The All-Star Game may be thought of as baseball's midway point, but the Midsummer Classic is still almost two weeks away and several teams will actually be making the turn into the second half of play this week. On Wednesday six teams -- the Braves, Reds, Angels, Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Padres -- will become the first clubs to play their 82nd games, and by the weekend all 30 teams will officially officially have completed the first half of their schedules.
With that in mind, here's a look at the top 10 storylines to watch in the season's second half:
With the exception of the Phillies' 4½-game lead on the Braves in the National League East, baseball's all five other divisions are separated by fewer than three games, the first time that many divisions have been so close through play on June 28 since 1994. We don't know how that year would have played out because of the strike, but it seems baseball is gearing for a close playoff chase, as 18 of the 30 clubs are either in the lead for a postseason berth or within six games of one.
In the new century division leads are slowly inching tighter through this late-June date. In the last six years the average lead at this juncture has been 2½ games, down from an average of four games from 2001-2005.
In this, the bigger and better sequel to 2010's Year of the Pitcher, Philadelphia and Atlanta stand above the rest. The Phillies have a staff ERA of 3.01 and the Braves clock in at 3.07, putting both clubs on the verge of being the first teams with a sub-3.00 ERA since the 1989 Dodgers had a 2.95.
No team has accomplished the feat in the past 21 seasons, and only 10 teams in either league have done it since the AL implemented the designated hitter in 1973. During that time, only two of the 10 teams were AL teams (1981 Yankees and 1974 Athletics), who have an inherent disadvantage of facing more potent lineups. This year's Oakland staff ranks third in the majors with a 3.13 ERA and have a chance of reaching that benchmark.
Since 1990 there have been only seven seasons in which a starter has finished the year with a sub-2.00 ERA. Those seven were accomplished by four men -- Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez twice apiece and Kevin Brown once -- but now the Angels' Weaver (1.97), the Braves' Jurrjens (2.07), the Giants' Ryan Vogelsong (2.09) and the Red Sox' Beckett (2.20) are currently within striking distance of joining that elite list. (Vogelsong hasn't yet thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title but likely will by year's end.)
They aren't the only standout starters. There are also 20 other starters whose ERA is 3.00 or lower (and another 15 at 3.20 or lower). There haven't been 20 or more such pitchers since 1992, with an average of six from 1993 through 2007, when just one, then-Padre Jake Peavy, did so. But the number has been escalating rapidly to eight in '08, 11 in '09, 15 in '10 and now 23 so far this season.
The Nationals/Expos franchise hasn't had a winning record for a season since leaving Montreal for Washington in 2005. The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992. Both streaks of futility could be snapped in 2011.
If the Nationals are to do so, they'll be the rare team to make significant forward progress under the leadership of three managers. Jim Riggleman guided the team to a 38-37 mark before abruptly resigning on June 23 with Washington in the midst of a stretch in which it won 11 of 12. John McLaren took over for the weekend, and the Nats took two of three games from the White Sox, before Davey Johnson was appointed interim manager for the rest of the season. The Nationals are now 40-40 and have generally been trending in the right direction with 82 games to play.
It'd be particularly surprising for the Nationals to break through in 2011, when Stephen Strasburg has been on the DL all year, Bryce Harper remains in the low levels of the minors, Jayson Werth is only having an average season and Ryan Zimmerman missed 58 games earlier this year after having abdominal surgery.
The Pirates, meanwhile, just took two of three games from the Red Sox and are two games over .500 at 40-38 with 84 games to play. Third-year centerfielder Andrew McCutchen is taking the leap to stardom under new manager Clint Hurdle, and the starting pitching staff -- panned in the preseason as one of baseball's worst -- has excelled under the tutelage of new pitching coach Ray Searage, ranking fifth in the NL with a 3.68 ERA.
If the Brewers' winning percentage at home (.725) and road (.375) were prorated over the course of 162-game slate, their record would be 117-45 in a full schedule at Miller Park and 61-101 outside of Milwaukee. That is to say, the Brewers are two very different teams depending on where they sleep at night.
Milwaukee holds a three-game lead in the NL Central with 83 games to play (41 at home, 43 on the road) and with very exaggerated offensive splits home and away. At Miller Park the Brewers are batting .282/.355/.475 with 5.4 runs and 1.4 homers per game; on the road they hit .233/.290/.370 with 3.5 runs and 0.9 homers per game. The pitching discrepancy is also sizable: 3.60 ERA, .244 average against and 3.4 K/BB at home; 4.23 ERA, .254 and 2.3 K/BB on the road.
The Brewers, who have made one playoff appearance (as a wild card) in the last 29 seasons, have never won the NL Central and last won a division as a member of the AL East in 1982. Beginning Tuesday, they entered a critical stretch on the schedule. Of their next 24 games, 21 are against clubs with a winning record and 17 of the 24 are on the road with series at the Yankees, Twins, Rockies, Diamondbacks and Giants, with home series against the Diamondbacks and Reds.
Describing Giants baseball as "torture" took off in 2010, and the close, low-scoring games obviously weren't an impediment to success, as they rode their pitching staff and just-enough offense to a World Series title. The 2011 version might be even more excruciating -- for now.
San Francisco is in first place in the NL West by 2 ½ games over Arizona. The Giants have taken that small lead with a 46-34 record despite a run differential of just +5, as it flipped from negative to positive with Tuesday's doubleheader sweep of the Cubs. Only one team has a runs deficit on the season and maintains a winning record: the Pirates, who are just two games over .500 (not 12 like the Giants).
In the past 13 years only two clubs have won a division title with a negative run differential, the 2005 Padres and the 2007 Diamondbacks, so the Giants would be only the third out of 84 division winners from 1998-2011. For more perspective on the rarity of this feat, no club won a division without a +100 run differential in 2010.
The Giants are also 22-11 in one-run games. No other club in the majors has more than 17 one-run wins.
There are certainly going to be many sellers at the trade deadline, but no team has as many helpful chips as the Mets. Despite injuries to their starting corner infielders (David Wright and Ike Davis), subpar performances from their left- and centerfielders (Jason Bay and Angel Pagan) and the off-field uncertainty as ownership is sued for money it made with Bernie Madoff, the Mets have been a pleasant surprise on the diamond, inching a game over .500 after blasting the Tigers on Tuesday night.
That's not enough, however, to crack the postseason in the NL East, where the Phillies have the majors' best record and the Braves have the league's third-best mark. New York, which trails Philadelphia by 9 ½ games and Atlanta by five, would do well to improve its standing for 2012 and beyond by dealing one or two (if not all three) of its star players who will be free agents at the end of the year -- shortstop Jose Reyes (.349/.394/.528 batting line with 39 extra-base hits and 29 steals), outfielder Carlos Beltran (.281/.373/.489 with 11 home runs) and/or reliever Francisco Rodriguez (3.65 ERA, 20 saves) -- and stock the farm system with good, young talent.
The hardest decision will be what to do with Reyes. On one hand, he'll be in demand by playoff-chasing teams who could use an upgrade at short (the Giants and Cardinals, for instance) and will net the biggest haul of prospects, but on the other hand he's arguably baseball's most exciting player at a time when the Mets need a big box-office draw to boost revenues and attendance that is down more than 3,000 fans per game. And while trading him at the deadline doesn't mean New York can't re-sign him -- and with $64 million coming off the books next year, the Mets might have some chance at retaining Reyes -- it risks not having a chance to make a competitive offer if he were to sign an extension with the club to whom he's traded. It's probably best for the Mets to trade only the other two unless they receive a mind-boggling offer for their shortstop.
There are likely to be several teams looking for outfield help, which bodes well for moving Beltran. The relief market also seems inelastic with perennially high demand each summer, though dealing K-Rod is no slam dunk. Not only might a team object to acquiring a player arrested last summer for an assault at the ballpark, but there are also contractual problems: With 29 more games finished, his $17.5 million option kicks in, and he has the right to block a trade to 10 teams.
While some of those players are gone for the season -- the Giants' Buster Posey, the Rockies' Jorge De La Rosa and the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright are among the notables on playoff contenders who won't suit up again until 2012 -- many others will return in hopes of leading their clubs to a playoff spot.
Consider the number of contending teams who will be getting major contributors back within the next month or month and a half: Cardinals (Albert Pujols, Allen Craig and Eduardo Sanchez), Phillies (Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge, Joe Blanton and Jose Contreras), Braves (Tommy Hanson and Martin Prado), Brewers (Takahashi Saito), Giants (Jonathan Sanchez and Brandon Belt), Indians (Shin-Soo Choo and Alex White), Rangers (Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, Brandon Webb), Red Sox (Clay Buchholz, Carl Crawford, Jed Lowrie and Bobby Jenks) and Yankees (Derek Jeter, Bartolo Colon, Rafael Soriano, Phil Hughes and Pedro Feliciano).
To further prevent the aforementioned DL list from growing with young arms, clubs have instilled stringent safeguards against large innings leaps for still-developing pitchers. As a result, several teams in the playoff mix could be without some top starters in the season's final month.
The Mariners' Michael Pineda (7-5, 2.65 ERA), the early favorite for AL Rookie of the Year, has already thrown 102 innings, a pace for roughly 207 over the whole year, yet he's never even thrown 140 innings in a professional season. Similarly, the Rays' Jeremy Hellickson (7-7, 3.18) has thrown 96 1/3 innings, and the Angels' Tyler Chatwood (5-4, 3.64) has thrown 89 innings. All three pitchers are between the ages of 21 and 24, and neither of the latter two has ever thrown 156 innings in a pro season.
Similarly, the Rangers' Alexi Ogando, though already 27, could face similar restrictions because he was a reliever last season who threw only 72 1/3 innings but has already reached 91 so far this year.
No, the centerfielder can't buy club but he can give Dodgers fans a reason to watch. On Monday, the same day the team filed for bankruptcy, Kemp went 4-for-5 with his NL-leading 22nd home run of the season to power Los Angeles to a 15-0 win over the Twins.
The Dodgers are down nearly 8,000 fans per game, the sport's largest decrease, and things don't look to improve as the messy and unresolved ownership situation will likely prevent significant personnel changes. Kemp, a year after a lackluster 2010 season, leads the league in home runs, slugging (.630) and total bases (182) and ranks in the top five in batting average (.332), on-base percentage (.417) and RBIs (63). While it's rare for a player on a team with a losing record to win an MVP, Kemp would certainly deserve one if he keeps up this pace and keeps the Dodgers relevant on the field.