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 Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. In fact, in the 42 years since baseball's last Triple Crown winner, perhaps only one other player -- Barry Bonds -- has managed to offer year after year the requisite formula of power and skill to lead the league in batting average, home runs and RBIs. Pujols currently leads the league in home runs (31) and RBIs (82) and ranks third in batting average (.336), but his appearance atop those leaderboards is nothing new. He has ranked in the top 10 in each category in every season of his eight-year career. The biggest indicator of his chances may lie in another category in which he is leading the league: walks. Pujols has 66 bases on balls, and 29 intentional walks, also the most in the league. He is far and away the most dangerous hitter in the Cardinals' lineup, which offers little compelling reason to pitch to him when opponents could face any of his mortal teammates. If he gets enough pitches to hit, Pujols has the best chance at pulling off this feat of any player over four decades.
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 Aramis Ramirez and slow starts by Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and most dramatically Milton Bradley turned their once-potent offense into one of the most toothless in the league (the Cubs rank next-to-last in both runs and hits). Yet somehow, the Cubs are still just two games out in the NL Central, leaving them poised for a late-season run. Let's put it this way: Is there any division leader in baseball who feels less secure with a lead than the Cardinals, knowing a team as talented as the Cubs is lurking right behind them?
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 Ted Williams became the last man to hit .400 in 1941, he gave himself a cushion of .413 as late as mid-September before the inevitable stress and pressure began contributing to a rapid decline (he had 11 hits in his next 13 games, and still saw his average drop to .3996 before a season-ending double header). If Mauer (currently at .389) is to make a serious charge at the fabled mark, he will need a similar amount of breathing room to ward off fatigue as the season draws to a close.
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 Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson and Rick Porcello, the Tigers have three quality arms to match up with the front three of any of those other staffs, especially in a short series.
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 Mike Rizzo. If Strasburg signs soon enough to allow himself some proper development time in the minors, it would seem to make perfect sense to have him get a taste of big-league life -- and show off their prize to a fan base starving for good news -- when rosters expand in September. The problem is that if Strasburg doesn't sign until the mid-August deadline, that would severely hinder his chances to be ready to take a big league mound just a few weeks later.
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 (Manny Ramirez, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira) be traded within just a few weeks of each other. This year's market is unlikely to top that for sheer star power. Additionally, those trades had a "Can you top this?" feel. The Brewers acquired Sabathia from the Indians, forcing the Cubs to respond in kind the very next day by getting Rich Harden from the A's. There are certainly players who could be dealt that would impact a pennant race (perhaps Oakland's Matt Holliday or Cleveland's Victor Martinez, to name just two), but it seems unlikely that teams will be able to engage in the arms race we saw last year, especially not so far away from the deadline (Sabathia and Harden were traded on July 7 and 8, respectively).
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.
AL: This league has already seen several surprise teams, namely the Blue Jays, Rangers and Mariners, stay competitive far longer than anticipated at the beginning of the year. So for the second half, don't overlook the Twins. They're only a game and a half behind the Tigers in an AL Central race that will probably be won by a team with fewer than 90 wins, and the Twins came from behind to steal the division title from the Tigers in 2006. This year could offer more of the same if they can get Francisco Liriano to be more consistent and give them a third excellent arm in the rotation to match Detroit's aforementioned trio.
NL: Cubs. There is simply too much talent and not enough of a deficit for this team not to be heard from before the year is out. They may not make a run at 100 wins or wrap up a playoff spot before rosters expand the way they did a year ago, but in the confounding NL Central there are wins to be had, and a quality team like the Cubs is just the club to grab them.
Although there have been several impressive pitching performances this year (witness Jarrod Washburn's one-hitter on Monday night) and a handful of pitchers have flirted with no-nos, there has still not been a no-hitter this season. Insignificant you say? Well, yes, but historically intriguing just the same. There has been at least one no-hitter in 17 of the past 19 years. If history is any guide, the year's first no-no may come from a most unlikely source. The last time a season went this long without a no-hitter in a year in which one was eventually pitched came in 2006 when Florida rookie Anibal Sanchez did it in just his 14th career start. Sanchez's no-hitter ended the longest drought between no-nos in baseball history.