It is an exciting time of the year for baseball fans. The MLB regular season is more than halfway over and the playoff race is starting to get very interesting. Teams are making big moves ahead of the trade deadline, and rosters are taking shape for a final run down the stretch. Just in the past week we’ve seen Manny Machado shipped to the Dodgers, elite reliever Brad Hand traded to the Indians for top catching prospect Francisco Mejia, and there is a still another week before the trade deadline is effective July 31. As August looms right around the corner, it can be tempting to look ahead. The National League looks to be wide open and the American League is home to multiple powerhouse contenders. There is an aura of unpredictability in the air this year, and if that’s any indication we should be in for a crazy postseason. The question only becomes more relevant as we move forward: who will reign supreme when it is all said and done? Well, I am here to tell you folks who will take this year’s Fall Classic and hoist the hardware come October.
The AL Champion: Houston Astros
While the Red Sox have been the best team recently and hold the most wins in the league so far this year, I still give the edge to the defending champs. The Astros are simply loaded. They boast almost the same roster they had when they won last year and their rotation is even stronger. Led by two Cy-Young candidates in Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, their staff has compiled a team ERA of 3.00, a ridiculous statistic that leads the league by a mile. The next closest team is the Dodgers with a 3.48 ERA. The ‘Stros pitchers have done it in a dominant fashion, racking up over 1,000 strikeouts so far this season, another number that puts them at the top of the leader board. Alex Bregman has been realizing his potential in front of our eyes and has emerged as one of the top offensive threats in the league, which adds another scary dimension to their already explosive starting lineup. Manager A.J Hinch believes that they haven’t even reached their highest level yet, stating offensive inconsistency as the culprit. George Springer was in a major slump leading up to the all-star break, but looks to be breaking out of it soon, blasting a grand slam in their last win. Carlos Correa has missed more than a quarter of the season with a nagging back injury and is still weeks away from returning to the field. It is amazing to think that despite these road bumps, the Astros have won 66 games and are sitting pretty at the top of their division. Imagine what a fully loaded lineup could do. Their only question mark currently is the bullpen and it remains their top priority before the deadline. There are multiple strong closers still on the market, including Blake Treinen of the A’s and Raisel Iglesias of the Reds, but the Astros need to make a move if they want to compete with the best again. It isn’t going to be easy; the Red Sox and Yankees are formidable opponents, and the Indians look like they are starting to round into top form again. But the Astros have the stronger pitching which could be an x-factor, and still trot out a lineup that can compete with anyone’s. Once they peak they will be an extremely tough out. This wasn’t an easy pick to make, but I am confident the Astros will represent the AL in the World Series this year.
The NL Champion: Chicago Cubs
That’s right, the 2016 World Champions will be back this year and have the chance to compete for another title. There’s been a lot of buzz about the Dodgers recently with the Machado trade, which has no doubt boosted their odds to win it all. But it is still the Chicago Cubs who own the best record in the NL and have quietly been surging. They have accomplished this feat without strong first-half performances from stars Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, so they will need to pick up the slack a bit in the second half if they want to be serious contenders. I think they will. Bryant is back from a shoulder injury and has performed admirably so far, either driving in a run or scoring in each of the eight games he has played in his return from the DL. He has also hit two dingers during this time span. I expect a monster second-half from Bryant, who will prove why he is still one of the best players in the majors. He just has to make sure that shoulder is good to go. Rizzo is trending up as well. He has taken off since being moved to the lead-off spot, posting a batting average of .667 and on-base percentage of .772 in games he has batted first in. One of the surprises this year for the Cubs and around the league has been Javier Baez, who has posted MVP-caliber numbers for the squad and been one of the biggest reasons for their success so far. In a year where the Nationals are struggling and the Dodgers don’t look as invincible as they have in past years, the NL is the Cubs for the taking. Their main weakness is their pitching, especially their rotation. Starters Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood have under-performed, and Yu Darvish is still out. The starters are barely averaging five innings a game, and they lead the majors in walks. Despite these set-backs though, the Cubs are still top 10 in team ERA and wins. Perhaps they go out and get a solid starter soon? The good news is they have one of the deeper bullpens in the league. Joe Maddon’s biggest goal has to be to preserve their arms down the stretch to limit fatigue for the postseason. This will require their staff to step up a bit and eat more innings, but the bullpen is confident and ready to handle whatever challenge comes their way. I believe that if the Cubs starters pitch a bit more efficiently and improve their performance, this team will claim the National League title.
And your World Series Champion is…
The Houston Astros will be the first team to go back-to-back since 2000. They remain the team to beat, even in a viciously competitive American League. These are the golden years in H-Town, and their plethora of young talent and deep pitching will earn them their second World Series title in a row. They’re seriously an even better team than they were last year. I’ll take the ‘Stros in five.