By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowmanon Twitter)
You already know about the Dodgers and Mets financial issues, that Adam Dunn has two hits (in 58 at-bats) off of lefties this season, and that the Cubs are…well, the Cubs. Now it’s time to focus on the positive news from the first half of the baseball season. Here’s my starting nine:
1. Pittsburgh Pirates
A 57-105 season in 2010. No winning record for the franchise since 1992. Yes, a skinny Barry Bonds flipping over in left field (as he cannot throw out the piano-on-his-back Sid Bream running home) is the last play in Pittsburgh Pirates postseason history. However, Clint Hurdle is having an amazing effect in the Steel City and is the obvious frontrunner for NL Manager of the Year. He has done it with solid pitching and an infectious positive attitude. Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen is Hurdle’s only real offensive weapon, but the club is just one game out of first place in the NL Central. This year’s Bucs got their 45th win on July 5, instead of last season’s date of September 3.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks
General Manager Kevin Towers inherited a team full of strikeouts and one of the worst bullpens ever. He assembled an All-Star coaching staff (literally) led by the fiery Kirk Gibson, and the club has responded well. The Diamondbacks are seven games above .500 and are just two games behind the Giants in the division. With young talent like Justin Upton, Chris Young, Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, Arizona should have some staying power in the NL West race.
3. Cleveland Indians
The Tribe continues the parade of surprising teams who are winning with quality pitching. After a red-hot start led by shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, Manny Acta’s club cooled off in June. But the Indians have won five of seven in July, and they are still in first place in the AL Central. With Chris Perez and with Tony Sipp leading a stellar bullpen, we don’t have to worry calls like this from Harry Doyle this summer: “Haywood swings and crushes this one toward South America. Tomlinson is gonna need a Visa to catch this one, it is out of here, and there is nothing left but a vapor trail.”
4. Joe Maddon, Rays manager
He lost hitters Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena to free agency, as well as the entire bullpen. Tampa Bay got off to a 1-8 start, and you had to wonder where the Rays were headed this season. Somehow, Maddon got his team turned around to the point where they once again are standing toe-to-toe with the Yankees and Red Sox. No Tampa Bay regular is hitting above. 290 or has 50 RBIs. Three-time All-Star Evan Longoria has missed significant time and is hitting just .247. Starting pitchers James Shields and David Price and closer Kyle Farnsworth have been good, but the Rays have found ways to win much like Bruce Bochy’s Giants do. Joe Maddon deserves a ton of the credit.
5. Fredi Gonzalez, Braves manager
Many baseball pundits were skeptical when Atlanta’s former bench coach (under .500 record as the Marlins’ manager) was chosen to succeed the legendary Bobby Cox. After a losing April, the Braves have steadily climbed into contention. Atlanta has been red-hot of late, winning 14 of their last games 17 games. Led by All-Star catcher Brian McCann, the Braves have the second-most wins in baseball with 53, trailing only the Phillies. It’s not a shock the Braves are good, but kudos to the quality of the Atlanta organization and Gonzalez for making a seamless transition.
6. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox
He was expected to be good in Boston, but he may have exceeded the high expectations (and salary) in his first season at Fenway. It’s easy for fans to say, “That’s what he should be doing for all of that money”, but so many players who receive top contracts falter. Gonzalez had never played in a pressure-cooker city like Boston, but he has handled it beautifully. He leads the AL in average, RBIs and doubles and plays Gold Glove defense nightly.
7. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
For anyone that thought he was a fluke in 2010, you now know differently. The Toronto slugger leads MLB with 29 home runs and 71 walks, showing how much respect he has from opposing pitchers. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, Bautista has hit 83 long balls, or 22 more than anyone else (Paul Konerko, 61) in baseball. That’s a staggering gap over a year and a half period.
8. Lance Berkman, Cardinals
The Puma is one of the most likeable characters in baseball, but most thought his days of being a top-shelf hitter were way behind him. Then St. Louis surprised many around baseball when they signed as an outfielder, a place where he had not played since 2007. The switch-hitting Berkman has been rejuvenated in the Gateway City, as he leads the National League in home runs with 23. That far surpasses his total of 14 last year with the Astros and Yankees. With Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday both missing games, Berkman has been a key reason the Cards are tied for first in the NL Central.
9. MLB Parity
Less than a week from the All-Star Game, it’s a little surprising to see only one team above .600 (Phillies) and one below .400 (Astros). In this season controlled by pitching, more and more teams are in a divisional race than we usually see in July. It's nice to see less dead weight in the standings, although one ramification of MLB parity will be less movement at the trade deadline. While trade action is fun to talk about, it’s better for baseball to have more teams in contention and playing for a division crown.