Breaking Down MLB's Biggest Storylines for Second Half of Season
With the first half of the Major League Baseball season firmly behind us, it is time to start focusing on the storylines everyone is paying close attention to in the second half.
The All-Star game may have been a dud, unless you are a San Francisco fan, but now the real action starts. The first half was just an appetizer to get us ready for what will surely be a wild, unpredictable and unforgettable two months of baseball.
As we saw last year, the things we think we know right now will be vastly different from what actually happens. One of the biggest storylines that teams will pay attention to is the second wild card. There are 20 teams currently with a record of .500 or better, so they may think they are in the race.
It is going to be very interesting to see how teams approach the July 31 trade deadline with this new playoff format. Some big names are expected to be shopped around, but will they actually be moved?
Here are the biggest storylines and questions for the second half of the Major League Baseball season.
Will the Pittsburgh Pirates Make the Playoffs?
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Before we look ahead, let's take a quick look back to July 11, 2011. On this day one year ago, the Pirates were 47-43, one game behind Milwaukee and St. Louis in the National League Central.
Everyone in the Steel City had hope for the first time in nearly 20 years. However, things fell apart in the second half, as everyone assumed they would, and the Pirates finished with a 72-90 record.
At the All-Star break this year, the Pirates have a better record than they did in 2011 (48-37). The difference between last year and this year is they are just a better team in 2012.
Everyone knew that Andrew McCutchen was a superstar, but he is getting even more attention this season now that he is hitting .362/.414/.625 with 18 home runs and 14 stolen bases. If you want to make a case for him as the National League MVP over Joey Votto, I wouldn't call you crazy.
Despite his performance, the rest of the offense does not strike a lot of fear into anyone. Pedro Alvarez has moments, but he can't hit left-handed pitching, nor does he have any semblance of patience at the plate.
Neil Walker's .356 BABIP is not likely to be sustainable the rest of the year, and he is the only other Pirates player with an on-base percentage over .330 right now.
The Pirates' biggest improvements have come in the pitching and run-prevention department. A.J. Burnett had to get out of New York and the American League East. Suddenly, he looks to be worth some of the money the Yankees are paying him.
Even more important than Burnett has been the performance of James McDonald. The 27-year-old has found a breaking ball in Pittsburgh, which is allowing him to miss bats and keep hitters off balance.
The bullpen has been extraordinary up to this point with a major-league leading 2.63 ERA. Joel Hanrahan gets all the credit as the closer with the shiny save total, but Jason Grilli, Juan Cruz and Brad Lincoln have been spectacular.
So getting back to the question at hand, I will say that I believe the Pirates have a much better chance to hang around this year than they did last year. I still feel Cincinnati and St. Louis are superior teams, but the Pirates are the third-best team in an admittedly terrible division.
I do think this will be the year they break the streak of losing seasons. It won't be enough to get in the playoffs, but it is a start.
What Will the Nationals Do with Stephen Strasburg?
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The Washington Nationals could be victims of their own success. They currently own the best record in the National League (49-34) and are on the verge of making their first playoff appearance since 1981, when they were known as the Montreal Expos.
However, Stephen Strasburg is rapidly approaching the 160-inning limit that someone put out there before the season started. He is at 99 innings after the first half of the season.
To be fair, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said that particular innings limit was more of a media creation than anything else.
Either way, there is enough smoke floating for there to be a fire somewhere.
So what will the Nationals do with their prized pitching possession?
They do have a deep enough pitching staff without Strasburg to make a playoff push. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson make a strong trio that lineups will have a hard time scoring on. As we know, in a short series, anything can happen.
That said, I think the Nationals will figure out a way to lessen the burden on Strasburg's golden right arm in the second half and potentially into the playoffs. They will start to give him an extra day or two of rest between starts.
There is no way that the Nationals would go into the playoffs with Strasburg able to pitch and not use him. He would unleash hell on everyone around him, and the fans would burn down the stadium.
What Is Going on with the National League West?
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On June 1, the Los Angeles Dodgers owned the best record in baseball at 32-20. The beauty of baseball is that over the course of 162 games, a lot of things are going to change.
And change they will.
Right now, the Dodgers own a 47-40 record, half a game better than San Francisco. They have lost Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, their two best hitters by far, to the disabled list.
The lineup they ran out there in the final game of the first half was atrocious, with Tony Gwynn Jr.'s .298 on-base percentage leading off and Bobby Abreu's .377 slugging percentage hitting third, followed by Juan Rivera, Elian Herrera, Luis Cruz and Matt Treanor.
San Francisco hasn't exactly taken advantage of the Dodgers' woes, as the Giants have lost seven of their last 10 games and Tim Lincecum looks like he needs to go away to figure everything out. If you believe in Melky Cabrera's .388 BABIP, then you are probably optimistic about their offensive upside in the second half.
Arizona still might be the team to beat, though it is reportedly listening to trade offers for Justin Upton right now, which makes no sense for so many reasons. The Diamondbacks came back after a rough start to get near the .500 mark at the break.
The Diamondbacks' offense is vastly superior to those of Los Angeles and San Francisco, which should tell you more about the Dodgers and Giants than Arizona. Their pitching staff has had its share of ups and downs, though Wade Miley has brought some stability.
Look for Trevor Bauer to get better as the season moves along. He will eventually start throwing his breaking ball for strikes, and his other pitches aren't that far away from generating a lot of swings-and-misses.
Starting Pitchers on the Trading Market
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Every year we hear about potential top-of-the-rotation arms that could be available, and most of them end up being lame rumors that don't come to fruition.
This year could be the most chaotic for starting pitchers on the trade market that we have seen in a long time.
There are a number of teams who are either rebuilding, need to start rebuilding (or getting cheap, controllable prospects to contend next season) or need to recognize that this will not be their year. These teams feature a lot of strong pitchers either in the last year of their deal or on the verge of getting too expensive for their current teams.
The two biggest names that could be floating around are Philadelphia's Cole Hamels and Milwaukee's Zack Greinke.
Between the two, Hamels moving would make the most sense. The Phillies are a mess right now. They are an aging team and have traded most of their valuable assets in the last few seasons to acquire Cliff Lee (the first time), Roy Halladay and Hunter Pence.
Their system has some intriguing athletes, but it is no longer a strength for this franchise. Keeping Hamels at the salary he is going to command, to go along with Ryan Howard's ridiculous contract and the Lee deal, is going to prohibit them from adding pieces in the future.
Despite all that, a report from Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia says the Phillies are still trying to negotiate with Hamels' agent.
Greinke seems more likely to be dealt than Hamels, just because the Brewers seem more likely to recognize that things aren't going to work this year and try to work towards the future.
Other names to watch for on the market could include Chicago's Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster and Houston's Wandy Rodriguez.
Will the Red Sox Spontaneously Combust?
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Trying to keep things in proper perspective in sports is always a futile effort for fans and the media. Some people out there might try to convince you that the Boston Red Sox are the worst team in baseball right now, even though they have a 43-43 record.
Considering all of the injury problems the Red Sox have had, a .500 record at the break should be a cause for celebration.
If everyone was healthy, here is what the Boston Red Sox starting lineup would look like:
Jacoby Ellsbury CF, Carl Crawford LF, Dustin Pedroia 2B, Adrian Gonzalez 1B, David Ortiz DH, Jarrod Saltalamacchia C, Will Middlebrooks 3B, Cody Ross RF, Mike Aviles SS.
But Ellsbury has been out since April. Crawford has yet to play this season. Pedroia's thumb is going to keep him out for a few weeks, at least. Gonzalez is having the worst season of his career since becoming an everyday player. And Middlebrooks is trying to adjust to the league, which has figured him out.
Despite all those problems and questions on offense, the Red Sox rank in the top 10 in MLB in runs scored (second), slugging percentage (fourth), batting average (sixth) and on-base percentage (eighth).
The problems with this team are on the pitching staff. They made two horrible moves, even at the time they were made, by trading Jed Lowrie to Houston for the overrated Mark Melancon and Josh Reddick to Oakland for the injury-prone Andrew Bailey.
Say what you want about Bobby Valentine, but it's not his fault that Melancon imploded when he was taken out of the friendly confines of the National League Central, and it's not his fault that Bailey broke down (again).
But everywhere you look, there is something new coming out about Boston. The latest is Ortiz telling USA Today that he was "humiliated" by the way his contract negotiations went last offseason.
It is going to be an interesting second half in Boston, to say the least. I don't expect the Red Sox to finish in the top two spots in the American League East, but with the addition of the second wild card, they are just 2.5 games out of a playoff spot right now.
If they can find any pitching, they are going to be in the race until the final day. Of course, you would never know that to listen to the talk coming out of Boston and from the national media.