As Major League Baseball emerges from the All-Star break,the finish line is starting to come into view. The four-day break affords a chance to reset starting rotations, and in places such as Washington, Los Angeles and Houston, it isn’t too early to start counting in five-day chunks to line up your Game 1 starter. Elsewhere, the wild-card standings become an essential part of each morning. The next few weeks will bring trades, injuries and returns from injury that affect the playoff races, but you can feel the days of summer dwindling, and beyond it the approach of fall.
As the second half begins, here are the nine story lines, one for each inning, that will dominate the baseball discourse in the coming weeks.
1. Playoff races. Three of the six division leaders — the Astros, Nationals and Dodgers — hold commanding (not the same as unassailable) leads, and in the National League, the Diamondbacks and Rockies are running away with the two wild cards. But no fewer than 19 teams, including 12 in the American League, enter the second half either in line for a playoff berth or within six games of one. That means critical games on the schedule every day from here on out, and some cold, hard choices to be made between now and the July 31 trade deadline.
2. Trade deadline. The defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, who open the second half 5½ games out of a playoff spot, jump-started the proceedings with a blockbuster deal Thursday for Chicago White Sox lefty Jose Quintana, at a cost of four prospects. But there will be more. Not even the Astros or Dodgers, with one eye apiece on October, are satisfied with their current rosters, and both could add a starting pitcher in the coming weeks.
Big-market contenders such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox could make small deals, and small-market contenders such as the Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays could make big ones. But no team has a more glaring need than the Nationals, who have spent the season’s first four months trying to identify a closer on their roster, only to conclude they don’t have one. There may not be any relievers like Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman available this year, but at this point, the Nationals can’t afford to be picky.
3. Aaron Judge. It may seem a reach to have the New York Yankees’ rookie phenom this high on the list, with just 111 big league games under his belt, but at times this week’s All-Star Game — where he won the Home Run Derby on Monday and batted third in the AL’s starting lineup Tuesday — felt like one big coronation of the 6-foot-7, 282-pound slugger as the next “Face of Baseball.” (Having been in his mountainous presence a few times, I prefer to think of him as the next “Torso of Baseball.”)
Already the front-runner for both the American League rookie of the year and MVP awards, Judge has a chance to make history. With 30 homers at the break, he is on pace for 57, which would shatter Mark McGwire’s 1987 rookie record of 49, and with a little luck he could make a run at 60, a threshold just five players have reached (a total of eight times), and none since Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa in 2001.
4. The Astros and Dodgers. The AL and NL’s respective juggernauts are on pace for 109 and 110 wins, which, should they keep it up, would rank them among the best regular-season teams ever. Only two teams in the last half-century have notched 110 or more wins: the 1998 New York Yankees, who won 114, and the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116.
But regular-season success, of course, does not necessarily translate to the same in October. Of the four winningest teams of the past quarter-century — the 2001 Mariners, the 1998 Yankees, the 1993 Braves (104 wins) and 2004 Cardinals (105) — only the Yankees went on to win the World Series. Which is why both the Astros and Dodgers, despite their sizeable division leads, likely aren’t done constructing their October rosters.
Keep in mind as well that, with the end of the era of “This Time It Counts,” home field advantage in the World Series no longer goes to the league that won the All-Star Game, but the team with the better record.
5. The Cubs. They get their own entry because of the pop-culture phenomenon they became in the wake of their 2016 title and their baffling underachievement in the first half, which saw practically every 2016 stalwart take a major step backward — in the case of Kyle Schwarber, a step that landed him all the way back in the minors for a spell.
Many teams that find themselves 5½ games out of a playoff spot at the break pack at in on the current season and start looking ahead to the future, but the Cubs knew they couldn’t do that, so they made one last desperation move — giving up their two top prospects in the package that landed Quintana — and will open their second half in Baltimore on Friday with a fighting chance to get back in the race.
6. Home runs. Barring a sudden, secret infusion of deadened baseballs, we are all but certain to see a record-setting number of homers this season. At the end of the first half, teams were on pace to hit 6,127 of them, which would blow away the record of 5,693 in 2000, at the height of the steroids era.
The home run spike was a constant topic of discussion at this week’s All-Star Game in Miami, with Commissioner Rob Manfred insisting again the balls aren’t juiced this year, but finding himself otherwise at a loss to explain the spike and ultimately revealing that the league has begun testing the composition of bats in an effort to find out what is going on.
7. Pitch clock. No, it isn’t coming by the end of 2017, but it is almost certainly on its way by next Opening Day. Fed up with the stalling, waiting and mound-visiting that have conspired to make this year’s average time of a nine-inning game (3 hours 5 minutes) the longest in history, Manfred is adamant about instituting a 20-second pitch clock by next season and has threatened to ram it through with or without the union’s approval.
You won’t hear much about the ongoing talks between Manfred and union chief Tony Clark, as they have vowed to conduct them out of the media sphere, but make no mistake: This is one of the biggest stories in baseball, because of its impact on future seasons.
8. NL Cy Young. There is probably no other pitcher in baseball you would want starting Game 1 of a postseason series this fall more than the Nationals’ Max Scherzer. He leads all MLB pitchers in ERA, WAR and WHIP, and has at the very least re-opened the debate over the identity of the best pitcher in the game.
True, the smart pick for that honor remains the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, for his sustained greatness and three Cy Young Awards. But Scherzer could equal him in hardware by the end of this season, and at least through the first four months of 2017, he has been the better pitcher.
9. Adrian Beltre. Let’s save a shout-out for the distinguished gentleman from Texas, the Rangers’ brilliant third baseman, who should collect his 3,000th career hit — he is currently at 2,978 — in another month or so.
His is already a compelling Hall of Fame case, which includes a home run title in 2004, five Gold Gloves and 452 career home runs. But rightly or wrongly, it could take his joining the 3,000-hit club, to put him over the top in the eyes of many voters.