Fantasy Football 2014:

Baseball overflows with second-half stories

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Baseball's second half has begun, and the standings tell us that if it's as good as the first half, we're in for a mighty treat. Here are the current division leads, in games: ½, 1, 1, 1, 3, 3½. That's the sort of thing you see in football, which plays one-tenth as often as baseball.

And yet the game's pulse entering the second half better resembles that of a power walk rather than full-out sprint. Football is locked out. Basketball is locked out. Hockey is hockey. College football won't be back for another month. Baseball should be grabbing the full sporting spotlight, and instead it's getting nudged aside by women's soccer.

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Derek Jeter(notes) reached 3,000 hits on July 9..
(Getty Images)

Fret not. There are good baseball stories. So many that 10 Degrees couldn't hold them. The original version of this column, in fact, came in a 2009 second-half preview on Manny Ramirez(notes) and the 25 Degrees that revolve around him. Since Manny is gone, it makes sense to start with one of his contemporaries, a player onto whom news gloms itself. Perhaps his head isn't the world's axis like Manny believed, but …

1. Derek Jeter still comes closer than anyone to representing the game's fulcrum, its conscience and its focal point. Nobody else could prompt the reaction Jeter did by skipping All-Star festivities, just as no one else's selection by the fans would raise such ire. At 37, Jeter remains baseball's biggest star. Whether he manages to recapture some of the pixie dust he sprinkled during his 3,000-hit game or reverts to being Slappy McJeter will help determine whether his New York Yankees take control of the AL East or lose their grip on a playoff spot altogether. He's not going to be the best shortstop in New York, unless …

2. Jose Reyes(notes) gets traded from the Mets, which doesn't look like nearly the sure thing it did before he started playing like the NL MVP. The market would pulsate. Half the regular shortstops in baseball sport OPS figures below .700, and among playoff contenders, Boston, Tampa Bay, the Los Angeles Angels, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and San Francisco all could use him. His pending free agency complicates any deal, of course, and if the Mets are serious about keeping him, they're going to have to spend about three-fourths of David Einhorn's $200 million cash infusion to do so. It's the sort of money at which …

3. Albert Pujols could be staring if his second half resembles his first. His OPS remains about 200 points below his career average, and Pujols' recovery from a broken bone in his wrist will be the bellwether that decides if his deal's overall value starts with a 1 or a 2. As his teammate Lance Berkman(notes) pointed out, because Pujols will be 32 next season, he needs to play his way into earning the same overall money as

4. Prince Fielder(notes), who hopes his second half starts as well as his first half ended. Between his 5-for-5 performance in the playoff round of the Home Run Derby and the three-run shot that won him MVP in the All-Star game, Fielder weathered the Phoenix boos to win the week. The bigger question: Can he win the division? There are few better cores in baseball than Milwaukee's with Fielder, Ryan Braun(notes), Rickie Weeks(notes), Yovani Gallardo(notes), Zack Greinke(notes) and Shaun Marcum(notes). And adding …

5. Francisco Rodriguez to the mix should fortify one of the Brewers' weaknesses: bullpen depth. GM Doug Melvin, as he is wont to do, struck in the middle of the night to close an unexpected deal. And as long as manager Ron Roenicke keeps K-Rod from finishing 21 or more games – which would trigger an absurd $17.5 million option for next year – it's a low-risk maneuver with good upside. If only Rodriguez could play shortstop or third base. Melvin figures to deal with those soon while the rest of the contenders figure out if …

6. Carlos Beltran fits anywhere in their lineup. Unlike Rodriguez, Beltran holds some actual value. He's a power-hitting switch hitter, a superlative baserunner despite old legs, a solid outfielder and a proven playoff performer. Beltran does have a no-trade clause that could complicate discussions. And teams could balk at paying a prohibitive price in prospects knowing that offering arbitration and recouping draft picks isn't an option. A clause in Beltran's contract prevents the Mets from offering it, and a source said it would transfer to the new team in a trade. Agent Scott Boras inserted the provision because too many Type A free agents' values dip because of the draft picks attached to arbitration offers. Teams desperate for offense will blow right through those stop signs, as players like …

7. Brian Wilson(notes) lobby for their GM to go into fortification mode. Wilson mentioned Beltran by name in what might've been his first serious words of the year. Then he wore a spandex tuxedo and all was well with the world again. Wilson's evolution into character nonpareil has made him a first-ballot Baseball Oddball Hall of Famer. They say closers are weird. Wilson is not weird. He is wackadoodle. But even he knows better than to do what …

8. Heath Bell(notes) did when he sprinted from the bullpen and slid into the mound at the All-Star game. More than one of his NL teammates condemned the action. "I don't want a clown closing playoff games for me," one player said. Between Bell's antics and age (34 in September), he's unlikely to strike oil in free agency this offseason. He's also lost his title as best closer in the NL to …

9. Craig Kimbrel, the Atlanta rookie whose manager is pushing the bounds of good sense. Fredi Gonzalez uses Kimbrel and Jonny Venters(notes) often because they're so dominant. So was Billy Koch in 2002, when Oakland ran him out 84 times. He pitched two more seasons and was out of baseball at 30. Koch is the only closer in the last 25 years to pitch in more games than the 83 Kimbrel is on pace to throw. At 23, Kimbrel should have a long career ahead. Hopefully he's built with one of those freakish arms that can hold up under the punishment most are no longer seasoned to withstand. It's why …

10. Michael Pineda(notes) may well spend September sitting on the Seattle Mariners' bench. While he likely will have wrapped up AL Rookie of the Year by then, the 6-foot-7, 260-pound leviathan will find himself on an innings cap of about 180. He's already 113 deep into this season, 114 if you count the three outs of sheer dominance he unleashed at the All-Star game. In 452 at-bats, hitters haven't even managed to stay over the Mendoza Line against Pineda, and his strikeout total matches his innings total. He is as dominant a rookie as there has been since …

11. Stephen Strasburg(notes), and while that isn't a long time, the comparison is flattering nonetheless considering Strasburg's anointing, crowning and deification before his right elbow exploded last year. Tommy John surgery in late August 2010 has sidelined him since, and Strasburg hopes to head out on rehab outings in August. His September return would infuse Washington with even more reason to grin about its future. Were …

12. Bryce Harper to arrive, too, the apocalypse might hit Washington, D.C., before 2012. The Nationals insist Harper will not arrive this year, even if he tears it up at Double-A like he did in Class A. Which is fine. The baseball world can wait another few months for its sliced bread. In the meantime, it can enjoy the stylings of …

13. Jose Bautista(notes) and his quest for back-to-back 50-homer seasons. Bautista continues to amaze. Nobody since Barry Bonds in 2004 has finished a season with a slugging percentage over .700. Bautista's pre-All-Star break jag put him at .702. His .468 on-base percentage leads baseball by 30 points. And if he can hit 19 home runs over the next 72 games, he'll become the third player with no steroid connection to hit 50 in consecutive seasons. The other two? Babe Ruth and Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) Still, Bautista couldn't outsock …

14. Robinson Cano(notes) in the Home Run Derby. Cano's easy swing mirrors the rest of his game – so smooth, so seemingly lackadaisical that one scout calls him "The Sleepwalker." That would be even more apropos if Cano actually did walk. His 4.6 percent walk rate is more his old, solid self than the legitimate MVP candidate who showed up last season. Cano's defense is always going to vacillate between OK and suspect. His bat must carry him, and the difference between very good and elite are those extra times on base Cano loses with his hacktastic ways. The value of a walk seems lost upon …

15. Adrian Gonzalez as well, though the Red Sox slugger is making those swings count plenty more than Cano: His .354 batting average leads baseball at the break. His tack soon may need adjusting. Gonzalez's .394 batting average on balls in play is the highest in baseball, which increases the likelihood of a large regression in his batting average. The Red Sox are baseball's highest-scoring team by 25 runs, Gonzalez the biggest part of it, and the 5.51 runs per game they score for …

16. Josh Beckett(notes) has helped throw a shiny 8-3 record next to his 2.27 ERA. The Red Sox needed a third effective pitcher to throw alongside Jon Lester(notes) and Clay Buchholz(notes), and they've gotten more than they hoped from Beckett. At 31, he's turning in his best season since 2007 certainly, and perhaps the best of his career. His velocity is back, his command sharp and his attitude ornery as ever. As significant as Beckett is to the Red Sox's rotation …

17. CC Sabathia(notes) dwarfs his import. For those excited over Freddy Garcia's(notes) 92 smoke-and-mirror innings or Bartolo Colon(notes) turning fat into performance, la-di-da. The Yankees' rotation is nothing without Sabathia – free-agent-to-be Sabathia, remember – and he's picking the right time for a career year. Resembling the pre-free agency CC of '08, he's shutting down – and out – opponents, eating innings like they're Cap'n Crunch and setting himself up for the first back-to-back 20-win seasons since Roy Oswalt(notes). Sabathia's victory totals dwarf his contemporaries. When skeptics say the 300-game winner may be extinct, they're wrong. Sabathia, 30, is at 170, the fifth-most behind Livan Hernandez(notes), Tim Hudson(notes), Tim Wakefield(notes) and …

18. Roy Halladay, who's cruising to his second consecutive Cy Young, his third overall, and more or less ensuring himself a spot in the Hall of Fame. He probably already was there, sure, but Halladay's ageless mastery continues to defy and enthuse. Eight years ago, when Halladay won his first Cy Young, he did not throw a cut fastball. Now he throws it 46.9 percent of the time, more than any starter in the major leagues. Halladay's inventiveness and trust in self are peanut butter-and-jelly characteristics. He challenges himself to excel at everything, and if he can take away the ERA title from …

19. Jair Jurrjens(notes) in the process, all the better. The 25-year-old Braves starter – acquired for Edgar Renteria(notes) in one of the last decade's biggest coups – has neither Halladay's stuff nor his ability to work late into games. Still, a 1.87 ERA at the All-Star break remains a 1.87 ERA at the All-Star break, and to in any way disparage Jurrjens' accomplishments is nitpicking. Atlanta's stranglehold on the wild card right now depends more on Jurrjens and his rotation mates than anyone. The only team more reliant on its pitching is across the country, where …

20. Jered Weaver(notes) anchors an Angels rotation and beats Jurrjens for the first-half ERA title by .01 point. Weaver's back-and-forth with Justin Verlander(notes) for the AL Cy Young will provide good entertainment, particularly because of their similarities in spite of their differences. Verlander throws hard. Weaver doesn't. Verlander's curveball is boffo, Weaver's mediocre. And yet Weaver racks up strikeouts like Verlander, and they do it with similar walk rates and identical strand rates (both leave 81.2 percent of players on base). They're 28-year-olds taking advantage of their prime, something to which …

21. Miguel Cabrera can relate. Upon Cabrera's arrest for drunk driving this spring, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Cabrera was going to have his finest season ever. It was the wrong time to deliver what may be a correct assessment. Cabrera's .430 on-base percentage is the best of his career. He's walking more than ever, striking out less than ever and while his slugging percentage is lagging from last year, his danger – especially in a lineup with the surprising Jhonny Peralta(notes) and Brennan Boesch(notes) – comes more from not making outs. If he keeps playing like this, Cabrera could win the MVP award …

22. Josh Hamilton(notes) swiped from him last season. Hamilton's lurking in the background of the MVP chatter right now, primed to swoop in and make another run. The five weeks Hamilton missed with a broken arm may torpedo his candidacy, though he missed almost all of September last season and it didn't hinder him. The Rangers went 15-21 without Hamilton this year when he was on the DL, and his stabilizing presence in the clubhouse and on the field turn the Rangers from talented team to dangerous one. A great Hamilton is like a great …

23. Evan Longoria(notes) in that it transforms a talented team into one capable of making a spirited postseason run. The Tampa Bay Rays trail the Yankees and Red Sox, and with a half-dozen-game deficit to make up, there's little leeway to wait for Longo to recapture regular Longo. By all means blame his .243 batting average on balls in play; he's been unlucky. His line-drive rate is as robust as ever, his pop-up fetish should go away and he still plays top-notch defense. Longoria demands more, though, because he has taken on the mantel of performance for the Rays much like …

24. Ichiro Suzuki has done in Seattle. Scouts are beginning to wonder how much longer he's capable of spearheading an offense. Ichiro turns 38 in October. Since the beginning of May, he is hitting .243 with on-base and slugging percentages below .300. May was particularly miserable: a .210 batting average and just 22 hits. July has been worse. The big question for Ichiro: Can he stretch his streak of consecutive 200-hit seasons to 11? He's at 101 now, which leaves him 71 games to slap 99 hits. It's not impossible. Three times Ichiro has cracked the 50-hit mark in a month. The bigger question: Is the talent, the skill, the je ne sais quoi still there? It's one …

25. Derek Jeter fields all the time. Is a downhill-trending shortstop really the man to lead the most expensive team in sports? The answer for him is absolutely, not because of what he is but who he is. Which is the sort of thing you want to hear about your manager more than a player, but Jeter transcends such conventions. As long as he's playing – hell, as long as he's wearing pinstripes – he is going to be the show. They'll vote him into All-Star games, laud his every accomplishment, glorify him on the YES Network and empty a thesaurus on him. He is Derek Jeter, after all, focal point, conscience, fulcrum and, he hopes, World Series champion for the sixth time.

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