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Pivotal second-half players: American League

The SportsXchange

During Major League Baseball's so-called break for the All-Star Game, heroes from the first half know that they now must finish the job to validate their season.

Epic first-half performances by reigning American League MVP Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers and reclamation project Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles put their teams in position to return to the postseason in 2013.

But Cabrera's Triple Crown track and Davis' league-leading 37 home runs will be meaningless feats if not backed up by big hits in bigger moments to come in August and September.

Other players obviously will be pivotal after the All-Star Game break, but not necessarily with the postseason as an attainable team goal.

Based on a survey by team correspondents with The Sports Xchange, here is a closer look at the American League's pivotal players in the second half:

Baltimore Orioles -- Closer Jim Johnson.

Johnson was an All-Star in 2012 and was nearly perfect in save opportunities before blowing two leads in the postseason. He had some issues early in 2013, too. If Johnson can perform well in the closer role, the rest of the Orioles bullpen slots in nicely before him. But if Johnson continues to compile blown saves -- he had six before the break -- then the Baltimore bullpen becomes a weakness.

Boston Red Sox -- RHP Clay Buchholz.

Buchholz is the "biggest key" for the Red Sox in the second half according to manager John Farrell. It's hard to argue. For two months, Buchholz was the majors' best pitcher, but he hasn't made a start since June 8 because of a nagging shoulder injury. Equally important is left-hander Jon Lester. Lester was 6-0 with a 2.72 ERA through his first nine starts before going 2-6 with a 6.27 ERA in his last 11 starts. If Lester is able to turn things around, the Red Sox rotation will be as strong as ever.

Chicago White Sox -- 2B Gordon Beckham.

Beckham (broken hand) missed 47 games in the first half, but since returning, he continued to display an offensive stroke that had the Sox excited about his 2013 season even back in spring training. Beckham entered the break hitting .378 with four doubles and two homers over his last 19 games, and has even played some shortstop for the Sox. His rebirth after several years of struggling offensively could give the Sox the confidence to trade SS Alexei Ramirez.

Cleveland Indians -- RHP Corey Kluber.

For the Indians to remain in contention in the second half of the season, they are going to need a second starting pitcher to step in behind Justin Masterson and pitch big innings and win big games. Kluber had to win a spot in the Indians' starting rotation in spring training, but he emerged in the second half as the Indians' second-best starting pitcher behind RHP Justin Masterson.

Detroit Tigers -- DH Victor Martinez.

Martinez took off on a 14-game hitting streak before the All-Star break. It's that much more difficult for teams to work around 3B Miguel Cabrera and 1B Prince Fielder when Martinez is a threat at the plate. Fielder has been a prince at the plate when Cabrera is walked, intentionally or not, but having a solid No. 5 hitter driving in runs behind him means there's a price to be paid for trying to work around both. Martinez has a chance to reach 90 RBI and an outside shot at cracking 100, which he did in 2011 before injuring his left knee, which knocked him out of action for 2012.

Houston Astros -- 3B Matt Dominguez.

Listed by manager Bo Porter with catcher Jason Castro and second baseman Jose Altuve as a foundation piece for the Astros' future, Dominguez is looking more like a question mark since his 33-for-61 start. As an everyday player, the 23-year-old is hitting just .227 with a lowly .257 on-base percentage. His power (11 home runs, 45 RBIs) is intriguing, but the team needs to see consistency if he wants to be the sure part of the 2014 picture the Astros projected.

Kansas City Royals -- 3B Mike Moustakas.

Moustakas, the second player picked in the 2007 draft who hit 36 home runs in 2010 in the minors, continues to struggle in the majors. He did not get his average above .200 to stay until June 22 and is hitting .215 at the break with only six home runs and 15 RBIs. He has just one home run and three RBI against left-handed pitchers. The Royals need a big finish from Moustakas to bring life to a stagnant offense.

Los Angeles Angels -- RHP Jered Weaver.

Weaver is one of baseball's few true aces, a perennial Cy Young candidate. However, in the first half, for reasons somewhat out of his control, he did not provide the Angels what they have come to expect. He missed seven weeks after breaking his left elbow. However, in his four most recent starts before the break, he had a 2.05 ERA.

Minnesota Twins -- CF Aaron Hicks.

Hicks started the season as the leadoff hitter but failed miserably with his batting average dropping to .047. He has, however, played superlative defense in centerfield and really looks like team's future at that position. Dropping him in the batting order created a rise in his average (.197 at the break), but he needs to regain the leadoff spot where the Twins have had a black hole in OBP.

N.Y. Yankees -- Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson.

Jeter, who was sidelined by a quad injury after his first game back, figures to be the most important. Nobody knows what to expect from A-Rod when -- or if? -- he gets back, while Granderson might not return for more than the final six weeks. Jeter should be back (again) shortly after the break and will provide a threat atop the lineup, adding a quality right-handed bat to a team that desperately needs one.

Oakland Athletics -- OF Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes had 15 home runs before the break, but he's also batting .225 and playing, at times, indifferent defense in left field. The A's expect much from their most talented player, who hit .292 with 23 homers as a rookie; perhaps his Home Run Derby "title" will spark a second-half surge. Oakland needs Cespedes to be a force in the middle of the lineup, particularly considering that RF Josh Reddick also got off to a slow start.

Seattle Mariners -- C Mike Zunino.

In a short stint since being called up from Triple-A, the 22-year-old rookie has helped provide a spark and looks like he'll be behind the plate for a long time. He is also finally starting to hit, having gone 7-for-22 (.318) on the final pre-break homestand. Is he The Next Big Thing or The Next Dustin Ackley?

Tampa Bay Rays -- LHP David Price.

The Rays are a different team -- and a better team -- with Price in top form at the top of their rotation, given not only how well he pitches but how much better the other guys in the rotation are. He was 2-0 in his first three starts after returning, showing remarkable command of his pitches, and a big second half from Price could be a huge boost.

Texas Rangers -- OF Nelson Cruz.

Cruz is the biggest key to the team's offense. And it has more to do with presence than total production. Cruz is one of the 20 players named in the Biogenesis scandal and could be handed a significant suspension after the All-Star break. It would be a huge blow. The Rangers already have a need for one right-handed hitter. Losing a second could be devastating.

Toronto Blue Jays -- 2B Brett Lawrie.

Lawrie returned from the disabled list on Saturday and played the final two games before the break at second base instead of third. He played second as a Brewers minor-leaguer before the Blue Jays converted him to third. Second base has been a trouble spot this season for the Blue Jays. Lawrie's athleticism and enthusiasm in the middle of the infield could provide a boost. His first two games were promising, but he also must start hitting.
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