MLB's 50 Biggest Storylines Heading into the Heat of Summer

Doug MeadCorrespondent IJune 25, 2012

MLB's 50 Biggest Storylines Heading into the Heat of Summer

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    Summer officially started on June 20, and as the heat begins to sizzle in the Northern Hemisphere, so too does Major League Baseball.

    With just over three months left in the regular season, the summer months will be a defining moment for many teams as they busily prepare for a possible postseason berth.

    However, with the summer months come many burning questions yet to be answered. With so much emphasis now placed on the extra wild-card slot for each league, many teams will be looking to answer those burning inquiries.

    Here are 50 of the hottest MLB storylines that will undoubtedly be on the minds of fans and experts alike as we head into the heat of summer.

Just How Much Will the Extra Wild-Card Teams Affect Trade Deadline Activity?

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    When MLB and commissioner Bud Selig announced in early March that an extra wild-card team had been added for each league starting with the 2012 season, many wondered just how much the landscape would be changed.

    The short answer—a lot.

    As of Sunday afternoon, 20 of 30 teams were within 5.5 games in their division. As Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington pointed out, "You can't buy when people aren't selling."

    While the non-waiver trade deadline is still a bit over five weeks away, it's already apparent that the vast majority of those teams will likely be buying rather than selling.

    As such, a much smaller pool of talent will be available for teams wishing to bolster their rosters for the postseason push. Standard deals with selling teams that have happened in the past will be greatly affected.

    Selling teams now know they have a huge advantage and will likely be asking for quite a bit in return for players that buying teams are seeking.

    General managers are going to have to work overtime in order to come up with ways to upgrade their teams.

    Yes, they'll actually have to work for their money.

Can Any Prospects Step Up and Impact Their Team Down the Stretch?

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    So far this season, we have already seen how prospects have impacted their teams early on.

    Both Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, the two top prospects in baseball heading into the season, have positively impacted their respective teams. The Los Angeles Angels are an MLB-best 33-18 heading into Saturday's games after Trout's call-up in late April.

    Harper too has helped the Washington Nationals in the absence of both Michael Morse and Jayson Werth, with the Nats on top in the NL East.

    Are there other prospects that could aid their clubs in the final three months of the season?

    It's entirely possible. Joe Kelly, a 24-year-old prospect for the St. Louis Cardinals, has already provided quality starts in the absence of Jaime Garcia. Ditto for Wade Miley, Ryan Cook and Kirk Nieuwenhuis for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Oakland A's and New York Mets, respectively.

    Both Alex Cobb and Chris Archer could positively impact the Tampa Bay Rays down the stretch, while Jacob Turner for the Detroit Tigers and Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves could be positive influences as well.

Will Trevor Bauer Make His Long-Anticipated MLB Debut?

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    To say that Arizona Diamondbacks top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer has been impressive in his first full professional season doesn't even come close to doing him justice.

    Bauer blazed through Double-A with a 7-1 record and 1.68 ERA before earning a promotion to the Triple-A Reno Aces. In seven starts there, Bauer is 4-0 with a 2.79 ERA, and thus far he has a collective 11.1 K/9 rate.

    With Joe Saunders scratched from his start on Friday due to tightness in his left shoulder, speculation about Bauer's arrival in Phoenix once again became a hot topic.

    If Saunders needs time on the disabled list, Bauer could well be the logical choice to replace him in the rotation. As of Saturday afternoon, it had yet to be determined what will happen with Saunders, but it certainly hasn't stopped the hype about Bauer.

     

    Update: According to CBSSports.com, Bauer will make his major league debut for the Diamondbacks on Thursday against the Atlanta Braves.

How Many More Pitchers Will Require Tommy John Surgery?

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    The number of pitchers who have required season-ending Tommy John surgery thus far this season has been staggering.

    The Kansas City Royals alone have four pitchers in that category, with Felipe Paulino becoming the latest casualty, joining closer Joakim Soria, starter Danny Duffy and reliever Blake Wood.

    Royals manager Ned Yost sees almost an epidemic of pitchers around baseball:

    I don't know why there's such a big number of guys going down with Tommy John surgeries this year, but we're not immune to it by any stretch of the imagination. Our numbers have added greatly to it. I don't think I've ever been around a team where two guys have had to have Tommy John, let alone four. You just deal with it and move on.

    Teams throughout MLB are having to scramble to replace pitchers requiring Tommy John surgery. The Atlanta Braves will have to move on without Brandon Beachy, who underwent season-ending surgery last Thursday. Ditto the Toronto Blue Jays' Kyle Drabek, who had a second Tommy John surgery performed last week.

    The Jays got good news on another starter, Drew Hutchison, who was diagnosed with a sprained UCL and won't require the surgery. Nonetheless, he's likely lost to the team for close to two months.

    It's of course impossible to predict how many more pitchers will succumb to elbow issues, but the 2012 season is certainly shaping up to be a record year.

Could a Knuckleballer Actually Win the Cy Young Award?

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    There have been a number of great knuckleball pitchers in MLB history, but none of them have ever won a Cy Young Award.

    Hoyt Wilhelm is in the Hall of Fame, as is Phil Niekro, but that award eluded them both.

    However, that could very well change this season.

    Heading into Sunday night's contest with the New York Yankees, New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey is 11-1 with a 2.00 ERA.

    Using the knuckleball almost exclusively, Dickey became the first pitcher in the modern era to throw back-to-back one-hitters with at least 10 strikeouts. Dickey also became the first NL pitcher since 1944 to throw consecutive one-hitters as well.

    Dickey's run right now is not just impressive but has also thrown him squarely into the mix of pitchers garnering Cy Young Award consideration.

    Not bad for a pitcher who was 41-50 with a career 4.34 ERA entering this season.

     

    Update: Dickey and the Mets lost to the Yankees on Sunday, ending Dickey's nine-game winning streak. Dickey pitched six innings, gave up five runs (including a three-run homer to Nick Swisher), walked three and struck out three, moving his ERA up to 2.31.

Will Josh Hamilton Win His Second AL MVP Award?

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    If the 2012 season ended in May, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton would likely have been the unanimous pick for the AL Most Valuable Player Award.

    However, after cooling down a bit, Hamilton has some company.

    Adam Jones, Paul Konerko, Mark Trumbo and rookie Mike Trout are giving Hamilton a run for his MVP money right now.

    Much will depend on Hamilton's health for the rest of the season—history shows us that Hamilton is prone to breakdowns. However, if he can regain the stroke that defined his first two months, he could absolutely win his second piece of MVP hardware.

How Long Will the Four-Man Rotation Last in Colorado?

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    Desperation has set in for the Colorado Rockies.

    At 26-43 heading into last weekend, the Rockies have the third-worst record in MLB, and much of the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of their starting rotation.

    Rockies starters were by far the worst in the majors as of Saturday, sporting a collective 6.30 ERA.

    Jeremy Guthrie, the biggest pitching acquisition of the offseason, was moved to the bullpen last week after posting a 3-6 record and 7.02 ERA as a starter.

    The Rockies then made the decision to go with a four-man rotation, with each starter limited to 75 pitches per outing.

    The new rotation sports three southpaws—Jeff Francis, Christian Friedrich and Josh Outman—along with right-hander Alex White.

    None of the above were even in the rotation at the beginning of the season.

    Is it bold thinking by manager Jim Tracy and GM Dan O'Dowd, or just an act born of desperation?

    Considering the results for the first two months of the season, something had to be done; at least credit them for trying something new.

    Which leads us to our next question...

Are Dan O'Dowd and Jim Tracy's Jobs in Colorado Really Safe?

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    The Colorado Rockies fully expected to bounce back from a very disappointing 2011 season in which they finished a dismal 73-89.

    General manager Dan O'Dowd made a flurry of transactions, bringing in position players Michael Cuddyer and Marco Scutaro along with pitchers Jeremy Guthrie, Jamie Moyer, Tyler Chatwood, Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman.

    The results thus far? After 69 games they are even further below .500 than they were all of last season.

    Can O'Dowd and Tracy be blamed for the failings of the pitching staff that has registered a league-worst 5.32 ERA? No, but O'Dowd was at least responsible for putting together the staff that produced that ERA.

    Tracy was rewarded with an indefinite contract extension by O'Dowd before the start of the season. Is Tracy to blame for the miserable record thus far? No, but as we all know, you can't fire 25 players. It's always the man at the top who shoulders the blame.

    There has been no indication from Rockies ownership that either O'Dowd or Tracy should be looking over their shoulders.

    However, given the results thus far, maybe they should be.

Will the Royals Trade Jeff Francoeur and Give Wil Myers a Shot?

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    In one of our earlier slides, we discussed prospects who could have an impact for their teams down the stretch.

    While the Kansas City Royals likely won't be vying for postseason contention, they do have a prospect who could very well impact their roster later this summer—outfielder Wil Myers.

    Myers continues to rake at the minor league level, hitting a combined .330 between Double-A and Triple-A. Since his promotion to the Omaha Storm Chasers, Myers is hitting .315 with 11 HR and 33 RBI in just 35 games.

    Myers' natural progression may find him in Kansas City before long, and when that decision is made, incumbent right fielder Jeff Francoeur is likely to become trade bait.

    However, there is a catch. Francoeur signed a two-year, $13.5 million contract extension last year, so the money will scare away some prospective suitors. GM Dayton Moore may be forced to add money to any deal to hasten Francoeur's departure.

    In any event, Myers is almost certain to be seen in Kansas City before the end of the summer.

Will the Houston Astros be Successful in Selling off All Pricey Veterans?

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    The Houston Astros will likely be conducting a fire sale of sorts, with the goal of unloading their higher-priced veterans first.

    Between Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon, the Houston Astros are paying a combined $45 million in salary for the 2012 season.

    That figure represents roughly 75 percent of the entire team payroll, according to USA Today.

    You think new owner Jim Crane and GM Jeff Luhnow won't be doing all they can to rid themselves of that burden?

Can Bryce Harper and Mike Trout Both Win ROY Awards?

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    The top two prospects in baseball entering the season are both currently impacting their clubs in positive ways, and both could be in line for accolades at the end of the season.

    Conceivably, both Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels and Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals could also both be selected as All-Star representatives, but clearly both are in line for their leagues' respective Rookie of the Year Award honors.

    However, neither has the award locked up. In the American League, Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers, Wei-Yin Chen of the Baltimore Orioles and even Felix Doubront of the Boston Red Sox could challenge Trout. Detroit Tigers outfielder Quintin Berry was a late-May call-up, but he too has been impressive.

    Harper faces a challenge from Kirk Nieuwenhuis of the New York Mets, Zack Cozart of the Cincinnati Reds and Wade Miley of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

    San Diego Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso could also factor in, and Colorado Rockies catcher Wilin Rosario could impact the voting as well.

    Both Trout and Harper could prevail, but both will need to be as impressive in the second half of the season in order to ensure victory.

Will Bryce Harper Continue in Center Field for Rest of Season?

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    For the Washington Nationals, the return of left fielder Michael Morse is a welcome sign, and they will certainly welcome back right fielder Jayson Werth when he returns as well.

    So, what of rookie phenom Bryce Harper?

    The short answer is he will stay right where he is now—in center field.

    Harper has pretty much taken over in center for the Nats, and while they have said that Harper is not the long-term answer there, once Werth returns it's absolutely the best outfield combination for the rest of the season.

    Harper has shown he can handle the position well enough, and his bat is still producing. If the Nats decide not to bring first baseman Adam LaRoche back next season, Morse can slide from left to first and Harper could move back to the corner.

    But for now, Harper is their best option in center field.

Will the Chicago Cubs Find a Suitor for Alfonso Soriano?

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    I wrote this about Alfonso Soriano in a piece published last week:

    Chicago Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano has hit more home runs than anyone in the National League since May 15, and despite his bloated contract, his trade value may never be higher.

    The Baltimore Orioles were said to be interested at one point, and the Toronto Blue Jays had scouts at Cubs games recently as well.

    If the Cubs throw a whole lot of money in with the deal, Soriano would be of help to several American League teams, especially as a DH. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein should absolutely strike now while the proverbial iron is still hot.

    There doesn't appear to be anything that will get in the way of the Cubs doing all they can to unload Soriano, including paying most of the remaining money on his contract. Teams will absolutely be interested if Soriano is almost completely paid for at the time of the deal.

Can the Pittsburgh Pirates Finish Above .500 for the First Time Since 1992?

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    As of Saturday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Pirates were five games above .500 and just one game behind the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central division.

    It's been a string of 19 consecutive losing seasons for the Pirates, already a major professional sports franchise record, so the buzz is clearly palpable in the Steel City in terms of their current record.

    However, the big question is whether or not they can sustain it.

    The short answer? They'll need some help.

    With Charlie Morton lost for the season following Tommy John surgery, Brad Lincoln has assumed his role in the starting rotation. Lincoln has fared poorly, seeing his ERA rise from 1.04 to 3.82 in his last three starts.

    Offense has been an issue all season long as well, as star center fielder Andrew McCutchen has been on fire while others have faltered. A first-base bat would be a welcome addition.

    The Pirates famously swooned last year in the final two months of the season. In order to avoid that same fate this season, GM Neal Huntington has his work cut out for him.

What Will the Miami Marlins Do If They're Under .500 by the Trade Deadline?

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    On Saturday afternoon, the Miami Marlins lost ugly to the Toronto Blue Jays for the second time, dropping their record in June to a woeful 4-16 mark.

    At five games below .500, the Marlins are certainly nowhere near where they thought they'd be after acquiring free agents Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle and trading for closer Heath Bell during the offseason.

    Bleacher Report's own Ian Casselberry, resident MLB Lead Blogger, wondered whether or not third baseman Hanley Ramirez could benefit from a change of venue if in fact the Marlins continue to flounder.

    Ramirez has slumped along with his team in June, hitting just .211 thus far.

    If the Marlins continue their current slide and fall deeper in the standings, it's entirely possible that Ramirez and others could find themselves out of South Florida.

Will the Baltimore Orioles Really Be Buyers This Year?

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    Much like the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Baltimore Orioles are clearly one of the big surprises in the majors thus far in 2012.

    Owners of 14 straight losing seasons themselves, the O's are 10 games above .500 entering play on Saturday night. Manager Buck Showalter has done an outstanding job instilling a winning attitude in a franchise that hasn't tasted victory since 1997.

    It certainly appears that the O's will be buying come late July, barring a complete collapse from now until then. GM Dan Duquette will definitely be on the hunt for a quality starter and a solid corner infield bat.

    With left fielder Nolan Reimold likely done for the season with scheduled surgery to have a bulging disc removed from his neck, add an outfielder to the shopping list for Duquette as well.

    Nonetheless, excitement is in the air in Baltimore.

Will the Return of Injured Red Sox Stars Be Enough to Make the Postseason?

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    Slowly but surely, injured stars for the Boston Red Sox are making their way back to the lineup. However, will it be in time?

    Outfielder Cody Ross recently returned, clubbing a home run in his first game off the disabled list on Tuesday night against the Miami Marlins.

    Fellow outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford are making excellent progress in their rehabs and could be back by the All-Star break.

    Closer Andrew Bailey recently suffered a setback in his rehab, and there is no current timetable for his return.

    If the Red Sox are somewhere within the vicinity of where they are right now in the standings (5.5 games behind the New York Yankees as of Saturday afternoon), the return of Ellsbury and Crawford can only bolster their postseason chances. Whether or not it's enough in the competitive AL East, only time will tell.

Can the Detroit Tigers Come Roaring Back Like Last Year?

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    Last year, the Detroit Tigers got off to a sluggish start with just a 28-26 record in the first two months of the season, five games behind the Cleveland Indians at the time.

    However, the Tigers went 67-39 for the rest of the season to easily capture the AL Central division title by a full 15 games over the Indians.

    This year has been much the same, as the Tigers find themselves in a hole once again, three games under .500 heading into action on Sunday, three games behind the Tribe.

    Can the Tigers find the same magic in the second half this year as well?

    There appears to be no doubt that the Tigers will be buying. Several rumors have them chasing left fielder Carlos Quentin, but it's likely that the Tigers will wait to see further reports regarding designated hitter Victor Martinez, who could possibly return to help the team later this season.

    The Chicago White Sox and Indians have issues of their own as well, and neither one of them are seriously threatening to pull away in the AL Central. The Tigers may not need to get as hot as they did last year, but playing the way they have over the first three months won't cut it either.

Will the San Diego Padres Have a New Owner Before Trade Deadline?

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    The San Diego Padres are currently in a state of flux in terms of ownership, and if current reports are true, a new owner could be in place by the All-Star break.

    CBSSports.com reported on Friday that the search for new ownership in San Diego has been narrowed down to two groups.

    Peter O'Malley, former longtime owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Gary Jabara, a local businessman, are the two finalists.

    While an owner could be announced soon, it's likely that ownership wouldn't be transferred until MLB owners meet in August.

    It's unclear how much the current ownership situation affects what the Padres might or might not do at the trade deadline.

    Count current left fielder Carlos Quentin as one who would like to stick around if new ownership is agreeable:

    I'm definitely open to talking about a future with the Padres. I'd be open to discussing that. I like the environment here. I like what Bud (Black), his staff, the training staff are doing. I appreciate where they want to go.

    If a new owner is decided upon soon, Quentin could have his answer.

Can Kirk Gibson Turn the Arizona Diamondbacks Around?

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    Much was made last season of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who were the surprise of the National League in winning the NL West title after losing 97 games the previous year.

    GM Kevin Towers made several moves over the offseason to make his team even stronger, signing free-agent outfielder Jason Kubel and trading for pitchers Trevor Cahill and Craig Breslow.

    However, the D-Backs have struggled mightily in the first three months of the season, finding themselves with a .500 record and 6.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers heading into action on Saturday night.

    While they are by no means out of it, the D-Backs have their work cut out for them in order to overtake both the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.

    Earlier last week, Towers told a local radio station that he firmly believed that the Diamondbacks would make the playoffs. Manager Kirk Gibson agreed:

    There are going to be frustrating things that happen but we have a lot of games to go, a ton to go. We're not even halfway through. You just have to remain on task, on target and power through the doubt about yourself and your team.

    Do we wish we were in first place? Of course. But we're not. Does that change anything? Do we get overly frustrated and cash in? No way ... You don't know how you're going to get there (the postseason). You just believe you're going to get there.

    I don't care what everybody else says. They can laugh at me. They can laugh at KT ... We expect to (make the playoffs). That's what we push towards. If somebody doesn't believe us, that's fine.

    That's the vintage bulldog style that has embodied the persona of Gibson, and considering what he did last season, no one in Arizona is about to doubt him now.

Will the Los Angeles Angels Trade or Keep Peter Bourjos?

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    Los Angeles Angels speedy center fielder Peter Bourjos has gone through some rough times thus far in the 2012 season.

    Bourjos got off to a very slow start, hitting just .167 in the month of April. When the Angels called up top prospect Mike Trout, Bourjos saw his playing time diminished.

    Now, with Trout second in the American League in batting with a .338 average and serving as a spark for the surging Angels, Bourjos has been relegated to the bench as a defensive replacement.

    However, Angels manager Mike Scioscia has faith that Bourjos will have value for his Halos this season.

    "He has a role on this team, and he's going to help us win games," Scioscia told the Los Angeles Times.

    Trey Scott of MLB.com also reported that the Angels would be unlikely to trade Bourjos, who could conceivably replace Torii Hunter in the outfield next season after Hunter's five-year contract expires.

Will the Minnesota Twins Conduct a Fire Sale?

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    After losing 99 games in 2011, the Minnesota Twins certainly appear headed towards another disappointing finish in 2012.

    A 6-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday left the Twins at 28-42, giving them the worst record in the American League.

    The pitching staff is a complete mess, prompting GM Terry Ryan to tell Buster Olney of ESPN, "We need pitching, and we need it bad."

    Needless to say, Ryan wasn't referring to saving the season this year—that's already lost.

    The Twins have never been a team to say goodbye to employees—without question one of the most loyal teams in baseball. However, it's safe to say that loyalty goes out the window this year.

What Is Daniel Bard's Future with the Red Sox?

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    The Boston Red Sox probably thought they were doing the right thing in transitioning pitcher Daniel Bard from the bullpen to the starting rotation.

    Sometimes, doing the right thing isn't necessarily what's best for the player.

    Bard struggled in his transition, going 5-6 with a 5.24 ERA in 10 starts and one relief appearance with the Red Sox before being demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket earlier this month.

    Now, it appears that everyone believes that Bard is best suited for the bullpen, including Bard himself:

    It just kind of hit me, felt like that’s where I belong. It just felt right. I knew then that it’s something that I wanted to do moving forward.

    Luckily I talked to Ben (GM Ben Cherington) the next day, and they were on the same page. They thought that this year me throwing out of the bullpen gives me the best chance to help the team.

    Bard will likely be given time to readjust to the bullpen and work out some mechanical issues. With the Red Sox bullpen pitching so well lately, there is no timetable for Bard's return.

    Oh well. Just another day of decision-making plans gone awry.

Will Any Team Break Away in the Competitive AL East?

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    The American League East division is once again competitive, as it has been seemingly every year for quite a while now.

    However, now it's not just two or three teams—it's all five.

    Only 5.5 games separate all five teams as of Sunday afternoon, with all five also being above .500. It's a safe bet to assume that each team in the AL East will be gearing up for a postseason push.

    Is any one team capable of taking off and separating itself from the rest of the pack? Absolutely, but it will take a solid run in the second half in order to do so.

    The Yankees and Red Sox have the offense, the Rays have the rotation, the Orioles have a shutdown bullpen and timely hitting and the Jays are hanging around despite injuries to three key starters.

    Moves at the the trade deadline could very well decide the AL East.

Can Jayson Werth's Return Give the Nats Enough Offense to Make the Postseason?

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    Despite an offense ranked 13th in the National League in runs and batting average, the Washington Nationals find themselves in first place in the NL East division.

    Their 3.5-game lead over the New York Mets is largely due to a terrific pitching staff that is tops in the majors with a 2.96 ERA.

    Right fielder Jayson Werth is optimistic that he can return to the lineup by Aug. 1. Werth, who fractured his wrist attempting a diving catch back on May 6, would essentially act as a trade-deadline acquisition for the Nats.

    With a healthy everyday outfield of Michael Morse, Bryce Harper and Werth, manager Davey Johnson should have an offense that can easily support his stellar pitching staff down the stretch.

Will the Milwaukee Brewers Be Buyers or Sellers?

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    The Milwaukee Brewers have had to endure quite a bit in the past five months.

    First, offensive powerhouse Prince Fielder bolted for a $214 million payday with the Detroit Tigers. Then, once the season started, three key players were lost for the season—shortstop Alex Gonzalez and first baseman Mat Gamel with ACL injuries and starter Chris Narveson with rotator cuff surgery.

    On top of that, they lost hot-hitting catcher Jonathan Lucroy after a freak hotel accident in which he suffered a broken hand. Now, starting pitcher Shaun Marcum is shelved with a tender elbow, prompting the Brewers to sign Livan Hernandez, now playing for his third team this season.

    As recently as a few weeks ago, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio told CBSSports.com, "We always have a buyer's mindset."

    However, with a record of 33-38 entering play on Sunday afternoon, has that mindset changed?

    The extra wild card in each league certainly gives more teams a chance, but can the Brewers still compete given all that's happened thus far?

    Attanasio's mindset will be tested in the coming weeks.

Will Orioles GM Dan Duquette Actively Pursue a Front-Line Starter?

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    Earlier in this presentation, we discussed the fact that the Baltimore Orioles will almost certainly be buyers for the first time since 1997.

    But just what will they be buying?

    Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has ownership's blessing to do whatever it takes to make a postseason push.

    "We are in contention, so we are going to do whatever we can to make the playoffs," Duquette told Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com on Saturday.

    Ideally, the O's would love to add a front-line starter to their rotation, but Duquette is unwilling to forfeit top prospects. With fewer teams selling than ever before, along with Duquette's wish not to sacrifice his farm system, the challenge presented will be difficult.

What Does GM Sandy Alderson Need to Do to Put Mets in Playoffs?

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    If someone told you at the beginning of the season that the New York Mets would be in the thick of the NL East division race behind the arms of Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey, you likely would have labeled them as certifiable.

    But that's exactly what has happened. The Mets are indeed in the thick of things with a 39-33 record entering Sunday night's game with the New York Yankees. Dickey will bring his 11-1 record and 2.00 ERA* to the hill along with him.

    On Thursday, ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted that the Mets were willing to wait a few more weeks before diving into the trade market.

    However, will general manager Sandy Alderson have enough money to affect changes in his lineup?

    Despite a favorable settlement in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal, the Mets are still not exactly rolling in dough. Add to that the fact that Alderson won't sacrifice a farm system that's improving. With top blue-chippers Matt Harvey, Jeurys Familia and Brandon Nimmo, among others, Alderson has a bevy of young stars prepared to take the Mets well into the future.

    Shortstop Ruben Tejada is likely due back sometime in the next week after a six-week stint on the disabled list with a right quad strain, and first baseman Ike Davis is showing signs of breaking out of a season-long slump, so offense likely won't be a priority for Alderson.

    Bolstering the bullpen will likely be a priority, however, so as the deadline approaches, Alderson will be looking for prudent investments that can improve his pitching staff without sacrificing major chips.

     

    Update: Tejada was activated from the disabled list by the Mets on Sunday.

    *After Sunday, Dickey's record is 11-2 and his ERA is 2.31.

Is Chone Figgins Done in Seattle?

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    On Sunday afternoon, Chone Figgins was in the starting lineup against Edinson Volquez and the San Diego Padres. That in itself is news.

    Figgins is 4-for-5 with a home run against Volquez, hence the reason for his place in the Mariners lineup. Leading up to today's game, Figgins only had 17 at-bats in the entire month of June, hitting just .195 for the season.

    Manager Eric Wedge has said on more than one occasion that releasing Figgins is not an option. However, it's pretty apparent that the Figgins' signing by the Mariners will go down as one of the worst in team history, so how much longer will Wedge and GM Jack Zduriencik stay the course?

    Stay tuned.

     

    Update: Figgins went 0-for-4 with a strikeout on Sunday against the Padres.

What Moves Can the Cincinnati Reds Make to Stay on Top in NL Central?

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    As of Sunday afternoon, the Cincinnati Reds held a one-game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central after losing two of three to the lowly Minnesota Twins.

    Rumors earlier this month had the Reds targeting a left-handed bat due to the fact that the team is struggling against right-handed pitching.

    Despite earlier reports, the Reds were not considered in the mix for Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis, especially now with Scott Rolen back in the lineup and the emergence of rookie Todd Frazier.

    Bill Bray and Nick Masset are likely to return from injuries later this season, helping to bolster a bullpen that already features the best ERA in the NL.

    It seems clear that offense will be the priority for GM Walt Jocketty.

Will Atlanta Braves Target Starting Pitching at the Trade Deadline?

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    When Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Brandon Beachy was felled for the rest of the season with a torn UCL that required Tommy John surgery, it put a strain on a pitching staff known for depth.

    Beachy was leading the National League with a 2.00 ERA at the time of his injury, and youngsters Mike Minor and Randall Delgado have been largely inconsistent thus far this season.

    Mark Bowman of MLB.com believes that the Braves will indeed be looking outside the organization for depth in the rotation.

    With Minor & Delgado destined for more growing pains and uncertainty surrounding Jurrjens looks like SP will be a pre-deadline priority

    — Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) June 24, 2012

     

    The Braves have Julio Teheran and others waiting in the wings, but expecting youngsters to help deliver down the stretch is indeed a stretch, pardon the pun.

Could Ryan Braun Repeat as NL MVP?

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    Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun has certainly endured a lot since being named the National League Most Valuable Player Award winner last November.

    First, his appeal of his 50-game suspension for a violation of MLB's drug policy was upheld by an arbitrator in February. Then, he had to adjust to life without teammate and slugging partner Prince Fielder, who bolted for a $214 million payday with the Detroit Tigers.

    Now, Braun is leading a Brewers offense that has already seen season-ending injuries to both Alex Gonzalez and Mat Gamel. Yet through all of this, Braun's production has not suffered.

    Through Saturday's action, Braun was first in the National League in homers (20), third in RBI (51) and seventh in batting (.321).

    Consistency is the earmark of a productive and valuable player, and once again Braun is providing just that for his Brewers despite all the roadblocks and speed bumps along the way. Whether or not it's enough to become a repeat winner of the MVP Award is hard to say, but Braun is certainly making a case for it.

Should the Tampa Bay Rays Go After an Impact Bat?

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    It's pretty safe to assume that the strength for the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays lies in their tremendous pitching staff, second in the American League with a 3.53 ERA.

    The Rays are 3.5 games behind the New York Yankees in the AL East as of Sunday afternoon, and they can thank their pitching for their early-season success.

    The absence of Evan Longoria has certainly hurt the offense, and hot-hitting Matt Joyce just joined Longoria on the DL as well with an oblique strain. Joyce was hitting .279/.387/.512 with 11 HR and 34 RBI at the time of his injury.

    So will the Rays go after offense at the trade deadline?

    With the Rays, it's hard to say. Designated hitter Luke Scott is also on the disabled list but is expected back sometime this week. Once Longoria and Joyce return, the Rays offense will be considerably better, so GM Andrew Friedman may look to tweak but not to add a significant upgrade.

Will Toronto Blue Jays Owners Open Up Wallets for Midseason Trades?

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    In the span of four days, the Toronto Blue Jays lost three-fifths of their starting rotation.

    On June 13, No. 2 Brandon Morrow was put on the disabled list with an oblique strain. Next up was Kyle Drabek two days later, lost for the season with a UCL tear requiring Tommy John surgery. The following day, Drew Hutchison was on the DL also with elbow issues.

    The big question now is what will the Jays do, and will they be willing to spend big money to fix their beleaguered rotation?

    Rumors have linked the Jays to Cubs pitchers Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster. GM Alex Anthopoulos could also entertain the thought of taking a look at Houston Astros starter Wandy Rodriguez, Jason Vargas of the Seattle Mariners or other options.

    In any event, it does appear that the Jays may be willing to pony up if they're still in contention within the next few weeks.

Can Tim Lincecum be Fixed?

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    If someone told you at the beginning of the season that Tim Lincecum would be the worst pitcher in the San Francisco Giants starting rotation, would you have believed them?

    Likely, the answer would be no.

    But that's exactly where Lincecum finds himself right now. In fact, no one in the National League has given up more earned runs than Lincecum thus far (56), and he features the worst ERA among starters who qualify for the ERA title.

    Wow, how the mighty have fallen.

    The back-to-back Cy Young Award winner is clearly nowhere near his form of 2008-2009. Lincecum's 1.542 WHIP is by far the worst of his career, and his 4.9 BB/9 rate is also a career-worst.

    Lincecum had a no-decision in his six-inning effort on Friday night against the Oakland A's but had to endure a 43-pitch first inning before settling down.

    At 2-8 with a 6.07 ERA, Lincecum knows that the Giants won't continue to be patient until he figures things out. While a recent talk with his father may have helped, it's success on the mound that will ultimately decide Lincecum's fate.

Are the Cleveland Indians for Real?

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    After losing two of three games to the Houston Astros this weekend, the Cleveland Indians dropped to second place in the AL Central, a half-game behind the Chicago White Sox.

    Just last week, Tribe manager Manny Acta acknowledged that his team could use some help:

    Everybody needs something. But it's not like going to the store and grabbing a can of tomato sauce. You have your necessities, but sometimes they're not there for you. It takes two to tango. I think we do need some help.

    Recent speculation has the Indians interested in Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano, but only if the Cubs eat the majority of the remaining dollars on Soriano's contract.

    Fox Sports baseball guru Ken Rosenthal believes the Indians also need to target starting pitching if they are to remain in the hunt in the AL Central.

    In any event, the Indians will absolutely be looking to avoid last year's second-half swoon, and GM Chris Antonetti will absolutely be on the hunt for available help to avoid that same fate.

What Does Yankees GM Brian Cashman Have Up His Sleeve?

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    If recent history tells us anything, then it would be hard to assume the New York Yankees will stand pat at the trade deadline.

    Despite the recent quality performances from the Yankees' starting rotation, rumors persist that the Yankees are targeting a starter.

    The Yankees had scouts in Chicago recently, specifically to take a look at both Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster:

    I spoke w/ 2 scouts who were at today's Cubs/Red Sox game + both told me that Yankees are much more interested in Matt Garza than Dempster.

    — David Kaplan (@thekapman) June 15, 2012

     

    It's also been rumored that the Yanks may be one of the teams interested in Astros starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez.

    With a slim two-game lead over the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East division heading into Sunday night's matchup with the New York Mets, the Yankees will undoubtedly look to bolster their roster, and GM Brian Cashman will be heard from before the trade deadline.

What Must the Los Angeles Dodgers Do to Ensure a Postseason Berth?

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    The Los Angeles Dodgers dropped the rubber game of the Freeway Series on Sunday to the Los Angeles Angels but still hold a three-game lead over the San Francisco Giants in the NL West.

    The Dodgers are treading water while awaiting the return of star slugger Matt Kemp. Los Angeles is 23-12 with Kemp in the lineup and is now 20-18 without him.

    It's apparent that the Dodgers need another quality bat to avoid a second-half slump, and indications are that the Dodgers are actively searching for help.

    The latest rumor has the Dodgers interested in Houston Astros slugger Carlos Lee. Lee has a list of teams not included in his no-trade clause, and the Dodgers are one of those teams. That certainly doesn't preclude Lee from approving the deal, however.

    According to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti is also looking for rotation help and a left-handed reliever but is waiting for teams to declare themselves as buyers or sellers as the trade deadline nears.

    With an infusion of fresh cash supplied by their new owners, it's almost a certainty that the Dodgers will be active in late July.

Do the Los Angeles Angels Have Enough to Overtake Rangers in AL West?

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    The Los Angeles Angels rallied from an early deficit on Sunday to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday afternoon, 5-3, giving them 11 victories in their last 15 games.

    After starting the season 6-14, the Angels have been one of the best teams in the majors, with the No. 1 pitching staff in the American League and an offense that's finally starting to gel.

    Recently, GM Jerry Dipoto told reporters it wasn't a given that the Angels would be active in the days leading up to the trade deadline:

    We have a 25-man roster right now of guys that are playing particularly well, they’re feeding off each other. I don’t think it’s imminent that we make any kind of moves, nor do I think that it’s a must. We’re going to continue to survey, and if the ability or chance to help in a given area arises, then we’ll take advantage, we’ll try to capitalize on that opportunity. But I can’t define at this time whether that’s going to be available to us or not.

    Money may be a factor as well, as the Angels are perceived to be close to maxed out with a current payroll of $154 million.

    However, they own the best record in the majors (33-18) since April 28 and show no signs of slowing down, so the roster as currently constituted may well be more than enough.

Can Lance Berkman and Chris Carpenter Return to Help Cardinals into Playoffs?

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    The St. Louis Cardinals swept a weekend series with the Kansas City Royals to put them three games over .500 and just two games behind the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central race.

    Imagine what they can do with Lance Berkman and Chris Carpenter back in the fold.

    The Cardinals have been hit by the injury bug, with Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Skip Schumaker, Matt Carpenter, Kyle McClellan, Berkman and Carpenter all missing significant time. Yet manager Mike Matheny has mixed and matched his lineup to keep the Cardinals within striking distance.

    Carpenter and Berkman are both likely to be back in late July, so GM John Mozeliak may not necessarily have to scramble for upgrades at the trade deadline—he'll already have two known commodities available to help.

Will Carlos Lee Waive No-Trade Clause?

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    Earlier, we talked about the Houston Astros and their desire to unload their high-salaried veterans.

    One of those veterans, first baseman Carlos Lee, has a no-trade clause that lists 14 teams he can block a deal with.

    In the past, Lee has been reluctant to leave Houston, and current rumors have the Los Angeles Dodgers interested in Lee's services.

    It's perceived that the Dodgers are on Lee's no-trade list, so incentives may need to be included to facilitate a deal.

    My guess is that the Astros will accommodate any wishes in order to hasten Lee's departure.

Aside from Kevin Youkilis, What Else Do the Chicago White Sox Need?

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    With the news on Sunday afternoon that the Chicago White Sox acquired Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis, what other needs do the Chicago White Sox have?

    Starting pitching would help for starters, so to speak.

    Left-hander John Danks hasn't pitched since May 19, suffering a Grade 1 strain of the subscapularis muscle. Danks isn't expected to return until late July at the earliest.

    Philip Humber was placed on the disabled list last week, retroactive to June 17, with a right elbow flexor strain. His return date is unknown.

    Rookie Jose Quintana has filled in admirably for Danks, and Brian Bruney and Dylan Axelrod will be tasked to help out as well.

    However, it's clear that for the White Sox to remain atop the AL Central standings, the starting rotation will have to be addressed. Jake Peavy and Chris Sale have been outstanding, but Gavin Floyd has been largely inconsistent all season long.

    GM Kenny Williams still has his work cut out for him beyond acquiring Youkilis.

Will Jamie Moyer Pitch in the Majors Again This Year?

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    Shortly after 49-year-old pitcher Jamie Moyer was released by the Colorado Rockies, the Baltimore Orioles quickly pounced, signing Moyer to a minor-league contract.

    Moyer signed the contract with the stipulation that he would make a maximum of three starts for Triple-A Norfolk before being called up by the O's. Moyer was excellent in those three starts with a 1-1 record and 1.69 ERA; however, the Orioles had no room on their roster and granted Moyer his release.

    Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson is a big fan of Moyer but doesn't believe another team will pick him up at this point.

    ''No, I don't think anybody is going to pick him up. Maybe as a pitching coach,'' Johnson said. ''But he's a poster boy for a lot of us old folks. I wish him well.''

Can Nationals Third Baseman Ryan Zimmerman Avoid the Disabled List?

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    Prior to Sunday afternoon's game against the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman received a cortisone shot for his ailing right shoulder.

    The injection provided temporary relief, with Zimmerman going 2-for-4 and driving in the lone run in the Nats' 2-1 loss. But what of the future?

    Zimmerman is clearly not himself, hitting just .223 with three HR and 23 RBI on the season. His current OPS of .597 is by far the worst of his career.

    Zimmerman has been experiencing inflammation in his shoulder due to bone-on-bone grinding, and it's likely he will wait until the offseason to have surgery to correct the condition.

    However, the lack of production is certainly a major concern as the Nats look to stay on top of the NL East.

What Will the Oakland A's Do at the Trade Deadline?

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    The Oakland Athletics have experienced a surge of late, now 35-38 after avoiding a sweep on Sunday afternoon against the San Francisco Giants. Still, the A's have won seven of their last 10 games.

    However, do they really have any shot at a postseason berth?

    At 9.5 games behind in the AL West, it's doubtful the A's have any shot at a division title, but with the second wild-card slot in play, the A's certainly aren't out of contention as of yet.

    Still, the A's would need a lot to go right in order for a shot at the playoffs, and with limited funds available, adding to the payroll likely isn't an option.

Can Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay Return in Time for Philadelphia?

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    The Philadelphia Phillies were swept by the Tampa Bay Rays in a doubleheader on Sunday, dropping them to 34-40 and a full nine games behind the Washington Nationals in the NL East.

    Help is on the way, but will it be in time?

    Second baseman Chase Utley could be back with the team sometime this week, while Ryan Howard is expected back sometime in mid to late July.

    Starting pitcher Roy Halladay also recently started throwing and could be back with the team by the All-Star break as well.

    However, if the Phillies continue their current slide, which has them 7-15 in the month of June, the return of their trio of injured stars might not matter.

What Team Will Give San Diego the Best Package for Carlos Quentin?

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    With the San Diego Padres likely going nowhere and ownership still not cleared, much speculation has been centered on left fielder Carlos Quentin.

    Multiple teams have reported interest in Quentin, including the Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays.

    The Blue Jays and Pirates may be best suited to part with prospects in exchange for Quentin. However, Quentin is a free agent at the end of the season, so any team interested will likely have to weigh the benefits of offering a long-term contract against just renting him for the rest of the season.

    The Padres will likely look for a major package in return, so each team will have to carefully assess whether or not Quentin is worth the cost.

Will Ryan Dempster Be Pitching for a Contender in Six Weeks?

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    When Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Ryan Dempster returns from a stint on the disabled list in late June, he'll likely be pitching for the Cubs. But what about in six weeks?

    Dempster's status is being closely followed as the trade deadline draws near. He has already been tied to a number of teams, including the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

    One thing is for sure: He likely won't be pitching in front of a home crowd at Wrigley Field.

Where Will Matt Garza Be in Six Weeks?

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    Much like his teammate Ryan Dempster, the fate of Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Matt Garza is a major source of discussion.

    Many of the teams interested in Dempster are also looking at Garza. If the Cubs decide to offer Garza a long-term contract, Dempster would be the second option.

    Garza will come at a higher price in terms of long-term commitment. At this point, though, Garza is deemed to be a better option for contending teams because of his experience competing in the tough AL East while a member of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Will the Philadelphia Phillies Re-Sign or Trade Cole Hamels?

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    Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels earned a no-decision on Sunday despite a stellar seven-inning, three-hit performance against the Tampa Bay Rays.

    Hamels is now 10-3 with a 3.03 ERA, and as the trade deadline approaches he will likely be the most discussed player in the majors.

    For many teams, Hamels would be a franchise pitcher. His value continues to rise each day, and quite frankly, if the Phillies were going to sign him, the ink on that deal would be dry already.

    GM Ruben Amaro Jr. should seek out the best possible deal for return value right now. Very few teams have the payroll flexibility to give Hamels what's expected to be a deal in the range of $150 million to $175 million, and the longer Amaro waits, the less he'll be able to get for Hamels.

    With the Phillies' record dropping like a stone, the time to deal may be now.

     

    Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle. Follow Doug on Twitter, @Sports_A_Holic.