The second half of baseball's regular season begins on Friday night and there's no shortage of storylines to fuel us straight into the postseason. Here are 10 favorites that we'll be paying special attention to at the Stew, listed in no particular order ....
1. Can the Pirates finish above .500 — and maybe aim for more?: If this storyline seems a bit familiar, it's because we were asking it just last year. The Pirates were 47-43 at the 2011 All-Star break and trailed the NL Central lead by just one game. But then Jerry Meals happened in a 19-inning loss in Atlanta on July 26, the Pirates lost 12 of 13 games and Pittsburgh finished with an all-too-familiar record of 72-90 — a mark that was more in line with the peripherals the club had outperformed in the first half of the season.
Last season's collapse is a big reason why many of us have proceeded with extreme caution when we're frequently asked on sports radio if the 2012 Pirates are for real. But with a 48-37 record that gives them a one-game lead in the NL Central, this edition of the Buccos provides a lot more reason for optimism. They have a legit MVP candidate in outfielder Andrew McCutchen, a solid pitching staff led by James McDonald and A.J. Burnett, and they sport a healthy +32 run differential. While they were playing over their heads in the first half of last season, this year's record rings a lot truer as they're only two games better than their Pythagorean W-L mark of 46-39.
The deeper Reds and Cardinals teams will provide the Pirates plenty of competition down the stretch. There's also always the worry that the lineup will return to its early season ineptitude or that the rotation won't hold up. Still, the Pirates haven't been in this good of a position to end their infamous streak of losing seasons. While we're hesitant to declare the beginning of Pittsburgh's hunt for October just yet, the countdown of the 34 victories needed to reach 82 wins — and the franchise's first winning season since 1992 — begins today.
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2. Will Mike Trout become the youngest MVP in baseball history?: How incredible is Mike Trout's emergence as a bona fide MVP candidate for the Los Angeles Angels this year? Well, let's put it this way: Trout, who turns 21 on Aug. 7, could miss out on the award this season and still have another chance to become the youngest MVP in baseball history when 2013 rolls around. (The current record holder is pitcher Vida Blue, who turned 22 on July 28 during his MVP season with Oakland in 1971.)
Of course, with the way Trout is performing, there's every chance he can join Fred Lynn and Ichiro as the only players to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season and set up a chance for a repeat in 2013. Despite missing most of the first month before being called up, Trout leads the American League in batting average (.341), is first in WAR (4.8) and is fourth in OPS (.958). He'll get some strong competition from a lot of different players including Josh Hamilton and Robinson Cano, but no one boasts of a more complete game.
Or arguably a bigger impact on the team, for that matter. After starting with a 7-14 record, the Angels are 41-24 since Trout arrived in the majors on April 28.
3. Second wild-card fever: A second wild card is in play for the first time in baseball history and it'll be interesting to see how GMs view the pursuit of a chance to earn a spot in the play-in game. On one hand, the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals are going to give teams plenty of hope that anything can happen once they're in. On the other, there's a decision to be made when it comes to leveraging a franchise's future at the trading deadline just to have a better shot at a postseason that might only last nine innings.
The intrigue comes in that plenty of executives are going to be in this position as the second half begins. Eight AL teams are within 2.5 games of each other for the two wild-card spots. Over in the NL, it's five teams within half a game and eight within six.
4. The race for division titles: The addition of the play-in game has also meant the end of teams not caring whether they gained entry to the postseason with a division title or wild-card spot. The Rangers and Angels are currently two of the best teams in baseball yet one could end up being forced to rely on the effectiveness of the play-in game's starting pitcher in order to guarantee a postseason series. That should add a decent amount of drama to the 13 games that Texas and Los Angeles will play in the second half.
5. Dodgers vs. Giants: The NL West featured the closest race at the All-Star break with only a half-game separating Los Angeles and San Francisco. Though the Diamondbacks could still make things interesting at only four games back, the possibility of a chase featuring the West Coast's fiercest rivalry is a delicious one. With both teams featuring plenty of young talent, it could also be the first chapter in a multi-season saga.
6. Will the Yankees run away with the AL East? The Yankees came into their June 11 game against Atlanta with a 34-25 record and a share of the division lead. Since then they've gone 18-8 and opened up a 7.5-game lead over the rest of the AL East field despite losing CC Sabathia for a couple of starts and Andy Pettitte for a couple of months during that time span. While such a lead is far from a guarantee of a division title, it's a nice cushion to own as the teams in the rearview mirror try to climb over each other and back into contention for the division title.
7. Stephen Strasburg's innings limit? We're almost four months into the season and we still really have no idea when or if the Nationals might pull the plug on their ace this season. GM Mike Rizzo has said the oft-cited 16o innings pitched ceiling is "a media creation" while the pitcher himself maintains he hasn't been told when his right arm might be dunked into a tank of moth balls. (Strasburg maintains that the team will have to "rip the ball" out of his hands if it indeed comes to that.)
Strasburg threw 99 innings in the first half, notching a 9-4 record and 2.82 ERA and becoming an All-Star in the process. The guess here is that Strasburg might be skipped a start here or there in the second half — particularly if the team can build on its four-game lead in the NL East — but that there's also no way you won't see Strasburg on the mound when it comes to the first game of the first postseason series in Nationals' history.
8. The Phillies as deadline sellers: With the Angels and Tigers having recovered from slow starts, there's no question that the most disappointing team in baseball is the Philadelphia Phillies. Injuries and poor play have all but ended the team's shot at its sixth straight NL East title as the Phils trail the division-leading Nationals by 14 games and a wild-card spot by 10. That should make GM Ruben Amaro's cell phone a popular dial as the trading deadline approaches and the Phillies become sellers for the first time in a long while. Cole Hamels will dominate headlines as the market's most sought-after pitcher, but the Phillies should have plenty of other attractive options including Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton. That's probably the one upside of having the most disappointing team — struggling early enough so that you can still get something in return for the players who are still regarded well by the rest of the league.
9. Can two players reach 50 homers? The last season to feature two players to hit 50 or more homers was 2007 when both Alex Rodriguez and Prince Fielder reached the mark. Since then, only one player has topped 50 with Jose Bautista hitting 54 in 2010. While no one's on a Bondsian pace in 2012, more than a few have a shot at the 50-homer mark that used to carry some weight. Bautista and Josh Hamilton lead the majors with 27 homers apiece while a late surge could carry either Adam Dunn (25) or Ryan Braun (24) to the first 50-homer season of their careers.
10. How many more no-hitters does 2012 have left? Five no-hitters were thrown in the first half, a total that included perfect games from Matt Cain and Philip Humber. What's more, the total might have been even higher if one more thing would have gone right in any of the first half's seven one-hitters (a total that included back-to-back efforts from R.A. Dickey).
The record for most no-hitters is seven, set in both 1990 and 1991. Can three more pitchers do the deed in the second half and ensure that 2012 takes the title of "Year of the No-Hitter?" Like everything else on this list, it'll be a lot of fun to wait and see.
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