Surprise teams, returns from injuries could determine second half of baseball season

Second baseman Dustin Pedroia is one of several Red Sox players expected to return from injury within the next month.
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia is one of several Red Sox players expected to return from injury within the next month. (Charles Krupa/associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010

ANAHEIM, CALIF. -- In one sense, the outcome of Tuesday night's All-Star Game ended a period of tyranny by the American League East division. Since baseball began attaching home-field advantage in the World Series to the outcome of the Midsummer Classic in 2003, an AL East team enjoyed that privilege in five of the seven Series that followed.

Thanks to the National League's 3-1 victory at Angel Stadium on Tuesday night, it would be an NL team that hosts a potential World Series Game 7 this November -- and based on the current standings, it quite possibly could be a team that hasn't witnessed a Fall Classic in many an age.

All three NL division leaders at the all-star break -- the San Diego Padres (last World Series appearance: 1998) in the West, the Cincinnati Reds (1990) in the Central and the Atlanta Braves (1999) in the East -- must be considered surprises, at least to varying extents. For that matter, Detroit (2006) in the AL Central and Texas (zero World Series appearances) in the AL West would qualify as well. Only the New York Yankees (2009) in the AL East, among current first-place teams, can be considered a consensus preseason pick.

As the season's second half opens Thursday night, there is still much to be decided and much to be done.

Contenders or pretenders?

1.None of the six first-place teams at the break had leads of more than 4 1/2 games, the first time that could be said since the dawn of the wild-card era. No fewer than 10 teams in the NL and eight teams in the AL are within five games of a postseason slot. So the teams that would make the playoffs today (your wild-card winners, incidentally, would be Tampa Bay and Colorado) won't necessarily be the ones who ultimately qualify.

Some of the current first-place teams are still having a hard time convincing folks they are for real, and all are being chased by some potentially dangerous teams -- the Phillies in the NL East and the Cardinals in the NL Central come immediately to mind -- but if you arrive in mid-July in first place, you are by definition not a fluke.

"I think we have the pitching to hold up [in first place] down the stretch," said Cincinnati slugger Joey Votto, arguably the first-half MVP of the NL. "We're where we are because of our pitching. We'd be no good if it hadn't had consistent, steady starting pitching and a trustworthy bullpen."

Deadline deals

2.The unofficial start of the second half came last week, when the Rangers pulled off a blockbuster trade for lefty Cliff Lee -- a move that seemed as much designed with October in mind as for July, August and September.

"They were already doing pretty good before I got there, and that had nothing to do with me," Lee said Monday of his new team. "They already have leaders. They already have guys who can carry the team. I just want to do my part to help."

As the July 31 trade deadline looms, the list of available talent is impressive. It could include, in no particular order, Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt; Cleveland pitchers Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook and Kerry Wood; Washington Nationals sluggers Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham; Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jeremy Guthrie and infielder Ty Wigginton; Chicago Cubs lefty Ted Lilly and Milwaukee Brewers all-star Corey Hart.

And there is no shortage of contending teams looking for help. The Padres, Giants and Rays all need an impact bat, and Atlanta helped itself Wednesday by acquiring Toronto shortstop Alex González. The Yankees and Tigers need help in the seventh and eighth innings. The Phillies, Mets and Twins are in desperate need of starting pitching.

It is quite likely, in other words, that at least one playoff race is going to be decided by which teams hit big at the trade deadline.

Off the DL

3.Plenty of teams in the coming weeks are going to get the boost of an additional impact player without having to make a trade. Nowhere is that more true than in Boston, where the third-place Red Sox -- overwhelmed by injuries this season -- are due to see the returns of second baseman Dustin Pedroia, pitchers Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz and Manny Delcarmen, catchers Victor Martínez and Jason Varitek, and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury within the next month or so.

"I've never seen anything like this, or heard of anything like this happening to another team," Buchholz, a first-time all-star, said this week. "But the people who have filled in have done an amazing job of keeping us in [contention], and hopefully as we start getting guys back we'll start to take off."

Other teams expected to get critical pieces back soon are the Rockies (shortstop Troy Tulowitzki), Phillies (second baseman Chase Utley and third baseman Plácido Polanco), Mets (center fielder Carlos Beltrán), Dodgers (left fielder Manny Ramírez) and Reds (starting pitcher Edinson Vólquez).

Innings limits

4.The industry-wide fear of overextending young pitchers could cost some teams down the stretch. Already, we have seen the Yankees skip one of Phil Hughes's starts, with more skipped starts and extra days off to come.

In San Diego, the Padres are keeping close tabs on 22-year-old ace-in-training Mat Latos, who is already up to 106 2/3 innings after throwing only 123 (minors and majors combined) in all of 2009. He could get the skipped-start treatment down the stretch -- or he could go on the disabled list for a strained muscle in his side that cropped up two weeks ago.

"We've talked about limiting his innings, yes," Padres Manager Bud Black, a coach for the All-Star Game, said. "At his age, we need to protect him."

St. Louis Cardinals rookie Jaime Garcia is also a candidate for a summer break. Coming off elbow surgery, he threw only 37 2/3 innings in 2009, but is on pace for almost 190 this year.

Harper watch

5. In Washington, fans will be standing by anxiously the rest of the summer as team officials negotiate with uber-agent Scott Boras over the reigning Golden Spikes Award winner (given to the nation's top collegiate player) and No. 1 overall pick of the June draft.

Sound familiar? A year ago, that scenario played out just fine, as Boras and the Nationals came to terms on pitcher Stephen Strasburg. This time, the client is catcher/outfielder Bryce Harper. Although some of the circumstances are slightly different, the talks aren't even expected to heat up until the days just before the Aug. 16 signing deadline, and a deal probably won't be done until minutes before midnight -- just like last year.

Still, most industry observers expect Harper to ultimately sign with the Nationals, for a contract figure that rests somewhere between the previous high for a position player (Mark Teixeira's $9.5 million) and Strasburg's all-time record of $15.1 million.

Showalter era

6.It appears the Orioles, who lurched to the all-star break with the worst record in baseball, are prepared to announce the hiring of Buck Showalter as Dave Trembley's replacement in the manager's office.

The bold move would end a month-long search process and snap a string of three straight rookie managers (Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo and Trembley), perhaps sending a message that a change in culture is what was needed. Showalter has his detractors -- he is known as a micro-manager and an abrasive personality. But given the Orioles' history, maybe those attributes are not such a bad thing.

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