Four MLB teams that need to win now

For some teams, the clock is ticking down to the trade deadline, with just two weeks remaining to pull off a roster makeover.

For others, however, the urgency is that much greater. If they don’t start the second half with a strong burst, no amount of July 31 mega-deals will matter. Time is of the essence for these teams — it’s win (soon), or else risk falling out of the race altogether.

Each season seems to bring a team or two from All-Star break also-ran to late-summer true contender. Who will it be this year?

The candidates:

Minnesota Twins

Two things can routinely be said about the Twins: 1. They’re usually better than they’re supposed to be; and 2. they’re historically a better second-half team.

Now would be a good time to illustrate the latter. The Twins currently sit in third place, but are only four games out of first in the bunched-up American League Central.

The Twins could use more consistency in their rotation beyond Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn and another arm could help with depth in the bullpen. Payroll constraints being what they are, however, the Twins may have to find answers internally.

The first two weeks of the second half will likely determine their fate, with a killer schedule that includes a 10-game road swing through the AL West (Texas, Seattle, Los Angeles) before returning with a homestand featuring the White Sox — currently just ahead in the standings — and three more with the Angels.

If the Twins can make some headway in these two weeks, they’ll be in position to have a say in winning the Central. If not, it might be time to start focusing on whether Joe Mauer can win yet another batting title and how they’re going to afford to re-sign him before the end of 2010.

Seattle Mariners

A funny thing happened while some GMs were beginning to figure how much it would take to get the Mariners to sell off the likes of Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard: the M’s kept winning and hung around in the American League West.

They trail the first-place Angels by four and the runner-up Rangers by just 2½ game, but since the wild-card entry is likely to come out of the East, second place won’t be good enough and the Mariners will have to go from worst (last season) to first to reach the postseason.

What to expect?

Let’s play ball: As the All-Star break ends, Dayn Perry has some burning questions. Like, can Ryan Dempster’s Cubs rally in the NL Central?

Leaving on top? Could Joe Torre win a title and ride off into the sunset? Bob Klapisch gazes into his crystal ball for second-half pearls of wisdom.

Break-ing stories: Nelson Cruz has arrived. Pedro Martinez has returned. Roy Halladay is as good as gone. See what else we learned at the break.

Pitching — with a rotation headed by Felix Hernandez and Washburn and a bullpen anchored by David Aardsma — is a strength, but the M’s need an offensive upgrade from somewhere to help Russell Branyan, who can’t continue to carry the lineup by himself.

Injuries (Endy Chavez, Bedard and Adrian Beltre) have compromised the team’s depth, making a second-half hot streak that much more unlikely.

Atlanta Braves

The world champion Philadelphia Phillies haven’t been able to put teams away in the National League East and the Mets have been too banged-up and hapless to put together a challenge. The Marlins sit four games in back of the Phils — and two games in front of the Braves — but there are questions about whether a team with such obvious bullpen issues can be a factor.

The Braves, meanwhile, boast veteran starters (Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez) and an improved bullpen, but lack sock. They’ve acquired two outfielders since the start of the season (Nate McLouth and Ryan Church), but neither has solved the team’s offensive woes.

They could use more sock from Casey Kotchman and Garret Anderson, though whether they’ll get any is another matter. It’s not likely that the team can lean on 37-year-old Chipper Jones to carry it in the second half.

If rookie Jordan Schafer gets another shot, maybe he could help make a difference. Otherwise, the Braves will have to lean heavily on their pitching and hope that two series with Philadelphia next month don’t come too late to be meaningful.

Houston Astros

Somebody else — Cubs? Brewers? — was supposed to run off ahead in the National League Central. Instead, it’s the most crowded of the game’s divisions, with five teams within five games of first place.

The Astros used second-half rebounds to make the playoffs in 2004 and 2005 and made late-season runs at the postseason in 2006 and 2008. Do they have the right stuff to make a fifth second-half surge in six seasons?

Houston put itself in good position by going 25-16 over the last six weeks. The trick will be keeping it going. The top half of the rotation — buoyed not by Roy Oswalt, but instead, Wandy Rodriguez — has been a positive, but the Astros could use some help from the likes of Brian Moehler and Russ Ortiz.

After a slow start, stalwart Lance Berkman has been typically immense and the Astros have gotten much more offense from Pudge Rodriguez than they could have possibly dreamed. Both Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn have also contributed significantly.

Two series with St. Louis and one each against Milwaukee and the Cubs — all before Aug. 9. — will determine whether the Astros have yet another late-season run left in them.