MINNEAPOLIS — The last pennant race of the Bud Selig Era begins Friday. Whether it proves to be the epitome of the outgoing commissioner’s wish that as many cities as possible have “hope and faith” of playing in October or the epitome of rampant mediocrity, there is at least the possibility of several wild pennant races in which no team is good enough to run away. The entirety of Major League Baseball hit the All-Star break playing nothing worse than .400 baseball, joining the 1943, 1958 and 1992 seasons as the only years such democracy existed.
Better still for Selig, the last All-Star Game over which he presided was a spectacular evening for baseball. It began with Minneapolis playing the role of the perfect party host, with the limestone-bedecked Target Field deserving of the national stage. This was baseball at its best: a beautiful downtown venue bringing a community together with pride in hosting the game. The event was at once cosmopolitan and accessible.
Tuesday's game was most everything a baseball fan could want. The American League hit for the cycle after 10 trips to the plate. Derek Jeter, an All-Star for the 14th and final time, rapped two hits as if it were 1998 again. Mike Trout, the heir apparent to Jeter’s role as what Astros second baseman Jose Altuve so eloquently called “the captain of baseball,” smashed a triple and a double and never stopped smiling the whole night. Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman were efficient on the mound for the National League and Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer and hometown favorite Glen Perkins did likewise for the AL. Savant hitter Miguel Cabrera walloped a home run on a pitch out of the strike zone. And, Dewey-defeats-Truman style, this time Trout beat Cabrera for the MVP Award.
In one spectacular connection of historic dots in the waning moment of golden upper Midwest daylight, Trout smacked a long first-inning fly ball off Adam Wainwright that sent Yasiel Puig hurtling into the wall and Jeter dashing around the bases to score. Great players did great things on the biggest midsummer stage.
The Jeter-Trout succession of top ambassadorship was unmistakable but for one glaring omission on Trout’s resume: He needs to be playing in October. On Monday Trout told me about the 2013 season, “We were out of it last year with about 10 days to go. And I was miserable playing nine or 10 games that didn’t have meaning.”
This year, Trout and his Angels are looking at a more meaningful September than Jeter and his Yankees. But will such a trend hold up? Has the baton already been passed? Stay tuned for what has the potential to be a second half full of the kind of possibilities Selig always wanted. Among the most fascinating riddles to be answered are these top-10 questions of the second half:
1. Where will David Price be pitching?
The Rays, despite the requisite optimism, are done. They are 9 1/2 games out in the AL East and eight back in the wild-card race, but they are also sitting on the most valuable trading asset on the market. That asset, of course, will only go down in value with each start Price makes between now and the time he reaches free agency after next season. In the meantime, Price is on a stupendous hot streak of throwing strikes and pitching deep into games. He has thrown more pitches, faced more batters and piled up more strikeouts than anybody in baseball. He can change the postseason landscape the way Cliff Lee did in 2010 (the Yankees backed out of trade talks with the Mariners, which opened the door for the Rangers to get him, which led to the Rangers beating the Yankees in the ALCS to reach their first World Series).
The Dodgers are the team best-equipped to satisfy the price tag of at least two near-ready elite prospects (think of what the A's gave up to get Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs earlier this month — two recent first-round picks, a major league starter and a player to be named — and add a premium).
2. Who are the key general managers to watch this month?
Jack Zduriencik of Seattle and Ruben Amaro Jr. of Philadelphia – one being the key buyer and one being the key seller. Zduriencik has an opportunity to revive baseball in Seattle, where the Mariners, even with attendance up, rank 23rd in tickets sold, to validate the investments in Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano, and to buy himself more time on the job. Does he cash in young pitchers such as Taijuan Walker or James Paxton to take advantage of this window in which Seattle has a 2 1/2-game lead for the second wild-card spot?
“Jack’s a guy everybody will be calling,” said one baseball source, “because he has chips and a need and, let’s face it, he can be aggressive.”
Amaro has watched the window close on a fabulous era in Phillies baseball, and needs to be nimble now, rather than in the offseason, to add offense to a thin system. He has more chips than anybody, including Lee (if Amaro wants to eat money), A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Jonathan Papelbon, Jimmy Rollins and – though very long shots – Cole Hamels and Chase Utley.
3. Can the Angels catch the Athletics?
Los Angeles, which is 1 1/2 games behind Oakland in the AL West but comfortably in front in the wild-card race, has returned to full health, re-made its bullpen (Jason Grilli, Joe Thatcher and the suddenly unhittable Joe Smith at the back end) and boasts Garrett Richards, the most egregious All-Star snub of all, who is among the handful of starters with the filthiest stuff in the game. So I asked manager Mike Scioscia: If I put money in your pocket to spend on the trade market, where would you spend it?
“I’d go get a physical therapist to make sure the guys we have right here are healthy,” he said. “Right now, I like this group. I like our team.”
The Angels still will see if they can pry Ian Kennedy and/or Huston Street from the Padres to fortify their staff, but the team with the best offense in baseball is the hottest team in baseball even without a major move.
4. Speaking of the Angels, what can Mike Trout do in a pennant race and in October?
The best player in baseball has never played in the postseason. His teams have never finished fewer than five games from first place. He’s not exactly Ernie Banks — Trout turns only 23 next month — but he is already the best player his age in MLB history. Only Ted Williams posted a better adjusted OPS through his age-22 season than Trout, and Trout’s defense and baserunning are right there with his hitting at an elite level. His first regular season MVP award is his to lose.
5. Can Jose Abreu break Mark McGwire’s rookie record of 49 home runs?
Abreu has 29 home runs, and with all-fields power — 15 of his 29 dingers have been to the middle of the field — he has a good shot at the record. Here’s another reason he can do it: The Cuban native did not grow up in a hitting culture where you concede strikes to the pitcher to “drive up pitch counts.” Nobody in the league swings at a higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone than Abreu (83%). Of the 13 most aggressive batters in the AL, four are from Cuba: Abreu, Leonys Martin, Alexi Ramirez and Yoenis Cespedes.
6. Are the Rangers playing for the first pick in the 2015 draft?
The bottom fell out quickly on Texas, mostly due to a staggering number of injuries, and the Rangers have the worst record in baseball to prove it after a 3-22 freefall to the break. The Rangers have used 50 players, including 30 pitchers. It’s not all bad luck, though. The team has had terrible results moving pitchers back and forth between relief and starting roles (Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando, Robbie Ross, Tanner Scheppers, etc.).
The Rangers were sitting on a stockpile of young pitching when they went to the 2010 World Series. The 25-and-under arms in their system included Feliz, Ogando, Ross, Scheppers, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Tommy Hunter, Martin Perez, Neil Ramirez, Tanner Roark and Pedro Strop. All have been hurt or traded.
Texas prefers to think of this season as a one-year aberration. But keep this in mind: Starting this year, the team has invested $394.75 million to watch Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus — all hurt or going through down years this season — age through their 30s.
Toronto and Milwaukee were the surprise teams of the first half only to fall apart in recent weeks, and they now face pressure to improve their rosters before the deadline. The Blue Jays held a six-game lead in the AL East on June 6 but tumbled in an 11-23 slide after. Injuries haven’t helped, but the Jays have few players accustomed to winning, and their bullpen isn’t playoff-quality (13th in ERA, 13th in WHIP, 14th in walks).
Milwaukee is the perfect example of what can happen if you just keep your Opening Day rotation healthy: you become a contender. But a 3-11 tailspin into the break showed cracks opening in that rotation as well as the bullpen.
8. Can the National League give us a wild pennant race?
Eight teams are separated by no more than three games. Fangraphs projects none of them will win more than 90 games, with the Brewers, Reds and Pirates squeezed out of the last playoff spot by two or three games. The Dodgers, with their elite starting pitching, remain the best choice to pull away and ring up 95 wins. Said one NL manager, “It’s going to come down to which team does something really big, something really out of the box, at the trading deadline.”
9. Will a favorite emerge as the successor to Selig?
Six months before Selig retires, we still don’t have an obvious choice to replace him. It’s likely that we still won’t have a choice until the owners’ meeting in November. The unlikeliest scenario of all is that baseball brings in an unknown outsider from the business world. Chief operating officer Rob Manfred appears to be the top choice among owners who want a smooth transition from Selig, but not from a smaller faction that sees an opportunity to cut in a new direction.
10. Will Jeter get one more October?
The Yankees reached the All-Star break as a .500 team with the fifth-worst offense in the AL and 80 percent of their rotation down with injuries (CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda). They’ll need to play .603 baseball (41-27) just to get to 88 wins.
New York is in danger of going back-to-back years without making the playoffs for the first time since 1992-93 – when wild cards didn’t exist, let alone two of them in each league, and two years before Jeter made his debut. That means Jeter is in danger of going out in a meaningless game, as Mariano Rivera did last year. Jeter has played 2,685 games in his career -- only one of them with his team eliminated from contention.