All 30 Major League Baseball teams are back in action today after the four-day All-Star break. The second half of the season will fly by as teams make their push for the postseason, respectability, or trying to land a key player by the July 31 trade deadline.
Here are 10 key storylines to watch for as the regular season begins to wind down.
10. Is the Astros fall from first place the beginning of the end or just a minor setback?
The Braves had an epic collapse in 2011. In 2015, Houston was in first for a good portion of the season, but now they have been overtaken. Is a collapse inevitable? Or will the ‘stros stay strong? I think the Astros have the potential to be the 2011 Braves 2.0.
9. Will the Reds start a fire sale?
The 2015 season has been brutal for the Reds. They are in fourth place in the NL Central and are 15 games back. They have a strong core in Joey Votto, Billy Hamilton, Todd Frazier, and Jay Bruce, but they need to get new prospects. Will they just start over and trade their present for the future?
8. Bryce Harper for Triple Crown?
When Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown (lead the league in home runs, RBIs, and batting average) in 2012, he was the first player to do it since 1967. But the wait for the next one might not be so long. Nationals’ star Bryce Harper is top three in every Triple Crown category category and shows no signs of stopping.
7. Can the Yankees' veterans continue to carry them?
The Yankees are one of the oldest teams in baseball. This season, their average age (31.8) is three years more than the league average. Many think their (relatively) old age will work against them. But this year, the Yankees have come through again. They are currently in first in the AL East, but can they hold that lead? They are in a tough division, and many of their core players are out of their prime.
6. Who will win NL Rookie of the Year: Joc Pederson or Kris Bryant?
This has been the year of the rookie, and the National League has a couple of the brightest young stars. The Dodgers' Joc Pederson and Cubs' Kris Bryant were both all-stars, while Pederson was the runner up in the Home Run Derby. While both strike out often, Bryant drives in a ton of runs and Peterson is an excellent defender. People will know their names in years to come, and it's inevitable that one of them will win Rookie of the Year. How they play in the second half will determine who walks off with the honor.
5. Who will bounce back: Clayton Kershaw or Robinson Cano?
Kershaw and Cano were supposed to be unstoppable this year. Instead, they were just... average. At the break, Kershaw was 6-6 with a 2.85 ERA in 18 games, while Cano is hitting .251 with only six home runs and 30 RBI. Last year, Kershaw won the NL Cy Young Award as well as NL MVP, while Cano hit .382. So the question now is: Who will make the comeback? Better yet, can they rebound?
4. Who will come out on top of the AL East?
So far the AL East has been the most interesting division in baseball. It's the only division where EVERY team is less than seven games back. The Yankees, who have so far defied expectations and Father Time, are currently in first place. But the Blue Jays have the best offense and could be a powerhouse if they get a good pitcher, and the same applies for the Red Sox.
3. Where will Cole Hamels go?
Cole Hamels, ace for the _________. You can fill that blank with almost any team in the league right now. Many teams have made offers, but the Phillies still have him. Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro may be reluctant, but the Red Sox, Padres, Blue Jays, Astros, and even the Dodgers all have the manpower to trade an exorbitant amount to get Hamels.
2. Will the Red Sox be buyers or sellers at the deadline?
Everything has gone wrong for the Red Sox this year. EVERYTHING. They failed to fix their biggest need in pitching. The big free agent hitters they DID sign aren’t meeting expectations. And worst of all, the Sox are 6.5 games behind their biggest rival, the Yankees. And yet, the Sox are still in the hunt. Will they try to buy their way back into contention? Or will they give it all up, sell, and hope for next year?
1. Which team will end their streak of mediocrity: the Blue Jays, Astros, Mets, or Twins?
This year, MLB has been full of surprises. And one of those is that several teams have seemingly broken their history of mediocrity. The Blue Jays, Astros, Mets, and Twins have all shed their losing ways and are now considered serious contenders. The Astros and Twins currently hold both wild-card slots, and the Mets are two games back in the NL East race. The Blue Jays are also a meager 4.5 games back in both the AL East and AL wild card races. If one or more of these teams gets hot, they could make the second half very interesting — and a lot of fun.
Photos: Jason Miller/Getty Images (Astros), Rob Carr/Getty Images (Harper), Harry How/Getty Images (Pederson), Jon Durr/Getty Images (Bryant), Jason O. Watson/Getty Images (Hamels)