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MLB teams that will improve in the second half

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While next month’s All-Star break is known as the dividing line between the first and second halves of the season, the midpoint of the schedule actually comes earlier than that. The MLB-leading Rays are slated to play their 81st game on Sunday, with the rest of the 29 clubs set to follow over the rest of the week. 

That makes this a good time to take stock of the season. And while Tampa Bay has been anything but disappointing, that is of course not the case for everyone. Still, things can turn around quickly. In 2022, for example, the Guardians followed a 40-41 first half with a 52-29 second half, running away with the AL Central. Meanwhile, the 39-42 Mariners sprinted to a 51-30 finish, snapping the franchise’s lengthy playoff drought.

Some team (or teams) will pull off a feat like that in 2023, but who will it be? We had seven MLB.com writers take a shot at answering that question, drafting the club they are most confident will improve in the second half. 

Here are the results. (Teams are listed with their current record, through Saturday, as well as their projected preseason record, via FanGraphs.)

1. Padres (37-40, .481)
Preseason projection: 91-71, .562

One of several big-budget disappointments (see more below) in the National League, the Padres were expected to challenge for MLB’s best record after following up an NLCS appearance by adding Xander Bogaerts to an already talented roster. Instead, they’re under .500 and facing an 8.5-game deficit in the NL West behind the D-backs, Giants and Dodgers.

San Diego’s pitching staff has been largely terrific, allowing the fewest runs per game (3.84) in the NL, but its offense hasn’t pulled its weight, averaging just 4.31 runs per game. The Padres’ offensive woes at catcher were so dire that they grabbed Gary Sánchez (now with his fourth organization since the start of the 2022 season) off waivers from the Mets. Sánchez has played only 24 games with the Friars, but he’s already tied for fifth on the team in homers.

San Diego does still have some holes in its lineup, but with Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado and Bogaerts leading the way and always aggressive president of baseball operations A.J. Preller sure to be on the lookout for reinforcements prior to the Trade Deadline, the club’s offense is unlikely to struggle like this all season.

2. Astros (41-36, .532)
Preseason projection: 89-73, .549

The defending World Series champion Astros certainly didn’t expect to be tied for second in the AL West standings and 6.5 games behind the Rangers in late June. But they certainly have the capacity to change that in a hurry.

With Alvarez expected back for the stretch run, plenty of talent on the active roster and the chance to improve at the Trade Deadline, the Astros will be just fine. Or maybe a lot more than that.

3. Phillies (39-37, .513)
Preseason projection: 85-77, .525

Admittedly, the bounceback is already well underway in Philadelphia – after a rocky start, they’re 14-7 in June – so this isn’t a hard sell.

The Phillies sank with their rotation’s sky-high 5.83 ERA in May. Since June 3, Phillies starters have pitched to a combined 1.78 ERA, more than a run ahead of the next-best team over that period (Marlins, 2.93). The boost they’ve gotten from Taijuan Walker in particular (1.50 ERA, .154 BA, .260 SLG) has been huge in taking the pressure off Aaron Nola. Ranger Suárez, who had a few rough outings upon his return from the injured list last month, has settled back in.

While pitching is always the larger concern for the Phillies, it’s hard to ignore that their lineup needs a guy like Trea Turner to round it out. And although he scuffled through his first two months in Philly, he’s making much better contact of late (.302 xBA, .542 xSLG in June), suggesting a characteristic second-half surge is still very much in play. Which, needless to say, would make a huge difference for an at-times sluggish offense.

This team has its shortcomings – that much we know – but the Phillies were in a similar position this time last year, and we might regret sleeping on them again.

4. Cardinals (31-45, .408)
Preseason projection: 87-75, .537

No matter what statistical metric you look at, there’s a near-unanimous consensus that the Cardinals have been wildly unlucky so far in 2023.

Where to start? The Cardinals are 8-16 in one-run games this season, which is tied for the second-most such losses by any team (one fewer than Cleveland) and the third-worst win percentage in such games. If we take a broader look at run differential as a whole, the Cardinals are only at -18 despite their record, which is the best run differential through 76 games by any team with 31 or fewer wins in the 21st century.

As for the advanced statistics? In each of the following Statcast metrics, the Cardinals have been among the 10 “unluckiest” MLB teams both offensively and defensively: batting average, slugging percentage and wOBA. (Being “unlucky” refers to having a large gap between an actual metric and an expected one; e.g., the Cardinals pitching staff has allowed a .272 batting average but only a .261 xBA).

And if the numbers aren’t really your thing, how about a little history lesson? The Cardinals have had a winning record after the All-Star break every year since 2009, the only MLB team to do so over that span. The Cardinals have a lot of work to do to keep their streak of 15 winning seasons alive, but both the stats and their historical trends suggest they have at least a puncher’s chance to do so.

5. Mets (35-41, .461)
Preseason projection: 90-72, .556

It’s been a rough go for the Mets, who are enduring a disastrous 6-14 record so far in the month of June that has plummeted them down the standings. On the heels of a 101-win season in 2022 and after one of the most active offseasons we’ve ever seen from a team, their current placement has to be viewed as a disappointment.

The bad news is that they’ve dug themselves in such a big hole that it’s a relative certainty that they won’t catch up to the Braves in the NL East. The good news is they’re still well within striking distance of a Wild Card spot, especially when you consider the roster the Mets still boast. This is, after all, the same Mets team with names like Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.

They’ll need to find a way to improve on both sides of the ball, though. Through the halfway point, they’re in the middle of the pack in both runs scored (342) and wRC+ (103). It’s a steep dropoff for a club that ranked in the top-5 by both of those measures in ‘22. They’ll need players like Jeff McNeil and Starling Marte, two cogs in the Mets offense last year, to turn it around in the second half.

Their league-average offense has not been enough to compensate for a Mets pitching staff that has been, put simply, not good. Mets pitchers had the 7th-best ERA (3.58) and best strikeout rate (26.3%) in the Majors last year. In 2023, their ERA has skyrocketed to the sixth-worst in the Majors at 4.63 coupled with a 4% decrease in strikeouts. They’ll need huge improvements from Verlander and Scherzer, who both boast relatively high ERAs (4.50 and 3.95, respectively) at the halfway point.

6. Dodgers (43-33, .566)
Preseason projection: 88-74, .545

The Dodgers are already good right now. But come on. These are the Dodgers. The Dodgers who have won nine out of the last 10 NL West titles. The Dodgers who have won 100-plus games in each of the last three full seasons, and four of the last five. And they’re sitting in third place in the West right now? 

Expect that to change. The D-backs are a nice surprise in first place, and the Giants are chugging along just ahead of the Dodgers in second, but the Dodgers are the best team in this division. Freddie Freeman (.316 batting average) and Mookie Betts (18 home runs) are their typical MVP contender selves, Will Smith might be the best offensive catcher in baseball (.915 OPS), J.D. Martinez is having a resurgent season in L.A. (.560 slugging percentage) and Clayton Kershaw is ageless (2.72 ERA). 

When Julio Urías and Max Muncy get back into the rotation and lineup from their respective injuries, the Dodgers can really get rolling. Expect them to go on a run in the NL West. They already have a better run differential than Arizona (+48 to the D-backs’ +34), and they have the easiest remaining strength of schedule of any team in baseball. The D-backs’ lead in this division is not safe. In fact, the Dodgers’ odds of winning the NL West are almost twice as high as Arizona’s, per FanGraphs — 47.6% to 19.6%.

7. Mariners (37-38, .493)
Preseason projection: 82-80, .506

At the halfway point last season, the Mariners were 39-42, and right now, they’re 37-38. You could see that as a bad thing, since those aren’t ideal records at the halfway point. Or you could see it as not so bad. After all, the 2022 club won the next 12 games in a row (a 14-game win streak overall) and went 39-30 the rest of the way to reach the postseason for the first time in 21 years. 

If this year’s club is going to do something similar, it’s got to get the bats on track. The pitching staff has done its part, second in the Majors with a 3.49 FIP and first with an 11.5 fWAR. But the offense ranks 16th in MLB with a 99 wRC+

Reigning AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodríguez posted an .853 OPS with 28 homers and 25 steals in 2022, but so far in ’23, his OPS is more than 100 points lower. Add to that subpar performances by Eugenio Suárez, Teoscar Hernández and AJ Pollock, and the near halving of Seattle’s playoff odds from 40 percent to 21.5 percent makes sense.

But Hernández has shown signs of possibly coming out of his slump, hitting .378 with seven extra-base hits (three homers) from June 3-17. Suárez had a decent run at the plate from June 10-17, when he hit .333 with two doubles and a homer. And let’s be real: How long can you keep J-Rod down?

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