Are we there yet?
Sorry, kids, we still have a whole second half to go. It might be tougher on the Cubs than anybody, but that’s neither here nor there. Let’s give some first-half recognition heading into the All-Star break, which starts as soon as games end Sunday:
TEAM TO BEAT, AMERICAN LEAGUE
It’s got to be the White Sox, right? No, it’s the Astros, who score the most runs, hit for the highest average, strike out the least, get on base at the highest clip in the majors and — a big ol’ ”and” — have the AL’s only group of starting pitchers with a lower combined ERA than the Sox’ guys. BetMGM lists the Astros at +600 to win the World Series, the Sox at +800 and the Red Sox at +1000.
TEAM TO BEAT, NATIONAL LEAGUE
It might take an upset story along the lines of the Nationals’ NL Division Series stunner in 2019 for any team to unseat the mighty Dodgers, but there’s a compelling list of contenders. The Padres are the best show in baseball, the Giants are Team Mojo, the Mets have Jacob deGrom and the Brewers are coasting with a huge lead.
2 BEST STORIES, AL
Show ’em, Shohei: After a miserable 2020 at the plate — and essentially not having pitched since Tommy John surgery in October 2018 — the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani leads the majors in home runs (32 entering play Friday) and is the first player to make an All-Star team as both a hitter and a pitcher in the same year.
Sox education: What have we learned? They can withstand untold injuries — to Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal and now Yasmani Grandal — because of their organizational depth. Lock in Dylan Cease as a rotation fixture, though perhaps not come playoff time. When holding a gigantic lead, you definitely don’t swing on a 3-0 count with the bases loaded and a position player on the mound. Oh, and maybe a certain Hall of Fame manager still has a clue after all.
2 BEST STORIES, NL
Giant surprise: The top record in baseball belongs not to the Dodgers, not to the Padres, but to an NL West team that was supposed to be a 2021 loser. The Giants are elevating their division much as the Cubs did in 2015, when the Cardinals and Pirates were perceived as far heavier hitters.
10-4, good Cubbies: Not ”best” as in cheerful, but, man, have things gotten interesting. The Cubs were the NL’s ”it” organization before the Dodgers stole that status. When and where will Craig Kimbrel, Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and others go? As a head honcho under enormous pressure, will Jed Hoyer stand tall or fall on his face? And of what are the Rickettses really made?
3 FOR MVP, AL
Ohtani: By the way, what fun it’ll be Monday to watch him hit bombs in the Home Run Derby.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays: He leads the majors in RBI (73), OPS (1.118) and total bases (207).
Rafael Devers, Red Sox: Look, somebody has to be third. Devers is two RBI off Guerrero’s pace.
3 FOR MVP, NL
Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres: DeGrom is the slight betting favorite, but Tatis is a WAR machine with a Triple Crown on his mind.
deGrom: His innings are down — intentionally — to keep the tank full all the way to the finish line. But that 1.08 ERA means a chance to take a run at Bob Gibson’s magical 1.12.
Brandon Crawford, Giants: He probably will fade in this race — if he’s even in it now — but he was quietly better than ever throughout the first half and deserves a nod.
4 ACES, AL
Carlos Rodon, Sox: Give it to the man with a no-hitter and the most strikeouts per nine innings (14.3) in the AL.
Lance Lynn, Sox: The self-described ”big bastard” has the lowest ERA (1.77) among AL starters.
Gerrit Cole, Yankees: No one was more electric in April and May than the betting favorite to win the Cy Young.
Kyle Gibson, Rangers: He was pretty good all those years with the Twins, but not this good.
4 ACES, NL
deGrom: He really should get at least half of an actual Cy Young Award for his first-half performance.
Kevin Gausman, Giants: Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum only wish they’d had Gausman’s first-half numbers.
Zack Wheeler, Phillies: So many strikeouts, so many innings pitched and the best pitcher WAR (4.9) on the planet.
Brandon Woodruff, Brewers: Woodruff (0.78 WHIP) has been utterly dominant, if somewhat overlooked, in Milwaukee.
TOP 5 SOX
1. Carlos Rodon
2. Lance Lynn
3. Liam Hendriks
4. Jose Abreu
5. Yasmani Grandal
TOP 5 CUBS
1. Craig Kimbrel
2. Kris Bryant
3. Kyle Hendricks
4. Javy Baez
5. Willson Contreras