Every MLB team has played more than 81 games, so technically the second half is underway. But post-All-Star break baseball is considered the second half because each team has had a few days to nurture their bumps and bruises. An exciting first half should be a precursor to a frantic second half, so here are five interesting storylines to watch when baseball officially resumes on Friday:
1. American League East will be a three-team race
It’s crowded at the top in the AL East, with three teams in contention to take the crown as Baltimore, Boston, and Toronto are all separated by just two games. Don’t completely discount the Yankees, seven back, but for all intents and purposes it’s a three-man show. Baltimore has three series remaining with Toronto and three with Boston, while Toronto and Boston have two series left. The O’s have the upper-hand in terms of their record in head-to-head play, as they’re 6-4 against the Sox and 5-5 against the Jays. The Blue Jays are 7-6 against Boston. Expect all three teams to upgrade their teams via trades. The Orioles have the biggest need in their rotation, but ultimately, Boston has the most money and has already begun to retool by adding Aaron Hill, Michael Martinez, and dominant reliever Brad Ziegler. Toronto needs bullpen help, although it doesn’t figure to make any big splashes in that department. If Baltimore’s rotation can simply be average the rest of the way, it should be the favorite to win the East. Closer Zach Britton has been perfect in 27 save opportunities, and before you scoff at the notion he can make it through a rugged second-half schedule flawless, just remember that Jose Valverde was perfect in 49 chances for Detroit in 2011. Ergo, anything is possible.
2. Daniel Murphy: National League MVP?
Don’t even think about snickering at this possibility. Those of you that do are probably the same people who said Murphy’s incredible 2015 postseason was a fluke and that the Nationals were grasping at straws by prying him away from the Mets. But Murphy is as deserving as any candidate. He leads the Senior Circuit with a .348 batting average, 117 hits, and 201 total bases. Considering pitchers are still tentative giving Bryce Harper anything to hit, Murphy’s ascension is all the more critical for the first-place Nationals, who should be able to hold their six-game National League East cushion and win the division for the third time in five years. Murphy faces still competition from the likes of Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, and of course teammate Harper, but don’t count him out of the race just yet. And as he goes, so too will the Nats the rest of the way. And did I mention that he has a pretty good October track record?
3. Trade deadline frenzy
Recent years have been as crazy as any in terms of big names moving teams at the non-waiver deadline, thanks in large part to the second wild card. This year’s starting pitching market is incredibly thin, but that doesn’t mean some big names won’t be on the move. Julio Teheran and Sonny Gray are likely to get traded, as is Aroldis Chapman. Pitching is at such a premium that it’s easy to forget the possibility of some big bats finding new homes, too, but players like Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Danny Valencia, and Jonathan Lucroy may all be available come late July. Count on either Teheran, Gray, or Jeremy Hellickson ending up in Boston, as GM Dave Dombrowski has never been afraid to pull the trigger on a big trade. Baltimore also needs starting pitching help, while contenders like the Rangers, Cubs, Nationals, and Blue Jays are all hot after bullpen reinforcements. Most of the recent championship teams all made significant trades at the deadline. The Royals added Cueto and Ben Zobrist, while the Giants nabbed Jake Peavy in 2014 and Hunter Pence in 2012. Peavy was also a key acquisition for the Red Sox in 2013.
4. Will the Yanks tank?
At 44-44, it’s hard to figure out just who the Yankees are, what they will do, and whether they are a serious threat in 2016. Never ones to go in the seller direction, this could finally be the season, but I for one won’t believe it until I see it. The only big name that makes sense to move is Chapman, as he is a free agent at season’s end and is part of a surplus in the Bombers’ dominant bullpen. Andrew Miller is still under contract for two more years at an affordable $9 million per season, and there’s no way the Yankees will part ways with Dellin Betances. It will be hard for them to move big contracts of pending free agents like Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, although the latter’s name has been floated as a possibility for a team like the Giants. Given that the .500 Yanks are not dead yet, and they are still the Yankees, I can’t see them having a serious fire sale. That’s not to say Chapman or even Beltran won’t get moved, but that hardly would constitute waving the white flag.
5. The wild wild-card chase
There are so many teams in the thick of things that it is impossible to predict what matchups we’ll see in the one-game wild card playoff this year. We do know that being on the road means pretty much nothing, as the visitors are 6-2 all time in wild card games. There are a number of teams that are made all the more dangerous because of the ability to run out a dominant ace in a do-or-die scenario. The Dodgers, at home, with Kershaw on the hill? The Marlins with Jose Fernandez in tow, or the Mets with Noah Syndergaard? How about the Pirates with Gerrit Cole (assuming he comes back healthy from a triceps injury), the Cardinals with Adam Wainwright, the Red Sox with David Price, or the Blue Jays with Aaron Sanchez? The wealth of power arms available for a one-game playoff make almost any team — at least one with a true ace — a scary proposition for any non-division-winner fighting to get to the Division Series. Whether you like the second wild card or hate it, one thing is indisputable — there is a more of a premium than ever to win your division.