It's time to re-embrace Major League Baseball. The Golden State Warriors repeated as NBA champs and the Washington Capitals won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history (sorry, Vegas). If you're just tuning in now, we're a little over one-third of the way in and the Midsummer Classic is fast approaching.
Baseball's landscape is beginning to take shape, with around 60 games played by each team and roughly 100 remaining. Without further ado, here are six of the biggest storylines to keep an eye on the rest of the way.
Mariners are surprise contenders
With the Angels winning the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes over the offseason, it looked to be a two-horse race in the AL West. Somehow, it's been the Mariners who appear the real challenger to the Houston Astros' throne in the early going, and that's with star second baseman Robinson Cano out of the lineup until August due to suspension.
Look no further than the continued improvement of shortstop Jean Segura to find the team's catalyst. He's batting .346/.367/.487 and has scored 50 times in 63 games. His relative lack of a power stroke is hardly a problem with five different Seattle players already at double digits in home runs. This team is deep with or without Cano.
The Mariners have also received more consistent, and healthier, starting pitching. Even if mainstay Felix Hernandez and his 5.70 ERA has mostly been a mixed bag, James Paxton and Marco Gonzales have more than picked up the slack. - Wilson
Machado to the Cubs just makes sense
The Astros, Indians, Red Sox, Yankees, and Nationals all have a premium shortstop, while Addison Russell continues to be unproductive at the dish. Among shortstops with at least 600 plate appearances over the past two seasons, the 24-year-old owns a comparable offensive output to Jordy Mercer, Tim Anderson, and Jose Reyes.
Of course, acquiring Machado from the Orioles wouldn't necessarily be easy, but the Cubs are in the right position to make a move for the potential rental. Along with Russell, a prospect like right-hander Adbert Alzolay would likely get Baltimore to the table without hurting the long-term future of the club too much, even if the Cubs are unable to re-sign Machado. - Bradburn
Buehler is the NL's must-watch rookie
Before landing on the disabled list with the rest of the Dodgers' pitching staff, Walker Buehler was the most impressive young hurler in the majors. On three different occasions, he has opened a game with at least four no-hit innings, and twice he retired the first 12 opponents he faced.
Perhaps most impressive has been his ability to suppress the long ball. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings, only Cardinals ace Carlos Martinez has a better HR/9 than Buehler's 0.35. He's also a consummate strike-thrower, issuing only 11 free passes over his 51 1/3 innings.
Dodgers fans will hope the microfracture of his right rib isn't serious because he has a legitimate claim to Rookie of the Year consideration if he can continue his pace (he would be the third consecutive Dodger to do so). - Wilson
Donaldson's value takes nosedive
Josh Donaldson is perhaps the only pending player in a loaded free-agent class who has actually hurt his potential payday.
Battling through shoulder and calf injuries, Donaldson hasn't looked like his typically dominant self at the plate when he is in the lineup. Over 36 games, his wRC+ indicates he's hitting just five percentage points better than the league average with a .234 batting average and .423 slugging percentage.
There's still plenty of season left, and there are likely to be bidders for Donaldson's services in the offseason, regardless. However, heading into his age-33 season, if the winter is anything like it was last year, Donaldson's value might be severely hampered if his campaign continues at this rate. Even further, the Blue Jays may have trouble finding a bidder if they decide to trade the third baseman prior to the deadline. - Bradburn
Hader should be a Cy Young candidate
Could a reliever who is not serving as his team's closer possibly be in the running for a Cy Young Award? Well, Brewers electric southpaw Josh Hader certainly should be, based on his performance.
Among all pitchers, Hader is 41st in strikeouts with 72. That may not seem altogether mesmerizing, but, by contrast, his 37 innings pitched ranks 155th in the majors, contributing to a league-leading 53.7 strikeout percentage (and it's not really close either, as Edwin Diaz's 42 percent is the next closest). He even set a new reliever record when he struck out eight in under three innings during a game in late April. Only five of his 22 appearances this season have lasted one inning or less, as the Brewers build on a league-wide trend to use their star reliever as a multi-inning fireman.
The only flaw in his game is a propensity to miss the strike zone, but it hasn't come back to bite him too often. When opponents can't make consistent contact, putting the odd runner on isn't going to hurt that badly. - Wilson
Seager injury jeopardizes Dodgers' 6th straight division title
There's a case to be made that any one of three or four injured players on the beleaguered Dodgers squad has been the biggest loss, but losing Corey Seager hurts perhaps the most.
Seager is a legitimate MVP contender and has been since his 2016 rookie season, and taking that bat out of the lineup, especially at middle infield, would sink most other teams. Since Seager went gone down, six different players have been stationed at second base as utility man Chris Taylor has taken over the majority of reps at short. By wRC+, that tandem has been the fifth-worst in the National League at generating offense. Maybe surprise breakout Max Muncy can take the reins and run with the gig after getting his first start at second Tuesday night.
Regardless, it is the combination of multiple injuries which has put the Dodgers in a precarious spot, but a healthy Seager would go a long way toward climbing above .500 and once again atop the underwhelming NL West division. - Bradburn
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)
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