MLB first half impressions, predictions and musings

Brevity is exercised in today’s introduction. Here are my MLB impressions from the first half of the season:

National League

He nice Lance Berkman While Chipper Jones has received most of the batting average ink for his early run at .400 (now at .376), the Phillies have plugged the HR leaderboard with Howard/Utley/Burrell, and Hanley Ramirez has been the sexy mid-season MVP choice for admirably keeping Florida in the NL East race -- the accomplishments of the Houston’s Lance Berkman continue to get little liftoff outside of ardent baseball circles. Currently ranked third in batting (.347), 8th in home runs (22) and 3rd in RBI (72), Berkman has a very legit shot to become the NL’s first Triple Crown winner since Joe Medwick in 1937. Also notable is Berkman’s 15 steals. His previous career best was 9 back in ’04. Yeah, the dude’s team sucks (at least the pitching), but for a guy with a lifetime .304 average and nearly 1,400 hits, Berkman makes his 5th career All-Star appearance in his 9th full season this year. Another fine year for another great Astro who will likely never don a ring (see: Craig Biggio).

What the Hell … Ever happened to Khalil Greene? Something of a random, I realize, but I personally felt the Padres were up for a strong postseason run in ‘08, and believed this dude was one of the cornerstones. But alas, for the 13th pick back in ‘02 who led his Clemson club to the College World Series and then started 20 ballgames in the Bigs the ensuing season, Greene -- as per his club’s geography-- is near the border, bro. And we’re not talking Tijuana fun. Rather, Greene is hitting a meager .217 for San Diego, worst among regular MLB shortstops by almost 40-points. He’s also dead last in on base percentage and second-to-last in on base-plus-slugging. Although he’s hit 8 bombs, there’s no way he’ll near the 27 he rocked last season. Long known for his slick glove, with his 7 errors combined with the aforementioned, the only thing slick about Greene today is his name, meaning “friend,” which, at this rate, may be declining in number.

Club Up Over the course of the last month, the Brewers have captured the NL upstart vibe over Florida, especially after their acquisition of C.C. Sabathia. However, take a look at the standings, and they’re third in the Central, a ½ game behind St. Louis. Nobody really seems pumped up about the Cardinals, and given their anonymous/spare parts/oft-injured lineup, it’s amazing that they’re 53-43. With a winning mark both at home and on the road, Tony LaRussa, anchored by Albert Pujols, is again proving that he’s one of the best four skippers in baseball. As if being 3rd all-time in managerial wins wasn’t enough.

Club Down Having already alluded to the Padres playing more like Madres, Colorado also needs to be called out at a dismal 39-57. At the onset of the season, I thought the NL West may be the best division in the Bigs, however mid-July finds all five teams below .500. The Rockies put together an inspiring late-season charge to reach the Series in ’07. It looks like they’re still reeling from getting swept by Boston.

I have a gambling problem I’m taking: Chicago over N.Y. (Wild card) Philly over L.A. Chicago over Philly for the NL Pennant

American League

He nice Texas’ Josh Hamilton has received the well-deserved pub for finally collecting more RBI than tattoos. But his teammate, 2B Ian Kinsler has truly had a remarkable 93 games. Kinsler reminds me of Jeff Kent in his prime, but with far more speed. Both had average gloves, but offer marked production from what is traditionally considered a defensive position. Kinsler currently leads the AL in batting at .337 (14 points over Morneau, 15 over Mauer), has a league-best 134 hits and an AL-topping 84 runs. Nobody else has 68. In addition, moving around the bases has also been in Ian’s wheelhouse as evidenced by his 23 steals. Lastly, he sports a current, 25-game hit streak, longest in the bigs this year. Texas, led by this leadoff rock, may have the best 1-4 lineup in baseball. With an AL-worst 5.10 ERA, they need it.

What the Hell … Ever happened to Carlos Silva? Yeah, Carlos tossed a quality start, no decision on Sunday, but after signing for 4 years and nearly $50 million in Seattle, Silva is making the Twins look pretty damn smart for letting him go. At 4-11, he’s tied for the second most losses in baseball. Furthermore, he sports a near career-worst WHIP of 1.46, a ballooned ERA of 5.46 (45th in the AL alone), and with 19 walks the longtime control freak will surely usurp his career ceiling of 37 back in ‘03. “The Chief” is off the reservation, and a big fat reason why the Mariners are 20 games out before August.

Club Up Oakland has been graced with ample positivity given their no-name lineup and 51-44 start, but with Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin off to the Cubs, their slide will begin soon enough. Tampa was the deserved story of first half baseball until their current 7-game slide squeezed the juice out of Tropicana, and dropped the Rays back in second. For my dollars -- and I don’t feel I’m being a homer here-- the story is truly the Twins. Supplementing Livan, Blackburn and Gomez for Santana, Silva and Hunter, the club is 4 games better than they were last year at this time. The young starting staff has been brilliant, having compiled 52 quality starts, good for fourth in the AL, and the entire club have surrendered just 226 walks, best in the majors (Texas has given up nearly 400). Some guys could be maxing out potential (i.e., Casilla, Buscher, Harris, even Kubel), but there is so much room for growth that if the studs keep clubbing and the staff consistently keeps opponents under 4, then perhaps my predication below will find fruition.

Club Down See: Above. Along with Silva, Seattle has been a major let-down. No team with Bedard, Washburn, Silva, Ichiro, Beltre, Ibanez, and the now-departed Richie Sexson should be more than 20 games below .500. Yet, with an AL- worst 374 runs, they just can’t score enough to right the ship. I picked ’em for the Wild Card, a forecast that’s now way out to sea.

I have a gambling problem I’m taking: Boston over Chicago (Wild Card) L.A. over Minnesota Boston over L.A. for AL Pennant

…And a final caveat from the first half:

A little more than a month back, baseball held a ceremonial Negro Leagues Draft that ran concurrent to the MLB amateur draft. The idea was credited to our own Dave Winfield, and while I know I have ample company in my respect for Winny, perhaps I’m in solitary company by saying that the concept was, for lack of a more mature term: dumb. Baseball has likely done more to combat racism than any other American sport. Yet, I just find it hard to imagine that, say, the offspring of Bill “Lefty” Bell -- who was ceremonially “drafted" by the Twins -- were bouncing around the living room howling, “Lefty got drafted! Lefty got drafted!” Baseball’s continued efforts to right the wrongs of our country’s past are important in virtue and honorable in spirit. However, the present of our game -- with now less than 9% black players -- seems to me to be of more immediate concern. In 1997 that number was nearly double. The past is important, the future is imminent.

UPDATE: Justin Morneau Wins Home Run Derby:

After battling his way to the Home Run Derby final round at Yankee Stadium on Monday night with a steady stream of long balls, Justin Morneau outlasted Texas’ Josh Hamilton to win the pre All-Star game event. Hamilton bombed a record 28 homers in Round 1 -- compared to 8 for Morneau -- however in the freshly-tallied Finals, Morneau’s 5 homers stood atop the mere 3 for the obviously drained Ranger.

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