Is it time to worry about the Chicago Cubs? They have been World Series favorites all season and remain so at +375 at BetOnline, but their gap over teams like the San Francisco Giants, Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers is narrowing.
Barring a collapse or a major injury to Jake Arrieta, Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs should win the NL Central for the first time since 2008. They have a seven-game lead over St. Louis and 7.5 games over Pittsburgh. But the Cubs (53-35) entered the break having lost nine of 11 and are 28-29 since starting 25-6 and leading to talk of potentially breaking the big-league record of 116 wins. Injuries have hurt the team and the players were pretty clearly worn out by closing the first half with 24 games in 24 days. Manager Joe Maddon is familiar with a fade to close the first half of the season. His 2008 Tampa Bay Rays lost the last seven games before the All-Star break but went on to play in the World Series.
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The bullpen is a major problem area, and I can pretty much guarantee you that Theo Epstein adds at least one arm out there, possibly the Yankees' Aroldis Chapman or A's Sean Doolittle (if he gets healthy). The team might also have to think about addressing the rotation. Arrieta hasn't looked like an ace of late, allowing 15 runs over 16.1 innings in his past three starts. Jon Lester got bombed in his final two starts before the break. Jason Hammel faded in a big way in the second half of last year and looks like he's on that track again. Hammel hasn't won since early June.
On the bright side, the Cubs should get center fielder and leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler back from the DL for Friday's series opener and potential World Series preview against the Rangers. Chicago is +190 to win the NL pennant for the first time since 1945.
The San Francisco Giants (57-33) now have the best record in baseball and a 6.5-game over the second-place Dodgers in the NL West. I'd have to give the Giants the pitching edge in any series against the Cubs right now with how good Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto have been. On Tuesday in San Diego, Cueto became the eighth non-rookie starting pitcher to start in the All-Star Game in his first season with a team and the first since Kenny Rogers with the Tigers in 2006. Bumgarner nearly no-hit Arizona -- it was his fourth career one-hit shutout -- on Sunday and has an MLB-best 1.44 ERA since May 1. Only four other Giants pitchers have had a season ERA under 2.00 in at least 10 starts entering the All-Star break in franchise history. The Cubs are a much better offensive team than the Giants, but I fully expect the Giants to add a bat by the Aug. 1 trade deadline. San Francisco is +300 to win the pennant in yet another even-numbered year this decade.
The NL East-leading Washington Nationals (54-36) are +350 for the pennant. They obviously benefit from the news that the Mets' Matt Harvey is done for the season. How about Daniel Murphy for NL MVP? He has to be in the conversation with Bryant and Colorado's Nolan Arenado. Murphy has killed his former Mets team this year with 21 RBIs against them already. It's the most by a player against the team he played with the previous season since Roger Maris had 27 for the Yankees in 1960 against the A's. And that was for a full season! Murphy leads the majors with a .348 average to go with 17 homers (career high) and 66 RBIs.
The Dodgers (51-40) hold down the top wild-card spot as things stand and are +600 to win the pennant. Any chance of that rests on the health of ace Clayton Kershaw. He is eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list Friday for the start of the second half but won't. But it doesn't appear he's too far away.
The Mets (47-41) and Marlins (47-41) are tied for the second wild-card spot. New York is +1000 to repeat as the pennant winner. The Harvey news obviously isn't good and now Noah Syndergaard is dealing with some arm fatigue. The offense also has been too inconsistent. The Mets have won only five games when they don't homer, are 11-34 when they score three runs or less and have been shut out eight times.
Miami is +2200 for the pennant. That team could be scary as Giancarlo Stanton has finally started hitting. He entered the break on a seven-game winning streak and with five homers and 10 RBIs in that stretch. He also put on quite the show in winning Monday's Home Run Derby as the betting favorite.
I believe all three division leaders stay that way, with the Dodgers and Cardinals taking the two wild-card spots. I still like the Cubs to win the pennant.
NL Cy Young
Kershaw is the +185 favorite to win a fourth career Cy Young Award. He's 11-2 with a 1.79 ERA. As long as he doesn't miss too much more time, he should be favored. Arrieta (12-4, 2.68) is +450 with Cueto (13-1, 2.47). The problem with Cueto is he probably will have votes siphoned off by his teammate, Bumgarner (10-4, 1.94), who is +700.
Jose Fernandez (11-4, 2.52) and Stephen Strasburg (12-0, 2.62) are also +700. Strasburg is the first National League pitcher since the Giants' Rube Marquard in 1912 to begin a season with 12 straight victories. Marquand was 18-0 before losing. Teammate Max Scherzer started 13-0 with the Tigers in 2013. Strasburg might be good value because if he somehow didn't lose a single game, how can you not give him the Cy Young? And he has already gotten his annual trip to the DL out of the way.
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