— Since we all had the Pirates, White Sox and Nationals leading their respective divisions, R.A. Dickey tied for the MLB win lead and the Orioles and Mets in wildcard contention at the break, here are some thoughts and predictions on key second-half storylines:
Handicapping the AL playoff chase
From the misleading stats dept., 11 AL teams are at .500 or better at the break. That's only possible due to the AL's dominance in interleague play (the true measure of who should get home-field advantage in the World Series), and of course, that has ended for this season.
So in other words, pretenders are going to start dropping quickly from a chase that has 11 of 14 teams within 2 1/2 games of the second wild card. Who stays in, and who falls out? Choose your own order, but the Yankees, Rangers and Angels will be playing in October. That leaves races for the AL Central and the second wild card team.
We'll still play process of elimination in the Central. The Indians are 11th in the AL in run differential — worse than even the Mariners, who can't score, as well as the Royals and Twins.
That's evidence the Tribe just doesn't have enough pitching to carry their lack of consistent production from an overly left-handed lineup, and another Ubaldo Jimenez-type deal doesn't seem likely.
As positive as the Robin Ventura-for-Ozzie Guillen exchange has turned out to be, the White Sox have eight rookies on their pitching staff. And although you don't hear as much about it as Stephen Strasburg's situation, converted reliever Chris Sale also could be facing some late-season innings restriction.
But the Kevin Youkilis trade shows General Manager Kenny Williams is in buyer mode, and given the tough schedules facing all East contenders, the Sox could be in both races to stay.
That leaves the Tigers, who stumble and bumble along with the division's most talented but poorly constructed roster. Their schedule is very tough coming out of the break, but very easy down the stretch (two series each with the Royals and Twins, and one with the A's).
So if the rest of July goes well — they were 6-2 going into the break — watch for a strong finish. And remember, owner Mike Ilitch turns 83 next week, and is desperate to win now, so count on some roster additions.
How the Rays keep winning with their financial limitations and lineup really is one of the game's most underrated and stunning developments in this century.
But as that old baseball sage Chipper Jones recently put it, "Great pitching beats big boppers nine times out of 10.'' We'll take our chances with those odds on the Rays as the other wildcard.
The Orioles currently have that spot, but as previously detailed here, they are 12th in the AL in run differential, went into the break on an 18-26 slide and the rotation is in upheaval.
As for the Red Sox, you can point to the impending returns of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Clay Buchholz and others, but there's still something that feels wrong about this team.
It's an undeniable fact that their veteran core stars haven't won a playoff game since 2008, choked away last season's opportunity and aren't doing much to instill the hope of something different (David Ortiz, the exception). Also, the second-half schedule is brutal.
Ditto on the schedule for the A's and Jays. The former does have great starting pitching, while the latter has lost three-fifths of its rotation, and will have a hard time out-slugging everybody down the stretch.
Hamels and Greinke
The Phillies and Brewers are toast in 2012, and all indications are that neither team can re-sign its ace before the trade deadline. So we have the very likely scenario of impending deals here, not to mention those for Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Wandy Rodriguez.
The Phillies will see Joe Blanton, Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco fall off their payroll this winter, but they almost certainly won't go the necessary six or seven years to keep Hamels. So he's heading for huge money from an elite-market team this offseason, regardless of where he may end up before July 31.
The parallels here are Cliff Lee in 2009 — rent-a-player in Texas before signing with Philadelphia that offseason — and CC Sabathia's three months with the Brewers before signing with the Yankees.
Greinke's social shortcomings will severely limit his options — no big markets for him — and of course, the financial package he'll land this offseason.
Among the revenue heavyweights, the Rangers have the best package to offer for either, but that's risky particularly in Hamels' case, with the Yankees and the two Los Angeles teams able to spend this offseason for the San Diego native.
Bird and Magic?
Just last fall, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout were teammates on an underachieving Scottsdale Scorpions team in the Arizona Fall League. Now they're the next Mantle and Mays. Are we guilty of too much hype here? Nobody around the game seems to think so.
Both already are great players — likely Rookies of the Year, and Trout a solid MVP candidate — and what they're doing before their 21st birthdays (Trout is 20, Harper 19) point to Cooperstown-like career arcs.
If there's a rivalry between them, it's strictly friendly. Together during an All-Star festivities interview session, Trout joked: "We don't like each other.'' Harper added: "It's like Bird and Magic. He's Magic; I'm Bird.''
They have astounding talent, play the game the right way, say all the right things and know that for as much impact as they have had so early in their careers there's so much left to accomplish.
"You have to earn your way; earn your respect,'' Trout said. "If you don't give it, you're not going to give it back.''
So, lucky us as fans.
And as for the distant future, Harper did drop this hint: "I hope I play with him one day, I'll tell you that. Him playing center field, me playing right … that would be quite a 1-2 punch.''
The Upton Exchange
As soon as the end of this month, and certainly before next season, B.J. and Justin Upton likely will be wearing different uniforms.
B.J. is a certainty to leave the Rays, as all of their veteran stars do when they reach free agency. So the calculation the Rays' astute front office has to make is do they trade him before the deadline, or keep him and take their chances at coming out of a crowded field of AL wild card candidates? The latter seems more likely.
One important variable has changed with the new Basic Agreement, and that will hurt the marketability of rent-a-players. Teams that acquire them for a stretch run won't get draft pick compensation when they leave in free agency. And given the Rays' deep offensive deficiencies, it's quite possible they'll just keep Upton's bat in their lineup, and take their chances.
Justin's situation isn't as certain. It's clear the D-backs are listening, and his problems with the Chase Field fan base lend more instability. Still, it would take an enticing package that includes young big-league contributors (think third base, shortstop or pitching help) and/or a near-ready prospect), as the D-backs are in win-now mode.
That can be a tough combination to put together in midseason, but if Justin doesn't finish strong and restore his position as a franchise cornerstone, it says here he'll be moved elsewhere this offseason.
Can the Braves overcome the memory of last season's collapse — not to mention some pitching and offense issues — to send off Chipper Jones with a final postseason appearance? For Jones' sake, you can only hope so.
It's a measure of the respect Jones has earned around the game that Royals fans gave him a rousing ovation during his All-Star Game appearance, even though that marked the first and only time he appeared at Kauffman Stadium.
Afterward, Jones wasn't waffling about hanging on another year. Instead, he was talking about knowing that it's time, and enjoying a spring break with his family for the first time.
As much as his Hall of Fame-level talent that has produced 460 homers, and almost 2,700 hits, 1,600 RBI and 160 runs, we'll miss his gift of gab. Talking about his precocious 6-year-old, Jones said:
"He's the one who looks the most like me, and he's paying me back for all the bad things I did as a kid. How fitting is it that he's named Shea?''