Division races in the Junior Circuit and trade chatter look to heat up with summer just around the corner
The calendar has flipped to June and we are almost two months into the 2016 MLB season. For the most part, the season is still too young for teams to distance themselves in the division races — aside from the Cubs in the NL Central — but even then, being up by almost 10 games in the first week of June isn’t anything to write home about, yet.
In the American League, the division standings are even tighter, especially in the AL East and Central. With the official start of summer just around the corner, the dog days of the long season are upon us. Here are a few things to watch in the AL in June.
AL Central Scramble
The White Sox burst out of the gate in April, winning 17 games and were 13 games over .500 on May 9. The new-look offense, led by Todd Frazier, and the starting pitching carved its way through the first 30-plus days of the season. But since May 9, the Sox have been sputtering, going just 6-17 and enduring losing streaks of four and seven games.
The one bright spot during the Sox’ downturn is the dominance of southpaw pitching duo Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. Each are in the top seven of the AL in ERA with Sale pacing leading the way in wins (nine) and WHIP (0.94).
The White Sox’ crash has perfectly coincided with the Royals’ revival. The reigning World Series champs opened the season with an unenthusiastic 12-11 record in April before finding their rhythm in May (17-11) and taking over first place in the division. The Royals have done this with minimal help from their starting pitching as Yordano Ventura, Chris Young and Kris Medlen all have inflated ERAs of 4.82 or higher, while also dealing with injuries to stalwarts like Mike Moustakas (ACL) and Alex Gordon (broken bone in wrist).
Thanks to a four-game sweep over the weekend, the Indians have passed the Royals and currently hold a game and a half lead atop the division entering Monday’s action. And Cleveland has accomplished this despite losing two outfielders to PED-related suspensions (Marlon Byrd, Abraham Almonte) and the never-ending recovery of the oft-injured Michael Brantley. The shortage of outfielders and Cleveland’s ability to stay in the division hunt could make them big trade deadline buyers in about a month.
The Tigers are possibly one of the biggest underachieving teams in baseball thus far and it could cost manager Brad Ausmus his job before long. The offense has been fine, but the starting pitching has been inconsistent. Newly acquired Jordan Zimmermann has been great, but everyone else in the rotation has been unsettling. Justin Verlander has improved as of late, dropping his ERA from a season-worst 6.49 on May 3 to 3.97 following his win on Sunday. But Mike Pelfrey’s ERA sits at 4.76, Anibal Sanchez (3-6, 6.67 ERA in 11 GS) recently was removed from the rotation, and the bullpen’s collective ERA (4.70) is 27th in MLB. If the Tigers have any chance of keeping up with the rest of the division, the pitching is going to have to keep up with the bats.
Red Hot Red Sox
The Red Sox were supposed to be an improved team from their last-place effort in 2015, and the biggest improvement was supposed to come from the starting rotation. The Sox currently find themselves atop the AL East with a game and a half lead over the Orioles. But Boston’s boost hasn’t come from the overhauled starting rotation. The $217 million arm of David Price has yet to find his groove, posting a 4.88 ERA in his 11 starts so far, while Rick Porcello and Clay Buchholz have had their own struggles.
Boston’s offense has been the driving force behind the resurgence, led by the new version of the “Killer B’s” – Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. But perhaps the biggest surprises at the plate have come from the Red Sox’ established veterans.
Much was made about Hanley Ramirez making the move from left field to first base. Ramirez has responded, hitting .282/.345/.397 after a disappointing 2015.
David Ortiz, in his farewell season, may be putting together an MVP campaign. Big Papi is mashing, hitting .340 with 16 home runs and leading the league in doubles (26), RBIs (54), slugging percentage (.732), OPS (1.156), OPS+ (202), and total bases (142) — leading many to speculate if this is in fact Ortiz’s final season.
The mix of budding superstars and veterans contributing in the daily lineup has made this offense an absolute force to be reckoned with. Currently, the Sox lead the majors in runs scored, batting average, hits, doubles, RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, and total bases.
Boston enters this week tied with Baltimore for first in the AL East, although one up in the win column (33 vs. 32). The Red Sox just finished a stretch of 10 games against the Orioles and the third-place Blue Jays, in which they went 4-6. Following a three-game set at home against Baltimore June 14-16, Boston won’t face either division rival until mid-August. Which team will be able to take advantage of this extended break?
Oakland Trade Bait
Typically, July is the time for wheeling and dealing — and while it might be a little too early for most teams to pull the trigger on a blockbuster, it’s never too early to speculate. And the White Sox have already made the first move, trading for San Diego’s James Shields in an effort to bolster their starting rotation.
Out in the AL West, Oakland is in last place, sitting at 25-32 and nine and a half games behind Texas. The A’s appear primed to sell and have several potential trade chips that should generate plenty of interest. With the New York Mets struggling offensively and without third baseman David Wright for the foreseeable future, a move for Danny Valencia could be a possibility. Valencia, 31, is playing under a one-year deal and is putting together his best numbers, hitting .343 with a .968 OPS.
The A’s top two pitchers also could be in the mix for a big trade. Rich Hill, 36, has made the most of his first season as a full-time starter since 2007. Hill, who will be a free agent after the season, will be a hot commodity come July as many early contending teams, including the aforementioned Red Sox, are in need of starting pitching help.
But perhaps the crown jewel of the July trade deadline will end up being A’s ace Sonny Gray. Gray has struggled to start the season, posting a 5.77 ERA, and went on the disabled list on May 22 with a strained trapezius muscle. But he returned to the mound on Sunday, giving up just one run over five innings in a no-decision against Houston. If Gray is able to rediscover his All- Star form, his trade value should go up. Only 26 years old, a healthy and effective Gray would command a massive return should Oakland decide to trade its young ace, who is under control until 2020. The Red Sox, Cubs, Tigers and Dodgers are just a few of the teams that could use Gray’s services and figure to at least place a call to the A’s at some point to find out the asking price.
— Written by Jake Rose, an avid baseball fan who also is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.