Let's gaze into baseball's second-half crystal ball
Roughly three-fifths of the baseball season has played, but other than the AL MVP award (lookin' at you, Mike Trout), oh-so-much has yet to be determined. We answer 10 pressing questions about what comes next.
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We learned a great deal in the first half -- or really, the first three-fifths -- of the major-league season: The Oakland Athletics are really, really good, the Boston Red Sox are not, Clayton Kershaw is virtually unfair and Giancarlo Stanton is a verified beast.
Well, maybe you already knew most of that. But do you know what's going to happen in the rest of the regular season?
We do. Well, we claim we do, anyway. Here are the answers to 10 of baseball's most pressing questions with games back on the schedule starting Friday.
WHICH WILL BE THE FIRST TEAM TO CLINCH A PLAYOFF SPOT?
The Athletics, of course. They entered the break with the majors' best record at 59-36 with a favorable schedule down the stretch (35 of 67 games against losing teams).
To win 92 games -- which was enough to make the wild-card game last year -- all the A's need is a 33-34 finish. Oakland has its sights set higher than a one-game play-in, though. Billy Beane's trade for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel was made with October on his mind. Add two capable starters to a club with the majors' second-highest-scoring offense and the AL's lowest ERA and you have a team poised to play deep into the postseason.
Considering five of their first seven series after the All-Star break are against losing teams, the A's should have a wild card wrapped up with weeks to spare. Claiming the division title, however, figures to take more time because of the strength of the teams chasing them. The second-place Angels own the majors' second-best record, and the Mariners rank behind only their two division rivals in run differential.
HOW MANY OF THE 10 TEAMS THAT MADE THE PLAYOFFS LAST YEAR WILL RETURN THIS YEAR?
As few as three. The A's and Tigers look like locks in the AL, and the Dodgers are sitting pretty in the NL. But the other seven playoff teams from last year -- the Cardinals, Braves, Reds and Pirates in the NL and the Indians, Red Sox and Rays in the AL -- face a tougher road.
The Indians, hovering at .500, will need another second-half charge like last year's, but based on the first half, they will have to make it without getting a lot from their ace, Justin Masterson. The Indians, however, are in a far better spot than Boston and Tampa Bay, both nine games under .500 and buried by 9 1/2 games in the AL East.
In the NL, the Dodgers boast the league's best record after climbing from 9 1/2 games back to catch the Giants in three weeks last month. Playing in a division in which the Giants are the only other team with a winning record should ease the way for LA, too.
Four teams have winning records in the NL Central, but it will be difficult for the division to return three teams to the postseason. The Cardinals are looking at two months without their best player, Yadier Molina, the Reds are missing arguably their two best players in Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, and the Pirates are without their best starter, Gerrit Cole. Besides injuries, all three also must overcome the first-place Brewers, who staggered into the break but are the healthiest of the Central contenders.
Injuries, like the one to Cardinals catcher Jadier Molina, could shape the NL Central race.
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The Braves have only the Nationals to worry about in the NL East. With the Central contenders likely to beat up on one another, a wild card also remains in play for Atlanta if it can't topple Washington.
WHAT TEAM HAS THE BEST CHANCE OF ENDING A LONG PLAYOFF DROUGHT?
Three teams that haven't played postseason baseball in at least 13 years remain in the running: the Mariners (2001), Blue Jays (1993) and Royals (1985). In the end, however, don't look for any of the threesome to make the playoffs.
Toronto spent much of the first half on top of the AL East, but a 15-23 stretch since the end of May has left the Blue Jays just two games over .500 and four games behind the Orioles. And now the Blue Jays are dealing with injuries. Three regulars -- home-run leader Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind -- will start the second half on the disabled list.
The Royals actually caught the Tigers for three days in June, but their offense cooled again and they will need an offensive upgrade to hang with the AL heavyweights. The same can be said about the Mariners, who have pitched as well as any team but are seeking a bat to put between All-Stars Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager.
WHAT TEAM STANDS THE BEST CHANCE OF LOSING 100 GAMES?
For the first time since 2010, the answer is not the Astros. They finally are making strides with the arrival of George Springer, a breakout season by Jose Altuve and the improvement of Dallas Keuchel. The Astros are on a pace to win 67 games, which would leave them as one of the majors' most improved teams after they won only 51 last season.
No team enters the second half on pace for 100 losses, though the Rangers are rapidly trending in that direction. They lost 22 of 25 leading into the break and figure to be dealing some big-salaried veterans before July 31. Considering they still have 26 games left against the top three teams in their division, it's looking like a long, hot summer in Arlington.
WHOSE INJURY WILL HAVE THE GREATEST IMPACT ON THE SECOND HALF?
There is no shortage of ailing stars. Five players from contending teams who initially were named to the All-Star Game will start the second half on the disabled list: Molina, Encarnacion, Matt Wieters (Orioles), Victor Martinez (Tigers) and Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees).
None of their absences will hurt their club more than the Yankees' loss of Tanaka, who arguably was the AL's top starter through June and certainly the team's MVP. What makes his loss even tougher to overcome is that the Yankees already were without three starters -- CC Sabathia, Mike Pineda and Ivan Nova. With their rotation decimated, don't look for the Yankees to send off Derek Jeter with one last playoff run.
WHO HAS THE BEST CHANCE OF STOPPING MIKE TROUT FROM WINNING THE AL MVP?
How about Mike Trout? Seriously, after two years of finishing second, the Angels' center fielder would have to endure the worst and longest slump of his career to lose out to Miguel Cabrera or anyone else. The more pertinent question at this point is whether Trout, the league's only player with an OPS over 1.000, will win with a unanimous vote.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER AWARD WINNERS?
Stanton, the Marlins' right fielder, and Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki were the NL's best players in the first half, reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen is coming on strong and Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy was the best player on a first-place team.
Who winds up as NL MVP, however, figures to hinge on who makes the playoffs. Don't count out the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig who, in his second season, is showing an improved plate discipline to go with his wealth of talent.
The NL Cy Young shapes up as a three-man race among LA's Kershaw, St. Louis' Adam Wainwright and Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto. Wainwright got the nod for the All-Star start, but his manager won't be voting for the Cy Young. Kershaw missed five weeks earlier in the season, but if he continues to pitch like he has since June, he is likely to make Wainwright a runner-up for the third time in six years.
With Tanaka out, Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez is the clear AL Cy Young favorite ahead of Rays lefty David Price. Price has a ridiculous 164-to-21 strikeout-to-walk rate and has pitched more innings, but Hernandez's ERA is more than a run better, 2.12 to 3.23.
WHAT MANAGER IS ON THE HOTTEST SEAT?
Considering the Dodgers actually told Don Mattingly last year that he was close to dismissal and then didn't seem overly excited to extend his contract even after he led them to the postseason, he can't afford for the Dodgers to stumble.
Ned Yost doesn't necessarily need to make the playoffs to keep his job in Kansas City, but if the Royals don't have a winning second half, his time could be up. With Tony La Russa running the show in Arizona, he figures to bring in his own manager but has little need to replace Kirk Gibson until after the season.
WHO WILL BE THE BEST PLAYER TRADED?
If you believe the trade rumors, Price has made his last start for Tampa Bay at least three times. That's why the saying "don't believe everything you read" was made for the trade season.
The best player traded this season could be the best player who has already been traded: Pitcher Jeff Samardzija.
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But don't be surprised if the Rays hang onto Price until the offseason, when they would have more time to engage teams in a bidding war. If Price stays in Tampa Bay, the best player to be traded might be one who already was, Samardzija.
For a change, most teams need hitting more than pitching, but finding offensive upgrades is becoming as tough as hitting Kershaw's slider. The Rays' Ben Zobrist has not enjoyed one of his best seasons, but his versatility and ability to switch hit would make him a fit for any NL contender. Unlike Price, however, Zobrist has a $7.5 million contract for 2015 that even the Rays can afford. Philadelphia's Marlon Byrd figures to be on the move and already has been linked to the Mariners.
WHAT WILL CAUSE A GREATER CONTROVERSY, EXPANDED INSTANT REPLAY OR THE NEW RULE BANNING (MOST) COLLISIONS AT THE PLATE?
Neither change has been made without a few glitches. With replay, the biggest issue has been a reluctance to overturn calls because of a lack of convincing proof. Still, there's no doubt more calls are being made correctly.
The home-plate rule already has been tweaked (on force-out plays) but really hasn't come into play that often. Not yet, anyway. As pennant races heat up and runs become even more important, the chances will rise of a player trying to take out a catcher to score.