SURPRISES HAVE ABOUNDED ALREADY—HOW ABOUT THOSE SOARING TWINS?—BUT MORE WILL BE IN STORE AS CONTENDERS TAKE A FLYING LEAP AT THE TRADE DEADLINE
THE HEADLINES in baseball—once again—are home runs and strikeouts. The league is on pace to hit the most homers and rack up the most whiffs in baseball history, with the fewest balls in play ever to boot. It's safe to assume that home runs and strikeouts are the start of any discussion, and they explain the biggest surprise this season.
The Twins lead the AL Central by 5½ games in part because they're chasing the all-time mark for homers, on pace to become the first 300-home-run team ever. Offseason signings of DH Nelson Cruz and second baseman Jonathan Schoop and a trade for first baseman C.J. Cron have combined for 47, giving Minnesota a righthanded power base it lacked in recent seasons. Those winter pickups are just a small part of the Twins' story, however. In 2016, as one of the last teams to transition to more analytics-driven decision-making, they hired Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, a pair of executives who cut their teeth with the Indians and the Rangers, respectively. The two helped build a playoff team in '17, but it's in the last two seasons that their impact has been felt.
Minnesota has invested in tech, helping pitchers maximize their potential by embracing velocity. The Twins hired a young manager in Rocco Baldelli and a young pitching coach from the college ranks in Wes Johnson. Their story is about K's, too: Minnesota has set franchise records for strikeout rate in each of the three seasons under Falvey and Levine. But it's not all newcomers and new technology. Outfielders Max Kepler, Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario, and ace Jose Bérríos, form a homegrown, inexpensive, peak-age core that matches any in the game.
It may be difficult to identify baseball's contenders: Just seven teams are more than six games removed from a playoff spot. But the Twins are for real: They simply have more talent than the second-place Indians and will win their first division title in nine years.
MOUNTAIN OF YOUTH
TOO GOOD TO GET DEALT
ONE OF the major rules changes in play this year is the elimination of the waiver period in August. The trade deadline, July 31, is now the One True Trade Deadline, so the pressure is on for teams to get something done in the next few weeks; there's no backdoor through which to sneak Justin Verlander or Andrew McCutchen or Adrian Gonzalez. We may not see high-end prospects dealt, though. Teams are clinging more closely than ever to their young players. It's easy to see why. Their impact on the game continues in 2019. Padres' shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. (left) is headed for a 20/20/20 rookie season: 20 homers, 20 steals, 20 years old. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is already so famous that he was invited to the Home Run Derby at 20. Meanwhile, 20-year-old Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña and the Nats' Juan Soto are All-Stars again. There are more just as good on the way. Rightfielder Jo Adell, 20, is hitting .360 at Double A; he could join the Angels this summer. Blue Jays prospect Bo Bichette is crushing the ball at Triple A. The Braves have another 20-year-old, Cristian Pache, who's hitting for power and may be the best defensive outfielder in the minors. Then there's the game's best prospect, Rays infielder Wander Franco, who turned 18 in March and has laid waste to the Florida State and Midwest leagues.
WHO ARE THE SELLERS?
THE MOST important man in baseball through July? Giants first-year president of baseball ops Farhan Zaidi, who, in addition to ace Madison Bumgarner (above) and first baseman Brandon Belt, has the bullpen arms every team in the playoff hunt needs: lefties Will Smith (1.98 ERA, 53/8 K/BB) and Tony Watson (3.38, 26/8) and ground ball machine Sam Dyson (2.30, 39/6, 57.4% GB rate). Who will join San Francisco as sellers? Despite going all in behind new GM Brodie Van Wagenen, the Mets have the NL's 14th-best record. Will they make Zack Wheeler available? The Padres have ridden rookie sensation Fernando Tatis Jr. but they won't catch the Dodgers. Will they ship Kirby Yates (1.15 ERA, 30 saves) to a contender? The Rangers have a shot at the wild card but not the division title. Are they going to dangle lefty Mike Minor, OBP machine Shin-Soo Choo or closer Shawn Kelley? The buyers are easier to identify. The Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals and Twins need relief pitching. The Yankees, Phillies and Cardinals could use a starter or two. The Indians, Cards and Phillies need outfield help, preferably in the form of a big power bat.
Despite myriad off-field problems, Tampa Bay continues to produce winning teams. The Rays spent 53 days in first place in the AL East, and still lead in the wild-card race. Rookie two-way player Brendan McKay stretches the lineup and bolsters a rotation that ranks first in the league. Starting the season with the fifth-lowest payroll, Tampa will target bullpen arms and perhaps a starter.
It remains a mystery how a team with a core this good can repeatedly underachieve. The Nats are at it again, hovering around .500 despite having Cy Young (Max Scherzer, right) and MVP (Anthony Rendon) candidates, as well as Juan Soto and Trea Turner. They'll pursue relief help for the fifth straight year and chase down a wild-card berth.
They've built a very good pitching staff but their usually productive offense has lost its way. Joey Votto came around in June after the worst stretch of his career, but only utility player Derek Dietrich (18 homers, .554 SLG) has excelled. Still, just five NL teams have a better scoring margin, and even in the NL Central cellar, the Reds are closer to first than are many second-place teams.
They counted on a weak division and did nothing over the winter to improve the roster. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger have put up a collective 5.07 ERA. José Ramírez, an MVP candidate a year ago, is suddenly one of the AL's worst hitters. When you punt on the offseason, that's all it takes to turn a division favorite into a wild-card hopeful.
Their low-profile offseason signings of starters Mike Minor and Lance Lynn have produced one of the game's top one-two punches. Behind them, though, is a terribly thin staff working in front of a poor defense. Texas has young hitters who can help win in its new ballpark next year; dealing them away in a quixotic wild-card run now will detract from that effort.
It's not entirely their fault, as injuries have undercut the offseason efforts to improve the defense and bullpen. But even Bryce Harper (left) and J.T. Realmuto have failed to meet expectations. What Philly needs to press the Braves in the NL East—a centerfielder and a No. 1 starter—aren't available on this trade market.