SweetSpot: Houston Astros

I better write something about Wade Davis since the Royals' setup guy is having a terrific season -- 8-2, 0.77 ERA, five runs allowed with 87 strikeouts and just 28 hits in 58.1 innings entering Thursday. He hasn't allowed a run in his past 25 appearances, a span of 24.2 innings.

As unhittable as he's been, I just learned this from a comment on a Joe Posnanski story about Alex Gordon's MVP chances:
MoreHRs&LesNorman
August 28, 2014 at 10:17 pm

Joe–Please find video of the two “extra base hits” Davis has given up. The first was hit like a single but hit to left-center. It didn’t get to the wall, but it was enough for a double. The second was an opposite field bloop hit against the shift. Davis has not allowed a ball over the wall, a ball hit to the wall or a ball hit up the line ALL SEASON!!!


Sure enough, Davis has allowed just two doubles, no triples and no home runs. I went to the video.

On July 31, Kurt Suzuki lined an 0-1 curveball down the left-field line that Gordon scooped up before it hit the wall, but deep enough that Suzuki cruised into second.

On Aug. 15, Joe Mauer sliced a blooper right on the left-field foul line. Gordon actually made a diving effort and got there, but the ball popped out of his glove when it hit the turf.

So two doubles, only one struck well. Pretty amazing. I'm sure he's allowed other well-struck balls, of course, but only Suzuki's went for extra bases.

Overall, Davis has allowed a batting average of .139 and a slugging percentage of .149, giving him an "isolated power" allowed figure of .010. I assumed that would be the lowest ever (minimum 50 innings), but it's not. A reliever named Frank Williams for the 1986 Giants had an isolated power allowed of .006. In 52.1 innings, Williams allowed 35 hits -- just one for extra bases, a double. (He also allowed just one stolen bases while nine guys were caught stealing on his watch ... wow.) The Giants thought so much of his performance they traded him to the Reds in the offseason for outfielder Eddie Milner.

(Williams' story is interesting but sad. He started one game in his career ... and threw a shutout, as a rookie in 1984. According to this story by Tom Hawthorn of the Toronto Globe and Mail, Williams' best pitch was a slurve of sorts that he gripped deep in the palm of his hand. You can see from the baseball card photo in that story that Williams threw from a sidearm or three-quarters delivery. He took part in tough-man boxing matches in Idaho in the offseason. After his career ended, he explored his Native American roots, but his life fell apart with drug and alcohol use and the death of his twin brother and he eventually ended up living on the streets of Victoria, B.C., and died in 2009.)

Back to Davis. The lowest isolated power figures going back to 1957, from the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index:

1. Williams, .006
2. Davis, .010
3. Jim Johnson, 2008 Orioles, .016
4. Kevin Cameron, 2007, .023
5. Rob Murphy, 1986 Reds, .024

Nearly all of the pitchers at the top of the list are relievers. The only full-time starter to crack the top 75 is Nolan Ryan, in the 1981 strike season, pitching for the Astros. He allowed 99 hits that year in 149 innings -- just 10 for extra bases (seven doubles, one triple, two home runs). His ISO of .028 ranks eighth.

Davis' comeback from a bad 2013 season is a testament to his mental toughness as well -- he was one of the least valuable players in baseball last year when he went 6-10 with a 5.67 ERA in 24 starts before being mercifully moved to the bullpen, where he had excelled with Tampa Bay in 2012.

Obviously, his stuff plays up much better in shorter stints. I thought the Royals made the right decision a year ago to give him one more chance at starting, although Ned Yost waited too long to remove him from the rotation. Now he's one part of that awesome trio of Kansas City relievers, along with Kelvin Herrera and closer Greg Holland, a key reason the Royals lead the AL Central.

Watch out for these spoilers

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
1:11
AM ET


Let's take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to discuss some of the teams on the fringes of the playoff races or those that have already made their October reservations at their favorite golf courses.

These teams are usually known as spoilers, but in this Year of Parity it's probable that one of them will actually go into the final week of the season with a chance to win a wild card. These are five teams currently under .500 that I expect to play well down the stretch.

1. Miami Marlins
[+] EnlargeGiancarlo Stanton
AP Photo/Joe SkipperGiancarlo Stanton is a big reason why contenders won't want to face the Marlins down the stretch.

We saw what can make them so dangerous on Tuesday, when they beat Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals 3-0 behind new acquisition Jarred Cosart, who pitched seven innings of three-hit baseball. Cosart has a good arm and throws a hard sinking fastball that generates a lot of ground balls -- when he can throw it for strikes as he did against the Cardinals with just one walk. The Astros were willing to punt on him after he had four straight bad starts in July and some perceived attitude problems that he didn't take well to instruction didn't help. Maybe a change of scenery will help; he's just 24 with 32 career starts now, young enough for things to click.

The Marlins are 59-60, and while they're mediocre, they're a young team incentivized to win and they have one of the No. 1 guys in the game who can beat you, Giancarlo Stanton. Witness Monday night, when his two bombs powered the Marlins to a 6-5 win over the Cardinals. They're just 3.5 games out of the second wild card -- thank you, National League -- so they certainly aren't out of the playoff picture. But until All-Star Henderson Alvarez returns, the rotation is shaky enough that veteran Brad Penny started the other day and won his first game since 2011.

Watch out: Braves (six games remaining) and Nationals (eight games).

2. Tampa Bay Rays

Like the Marlins, they're hanging in there at 5.5 games out of the second wild card, although they'd have to pass five teams to secure that position. Still, even without David Price, this could be a team that reels off nine wins in 10 games and suddenly gets right back in the thick of things.

Guess which team has the allowed the fewest runs per game since the All-Star break? That's why you can't count out the Rays just yet.

Plus, Evan Longoria has a big hot streak in him, right?

Watch out: Yankees (nine games), Blue Jays (nine games), Orioles (seven games).

3. Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are out of it, but they've arguably been better than their 51-67 record indicates. As Jeff Sullivan wrote at FanGraphs the other day, the Cubs and Royals have basically the same BaseRuns record. What the heck does that mean? Just more sabermetric gobbledy gook? BaseRuns calculates how many runs a team "should" have scored or allowed, given a team's component statistics. Basically, the difference is that the Royals have been clutch and the Cubs have not.

What's that mean over the final weeks? Clutch isn't viewed in sabermetric circles as a predictable and repeatable skill, so it's possible the Cubs clutch up down the stretch and improve their hitting and pitching with runners on base or in close games or what have you.

Plus, the Cubs have some weapons that can beat you. Kyle Hendricks continues to look good in the rotation, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 3-0 on Tuesday. Anthony Rizzo is a power bat in the middle of the lineup -- he hit his 26th home run -- and young guys such as Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara could be intriguing down the stretch. Jake Arrieta had the one blowup start last week but has otherwise been pitching like a No. 1; you don't want to face him. Plus, we may see Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler called up as well.

Watch out: Brewers (eight games), Cardinals (seven games), Pirates (six games).

4. San Diego Padres

The Padres? The team that hit .171 in June? Yes, the Padres. But they can pitch and have gone 14-8 since the All-Star break. In particular, you don't want to run into Tyson Ross, who hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of his past nine starts.

Watch out: Dodgers (nine games), Giants (seven games), Cardinals (four games).

5. Houston Astros

Well, I don't know about the Astros, but Chris Carter can single-handedly beat you with one three-run homer. He homered again on Tuesday and leads the majors with 15 big ones since the beginning of July -- five more than Stanton, the No. 2 guy. With 36 RBIs in 33 games, he has delivered a lot of damage lately. The pitching hasn't been very good of late, but the Astros have played well at times this year. Once George Springer returns to join Carter and Jose Altuve in the lineup, there may be just enough offense here to scare up some wins.

Watch out: A's (six games), Mariners (six games), Angels (five games).
More bizarre news emanating from the 2017 World Series champions: Over the weekend, the Astros promoted Mark Appel, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, from Class A Lancaster to Double-A, despite terrible overall numbers at Lancaster. But he stopped by Houston on his way to Corpus Christi to throw a bullpen session, which angered Astros players. Via Houston Chronicle reporter Jose de Jesus Ortiz and Drew Silva of Hardball Talk, one Astros player said, "It's (expletive) unbelievable," about Appel throwing that bullpen.

In other words: You have to earn your way to the big leagues. Even to throw a bullpen session.

As Ortiz tweeted, "In a sport that prides itself on having guys pay dues, the Astros didn't help perception in clubhouse that Appel is being babied."

Look, the whole "paying your dues" thing in baseball has created a terrible caste system, where poorly paid minor leaguers are forced to eat peanut and jelly sandwiches or unhealthy fast food because they can't afford to eat better, but the system is the system and the Astros clearly ticked off players on the current major league roster.

At Lancaster, Appel had a 9.74 ERA in 12 starts, allowing 74 hits and nine home runs in 44.1 innings. For a supposedly polished college pitcher who was the No. 1 overall pick, Appel should be dominating Class A pitchers, even in a hitter's heaven like Lancaster. Early on, Appel suffered from tendinitis in his right thumb and recently the Astros reported he'd been pitching through a wrist problem that required a cortisone shot. Maybe that explains some of the numbers; but he's healthy enough to pitch and has been lit up.

Maybe the Astros just figured they needed to get Appel out of Lancaster. His last start was a good one -- five hits, seven strikeouts, no walks in six innings -- but he'd been roughed up for 20 hits and 14 runs in six innings over his two previous starts. Those two starts came in Lancaster; the last one was in Stockton. Still, you can't defend the promotion based on performance.

Chris Rodriguez of Baseball Prospectus wrote a scouting report on Appel last week:
Appel's struggles are not simply explained by his delivery or command. What many other sources have noticed and written about Appel is his lack of pitchability. Appel's stuff is good; in his July 10th start, Appel's fastball touched 96 mph a couple times, sitting mostly 91-95. Early in his start, it was 94-96 mph. As the start progressed he seemed to tire, and kept pitching out of jams using mostly his slider and changeup. The fastball velocity dipped, and in his last inning sat only 91-93 mph. Most of the 13 hits off of him that evening were off his fastball, which was flat and up in the zone. He made no adjustment with his tempo throughout the game, keeping the same pace, which made it very easy for the opponent to time. He also made no adjustment with his pitch sequence, going to his fastball every time he was behind in the count, which was often a flat 93 mph get-me-over offering. He rarely attacked. It seemed he was simply going through the motions, and he didn’t show any emotion on the mound or in the dugout once he was removed from the game. While it's not a requirement to show some fire, when you pitch like you're scared of the opponent it doesn't look good.


Not the kind of report you want to read about the guy drafted one spot ahead of Kris Bryant.

This is simply the latest questionable episode to rock the Astros' world, from the public leak of internal trade discussion notes to the failed negotiations with this year's No. 1 overall pick, Brady Aiken. Really, going back to the handling of George Springer -- starting him in the minor leagues to save on service time after offering him a low-ball seven-year, $23 million contract -- it's been a bad year for the Astros. The big league team had started to play better when that Sports Illustrated cover appeared, but has gone 10-25 in its last 35 games.

There is a potential trickle-down effect of the Springer, Aiken and Appel situations: The Astros are arguably developing a bad reputation among players. When the team is ready to compete and may need to sign free agents to fill out holes on the roster, will players want to play there? Sure, in the end money talks and the Astros will have money to spend considering the youth on their rosters, but they may find it difficult to attract players (let alone keep their homegrown stars if they feel they've been mistreated by the organization).

Investing in analytics is a nice story, especially for us numbers geeks. Tanking, while despicable, may prove to be a smart strategy. But before we praise the Astros, let's see if their "new way of doing things" actually works.




Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

video

One player won't make or break a team's playoff push, but here is one key guy for each American League club in the second half.

Baltimore Orioles -- Chris Davis
Let's divide Davis' last two years into halves:

Second half, 2012: .269/.337/.530, .338 BABIP, .261 ISO, 32% SO, 8% BB, 31% HR/FB
First half, 2013: .315/.392/.717, .355 BABIP, .402 ISO, 28% SO, 10% BB, 33% HR/FB
Second half, 2013: .245/.339/.515, .309 BABIP, .270 ISO, 32% SO, 12% BB, 21% HR/FB
First half, 2014: .199/.309/.391, .252 BABIP, .192 ISO, 32% SO, 12% BB, 23% HR/FB

I don't know what to make of any of this, except that Davis is probably not as good as the first half of 2013 and not as bad as the first half of 2014. A major reason the Orioles need a better second half from Davis is that among AL players with at least 200 plate appearances, Steve Pearce ranked fourth in wOBA in the first half and Nelson Cruz ranked 11th. Assuming some decline from those two, Davis will have to pick up the slack.


Toronto Blue Jays: Colby Rasmus
Everybody keeps talking about the Blue Jays needing a starter, but from June 1 through the All-Star break only the Red Sox scored fewer runs than the Jays -- and now Edwin Encarnacion is out a few weeks with a quad injury. Rasmus hit .212/.266/.453 in the first half; the 12 home runs were nice, nothing else was. He hit .276 with a .338 OBP last year so there's hope for a turnaround.

New York Yankees: Masahiro Tanaka
I don't see how the Yankees climb back into this thing with an injury-depleted, makeshift rotation and an aging lineup that is more old than simply disappointing. The slim chance the Yankees have of winning the East or a wild card rests on the ultimate health of Tanaka's elbow. Maybe more importantly, the state of the 2015 Yankees rests on the health of Tanaka's elbow.

Tampa Bay Rays: Evan Longoria
David Price is the important Tampa player to the rest of baseball, but before the Rays pack it in and trade Price, they're going to see if they can get to within four or five games of first place by the July 31 deadline. To do that, they need Longoria to heat up. He wasn't terrible in the first half, but a .386 slugging percentage is well below his .512 career mark entering the season.

Boston Red Sox: Xander Bogaerts
The young infielder was hitting .296/.389/.427 through June 1, outstanding numbers for a 21-year-old shortstop. Then the Red Sox activated Stephen Drew and moved Bogaerts to third base and he hit .140 with 37 strikeouts and five walks through the All-Star break. Did the position change affect his mental state? Is it simply a failure to adjust to how pitchers have attacked? The final two-plus months may tell us a lot about his future stardom.

Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander
Last year, the Tigers had a Big Four rotation with Max Scherzer, Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. They traded Fister, and Verlander went 8-8 with a 4.88 ERA in the first half, so it's really down to the Big Two, although Rick Porcello's improvement has added a strong third guy in place of Verlander. Among 86 AL pitchers with at least 50 innings, Verlander is 72nd in ERA. He's underperformed his peripherals a little bit -- 4.02 FIP, 4.46 xFIP -- but even the peripherals are a far cry from peak Verlander.

How far has Verlander fallen? In 2011 and 2012 he had 29 regular starts of eight or more innings. Last year he had three. This year he has one. Right-handers are hitting .329/.377/.505 off him; hard to believe that a guy that was so dominant as recently as last postseason has struggled so severely against same-side hitters. The Tigers don't need a strong Verlander to win the division, but they do want to see a guy they can believe in heading into the playoffs.

Kansas City Royals: Yordano Ventura
Well, yes, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas ... but Ventura (7-7, 3.22) is key because the 23-year-old right-hander is already at 103 innings; he threw 150 last year between the minors and his brief major league stint. He's not a big guy and he relies so much on that upper 90s fastball, meaning you wonder if fatigue will be an issue down the stretch. The Kansas City rotation has been relatively healthy this year -- the Royals have needed just six starts from guys outside their top five (although Jason Vargas will miss a couple weeks after undergoing an appendectomy) -- and any chance of winning the wild card will rest on that rotation remaining healthy.

Cleveland Indians: Nick Swisher
The Indians finished the first half at .500, pretty remarkable considering the number of awful performances they received: Swisher hit .208 with a .288 OBP, Carlos Santana hit .207, Justin Masterson had a 5.51 ERA before finally hitting the DL with a bad knee, Ryan Raburn hit .199, Danny Salazar pitched his way back to the minors and Jason Kipnis' numbers are way down. So there's some second-half upside here, especially from Swisher, who shouldn't have lost his skills overnight at 33.

Chicago White Sox: Chris Sale/Jose Abreu
The White Sox aren't going anywhere so it's all about Sale chasing a Cy Young Award (that may be tough even though he leads the AL in ERA and WHIP as he's pitched 50 fewer innings than Felix Hernandez) and Abreu chasing 50 home runs.

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer
Mauer hit .271/.342/.353 in the first half with two home runs. He has four more years on his contract after this one at $23 million per year. Was it just a bad three months? Is it the concussion he suffered late last season? The Twins figured that with his .400-plus OBP skills, he'd remain one of the best players in the game, even moving to first base. But after being worth 5.3 WAR last year, he's been worth 0.7 this year. A singles-hitting first baseman doesn't have a lot of value.

Oakland Athletics: Jeff Samardzija
He doesn't have to be the staff ace, not with Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray around, but he's under fire to prove his first half with the Cubs was a true improvement. Remember, he had a 4.34 ERA with the Cubs in 2013. Most importantly, Billy Beane acquired Samardzija and Jason Hammel to help the A's win the AL West -- but a red-hot Angels team narrowed the deficit to a mere 1.5 games at the break. Considering Gray is in his first full season and Kazmir hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2007, Samardzija will be expected to be a workhorse for Oakland, the guy who goes seven or eight innings every start to prevent the bullpen from getting burned out.

Los Angeles Angels: Josh Hamilton
I could point to Garrett Richards, who pitched like an ace in the first half, but I think he'll pitch close to that level in the second half; he's the real deal. So let's turn to Hamilton, who hit .295/.373/.449 in the first half with five home runs in the 46 games he played. The good news is this:

SportsNation

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2012 chase rate: 42.5 percent
2013 chase rate: 37.5 percent
2014 chase rate: 36.1 percent

He's continued to cut down on his free-swinging ways. The bad news is that he's struck out 52 times in 36 games since returning from the DL, with just three home runs. With Mike Trout crushing it and Albert Pujols on pace for 34 home runs, having a third big power threat would add even more to a lineup that led the AL in runs in the first half.

Seattle Mariners: Taijuan Walker
We know the Mariners have to improve the offense, but that's most likely going to have to come via a trade rather than internal improvement. We know Hernandez is great and that Hisashi Iwakuma remains a hidden gem. Chris Young had a terrific first half -- remember the whole Randy Wolf controversy, which basically allowed Young to come to Seattle in the first place? -- but Roenis Elias has struggled of late. That means Walker needs to find some consistency. As bad as the offense has been, Seattle has basically punted the fifth spot in the rotation all year with Erasmo Ramirez (4.58 ERA in 11 starts) and Brandon Maurer (7.52 in seven starts). If Walker lives up to his hype, he'll be a big improvement.

Houston Astros: Jon Singleton
We've seen George Springer flash his potential. Now it's time for Singleton to start doing the same.

Texas Rangers: Rougned Odor
There's not much to watch with the Rangers in the second half, but Jurickson Profar's injury forced Odor to the majors earlier than anticipated. He's held his own so far but a strong second half could lead to an interesting position battle next spring with Profar.
OK, we're actually well past 81 games, but we tend to divide the season at the All-Star break, even if that's not the true halfway point. Here's my list of the 10 biggest stories of the first half:

1. The rash of Tommy John surgeries.

On the heels of Matt Harvey going down late in 2013 and missing this season, this year's Tommy John surgeries have included Jose Fernandez, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Brandon Beachy, Ivan Nova, Bronson Arroyo, David Hernandez, Bobby Parnell, Josh Johnson, Luke Hochevar and Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon. Plus there's the possibility that Yankees rookie Masahiro Tanaka will need the surgery if six weeks of rest doesn't help his elbow. That's a devastating loss of talent and has led to much discussion on how to better prevent all these injuries.

2. Best-in-baseball A's make huge trade.

Even with the season-ending injuries to Parker and Griffin and the offseason departure of Bartolo Colon, Oakland had soared to the best record in baseball with easily the best run differential. And Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray had been terrific at the front end of the rotation. But, worried about depth and fatigue, Billy Beane stunned everyone by trading prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney (and pitcher Dan Straily) to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Beane made the move to help hold off the hard-charging Angels; but at the break Oakland's lead was down to a slim 1.5 games.

[+] EnlargeHallion
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHas instant replay helped? The answer, at least from players, isn't all positive.
3. Confusion over new instant replay rules.

Catchers blocking home plate, the outfield "transfer" rule, the neighborhood play, managers challenging plays they're not supposed to be allowed to challenge -- expanded instant replay has hardly been a smooth transition. Longer-than-expected delays and inconsistent application has left everyone a little confused at times. Last week, after a play at home plate was not overturned despite evidence that a tag was missed, Jose Bautista said, "This whole replay thing has become a joke in my eyes. I think they should just ban it. They should just get rid of it. I don’t really understand the purpose of it, but getting the right call on the field is not the purpose. That’s pretty obvious and evident."

4. New stars emerge.

Besides Tanaka, we've seen White Sox rookie Jose Abreu crush 29 home runs in the most impressive power display by a rookie since Mark McGwire in 1987. Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton has hit far better than anyone expected while stealing 38 bases and impressing with his defense in center field. George Springer of the Astros didn't make his debut until mid-April and didn't hit his first home run until May 8, but has still clocked 19 home runs, several of light-tower prodigiousness. Yordano Ventura of the Royals has gone 7-7 with a 3.22 ERA while displaying his upper-90s fastball. Yankees reliever Dellin Betances failed as a starter in the minors but has been one of the game's most dominant relievers with 84 strikeouts in 55.1 innings while holding opponents to a .124 batting average.

Those guys aren't just good; they’re exciting. Then we've had breakout non-rookies like Gray (who emerged late last season), Garrett Richards, Corey Kluber, Anthony Rizzo, Devin Mesoraco, Dallas Keuchel, Anthony Rendon, Marcell Ozuna and others. The young talent keeps on coming -- and that's before we get to minor league mashers Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Joey Gallo of the Rangers, two guys we can't wait to see reach the majors.

5. Pitchers continue to dominate.

SportsNation

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Even with all the injuries, offense has still gone down -- if only slightly -- to 4.14 runs per game, which would be the lowest total since 4.12 in 1992. We enter the break with 21 qualified starters holding an ERA under 3.00, and that doesn't include Clayton Kershaw, who is two outs short of qualifying for the leaderboard.

Kershaw (11-2, 1.78 ERA), Adam Wainwright (12-4, 1.83) and Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) highlight a season with many top pitching performers. Those three all have a shot at finishing with 20 wins and a sub-2.00 ERA, a feat accomplished just three times since 1980 -- Roger Clemens in 1990 and Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985. Hernandez enters the break with 11 consecutive starts in which he's pitched at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer, the longest such stretch since Mike Scott had 12 for the Astros in 1986. Kershaw had a 15-strikeout no-hitter with no walks, perfect other than a fielding error behind him. Wainwright hasn't allowed a run in nine of his 19 starts. Brilliance.

6. The Red Sox and Rays both struggle.

The defending champions and the team many expected to win the World Series both hit the break nine games under .500 and 9.5 games out of first place in the AL East. The Rays actually had the worst record in baseball on June 10 at 24-42. They’ve at least played better since then, going 20-11, but it may be too late to fend off the inevitable David Price trade. As for the Red Sox, one of baseball's richest and supposedly smartest franchises is headed for a second losing season sandwiched around its World Series title.

7. The NL Central race.

With four teams separated by 3.5 games, I have no idea who is going to win. But I know it's going to be fun.

[+] EnlargeTrout
AP PhotoHaven't seen much of Mike Trout's strikeout face lately.
8. The Dodgers catch the Giants.

On June 8, the Giants were 42-21 and led the NL West by 9.5 games. Since then, they've gone 10-22 -- only the injury-depleted Rangers have been worse -- and the Dodgers lead by a game. Collapses in June get ignored, but blowing such a big lead in the span of a month is brutal. It sets the stage for what should turn into another classic Giants-Dodgers pennant race.

9. Remember when we were worried about Mike Trout's strikeouts?

On May 19, Trout's average dipped to .263 and he was striking out like Dave Kingman in a bad slump. In 46 games since then, he's hit .356/.440/.701 with 31 extra-base hits. He's on pace for 38 home runs, 126 RBIs and 17 steals while playing good defense in center. He leads the AL in OPS and total bases. He's the best player in the game, he's going to win the AL MVP Award and we should finally see him in the postseason -- and maybe for more than just the wild-card game.

10. The collapse of the Rangers and Phillies.

The Rangers were supposed to be in the midst of a dynasty. The Phillies had become one of the game's power players with their run of division titles. Instead, both teams have declined into oblivion, the Rangers due to an unnatural number of injuries (including season-ending neck surgery for offseason acquisition Prince Fielder) and the Phillies due to the predictable affliction of age. It may be a long time before either is competitive again.


It's the award-winning Rapid Fire! Today, Eric and I discuss the Angels' rotation, more replay confusion, Jose Altuve's chances of winning the batting, Manny Machado and the Orioles and whether Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young Award and more!
Via Jon Heyman and Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk, No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken has an "elbow ligament issue" and the Astros are now trying to sign him to a discounted bonus.

Further proof: Rebuilding is difficult.

It's been a mixed year for the Astros. The positives:
  • Slightly better on-field major league product. They're on pace for 65 wins after going 51-111 last year.
  • The emergence of George Springer as a potential star.
  • Jose Altuve leads the AL with a .337 average and 38 steals. Remember, he's just 24, so if this improvement is for real, the Astros will have a top leadoff hitter for the foreseeable future (he's signed to a team-friendly deal through 2019).
  • Dallas Keuchel has had a breakout performance in the rotation.
  • Collin McHugh was claimed off the scrap heap and the Astros may have found a legitimate major league starter (3.28 ERA through 14 starts with solid peripherals).
  • Jarred Cosart has been OK, at least good enough that he looks like a back-end starter. The Astros may have hoped for more, but Keuchel, McHugh and Cosart at least provide a group to build a rotation around.
  • Top prospect Carlos Correa looked like one of the best players in the minors, hitting .325/.416/.510 as a 19-year-old in the California League.
  • They have the worst record in the majors -- which means they're in line for the first overall pick for the fourth year in a row. (Yes, in a twisted way that's good news.)


OK, now the bad ...
  • Correa broke his leg in late June and will miss the rest of the season.
  • Pitcher Mark Appel, the top overall pick in 2013, has been a complete disaster, with an 8.91 ERA at Class A, allowing 49 hits and eight home runs in 32.1 innings and spending time in extended spring training. Remember, this guy was drafted as a college senior because he was supposed to be a polished, major-league ready starter. He was selected over, among others, Kris Bryant, the second overall pick who has 30 home runs in the high minors. I was dubious about the Appel selection for one obvious reason: He didn't get that much better between his junior and senior seasons at Stanford and he was fairly hittable for a top college prospect. It's certainly too early to write him off, but unless there is some unknown injury issue he has bust potential. The Astros are going to spend many years second-guessing their decision to pass on Bryant.
  • Aiken's possible elbow issue.
  • Jonathan Singleton has hit .168 since his call-up with 46 strikeouts in 32 games. He's flashed that power potential and is young, but the strikeouts are a concern.
  • Jason Castro has failed to follow up his All-Star season with similar numbers.
  • Guys like Robbie Grossman and Jonathan Villar, potentially part of Houston's future, have been awful.
  • The organization was embarrassed by the information leak about its internal trade discussions.


So it's been a mixed year. The farm system is still deep but I don't see any of the club's other top prospects -- Michael Foltynewicz, Lance McCullers, Domingo Santana, Vincent Velasquez, Rio Ruiz -- having taken a big leap forward.

Springer recently made the cover of Sports Illustrated with the declaration "Your 2017 World Series Champs." As this season has proven, however, it's still hard to outsmart everyone else on your way to the top. You still need a lot of good luck along the way. The Astros may be great in 2017 ... or they may not. I don't think 2014 has answered questions about the Astros' future just yet.
Random thoughts for a Monday morning ...

1. As Buster Olney wrote the other day, the Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade just ramped up the cost for David Price. If the Cardinals want him, they better start with Oscar Taveras. If the Dodgers want him, they’re going to have to start with Joc Pederon or Corey Seager.

2. Joey Votto has basically been playing on one leg, so it’s no surprise that it appears he’s heading to the DL. I’ve been saying I still expect a four-team race in the NL Central, but with Votto struggling and Jay Bruce still yet to get untracked (he just snapped an 0-for-26 skid), the Reds are looking like the fourth-best team in that division.

3. Always love the All-Star controversies this time of year. Many deserving players got left off the AL roster -- Chris Sale, part of the final player vote, is one of the top five or six starters in the game. I can’t believe the players actually think Mark Buehrle and Scott Kazmir are better pitchers and have to think they failed to vote for Sale only because of his time on the DL.

4. If Giancarlo Stanton ends up starting at DH for the NL, the backup outfield pool will be pretty weak -- Hunter Pence, Charlie Blackmon and utility man Josh Harrison could end up deciding home-field advantage for the World Series. Of course, Mike Matheny could just play Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig and Carlos Gomez the entire game.

5. That’s one of the incongruous things about Matheny selecting Harrison, Tony Watson and Pat Neshek: He clearly selected them for late-game matchup and versatility, to give the NL a better chance of winning. I certain understand that reasoning. But if winning is so important, then play some of your best players the entire game. Why bench Troy Tulowitzki just to get Starlin Castro a couple of at-bats if you're trying to win the game?

6. While Sale is the guy I’d give my final player vote to in the AL, I hope Garrett Richards eventually finds his way on to the team. He had another great outing on Sunday against the Astros with 11 strikeouts while averaging a career-high 97.3 mph with his fastball. He’s 6-0 with a 1.45 ERA since June 1. That sounds like an All-Star to me.

7. Of course, he faced the strikeout-prone Astros. Rookies George Springer and Jonathan Singleton went a combined 0-for-8 with seven K’s. Singleton is hitting .168 with 46 strikeouts in his first 32 games. Springer’s contact issues have been well documented. Domingo Santana was sent down after whiffing 11 times in his first 13 at-bats. As promising as those three guys are, and while strikeouts aren’t necessarily a bad thing for hitters, you do wonder if you can have too many strikeout-prone hitters in the lineup. We’ll see how these guys develop and whether it becomes a long-term issue for Houston.

8. Underrated: Kole Calhoun.

9. Love the idea of Justin Morneau returning to Minnesota, but Anthony Rendon or Anthony Rizzo are clearly better players and more deserving of final player honors in the NL.

10. Now trending on Twitter: “LeBron James,” “Cleveland” and “Cavs.” How awesome would that be? But it’s not really going to happen, is it?

11. Andrew McCutchen: Making another run at MVP honors. Since June 1, he’s hit .364 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs.

12. Fun to watch play defense: Adam Eaton. Still can’t believe the Diamondbacks traded him and now they’re playing somebody named Ender Inciarte in center field.

13. Fun to watch hit: Jose Abreu. Loved the Abreu-King Felix showdown on Saturday. King Felix won as Abreu went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

14. It’s starting to look like CC Sabathia will miss the rest of the season. Joe Girardi is usually an optimistic guy so if he’s saying Sabathia is done he’s probably done. So here’s a question: What if Sabathia is also finished as a quality pitcher? Hall of Famer? He’s 208-119 in his career with a 3.63 ERA and 54.1 WAR. He can stick around and add some wins and a little bit of WAR, but his winning percentage likely goes down and his ERA likely goes up. He’s close now and while improving his win total with otherwise mediocre pitching shouldn’t be the difference in making him a Hall of Famer at this point, he probably needs to get another 25-30 wins for serious consideration.

15. The Yankees also designated Alfonso Soriano for assignment, no surprise considering his struggles. I’m guessing somebody will give him a chance but with 71 strikeouts and just six walks his free-swinging approach finally got the best of him. Hell of a career though: 412 home runs, 289 stolen bases, seven-time All-Star. He was far from the perfect player but he delivered for a lot of years.

16. Underrated: Kyle Seager.

17. Edwin Encarnacion’s injury should open a spot for Seager or Ian Kinsler to make the All-Star Game.

18. Better than I thought he’d be: Scooter Gennett.

19. Just release Dan Uggla already.

20. Mike Trout needs to be in the Home Run Derby.

21. The Nationals have outscored their opponents by 59 runs. The Padres have been outscored by 51 runs. Both teams have one All-Star.

22. That was a terrific Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, right up there with the famous Federer-Rafael Nadal final. Federer won his first grand slam tournament in 2003 and is still competing for titles 11 years later. Amazing athlete.

23. Among qualified starters, toughest fastball to hit this year: Johnny Cueto, .164 average, .439 OPS.

24. Easiest fastball to hit: Ricky Nolasco has allowed a .364/.422/.618 line against his fastball. No surprise to Twins fans.

25. Easier fastball to hit than you would think: Batters are hitting .337/.381/.516 against Stephen Strasburg’s fastball.

26. Best curveball so far: Corey Kluber has held opponents to an .080 average and .219 OPS. (For comparison, batters have hit .156 against Adam Wainwright’s curve and .173 against Clayton Kershaw’s curve.)

27. Underrated: Corey Kluber.

28. Toughest slider so far: Johnny Cueto, again. Batters are hitting .176 with a .509 OPS against it.

29. Toughest changeup: In 178 plate appearances ending with a changeup, opponents are hitting .110/.136/.151 against Felix Hernandez.

30. I’m not counting the Rays out just yet.

31. Cool All-Star factoid: For the first time in American League history, the eight starting position players will come from eight different teams. Of course, Nelson Cruz is starting at DH, so there will be two Orioles in the starting nine.

32. For all the David Price to the Cardinals rumors, they need to start scoring runs and that’s going to have to happen from within as there just aren’t big impact bats out there (Marlon Byrd?). The Cardinals are 13th in the NL in runs and last in home runs. Trouble is, where’s the power going to come from? Matt Holliday has only five home runs, so he’s the logical answer, but there’s no reason to expect Matt Adams (nine) or Allen Craig (seven) to suddenly start blasting more home runs.

33. I like what I’ve seen from this Eugenio Suarez kid at shortstop for the Tigers. Not sure about his defensive chops yet but he’s been a positive at the plate.

34. The Blue Jays just got their butts kicked in Oakland and you have to wonder if this team already peaked. They were six games up on June 6 and now trail the Orioles by two games, having gone 9-19 in 28 games since that high-water mark. And don’t blame the pitching: The offense, which scored four runs in the four-game sweep to the A’s, has hit .235/.302/.366 since June 6.

35. Better than I thought he'd be: Dallas Keuchel.

36. Fun to watch: The Mariners bullpen has been lights out for two months. It has the best bullpen ERA in the majors, a 2.02 ERA since May 1 and 1.52 since June 1. Brandon Maurer, the failed starter, is the latest weapon down there, throwing smoke 97-mph smoke since he's been moved to relief.

37. Fun to listen to: My pals Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft on the Fantasy Focus podcast. Here's today’s show, including ramifications of the Samardzija trade, the Votto and Encarnacion injuries and the Brandon McCarthy trade to the Yankees.

38. Hard to say if Tim Lincecum has improved or just benefited from facing some weak lineups of late. He does have a 1.75 ERA over his past five starts but two of those starts came against the Padres and one against the Cardinals. He has 25 strikeouts in 35 innings, so he hasn’t ramped up the K rate or anything. I’m not convinced he’s turned the corner just yet.

39. Not getting any recognition for a solid season: Justin Upton.

40. Underrated: Jose Quintana.

41. Pat Neshek is a great story, a minor league invite to spring training for the Cardinals and now an All-Star. I got into a debate on Twitter last night about All-Star relievers -- people were asking why guys like Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara and others didn't make it despite great numbers. I pointed out that lots of relievers are having great seasons. It's just not that special to have 35 great innings out of the bullpen. As a point of reference, just look at some of last year's All-Star relievers: Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Edward Mujica, Sergio Romo, Jason Grilli, Jesse Crain. That said, if you're going to pick relievers, Neshek has been as good as any in the game so far.

42. Unique: Henderson Alvarez. He doesn't rack up strikeouts (70 in 115 innings) but that hard sinking fastball is hard to get into the air (five home runs allowed) and he's walked just 22 batters. I believe he's the real deal, which only reinforces the huge blow to the Marlins when Jose Fernandez went down.

43. Bryce Harper is 4-for-21 with nine strikeouts and two walks since coming off the DL. One Nationals fan tweeted me that he doesn't look completely healthy and has had some awkward swings. I don't the think the Nationals would have activated him if he wasn't healthy, but there's no doubt that Harper put added pressure on himself with his comments about how the Nationals' lineup should look. It's OK to say that if you're producing but not if you're striking out twice a game.

44. Remember that season of parity we were having? Things are starting to sort themselves out a bit. In fact, we suddenly have a fair share of bad teams instead of mediocre teams -- Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers, Astros, Twins, maybe even the Red Sox. The Cubs will probably fade even more after Samardzija-Hammel trade. The Mets may or may not be bad instead of mediocre.

45. Which leads to: Tanking! That should be fun in the second half. Remember, it pays to finish with one of the worst 10 records.

46. Large person, large fastball: Dellin Betances.

47. Loving Gregory Polanco. I was admittedly a little skeptical, in part because I didn't want to fall prey to prospect hype. I've been most impressed with his approach at the plate -- 15 walks and 20 strikeouts in 25 games, nice to see after walking just 25 times in 62 games in Triple-A. If that kind of discipline continues, I like his ability to hit for a decent average and get on base. Then maybe next year comes the power.

48. Things I didn’t see coming: Jeff Locke. Now 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA in seven starts and he’s pitched seven-plus innings in five of those games.

49. Must-see TV on Friday: Jeff Samardzija versus Felix Hernandez.

50. Germany over Brazil. Argentina over the Netherlands.

We've reached the most fun part of the All-Star Game: Arguing about the final rosters.

The starters and reserves were named on Sunday and it was interesting to note the different philosophies of managers John Farrell and Mike Matheny in filling out their rosters. As expected, some worthy American League players were excluded and there were a couple surprising choices in the National League.

Some quick thoughts:

Worst American League starter: Derek Jeter, Yankees. While I actually don't have that big of an issue with Jeter starting -- there is no Troy Tulowitzki in the AL that he's keeping out of the lineup -- he's probably the worst starter we've had in a long time, hitting an empty .273 with mediocre defense and no power, worth 0.5 WAR so far. Matt Wieters was inexplicably voted in by the fans at catcher, but since he's out for the season, Salvador Perez will rightfully start in his place.

Worst National League starter: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers. Cincinnati's Todd Frazier is clearly the deserving starter at third base based on 2014 numbers while Ramirez is hitting .287 with 11 home runs. Considering Frazier, Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals and Anthony Rendon of the Nationals are better all-around players than Ramirez, his selection cost somebody an All-Star spot (Rendon is on the final player ballot).

Best ballot stuffing: Orioles and Brewers fans. Who says you need to play for the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers to have an edge in fan balloting? Adam Jones was never in the top three among outfielders until passing Yoenis Cespedes at the wire. He's a fine selection, however, and has come on strong after a slow April. Orioles fans also voted in Wieters and Nelson Cruz in that crowded DH slot that included Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Moss and David Ortiz. Likewise, Carlos Gomez passed Giancarlo Stanton for the third outfield spot in the NL behind Yasiel Puig and Andrew McCutchen. Stanton clearly should be starting but Gomez is arguably one of the top three outfielders in the NL. Brewers fans, however, couldn't get Jonathan Lucroy voted in over Yadier Molina, so Lucroy will be the backup.

National League DH should be: Stanton. Pretty each choice here for Matheny. Heck, start him and let him play the entire game. A nation that never watches Marlins games should see this guy get four at-bats.

Jeff Samardzija, almost an All-Star. The players had actually voted for Samardzija as one of the five best starters in the NL, along with Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Samardzija had a 1.68 ERA through May, so you can see why he fared well in the balloting. His ERA had since climbed to 2.83 with some bad outings and he was replaced by Julio Teheran of the Braves.

Worst player selection: Charlie Blackmon, Rockies. The players actually did a much better job than they usually do and Blackmon's selection was the only dubious choice, a guy who had a monster April but is down to .295/.341/.463, mediocre numbers for a guy who plays in Colorado. To be fair, the NL lacked obvious choices for the fifth and sixth outfielders, but they somehow came up with a player ranked 21st among NL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR. Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Billy Hamilton or even Rockies teammate Corey Dickerson (hitting .340) would have been better selections.

The AL crunch: Farrell had some tough choices in filling out his squad. His manager selections were Jon Lester (deserving and the only Red Sox rep), David Price (deserving and the only Rays rep), Glen Perkins of the Twins, Max Scherzer of the Tigers, Kurt Suzuki of the Twins (a third catcher), Encarnacion and Moss. I guess you have to carry three catchers and I don't have a problem with the Scherzer selection. Encarnacion was a lock with his big numbers so the final choice probably came down to Moss or another player.

Biggest snubs: Ian Kinsler, Tigers; Kyle Seager, Mariners. And that led to Kinser and Seager being this year's biggest snubs. Entering Sunday, Kinsler ranked third among AL position players in fWAR and Seager seventh. In Baseball-Reference WAR, they ranked third and sixth, so by either measure two of the AL's top 10 players didn't make it. It's not that an undeserving player made it -- the players voted in Jose Altuve and Adrian Beltre as the backups at second and third -- just that there were too many good players and not enough spots (unless you want to knock out a third catcher). You can debate the Moss selection, but I can see the desire to have the left-handed power off the bench if needed late in the game. (Remember, it counts!)

Matt Carpenter and Pat Neshek are good selections: Matheny picked two of his own players -- third baseman Carpenter and righty reliever Neshek. I'm sure both picks will be criticized but when you dig into the numbers, both are worthy choices. Carpenter isn't having as good a season as last year, but he's still 10th among NL position players in fWAR and 15th in bWAR. Please, I don't want to hear that Casey McGehee is more deserving.

As for Neshek, his numbers are outstanding: 0.78 ERA, 35 strikeouts, four walks and a .134 average allowed. He has been as dominant as any reliever in the game, even if he's not a closer. He's also a great story, once one of the game's top set-up guys with the Twins in 2007 but suffering years of injuries since. On the day the A's clinched the AL West on the final day of the 2012 season, his infant son died after just 23 hours. The Cardinals signed him in February to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, so Neshek certainly qualifies as this year's most improbable All-Star (along with Dellin Betances of the Yankees).

I suspect Matheny also picked Neshek for late-game strategic purposes -- his sidearm delivery is killer on right-handed batters (although he has been just as effective against lefties this year), so you can see him matching up against Encarnacion or Jose Abreu if there's a big moment late in the game. Similarly, Matheny picked Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson, a good strategic move since he had only three other lefties on the team.

Strangest selection: That picking reserves for strategic reasons also led to the selection of Pirates utility man Josh Harrison. I get it: He's having a nice season and can play multiple positions, but it's a little odd to pick a guy who doesn't even start regularly for his own team (reminiscent of the Omar Infante choice a few years ago). Rendon -- who has played second and third -- is the better player and Matheny already had versatility with Carpenter and Dee Gordon.

Best AL final man: Chris Sale, White Sox. Farrell went with five pitchers -- Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Garrett Richards and Rick Porcello. I wrote the other day that four of these guys would be battling for a spot or two (along with Scott Kazmir, who got voted on by the players). All are worthy but the best choice is pretty easy since Sale is one of the top starters in the game and would have otherwise already made the team if not missing some time with an injury.

Best NL final man: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs. Torn here between Rizzo and Rendon, but since Matheny has already loaded up with third basemen and second basemen, let's go with Rizzo in case you need to swing for the fences late in the game.

Suggested AL lineup: Jeter better hit ninth. Mike Trout, CF; Robinson Cano, 2B; Jose Bautista, RF; Miguel Cabrera, 1B; Nelson Cruz, DH; Adam Jones, LF; Josh Donaldson, 3B; Salvador Perez, C; Derek Jeter, SS. With Felix Hernandez on the mound.

Suggested NL lineup. Yasiel Puig, RF; Andrew McCutchen, CF; Troy Tulowitzki, SS; Giancarlo Stanton, DH; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B; Carlos Gomez, LF; Aramis Ramirez, 3B; Chase Utley, 2B; Yadier Molina, C. With Clayton Kershaw on the bump.


Jim Bowden, Jerry Crasnick, Buster Olney, Jayson Stark and myself presented our 34-man All-Star rosters today. Here are our National League selections and here are our American League selections. Of course, our choices aren't affected by fan balloting or the players choosing the wrong backup (although we did stick to the rule of requiring one rep from each team), so the real rosters will likely include some names that none of us included.

I thought I'd explain my selections in a little more detail.

National League

I thought the NL selections were much easier than the AL. In fact, I struggled to find obvious candidates for the final couple of spots.

Starters
C -- Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
1B -- Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
2B -- Chase Utley, Phillies
3B -- Todd Frazier, Reds
SS -- Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
LF -- Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
CF -- Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
RF -- Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
DH -- Freddie Freeman, Braves
SP -- Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

I thought this was pretty straightforward, with the only debate being Puig or Carlos Gomez for the third outfield spot. I settled it this way: Who would I rather see? And that tiebreaker goes to Puig. I could have made Gomez the DH, but the NL was lacking in other outfield candidates, so I cleared some of the logjam at first base by making Freeman the DH and bringing Gomez off the bench. Sorry, Carlos.

Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright certainly have strong arguments to start and if you want to disagree with Kershaw, I won't put up much of a fight. Yes, he missed a month, but he's back, he's dominating and he's the best pitcher in the game.

Reserves
C -- Yadier Molina, Cardinals
C -- Devin Mesoraco, Reds
C -- Buster Posey, Giants
1B -- Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
2B -- Daniel Murphy, Mets
2B -- Dee Gordon, Dodgers
3B -- Anthony Rendon, Nationals
3B -- Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
SS -- Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
OF -- Carlos Gomez, Brewers
OF -- Ryan Braun, Brewers
OF -- Justin Upton, Braves

I went three catchers because all are deserving. Molina and Posey maybe aren't having their typical seasons but they're two of the biggest stars in the game and Mesoraco makes it over the injured Evan Gattis for his monster first half. Rizzo was an easy call over Adam LaRoche and Justin Morneau, as nice a story as it would be to see Morneau go back to Minnesota (I have a feeling that he'll somehow make the real All-Star team). Murphy makes it as my lone Mets' rep and I took Hanley over Starlin Castro and Jhonny Peralta, although any of three are justifiable. Rendon is a rising star and second among NL third basemen in WAR. Carpenter isn't having the year he had last year but still has a .378 OBP and 53 runs scored. He's a better player than Aramis Ramirez or Casey McGehee, plus he can play second if needed (the game counts after all!)

After Gomez, the outfield choices were more difficult. In the end, I went with Braun and Upton over Hunter Pence, Jason Heyward's defense and rookie speedster Billy Hamilton. I was the only one to pick Braun, but he's hitting .293/.342/.515 and, like him or not, it's called the All-STAR Game and Braun is a star. My final choice was one of tactics: It came down to Gordon or Hamilton over Pence, to have a pinch-running option late in a close game if needed. Gordon has the better success rate (and has been a little better at the plate), so he gets the nod.

Pitching staff
SP -- Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
SP -- Johnny Cueto, Reds
SP -- Julio Teheran, Braves
SP -- Zack Greinke, Dodgers
SP -- Madison Bumgarner, Giants
SP -- Tim Hudson, Giants
SP -- Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
SP -- Jake Arrieta, Cubs
RP -- Craig Kimbrel, Braves
RP -- Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers
RP -- Huston Street, Padres
RP -- Aroldis Chapman, Reds

We had to pick four relievers and these four were pretty clear. Street gives me a Padres rep and Chapman, while missing time after his spring training line drive to the head, is one of the game's star relievers and has struck out 46 batters in 23.2 innings. For the starters, the first six listed above were pretty clear selections. I went with Zimmermann over teammate Stephen Strasburg and then Arrieta for the final spot. Maybe that's dubious choice since he's really had just the one dominant month, but he is 5-1 with a 1.81 ERA and has terrific periphals. If you want to go with Strasburg or his Cubs teammate Jason Hammel instead, that's fine with me.

The one concern here is that with Kershaw starting, there are only two lefties in the pen in Bumgarner and Chapman. For that reason, I did consider Cole Hamels, who has been great even if his 2-5 record isn't. The actual roster will likely include a couple replacements like it always does, so I could see a lefty setup guy like Tony Watson (0.93 ERA) of the Pirates eventually making it.

Just missed: Hamilton, Pence, Strasburg, Hammel, Henderson Alvarez.

American League

C -- Salvador Perez, Royals
1B -- Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2B -- Robinson Cano, Mariners
3B -- Josh Donaldson, A's
SS -- Derek Jeter, Yankees
LF -- Michael Brantley, Indians
CF -- Mike Trout, Angels
RF -- Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
DH -- Victor Martienez, Tigers
SP -- Felix Hernandez, Mariners

Derek Jeter? OK, Derek Jeter. Of course he doesn't deserve to make the team on his 2014 merit, but in lieu of a Tulowitzki or even half of a Tulowitzki in the AL, he's the guy I want to see start. At third, you could go Donaldson, Adrian Beltre or Kyle Seager. Donaldson holds a slight edge over Seager in FanGraphs WAR and a bigger one on Baseball-Reference, with Beltre well behind on both, so Donaldson gets my nod. Left field could be Brantley or Alex Gordon or Yoenis Cespedes or Nelson Cruz, who is listed on the ballot as a DH although has started 38 games in left. I went with Brantley but, really, any of the four are reasonable selections. DH was just as tough with Martinez, Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion. Again, any of three work. Maybe we can just play Encarnacion at shortstop and hope nobody hits the ball to him.

OK, King Felix versus Masahiro Tanaka. Tough call since their numbers are about identical. Flip a coin. Yes, I'm a Mariners fan, but the difference for me was Hernandez has allowed four home runs and Tanaka 13. I know Tanaka is a great story but Hernandez has been one of the best pitchers for many years now and has never started the All-Star Game. Hey, there's also the chance that Tanaka could turn into a Jack Armstrong pumpkin (just kidding, Yankees fans).

Reserves
C -- Derek Norris, A's
1B -- Jose Abreu, White Sox
1B/DH -- Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
2B -- Jose Altuve, Astros
2B -- Ian Kinsler, Tigers
3B -- Adrian Beltre, Rangers
3B -- Kyle Seager, Mariners
SS -- Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
OF -- Alex Gordon, Royals
OF -- Adam Jones, Orioles
OF/DH -- Nelson Cruz, Orioles
OF/1B -- Brandon Moss, A's

It will be interesting to see how the real AL roster shakes out. I assume since Cruz and Moss were listed as DHs on the ballot that they weren't considered outfielders for the player vote. So, assuming Cespedes holds on to the fan lead for the third spot, your minimum of three backup outfielders will come from the Brantley/Gordon/Jones group -- except Jones got off to a terrible start and Brantley isn't a big name, so the players may instead vote in guys like Jacoby Ellsbury and Melky Cabrera (who got off to a strong start). If Brantley then makes it as the Indians rep and David Ortiz fares well in the player vote, it's possible that Martinez and Encarnacion both get squeezed off the roster (Cruz is leading the fan voting at DH).

As for the other backup, I actually cheated by including just one backup catcher when we told to include two. (Sorry, boss.) So three catchers from a weak AL group would further squeeze a deserving player off the team. I would have loved to have found room for hometown Twins second baseman Brian Dozier to make it, but I can't justify his selection over Altuve or Kinsler. The second shortstop could be Ramirez, Erick Aybar or Alcides Escobar; I don't really care which one. My final spot came down to Moss or teammate Cespedes. In part, this is a strategic move: Having that big lefty bat off the bench could be important (not that managers actually manage strategically in the game).

Pitching staff
SP -- Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
SP -- Yu Darvish, Rangers
SP -- David Price, Rays
SP -- Jon Lester, Red Sox
SP -- Chris Sale, White Sox
SP -- Max Scherzer, Tigers
SP -- Garrett Richards, Angels
SP -- Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays
RP -- Greg Holland, Royals
RP -- Glen Perkins, Twins
RP -- Koji Uehara, Red Sox
RP -- Sean Doolittle, A's

Love this staff. Great righty/lefty balance. My automatic selections were Tanaka, Darvish, Price, Lester and Sale, with Scherzer next in line even if his ERA is a little high. Richards and Buehrle got the edge over a strong pool of candidates that included Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir, Rick Porcello, Dallas Keuchel, Anibal Sanchez and even Phil Hughes. Like I said, a lot more difficult calls in the AL.

For the bullpen, Perkins makes it on merit, not just as the Twins rep. He does have a 3.41 ERA but has a 46/7 strikeout/walk ratio and just two home runs allowed and has been very good for four years now. Doolittle is a second lefty and you know his crazy numbers: 57 strikeouts and two walks. Apologies here to Yankees setup man Dellin Betances and his dominant strikeout rate. I'm guessing he finds his way on to the actual roster.

Just missed: Cespedes, Dozier, Kluber, Keuchel, Betances.
Over the next six days, we will go division by division and look at what each team needs to do at the trade deadline and what may actually happen. As always, you can keep up with the latest trade talk at Rumor Central.


Houston Astros

Status: Selling anyone older than 30.

Trade targets for other teams: OF Dexter Fowler (arbitration eligible, although he just landed on the DL), RP Chad Qualls ($3 million in 2015, team option in 2016), RP Tony Sipp (arb-eligible).

Possible suitors: Fowler's upcoming arbitration, coming on the heels of a 116 OPS+ season, might be too pricey for the rebuilding Astros. The Giants (with Angel Pagan out indefinitely with back issues) and Red Sox (still waiting for Jackie Bradley Jr. to get it together) could use upgrades and stability in center field.

When you are headed toward 95 or more losses, relievers are expendable and easily replaceable. Qualls and Sipp are the most marketable. Qualls has a ridiculous 9-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 28 1/3 innings, while Sipp has held lefties to a .283 OPS in 22 1/3 innings. Toronto could certainly use Sipp as a second lefty in the pen. Qualls might step right in as a closer for the always-in-flux Tigers or suddenly struggling Giants.

What they need: Restocking the farm system, which has recently graduated Jonathan Singleton, George Springer and Domingo Santana.

Likely scenario: Qualls and Sipp find new homes by mid-July, and Fowler stays with Astros through the end of 2014.

-- Diane Firstman, Value Over Replacement Grit


Los Angeles Angels

Status: Buying.

Biggest needs: A reliable late-innings reliever, aka baseball's unicorn. Despite throwing the fourth-fewest innings of any American League bullpen, the club's relief corps still holds claim to the league's worst WAR (-0.6). The Angels already added Jason Grilli and Rich Hill to the bullpen mix in the past week (and jettisoned Ernesto Frieri), but those moves serve more as window dressing than anything else, so a bigger trade is likely in the offing. There's some chatter about the Halos adding a starter of the Jason Hammel or Ian Kennedy variety, but the pen is the bigger need at the moment. The Angels could also go for an upgrade at third base, where David Freese and friends have combined to put up an AL-worst .265 wOBA, but that's a need more likely filled over the winter.

Possible trade targets: Relievers Huston Street, Joaquin Benoit or Joakim Soria, a midrotation starter with some team control remaining and maybe a platoon partner for Freese.

Potential trade chips: Grant Green? Alex Yarbrough? Some other middle-of-the-road prospect? The reason the Angels are highly unlikely to be involved in the David Price and Jeff Samardzija sweepstakes is they really don't have much to entice potential trade partners. C.J. Cron could have been a valuable piece to dangle in front of teams needing power (hello, San Diego!), but he's likely off the table now that Raul Ibanez is out of the picture.

Likely scenario: The Angels acquire Street or Benoit from the Padres for a package that includes one of the team's many second-base prospects who are in (or close) to the majors (e.g., Green, Yarbrough or Taylor Lindsey), giving San Diego an option at the keystone that will distract fans from the total implosion of Jedd Gyorko.

-- Nate Aderhold, Halos Daily


Oakland Athletics

Status: All-in. The A's lead the AL in runs scored and are second in fewest runs allowed.

Biggest needs: Second base has been the obvious black hole on offense, with a combined .228/.296/.266 line, 27th in the majors in wOBA. As scrappy as Eric Sogard and Nick Punto may be, even the best lineup in the league could improve.

The other obvious area to address would be the rotation, which has been terrific but has also been progressively worse each month. Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez have never pitched an entire season in a big league rotation, and Scott Kazmir hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2007. With Drew Pomeranz currently on the DL, Triple-A vet Brad Mills has been starting.

Possible trade targets: If Billy Beane wants to deal, there are plenty of second basemen potentially out there -- Aaron Hill, Daniel Murphy, Ben Zobrist, Chase Utley (although he can veto any deal) and Gordon Beckham. A couple of former A's starters would also be nice fits -- Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon.

Possible trade chips: Shortstop Addison Russell, back after missing the first two months with a hamstring problem, isn't going anywhere, but the Oakland system is otherwise thin at the upper levels. Outfielder Billy McKinney, the team's first-round pick in 2013, and shortstop Daniel Robertson are young and holding their own for Stockton in the high Class A California League. Teams will ask about those two, but Beane won't want to trade them. First baseman Matt Olson has slugged 23 home runs for Stockton although he's hitting just .249.

Likely scenario: The A's are always constrained by their payroll, so guys like Hill and Colon may not fit due to their salaries. Beane will undoubtedly do something, but it's more likely to be a minor pickup or a higher salaried guy after the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. For example, in 2012, he acquired Stephen Drew in August.

-- David Schoenfield


Seattle Mariners

Status: Buying. Yes, Mariners fans, you're in a playoff race.

Biggest needs: A right-handed corner outfield bat -- Mariners left fielders (mostly Dustin Ackley) are hitting .226/.278/.334. Ackley has fared a little better against left-handers, not that he's hit either side. With Corey Hart and Justin Smoak both on the DL, the Mariners have been using the likes of John Buck, Endy Chavez and Willie Bloomquist at first base or DH. Considering Hart and Smoak didn't hit when they were in the lineup, a first base/DH-type is also a possibility.

The rotation has the second-best ERA in the AL, and even though Taijuan Walker just made his season debut, the Mariners could go after a starter. Chris Young has been a pleasant surprise with his 3.15 ERA, but his FIP is 4.99 and he hasn't made it through an entire season since 2007. And Roenis Elias slots best as a back-end starter, not a No. 3.

Possible trade targets: All available outfielders will be enticing -- Josh Willingham, Marlon Byrd, Michael Cuddyer and maybe Alex Rios (the Mariners and Rangers made a midseason trade with Cliff Lee back in the day). With the Twins having fallen back in the AL Central, bringing back Kendrys Morales is a possibility, although he hasn't hit in 21 games with Minnesota. On the pitching front, the usual suspects will be mentioned: Kennedy, Hammel, McCarthy. But what about Colon? He is signed through 2015, but if the Mets decide to deal him, he would be an attractive target for a lot of teams.

Possible trade chips: It will be difficult for the Mariners to get one of the better starters since they don't have much in the way of prospects in the upper minors, unless you include Walker or the injured James Paxton. Nick Franklin is the one guy they have, but his poor performance of late (.221 in Triple-A in June) hasn't helped his value. It seems unlikely they would trade Walker now that he's apparently over his early-season shoulder issues (keep fingers crossed).

Likely scenario: They have to acquire at least one bat, and an impending free agent like Willingham wouldn't cost a top prospect. Byrd, signed through next season at a reasonable rate, would be more expensive but is better. The next few weeks will us tell a lot about Elias, Young and Walker and whether Seattle will need to reinforce the rotation.

-- David Schoenfield


Texas Rangers

Status: Actively listening to offers.

Possible trade targets: RF Alex Rios ($13.5 million team option for 2015), 3B Adrian Beltre ($18 million for 2015, team option for 2016), RP Joakim Soria ($7 million team option for 2015), RP Neal Cotts (free agent), SS Elvis Andrus (under team control through 2018).

Possible suitors: Rios and Beltre could be considered by teams that feel they are one player away from being over the top. Given the value Beltre offers to the Rangers, a team would be hard-pressed to put together any kind of package that would satisfy Jon Daniels & Co., especially with the running belief that, with better health, the club can contend in 2015. Rios might be more of a possibility, as the Rangers have Michael Choice, Engel Beltre and a few others in the pipeline who might be outfield options in the near future.

Soria and Cotts would seem to be the most likely to be dealt, as this is the time of year that contending teams start looking for late-inning bullpen help. I don't foresee a team putting together any kind of legitimate package for Andrus, who the Rangers developed and signed to a long-term deal.

What they need: Depth on the farm has become somewhat of an issue, especially on the pitching front, after the various trades in recent years have filtered out some of the depth. The Rangers will likely look to find some future starting pitching in any deal, but a high-upside offensive prospect isn't out of the question.

Likely scenario: Cotts would be the one guy I could see getting moved at the deadline, with the possibility of Soria as well. Rios remains a remote possibility, but as for the other guys, I can't envision the Rangers parting ways with Andrus, Beltre or Darvish, no matter how bad things have been in 2014.

-- Brandon Land, One Strike Away


Not only that: Rick Porcello threw a no-strikeout, no-walk shutout -- the first time that's happened since Jeff Ballard did it in 1989, making this one of the coolest performances of the season.

Porcello's four-hit gem to beat the A's 3-0 was a thing of beauty: He threw first-pitch strikes to 24 of 31 batters, increased his scoreless streak to 25 innings and improved to 11-4 with a 3.12 ERA. In this age of more strikeouts and more strikeouts, Porcello is a throwback to another era ... one that existed a mere 25 years ago, when you didn't have to average nine or 10 strikeouts per nine innings to be considered an elite pitcher.

[+] EnlargeRick Porcello
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonRick Porcello's breakthrough this season could put him in the All-Star Game.
Porcello has 62 strikeouts in 106 2/3 innings and a K rate of 5.2 per nine innings. Among the 93 qualified starting pitchers, that rate ranks 87th; his sinker induces ground balls, not strikeouts. It's just a different style of pitching than we're used to now, but there's no reason it can't be successful. Back in the '80s and up through 1993, the league-average strikeout rate was less than six per innings, so obviously many pitchers won back then with strikeout rates similar to Porcello's.

His approach does require good infield defense, and the Tigers are definitely stronger in that area this season, with the departure of Prince Fielder, the move of Miguel Cabrera from third base to first base and the addition of Ian Kinsler. More shifting also helps. It's no coincidence that Porcello's average on balls in play is .266, after averaging .327 from 2011 to 2013.

It's not just better defense, however; Porcello is throwing his curveball more -- 16 percent of his pitches this year compared to 8 percent of the time over the previous three seasons. To be fair, this trend started last season and has proven to be an effective pitch, as batters have hit .208 against it the past two seasons, compared to .293 against his slider. More curves and better defense have made Porcello a better pitcher. He's been around so long that we forget that he's still 25, clearly young enough to still be learning and adapting his stuff.

This time of year, it's fun to talk about potential All-Star selections. Porcello's strong first half certainly puts him in prime consideration for a spot. Once you get past some of the automatic selections -- Felix Hernandez, Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, David Price, Chris Sale (well, he should be automatic, even if he missed time with an injury), here are four other surprise guys battling Porcello for maybe one or two spots on the American League staff:

Garrett Richards, Angels (9-2, 2.81 ERA, .194 AVG, 108 SO, 40 BB). Richards is the new kind of cool: high-octane fastball and a wipeout slider. His average fastball velocity is second in the majors among starters to Yordano Ventura, and he's improved his command to become an elite starter in the first half. Like Porcello, he helped his All-Star case with a strong outing on Tuesday. He gave up a three-run home run to Jose Abreu in the first inning after he had walked two batters, but then he settled down and over his final seven innings allowed just one more hit and no walks. That's exactly the sign of maturing the Angels are seeing this year. Another example: After the A's knocked him out in the first inning on May 30, he's responded with his best stretch of the season, with a 1.49 ERA and .147 average allowed over six starts. At this point, he's just about a lock to make the team.

Dallas Keuchel, Astros (8-5, 2.78, .234 AVG, 88 SO, 26 BB). Who saw this coming? I don't want to compare him to Tom Glavine, but he's kind of like Tom Glavine. His fastball sits 89 to 92 and he pounds the outside corner with fastballs and changeups. He'll also go inside to righties with a wipeout slider -- righties are hitting .151 against with 26 strikeouts in 56 plate appearances.

There was nothing in Keuchel's track record that said he could be this good -- he owned a 5.20 ERA over his first two seasons with Houston while giving up 34 home runs in 239 innings -- but there's no fluke here. The strikeout rate is good enough, his control is excellent and he keeps the ball down in the zone, a reason he's allowed just five home runs. I think he's the real deal, one of those lefties who figures things out ... just like Glavine did after a rocky start in his first couple of years with the Braves.

SportsNation

Which one of these AL starters is most deserving of an All-Star spot?

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    20%
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    3%
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    6%
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    59%
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    12%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,995)

Corey Kluber, Indians (7-6, 2.99 ERA, .254 AVG, 127 SO, 29 BB). Kluber actually had a breakout season of sorts last year with a 3.85 ERA and excellent peripherals, but he made just 24 starts, so it didn't get much attention. But check out that strikeout rate: 127 whiffs in 117 1/3 innings. He's eighth among all starters in strikeout percentage. His curveball has developed into one of the most unhittable weapons in the league: Batters are hitting .087 against it with 61 strikeouts, three walks and no home runs. Yes, those are Kershaw-esque types of results.

Don't put too much emphasis on that win-loss record. Kluber has allowed two runs or fewer in 11 of his 18 starts but has won just six of those games. He's good. How are we going to find room for all these guys?

Scott Kazmir, A's (9-3, 2.16 ERA, .216 AVG, 91 SO, 24 BB). Kazmir was one of the best stories of 2013, when he returned after years of injuries, awful results and not even pitching in the majors to go 10-9 with Cleveland. He's been even better with Oakland this year, justifying the two-year contract the A's gave him as a free agent. Kazmir's fastball isn't as overpowering as it was when he was a two-time All-Star with Tampa Bay in 2006 and 2008, but he still throws in the low 90s and mixes in a slider, curve, cutter and changeup, with the changeup becoming his best strikeout pitch.

OK, five guys, all worthy first-half All-Stars. Which one most deserves to make the American League's All-Star team?
Saw this on FanGraphs: Internal notes the Astros kept on on trade discussions last year were leaked to the public via a data warehouse site. You can read more at FanGraphs, but here were a couple of trades ideas Dave Cameron pointed out (and here's more from Tim Dierkes at MLB Trade Rumors):
  • The Astros offered Bud Norris for Kevin Gausman or Dylan Bundy.
  • The Astros noted Xander Bogaerts as a guy they would like from the Red Sox for Norris.
  • If the Astros wanted Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins, it would cost them George Springer and Carlos Correa. The Astros countered with Jarred Cosart and Delino DeShields. (Dan Jennings of the Marlins has told Bob Nightengale of USA Today that it's "laughable" that Stanton was ever actually offered.)
  • The Astros offered Lucas Harrell to the Nationals for Lucas Giolito.


It's good for a laugh, because these are the same types of trade ideas we'll hear on sports radio or that I'll get in my chat sessions that are pretty ridiculous. But, hey, it certainly doesn't hurt to ask. And you never know when a general manager will panic and make a bad deal. Who can forget the Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek trade for mediocre reliever Heathcliff Slocumb (5.79 ERA at the time) back in 1997 between the Mariners and Red Sox?

Of course, I don't think there any Woody Woodwards out there running teams right now. Plus general managers, if anything, overvalue prospects, and certainly aren't going to trade their best ones for the likes of Bud Norris or Lucas Harrell.

But it goes to show: Teams start at the same point as fans -- dreaming of that unlikely trade where you give up a little for a lot.
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield took your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

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