With baseball at the ceremonial midpoint of the season, the biggest overachievers and underachievers are division rivals.
The American League West is home to the teams with the major leagues' best records, the Oakland Athletics (59-36) and the Los Angeles Angels (57-37). At the bottom of the division are the free-spending and downward-trending Texas Rangers (38-57).
The A's are cruising behind the stingiest pitching in the AL (3.09 ERA) and the second-best offense in the league (4.9 runs per game). The Angels are succeeding mainly thanks to an offense that is scoring a major-league-best 5.1 runs per game.
The Rangers, meanwhile, barely had enough healthy players to field a team some nights, leading to the worst record in the majors at the All-Star break.
Asked to select the team's biggest positive in the first half, manager Ron Washington responded, "Did you take the time to think about that question'"
The reply explains why his team, along with the foundering defending champion Boston Red Sox, were the only teams to receive an "F" grade when The Sports Xchange asked its baseball correspondents to assess first-half performances in light of preseason expectations.
A team-by-team look at the midseason grades:
D-minus -- It is true that every team has injuries, and in baseball circles it is considered bad form to use them as an excuse. At the same time, the Diamondbacks' injuries were debilitating. Arizona had 12 players on the disabled list at one time, and only the Texas Rangers missed more player-games to injury. The loss of No. 1 starter Patrick Corbin, a 2013 All-Star, was a devastating blow to a team that was thin in starting pitching to begin with. LF Mark Trumbo, acquired to complement 1B Paul Goldschmidt in the lineup, missed 10 weeks with a stress fracture. Blossoming CF A.J. Pollock also is expected to miss about that much time with a fractured right hand.
D -- The Rockies fell behind often but did an admirable job of coming back in games and not quitting. That is a reflection of manager Walt Weiss, who is respected in the clubhouse. The front office thought there was better depth this year, but that proved to be wrong. Injuries took a toll on the rotation, but too often the Rockies ran out inadequate replacements such as LHP Yohan Flande, RHP Jair Jurrjens and RHP Christian Friedrich, who combined to make eight starts and go 0-6 with a 7.47 ERA. RHP Juan Nicasio, the season-opening fifth starter, pitched his way back to the minors. The bullpen was supposed to be a strength, but it experienced difficulties, too.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
B-plus -- It was a pale version of last year's historic 42-8 run, but the Dodgers swallowed up a 9 1/2 -game San Francisco Giants lead in a three-week span of June. Give the Giants half of the credit for that -- they went 5-15 while the Dodgers went 15-6. However, the Dodgers did stabilize a porous defense while finding some consistency in their bullpen on their way back to first place. They will need more from well-paid hitters such as SS Hanley Ramirez, LF Matt Kemp and CF Andre Ethier in the second half.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
D -- Padres pitchers own the second-lowest staff ERA in the National League, 3.18. However, the offense was beyond pathetic, worse than an F. The Padres are last in the major leagues in batting average (.214), on-base percentage (.273) and slugging percentage (.334) -- and it is not close. San Diego is the only team in the majors averaging fewer than three runs per game. The Padres were shut out 14 times, and their batting average with runners in scoring position (.198) is last in the big leagues, too.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
B -- The Giants are one game behind the National League West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers at the All-Star break after they finished 2013 a full 16 back of their rivals. On that alone, you could argue they deserve an "A." But this "A" student flunked the midterm exam, not only losing all of a 9 1/2 -game lead in the division but also bringing almost the entire NL Central back into the race for the top wild-card spot. Even so, the Giants would be in the playoffs if the postseason started today, and you can't flunk a kid for that.
C-minus -- It may seem a generous grade for a team struggling with one of the major league's worst records, but manager Rick Renteria's upbeat attitude and positive approach to players won plenty of admirers. The team's All-Stars, SS Starlin Castro and 1B Anthony Rizzo, were the biggest offensive stars, while RHP Jake Arrieta (5-1, 1.95 ERA) was a pleasant surprise. The Cubs were competitive in most games they played, and they might have a few more wins if the bullpen were more consistent. Despite the departures of RHPs Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, the remaining pitching wasn't bleak.
B-minus -- The grade might be lower for a team that was 8 1 / 2games out on June 20 after expecting to contend this season. That is, until you examine what the Reds endured to get where they are. Considering the fact that Cincinnati began the season with eight players on the disabled list and now is without 1B Joey Votto and 2B Brandon Phillips, first-year manager Bryan Price is doing an admirable job getting his players to buy into his philosophy of unselfish play. The Reds pitch and play defense as well as any team in the league. They will need to avoid the occasional bullpen meltdown and inconsistency on offense to remain in the race.
B-minus -- OK, so Milwaukee fell flat at the end of the first half, but look at it this way: The Brewers spent 100 days atop the NL Central and were only tied for one of them. They also are a game behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League's best record. Not too shabby. Milwaukee ranks second in the league in slugging percentage (.412) and home runs (94). C Jonathan Lucroy, a potential Most Valuable Player candidate, was one of three Brewers in the NL's starting lineup for the All-Star Game, joining OF Carlos Gomez and 3B Aramis Ramirez. RHP Francisco Rodriguez also earned a place on the NL All-Star team.
B -- If nothing else, the Pirates proved that last year's successful season was not a fluke. GM Neal Huntington acted decisively in April to add a first baseman, Ike Davis, after journeyman Travis Ishikawa was the Opening Day starter at the position. Manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage artfully juggled a rotation that lost LHP Francisco Liriano and RHP Gerrit Cole to injuries at various times and got such poor performances from Wandy Rodriguez that the veteran lefty was released.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
C-plus -- Given the high expectations off last year's 97-win team that represented the National League in the World Series, it is hard to give the Cardinals a higher grade. The offense was inconsistent at best, slugging fewer homers and hitting into more double plays than any other team in the league. Manager Mike Matheny's lineups didn't reflect the team's struggling state, as he left RF Allen Craig in the No. 4 spot far too long, even when it was obvious that right-handers were dominating Craig with inside fastballs. On the other hand, the organization's pitching depth helped the Cardinals withstand the loss of three starting pitchers for long stretches.
B-plus -- Inconsistency plagued the Braves, who dropped into a roller-coaster routine of highs and lows. Typical was a nine-game winning streak that was followed by a four-game losing streak. Most of the problems stem from an inconsistent offense. The power comes and goes (a pre-All-Star-break stretch saw Atlanta hit only three homers over 125 innings), and the team never embraced the notion of what manager Fredi Gonzalez calls "keeping the line moving." Gonzalez tried a lot of different lineups, including a period when he hit the pitcher in the No. 8 slot and the recent move of strikeout-prone CF B.J. Upton into the leadoff hole.
B-minus -- The Marlins limped into the All-Star break having lost four in a row, but let's put it into perspective. Miami won only 62 games all of last season. This year, the Marlins already have 44 victories. They are a vastly improved team — and that is without RHP Jose Fernandez, who is out for the year due to Tommy John surgery. The Marlins missed on some of their decisions, most notably at second base, where they gambled on aging 2B Rafael Furcal, who was unable to stay healthy. The back end of the rotation also was a problem. Overall, though, the team is making progress.
NEW YORK METS
C -- The Mets are the student who spares himself a failing grade by cramming furiously for and then acing the final exam. The starting pitching was legitimate all season, and the bullpen was bolstered once management gave up on the Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth experiments and went with the kids -- RHPs Vic Black, Jeurys Familia and Jenrry Mejia, the latter of whom has 10 saves since transitioning from the rotation. While it remains to be seen if the Mets actually solved their situational hitting woes while ending the first half with an 8-2 homestand, they look like a team that can take a step forward this season, whether by flirting with .500 or making a run at a playoff berth.
D -- The Phillies were a playoff qualifier every year from 2007-11, though they were fully aware that they could not ride the Ryan Howard-Chase Utley-Jimmy Rollins gravy train forever. Now the Phillies are bottoming out, and Howard, Utley and Rollins are on the wrong side of 30 — as are LHP Cliff Lee (35), RHP Roberto Hernandez (33), RHP A.J. Burnett (37) and RHP Jonathan Papelbon (33). In addition, the farm system is not brimming with prospects. The rebuilding process will be long and painful.
B-plus -- The grade could indeed be an "A" if not for the rash of injuries in the first half. In addition, some of the Nationals did not perform up to their own standards, including OFs Bryce Harper and Denard Span. First-year manager Matt Williams made some missteps, but with his Opening Day roster once again intact, Williams assigned predictable roles to his regulars and the bullpen, and the results on the field are encouraging. GM Mike Rizzo put together a roster that could play deep into October, and the starting pitching could be the best in the game.
C-minus -- It is difficult to assume a win total based on optimal bullpen health, but it is a safe bet that the Astros would be closer to .500 had they not relied on since-released RHPs Jerome Williams and Kyle Farnsworth. GM Jeff Luhnow rolled the dice on RHP Jesse Crain, who underwent offseason arm surgery and has yet to pitch this season. The promotion of two key prospects, OF George Springer and 1B Jon Singleton, resulted in highlights and 169 combined strikeouts before the break.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
A -- After two disappointing seasons, the Angels are fulfilling the expectations observers expressed when the club signed 1B Albert Pujols and OF Josh Hamilton. The biggest key is major contributions from unexpected sources (RHP Garrett Richards, 1B C.J. Cron, OF Collin Cowgill, RHP Matt Shoemaker, RHP Michael Morin, INF/OF Grant Green), which speaks to the team's depth. As a result, the Angels enjoy the kind of overall balance and esprit d'corps they lacked in the recent past. Manager Mike Scioscia reinforced that camaraderie by making full use of his roster and by successfully juggling the relievers in an ever-changing bullpen.
A -- The Athletics came out of spring training staggering, having lost two of their best pitchers -- RHP Jarrod Parker and RHP A.J. Griffin -- to season-ending injuries. Those picking the two-time division champs to three-peat were focusing more on the perennial underachieving Los Angeles Angels than the A's. Well, the Angels aren't underachieving anymore, and yet the A's are halfway to that third title. Oakland boasts a major league-high six All-Stars, and that doesn't include RHP Jeff Samardzija, selected for his work with the Chicago Cubs before he was acquired by the A's.
B-minus -- Still being relevant at the All-Star break is a big step for a Seattle organization that is usually in Siberia by this point. Manager Lloyd McClendon is making the most out of a limited lineup and is finding a way to keep the Mariners competitive despite a makeshift rotation. McClendon probably doesn't have to start making any postseason travel plans, especially after a rough final week leading up to the break, but he is giving the fan base some hope -- and that is a big step in the right direction.
F -- The Rangers, who acquired LF Shin-Soo Choo and 1B Prince Fielder to fill big holes in an offense lacking in 2013, believed they were serious contenders. Ownership stepped up to take on Choo's price tag of $130 million over seven years in addition to $114 million owed to Fielder. Both were injury busts. In truth, even if those two stayed healthy, the Rangers probably still needed another bat, considering inconsistent Mitch Moreland was penciled in as the DH before he, too, got hurt. Numerous starting pitchers were sidelined because of injuries, some of them recurring. During the first-half slide, the Rangers often appeared disengaged and sloppy.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
C -- After posting baseball's third-worst record in 2013, the White Sox overachieved so far this season even with sometimes suspect pitching. While Chicago is six games under .500, the team is just 6 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot, leaving hope for the second half. The White Sox can't afford a falloff by sensational rookie 1B Jose Abreu -- or LHP Chris Sale or LHP John Danks, for that matter -- if they hope to make a run. Better starting pitching from the rest of the staff plus a more disciplined bullpen are a must.
D -- After reaching the postseason as a wild-card team last year, the Indians came into this season with high expectations. However, several key players have underperformed, Cleveland was unable to put together an extended run of quality play. The decision by the front office to let LHP Scott Kazmir leave as a free agent was regrettable. Kazmir became an All-Star with Oakland, and the Indians' rotation turned into a mess, with only one pitcher, RHP Corey Kluber, posting a winning record at the break.
B-plus -- Detroit was expected to run away with the AL Central title, and so far it has. However, that doesn't mean things are perfect in Tigerland. The bullpen, especially the back end, is suspect, and the rotation got beat up pretty good during the club's 9-20 stretch. The managerial transition from Jim Leyland to Brad Ausmus was seamless, but that was almost a given with bench coach Gene Lamont on board for guidance. The front office made a shrewd move by signing OF J.D. Martinez after he was let go by the Houston Astros in spring training.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
C-plus -- When they went on a 10-game winning streak and took a 1 1/2 -game lead on the Detroit Tigers on June 18, the grade would have been B-plus. However, they subsequently went 9-14 and are now 6 1/2 games back, so the mark was lowered significantly. The Royals were expected to be a middle-of-the road team with a shot at a playoff spot. At 48-46, they are 2 1/2 games out of the second wild-card spot, and if their offense gets hot and their pitching stays hot, they certainly can make a second-half run.
B-minus -- Following three 90-loss seasons, expectations were low in Minnesota. While the Twins have a long road ahead of them to reach the postseason in 2014, the front office hit offseason home runs in the signings of both C Kurt Suzuki and RHP Phil Hughes. After an abysmal start to the season, Minnesota's starting pitching was better of late, and offensively, the Twins are 13th in the majors in runs scored one season after finishing 25th in the same category. Manager Ron Gardenhire entered the year on the hot seat, but he proved once again why he is one of the most respected skippers in all of baseball.
A-minus -- 1B Chris Davis never got going. RHP Tommy Hunter bombed out as closer. C Matt Wieters underwent season-ending elbow surgery, and 3B Manny Machado didn't really get rolling until June, but the Orioles still made it to first place. GM Dan Duquette's late-winter move to sign DH Nelson Cruz to a one-year deal looks awfully good now. LF/DH Steve Pearce also helped plenty, and manager Buck Showalter did a masterful job of using what amounts to a six-man rotation to get good pitching. Showalter also platooned effectively in different spots.
BOSTON RED SOX
F -- When the defending champions are in a virtual tie for last place at the All-Star break, with a 43-52 record that includes a 10-game losing streak, a failing grade is a given. Is there a chance in the second half? Sure there is. But this team is going to have to get some kind of hot to get there. Last year, manager John Farrell displayed a magic touch that produced a surprise championship. In the first 95 games this year, cracks were clear in his managerial moves, but he still is doing more right than wrong. GM Ben Cherington and his superiors, who hit everything right in the previous offseason, did nothing to help Farrell in 2014.
NEW YORK YANKEES
C -- The Yankees get a mediocre grade not because of the manager or front office but because of how they played — and that was mostly average. They never made it above five games over .500. Despite spending over $280 million on DH Carlos Beltran, C Brian McCann and CF Jacoby Ellsbury, the Yankees aren't getting the bang for their big bucks yet, and they might have played better if they retained 2B Robinson Cano. There were a few strong individual performances from the likes of RHPs David Robertson, Dellin Betances and Masahiro Tanaka, who is now injured, but the offense was inconsistent and holes were exposed in the rotation.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
D -- The season is a massive disappointment considering the preseason prognostications that the Rays might be playing in the World Series and their own internal expectations of being the ones to "Eat Last," as 3B Evan Longoria said in spring training. The starting pitching was mostly fine, even with several of its pillars sidelined, but the bullpen often was an outright disaster aside from LHP Jake McGee and RHP Brad Boxberger. The offense was nothing short of terrible, and even the defense dropped off dramatically since last season. GM Andrew Friedman's offseason moves looked shrewd at the time, and manager Joe Maddon did what he could, but this simply might not be the Rays' year.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
C -- The Blue Jays are living off a 21-9 May that vaulted them into first in the unusually weak American League East. They stayed on top from May 22-July 2. Other than that spurt, they were unconvincing as contenders, going 12-15 in March-April and again in June. The struggles can partly be blamed on injuries, but the skid began before such players as 3B Brett Lawrie and 1B Edwin Encarnacion went on the disabled list. The rotation was better than expected but the bullpen was worse, reversals from 2013. The hitting abruptly went cold after May, particularly against left-handed pitching. Manager John Gibbons is doing as well as possible despite a lack of depth, something GM Alex Anthopoulos must address.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun