MLB: King Felix, Casilla, Brantley, others who need to step up in second half

MLB's pivotal players who can make or break their team's 2016 hopes: Felix Hernandez, Santiago Casilla, Michael Brantley, Cody Reed, Tyler Anderson, Yu Darvish.

By The Sports Xchange
Cleveland Indians Michael Brantley hits an RBI single in the 3rd inning against the New York Yankees in August. File photo by John Angelillo/UPI
Cleveland Indians Michael Brantley hits an RBI single in the 3rd inning against the New York Yankees in August. File photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

As teams head into the second half of the season, most teams can point to one or two players who need to produce to have team success down the stretch.

In some cases it is the return of a key player, like the Mariners' Felix Hernandez or the Indians' Michael Brantley. In other cases, a young player who starts producing in the second half might have an impact, such as the Reds' Cody Reed or the Rockies' Tyler Anderson.


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Here are the pivotal post-break players of each team, according to The Sports Xchange's national network of baseball writers:

Arizona Diamondbacks: Shelby Miller and Patrick Corbin. It seems obvious, but the D-backs need to see consistency from right-hander Miller and left-hander Corbin, if for no other reason than to assure themselves their rotation is headed in the right direction. Corbin pitched well in the second half of 2015 after missing 15 months because of Tommy John surgery, but he has not found his footing, going 4-7 with a 4.94 ERA. With Zack Greinke, Miller and Corbin, the D-backs believed they had a very strong top three coming into the season.


Atlanta Braves: Mauricio Cabrera. A hard-throwing rookie, Cabrera was recalled from Double-A Mississippi on June 27 and has not been overwhelmed in the major leagues. He has shown the ability to get his 100 mph fastball over the plate and has been reliable in late-inning situations. Cabrera's velocity has yet to translate into strikeouts; he's got only one in seven appearances. Cabrera had two saves in two tries and could be an option if the Braves decide to move closer Arodys Vizcaino, who struggled the last two weeks. Vizcaino, who leads the club with 10 saves, has allowed a run in three of his last four appearances and has blown three saves.

Baltimore Orioles: Starter Kevin Gausman and/or starter Yovani Gallardo. The Orioles desperately need one or two more consistent second-half starters. Gausman (1-6, 4.15) often pitched well but gotten no run support. Still, he's allowed a team-high 15 homers in in 86 2/3 innings. Gallardo (3-1, 5.82) seems to be slowly rounding into form after his long stretch on the DL. The Orioles need something from at least one of these two.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez. David Tulis/UPI

Boston Red Sox: Eduardo Rodriguez. Second-year left-hander Rodriguez was 10-6 last year and, despite some problems he experienced from tipping pitches, he was being counted on to win more than last year's 10 games. But a spring training knee injury set him back and he never rebounded -- winding up back in the minor leagues. He is being given the ball Friday to start the second half of the season and it's no secret what a Rodriguez contribution could mean the rest of the way.

Chicago Cubs: Dexter Fowler. Getting outfielder Fowler back will be a lift, and having him return to the form he exhibited before a hamstring injury might be a critical piece in the Cubs' return to early-season form. Fowler was an offensive catalyst with a .290 average and a .398 on-base percentage. He hasn't played in the majors since June 18, and he was replaced on the NL All-Star roster. The Cubs expect him to resume his rehab assignment after he makes a ceremonial appearance at the All-Star Game in San Diego.

Cleveland Indians: Michael Brantley. The Indians had a great first half, a team-record 14-game winning streak, and they are leading their division at the break -- all that without Brantley. They could still win the division without him. But with Brantley -- a healthy Brantley -- the boost he would give to the offense might push the Indians over the top. The offense has been good without Brantley because the Indians have gotten contributions up and down the lineup. But Brantley is an All-Star caliber player, and he will go back into the No. 3 spot in the order when he finally returns from the disabled list, where he's spent most of his time since having offseason shoulder surgery. He began a minor league rehab assignment on Monday, so his return could be near.


Cincinnati Reds: Cody Reed. The left-handed Reed is one of the centerpieces of the Reds' rebuilding process. Acquired from the Kansas City Royals in the deal for RHP Johnny Cueto last July, Reed is thought to have one of the finest arms in Cincinnati's minor league system. He made five starts prior to the break and showed some promise but also the rust indicative of a rookie getting his first taste of the big leagues. He is 0-4 with an 8.39 ERA, though he has 29 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings. As the season progresses, the Reds and their fans want to see the potential that earned him a No. 2 ranking on the club's top prospects list.

Colorado Rockies: Tyler Anderson. Anderson is the least-experienced member of a rotation whose performance will go a long way to determining how the Rockies fare in the second half. If he can continue to pitch well, it would give the Rockies a big lift. A 26-year-old left-hander, Anderson made his major league debut June 12. He's 1-3 with a 3.03 ERA in six starts and six walks and 32 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings. His command and ability to change speeds have been impressive, and he has a very good changeup that he will confidently throw at any time. Anderson is very poised, has an excellent feel for pitching and a cerebral approach to his craft. He has been favorably compared to former Rockies left-hander Jeff Francis.


Detroit Tigers: Jordan Zimmermann. The right-handed Zimmermann doesn't need to be that guy who had an ERA close to 0.50 in April, nor does he need to be the spotty pitcher he was in May and June, when he battled injuries. Justin Verlander has been his usual dependable self and rookie Michael Fulmer is showing he's for real. But Zimmermann needs to be closer to April than June so the Tigers can be assured they'll get three solid starts every time their top three open a game. If that happens, the Tigers can live with hit-or-miss starts from the other two. Three superior starters are also essential for postseason play, if they can make it.

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Houston Astros: Dallas Keuchel. The left-hander produced his second-best start on Sunday and extended his string of quality starts to five. Following a rocky second month in which he produced a 6.63 ERA, Keuchel appears to be rounding into the form that made him the 2015 American League Cy Young Award winner. If his last five starts (Keuchel is 3-0 with a 2.78 ERA during that stretch) are an indication of what's ahead, the Astros should feel emboldened.


Kansas City Royals: Alex Gordon. Gordon, who the Royals made the highest-paid player in franchise history when they re-signed him to a multi-year contract in the winter, is hitting a puny .207 with seven home runs and 14 RBIs. They will need Gordon to step it up big-time to aid a sickly offense. Gordon missed 30 games with a fractured wrist, but the Gold Glove left-fielder must start producing at-bat for the Royals to have a chance for October baseball.

Los Angeles Angels: Hector Santiago. Ever since making the American League All-Star team last year, the left-handed Santiago has struggled markedly. At last year's All-Star break, Santiago owned a 2.33 earned-run average and held opposing hitters to a .213 average. But he compiled a 5.47 ERA during the second half of 2015, and has yet to find any consistency this season as the rotation's only healthy left-hander. Four starts during 16 days in June provide a snapshot of Santiago's season. On June 10, he allowed six runs on seven hits in 1 1/3 innings in a loss to the Cleveland Indians. Then Santiago recorded quality starts in his next two outings, permitting just two runs on five hits in 12 1/3 total innings while striking out nine. But in four innings against the Oakland A's on June 26, Santiago gave up six runs on six hits, including two home runs. With the Angels out of contention, Santiago could be pitching for his roster spot in the second half.


Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda. John Angelillo/UPI

Los Angeles Dodgers: Kenta Maeda. Will the real Kenta Maeda please stand up? Last year, the right-hander led Japan's Central League with 15 wins, compiled a 2.09 earned-run average and held opponents to a .222 average for the Hiroshima Carp. Maeda's performance earned him the Sawamura Award as the best pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball. After the Dodgers signed him to an eight-year contract worth $25 million in January, Maeda registered quality starts in his first four appearances while compiling a 3-0 record and conceding just one run in 25 1/3 innings. But since then, Maeda has gone 5-6. One statistic provides troubling insight: As of July 5, opponents were batting .191 before Maeda reaches 75 pitches but .351 afterward. Another disturbing trend: Maeda has lasted seven innings just twice. During his eight seasons in Japan, Maeda averaged 6.9 innings per appearance and threw 28 complete games.

Miami Marlins: Dee Gordon and Giancarlo Stanton. Second baseman Gordon and outfielder Stanton have the ability to shape Miami's second half. Gordon is set to return on July 28 from an 80-game suspension after he was caught using performance-enhancing drugs. If he returns anywhere close to his 2015 form -- he won a Gold Glove last year and was the first NL player to win a batting title and a steals title in the same year since Jackie Robinson in 1949 -- the Marlins could be a playoff team. Stanton, meanwhile, slumped for most of the first half of the season. However, he has 20 homers and 50 RBIs at the break. Imagine what he could do if he were to get hot.


Milwaukee Brewers: Matt Garza. Garza missed the first two months of the season with a shoulder injury sustained in his final exhibition start. He hasn't looked sharp enough to generate significant trade discussion (1-2, 5.54 ERA in five starts), but with a strong finish to the season, he could develop a market this winter as he enters the final year of a four-year, $50 million contract signed in January 2014. Moving Garza would be a big step in Milwaukee's rebuilding efforts.

Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton. Buxton remains an unknown. He batted .209 in 46 games last season but has not progressed offensively this season. So far, Buxton is batting .212 and while there's little doubt about his defensive ability, the questions about his hitting will persist until he does so consistently. Besides seeing if Buxton can produce better in the second half, the Twins will also hope the center fielder's current bone bruise does not hinder him.

New York Mets: Travis d'Arnaud. The Mets certainly would benefit if d'Arnaud hits his stride offensively, if Lucas Duda returns and provides left-handed power that is currently missing or if Jose Reyes continues to lengthen the lineup as he did during his first week back. However, if the Mets are going to return to the playoffs, they would need Noah Syndergaard -- who has a bone chip in his elbow and left his final start before the All-Star break due to arm fatigue -- to remain healthy and dominant atop a suddenly questionable and injury-plagued rotation. It may be an irrecoverable blow for the Mets if Syndergaard is ineffective or sidelined for any period of time in the second half.


New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez. John Angelillo/UPI

New York Yankees: Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez turns 41 on July 27 and by then could still be a part-time DH making over $20 million. Rodriguez had a nice bounce-back year with his bat and public image in 2015. He struggled over the last two months of last season and it has carried over to this season. Though Rodriguez has seemingly healed his relationship with the Yankees' upper management from 2013, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. It seems possible Rodriguez will get his DH job back if Carlos Beltran is traded. The bad news for the Yankees is they have another year of Rodriguez and if he continues to show diminished production, they only have themselves to blame for signing him to a renegotiated 10-year deal following the 2007 season.

Oakland Athletics: Sonny Gray. The A's have several must-watch players. Gray is one. At least he used to be. Gray has been so mediocre this season (3-8, 5.16), general manager Billy Beane wouldn't dare trade him for fear or not getting much in return. All that means is he'll be back on the trade block in the offseason or next July ... if he can regain his old form in the second half.


Philadelphia Phillies: Aaron Nola. The right-handed Nola may very well be the ace of the staff now and in the future, but his numbers were rough in the first half. His struggles were so apparent that the team opted to scratch his final start before the All-Star break and shut him down for the time being. In his past seven starts, the 23-year-old went 1-5 with an 8.70 ERA. The Phillies need Nola to look more like the pitcher that went 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA as a rookie when he next takes the mound.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen has been the Pirates' best player for quite some time now, so it was surprising to see him struggle early in the season. He's shown signs of returning to form lately, though, and leads Pittsburgh with 13 home runs entering the break. If he continues that trend, Pittsburgh's already lethal attack could become even more devastating. "I've been playing (baseball) too long to droop my head and kick rocks," McCutchen said. "I'm going to keep going, keep working and just through it all, stay humble." McCutchen hit his second home run in as many days in Pittsburgh's 6-5 loss to Chicago on Sunday.


St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Holliday. Holliday is traditionally a much better hitter in August and September, and St. Louis could use that kind of strong finish from its veteran in the No. 3 spot. Holliday is on pace for a 30-homer, 100-RBI season, but his average is uncharacteristically low at .241, even though he leads all of baseball in balls hit over 100 mph. Should Holliday follow his normal form after the All-Star break, it would aid the team's playoff push.

San Diego Padres: Left-handed starter Drew Pomeranz went to spring training battling Brandon Maurer for the fifth spot at the back of the rotation. Today he is the Padres' No. 1 starter and among the National League leaders in many departments including opponents' batting average, earned run average and strikeouts per nine innings. Many contending teams are interested in Pomeranz. Do the Padres trade him, or does he become the cornerstone of a rotation rebuild?

Giants closer Santiago Casilla. Bruce Gordon/UPI

San Francisco Giants: Santiago Casilla. If there is one thing all the first-half injuries demonstrated, it is that the Giants have far more depth than previous editions. But if there was a shaky aspect in the first half, it was the bullpen. The Giants have blown 17 saves, which is tied for the most in the National League. Only a small percentage of that can be blamed on closer Casilla (21 saves in 25 opportunities), but he is key guy who most needs to shape up in the second half or risk losing his job.


Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez. Manager Scott Servais has joked that the Mariners were going to make the best midseason acquisition in baseball by adding Hernandez to the rotation, and all indications are that he is on schedule to be back soon. The Mariners' 30-year-old ace looked like he had lost a step even before the calf injury landed him on the disabled list at the end of May, but his 2.86 ERA and 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings are nothing to sneeze at. Even with a fastball that has lost a few miles per hour, Hernandez is capable of being the No. 1 pitcher the Mariners' hot bats need to take Seattle over the top.

Tampa Bay Rays: Chris Archer. On pace to be baseball's first 20-game loser in 13 years, Archer has to find himself on the mound -- he's a strikeout pitcher, but hasn't been a dominating presence at all, and he's gone before the seventh inning most of the time. Any resurgence in the second half has to begin with the starting pitching, and that has to begin with Archer.

Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish. Texas hoped Darvish would join the rotation in late May and give it a solid 1-2 combo to go along with Cole Hamels. That hasn't happened as Darvish made just three starts before going on the disabled list with right shoulder discomfort. The hope is that Darvish comes back right after the All-Star break. The Rangers need more than that. They need him to be the front-end starter he was in his first three years.


Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista. Bautista has been out with turf toe since June 17 yet the Blue Jays have been able to make a strong run without his bat. He is expected to return by the end of July and should be able to make a strong offense even more potent. He was batting .230/.360/.455 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs after 65 games. He has a hot hitting streak in him and he is not afraid of the big moment. Another interesting aspect of the second half will be the handling of RHP RHP Aaron Sanchez, who was 9-1 with a 2.97 ERA at the break with 118 1/3 innings pitched in his first full season as a major league starter. Will he be moved to the bullpen to better control his mounting innings?

Washington Nationals: Wilson Ramos. Ramos, in the last year of his contract, has a .330 average with 13 homers. He was finally healthy for a full season in 2015, though his offensive numbers went down. Ramos had eye surgery in the offseason, and his batting average has gone up nearly 60 points, leading to the first All-Star Game selection of his career. Ramos was acquired from the Minnesota Twins in 2010 for RHP Matt Capps, and for now, the deal looks like a steal for the Nationals. "He is one of the best catchers in the league," Baker said. After last season, the Nationals lost longtime players Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond to free agency. Will the same thing happen to Ramos after this season?


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