MLB News: Most Compelling Stories as the Second Half Gets Underway

Timothy Howell@@tmurrayhowellCorrespondent IIJuly 13, 2012

Led by Andrew McCutchen, we'll all be watching to see if the Pirates can make the postseason for the first time in 20 years.
Led by Andrew McCutchen, we'll all be watching to see if the Pirates can make the postseason for the first time in 20 years.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

One of the great things about Major League Baseball is the unique story lines that develop every year.

And now with the second half set to commence today, it's time to look at some of the most compelling narratives to look forward to during the final half of the 2012 MLB season.

Washington Nationals

Since the Montreal Expos dissolved following the 2004 season, and moved to Washington, D.C. to become the Nationals the following season, the team has never made the playoffs.

Dating back to the Expos' first season, in 1969, the franchise has only made the playoffs once—way back in 1981 where they lost in the NLCS 3-2 to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

At the All-Star break, the Washington Nationals were in first place. We knew they'd be good, but it seemed like it might be a year or two before they put all the pieces together. Looks like we were wrong, as this young team might be atop the NL East well into September.

Their biggest question for the second half is if they can keep it up.  Deft offseason pickup, Gio Gonzalez (12-3, 2.92 ERA) has been outstanding, as has Stephen Strasburg (9-4, 128 strikeouts). However, would Strasburg—who's closely monitored in terms of pitch counts and innings pitched—even be available for a playoff push? And will Bryce Harper continue his near-seamless transition from can't-miss prospect to full-on big league stud? 

Trade Possibilities

One of the best things about the second half of the season is the Major League Baseball non-waiver trade deadline. 

It gives all teams in contention a chance to pick up that one crucial piece or two to help themselves down the stretch. Likewise, it provides teams on the other end of the spectrum a chance to dump big salaries and beef up their respective farm systems.

The two biggest names on the market this year are the Milwaukee Brewers' Zack Greinke and the Philadelphia Phillies' Cole Hamels.

The Phillies are 14 games out of first place in the NL East, and the Brewers are currently in fourth place of the NL Central, eight games behind the division-leading Pittsburgh Pirates (more on them later).

Should either team decide they are going to parlay the 2012 season and try to dump some salary for the upcoming offseason, it will be quite likely that Greinke and Hamels will finish out the season wearing different jerseys.  

Rumors are already running rampant as multiple suitors have expressed interest in each pitcher. This will be a trend that is sure to continue as the race to the MLB deadline is now less than three weeks away.

Chicago White Sox

In terms of the AL Central, the real story thus far has been how unexpectedly bad the Detroit Tigers have played.  However, that angle tends to negate the fact that the White Sox have played extremely well and have exceeded even the South Side's most optimistic expectations.

Anchored by two tough left-handers in Chris Sale and Jose Quintana—each of whom is just 23 years old—and the resurgent Jake Peavy, this White Sox team might be poised for just their third postseason appearance over the last ten years. 

Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols

However odd it may seem, these two sluggers have quite a bit in common.

Both are in their early thirties.  Pujols was the prize of last year's free agent free-for-all, with Hamilton easily the upcoming offseason's most sought after FA stud.

Perhaps most intriguing about these two superstars is how they have flip-flopped in productivity. Hamilton—as I'm sure we are all quite aware—went absolutely nuts over the season's first two months. At the start of June, he was MLB's Player of the Month for both April and May, and was hitting around .400 while leading the free world in all major offensive categories.

Since then, Hamilton has struggled to hit above the Mendoza Line, even though he has stayed injury-free.  Pujols, on the other hand, has played remarkably better since his much-chronicled early season struggles.

For much of the first two months of the year, Pujols was struggling to hit .200 and his power numbers had all but disappeared.  Heading into the second half, Pujols' numbers are still far off from his normal production (.268/.334/.460 with 14 home runs), but they aren't as panic-inducingly awful as they were over the season's first two months.

The AL West race will be a close one, and the victor may be predicated on whose superstar has the  most solid second half—will it be the Angels' Albert Pujols or the Rangers' Josh Hamilton?

Pittsburgh Pirates

It's hard to believe it, but it's true. It's been twenty years since the Pittsburgh Pirates have made it to the postseason.

The Pirates have been powered by young dynamo Andrew McCutchen (.362/.414/.625) as well as free agent pickup A.J. Burnett (10-2, 3.68 ERA). They're also finally getting the power production from Pedro Alvarez (16 home runs) that they've been dreaming on since he came into the league three years ago.

Sure, they've only got a one game lead over the Reds and just a 2.5 game advantage over the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals, but you've got to love the storyline the ultimate underdog can create if they can continue to pile up the wins in the second half.

The Rookies

When it comes to the Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim's Mike Trout, if you don't believe their considerable hype, you'd better check your pulse.

For the first half of the year, you can easily make the argument that center fielder Trout is the no-doubt AL MVP.  Many people joked that the key to the Angels' recent success was due in large part to financial albatross Vernon Wells' disabled list stint.  Although Wells has continued to be awful, the Angels have been winning thanks to the dynamic Mike Trout (.341/.397/.562). 

Trout is the ultimate five-tool player. He has 80-grade speed, and excels at everything else. The 20-year-old looks like he is all set to be the game's next great leadoff hitter.

Aside from teammate Stephen Strasburg, has their ever been a young stud player as hyped as Bryce Harper?  Probably not. But ever since making the Nationals' roster for good in May, Harper has wowed not just with his numbers, but for his advanced feel for the game.

Fans young and old marvel at the 19-year-old's aggressive all-hustle style of play. Harper has truly been a treat to watch. I'm willing to bet that Harper's slash line of .282/.354/.472 is just the beginning and that he'll have an even better second half.

It will be loads of fun to see if both Trout and Harper can continue to improve as the second half paves the way for the stretch run. Regardless, I'd be shocked if the NL and AL Rookie of the Year Awards end up in anyone else's hands.


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