aaron Boone and Alex Cora line up Luis Severino and Chris Sale. If the division is up for grabs, you would think both managers would want their aces pitching in the series -- this will be planned well ahead of time, of course, with both clubs mapping out their rotations from mid-August onward.
But when do you pitch them? Three options:
1. Pitch them on Friday, making them ready for a potential wild-card game or first game of a division series. The playoff schedule hasn't been released yet, but the wild-card games are on Tuesday and Wednesday. Last year, the AL was on Tuesday and the NL on Wednesday, so that presumably will mean the AL plays on Wednesday this year. Start on Friday and you'd have four days of rest for the wild-card game. If the AL game is on Tuesday again, then that complicates things.
2. Save them for Sunday, if needed to clinch the division title.
3. Don't pitch them at all and save them a potential tiebreaker game on Monday.
In the era of two wild-card teams, I believe the "when to pitch your ace" issue has come up just once. In 2014, the Pirates entered the final day of the season trailing the Cardinals by a game. So they needed a win and a St. Louis loss to force a tie for the division title. The Pirates started Gerrit Cole and lost, then had to start Edinson Volquez in the wild-card game.
Aside from the potential final-weekend scenario, it will be intriguing to see how heavy the two aces are worked in the second half. Sale has thrown fewer innings and pitches through the same number of starts as last season (when he tired a bit over the final two months), and he also backed off his velocity earlier in the season. That might have helped him reach the dominant level he's at right now (1.03 ERA over his past five starts with a .134 average allowed). Severino, meanwhile, is at a similar workload as last season, with 4⅔ more innings but nine fewer pitches through 18 starts.
Do the Indians make any additions? The AL Central is the one division race that isn't close. What does Cleveland do? It needs to get Andrew Miller healthy to help out a bullpen that ranks 28th in the majors with a 5.17 ERA. It also needs to figure out center field, where three players have started 20-plus games but have combined for the second-lowest wOBA in the majors and minus-1 defensive runs saved. For potential trades, Adam Jones isn't a defensive whiz, but he could the help on offense, while Billy Hamilton can't hit, but he would provide better defense.
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Can the Mariners hang with the Astros? Probably not, even though they begin the week just a half-game behind Houston. The Mariners are 8-0 in extra innings and 26-11 in one-run games. The Astros have a couple of interesting issues. Will they work their top two prospects, outfielder Kyle Tucker and pitcher Forrest Whitley, into the mix? Tucker has a .311/.377/.521 line at Triple-A, while Whitley could be a bullpen weapon down the stretch. Also, is Hector Rondon the final solution at closer? The much-maligned Houston bullpen, by the way, has a 1.85 ERA since June 1, with 113 K's in 82⅔ innings.
For the Mariners, how will they integrate Robinson Cano back into the lineup when he comes off his suspension on Aug. 14? They've been a better defensive team with Dee Gordon at second and not in center. But they could use Cano's bat, which might mean Gordon back in center, at least on a part-time basis. They're also on the lookout for a starter. Given the terrible state of their farm system, Cole Hamels is a possibility, as they might not have to do much except pick up his salary (and Seattle is not on Hamels' no-trade list).
NL East twins with issues: The Braves and Phillies have shown they have enough staying power to scare the Nationals. Both teams also have similar needs. Manny Machado would be a fit for both lineups, and both teams need bullpen help. The Braves are 2-7 in extra innings and rank 16th in bullpen win probability added (a good proxy for "clutch"), while the Phillies rank 13th (although you would think they rank 30th based on the reaction of Phillies fans). Both pens have struggled since June 1, however, with the Phillies 27th in the majors with a 5.33 ERA and the Braves 29th at 5.55 in that span. Every contender will want Brad Hand if the Padres decide to deal him, and both of these teams should make a strong pitch to get him.
Do the Brewers go all-in? Without a powerhouse team in the NL, this is the perfect season for the Brewers to make a big deadline splash. I proposed going after Jacob deGrom and was surprised that most Brewers fans I heard from on Twitter were opposed to the idea. Yes, the offense needs help, as well, but I don't think Brad Miller is the solution at shortstop. Maybe they'll live with defensive shortcomings and look to add a second baseman such as Asdrubal Cabrera.
Hey, here come the Giants: FanGraphs still sees the Dodgers as the favorite in the NL West but projects them with just 89 wins, the Diamondbacks with 87 victories and the Giants with 82. The Giants went 18-10 in June and won their first game of July, and while they're not completely healthy (Evan Longoria, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija remain on the disabled list), they look more like a threat than they did a month ago. They've played the Diamondbacks 12 times and the Dodgers 13 times already (and the Dodgers have played the Diamondbacks 12 times), so there aren't many head-to-head showdowns remaining among the three teams. The Giants do finish up with a series against the Dodgers. Maybe it will mean something. Heck, maybe we'll get a three-way tie for the division title.