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Will surprise teams run out of steam?

Who will be traded? Rosenthal and Morosi preview the second half.
Who will be traded? Rosenthal and Morosi preview the second half.
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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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Bud Selig’s wildest dreams have been realized — for a half-season, at least.

Two years ago, the Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals finished last in their respective divisions. They were a combined 102 games under .500.

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As Major League Baseball resumes play after the All-Star break, the Pirates and Nationals are in first place. The Orioles hold one of the American League’s two wild cards.

Selig is justified in pointing with pride to the competitive balance that has developed during his two decades as commissioner. Entering Friday, all but three AL franchises either possessed a postseason spot or were within 2 1/2 games of one.

The National League’s parity isn’t quite as extreme, but it’s there: The Mets, Cardinals and Giants have identical 46-40 records — a half-game behind the Braves for the second wild card.

The question now: Can baseball’s surprise teams keep this up?

Here’s a look at the unexpected contenders in each league, along with the most crucial players on their rosters in the second half.

 

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

 

Key player: Jayson Werth, right fielder

The Nationals hold the NL’s best record, not to mention the largest lead of any first-place team in the league (four games). Yet, they are one ill-timed losing streak away from tumbling back into the pack. That’s a particular concern on a young team that includes only one pitcher — Edwin Jackson — who has started a postseason game.

And we have yet to mention All-Star Stephen Strasburg, who team officials say will be shut down in September — perhaps replaced in the rotation by John Lannan.

That’s why Werth is so crucial. No, he doesn’t pitch. He has, however, earned a World Series ring. And if the Nationals drop five in a row, or if players grumble privately about losing Strasburg to an administrative decision, they will look to Werth for guidance.

They also must rely on him for crucial hits, once he returns from a fractured left wrist. That’s likely to happen in the coming weeks.

 

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

 

Key player: Erik Bedard, left-handed starter

For the Pirates to graduate from “nice story” to “serious contender,” they need Bedard — or someone like him.

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Bedard was signed to be the rotation’s reliable veteran. But he has failed to fill that role, going 1-5 with a 7.34 ERA since the beginning of June. Bedard’s struggles have been obscured to a degree by the excellence of James McDonald and A.J. Burnett and the re-emergence of Jeff Karstens.

But if the Pirates are going to hold off the Reds, they need a left-handed starter to counter Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. It could be Bedard. Or it could be an option via trade, such as Cole Hamels or Jason Vargas.

 

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

 

Key player: Jason Hammel, right-handed starter

When the regular season began, the Orioles rotation included Jake Arrieta, Tommy Hunter, Hammel, Brian Matusz and Wei-Yin Chen.

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Today, Arrieta, Hunter and Matusz are in the minor leagues.

Think about that: The Orioles’ No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 starters didn’t pitch well enough to stay in the majors. And yet this is, for the moment, a playoff team. That might be the most astonishing statement of this baseball season.

Obviously, the Orioles will need more from their rotation to remain in the playoff picture. (They are looking at trade possibilities now, including Matt Garza of the Cubs.) But while they wait for internal or external reinforcements, they can’t afford any regression from Hammel — who has been the team’s best starter and earned his first career All-Star selection.

 

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

 

Key player: Brandon Morrow, right-handed starter

Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos sent a clear message Thursday that he doesn’t intend to “sell” at the trade deadline, signing free-agent-to-be Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $29 million contract.

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Now the Jays need to solidify their pitching staff. Like the Orioles, they have remained afloat despite minimal contributions from a number of pitchers who were part of the original rotation. In Toronto’s case, they have fallen victim to injuries, not underperformance: Morrow, Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek are on the disabled list.

Anthopoulos may acquire Garza or another starter. But even then, it’s hard to imagine Toronto seizing a wild-card spot without a meaningful second-half contribution from Morrow. He’s still on the disabled list with a left oblique injury, but the team remains hopeful that he will return before the end of the season. Morrow was the Blue Jays’ best starter at the time he suffered the injury (7-4, 3.01 ERA).

 

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

 

Key player: Addison Reed, closer

Know the names: Nate Jones, Brian Omogrosso, Reed, Hector Santiago, Leyson Septimo and Matt Thornton.

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They are a first-place bullpen.

Managers don’t win games based on the name recognition of their relief pitchers. (If that were the case, Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers still would be in demand.) But there is something to be said for experience late in a game — or a season.

So, look for White Sox general manager Kenny Williams to add a veteran setup man or closer. Even if he does, the team will continue to rely on Reed in some capacity. He’s pitched too well to be forgotten. He’s 13-for-14 in save opportunities in only his first full season as a major leaguer.

 

CLEVELAND INDIANS

 

Key player: Shin-Soo Choo, right fielder

The Indians faded in the second half last year. Then again, those Indians didn’t have Choo at full strength.

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Choo, at his best, can carry a team for a couple weeks at a time. He may need to do that for a Cleveland team that lacks a dominant starting rotation and only recently welcomed back Travis Hafner to the lineup.

Choo didn’t receive a spot on the All-Star team, even with a scalding .972 OPS over his final 50 games of the first half. But if he keeps that up, he will become an MVP candidate – and the Indians could contend well into September.

Tagged: Orioles, White Sox, Indians, Blue Jays, Cubs, Reds, Nationals, Pirates, Jayson Werth, Erik Bedard, Matt Thornton, Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Hammel, Matt Garza, Brandon Morrow, Jay Bruce, Brian Matusz

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