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All hail the Chicago White Sox, who possess an eight-game lead in the American League Central and a comfort in knowing their nearest pursuers are likelier to subtract, rather than add, as the trade deadline approaches.
They were the only division leader to hit the All-Star break with more than a 4-game lead, with each league’s wild-card races similarly snug. That means a crucial two weeks across almost every division before the July 31 trade deadline, and, with several surprise teams aiming to sustain strong starts, the potential for volatility as the stretch drive comes into view.
With the second half starting Thursday evening with a Red Sox-Yankees tilt, followed by Friday’s full reopening, USA TODAY Sports examines five of the most important players in the months to come.
DJ LeMahieu, Yankees
How is it that the 2020 AL OPS champion and two-time batting champion is just a league-average offensive performer in 2021?
These Yankees have seemed ill-fitting and poorly conceived from the start of the season, but LeMahieu figured to be the least of their problems. He’s stayed healthy, is not subject to a sticky-substances crackdown and is far from the biggest of the Yankees’ offensive worries.
He just hasn’t been The Machine.
LeMahieu has just 19 extra-base hits in 85 games, far off his 2019 pace, when he racked up 61 extra-base hits and finished fourth in MVP voting. In the shortened 2020 season, he banged out 22 extra-base hits in 50 games, led the majors in batting (.364) and the AL in OPS (1.011) and adjusted OPS (177).
Over those two seasons, he so often covered for the Yankees’ offensive inadequacy. In 2021, the first year of a six-year, $90 million contract, he has been part of it, his strikeout rate spiking from 9.7% last year to 15% this year, his worst since 2015. His weighted on-base average has dropped from .429 to .320, his OBP from .421 to .351.
His batted-ball data is a little more encouraging, and perhaps the second half will bring better luck and greater opportunities should the offensive environment improve, particularly as the substance crackdown continues. For now, the Yankees are eight games out of first, tied for third in the AL East. The wild card? In a three-way tie for fourth, or, essentially a lottery ticket.
LeMahieu can help enhance those odds greatly by proving 2019-20 was truly his normal.
David Price, Dodgers
The team’s pitching riches meant Price could opt out of the 2020 season and scarcely impact their World Series title run, and ease into 2021 in a reliever/swingman gig. Now, they really need the guy as they aim to chase down the Giants and stave off the Padres to extend their NL West title run to nine in a row.
With Dustin May recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, Trevor Bauer’s season in doubt as Major League Baseball and police investigate assault allegations and Clayton Kershaw fighting forearm inflammation, Price has vaulted from depth piece to integral arm. That’s not a bad thing: Price has pitched well this season, just not very much – 24 appearances and 30 ⅔ innings.
Now, he must stretch out and step up. That process took a positive turn in his final first-half appearance, a season-high three-inning, scoreless outing against Arizona.
Can he stretch into a six-inning guy by season’s end? That’s not necessarily imperative, so long as Price consistently takes down multiple innings effectively.
Luis Castillo, Reds
Cincinnati is a live dog in two races, lurking four games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central and 3 ½ games behind San Diego for the second wild card spot. As it turns out, the Reds’ 24-13 run to close the first half coincided with Castillo’s resurgence.
In eight starts beginning June 4, Castillo posted a 1.97 ERA and averaged better than six innings per start, trimming his ERA from 7.22 to 4.65. And the Reds vaulted from 24-29 on June 1 to 48-42 by the break.
They trail only the Dodgers and Giants in runs scored in the NL, and the bullpen has, for now, lined up behind ninth-inning guy Heath Hembree. The rotation can take a lot of pressure off that volatile and injury-riddled group, and Castillo’s ability to go deep and dominate will greatly aid that cause.
Michael Conforto, Mets
The NL East was supposed to be a snakepit. Now, the team with the second-worst offense in the league is threatening to run away with it.
But don’t count on the Mets to keep sneaking away from opponents and benefiting from attrition elsewhere. Sure, the injury bug hit them absurdly hard, but most of their principals have returned, and their plus-nine run differential is by far the meekest of the six division leaders.
Enter Conforto. A right hamstring injury limited him to 200 plate appearances in the first half. He returned just before the break, though, and will be crucial to the club’s efforts to improve its .683 OPS, which ranks 10th in the NL and outflanks only the Marlins in the NL East.
Pitching largely carried the Mets here. But counting on Taijuan Walker to repeat his career-best first half and 1-2 righties Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman avoid further injury won’t be enough. Conforto was worth 3.3 Wins Above Replacement in his last three full seasons, and has performed at a offensive clip 33% better than league average over the past four seasons.
Just being himself as he eases into what could be his final months as a Met should be enough to keep them atop the division.
Chris Bassitt, Athletics
If your team is in playoff contention in the AL, you should probably be rooting hard against the A’s.
They’re currently holding down the No. 2 wild card slot, with the Mariners, Indians, Blue Jays, Yankees and Angels trailing them by 5 ½ or fewer games. Meanwhile, they’re just 3 ½ games back of the Astros in the AL West. You may not control your own destiny, but they largely control theirs.
And they’re a significantly better team when Bassitt takes the ball.
Oakland is 14-5 (.737) in Bassitt’s 19 starts and 38-35 (.521) when anyone else does. His 118 innings lead the AL and have enabled the A’s to absorb the poor performances and injuries riddling Frankie Montas and Jesus Luzardo.
Fortunately for the A’s, Bassitt has over his seven-year career been a virtually identical pitcher in the second half as the first. It’s certainly a question if rookie James Kaprelian and lefty Cole Irvin can maintain their success down the stretch, or if the Vegas-flirting A’s will add pitching depth at the deadline.
Bassitt has been their sure thing – and may have to keep it that way if they’re to fight off the pack, or run down the Astros.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 5 most important MLB players in the second half: Yankees need LeMahieu