It’s time to hand out some accolades and demerits at the halfway mark:
Best teams — Texas, New York (AL), Washington (NL). The Rangers have been the most balanced team in the game, with starting pitching, bullpen, hitting, power, and defense. They appear destined for a third straight World Series appearance. Call them the Buffalo Bills of baseball if you want, but one of these days, and it could be this season, the Rangers will win a championship.
The Yankees continue to mash with their veteran lineup, while the loss of two starting pitchers (CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte) and closer Mariano Rivera hasn’t deterred them.
As for the Nationals, they have been the most exciting story, featuring young guns Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. They have survived multiple injuries and beaten strong competition in the National League East.
Most surprising team — Chicago (AL), New York (NL). The Mets were an overwhelming preseason choice to be NL East cellar-dwellers, but the reality has been far from it. The management team of Sandy Alderson, Paul DePodesta, and J.P. Ricciardi did a great job piecing together the scraps, producing a team that plays with heart, overshadowing the horrible public relations mess and financial ramifications of ownership being embroiled in the Bernie Madoff mess.
The White Sox changed managers from Ozzie Guillen to Robin Ventura and have excelled. General manager Ken Williams has done some of his finest work, contending while also having an eye toward the future with eight rookie pitchers.
Worst team — Seattle (AL), Colorado (NL). The Mariners may have recently split with the Red Sox, but they had no business doing it. They do have two good starting pitchers in Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas, but their lineup is excruciatingly bad. The Rockies don’t have the rebuilding excuse the Cubs do. They have just been bad.
Teams to watch in second half — Boston, Detroit (AL), St. Louis, Arizona (NL). The Red Sox will presumably have Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, and Andrew Bailey, which should make a difference, while the Tigers are trending upward. The Cardinals will get Lance Berkman back and always seem to be better in the second half, and the Diamondbacks are too talented not to click.
Best player — Josh Hamilton (AL), Joey Votto (NL). Hamilton is the best player in the game. He still has five tools, can electrify a crowd, and plays as hard as anyone. Votto has had a near-perfect season with the Reds. While his home run total is only 14, he has an OPS of 1.082 and may be the best lefthanded hitter in the game. He has produced big hit after big hit. Hard to leave out Angels rookie outfielder Mike Trout and Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano or Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran, Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen, and Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera.
Worst brother act — Jemile Weeks (AL), Rickie Weeks (NL). Oh brother, have they been bad. How can two guys with so many skills be hitting .218 and .194, respectively?
Second-worst brother act — B.J. Upton (AL), Justin Upton (NL). B.J. is hitting .249 with 6 homers and 28 RBIs (15 steals) for the Rays, while Justin is getting booed in Arizona with his .267 average, 7 homers, and 36 RBIs.
Best pitcher — Chris Sale (AL), R.A. Dickey (NL). Sale has had a meteoric rise. Drafted in the first round just two years ago, he’s gone from reliever to starter and been able to stretch out on the fly. Dickey is undergoing one of those great knuckleball runs that we witnessed with Tim Wakefield in 1995, when he went 14-1 to start his Red Sox career. Many honorable mentions, such as Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, Matt Cain, and Johnny Cueto.
Best reliever — Ernesto Frieri (AL), Huston Street (NL). Frieri has made 25 appearances for the Angels without allowing a run. Enough said. Street has been lights-out for the Padres with a 0.652 WHIP, 2-0 record, and 1.17 ERA, with opponents hitting just .118. He’s converted all 13 save chances.
Best rookie — Mike Trout (AL), Harper (NL). We debated in this space, Trout or Harper? We polled 55 baseball people, and Harper beat Trout by one vote. That was a few weeks ago. If we did it now, Trout would be the likely winner. He’s done it all to the point where he’s also an MVP candidate.
Best manager — Ventura (AL), Terry Collins (NL) . Ventura has done a nice job with a calming effect. Collins has put together a winner amid ownership chaos. Honorable mentions to Mike Scioscia, Bobby Valentine, Bruce Bochy, Clint Hurdle, and Don Mattingly.
Most disappointing team — Detroit (AL), Philadelphia (NL). The Tigers have been helter-skelter with pitching and offense, while the Phillies haven’t been able to overcome injuries (especially to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, who are now back). The Phillies still have an outstanding pitching staff, but it hasn’t lived up to its billing.
Most disappointing players — Ichiro Suzuki (AL), Justin Upton (NL). Ichiro has been fading and is not the offensive force he once was (though he is still excellent defensively). Upton has a world of talent but can’t seem to find that even flow.
Most improved player — Austin Jackson. He’s quickly turning into a power-and-speed igniter at the top of the Tigers’ order. “He’s turned into a real good player,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He’s in control at the plate. He doesn’t get outside of his strike zone too often, not like he used to. He’s really turned into some kind of baseball player.” Have to also mention Josh Reddick and Trevor Plouffe (each with 19 homers).
Comeback player — Adam Dunn. He’s the Adam Dunn of old (25 homers) after being practically done last season when he couldn’t break .200. Rangers reliever Joe Nathan also gets props.
Apropos of nothing
1. The new collective bargaining agreement brings new rules. Here’s one: If a team has a player who wants a number change, Major League Baseball has to be notified by July 31 to change the number for the following season. In other words, let’s say Will Middlebrooks wants to change his number from 64 to 16 (which appears to be his preference), the Red Sox would have to apply to get that done. Here’s another: One of the most frequent uniform violations involves shoes. If a player is wearing a shoe that is not at least 51 percent of the team color, he is fined or reprimanded.
2. About seven Red Sox are wearing the new concussion helmets, which have been streamlined to look more like the old helmets. Next season, all players must wear them.
3. Always enjoyed day games at the Coliseum in Oakland. There’s also the tailgating, which doesn’t happen much in baseball. It’s a glimpse of what it might have been like if Robert and Jonathan Kraft had been able to convince MLB to allow the Expos to move to Foxborough. The Krafts would have built a baseball-only stadium next to Gillette, and I’m sure there would have been a completely different feel to Fenway, with tailgating the norm. Too bad it never could have happened (territorial rights with the Red Sox were a big issue) because there’s a belief that the area could have supported two teams. Could have called them the New England Blue Sox or something. It would have been pretty neat.
4. It’s interesting that players only get tested for HGH once a year, in spring training. The suspicious side of us would wonder if there are players are actually taking HGH when they don’t have to worry about being tested?
5. I think Oakland A’s skipper Bob Melvin is becoming a heck of a manager.
6. Hard to believe that teams actually wanted Carlos Lee over Kevin Youkilis.
7. Still can’t figure out why, on the 100th anniversary of Fenway, I’ll be heading to Kansas City for the All-Star Game and not staying in Boston.
Apropos of something
One of the reasons why Jarrod Saltalamacchia has made such great strides is the fact he’s catching more. Saltalamacchia, whose leadership skills are emerging, is finally getting that consistent workload behind the plate, at least five times a week.
“I think it helps more on the defensive side,” he said. “The more situations you can see and are involved with, the better rhythm you get in. It helps in every area, including making consistent throws, blocking balls, all of the things we need to do back there.”
Saltalamacchia has thrived as a power-hitting catcher, which is what many of his supporters felt he could be because of his size and strength. The Braves and Rangers gave up on him as he went through some defensive problems, including a throwing disorder he dealt with while in Texas.
The Red Sox have an upcoming dilemma. What will they do with catching prospect Ryan Lavarnway? While Lavarnway has not hit for the power he showed a year ago, he is hitting for average, heading into the weekend at .320. Offense has never been the issue with Lavarnway, and those who see him regularly feel he’s progressed defensively.
It would appear that Lavarnway would need some guaranteed playing time if he were to make the jump to the majors, but with the way Saltalamacchia is playing, that doesn’t appear feasible. That said, Kelly Shoppach has had a good season offensively and defensively, and right now there’s no reason to make a change.
It appears the Red Sox won’t ever have a Saltalamacchia-Lavarnway catching tandem, and will make a commitment to one and trade the other. Saltalamacchia is no stranger to this scenario. He experienced it in Atlanta, which had Brian McCann ahead of him. Once Saltalamacchia got to Texas, the Rangers also developed Taylor Teagarden, and for a while they were a tandem, with Saltalamacchia considered the offensive catcher and Teagarden the defensive guy.
The question is whether Saltalamacchia has reached his peak, or at 27 can he get better offensively and defensively? And where is Lavarnway’s ceiling? It was thought at one time that the Sox could use both, including some at DH. But the way David Ortiz is hitting, the team would likely want to re-sign him for at least another year.
Saltalamacchia has played some first base in the majors, but Lavarnway has remained a full-time catcher.
Updates on nine
1. Josh Reddick, RF, A’s — Reddick has impressed the A’s with his power, defense, and take-charge manner, but the big test will be the second half. Reddick hit .393 with two homers and 15 RBIs in 61 at-bats for the Red Sox last season in the first half, but then fizzled to .244 with five homers and 13 RBI s in 193 at-bats in the second half. The Red Sox decided to put him in the Andrew Bailey deal, feeling that Ryan Kalish would be a better player in the long run. Not sure the Sox made the wrong choice.
2. Felix Hernandez, SP, Mariners — GM Jack Zduriencik keeps insisting he will not trade King Felix, but there is some wisdom to the thinking that he would be able to take care of three or four positions with such a deal. Zduriencik has been tempted with great offers in the past, so for now we have to take him at his word. Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Jose Iglesias, take it or leave it? Leave it, you say?
3. Jason Kipnis, 2B, Indians — Kipnis has a beef about not being selected to the All-Star team. He was beaten out by Ian Kinsler for the reserve role to Robinson Cano, but their numbers are pretty similar, except for one. Kipnis is leading the AL in hitting with runners in scoring position (.373). Overall, Kipnis is hitting .274 with a .342 OBP and .415 slugging percentage, while Kinsler’s numbers are .274/.339/443. Kipnis leads in homers (11-9), RBIs (49-40), and stolen bases (20-15). Kinsler leads in doubles (26-7) and runs (62-51).
4. Marco Scutaro, INF, Rockies — Has anyone noticed that Scutaro is hitting .280? The 36-year-old former Red Sox, who was traded for reliever Clayton Mortensen in the offseason, could be a nice piece for a contending team. With Dustin Pedroia out with thumb problems, could the Red Sox be interested?
5. Josh Beckett, SP, Red Sox — His 10-5 rights could mean he never agrees to a deal, but it wouldn’t shock baseball people if the Sox eventually pursue it. “He would get some interest if some of the money was absorbed,” said one National League GM. “He’s not what he was, but he can still pitch. He’s got the postseason resume and still seems to have some competitiveness on the mound, which are all things you look for. The things you have to evaluate would be the issues in the clubhouse, to some extent, and breaking down a little more than he used to.”
6. Carlos Quentin, OF, Padres — The next big bat that could go. Quentin would be desirable for a few teams, including the Pirates, Dodgers, and Blue Jays.
7. Cole Hamels, SP, Phillies — As the days tick down toward the trade deadline, the Phillies are gauging interest. Hamels can be a free agent at the end of the season and the sides have not been able to hammer out an agreement. One consideration for the Phillies is the fact they have aging pitchers in Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, and Hamels is younger. Do they sell off a pitcher who could be valuable to them down the road? Philly is one of those markets — like Boston — where it’s tough to rebuild.
8. Doug Sisson, coach, Royals — Sisson deserves some credit for the high number of outfield assists the Royals have accumulated the last two years. They have 20 this season, and no other club has more than 18. They had 51 assists last year, 12 more than the next team. “There’s nothing we do that’s unique other than we don’t throw with a cutoff man. Besides that, we throw a lot, and our guys are good,” said Sisson, who believes “it’s an outfielder’s job to throw the ball to a base. It’s a cutoff man’s job to get in line with the throw. If we’re going to throw people out, we have to learn how to throw the ball to the base, not to a cutoff man.”
9. Huston Street, RP, Padres — You can’t argue with his numbers. Street, an All-Star, will draw some interest as the Padres likely begin to sell off. Street, however, has excelled in Oakland, which has a lot of foul territory, and San Diego, which plays big. Street has not allowed a homer this season after giving up 10 for the Rockies last season. He has one year left on his contract at $9 million.
From the Bill Chuck Files: “Adrian Beltre played 154 games for the Red Sox at third in 2010. Since then, the Sox have used 10 players at third.” . . . Happy birthday Ken Sanders (71), Darrell Brandon (72), and Bill Spanswick (74).Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.