Midterm grades aren't printed on transcripts or diplomas. Yet they can be a wakeup call, a guidepost, reinforcement or a sober indication a person might be better suited anywhere but in a classroom.
In the sweat-stained, low-brow institutions of higher achievement that comprise Major League Baseball, mid-season report cards serve the same purposes. Eighty-one games into this familiar protracted grind, taking stock is irresistible.
Sit up straight, boys and girls. Keep your hands to yourselves. Pass these midterm report cards back to your neighbor and don't let your eyes stray.
- Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays went from laggard to teacher's pet, a student who overcame poverty and a junk-food diet to surge to the head of the class. Sure, privileged kids in Boston and New York might eventually nose out the Rays. But this is a no-name team (is there a single slam-dunk All-Star?) that has established it will be a force for years.
- Boston Red Sox: Yes, one rich kid, present and accounted for. No slouch, either. The Red Sox house is in order, with only a whiff of domestic violence (Manny vs. hired help) to raise eyebrows. This is now a team that expects to win, expects good things to happen, a dramatic about-face from the pre-2004 Fenway culture.
- Chicago Cubs: Here's the kid who bombs on the final regardless of midterm grades. Ninety-nine times in a row. Yet the Cubs are positioned nicely to end their century-long World Series title drought. Getting through the NL playoffs shouldn't be daunting. Their corner infielders and outfielders are seasoned run producers. Pressure on the starting rotation will increase as the calendar turns.
- Los Angeles Angels: An AL team winning 3 of every 5 games while batting only .256 is staggering. The offense should improve because not a single everyday player has exceeded expectations. The same isn't true of the pitching staff. Will young starters Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana match their first-half output? Will closer Francisco Rodriguez?
- Chicago White Sox: Ending the first half with a sweep of the crosstown Cubs was an emphatic statement that the White Sox might see this first-place thing through September. Starters Jose Contreras and Javier Vazquez are a tad creaky, but an offense built around slugging outfielders Jermaine Dye and Carlos Quentin is consistently productive. The ChiSox have outscored opponents by 85 runs, the biggest differential in the AL.
- Philadelphia Phillies: Meet the seeming A-student who bombed the midterm and ended up with his grade lowered. It doesn't appear the Phillies would be a strong World Series representative – they lost 9 of 12 in a late-June interleague swing. The Phillies' defense is constantly pressured because starters Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick, Adam Eaton and Brett Myers all allow significantly more than one hit per inning.
- New York Yankees: Anything short of an A isn't acceptable to new headmaster Hank Steinbrenner, but a B certainly is an improvement over the way the Yankees began the season. Will their aging position players wilt in the summer sun? Can the holes in their rotation be patched by the likes of Sidney Ponson for long? Last summer's second-half rally keeps hope alive.
- Oakland Athletics: One of only five teams in baseball with a winning road record, the A's are playing just well enough to make a trading deadline fire sale by Billy Beane a crying shame. Catching the Angels for the AL West title might be an easier proposition than staying in a wild-card race with the Red Sox-Rays runner up.
- Florida Marlins: The overachiever in a classroom of slackers, the Marlins remain in the thick of the NL East despite being surrounded by the expensive, somnolent Phillies, Mets and Braves. Marlins pitchers are coming off the disabled list and the offense is legitimate, so the smattering of fans that show up at Dolphin Stadium might watch the Marlins flummox the sleeping giants through September.
- Baltimore Orioles: Such a shame the Orioles are in a division with those powerhouse Rays, and, oh by the way, the Red Sox and Yankees as well. This has quietly become an excellent team six days a week. Inexplicably, the Orioles have lost 12 in a row on Sundays, having won on Sunday only on April 6, dragging them into fourth place.
- Arizona Diamondbacks: Talk about playing down to the competition. Just treading water after their 28-15 start would have made them runaway leaders in the NL West. Instead they are struggling to stay above sea level and have allowed the punchless Dodgers and horrific Rockies to believe they are in a pennant race.
- Detroit Tigers: Like the whip-smart kid who thinks he can get by without doing homework, the Tigers needed to be embarrassed repeatedly before getting it together just before midterms. It's entirely possible they could go 52-29 in the second half and win the Al Central. Or, the frightful bullpen and more injuries could keep them at .500.
- Texas Rangers: Is there a more uneven roster in baseball? Feel-good reclamation stories Josh Hamilton, Milton Bradley and Vicente Padilla are juxtaposed against disasters Jason Jennings, Kevin Millwood and whoever might currently have a tenuous hold on the back of the rotation. The heights and depths cancel each other out and the result is an average team.
- New York Mets: New manager Jerry Manuel, an avid student of Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, might infuse life into a team suffering from post-traumatic September fold syndrome. Yet more important than words will be the effectiveness of pitches by underachieving starters Pedro Martinez, Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey. Still, the recent Phillies fold has kept hope alive.
- Atlanta Braves: Not that Turner Field is comfy cozy, but get the Braves away from home and they turn utterly pathetic: 12-29. It must be dispiriting when frustration pervades every road trip. Yes, Chipper Jones is having his best year, but Jeff Francoeur is having his worst. Give up or make a push in a bumbling division? If Mark Teixeira is dealt at the deadline, we'll know the answer.
- Toronto Blue Jays: Too many knee-jerk decisions and off-hand comments from the front office. Too little wiggle room in a division where the one consolation the Blue Jays always could count on – being better than the Rays – has deserted them. If the Blue Jays were in the NL West, they'd be 1½ games out of first place. And if a third grader was still in kindergarten, he'd probably be getting straight As.
- Los Angeles Dodgers: The vaunted young talent is developing as expected, but the veterans acquired for obscene sums of money to complement the kids have been huge disappointments. So Joe Torre is left with an anemic offense and an inconsistent rotation. Two years ago the Dodgers were in a similar plight, then inexplicably went on a July tear and made the playoffs. So anything is possible, especially in the forgiving NL West.
- San Francisco Giants: The inevitably painful post-Barry Bonds era has begun. But, no pain, no gain, and the Giants are already slowly moving forward. It would have helped if Barry Zito hadn't lost his Uncle Charlie while crossing the Bay Bridge. Now, it's Lincecum and Cain and pray the bay fog turns to rain. A smattering of young position players – Fred Lewis, John Bowker – provide hope.
- Kansas City Royals: Everyone agrees the Royals are improving. Everyone agrees they are stockpiling strong arms. Everyone agrees their farm system and front office are in order. Then why are they still seven games under .500 and nowhere near the top of the AL Central? $$$$$. And they misspent the $$$$$ they had.
- Cleveland Indians: The biggest disappointment in the AL save that rainy outpost in the Pacific Northwest has trading deadline decisions like no other. It's got to be gut wrenching to all but quit by dealing starters C.C. Sabathia, Paul Byrd and perhaps a position player. Especially so soon after finishing one game short of the World Series. But the time is drawing near.
- Pittsburgh Pirates: "But, dad, I didn't get an F." That could be the Pirates' refrain, a team so accustomed to failure that a first half six games under .500 qualifies as success. Dad ain't buying it. Yes, the outfield is productive and Matt Capps can hold most of the infrequent late-inning leads, but the infield doesn't hit and the rotation always spits out at least one severe disappointment, as in, what's up with Tom Gorzelanny?
- Houston Astros: When words to describe your clubhouse environment mirror those once used to explain Three-Mile Island (toxic, lethal, noxious), the only positive that can come of it is for Lance Berkman to grow a third eye and see the ball so well he bats .556 with 63 HRs and 140 RBIs. And just when it seemed Roy Oswalt had his mojo back, he leaves a game with an injury.
- Cincinnati Reds: Like slugging strikeout machine Adam Dunn and struggling strikeout machine Johnny Cueto, all or nothing is an apt description of the entire Reds' franchise. Theyll trade Ken Griffey Jr. if he lets them and somebody wants him. They might trade Dunn. They'll draw hope from Edinson Volquez, Jay Bruce and Joey Votto. And wait til next year.
- Washington Nationals: New stadium, same slapstick team. Manager Manny Acta worked miracles last year with the worst roster in baseball. A team batting average of .239 and a rotation headed by the immortal Tim Redding has made that impossible this year. They avoid an F only because of low expectations, wide concourses and a breathtaking view of the Capitol.