SweetSpot: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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All I can say is I hope we get a Tigers-A's postseason series. What a great deadline day, full of intrigue, interesting trades, trades to discuss and argue about, happy fans and dejected fans. The sight of Austin Jackson being pulled from center field in the middle of a game sums up the trade deadline: Anything can happen. We just had two of the best left-handers in the game traded in David Price and Jon Lester -- from two teams that were in the playoffs a year ago. Last year's World Series champ traded two starters from last year's rotation, on top of trading Jake Peavy last week.

Usually, I say the impact of the trade deadline is overhyped and overrated. Not this year.

OK, some winners and losers of this year's trade deadline ...

WINNERS

[+] EnlargeDavid Price
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWith the acquisition of left-hander David Price, the Tigers now have three Cy Young winners in their starting rotation.
Detroit Tigers: With Price, the Tigers now have a rotation with three Cy Young winners, plus they were last year's American League Central champs. Heck, Justin Verlander is clearly the fifth-best starter on the Tigers at the moment. Yes, Detroit is on the hook for whatever Price will earn in arbitration for next year -- $19-20 million or so -- but I don't think Tigers owner Mike Ilitch cares too much about that. The Tigers get an ace starter for Austin Jackson (free agent after 2015), midrotation lefty Drew Smyly (3.77 ERA) and a minor league shortstop. I'll take that deal. Rajai Davis can slide over to center field, and while the outfield defense will be poor with Torii Hunter and J.D. Martinez in the outfield corners, you can run out a playoff rotation of Price, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Verlander (or Rick Porcello). The Tigers will be in the playoffs for the fourth season in a row. This may be the year.

Oakland Athletics: I love the Lester trade like I loved Edgar Martinez driving the ball into the right-field corner or Ken Griffey Jr. turning on a 2-0 fastball. It's a beautiful thing Billy Beane pulled off. There is a huge premium to winning the division and avoiding what Joe Sheehan labels the Coin Flip Game, and Lester gives the A's a better chance of doing that, especially when factoring in Jason Hammel's struggles since coming over from the Cubs, and Jesse Chavez hitting a wall as he soars past his professional high in innings pitched. Can the A's replace Yoenis Cespedes' production? Not quite, but the offense doesn't take a huge hit with a Jonny Gomes-Sam Fuld platoon, the two other players the A's acquired Thursday:

Cespedes versus LHP, 2013-2014: .262/.347/.492
Gomes versus LHP, 2013-2014: .264/.370/.440

Cespedes versus RHP, 2013-2014: .241/.278/.436
Fuld versus RHP, 2014: .250/.343/.340

I cheated a little bit there, since Fuld was terrible in 2013. The A's lose power but pick up better on-base guys. It's actually a pretty even tradeoff, assuming Gomes and Fuld play at that level. The A's have other options, as well: Against right-handers, they could put Derek Norris behind the plate, DH John Jaso and play Stephen Vogt in the outfield instead of Fuld. The A's still have lineup flexibility to replace Cespedes, and they picked up one of the hottest starters in the game.

Plus, consider that under Beane, the A's have played 13 postseason games that would have won a playoff series -- and lost 12 of them. Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder started two of those games, but other starters included Gil Heredia, Cory Lidle, Ted Lilly, Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily. Now, depending on how the rotation lines up, it could be Lester, Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija or Scott Kazmir, all with ERAs below 3.00 on the season (Samardzija has a 3.19 ERA with the A's). Oakland's future is always going to be uncertain, so why not put all your chips on the table and hope you finally get the lucky card?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester4
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsThe Jon Lester trade gives the Athletics a rotation that's built for October.
Boston Red Sox: Usually, trading a guy like Lester brings in prospects, but the Red Sox have plenty of prospects and young players, so why not bring in a proven commodity such as Cespedes to help in 2015? The John Lackey trade for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly is less certain, given Craig's poor season and Kelly's uncertainty as a starter. But Craig just turned 30 and hit above .300 in 2012 and 2013, so he's a good bounce-back candidate. Kelly isn't a big strikeout guy, but he does have a power two-seam fastball that induces a lot of ground balls. Maybe he ends up in the bullpen, but he'll get a chance to start. The other benefit: The Red Sox currently have the seventh-worst record in the majors, so they'll likely finish with one of the 10 worst records, which means they can sign a free agent this offseason (think Max Scherzer) and not lose their first-round pick.

St. Louis Cardinals: They picked up Lackey and Masterson without giving up prized outfielder Oscar Taveras or Carlos Martinez. Sure, David Price would have been a sexier pickup to line up behind Adam Wainwright in a potential playoff rotation, but Lackey/Masterson is a solid Plan B. Still, the Cardinals have had pretty good results all season from the rotation (fifth-best ERA in the majors), but they weren't sure what they were going to get from Kelly, Martinez or Shelby Miller moving forward. These deals didn't address the offense -- they're next to last in the NL in runs -- but with 10 games left against the Brewers, the division is still theirs for the taking.

Cleveland Indians: I like both trades. They dumped two impending free agents having poor seasons in Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera and got two players who should turn into major leaguers. James Ramsey and Zach Walters won't be stars, but they could be starters or useful bench players. Ramsey was a first-round pick in 2012, can play center field and is having a fine season in Double-A, although he's repeating the level. Walters, hitting .300/.358/.603 at Triple-A Syracuse, looks like a super utility kind of a guy as he's played all three infield positions and the outfield.

Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees: The Orioles and Blue Jays each have six games remaining against the Red Sox, while the Yankees have nine and now won't have to face Lester or Lackey in any of those games.

Seattle Mariners: They added Jackson and Chris Denorfia, much-needed right-handed bats, but Denorfia has been terrible this year, and Jackson is hardly an impact offensive player. It's not that the Franklin-for-Jackson deal is a bad trade, but it could backfire as Jackson has just one more year before free agency. On the other hand, less Endy Chavez is a good thing.

LOSERS

Tampa Bay Rays: They were only 5.5 out of the wild card. Yes, they had to jump over five teams to get into the second wild-card spot, but it was possible. I guess in the end, the Rays simply wouldn't be able to afford Price's contract next year and felt they had to trade him now. I'm just not sure Smyly and Nick Franklin are going to be long-term difference-makers. The perpetual recycling continues, but eventually the trades aren't going to all work out, and the Rays will have to start producing their own talent again.

Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates had the prospects to potentially work out a deal for Lester or Price, but Neal Huntington couldn't pull the trigger. It's a club that doesn't have any gaping holes, but the Pirates missed the opportunity to get an ace. They can still win the Central, but if they fall short ... well, I guess there's always 2015 or 2016 or whenever all the prospects mature.

Los Angeles Angels: They had already shored up the bullpen with Huston Street, Jason Grilli and Joe Thatcher, but now they have to try to catch the A's with a rotation that includes Hector Santiago, Matt Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs. The Angels aren't worse than they were yesterday, but the A's are better, and the second-best team in the majors may be relegated to the wild-card game.

The rest of the AL Central: Scherzer is likely gone as a free agent, but now the Tigers will have Price in 2015.

San Francisco Giants: They needed a second baseman but didn't get one. The earlier trade for Peavy isn't as inspiring as the Cardinals getting Lackey. The Dodgers still look like the favorite in the NL West.

Philadelphia Phillies: And ... nothing. Enjoy 2015, Phillies fans!
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

Huston Street is one of those closers who, when he comes in to face your team, always makes you think your boys have a chance for a comeback. Listed at 6-feet, he's not an intimidating presence and doesn't throw smoldering fastballs or wipeout splitters or bat-breaking cutters. He has that funky delivery when the bases are empty, in which he takes a big step to the side with his left leg and sort of drags his right plant leg across the rubber, like he's drawing a starting line in the dirt, and then taps his toe before going into his windup. He kicks his knee up and sort of scrunches his chin down and his shoulders together, like a dog curled up for a rest.

It's a form of deception -- maybe working to hide the ball just a little or present a motion batters aren't used to seeing -- enough to help his stuff play better than a scouting report would ever suggest. His fastball has averaged 89.4 mph this year -- his fastest has been a mere 91.8 mph -- velocity that hardly screams "closer."

But that's what Street has been in the major leagues since the A's made him a supplemental first-round pick out of the University of Texas in 2004. He was closing a year later and won American League Rookie of the Year honors with 23 saves and a 1.72 ERA. At his best, he leaves batters guessing, confused and probably shaking their heads in frustration as they head back to the dugout.

Take, for instance, Miguel Cabrera on Sunday. Brought in to protect a 2-1 lead in the ninth for the Angels after David Freese had homered in the eighth off Joba Chamberlain, Street retired Austin Jackson on a fly ball to center and Ian Kinsler on a grounder to first. That left Cabrera. Street is basically a fastball/slider guy, who mixes in the occasional changeup (his breakdown on the season: fastballs 50 percent, sliders 33 percent, changeups 17 percent). That ratio hasn't really changed much in recent years. Two fastballs for every slider; two sliders for every changeup. His two-seam fastball has some sink, though he tends to pitch up in the zone with it. He's been prone to home runs at times, especially in 2013, when he allowed 12 in just 56.2 innings with the Padres.

On this day, however, it was nothing but fastballs and sliders. He threw Jackson five straight sliders before finally getting him with a fastball. He started Kinsler off with a slider before retiring him on a 1-1 fastball. Cabrera swung through a first-pitch slider on the outside corner and then took a fastball for a strike, a pitch that might have been just off the plate. The 0-2 pitch was another slider, off the plate and in the dirt, but Cabrera read or thought fastball and flailed harmlessly for strike three.

This is exactly why the Angels acquired Street -- for those tough saves in one-run games against good clubs. It allows Mike Scioscia to stretch out his bullpen. Underrated Joe Smith is back in a setup role and pitched a perfect eighth inning. Rookie Mike Morin, a 12th-round pick in 2012 out of North Carolina, struck out three in 1 2/3 perfect innings and lowered his ERA to 2.50. Throw in the recently acquired veteran, Jason Grilli, plus Kevin Jepsen (1.84 ERA, .164 average allowed) and lefty Joe Thatcher, and the Angels' bullpen suddenly looks like a strength, not the weak spot it was the first two months of the season.

It's been a complete bullpen makeover for the Angels. Look at how the bullpen stacked up coming out of spring training:

  • Closer: Ernesto Frieri
  • Setup: Smith
  • Middle: Michael Kohn, Nick Maronde (L), Fernando Salas
  • Mopup/long relief: Jepsen, Matt Shoemaker


  • Only Smith and Jepsen remain from that original group (Salas was just optioned to Triple-A Salt Lake), with Shoemaker now doing a solid job in the rotation. Give credit to general manager Jerry Dipoto for making some moves, but it's also a reflection of the often volatile nature of bullpens. Who could have predicted Morin's rise (he was Baseball America's No. 14 prospect for the Angels heading into the season) or Jepsen having the best year of his career? Bullpens can go up and down from year to year -- or, often, within a year.

    This group reminds me a bit of what happened with the Cardinals back in 2011 on their way to a World Series title. That club had bullpen issues much of the season, as eight different relievers saved games, and two closers (Ryan Franklin and Salas) lost their jobs. Franklin, like Frieri, didn't last the season with the club. The Cardinals picked up Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski at the trade deadline and signed Arthur Rhodes. By the time Jason Motte finally became the closer, the bullpen had turned into a strength and was key as the Cardinals beat the Rangers in seven games.

    If you need more evidence of the rising strength of the Angels' bullpen, check out the following monthly totals:

  • April: 4.37 ERA, .239/.343/.397, 2.02 K/BB ratio
  • May: 4.46 ERA, .225/.308/.362, 2.21 K/BB ratio
  • June: 4.00 ERA, .251/.334/.400, 2.55 K/BB ratio
  • July: 1.90 ERA, .205/.248/.259, 5.20 K/BB ratio


  • Expect Mike Scioscia to lean even more on this group over the final two months, like he did Sunday when he pulled Hector Santiago after 85 pitches in the sixth inning. Santiago had allowed a one-out hit to Jackson, but with Kinsler and Cabrera up, Scioscia wanted a right-hander to face the meat of the Detroit lineup. Morin, who has held righties to a .157 average, got the call. Morin throws 90 to 94 mph with his fastball but has a very good changeup and developing slider. He struck out both Kinsler and Cabrera on changeups.

    A lot will still depend on Street, however. Maybe he's not cut from the prototypical closer mold. But he's been getting major league hitters out for a long time. He has depth in front of him. The Angels are looking good.

    If you're the Oakland A's, I'd be very worried about the team breathing down your neck.

    Angels' rotation may be their weak link

    July, 22, 2014
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    The Angels are the second-best team in baseball. Win or lose going into Monday night’s game against the AL East-leading Orioles, they were going to be the second-best team in baseball after the fact. They lost, missing the chance to move within a game of the A’s in the AL West race. But it’s July and there’s still plenty of time, so there’s no reason to sweat, right?

    Certainly not, at least not if you look at the big picture and the projection models at FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus, which say the Angels have a 98 or 99 percent shot at the playoffs. Slam-dunk sure thing? Sounds like it.

    But there’s a problem with that: It doesn’t mean all that much in the era of the one-game play-in wild-card “round.” The Angels' shot at winning the AL West is calculated as much less of a sure thing, from the 20 percent range according to analyst Clay Davenport, to the 30s for FanGraphs, or the 40s for Baseball Prospectus. These are roughly the same as the chances of the Blue Jays coming back to win the AL East and then also not having to sweat a one-or-done scenario despite probably being 10 games worse than the Angels at season’s end. Saying the Angels’ shot at playing their way into the one-game coin-toss of the wild card is around 60 or 70 percent is like saying their chance of their season ending a day or two after the regular season is still astonishingly likely.

    [+] EnlargeMatt Shoemaker
    Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMatt Shoemaker's loss was the latest tough start for the Angels' non-Richards rotation regulars.
    Unless they beat the A’s and win the West. Unless they make their math problem now into Oakland’s math problem tomorrow. That’s their challenge, and losing games like Monday’s will only make it harder.

    To pull this off in the long weeks to come, they’re going to have to find a happier answer in their rotation than the ones they’ve found so far. While the trades for Jason Grilli and Huston Street may have shored up their bullpen, there’s the larger problem of how good their rotation really is outside of newly minted ace and All-Star Garrett Richards. Assuming that Jered Weaver’s back is sound all the way down the stretch, he hasn’t overpowered strong teams’ lineups, seeing his OPS jump 50 points and his WHIP increase by 0.3 facing teams that are .500 or better; unsurprisingly, his FIP is 4.12, which suggests sturdy mediocrity, not the ace he once was. C.J. Wilson won’t be back from his DL stint for a sprained ankle until after the trade deadline; even if he’s sound, his 4.29 FIP doesn’t suggest he’s a solid No. 2, either. And the back-end trio of Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker have put together just 15 quality starts in their 38 turns.

    To catch the A’s, the Angels are going to need not just one guy but several guys to step up down the stretch. Not just because you can’t count on a league-best offense to crank out five or more runs every night, but because the Angels need to have somebody else besides Richards to use in those potentially scary end-of-year situations. What if Richards has to pitch in the last weekend series against the Mariners but the Angels don’t catch the A’s then? What if they have to play a tiebreaker? Who pitches the wild-card game? Where does that leave them in the ALDS? They’ll need some of the non-Richards starters to step up, not just to keep up with the A’s and their shored-up rotation, but to be able to win October games when they don’t put five or six runs on the scoreboard.

    That was why Shoemaker’s start against Baltimore was a little more important than just another late-July turn. Barring a trade, somebody is going to be bumped once Wilson comes back from the DL. Even on a night when he struck out a career-high 10 batters, seeing Shoemaker get beaten deep twice by Adam Jones was the sort of thing that won’t keep the rookie ahead of Skaggs or Santiago, not that either of them is owning his slot.

    To be sure, the Angels should be grateful things are this close. Thanks in large part to early-season bullpen problems of their own, the A’s are four games worse than you’d project from their runs scored and allowed, which is a big part of the reason they are within striking range for the Angels, even after Oakland went 20-10 in its past 30 games. All it took was the Angels going 22-8 in their past 30 before Monday, no easy thing to do with a rotation that may struggle to match the A’s made-over, Jeff Samardzija-enhanced rotation in the last 60 games.

    If Wilson or Weaver, Shoemaker or Skaggs steps up, things will be that much more interesting all the way down to the wire. If not, the Angels may be one of those great teams that, like the 1993 Giants, wind up getting to brag about how great they were without getting much of an opportunity to prove it come October. Those Giants were caught from behind by the Braves, San Francisco winning 103 games for the second-best record in baseball … and no October invite. The Halos have to hope they’ll earn something more than one game better than that -- but more than hoping for it, they’ll have to do it.


    Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

    Angels' bullpen woes may be over

    July, 19, 2014
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    After all of the hue and cry over the Angels’ bullpen woes, you’d have to think that the decision to trade for closer Huston Street after already getting Jason Grilli from the Pirates would answer their needs. Angels manager Mike Scioscia was second in the league in relievers used (behind Cleveland), sorting through answers to a relief crew that, per Baseball Prospectus, was second-worst in the league at preventing inherited baserunners to score, allowing 6.1 more runs than you’d expect (with the Tigers owning the dubious honor of being even worse, with 10.3 runs more than expected allowed on inherited baserunners).

    My quick takeaways from general manager Jerry Dipoto’s decision to go after Street?

    1. Getting Grilli and Street is comparable to the Marlins’ midseason bullpen overhaul in 2003. The Marlins had a similarly lousy pen in-season, but they fixed all that when they stopped getting hung up on Braden Looper’s virtues and went out and got Ugueth Urbina and Chad Fox, bumping Looper, their erstwhile closer, forward into earlier in-game situations. Guess what’s going to happen with Joe Smith? Which is not a bad thing for anyone concerned, because Joe Smith joining Grilli, Kevin Jepsen, Fernando Salas and Mike Morin in the mix in the seventh and eighth innings sounds like a very good thing.

    But wait, aren’t all of those guys right-handed?

    [+] EnlargeHuston Street
    Denis Poroy/Getty ImagesHuston Street should be as fired up to join the Angels as they are about adding him.
    2. Not enough lefties? No problem. The one thing the Angels haven’t done in the course of their bullpen makeover is get an awesome lefty, settling for adding veteran Joe Thatcher as a token southpaw. Thatcher probably won't get entrusted with lots of leads, but as Scioscia demonstrated quite effectively while winning a World Series in 2002, you don’t have to have even one top-shelf situational lefty in your pen; he kept Scott Schoeneweis around as his lone token lefty threat, but he relied on Brendan Donnelly, Ben Weber and Francisco Rodriguez to protect leads and set up closer Troy Percival. In 2004, Scioscia got exactly two innings of lefty relief on the season; the Angels nevertheless won 92 games and the AL West. In 2005, he ramped it all the way up to just 31 ⅓ relief innings from lefties; the Angels won 95 games and the AL West.

    Now, no doubt some of you La Russa groupies might quail at this prospect, but Street is exactly the sort of asset whom Scioscia can use and win with. As Stats & Info pointed out last night, Street has been essentially indifferent to handedness of late, in that he can beat people on either side of the plate by hitting low-and-outside spots with machine-like consistency. And Grilli has been similarly effective against lefties over time, holding them to a .293 slugging percentage across the last three seasons.

    So the Angels may be good to go with just these two, although I’d anticipate that if there’s something else Dipoto can pick up cheaply between now and Sept. 1, you can bet he will. But there’s the rub, because…

    3. Much like the A’s deciding to trade away Addison Russell in the Samardzija and Hammel deal, this may be the Angels’ last major move. The Angels (like the A’s) don’t have much in the way of ready-now farm talent they could call up, and after this trade, they don’t have a stock of farm talent to deal from. Per Keith Law’s preseason rankings of one of baseball’s worst farm systems (ranking 29th), Dipoto just dealt three of the Angels’ top 10 prospects in second baseman Taylor Lindsey (third in Keith’s rankings, No. 1 over at Baseball America), shortstop Jose Rondon (fifth, per Keith) and righty R.J. Alvarez (ninth).

    Unless the Angels start dealing players at the major league level, potentially robbing Peter to pay Paul, this may have to be it for them. But a relief quintet of Street, Grilli, Jepsen, Salas and Morin might be more than enough to get it done for the Halos down the stretch. Credit Dipoto for working within his limited means to trade from, and giving a win-now Angels team a great shot at not just catching the A’s, but having the kind of relief talent to win with in October.


    Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
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    One player won't make or break a team's playoff push, but here is one key guy for each American League club in the second half.

    Baltimore Orioles -- Chris Davis
    Let's divide Davis' last two years into halves:

    Second half, 2012: .269/.337/.530, .338 BABIP, .261 ISO, 32% SO, 8% BB, 31% HR/FB
    First half, 2013: .315/.392/.717, .355 BABIP, .402 ISO, 28% SO, 10% BB, 33% HR/FB
    Second half, 2013: .245/.339/.515, .309 BABIP, .270 ISO, 32% SO, 12% BB, 21% HR/FB
    First half, 2014: .199/.309/.391, .252 BABIP, .192 ISO, 32% SO, 12% BB, 23% HR/FB

    I don't know what to make of any of this, except that Davis is probably not as good as the first half of 2013 and not as bad as the first half of 2014. A major reason the Orioles need a better second half from Davis is that among AL players with at least 200 plate appearances, Steve Pearce ranked fourth in wOBA in the first half and Nelson Cruz ranked 11th. Assuming some decline from those two, Davis will have to pick up the slack.


    Toronto Blue Jays: Colby Rasmus
    Everybody keeps talking about the Blue Jays needing a starter, but from June 1 through the All-Star break only the Red Sox scored fewer runs than the Jays -- and now Edwin Encarnacion is out a few weeks with a quad injury. Rasmus hit .212/.266/.453 in the first half; the 12 home runs were nice, nothing else was. He hit .276 with a .338 OBP last year so there's hope for a turnaround.

    New York Yankees: Masahiro Tanaka
    I don't see how the Yankees climb back into this thing with an injury-depleted, makeshift rotation and an aging lineup that is more old than simply disappointing. The slim chance the Yankees have of winning the East or a wild card rests on the ultimate health of Tanaka's elbow. Maybe more importantly, the state of the 2015 Yankees rests on the health of Tanaka's elbow.

    Tampa Bay Rays: Evan Longoria
    David Price is the important Tampa player to the rest of baseball, but before the Rays pack it in and trade Price, they're going to see if they can get to within four or five games of first place by the July 31 deadline. To do that, they need Longoria to heat up. He wasn't terrible in the first half, but a .386 slugging percentage is well below his .512 career mark entering the season.

    Boston Red Sox: Xander Bogaerts
    The young infielder was hitting .296/.389/.427 through June 1, outstanding numbers for a 21-year-old shortstop. Then the Red Sox activated Stephen Drew and moved Bogaerts to third base and he hit .140 with 37 strikeouts and five walks through the All-Star break. Did the position change affect his mental state? Is it simply a failure to adjust to how pitchers have attacked? The final two-plus months may tell us a lot about his future stardom.

    Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander
    Last year, the Tigers had a Big Four rotation with Max Scherzer, Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. They traded Fister, and Verlander went 8-8 with a 4.88 ERA in the first half, so it's really down to the Big Two, although Rick Porcello's improvement has added a strong third guy in place of Verlander. Among 86 AL pitchers with at least 50 innings, Verlander is 72nd in ERA. He's underperformed his peripherals a little bit -- 4.02 FIP, 4.46 xFIP -- but even the peripherals are a far cry from peak Verlander.

    How far has Verlander fallen? In 2011 and 2012 he had 29 regular starts of eight or more innings. Last year he had three. This year he has one. Right-handers are hitting .329/.377/.505 off him; hard to believe that a guy that was so dominant as recently as last postseason has struggled so severely against same-side hitters. The Tigers don't need a strong Verlander to win the division, but they do want to see a guy they can believe in heading into the playoffs.

    Kansas City Royals: Yordano Ventura
    Well, yes, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas ... but Ventura (7-7, 3.22) is key because the 23-year-old right-hander is already at 103 innings; he threw 150 last year between the minors and his brief major league stint. He's not a big guy and he relies so much on that upper 90s fastball, meaning you wonder if fatigue will be an issue down the stretch. The Kansas City rotation has been relatively healthy this year -- the Royals have needed just six starts from guys outside their top five (although Jason Vargas will miss a couple weeks after undergoing an appendectomy) -- and any chance of winning the wild card will rest on that rotation remaining healthy.

    Cleveland Indians: Nick Swisher
    The Indians finished the first half at .500, pretty remarkable considering the number of awful performances they received: Swisher hit .208 with a .288 OBP, Carlos Santana hit .207, Justin Masterson had a 5.51 ERA before finally hitting the DL with a bad knee, Ryan Raburn hit .199, Danny Salazar pitched his way back to the minors and Jason Kipnis' numbers are way down. So there's some second-half upside here, especially from Swisher, who shouldn't have lost his skills overnight at 33.

    Chicago White Sox: Chris Sale/Jose Abreu
    The White Sox aren't going anywhere so it's all about Sale chasing a Cy Young Award (that may be tough even though he leads the AL in ERA and WHIP as he's pitched 50 fewer innings than Felix Hernandez) and Abreu chasing 50 home runs.

    Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer
    Mauer hit .271/.342/.353 in the first half with two home runs. He has four more years on his contract after this one at $23 million per year. Was it just a bad three months? Is it the concussion he suffered late last season? The Twins figured that with his .400-plus OBP skills, he'd remain one of the best players in the game, even moving to first base. But after being worth 5.3 WAR last year, he's been worth 0.7 this year. A singles-hitting first baseman doesn't have a lot of value.

    Oakland Athletics: Jeff Samardzija
    He doesn't have to be the staff ace, not with Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray around, but he's under fire to prove his first half with the Cubs was a true improvement. Remember, he had a 4.34 ERA with the Cubs in 2013. Most importantly, Billy Beane acquired Samardzija and Jason Hammel to help the A's win the AL West -- but a red-hot Angels team narrowed the deficit to a mere 1.5 games at the break. Considering Gray is in his first full season and Kazmir hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2007, Samardzija will be expected to be a workhorse for Oakland, the guy who goes seven or eight innings every start to prevent the bullpen from getting burned out.

    Los Angeles Angels: Josh Hamilton
    I could point to Garrett Richards, who pitched like an ace in the first half, but I think he'll pitch close to that level in the second half; he's the real deal. So let's turn to Hamilton, who hit .295/.373/.449 in the first half with five home runs in the 46 games he played. The good news is this:

    SportsNation

    Which AL player most needs a big second half to help his team?

    •  
      30%
    •  
      23%
    •  
      12%
    •  
      22%
    •  
      13%

    Discuss (Total votes: 5,288)

    2012 chase rate: 42.5 percent
    2013 chase rate: 37.5 percent
    2014 chase rate: 36.1 percent

    He's continued to cut down on his free-swinging ways. The bad news is that he's struck out 52 times in 36 games since returning from the DL, with just three home runs. With Mike Trout crushing it and Albert Pujols on pace for 34 home runs, having a third big power threat would add even more to a lineup that led the AL in runs in the first half.

    Seattle Mariners: Taijuan Walker
    We know the Mariners have to improve the offense, but that's most likely going to have to come via a trade rather than internal improvement. We know Hernandez is great and that Hisashi Iwakuma remains a hidden gem. Chris Young had a terrific first half -- remember the whole Randy Wolf controversy, which basically allowed Young to come to Seattle in the first place? -- but Roenis Elias has struggled of late. That means Walker needs to find some consistency. As bad as the offense has been, Seattle has basically punted the fifth spot in the rotation all year with Erasmo Ramirez (4.58 ERA in 11 starts) and Brandon Maurer (7.52 in seven starts). If Walker lives up to his hype, he'll be a big improvement.

    Houston Astros: Jon Singleton
    We've seen George Springer flash his potential. Now it's time for Singleton to start doing the same.

    Texas Rangers: Rougned Odor
    There's not much to watch with the Rangers in the second half, but Jurickson Profar's injury forced Odor to the majors earlier than anticipated. He's held his own so far but a strong second half could lead to an interesting position battle next spring with Profar.
    Crash Davis: You be cocky and arrogant, even when you're getting beat. That's the secret. You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.

    Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Right. Fear and ignorance.

    Crash Davis: No. You hayseed. It's arrogance not "ignorance."


    Yes, it's that time of year to start playing with fear and arrogance. Time to let it all out on the field. Time to start looking at the scoreboard. Pennant races will start to build in intensity. It's the second half, and we open with four great series between playoff contenders. (Pay special attention to that Saturday night Mariners-Angels matchup.)

    Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals
    Friday: Kyle Lohse (9-4, 3.26) versus Stephen Strasburg (7-6, 3.46)
    Saturday: Matt Garza (6-6, 3.69) versus Gio Gonzalez (6-5, 3.56)
    Sunday: Yovani Gallardo (5-5, 3.68) versus Doug Fister (8-2, 2.90)

    Are we going to see the good Brewers or the bad Brewers? The Brewers have had wide swings all season -- they were 20-7 through April 27, went 10-15 through May 26, then had a 21-10 stretch before going 2-11 heading into the All-Star break, including a brutal four-game sweep at home to the Phillies. They had held sole possession of first place from April 9 until the Cardinals caught them July 12. A victory in the final game before the break put the Brewers back in first, but a one-game lead is disappointing, considering they had a 6-game lead on July 1.

    Three Brewers questions:

    1. Jonathan Lucroy leads all major league catchers in plate appearances. How will he hold up after an MVP-caliber first half?

    2. Will Jimmy Nelson be an improvement over Marco Estrada in the rotation? (Well, he'll certainly allow fewer home runs.)

    3. Does Ryan Braun have a monster second half in him?

    On paper, the Nationals are the team to beat in the NL East -- FanGraphs' projected playoff odds gives the Nationals an 81 percent chance to win the division and the Braves a 19 percent chance. This irritates Braves fans to no end, who believe everyone keeps overrating the Nationals and underrating the Braves. And maybe they're right. The Nationals have their lineup back and healthy, so no excuses the rest of the season.

    Three Nationals questions:

    1. Bryce Harper has hit .150 with one home run and two RBIs in 40 at-bats since his return from the DL. What's he going to do?

    2. Jordan Zimmermann left his previous start with biceps tendinitis. Will there by any lingering issues in the second half?

    3. Strasburg's ERA in the first half was 3.46. But his FIP was 2.72 and his xFIP 2.48. In other words, his base numbers suggest a guy who should have an ERA a run lower. Can he do that the final two-plus months?

    Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals
    Friday: Dan Haren (8-6, 4.23) versus Lance Lynn (10-6, 3.14)
    Saturday: Zack Greinke (11-5, 2.73) versus Joe Kelly (1-1, 3.44)
    Sunday: Clayton Kershaw (11-2, 1.78) versus Carlos Martinez (2-4, 4.43)

    Interesting that manager Don Mattingly will wait until Sunday to pitch Kershaw, who last started on July 10. He did pitch one inning in the All-Star Game, but this means he'll have nine days between starts. Compare that to manager Bruce Bochy's approach with Madison Bumgarner, who started on Sunday and will start the Giants' second-half opener. The Dodgers took 3 of 4 from the Cardinals in late June, shutting them out twice and holding them to one run in the third win.

    Three Dodgers questions:

    1. Where has Yasiel Puig's power gone? Since May 29, he has hit .269 with one home run in 42 games.

    2. With Carl Crawford back the DL, who gets the playing time in the outfield and will prospect Joc Pederson eventually be part of that picture?

    3. Will David Price move to the West Coast?

    Everybody keeps wondering if the Cardinals will pony up for Price and I keep pointing out that the Cardinals need to score more runs. They're 14th in the NL in runs scored and Price isn't going to help that. They also now have to contend with the thumb injury to Yadier Molina that will leave him sidelined eight to 12 weeks; it's no surprise that they've been a much better club when Molina has started in recent years.

    Three Cardinals questions:

    1. Without Molina, will the Cardinals pursue a guy like Kurt Suzuki of the Twins?

    2. Who steps it up on offense?

    3. Will Michael Wacha return to the rotation at some point?

    Baltimore Orioles at Oakland Athletics
    Friday: Chris Tillman (7-5, 4.11) versus Jeff Samardzija (3-8, 2.78)
    Saturday: Wei-Yin Chen (9-3, 4.15) versus Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.01)
    Sunday: Kevin Gausman (4-2, 3.29) versus Sonny Gray (10-3, 2.79)

    The Orioles have played excellent baseball since May 31, going 26-15 and outscoring their opponents by 40 runs. A lot went right in the first half -- see Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce -- but a lot went wrong with the season-ending injury to Matt Wieters, the struggles of Chris Davis and Manny Machado and the disappointing numbers from Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez. But the O's also seem to have some of that 2012 magic -- they're 9-3 in extra innings.

    Three Orioles questions:

    1. Will they finally leave Gausman alone and let him stay in the rotation?

    2. Davis won't hit .199 in the second half ... right?

    3. What happens if Cruz and Pearce slow down?

    A's general manager Billy Beane already made what may be the season's blockbuster trade in acquiring Samardzija and Hammel (the team won one of the three games those two have started). They were acquired in large part to help hold off the Angels but that division lead is down to 1 games. On the bright side: After this series, their next nine games are against the Astros and Rangers.

    Three A's questions:

    1. How will Gray (first full season) and Scott Kazmir (hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2007) hold up?

    2. Will they make a move to get more offense at second base?

    3. Can Sean Doolittle cut down on the wildness and walk one batter instead of two in the second half?


    Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels
    Friday: Hisashi Iwakuma (8-4, 2.98) versus Jered Weaver (10-6, 3.45)
    Saturday: Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) versus Garrett Richards (11-2, 2.55)
    Sunday: Chris Young (8-6, 3.15) versus Tyler Skaggs (5-5, 4.50)

    How good is the Hernandez-Richards showdown on Saturday? The Mariners aren't as good as the A's or Angels, so realistically their playoff race is really with the Royals, Indians and the AL East runner-ups for the second wild-card spot. Obviously, they'll be looking to add a hitter or two -- All-Stars Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager and the currently disabled Michael Saunders have been the only above-average hitters and they've been relying on ancient Endy Chavez as the leadoff hitter.

    Three Mariners questions:

    1. Marlon Byrd? Josh Willingham? They've got to do something to improve a league-worst .300 OBP and get some offense in the outfield and/or DH or first base.

    2. With Roenis Elias suddenly struggling and Taijuan Walker unproven, will the fourth and fifth rotation spots be a problem?

    3. The bullpen led the majors with a 2.39 first-half ERA. Can it hold it together for another 68 games?

    Is it just me, or have the Angels been too widely ignored this year? There's a strong case to be made that they're the second-best team in the majors right now, and that's even with some concerns in the rotation and the bullpen. Of course, it helps to have the best player in the game and a deep lineup that led the AL in runs scored in the first half. But they've gone 19-4 since June 20 and they open the second half with a 10-game home stand -- and they're 32-15 at home.

    Three Angels questions:

    1. Can Richards repeat in the second half? Well, if anything, he seems to be getting better. In his past eight starts, he's 7-0 with a 1.27 ERA and .163 average allowed.

    2. Does Jason Grilli establish himself as the setup guy for closer Joe Smith?

    3. Will Josh Hamilton deliver more power? He has three home runs in 38 games since coming off the DL.

    There you go. We also get Reds-Yankees and Indians-Tigers and others to whet your appetite. We've had four days without a game that matters. It's been too long.
    OK, we're actually well past 81 games, but we tend to divide the season at the All-Star break, even if that's not the true halfway point. Here's my list of the 10 biggest stories of the first half:

    1. The rash of Tommy John surgeries.

    On the heels of Matt Harvey going down late in 2013 and missing this season, this year's Tommy John surgeries have included Jose Fernandez, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Brandon Beachy, Ivan Nova, Bronson Arroyo, David Hernandez, Bobby Parnell, Josh Johnson, Luke Hochevar and Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon. Plus there's the possibility that Yankees rookie Masahiro Tanaka will need the surgery if six weeks of rest doesn't help his elbow. That's a devastating loss of talent and has led to much discussion on how to better prevent all these injuries.

    2. Best-in-baseball A's make huge trade.

    Even with the season-ending injuries to Parker and Griffin and the offseason departure of Bartolo Colon, Oakland had soared to the best record in baseball with easily the best run differential. And Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray had been terrific at the front end of the rotation. But, worried about depth and fatigue, Billy Beane stunned everyone by trading prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney (and pitcher Dan Straily) to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Beane made the move to help hold off the hard-charging Angels; but at the break Oakland's lead was down to a slim 1.5 games.

    [+] EnlargeHallion
    Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHas instant replay helped? The answer, at least from players, isn't all positive.
    3. Confusion over new instant replay rules.

    Catchers blocking home plate, the outfield "transfer" rule, the neighborhood play, managers challenging plays they're not supposed to be allowed to challenge -- expanded instant replay has hardly been a smooth transition. Longer-than-expected delays and inconsistent application has left everyone a little confused at times. Last week, after a play at home plate was not overturned despite evidence that a tag was missed, Jose Bautista said, "This whole replay thing has become a joke in my eyes. I think they should just ban it. They should just get rid of it. I don’t really understand the purpose of it, but getting the right call on the field is not the purpose. That’s pretty obvious and evident."

    4. New stars emerge.

    Besides Tanaka, we've seen White Sox rookie Jose Abreu crush 29 home runs in the most impressive power display by a rookie since Mark McGwire in 1987. Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton has hit far better than anyone expected while stealing 38 bases and impressing with his defense in center field. George Springer of the Astros didn't make his debut until mid-April and didn't hit his first home run until May 8, but has still clocked 19 home runs, several of light-tower prodigiousness. Yordano Ventura of the Royals has gone 7-7 with a 3.22 ERA while displaying his upper-90s fastball. Yankees reliever Dellin Betances failed as a starter in the minors but has been one of the game's most dominant relievers with 84 strikeouts in 55.1 innings while holding opponents to a .124 batting average.

    Those guys aren't just good; they’re exciting. Then we've had breakout non-rookies like Gray (who emerged late last season), Garrett Richards, Corey Kluber, Anthony Rizzo, Devin Mesoraco, Dallas Keuchel, Anthony Rendon, Marcell Ozuna and others. The young talent keeps on coming -- and that's before we get to minor league mashers Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Joey Gallo of the Rangers, two guys we can't wait to see reach the majors.

    5. Pitchers continue to dominate.

    SportsNation

    What's been the biggest story of the first half?

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    Discuss (Total votes: 2,576)

    Even with all the injuries, offense has still gone down -- if only slightly -- to 4.14 runs per game, which would be the lowest total since 4.12 in 1992. We enter the break with 21 qualified starters holding an ERA under 3.00, and that doesn't include Clayton Kershaw, who is two outs short of qualifying for the leaderboard.

    Kershaw (11-2, 1.78 ERA), Adam Wainwright (12-4, 1.83) and Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) highlight a season with many top pitching performers. Those three all have a shot at finishing with 20 wins and a sub-2.00 ERA, a feat accomplished just three times since 1980 -- Roger Clemens in 1990 and Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985. Hernandez enters the break with 11 consecutive starts in which he's pitched at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer, the longest such stretch since Mike Scott had 12 for the Astros in 1986. Kershaw had a 15-strikeout no-hitter with no walks, perfect other than a fielding error behind him. Wainwright hasn't allowed a run in nine of his 19 starts. Brilliance.

    6. The Red Sox and Rays both struggle.

    The defending champions and the team many expected to win the World Series both hit the break nine games under .500 and 9.5 games out of first place in the AL East. The Rays actually had the worst record in baseball on June 10 at 24-42. They’ve at least played better since then, going 20-11, but it may be too late to fend off the inevitable David Price trade. As for the Red Sox, one of baseball's richest and supposedly smartest franchises is headed for a second losing season sandwiched around its World Series title.

    7. The NL Central race.

    With four teams separated by 3.5 games, I have no idea who is going to win. But I know it's going to be fun.

    [+] EnlargeTrout
    AP PhotoHaven't seen much of Mike Trout's strikeout face lately.
    8. The Dodgers catch the Giants.

    On June 8, the Giants were 42-21 and led the NL West by 9.5 games. Since then, they've gone 10-22 -- only the injury-depleted Rangers have been worse -- and the Dodgers lead by a game. Collapses in June get ignored, but blowing such a big lead in the span of a month is brutal. It sets the stage for what should turn into another classic Giants-Dodgers pennant race.

    9. Remember when we were worried about Mike Trout's strikeouts?

    On May 19, Trout's average dipped to .263 and he was striking out like Dave Kingman in a bad slump. In 46 games since then, he's hit .356/.440/.701 with 31 extra-base hits. He's on pace for 38 home runs, 126 RBIs and 17 steals while playing good defense in center. He leads the AL in OPS and total bases. He's the best player in the game, he's going to win the AL MVP Award and we should finally see him in the postseason -- and maybe for more than just the wild-card game.

    10. The collapse of the Rangers and Phillies.

    The Rangers were supposed to be in the midst of a dynasty. The Phillies had become one of the game's power players with their run of division titles. Instead, both teams have declined into oblivion, the Rangers due to an unnatural number of injuries (including season-ending neck surgery for offseason acquisition Prince Fielder) and the Phillies due to the predictable affliction of age. It may be a long time before either is competitive again.
    video

    It's the award-winning Rapid Fire! Today, Eric and I discuss the Angels' rotation, more replay confusion, Jose Altuve's chances of winning the batting, Manny Machado and the Orioles and whether Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young Award and more!
    Random thoughts for a Monday morning ...

    1. As Buster Olney wrote the other day, the Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade just ramped up the cost for David Price. If the Cardinals want him, they better start with Oscar Taveras. If the Dodgers want him, they’re going to have to start with Joc Pederon or Corey Seager.

    2. Joey Votto has basically been playing on one leg, so it’s no surprise that it appears he’s heading to the DL. I’ve been saying I still expect a four-team race in the NL Central, but with Votto struggling and Jay Bruce still yet to get untracked (he just snapped an 0-for-26 skid), the Reds are looking like the fourth-best team in that division.

    3. Always love the All-Star controversies this time of year. Many deserving players got left off the AL roster -- Chris Sale, part of the final player vote, is one of the top five or six starters in the game. I can’t believe the players actually think Mark Buehrle and Scott Kazmir are better pitchers and have to think they failed to vote for Sale only because of his time on the DL.

    4. If Giancarlo Stanton ends up starting at DH for the NL, the backup outfield pool will be pretty weak -- Hunter Pence, Charlie Blackmon and utility man Josh Harrison could end up deciding home-field advantage for the World Series. Of course, Mike Matheny could just play Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig and Carlos Gomez the entire game.

    5. That’s one of the incongruous things about Matheny selecting Harrison, Tony Watson and Pat Neshek: He clearly selected them for late-game matchup and versatility, to give the NL a better chance of winning. I certain understand that reasoning. But if winning is so important, then play some of your best players the entire game. Why bench Troy Tulowitzki just to get Starlin Castro a couple of at-bats if you're trying to win the game?

    6. While Sale is the guy I’d give my final player vote to in the AL, I hope Garrett Richards eventually finds his way on to the team. He had another great outing on Sunday against the Astros with 11 strikeouts while averaging a career-high 97.3 mph with his fastball. He’s 6-0 with a 1.45 ERA since June 1. That sounds like an All-Star to me.

    7. Of course, he faced the strikeout-prone Astros. Rookies George Springer and Jonathan Singleton went a combined 0-for-8 with seven K’s. Singleton is hitting .168 with 46 strikeouts in his first 32 games. Springer’s contact issues have been well documented. Domingo Santana was sent down after whiffing 11 times in his first 13 at-bats. As promising as those three guys are, and while strikeouts aren’t necessarily a bad thing for hitters, you do wonder if you can have too many strikeout-prone hitters in the lineup. We’ll see how these guys develop and whether it becomes a long-term issue for Houston.

    8. Underrated: Kole Calhoun.

    9. Love the idea of Justin Morneau returning to Minnesota, but Anthony Rendon or Anthony Rizzo are clearly better players and more deserving of final player honors in the NL.

    10. Now trending on Twitter: “LeBron James,” “Cleveland” and “Cavs.” How awesome would that be? But it’s not really going to happen, is it?

    11. Andrew McCutchen: Making another run at MVP honors. Since June 1, he’s hit .364 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs.

    12. Fun to watch play defense: Adam Eaton. Still can’t believe the Diamondbacks traded him and now they’re playing somebody named Ender Inciarte in center field.

    13. Fun to watch hit: Jose Abreu. Loved the Abreu-King Felix showdown on Saturday. King Felix won as Abreu went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

    14. It’s starting to look like CC Sabathia will miss the rest of the season. Joe Girardi is usually an optimistic guy so if he’s saying Sabathia is done he’s probably done. So here’s a question: What if Sabathia is also finished as a quality pitcher? Hall of Famer? He’s 208-119 in his career with a 3.63 ERA and 54.1 WAR. He can stick around and add some wins and a little bit of WAR, but his winning percentage likely goes down and his ERA likely goes up. He’s close now and while improving his win total with otherwise mediocre pitching shouldn’t be the difference in making him a Hall of Famer at this point, he probably needs to get another 25-30 wins for serious consideration.

    15. The Yankees also designated Alfonso Soriano for assignment, no surprise considering his struggles. I’m guessing somebody will give him a chance but with 71 strikeouts and just six walks his free-swinging approach finally got the best of him. Hell of a career though: 412 home runs, 289 stolen bases, seven-time All-Star. He was far from the perfect player but he delivered for a lot of years.

    16. Underrated: Kyle Seager.

    17. Edwin Encarnacion’s injury should open a spot for Seager or Ian Kinsler to make the All-Star Game.

    18. Better than I thought he’d be: Scooter Gennett.

    19. Just release Dan Uggla already.

    20. Mike Trout needs to be in the Home Run Derby.

    21. The Nationals have outscored their opponents by 59 runs. The Padres have been outscored by 51 runs. Both teams have one All-Star.

    22. That was a terrific Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, right up there with the famous Federer-Rafael Nadal final. Federer won his first grand slam tournament in 2003 and is still competing for titles 11 years later. Amazing athlete.

    23. Among qualified starters, toughest fastball to hit this year: Johnny Cueto, .164 average, .439 OPS.

    24. Easiest fastball to hit: Ricky Nolasco has allowed a .364/.422/.618 line against his fastball. No surprise to Twins fans.

    25. Easier fastball to hit than you would think: Batters are hitting .337/.381/.516 against Stephen Strasburg’s fastball.

    26. Best curveball so far: Corey Kluber has held opponents to an .080 average and .219 OPS. (For comparison, batters have hit .156 against Adam Wainwright’s curve and .173 against Clayton Kershaw’s curve.)

    27. Underrated: Corey Kluber.

    28. Toughest slider so far: Johnny Cueto, again. Batters are hitting .176 with a .509 OPS against it.

    29. Toughest changeup: In 178 plate appearances ending with a changeup, opponents are hitting .110/.136/.151 against Felix Hernandez.

    30. I’m not counting the Rays out just yet.

    31. Cool All-Star factoid: For the first time in American League history, the eight starting position players will come from eight different teams. Of course, Nelson Cruz is starting at DH, so there will be two Orioles in the starting nine.

    32. For all the David Price to the Cardinals rumors, they need to start scoring runs and that’s going to have to happen from within as there just aren’t big impact bats out there (Marlon Byrd?). The Cardinals are 13th in the NL in runs and last in home runs. Trouble is, where’s the power going to come from? Matt Holliday has only five home runs, so he’s the logical answer, but there’s no reason to expect Matt Adams (nine) or Allen Craig (seven) to suddenly start blasting more home runs.

    33. I like what I’ve seen from this Eugenio Suarez kid at shortstop for the Tigers. Not sure about his defensive chops yet but he’s been a positive at the plate.

    34. The Blue Jays just got their butts kicked in Oakland and you have to wonder if this team already peaked. They were six games up on June 6 and now trail the Orioles by two games, having gone 9-19 in 28 games since that high-water mark. And don’t blame the pitching: The offense, which scored four runs in the four-game sweep to the A’s, has hit .235/.302/.366 since June 6.

    35. Better than I thought he'd be: Dallas Keuchel.

    36. Fun to watch: The Mariners bullpen has been lights out for two months. It has the best bullpen ERA in the majors, a 2.02 ERA since May 1 and 1.52 since June 1. Brandon Maurer, the failed starter, is the latest weapon down there, throwing smoke 97-mph smoke since he's been moved to relief.

    37. Fun to listen to: My pals Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft on the Fantasy Focus podcast. Here's today’s show, including ramifications of the Samardzija trade, the Votto and Encarnacion injuries and the Brandon McCarthy trade to the Yankees.

    38. Hard to say if Tim Lincecum has improved or just benefited from facing some weak lineups of late. He does have a 1.75 ERA over his past five starts but two of those starts came against the Padres and one against the Cardinals. He has 25 strikeouts in 35 innings, so he hasn’t ramped up the K rate or anything. I’m not convinced he’s turned the corner just yet.

    39. Not getting any recognition for a solid season: Justin Upton.

    40. Underrated: Jose Quintana.

    41. Pat Neshek is a great story, a minor league invite to spring training for the Cardinals and now an All-Star. I got into a debate on Twitter last night about All-Star relievers -- people were asking why guys like Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara and others didn't make it despite great numbers. I pointed out that lots of relievers are having great seasons. It's just not that special to have 35 great innings out of the bullpen. As a point of reference, just look at some of last year's All-Star relievers: Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Edward Mujica, Sergio Romo, Jason Grilli, Jesse Crain. That said, if you're going to pick relievers, Neshek has been as good as any in the game so far.

    42. Unique: Henderson Alvarez. He doesn't rack up strikeouts (70 in 115 innings) but that hard sinking fastball is hard to get into the air (five home runs allowed) and he's walked just 22 batters. I believe he's the real deal, which only reinforces the huge blow to the Marlins when Jose Fernandez went down.

    43. Bryce Harper is 4-for-21 with nine strikeouts and two walks since coming off the DL. One Nationals fan tweeted me that he doesn't look completely healthy and has had some awkward swings. I don't the think the Nationals would have activated him if he wasn't healthy, but there's no doubt that Harper put added pressure on himself with his comments about how the Nationals' lineup should look. It's OK to say that if you're producing but not if you're striking out twice a game.

    44. Remember that season of parity we were having? Things are starting to sort themselves out a bit. In fact, we suddenly have a fair share of bad teams instead of mediocre teams -- Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers, Astros, Twins, maybe even the Red Sox. The Cubs will probably fade even more after Samardzija-Hammel trade. The Mets may or may not be bad instead of mediocre.

    45. Which leads to: Tanking! That should be fun in the second half. Remember, it pays to finish with one of the worst 10 records.

    46. Large person, large fastball: Dellin Betances.

    47. Loving Gregory Polanco. I was admittedly a little skeptical, in part because I didn't want to fall prey to prospect hype. I've been most impressed with his approach at the plate -- 15 walks and 20 strikeouts in 25 games, nice to see after walking just 25 times in 62 games in Triple-A. If that kind of discipline continues, I like his ability to hit for a decent average and get on base. Then maybe next year comes the power.

    48. Things I didn’t see coming: Jeff Locke. Now 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA in seven starts and he’s pitched seven-plus innings in five of those games.

    49. Must-see TV on Friday: Jeff Samardzija versus Felix Hernandez.

    50. Germany over Brazil. Argentina over the Netherlands.

    We've reached the most fun part of the All-Star Game: Arguing about the final rosters.

    The starters and reserves were named on Sunday and it was interesting to note the different philosophies of managers John Farrell and Mike Matheny in filling out their rosters. As expected, some worthy American League players were excluded and there were a couple surprising choices in the National League.

    Some quick thoughts:

    Worst American League starter: Derek Jeter, Yankees. While I actually don't have that big of an issue with Jeter starting -- there is no Troy Tulowitzki in the AL that he's keeping out of the lineup -- he's probably the worst starter we've had in a long time, hitting an empty .273 with mediocre defense and no power, worth 0.5 WAR so far. Matt Wieters was inexplicably voted in by the fans at catcher, but since he's out for the season, Salvador Perez will rightfully start in his place.

    Worst National League starter: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers. Cincinnati's Todd Frazier is clearly the deserving starter at third base based on 2014 numbers while Ramirez is hitting .287 with 11 home runs. Considering Frazier, Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals and Anthony Rendon of the Nationals are better all-around players than Ramirez, his selection cost somebody an All-Star spot (Rendon is on the final player ballot).

    Best ballot stuffing: Orioles and Brewers fans. Who says you need to play for the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers to have an edge in fan balloting? Adam Jones was never in the top three among outfielders until passing Yoenis Cespedes at the wire. He's a fine selection, however, and has come on strong after a slow April. Orioles fans also voted in Wieters and Nelson Cruz in that crowded DH slot that included Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Moss and David Ortiz. Likewise, Carlos Gomez passed Giancarlo Stanton for the third outfield spot in the NL behind Yasiel Puig and Andrew McCutchen. Stanton clearly should be starting but Gomez is arguably one of the top three outfielders in the NL. Brewers fans, however, couldn't get Jonathan Lucroy voted in over Yadier Molina, so Lucroy will be the backup.

    National League DH should be: Stanton. Pretty each choice here for Matheny. Heck, start him and let him play the entire game. A nation that never watches Marlins games should see this guy get four at-bats.

    Jeff Samardzija, almost an All-Star. The players had actually voted for Samardzija as one of the five best starters in the NL, along with Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Samardzija had a 1.68 ERA through May, so you can see why he fared well in the balloting. His ERA had since climbed to 2.83 with some bad outings and he was replaced by Julio Teheran of the Braves.

    Worst player selection: Charlie Blackmon, Rockies. The players actually did a much better job than they usually do and Blackmon's selection was the only dubious choice, a guy who had a monster April but is down to .295/.341/.463, mediocre numbers for a guy who plays in Colorado. To be fair, the NL lacked obvious choices for the fifth and sixth outfielders, but they somehow came up with a player ranked 21st among NL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR. Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Billy Hamilton or even Rockies teammate Corey Dickerson (hitting .340) would have been better selections.

    The AL crunch: Farrell had some tough choices in filling out his squad. His manager selections were Jon Lester (deserving and the only Red Sox rep), David Price (deserving and the only Rays rep), Glen Perkins of the Twins, Max Scherzer of the Tigers, Kurt Suzuki of the Twins (a third catcher), Encarnacion and Moss. I guess you have to carry three catchers and I don't have a problem with the Scherzer selection. Encarnacion was a lock with his big numbers so the final choice probably came down to Moss or another player.

    Biggest snubs: Ian Kinsler, Tigers; Kyle Seager, Mariners. And that led to Kinser and Seager being this year's biggest snubs. Entering Sunday, Kinsler ranked third among AL position players in fWAR and Seager seventh. In Baseball-Reference WAR, they ranked third and sixth, so by either measure two of the AL's top 10 players didn't make it. It's not that an undeserving player made it -- the players voted in Jose Altuve and Adrian Beltre as the backups at second and third -- just that there were too many good players and not enough spots (unless you want to knock out a third catcher). You can debate the Moss selection, but I can see the desire to have the left-handed power off the bench if needed late in the game. (Remember, it counts!)

    Matt Carpenter and Pat Neshek are good selections: Matheny picked two of his own players -- third baseman Carpenter and righty reliever Neshek. I'm sure both picks will be criticized but when you dig into the numbers, both are worthy choices. Carpenter isn't having as good a season as last year, but he's still 10th among NL position players in fWAR and 15th in bWAR. Please, I don't want to hear that Casey McGehee is more deserving.

    As for Neshek, his numbers are outstanding: 0.78 ERA, 35 strikeouts, four walks and a .134 average allowed. He has been as dominant as any reliever in the game, even if he's not a closer. He's also a great story, once one of the game's top set-up guys with the Twins in 2007 but suffering years of injuries since. On the day the A's clinched the AL West on the final day of the 2012 season, his infant son died after just 23 hours. The Cardinals signed him in February to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, so Neshek certainly qualifies as this year's most improbable All-Star (along with Dellin Betances of the Yankees).

    I suspect Matheny also picked Neshek for late-game strategic purposes -- his sidearm delivery is killer on right-handed batters (although he has been just as effective against lefties this year), so you can see him matching up against Encarnacion or Jose Abreu if there's a big moment late in the game. Similarly, Matheny picked Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson, a good strategic move since he had only three other lefties on the team.

    Strangest selection: That picking reserves for strategic reasons also led to the selection of Pirates utility man Josh Harrison. I get it: He's having a nice season and can play multiple positions, but it's a little odd to pick a guy who doesn't even start regularly for his own team (reminiscent of the Omar Infante choice a few years ago). Rendon -- who has played second and third -- is the better player and Matheny already had versatility with Carpenter and Dee Gordon.

    Best AL final man: Chris Sale, White Sox. Farrell went with five pitchers -- Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Garrett Richards and Rick Porcello. I wrote the other day that four of these guys would be battling for a spot or two (along with Scott Kazmir, who got voted on by the players). All are worthy but the best choice is pretty easy since Sale is one of the top starters in the game and would have otherwise already made the team if not missing some time with an injury.

    Best NL final man: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs. Torn here between Rizzo and Rendon, but since Matheny has already loaded up with third basemen and second basemen, let's go with Rizzo in case you need to swing for the fences late in the game.

    Suggested AL lineup: Jeter better hit ninth. Mike Trout, CF; Robinson Cano, 2B; Jose Bautista, RF; Miguel Cabrera, 1B; Nelson Cruz, DH; Adam Jones, LF; Josh Donaldson, 3B; Salvador Perez, C; Derek Jeter, SS. With Felix Hernandez on the mound.

    Suggested NL lineup. Yasiel Puig, RF; Andrew McCutchen, CF; Troy Tulowitzki, SS; Giancarlo Stanton, DH; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B; Carlos Gomez, LF; Aramis Ramirez, 3B; Chase Utley, 2B; Yadier Molina, C. With Clayton Kershaw on the bump.


    Jim Bowden, Jerry Crasnick, Buster Olney, Jayson Stark and myself presented our 34-man All-Star rosters today. Here are our National League selections and here are our American League selections. Of course, our choices aren't affected by fan balloting or the players choosing the wrong backup (although we did stick to the rule of requiring one rep from each team), so the real rosters will likely include some names that none of us included.

    I thought I'd explain my selections in a little more detail.

    National League

    I thought the NL selections were much easier than the AL. In fact, I struggled to find obvious candidates for the final couple of spots.

    Starters
    C -- Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
    1B -- Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
    2B -- Chase Utley, Phillies
    3B -- Todd Frazier, Reds
    SS -- Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
    LF -- Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
    CF -- Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
    RF -- Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
    DH -- Freddie Freeman, Braves
    SP -- Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

    I thought this was pretty straightforward, with the only debate being Puig or Carlos Gomez for the third outfield spot. I settled it this way: Who would I rather see? And that tiebreaker goes to Puig. I could have made Gomez the DH, but the NL was lacking in other outfield candidates, so I cleared some of the logjam at first base by making Freeman the DH and bringing Gomez off the bench. Sorry, Carlos.

    Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright certainly have strong arguments to start and if you want to disagree with Kershaw, I won't put up much of a fight. Yes, he missed a month, but he's back, he's dominating and he's the best pitcher in the game.

    Reserves
    C -- Yadier Molina, Cardinals
    C -- Devin Mesoraco, Reds
    C -- Buster Posey, Giants
    1B -- Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
    2B -- Daniel Murphy, Mets
    2B -- Dee Gordon, Dodgers
    3B -- Anthony Rendon, Nationals
    3B -- Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
    SS -- Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
    OF -- Carlos Gomez, Brewers
    OF -- Ryan Braun, Brewers
    OF -- Justin Upton, Braves

    I went three catchers because all are deserving. Molina and Posey maybe aren't having their typical seasons but they're two of the biggest stars in the game and Mesoraco makes it over the injured Evan Gattis for his monster first half. Rizzo was an easy call over Adam LaRoche and Justin Morneau, as nice a story as it would be to see Morneau go back to Minnesota (I have a feeling that he'll somehow make the real All-Star team). Murphy makes it as my lone Mets' rep and I took Hanley over Starlin Castro and Jhonny Peralta, although any of three are justifiable. Rendon is a rising star and second among NL third basemen in WAR. Carpenter isn't having the year he had last year but still has a .378 OBP and 53 runs scored. He's a better player than Aramis Ramirez or Casey McGehee, plus he can play second if needed (the game counts after all!)

    After Gomez, the outfield choices were more difficult. In the end, I went with Braun and Upton over Hunter Pence, Jason Heyward's defense and rookie speedster Billy Hamilton. I was the only one to pick Braun, but he's hitting .293/.342/.515 and, like him or not, it's called the All-STAR Game and Braun is a star. My final choice was one of tactics: It came down to Gordon or Hamilton over Pence, to have a pinch-running option late in a close game if needed. Gordon has the better success rate (and has been a little better at the plate), so he gets the nod.

    Pitching staff
    SP -- Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
    SP -- Johnny Cueto, Reds
    SP -- Julio Teheran, Braves
    SP -- Zack Greinke, Dodgers
    SP -- Madison Bumgarner, Giants
    SP -- Tim Hudson, Giants
    SP -- Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
    SP -- Jake Arrieta, Cubs
    RP -- Craig Kimbrel, Braves
    RP -- Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers
    RP -- Huston Street, Padres
    RP -- Aroldis Chapman, Reds

    We had to pick four relievers and these four were pretty clear. Street gives me a Padres rep and Chapman, while missing time after his spring training line drive to the head, is one of the game's star relievers and has struck out 46 batters in 23.2 innings. For the starters, the first six listed above were pretty clear selections. I went with Zimmermann over teammate Stephen Strasburg and then Arrieta for the final spot. Maybe that's dubious choice since he's really had just the one dominant month, but he is 5-1 with a 1.81 ERA and has terrific periphals. If you want to go with Strasburg or his Cubs teammate Jason Hammel instead, that's fine with me.

    The one concern here is that with Kershaw starting, there are only two lefties in the pen in Bumgarner and Chapman. For that reason, I did consider Cole Hamels, who has been great even if his 2-5 record isn't. The actual roster will likely include a couple replacements like it always does, so I could see a lefty setup guy like Tony Watson (0.93 ERA) of the Pirates eventually making it.

    Just missed: Hamilton, Pence, Strasburg, Hammel, Henderson Alvarez.

    American League

    C -- Salvador Perez, Royals
    1B -- Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
    2B -- Robinson Cano, Mariners
    3B -- Josh Donaldson, A's
    SS -- Derek Jeter, Yankees
    LF -- Michael Brantley, Indians
    CF -- Mike Trout, Angels
    RF -- Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
    DH -- Victor Martienez, Tigers
    SP -- Felix Hernandez, Mariners

    Derek Jeter? OK, Derek Jeter. Of course he doesn't deserve to make the team on his 2014 merit, but in lieu of a Tulowitzki or even half of a Tulowitzki in the AL, he's the guy I want to see start. At third, you could go Donaldson, Adrian Beltre or Kyle Seager. Donaldson holds a slight edge over Seager in FanGraphs WAR and a bigger one on Baseball-Reference, with Beltre well behind on both, so Donaldson gets my nod. Left field could be Brantley or Alex Gordon or Yoenis Cespedes or Nelson Cruz, who is listed on the ballot as a DH although has started 38 games in left. I went with Brantley but, really, any of the four are reasonable selections. DH was just as tough with Martinez, Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion. Again, any of three work. Maybe we can just play Encarnacion at shortstop and hope nobody hits the ball to him.

    OK, King Felix versus Masahiro Tanaka. Tough call since their numbers are about identical. Flip a coin. Yes, I'm a Mariners fan, but the difference for me was Hernandez has allowed four home runs and Tanaka 13. I know Tanaka is a great story but Hernandez has been one of the best pitchers for many years now and has never started the All-Star Game. Hey, there's also the chance that Tanaka could turn into a Jack Armstrong pumpkin (just kidding, Yankees fans).

    Reserves
    C -- Derek Norris, A's
    1B -- Jose Abreu, White Sox
    1B/DH -- Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
    2B -- Jose Altuve, Astros
    2B -- Ian Kinsler, Tigers
    3B -- Adrian Beltre, Rangers
    3B -- Kyle Seager, Mariners
    SS -- Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
    OF -- Alex Gordon, Royals
    OF -- Adam Jones, Orioles
    OF/DH -- Nelson Cruz, Orioles
    OF/1B -- Brandon Moss, A's

    It will be interesting to see how the real AL roster shakes out. I assume since Cruz and Moss were listed as DHs on the ballot that they weren't considered outfielders for the player vote. So, assuming Cespedes holds on to the fan lead for the third spot, your minimum of three backup outfielders will come from the Brantley/Gordon/Jones group -- except Jones got off to a terrible start and Brantley isn't a big name, so the players may instead vote in guys like Jacoby Ellsbury and Melky Cabrera (who got off to a strong start). If Brantley then makes it as the Indians rep and David Ortiz fares well in the player vote, it's possible that Martinez and Encarnacion both get squeezed off the roster (Cruz is leading the fan voting at DH).

    As for the other backup, I actually cheated by including just one backup catcher when we told to include two. (Sorry, boss.) So three catchers from a weak AL group would further squeeze a deserving player off the team. I would have loved to have found room for hometown Twins second baseman Brian Dozier to make it, but I can't justify his selection over Altuve or Kinsler. The second shortstop could be Ramirez, Erick Aybar or Alcides Escobar; I don't really care which one. My final spot came down to Moss or teammate Cespedes. In part, this is a strategic move: Having that big lefty bat off the bench could be important (not that managers actually manage strategically in the game).

    Pitching staff
    SP -- Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
    SP -- Yu Darvish, Rangers
    SP -- David Price, Rays
    SP -- Jon Lester, Red Sox
    SP -- Chris Sale, White Sox
    SP -- Max Scherzer, Tigers
    SP -- Garrett Richards, Angels
    SP -- Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays
    RP -- Greg Holland, Royals
    RP -- Glen Perkins, Twins
    RP -- Koji Uehara, Red Sox
    RP -- Sean Doolittle, A's

    Love this staff. Great righty/lefty balance. My automatic selections were Tanaka, Darvish, Price, Lester and Sale, with Scherzer next in line even if his ERA is a little high. Richards and Buehrle got the edge over a strong pool of candidates that included Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir, Rick Porcello, Dallas Keuchel, Anibal Sanchez and even Phil Hughes. Like I said, a lot more difficult calls in the AL.

    For the bullpen, Perkins makes it on merit, not just as the Twins rep. He does have a 3.41 ERA but has a 46/7 strikeout/walk ratio and just two home runs allowed and has been very good for four years now. Doolittle is a second lefty and you know his crazy numbers: 57 strikeouts and two walks. Apologies here to Yankees setup man Dellin Betances and his dominant strikeout rate. I'm guessing he finds his way on to the actual roster.

    Just missed: Cespedes, Dozier, Kluber, Keuchel, Betances.
    Over the next six days, we will go division by division and look at what each team needs to do at the trade deadline and what may actually happen. As always, you can keep up with the latest trade talk at Rumor Central.


    Houston Astros

    Status: Selling anyone older than 30.

    Trade targets for other teams: OF Dexter Fowler (arbitration eligible, although he just landed on the DL), RP Chad Qualls ($3 million in 2015, team option in 2016), RP Tony Sipp (arb-eligible).

    Possible suitors: Fowler's upcoming arbitration, coming on the heels of a 116 OPS+ season, might be too pricey for the rebuilding Astros. The Giants (with Angel Pagan out indefinitely with back issues) and Red Sox (still waiting for Jackie Bradley Jr. to get it together) could use upgrades and stability in center field.

    When you are headed toward 95 or more losses, relievers are expendable and easily replaceable. Qualls and Sipp are the most marketable. Qualls has a ridiculous 9-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 28 1/3 innings, while Sipp has held lefties to a .283 OPS in 22 1/3 innings. Toronto could certainly use Sipp as a second lefty in the pen. Qualls might step right in as a closer for the always-in-flux Tigers or suddenly struggling Giants.

    What they need: Restocking the farm system, which has recently graduated Jonathan Singleton, George Springer and Domingo Santana.

    Likely scenario: Qualls and Sipp find new homes by mid-July, and Fowler stays with Astros through the end of 2014.

    -- Diane Firstman, Value Over Replacement Grit


    Los Angeles Angels

    Status: Buying.

    Biggest needs: A reliable late-innings reliever, aka baseball's unicorn. Despite throwing the fourth-fewest innings of any American League bullpen, the club's relief corps still holds claim to the league's worst WAR (-0.6). The Angels already added Jason Grilli and Rich Hill to the bullpen mix in the past week (and jettisoned Ernesto Frieri), but those moves serve more as window dressing than anything else, so a bigger trade is likely in the offing. There's some chatter about the Halos adding a starter of the Jason Hammel or Ian Kennedy variety, but the pen is the bigger need at the moment. The Angels could also go for an upgrade at third base, where David Freese and friends have combined to put up an AL-worst .265 wOBA, but that's a need more likely filled over the winter.

    Possible trade targets: Relievers Huston Street, Joaquin Benoit or Joakim Soria, a midrotation starter with some team control remaining and maybe a platoon partner for Freese.

    Potential trade chips: Grant Green? Alex Yarbrough? Some other middle-of-the-road prospect? The reason the Angels are highly unlikely to be involved in the David Price and Jeff Samardzija sweepstakes is they really don't have much to entice potential trade partners. C.J. Cron could have been a valuable piece to dangle in front of teams needing power (hello, San Diego!), but he's likely off the table now that Raul Ibanez is out of the picture.

    Likely scenario: The Angels acquire Street or Benoit from the Padres for a package that includes one of the team's many second-base prospects who are in (or close) to the majors (e.g., Green, Yarbrough or Taylor Lindsey), giving San Diego an option at the keystone that will distract fans from the total implosion of Jedd Gyorko.

    -- Nate Aderhold, Halos Daily


    Oakland Athletics

    Status: All-in. The A's lead the AL in runs scored and are second in fewest runs allowed.

    Biggest needs: Second base has been the obvious black hole on offense, with a combined .228/.296/.266 line, 27th in the majors in wOBA. As scrappy as Eric Sogard and Nick Punto may be, even the best lineup in the league could improve.

    The other obvious area to address would be the rotation, which has been terrific but has also been progressively worse each month. Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez have never pitched an entire season in a big league rotation, and Scott Kazmir hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2007. With Drew Pomeranz currently on the DL, Triple-A vet Brad Mills has been starting.

    Possible trade targets: If Billy Beane wants to deal, there are plenty of second basemen potentially out there -- Aaron Hill, Daniel Murphy, Ben Zobrist, Chase Utley (although he can veto any deal) and Gordon Beckham. A couple of former A's starters would also be nice fits -- Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon.

    Possible trade chips: Shortstop Addison Russell, back after missing the first two months with a hamstring problem, isn't going anywhere, but the Oakland system is otherwise thin at the upper levels. Outfielder Billy McKinney, the team's first-round pick in 2013, and shortstop Daniel Robertson are young and holding their own for Stockton in the high Class A California League. Teams will ask about those two, but Beane won't want to trade them. First baseman Matt Olson has slugged 23 home runs for Stockton although he's hitting just .249.

    Likely scenario: The A's are always constrained by their payroll, so guys like Hill and Colon may not fit due to their salaries. Beane will undoubtedly do something, but it's more likely to be a minor pickup or a higher salaried guy after the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. For example, in 2012, he acquired Stephen Drew in August.

    -- David Schoenfield


    Seattle Mariners

    Status: Buying. Yes, Mariners fans, you're in a playoff race.

    Biggest needs: A right-handed corner outfield bat -- Mariners left fielders (mostly Dustin Ackley) are hitting .226/.278/.334. Ackley has fared a little better against left-handers, not that he's hit either side. With Corey Hart and Justin Smoak both on the DL, the Mariners have been using the likes of John Buck, Endy Chavez and Willie Bloomquist at first base or DH. Considering Hart and Smoak didn't hit when they were in the lineup, a first base/DH-type is also a possibility.

    The rotation has the second-best ERA in the AL, and even though Taijuan Walker just made his season debut, the Mariners could go after a starter. Chris Young has been a pleasant surprise with his 3.15 ERA, but his FIP is 4.99 and he hasn't made it through an entire season since 2007. And Roenis Elias slots best as a back-end starter, not a No. 3.

    Possible trade targets: All available outfielders will be enticing -- Josh Willingham, Marlon Byrd, Michael Cuddyer and maybe Alex Rios (the Mariners and Rangers made a midseason trade with Cliff Lee back in the day). With the Twins having fallen back in the AL Central, bringing back Kendrys Morales is a possibility, although he hasn't hit in 21 games with Minnesota. On the pitching front, the usual suspects will be mentioned: Kennedy, Hammel, McCarthy. But what about Colon? He is signed through 2015, but if the Mets decide to deal him, he would be an attractive target for a lot of teams.

    Possible trade chips: It will be difficult for the Mariners to get one of the better starters since they don't have much in the way of prospects in the upper minors, unless you include Walker or the injured James Paxton. Nick Franklin is the one guy they have, but his poor performance of late (.221 in Triple-A in June) hasn't helped his value. It seems unlikely they would trade Walker now that he's apparently over his early-season shoulder issues (keep fingers crossed).

    Likely scenario: They have to acquire at least one bat, and an impending free agent like Willingham wouldn't cost a top prospect. Byrd, signed through next season at a reasonable rate, would be more expensive but is better. The next few weeks will us tell a lot about Elias, Young and Walker and whether Seattle will need to reinforce the rotation.

    -- David Schoenfield


    Texas Rangers

    Status: Actively listening to offers.

    Possible trade targets: RF Alex Rios ($13.5 million team option for 2015), 3B Adrian Beltre ($18 million for 2015, team option for 2016), RP Joakim Soria ($7 million team option for 2015), RP Neal Cotts (free agent), SS Elvis Andrus (under team control through 2018).

    Possible suitors: Rios and Beltre could be considered by teams that feel they are one player away from being over the top. Given the value Beltre offers to the Rangers, a team would be hard-pressed to put together any kind of package that would satisfy Jon Daniels & Co., especially with the running belief that, with better health, the club can contend in 2015. Rios might be more of a possibility, as the Rangers have Michael Choice, Engel Beltre and a few others in the pipeline who might be outfield options in the near future.

    Soria and Cotts would seem to be the most likely to be dealt, as this is the time of year that contending teams start looking for late-inning bullpen help. I don't foresee a team putting together any kind of legitimate package for Andrus, who the Rangers developed and signed to a long-term deal.

    What they need: Depth on the farm has become somewhat of an issue, especially on the pitching front, after the various trades in recent years have filtered out some of the depth. The Rangers will likely look to find some future starting pitching in any deal, but a high-upside offensive prospect isn't out of the question.

    Likely scenario: Cotts would be the one guy I could see getting moved at the deadline, with the possibility of Soria as well. Rios remains a remote possibility, but as for the other guys, I can't envision the Rangers parting ways with Andrus, Beltre or Darvish, no matter how bad things have been in 2014.

    -- Brandon Land, One Strike Away


    Not only that: Rick Porcello threw a no-strikeout, no-walk shutout -- the first time that's happened since Jeff Ballard did it in 1989, making this one of the coolest performances of the season.

    Porcello's four-hit gem to beat the A's 3-0 was a thing of beauty: He threw first-pitch strikes to 24 of 31 batters, increased his scoreless streak to 25 innings and improved to 11-4 with a 3.12 ERA. In this age of more strikeouts and more strikeouts, Porcello is a throwback to another era ... one that existed a mere 25 years ago, when you didn't have to average nine or 10 strikeouts per nine innings to be considered an elite pitcher.

    [+] EnlargeRick Porcello
    AP Photo/Duane BurlesonRick Porcello's breakthrough this season could put him in the All-Star Game.
    Porcello has 62 strikeouts in 106 2/3 innings and a K rate of 5.2 per nine innings. Among the 93 qualified starting pitchers, that rate ranks 87th; his sinker induces ground balls, not strikeouts. It's just a different style of pitching than we're used to now, but there's no reason it can't be successful. Back in the '80s and up through 1993, the league-average strikeout rate was less than six per innings, so obviously many pitchers won back then with strikeout rates similar to Porcello's.

    His approach does require good infield defense, and the Tigers are definitely stronger in that area this season, with the departure of Prince Fielder, the move of Miguel Cabrera from third base to first base and the addition of Ian Kinsler. More shifting also helps. It's no coincidence that Porcello's average on balls in play is .266, after averaging .327 from 2011 to 2013.

    It's not just better defense, however; Porcello is throwing his curveball more -- 16 percent of his pitches this year compared to 8 percent of the time over the previous three seasons. To be fair, this trend started last season and has proven to be an effective pitch, as batters have hit .208 against it the past two seasons, compared to .293 against his slider. More curves and better defense have made Porcello a better pitcher. He's been around so long that we forget that he's still 25, clearly young enough to still be learning and adapting his stuff.

    This time of year, it's fun to talk about potential All-Star selections. Porcello's strong first half certainly puts him in prime consideration for a spot. Once you get past some of the automatic selections -- Felix Hernandez, Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, David Price, Chris Sale (well, he should be automatic, even if he missed time with an injury), here are four other surprise guys battling Porcello for maybe one or two spots on the American League staff:

    Garrett Richards, Angels (9-2, 2.81 ERA, .194 AVG, 108 SO, 40 BB). Richards is the new kind of cool: high-octane fastball and a wipeout slider. His average fastball velocity is second in the majors among starters to Yordano Ventura, and he's improved his command to become an elite starter in the first half. Like Porcello, he helped his All-Star case with a strong outing on Tuesday. He gave up a three-run home run to Jose Abreu in the first inning after he had walked two batters, but then he settled down and over his final seven innings allowed just one more hit and no walks. That's exactly the sign of maturing the Angels are seeing this year. Another example: After the A's knocked him out in the first inning on May 30, he's responded with his best stretch of the season, with a 1.49 ERA and .147 average allowed over six starts. At this point, he's just about a lock to make the team.

    Dallas Keuchel, Astros (8-5, 2.78, .234 AVG, 88 SO, 26 BB). Who saw this coming? I don't want to compare him to Tom Glavine, but he's kind of like Tom Glavine. His fastball sits 89 to 92 and he pounds the outside corner with fastballs and changeups. He'll also go inside to righties with a wipeout slider -- righties are hitting .151 against with 26 strikeouts in 56 plate appearances.

    There was nothing in Keuchel's track record that said he could be this good -- he owned a 5.20 ERA over his first two seasons with Houston while giving up 34 home runs in 239 innings -- but there's no fluke here. The strikeout rate is good enough, his control is excellent and he keeps the ball down in the zone, a reason he's allowed just five home runs. I think he's the real deal, one of those lefties who figures things out ... just like Glavine did after a rocky start in his first couple of years with the Braves.

    SportsNation

    Which one of these AL starters is most deserving of an All-Star spot?

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      6%
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      12%

    Discuss (Total votes: 5,995)

    Corey Kluber, Indians (7-6, 2.99 ERA, .254 AVG, 127 SO, 29 BB). Kluber actually had a breakout season of sorts last year with a 3.85 ERA and excellent peripherals, but he made just 24 starts, so it didn't get much attention. But check out that strikeout rate: 127 whiffs in 117 1/3 innings. He's eighth among all starters in strikeout percentage. His curveball has developed into one of the most unhittable weapons in the league: Batters are hitting .087 against it with 61 strikeouts, three walks and no home runs. Yes, those are Kershaw-esque types of results.

    Don't put too much emphasis on that win-loss record. Kluber has allowed two runs or fewer in 11 of his 18 starts but has won just six of those games. He's good. How are we going to find room for all these guys?

    Scott Kazmir, A's (9-3, 2.16 ERA, .216 AVG, 91 SO, 24 BB). Kazmir was one of the best stories of 2013, when he returned after years of injuries, awful results and not even pitching in the majors to go 10-9 with Cleveland. He's been even better with Oakland this year, justifying the two-year contract the A's gave him as a free agent. Kazmir's fastball isn't as overpowering as it was when he was a two-time All-Star with Tampa Bay in 2006 and 2008, but he still throws in the low 90s and mixes in a slider, curve, cutter and changeup, with the changeup becoming his best strikeout pitch.

    OK, five guys, all worthy first-half All-Stars. Which one most deserves to make the American League's All-Star team?
    Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield took your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

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