Trout, Sale among most intriguing players to watch in second half

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Permit the old high school coach, then, to do the talking. You think this kid is good right now? You haven't seen anything yet. "He's just going to keep getting better, that's the scary thing," says Hallenbeck. "What some people don't know is that he was the most dominant pitcher in South New Jersey his sophomore and junior year. He wasn't an outfielder until his senior year, and it took him about five minutes to figure things out. His learning curve is scary. People see his speed and athleticism now. But in the last week [before the All-Star break], he hit four home runs. The power is coming, too."

After his breakout first half -- he leads the AL in batting average (.342) and stolen bases (26) while ranking fourth in OPS (.959) -- the stage is set for the 20-year-old Angels centerfielder to become the face of the 2012 season, in the way that 2010 belonged to Josh Hamilton and 2011 to Justin Verlander.

"This story is amazing and unbelievable to everyone but Mike," says Hallenbeck. "It's like he lives in a bubble, totally oblivious to it all. It's like he's living a normal life."

Late Monday night in Kansas City, at a downtown restaurant a few hours after the All-Star Home Run Derby, Hallenbeck and a few other Millville High coaches who'd traveled to see the phenom in his first All-Star Game were having dinner with Trout and his family. "We spent the whole night trying to drag stuff out of him," says Hallenbeck. "We asked what all the interviews were asking him and he said, 'The same stuff they always do.' Mike's dad asked what the coolest part of the night was. He looked up and shrugged, and said, 'Big Papi was pretty cool.'"

When the group stepped out of the restaurant "there was a crowd of people, and they were just hawking him outside," says Hallenbeck. "We look at each other, thinking, This is the same kid we were having over to our house for barbeques a couple years ago. Now we're walking through the streets of Kansas City, and he needs an escort."

As he continues on his historic rookie season, as he leads the Angels in their chase of the Rangers in the AL West, all eyes will be on the kid from Millville. Herewith, as the curtain opens for Act II of the 2012 season, are other players to watch in the second half.

The great debate rages on the South Side: Should Robin Ventura and the White Sox put an innings cap on the 23-year-old who has been one of the league's best pitchers in the first half? Sale, who tossed just 71 innings in relief last year and 138 2/3 in college, the minors and the majors in 2010, is already on pace for well over 190 innings this year. For now, there is no plan to limit the lefthander. "We're just going to see how I feel and how my stuff is when the time comes," he said on Tuesday. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there."

The Nationals have already said that they plan to shut down Stephen Strasburg in September, even if a playoff berth is at stake. What will the Cardinals do with Lance Lynn, who's already logged 103 innings and the Rays with Matt Moore (99 2/3)?

The first-place White Sox have been the biggest surprise in the American League, but the Central division rival Indians (three games out) and Tigers (3 ½ back) are closing in. Sale, who is 10-2 with a 2.19 ERA and AL-best 194 ERA+, may be vital to the Sox' chances of winning the division for the first time since 2008. "We need Chris Sale to be in the rotation," says Jake Peavy. "He's been awesome. It's going to be a tough decision for the organization."

Go back one year, back to the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix, back to when Justin Upton was an MVP candidate at age 23, and one of the best players in the game. It was unimaginable then, that Upton would be at the center of trade rumors one year later, but here we are. We know that Arizona is open to dealing Upton. What no one knows is what's wrong with the two-time All-Star (hitting .273/.353./401 with seven home runs). "He had a thumb injury [in April] slow him down, but I think the shoulder [which he injured in 2010] is bothering him," says a scout. "He's just not hitting through the ball."

Something else to consider: Upton's home OPS is .924; on the road, .744. "I'm not sure he's the perennial MVP caliber player we all thought he'd be," says the scout. "But a player with that talent, under control for three more seasons at a pretty good price -- he'd be a game changer for a team."

Remember him? Best Player on the Planet, the prince of LA, the man to lead the Dodgers into a glorious new era. For almost two months he was the biggest star in the game. Then he strained his hamstring, landed on the DL, and the Dodgers tumbled back to earth.

"I feel great now," Kemp said on Tuesday, flashing his big smile at his locker at Kauffman Stadium. "I've been a cheerleader for too long. My team needs me."

A number of key stars are returning to the field for contenders early in the second half, from Jacoby Ellsbury in Boston to Lance Berkman in St. Louis. But Kemp's return to Los Angeles is most significant as no one player means more to his team. When he went on the DL for the first time on May 14, he was hitting .359 with 12 home runs and 28 RBIs. He returned in late May and played just two games before re-injuring his hamstring and going back on the DL for the remainder of the first half, during which time the Dodgers went from 5 ½ up in the NL West to second place (though they rallied to take a half-game lead in the division into the break).

Best Player in Baseball, welcome back.

"This kid, he's got as much power as anyone," said Steve Buechele, manager of the Rangers' Double-A Frisco team. He was speaking about the Rangers' next great slugger, Mike Olt, who is off to a dazzling start this year in Frisco and could be in The Show any moment now. Yes, the juggernaut offense in Arlington may be about to get even better.

Olt is a third baseman but with Adrian Beltre entrenched at the position, Olt could play first, where he's gotten reps this summer --- "He's made that transition easily," says Buechele --- or rightfield, where the 23-year-old only recently began getting his feet wet. "He's only played rightfield one time for us," says Buechele, "but if you'd gone to the game, you would have never known he'd never played in the outfield. He never got to showcase his arm much in the infield, but it's good. He looks like a natural out there."

Olt, who is batting .292/.403/.574 with 22 home runs and 63 RBIs, is tearing the cover off the ball but Buechele says there's still room for improvement. "There are certain counts where he's just too selective, he'll let pitches go just for the shear fact that they weren't in the exact spot that he wanted it," he says. "I keep telling him, even if it's not in the exact spot you want, you can still get the barrel on it and hit it out of the ballpark."

Olt could be a major trade chip in a potential Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels deal. But he also might be too important to Texas' future, especially if the Rangers' lineup loses free agents-to-be Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli.

"[Olt's] a tremendous player. People ask me all the time who I'd compare him to," says Buechele, "but he's the type of player others will be being compared to."