Ten burning questions heading into the second half
Baseball's traditional midway point, represented historically by the All-Star Game, is still a week away, but after Tuesday night, all 30 teams will have reached at least the actual 81-game midway point in their schedules. With that milepost in mind, here are 10 burning questions heading into the second half of the season.
The three-team horse race that almost everyone anticipated before the season began has been the dominant storyline of baseball's best division all year long; it's just that for most of the first half it wasn't the three teams everyone had anticipated. While the Rays struggled to duplicate their stunning success of a year ago at the start of the season, the Blue Jays surged to an early 3 1/2 game lead in the AL East. But after starting 27-14, the Jays have gone just 15-27 since and have fallen to fourth place as the division's expected powers have asserted themselves. Boston shook off a disastrous first week to hold first place in the AL East, while the Yankees overcame a 14-16 start to forge the second-best record in the league. Meanwhile, the third-place Rays have continued their inconsistent play, following up a seven-game winning streak with a four-game losing streak.
But which of them will still be standing in October? The Red Sox have dominated the Yankees, going 8-0 this season to set themselves up well for the remaining 10 games against their archrivals, and giving them a leg up on the rest of the division -- they have a bigger lead (5 1/2 games) and fewer games (eight) left against Tampa Bay. Until the Yankees prove they can beat Boston, it's hard to project them coming out on top in the divisional race, which would leave the Yankees' postseason hopes resting largely on their ability to beat the Rays and snatch the wild-card slot. The two teams have split their first eight games of the season, and their postseason fates could well come down to a season-ending three-game set in Florida. The Yankees' fearsome offense (leading the AL in runs, home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage and ranking second in batting average) is nearly matched by the Rays (who are second in the league in runs, on-base and slugging and third in home runs). This race may be decided not by who is on each of these teams now but by who will be in a few weeks. The Yankees have made an annual theatre of making moves at the deadline, and they have the resources to do it, while the Rays have been unwilling or unable to do likewise. Those resources coupled with their slight edge in pitching and offense, plus the Rays struggles thus far at achieving and maintaining a consistent level of success to match what they had a year ago, give New York a leg up to edge Tampa Bay and return to the postseason.
After winning just one World Series in their first 125 seasons (1980), it seems absurd to suggest the Phils could win a second title in as many years this year. Yet the Phils have maintained a slight edge in the NL East heading toward the All-Star break. Injuries aside, the Phillies' biggest roadblock to a possible third straight division title, to say nothing of a second straight World Series win, is something that should be one of their biggest strengths: their own ballpark. After going unbeaten at home last postseason, the Phillies have inexplicably struggled this season -- going 17-22 -- a dangerous precedent. Only one team in the wild card era has ever made the playoffs with a losing home record (the 2001 Braves, who went 40-41). The Phillies may have finally turned a corner, sweeping the Mets over the weekend and then pounding the Reds 22-1 on Monday night for their first four-game home winning streak of the year.
There is certainly no doubt that Pujols has the physical tools to do what no one in baseball has done since
There may be no more difficult team to predict this year than the Cubs. Even some of their opponents all but conceded the division to them before the year began and near universal preseason expectations had them cruising to a third straight NL Central title. But an injury to
In a word, no. Mauer himself has suggested in years past that the strain of catching takes too much of a toll over a long season to allow him a realistic shot at .400. It is a testament to his skill at the plate that such a topic is even being discussed, but the daily grind of having to get two hits every five at-bats leaves almost no margin for error. When
It's hard to look at the AL pecking order and envision any of the three teams in the Central currently above .500 posing a serious threat to the big dogs of the AL -- namely the Red Sox, Yankees and Angels (and, perhaps, the Rays). But if there is, it would be the Tigers, who have compensated for a surprisingly weak offense with a starting pitching staff that is tailor-made for playoff baseball. In
Until Strasburg actually signs, this is a moot point, but the Nationals drafted him not only for his powerful right arm but because he is the ultimate "quick to the big leagues guy," in the words of general manager
Stars in their prime getting dealt is one of the annual rites of passage for every baseball season, so the better question is, how many big names will be traded and how big will those names be? Last year's trading market saw three of the 18 players who either had or would by year's end sign $100 million contracts (
Another complicating factor will be the standings. As of Tuesday morning, 22 of the game's 30 teams are within six games of a playoff spot. Until teams (like the Mariners) can be sure whether they are buyers or sellers, the market will be slow to develop.
Although there have been several impressive pitching performances this year (witness