As we sit here at the end of the first half of the MLB season here’s a look at five teams that have the potential to be kinder to baseball handicappers than they have in the first half. Three would qualify as a disappointment, one has exceeded expectations somewhat already but has more room to grow, and the last one is just plain lousy but is showing signs of life:
The Phillies have been the biggest disappointment of the first half.
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They were expected to be serious contenders to win it all. We have become used to that. They haven’t managed to get anything going, though, and now find themselves deep in the NL East cellar, well below .500 and reeling.
The first half was pretty much as bad as it could have been, so the second half almost can’t help but get better. They will almost be like a different team for that half. Chase Utley recently returned from injury. Ryan Howard returned to the lineup even more recently. Roy Halladay is throwing from the bullpen and should be back reasonably soon. Those three players make $55 million a year, so they are obviously significant factors in the success of the team. They’ll provide a boost on the scoresheet, and perhaps an even bigger one psychologically.
Cliff Lee has been almost impossibly unlucky this year as well, and he has a record far below expectations given his stats. With better luck — and some run support — he’ll get back on track as well.
The one looming dark cloud is the increasing sense that they will trade Cole Hamels at the deadline when his value is maximized unless they are seriously contending by then. That could put a damper on the season, but even given that they should still finish on a relative upsurge.
Flirting with .500 was not where this team wanted to be right now, or why they spent all the money they did in the offseason. Early in the season they looked tentative — like they were feeling each other out and wanted to avoid mistakes. Cabrera and Fielder have really gotten comfortable together as a potent force, though, and the rest of the team is finding their stride nicely — they are 7-3 in their last 10 and are much-improved.
They have some pitching, including the best arm in baseball right now, they can hit, and they are simply much better than a .500 team. They should prove that going forward, and there is no good reason to assume they’ll be worse than they have been.
They also seem to have the willingness to spend to fill holes despite their already high payroll. With lots of good options available they could get the help they need.
Miami made a whole lot of big moves in the offseason — player aggressiveness, a high-profile new coach, a flashy building, a new name and so on. At just below .500 those moves have not paid off so far.
I expect that they will soon, though — at least more than they have.
The biggest problem they had was that so many people cast themselves as the star and savior of this franchise. Ozzie Guillen has enough ego for a million men, and he’s not alone on this squad.
It took time for everyone to calm down and find and accept their roles. Now that they are starting to, though, they are playing a more consistent style of baseball — 7-3 in their last 10 — and have a very good chance of playing well above .500 the rest of the way.
St. Louis Cardinals
I like how this team has handled the changes that could have crippled teams that aren’t as mentally tough — the loss of two franchise foundations in Pujols and La Russa. They have kept plugging along, though, and are in contention for a playoff spot.
They have also done it with ace Chris Carpenter out for the year and with sole lefty starter Jaime Garcia on the shelf until August. A team that tough that knows what it takes to close strong and has solid talent — including a red-hot Matt Holliday — is one that could easily be even better than they have been before.
They are going to have to find more pitching to be a serious threat, though. There are lots of good arms available, so if they can find a deal to secure one of them then it could be a fun fall in St. Louis. Again.
San Diego Padres
The Padres are not a very good baseball team. Anyone who looked at them on paper shouldn’t be the least bit surprised by this.
There are a couple of reasons for optimism, though.
They certainly aren’t going to play their way into the playoff picture, but there is a good chance that their second half will be better than the .400 they are at now.
First, they are 7-3 in their last 10 games. Only the Pirates have a better record in the NL over that stretch. Second, they have just been bought by an aggressive new ownership group for a fat $800 million price tag. They needed new ownership, and the new attitude and changes that accompany that change should give them a lift — just like it appears to have lifted the Dodgers this year.
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