5 Storylines to Watch for During MLB's Dog Days of Summer

Pete Schauer@@Pete_SchauerCorrespondent IAugust 7, 2012

5 Storylines to Watch for During MLB's Dog Days of Summer

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    With the MLB playoffs merely two months away, both the division and wild-card races have begun to take shape, and the contenders are starting to show themselves.

    One of the biggest storylines of the summer—and perhaps the entire season—surrounds the Washington Nationals organization and what they're going to do when phenom Stephen Strasburg reaches 160 innings.

    There are many questions to be asked regarding the end of the 2012 MLB season and the beginning of the playoffs.

    What I've tried to do is address the five biggest questions/storylines and provide my answers for them.

    Here are five of the biggest storylines in the MLB right now.

    *All statistics/records were collected before play began on Monday, August 6.

Will the Washington Nationals Stick to Strasburg's Inning Limit?

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    This might be the biggest question of the entire 2012 MLB season.

    Coming off of Tommy John surgery, Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg is slated to be shut down after 160 innings of work this season.

    This is a highly debatable argument—which practically everyone has touched upon—since the Nationals are atop the NL East division and appear to be postseason contenders.

    Nats manager Davey Johnson has confirmed (via ESPN) that the club does plan on shutting down the 24-year-old ace, but Strasburg doesn't want to hear it.

    "They're going to have to rip the ball out of my hands," says Strasburg on the innings limit, according to MLB Network Radio (h/t ESPN).

    ESPN Stats & Info provides some great research and in-depth numbers regarding the effects that TJS has on a pitcher's arm, proving that GMs shouldn't be as worried as they once were regarding the surgery.

    My Answer

    The Washington Nationals will shut down Strasburg somewhere between 160-170 innings this season and will not reactivate him for the playoffs. ESPN's Buster Olney supports that idea with his blog post (Insider access required).

    I completely disagree with this decision, as the Nationals have a chance to make franchise history and be a serious contender once October rolls around, but I can understand where they're coming from, as they have an investment to protect.

Can the Oakland A's Hang On to the Wild Card and Make the Playoffs?

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    The Oakland Athletics were an afterthought at the All-Star break. 

    Boy, how things have changed.

    Oakland has surged out of the gate following the break to a tune of 15-7 entering play on Monday, most notably highlighted by a four-game sweep of the New York Yankees.

    Josh Reddick has been a nice surprise for the A's, leading the team in batting average (.261), home runs (24), RBI (56), OBP (.333) and hits (105), but it's been the pitching that has really impressed.

    Collectively, Oakland A's starters boast a 3.74 ERA, which is the seventh-best mark in baseball, and opposing hitters are averaging .260 against them.

    And don't forget, that's all without Brandon McCarthy, who has spent a lot of time on the DL due to shoulder soreness (via MLB.com).

    They're all the rage in the MLB right now, which brings us to the question: Are the Oakland A's really going to shock every one and make the postseason in 2012?

    My Answer

    In short: no.

    It's either going to be the Chicago White Sox or the Detroit Tigers that takes the AL Central, with the other team earning a wild-card spot.

    Unfortunately, in the AL West, Oakland is sandwiched between the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels—two teams I believe will make the playoffs—leaving the A's out in the cold.

Are the Pittsburgh Pirates Slated for Another Collapse?

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    The Pittsburgh Pirates' 2011 destruction was slightly overshadowed by the Boston Red Sox's collapse, but it was pretty bad, as the Bucs went 16-40 down the stretch to miss the postseason.

    After leading the NL Central at the All-Star break by one game, the Pirates now find themselves 4.5 games out of the division due to an incredible run by the Cincinnati Reds.

    Given the way the Reds are playing right now—notably, without Joey Votto—it's going to be extremely difficult for Pittsburgh to keep pace with the Big Red Machine.

    Despite losing the division lead, if the playoffs were to start today, Pittsburgh would find themselves in, thanks to the second wild-card spot that was added this season.

    Behind the Pirates in the wild-card standings are the St. Louis Cardinals (2.5 games back), Los Angeles Dodgers (three games back) and Arizona Diamondbacks, who still have a shot despite being 6.5 back.

    My Answer

    I don't think it's going to be an epic "collapse" like it was last season, but I do think that the Pirates will miss out on the playoffs yet again this season.

    We all saw the Cardinals' comeback last season, so we know they're very well capable of doing it again, especially since they're only 2.5 out of the wild card.

    And not only do the Bucs have to hold off the Cards, but they also have to deal with either the Dodgers or the Giants in the wild-card standings, and I just don't see it happening.

Who's the Better Team: The Texas Rangers or the Los Angeles Angels?

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    The Los Angeles Angels find themselves six games back in the AL West due to a slow start.

    It was quite the opposite for the Texas Rangers, who got off to a scorching start and were regarded as World Series locks at the beginning of the season.

    With the Rangers acquiring Ryan Dempster and the Angels adding Zack Greinke and sporting arguably the best player in the game right now (Mike Trout), the West has taken over as the most competitive division in the AL.

    So who's better?

    Here are some numbers:

    Category Texas Los Angeles
    Starter ERA: 4.25 (No. 21) 4.05 (No. 14)
    Starter Wins: 50 (No. 1) 46 (No. 5)
    Batting Average: .278 (No. 1) .271 (No. 3)
    Runs: 548 (No. 1) 508 (No. 7)
    OPS: .786 (No. 2) .764 (No. 5)

    Looking at those numbers, it would appear that the Rangers are a better team, but there's a great argument for the Angels as well. The two T's (Trumbo and Trout) have been sensational, and Pujols has found his stroke.

    My Answer

    I know the statistics say that the Rangers are a better team, but I think the Angels have the overall edge.

    With a pitching rotation of Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Greinke, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, they easily have the edge in pitching.

    As far as offense, there's no better player in the game right now than Trout, and Pujols is launching homers left and right as Josh Hamilton has struggled of late.

    The postseason is all about pitching, and that's exactly what makes them a better club than the Rangers. 

Will It Be the L.A. Dodgers or the San Francisco Giants That Win the NL West?

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    Most baseball fans knew it was going to come down to the Dodgers and the Giants in the NL West, and we'd have it no other way.

    Entering play on Monday, the Giants lead the Dodgers by just a half game, but the Dodgers find themselves looking up at the Cardinals, Pirates and Braves in the wild-card standings.

    From my perspective, the Dodgers and Giants aren't both going to make it to the postseason. I don't think the Braves will overcome the Nationals in the NL East, but I do think they'll snag a wild-card spot along with the Cards.

    From a starting-pitching standpoint, both teams rank within the top seven in terms of ERA, while the Giants offense has better numbers than that of the Dodgers.

    The addition of Hanley Ramirez to L.A. makes going against the Dodgers extremely difficult, though.

    So who's it going to be?

    My Answer

    I'm taking the San Francisco Giants over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.

    The Giants have the type of rotation built for a postseason run, and Melky Cabrera, Buster Posey and some other guys on the offense have the necessary playoff experience to make a run at another title.

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