As a wise and handsome SB Nation editor once told me, "lists are the crutch of the terrible writer." Those weren't his exact words. His exact words were worse, and I changed them to make them better to demonstrate that I'm not a terrible writer. Now let's move on to the lists!
It's been a very busy first half of the baseball season, and honestly this format is the only hope I have of touching on most of the big topics in a manner that's clear and concise. Nobody likes a giant wall of text, particularly when some fraction of that wall of text is dedicated to the Indians, so hopefully you find this to be reader-friendly. Of course, even if you don't, it's not like you have a whole lot of other options for reading material today. Not that concern the world of sports. It looks like you're stuck with this whether you like it or not! This is awkward for you.
Apologies ahead of time for anything I neglect to mention. There's no such thing as a complete and thorough review of the baseball season that isn't just a replay of every single game of the baseball season. Let's just get on with it. Let us look back on what's happened, and, at the end, let's take a little peek to the future. Look with me. Peek with me.
Peek with me.
Top Five Surprising Teams
1. San Diego Padres. The Padres were projected as a probable last-place team, but it's funny what can happen when you combine a promising rotation, a dynamite bullpen, a big ballpark, and an excellent defense. At 51-37, the Padres have the fourth-best record in baseball, and though every loss causes onlookers to wonder if "this is it," they've just maintained a steady course.
2. Cincinnati Reds. The Reds, for the nineteenth year in a row, were considered offseason sleepers, but now they've delivered on their promise, and they've done so by riding one of the best lineups in the league. Some cracks have shown lately, but Edinson Volquez might just turn out to be one of the best and best-timed deadline acquisitions anyone makes.
3. Chicago White Sox. Five weeks ago, the White Sox were 9.5 back. They entered the break in first place, and they've done so while getting absolutely nothing from second base, left field, or DH. Losing Jake Peavy is a devastating blow, but the team has still hung around longer than most anyone expected, which means we're all set for America's favorite pastime: following Kenny Williams at the trade deadline.
4. Texas Rangers. The same thing was written about the Rangers all offseason: they're arguably the best team in the tight AL West, but they easily have the best chance of pulling away. They've pulled away. Don't let the recent Orioles sweep get you down - this is a very exciting young team capable of doing some very exciting things.
5. New York Mets. The internet's favorite punchline has strung together a 48-40 record without arguably the best player on the team. They've somehow survived all the drama and fits of perceived incompetence and risen above - even flourished. They're not boring. They've never been boring.
Top Five Disappointing Teams
1. Seattle Mariners. The M's were supposed to ride pitching and defense into playoff contention. The pitching has been there. The defense has been there. The offense, though, apparently felt left out, got upset, and decided to stay home. Few 2010 scenarios had the Mariners trading Cliff Lee in early July, and right or wrong, the Zduriencik front office has seen its celebrity status dealt a massive humbling blow.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks. This one's a little hard, since so much depended on the health of Brandon Webb and I don't want to hold a team responsible for one guy's difficulty recovering from an injury, but Webb isn't the reason this team is 34-55. Home runs are the reason this team is 34-55. Opponents have posted an .810 OPS against Arizona pitching this season. The Yankee offense as a whole has an OPS of .787.
3. Minnesota Twins. The Twins are good, and they're better than this, but they surrendered a 4.5-game division lead in a month and now sit well behind two rivals. Does anybody realize that Joe Mauer has a .792 OPS? The star power is there, but they need more players to step up. They really could've used Cliff Lee.
4. St. Louis Cardinals. Before the year, I went on the radio and predicted that the Cardinals would take the NL Central by such a big margin that they could bench Pujols all year and still come out on top. No dice. Granted, part of that is the success of the Reds, but part of that is that the Cards have underachieved. The only reason they're fourth here instead of second is because I actually think they've performed better than their record, but now they're in line for a more competitive second half than certainly I was expecting.
5. Baltimore Orioles. The O's have Matt Wieters. The O's have Adam Jones. The O's have Nick Markakis, and Chris Tillman, and Jake Arrieta, and Brian Matusz. And the O's have the worst record in baseball. I get that the competition is stiff. They still shouldn't be as bad as they are. The key to participating in a hopeless division race is to at least pretend like you have a prayer for a little while.
Top Five Hitters
1. Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera's end to 2009 was as low an end as any player's had in quite some time. Now, at 2010's midway point, he leads all of baseball in OPS. It's funny how nobody's talking about his drinking problems anymore. Except me, right now. ooh edgy
2. Justin Morneau. If you're wondering what happened to Joe Mauer's power, it was absorbed by his first baseman. Morneau won the MVP in 2006 by posting a .934 OPS. His OPS now is higher by 121 points.
3. Josh Hamilton. Earlier in the year I expressed some concern that the Rangers might not be able to survive offensively without Nelson Cruz when he twice landed on the DL. Hamilton didn't take kindly to my worries, and is slugging .625. Since June 4th he's slugged .815.
4. Joey Votto. Votto garnered a lot of attention when he was initially left off the NL All-Star roster, but before that, he was probably the most underrated player in baseball. Now that designation might fall right back on Adrian Gonzalez, who people still don't realize is as good as he is because he plays in a park that kills hitters. Wait, I think I'm supposed to be talking about Joey Votto. Joey Votto is really good.
5. Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis is doing the exact same thing he did in 2009, which was the exact same thing he did in 2008. The only difference is that now he's making a lot more contact. I'm not sure people realize how productive he is. Probably because he's really ugly, and people assume that ugly people aren't very good at things. Which I suppose is a fair assumption.
Top Five Pitchers
1. Francisco Liriano. I was surprised too when I looked at the numbers. Turns out Liriano is doing everything he used to do before he got hurt. He's striking people out. He's limiting his walks. He's keeping the ball on the ground. Liriano's only 26, and through three months now he's outpitched every other starter in baseball. He's back. Boy is he ever back.
2. Josh Johnson. Another underrated young ace who many figured had been irreparably damaged by Tommy John Surgery earlier in his career. Yeah, nope. Johnson does everything that Liriano does. He just does it in a different league.
3. Roy Halladay. The Phillies can't be feeling too good about their Cliff Lee trade right now, but at least the ace they got to replace him has been everything they could've dreamed of. All of his skills have translated to the NL without any problem, and the only possible complaint is that he's kind of dull in how unthinkably awesome he is.
4. Cliff Lee. Like Halladay without the groundballs, Lee has as many walks as complete games. Read that again. Now read that again. Which sentence are you reading right now? Is this confusing you as much as it's confusing me?
5. Jon Lester. People are probably going to yell at me for choosing Lester over guys like Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jimenez, but to do what Lester's done, in that league, in that division, is nothing short of phenomenal. Also, he had cancer in 2006. The only thing keeping Jon Lester from being one of America's favorite stories is that he plays for the Red Sox.
Bottom Five Hitters
1. Brandon Wood. The Angels' big-time power prospect was supposed to make up for the loss of Chone Figgins. He has posted a .418 OPS, with four walks and 50 strikeouts. He even got sent to AAA Salt Lake for a brief spell, where his OPS was .496. Brandon Wood's OPS is lower than Joey Votto's OBP. Though he's only 25, it's difficult to imagine this guy ever going on to have real, sustained big league success.
2. Ken Griffey Jr. This hurts me, so I'll just say I'm glad Griffey didn't try to stick around any longer than he did. I have never in my life seen a hitter in the Major Leagues look so helpless.
3. Garret Anderson. Not the best year for Angels present or past. Kendry Morales hurt himself celebrating a home run, Brandon Wood can't even get the chance to hurt himself celebrating a home run, and Garret Anderson is embarrassing himself an hour north of where he made his name.
Bottom Five Pitchers
1. Dontrelle Willis. So far in 2010, Dontrelle Willis has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 0.84. This is a big, promising departure from 2009's 0.61, and 2008's 0.51. At this rate, he should hit the league average in something like eight years. I know people want to love Dontrelle and wish him well, but perhaps it's time we wish him well in another line of work.
2. Scott Kazmir. Kazmir just allowed 13 runs in one game against the light-hitting Oakland Athletics. He's lost the ability to strike people out, his walks are out of control, and everything's getting hit out of the park. Fortunately, he's only going to cost the Angels twelve million dollars next season.
3. Nick Blackburn. In case you've ever wondered if a Major League pitcher can succeed without ever striking anybody out, don't.
5. Ian Snell. Dontrelle Willis without the continued playing time. People say Snell still has electric stuff, but believe me, I've watched a lot of Ian Snell, and I don't see it. So he can throw a ball 93. So can Miguel Batista. Snell throws a fastball with decent velocity. The rest of the package sucks.
Top Five No-Hitters/Perfect Games
1. Roy Halladay, May 29th. Good efficiency and 11 strikeouts against a reasonable lineup. Halladay was overdue for a game like this, and in true Halladay fashion, he handled it with modesty and humility. Unlike another guy on this list.
2. Armando Galarraga, June 2nd. The only 28-out perfect game in history, what was truly most amazing about Galarraga's effort is that it came from a lousy pitcher. Everything about that game was weird.
3. Dallas Braden, May 9th. Cheers to Dallas Braden for an outstanding performance. Jeers to Dallas Braden for drawing more attention to himself since I find him completely insufferable. I wish Dallas Braden and Dontrelle Willis would swap results.
4. Ubaldo Jimenez, April 17th. With six walks and just seven strikeouts, this wasn't actually one of Jimenez's best early performances, statistically, but he didn't allow a single line drive, and as a result, he didn't allow a single hit. He even struck out Jason Heyward twice, which, if you remember what Jason Heyward was doing early on, should probably push Ubaldo up past Braden on this list. Ehh
5. Edwin Jackson, June 25th. This was an ugly game but an amazing game, as Jackson had seven walks and 68 pitches through the first three innings. It's worth noting that, following his 149-pitch no-hitter, he was poor in his next two starts. Worth it? I don't know. I don't care.
Top Five Moments
1. Daniel Nava's first-pitch grand slam. I probably don't need to recount the whole Nava story to you, but I still want to, because it's awesome. Nava got cut in college, wasn't drafted, and was purchased by the Red Sox away from an indy league team for a dollar. He made it all the way to the bigs and hit a grand slam on the first pitch he ever saw. It doesn't matter if Nava ever sticks around or wins a World Series. He's already had his Hollywood ending.
2. Jason Heyward's home run in his debut. Just watch the video. The anticipation, the chanting, the no-doubt-about-it swing and distance - Heyward may never deliver a more perfect home run.
3. Everything about Stephen Strasburg's debut. You'll notice a theme here: debuts. The best headline I saw on the game was Beyond The Box Score's "Hype Fails To Live Up To Stephen Strasburg." That's a great way to put it. In front of a packed house, with the country's undivided attention, Strasburg struck out 14 big league hitters without a single walk, every strikeout earning a bigger roar than the strikeout before. That's a game that's going to stick with me for years. I can still see his breaking ball when I close my eyes.
4. Brooks Conrad's walk-off grand slam. Coming back from a six-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth is big enough. Capping it off with a grand slam hit by some no-name journeyman is the stuff of legends. Conrad hasn't done a whole lot since the big dinger, but he doesn't have to. His name won't soon be forgotten.
5. Armando Galarraga presents Detroit's lineup card to Jim Joyce. Despite the initial devastation, one could argue that Joyce's blown call in Galarraga's perfect game wound up a net positive, as parents and children the country around were reminded that, even in the year 2010, sportsmanship in the professional ranks isn't dead. Galarraga and Joyce handled the incident with such mastery and grace that one almost begins to suspect it was scripted.
Top Five Breakthrough Performances
1. Brennan Boesch. Two years ago, Boesch was a 23 year old with a sub-.800 OPS in A-ball. A year ago he made some gains, but he still wasn't seen as much of a prospect. Now it's 2010 and at the All-Star break, Boesch is out-hitting Albert Pujols. He isn't going to sustain his current performance, but he doesn't have to. He's shown that he can put the bat on the ball and hit for power. The Tigers knew they'd need to find some protection for Miguel Cabrera, but I doubt they ever thought they'd find it in-house.
2. Colby Lewis. Did you know that one of the AL's best #2 starters was a free agent last offseason? Did you know he signed a two-year contract for five million dollars? Lewis was a bust in the States, so he went to Japan, where he learned to be awesome. He has since returned and continued being awesome, being a huge stabilizing force for a Rangers rotation that no one's ever trusted. Lewis has to be seen as one of the best investments any team has made in a year.
3. Andres Torres. Torres is a remarkable story. A guy with a lot of speed, Torres spent the early part of his career as something of a groundballing slap-hitter. When he realized he wasn't being very productive, he took to completely re-tooling his swing, and he started to have a lot of success in AAA. He carried it over into San Francisco as a backup outfielder in 2009, but now he's proven himself in what's become a starting role in 2010. With Mark DeRosa injured and Aaron Rowand struggling, the Giants could've sunk. In large part because of Torres, they haven't.
4. Jose Bautista. Through his first 2000 big league trips to the plate, Bautista slugged .400, with one home run per 35 PAs. In 2010, he's improved to .543, with one home run per 15 PAs. The Blue Jays, for a long time, were staying competitive by beating the crap out of the ball, and Bautista was one of the biggest contributors. Just 29, the former disappointing prospect has put himself back on the map by finally tapping into what once made him interesting.
5. Mat Latos. Given the recent history of the Padres' farm system, it would've been enough for Latos to come up and serve as a decent #4 or something, like Brian Tollberg that one time. Instead, Latos has shot forward and developed into an ace at the age of 22 and made everyone forget that Jake Peavy ever existed. They say the Padres are in the race because of smoke and mirrors. More accurately, it's smoke, mirrors, relief, and Mat Latos. He doesn't do a whole lot wrong.
Top Five Things You Should Know About The Royals
1. Billy Butler isn't a bust. Remember how Baseball America really loved him and then he came up and didn't wow anybody? He's actually been a good big league hitter for a year and a half!
2. David DeJesus is one of the better all-around outfielders in baseball. You've seen the Royals, and you've seen the name "David DeJesus," and you've figured he was just some nobody Latin kid in the outfield. He's actually quite talented! He doesn't do any one thing like a superstar, but he doesn't really have any weaknesses, with the total package making him a good value. He's going to have a long, boring career.
3. Joakim Soria is amazing. Did you know that, since 2007, Soria's ERA is only 16 points worse than Mariano Rivera's, and 12 points better than Jonathan Papelbon's? He's an elite-level closer! The Royals have someone elite!
4. The farm system is good. I saw a Tweet a week or two ago that read, "Is anybody's system having a better year than Kansas City's?" Mike Moustakas is the big name, as the 21 year old has a 1.100 OPS in AA. Left starter Mike Montgomery is advancing quickly. Eric Hosmer is blowing up in high-A. Kila Ka'aihue is tearing up AAA. And so on, and so forth. Losing a lot helps a system, but it seems the Dayton Moore front office isn't all bad. They've collected a very strong set of top prospects.
5. The Royals have been referred to on The Simpsons on two separate occasions. In one, a book is seen with the title Kansas City Royals: Champions Forever. In another, there exists a Radioactive Man comic titled Radioactive Man Meets The Kansas City Royals.
Top Five Remaining Trade Targets Now That Cliff Lee Has Been Dealt
1. Dan Haren. There are a number of reasons why Haren may not get traded, but if he is, he'll be a prize. He's still putting up strong peripheral statistics, his home run rate is flukishly unsustainable, he's proven himself in both leagues, and he's signed to a reasonable long-term contract. Nevermind the ERA. He's an ace.
2. Ricky Nolasco. If the Marlins decide to move Nolasco, he should bring back a bounty, because though a lot of people don't realize it, Ricky Nolasco's a really good pitcher. Over the last three years, he's run a K/BB of 4.4. He throws strikes, he misses bats, and he's durable. He's kind of like Javier Vazquez without the chapter where he sucks in New York.
3. Roy Oswalt. Another ace on the market who is very talented, but whose value is lowered by the big $16m 2011 price tag. Oswalt's having another strong year, and he's doing it again in a tiny ballpark. He just seems like the kind of guy who could put a team on his diminutive back for the playoffs, you know?
4. Adam Dunn. Contract talks with the Nationals seem to have fallen apart, putting Dunn on the market. All he's doing is slugging .588. Dunn is a short-term answer for any team in search of a big middle-of-the-order bat, as he's well on pace to hit 38 or more home runs for the seventh consecutive season.
5. Dan Uggla. Though he's not the world's most athletic second baseman, Uggla can handle himself in the middle infield, and he hits like a DH. There are concerns about the money he'll be owed the rest of the way and in 2011, but there are no concerns about what Uggla brings to the table, and how much he could help the middle of a team's order.
Top Five Laziestes
1. Hanley Ramirez
2. Hanley Ramirez
3. Hanley Ramirez
5. Hanley Ramirez
Top Five AL World Series Contenders
1. New York Yankees. Even if they sit still and don't make a move, they have perhaps the AL's best lineup, and perhaps the AL's best rotation. They have the league's best record for a reason, and they're only better than the version of themselves that won the Series a year ago. There just aren't many holes. I don't know that there are any holes.
2. Tampa Bay Rays. The annoying little team that's keeping up with the Yankees, the Rays don't excel at the plate, but they do excel on the mound and in the field. The front of the rotation is impressive, the top of the bullpen is strong, and there's enough ability in the lineup to keep the team winning. You know who could really fit here? Adam Dunn.
3. Boston Red Sox. Finishing off the AL East triumvirate, the Red Sox are only down because they're beat up, and they won't be beat up forever. Players will come back, and the team will improve. If Josh Beckett shows up and pitches well, then they can throw him in there with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz and conveniently forget about the troublesome #4 and #5 slots should they make the playoffs. Which isn't a guarantee, but if they make it, they'll be tough.
4. Texas Rangers. I don't know quite how well the Rangers stack up against the beasts of the East, but I know the Cliff Lee acquisition was a huge, huge help. All of a sudden, with Lee, Colby Lewis, CJ Wilson, and Neftali Feliz, the Rangers have an impressive playoff pitching staff. Before the Lee move, I thought Texas might just roll over in the postseason. With Lee, they have at least one game where they'll arguably have the pitching edge over anyone.
5. Minnesota Twins. I know they're in third place right now, and it was hard for me to pick between them and the Tigers here, but I had to give a narrow edge to the team with the Mauer/Morneau/Thome/Liriano/Pavano core. If they make a move, as they nearly did with Cliff Lee, so much the better. This team is a good deal worse than the four above it in this list, but with a guy like Liriano and those three names in the order, funny things can happen in the playoffs.
Top Five NL World Series Contenders
1. St. Louis Cardinals. Putting a team that's presently out of the playoff picture at #1 won't win me any fans outside of St. Louis, but their top three starters have a combined 2.54 ERA and their lineup has Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Ryan Ludwick, and Colby Rasmus. There is a lot of star power on this roster, and star power - top-level talent - is the biggest advantage come playoff time. Nobody cares about depth in the playoffs. People care about a team's best players. St. Louis' best players make for what I consider the strongest unit in the NL.
2. San Francisco Giants. The fourth-place San Francisco Giants, mind you. The fourth-place San Francisco Giants have a very solid rotation led by one Tim Lincecum, they have an underrated intimidator in Brian Wilson, and they've answered one of their biggest offensive concerns with Buster Posey. With continued success from Aubrey Huff, I expect them to make a strong push, and if they get into October, they'll be scary.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers. If you can't tell, I place a big emphasis on starting pitching in the playoffs, and the Dodgers can come at a team with Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, and an underrated Hiroki Kuroda. There aren't any questions about Jon Broxton in the bullpen, and the lineup produces enough runs to offset the runs they give up in the field. Right now they only really have one offensive hole, and that's at catcher, where you can accept a lesser performance. As much as I like the Padres, I'm worried they might be too thin.
4. Atlanta Braves. I have to say, I'm uncertain about how Jason Heyward's injury is going to affect him the rest of the way, and that lineup really needs him to produce. I'm also not completely sold on Tim Hudson's ERA. Tommy Hanson, though, is very good, and even if Alex Gonzalez doesn't produce as he did with Toronto, he should still improve on what the Braves had been getting from shortstop. This isn't an elite team, but it's a good one.
5. Philadelphia Phillies. Much of the core is older and worse, but that's still a core that's taken the team to two straight World Series. With the familiar pieces in place behind an ace in Roy Halladay, the Phillies are health and a hot streak away from again being in position to make a whole lot of noise.