With the first half of the 2009 season and the All-Star festivities over, it's time to ponder what's ahead. What's ahead, of course, are the clarifying challenges of the second half: Tight races, individual benchmarks, defining trades, rivalries coming to a head. They all raise a number of questions. Here are a few possible answers. Dayn Perry
Sox, Yanks or Rays in baseball's toughest division?
It's difficult to overstate just how brutal the AL East is. The fourth-place Blue Jays would likely be a playoff team if they toiled in the NL. The top three teams in all of baseball may just be the top three teams in the East. With so much talent packed into one division, the prospects for drama are high. Boston enters the second half with a three-game lead, but it's a perilous one. The Yanks will (presumably) have Alex Rodriguez for the entirety of the second half. And if history holds, CC Sabathia will improve significantly after the break. As for the Rays, they've been a different team since April. If their upward trend continues, then they'll claim the flag for a second straight season.
What will go down at the trade deadline?
Roy Halladay? Matt Holliday? Cliff Lee? Victor Martinez? Freddy Sanchez? Zach Duke? Garrett Atkins? Aubrey Huff? Someone under the radar? The rumors will most assuredly overwhelm the realities, but the run up to the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline is always a compelling time for fans. With every race save for the NL West and both Wild Card chases in play, a notable deadline addition can make the difference for a number of teams. And as the past has proved, big names can still get moved during the August waiver period. The Phillies, Cardinals, Red Sox, Dodgers, Giants and White Sox figure to be active buyers.
Can the Phils three-peat in the NL East?
Philly ended the first half with a dominating homestand. As a result, they now hold a four-game lead over the Marlins in the East, and CoolStandings.com gives them a 64.2% chance of taking the flag. Every team except the Nats is in the race, but the Mets, Braves and Marlins have been able to muster little consistency. A third-straight division title seems likely for the Phils, but if anything, the NL East in recent seasons has taught us to be wary of expectations.
Can Albert Pujols win the triple crown?
Right now, El Hombre tops the loop in homers and RBI, and he's fourth in batting average (17 points behind leader Hanley Ramirez). Worth noting: Pujols is a career .327 hitter before the break and a career .344 hitter after the break. If he experiences a customary surge in the second half of 2009, then he might wind up as the first NL hitter since Joe Medwick in 1937 to win the triple crown.
Can the White Sox and Twins put heat on Detroit?
Detroit paces the AL Central by three-and-a-half games, which happens to be the largest division lead in the AL. But the Tigers will play nine of their final 12 games of the regular season against the White Sox and Twins. As gifted rookie Gordon Beckham continues to develop, Chicago could improve and never underestimate the resourcefulness of GM Ken Williams. As for Minnesota, they have a run differential that's comparable to Detroit's, and they'll get back Kevin Slowey at some point in July.
Can the Cubs rally?
Despite all the sturm und drang on the north side of Chicago this season, the long-suffering Cubs are still within spitting distance of the NL Central lead. Aramis Ramirez figures to improve as he distances himself from his shoulder injury, Ryan Dempster and Geovany Soto should return from the DL in early August and Derrek Lee and Milton Bradley are both heating up. If Rich Harden remembers how to pitch like Rich Harden, then the Cubs could make a charge. Of course, the division-pacing Cardinals will get Troy Glaus and Mark DeRosa back in the second half, and Ryan Ludwick and Colby Rasmus are both surging. And let's not forget the Brewers and their gifted young bats. There's a ridiculous amount of compression in the NL Central, so a tight finish seems like a sure thing.
Is the NL West better than anyone thought?
Coming into the 2009 season, the NL West was regarded as the weakest division in baseball. But 90-odd games in, that's plainly not the case. The Dodgers are on pace for 103 wins, the Giants lead the wild-card race and the Rockies are six games better than .500. Plus, the teams of the West have a winning record against the rest of the National League. Don't be shocked if the NL West nets two playoff berths for the third time in four seasons.
Any milestones in the offing?
A number of players this season are within reach of important benchmarks, both career and seasonal. Albert Pujols could make a run at 60 homers and the triple crown (more to come on that one). Oh, and he could also make a run at 400 total bases and 150 RBI and 150 runs scored. Joe Mauer could put together the greatest offensive season ever by a catcher. Carl Crawford could swipe 100 bases. Ichiro could challenge his own record for hits in a season, and Tim Lincecum and Justin Verlander could each strike out 300 batters. On the career front, Vlad Guerrero is closing in on 400 homers, and Johnny Damon could notch his 1000th RBI. Oh, Tim Wakefield might win his 200th.
Can Tim Lincecum make history?
The Giants' diminutive ace ended the first half on a roll, and a second-straight Cy Young Award is a distinct possibility. If he does take the hardware, then Lincecum will become the youngest repeat winner ever in the NL. Dan Haren of the Snakes and Lincecum's teammate Matt Cain might get in the way of his bid, but Lincecum's recent level of performance makes him the favorite.
How will the AL West be won?
The seasoned, venerable Angels or the upstart Rangers? Or maybe the surprise Mariners? The smart money is on Mike Scioscia's outfit, but the Rangers are just 1.5 games out as the second half begins. They'll get nine cracks at Anaheim in the second half, and with Torii Hunter and Vlad Guerrero both on the DL, the division leaders are vulnerable in the coming days.