Click here for the National League second-half previews.
New York Yankees
Second-half key: The Yankees have the best record in baseball and the biggest lead in any division. They need Robinson Cano to continue tearing the leather off the ball and CC Sabathia to have a big second half.
Player to watch: Freddy Garcia. He got knocked out of the rotation after an awful April, but he's been lights-out since May (1.84 ERA, 0.96 WHIP). If he can pick up the slack until Andy Pettitte comes back, the Yankees still have a very powerful pitching staff.
Best case: Boston’s pitching staff and Tampa Bay’s offense continue to struggle while the Yankees avoid major injuries and cruise to a division title.
--Rob Abruzzese, Bronx Baseball Daily
Second-half key: Baltimore needs more consistent offensive production out of the likes of J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters as well as rotation-stabilizing second halves out of some combination of Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter. If the front office is looking to make a splash on the trade market, 3½ years of Justin Upton appears to be available. The catch is that it likely would cost Baltimore a young arm, phenom Manny Machado and a second- and third-tier prospect.
Player to watch: Tillman. It is difficult to remember that Tillman, at age 24, is still the baby of Baltimore’s collection of young arms (4 months younger than Britton). Improved strength and conditioning, a revised throwing program and small mechanical tweaks have led Tillman to about a 4 mph increase in fastball and changeup velocity as well as more consistency in the execution of his secondary offerings. In-zone command is still a work in progress, but a strong second half could be a big boost.
Best case: The Yankees beat up on the rest of the AL East and Baltimore plays well enough in July and August to take advantage of a September schedule consisting of AL East opponents, Seattle and Oakland -- a miraculous September run nets the second wild card by the slimmest of margins.
--Nick Faleris, Camden Depot
Tampa Bay Rays
Second-half key: Oddly, it’s not the injury bug that stands between the Rays and playoff contention; it’s their defense. The Rays built their success in 2008, 2010, and 2011 on defense, leading Joe Maddon to lobby for a team Gold Glove award. In the first half, the Rays made 71 errors -- two shy of the 73 errors they made in all of 2011 -- leading to 41 unearned runs. If they have any intention of getting themselves back into the playoff race, they are going to need some new gloves.
Player to watch: Desmond Jennings hasn’t been the catalyst, either offensively or defensively, that the Rays hoped for. He struck out 56 times in the first half to only 21 walks en route to a .298 OBP. That ratio is even worse (34 SO/10 BB) since Jennings returned from a sprained knee that kept him out for three weeks in May. Any Rays chance at October is contingent, in part, on DJ getting on base a lot more often.
Best case: The Rays have a lineup that features B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Jennings, Carlos Pena and Luke Scott for more than 10 games in the second half and wrap up a wild-card spot.
--Mark Heilig, The Ray Area
Boston Red Sox
Second-half key: Health and consistent starting pitching. It’s as simple as that. The Red Sox had more players (and salary) on the disabled list than any other team in the majors during the first half. If Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Clay Buchholz, Andrew Bailey and Dustin Pedroia return soon and play to the level that they are capable of, a change of fortune might be in the cards. The key to this team getting back on track lies in two or three solid trips around the rotation. The bats should do the rest.
Player to watch: Jon Lester. He’s capable of being an undisputed ace and one of the best left-handed pitchers in the game. He can also be an inconsistent enigma, which is what we’ve seen so far. If Lester finally turns a corner and starts pitching at an elite level, then he has the power to carry Boston into the playoffs. The rotation’s potential to get back on track starts and ends with him.
Best case: John Lackey returns with a vengeance and carries the Sox to ... OK, maybe not. The injured players return and play to the level they are capable of. Adrian Gonzalez flips the power switch, and Pedroia fights his way back to .300. The starting rotation gets on a roll, specifically Lester and Josh Beckett, and the Sox catch fire. They sneak into the wild-card game with 87-90 wins and put together a surprising postseason run.
--Alex Convery, Fire Brand of the AL
Toronto Blue Jays
Second-half key: With a decimated pitching staff, standing pat is akin to throwing in the towel. The key to the second half comes from management: Are the Jays buyers or sellers? If they look to make a run at the wild card, the Jays have numerous prospects in the system whom they could flip for starting pitching and/or potentially a 1B/DH bat. If Toronto feels 2013 is a more realistic playoff timeline, they will look to cash in on upcoming free agent Edwin Encarnacion's career year via the trade market.
Player to watch: Colby Rasmus. The outfielder plugged along during the first two months of the season, looking like nothing more than an average player. A little over a month ago manager John Farrell inserted Rasmus into the second spot in the batting order, and all of a sudden something clicked. In 36 games batting second, Rasmus has produced an amazing .312/.373/.643 line with 14 home runs. Is Rasmus finally fulfilling his lofty potential?
Best case: The Jays acquire a little help to get them through the next month, pitchers Brandon Morrow and Sergio Santos return to the active roster and the bats keep on producing. If everything falls into place, the Jays find a way to hang around in a battle for a wild-card spot.
--Matthias Koster, Mop-Up Duty
Chicago White Sox
Second-half key: With the exception of Adam Dunn, the ChiSox don’t walk much, and their team slash stats are very average (seventh in AL in average, eighth in on-base, seventh in slugging). They’ve been terrific with RISP (.303/.372/.467), but those stats are buoyed by a .362 BABIP in those situations. What happens when the BABIP bubble bursts? A more patient, consistent attack (thank heavens for the arrival of Kevin Youkilis) could seal the division for them, assuming Jake Peavy, Chris Sale and Gavin Floyd stay healthy.
Player to watch: Peavy. At 120 innings through the All-Star break, he’s already pitched more innings than any full season since 2008. Young pitchers (like Sale) aren’t the only ones to worry about in terms of a jump in workload. Peavy’s 2012 performance to date has been BABIP-driven to an extent (.254), so how much regression/decline will we see the rest of the year?
Best case: The Tigers never do put it all together, the Indians' lack of depth catches up to them, and the White Sox roll to a division title.
--Diane Firstman, Value Over Replacement Grit
Second-half key: The Indians need Carlos Santana to snap out of his funk in a big way. He just hasn’t been the same since he spent time on the seven-day concussion DL last month. A coveted right-handed bat, particularly in left field or at first base, would be pretty beneficial as well.
Player to watch: Jason Kipnis. He was an exciting player to watch during the first half, as he hit .277/.345/.419 with 11 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Paired with Asdrubal Cabrera up the middle, he has the chance to be an impact bat during the stretch.
Best case: Neither the White Sox nor the Tigers grab this division by the horns and take charge. The Indians get more consistent pitching and offense (particularly from left field and first base) and manage to keep pace down the stretch.
--Stephanie Liscio, It's Pronounced Lajaway
Second-half key: While every appropriate media outlet available is making it known that the Tigers have significantly underperformed in 2012 -- and don't get me wrong, they have -- the reality of their season is this: They are 44-42 and have played excellent baseball the past two weeks. Last year at the All-Star break, they were one game better, at 45-41. They went on to win 95 games and were two wins from an AL pennant. The season certainly isn't lost; in fact, with a bit of a climb ahead of them, the next three months will simply provide some seriously exciting baseball.
Player to watch: Delmon Young. A mediocre first half (.271/.298/.418 with nine walks in 315 PAs) has resulted in a fan-stemmed mutiny. While Young may never find favor in the fan base again, if he can discover how to replicate his performance in the last four games where he homered in each one, the Tigers will certainly win more games than they lose in the second half.
Best case: The White Sox begin to fall from the ninth cloud they currently reside on, and the Indians continue to dwell in mediocrity. If both teams do this, and they probably will, the Tigers just have to play good baseball and the division will work itself out in their favor.
--Josh Worn, Walkoff Woodward
Kansas City Royals
Second-half key: One small tweak could make this team much better; the Royals need to become a more efficient team. While the Royals are missing power in their lineup (last in the American League in home runs), they have the fifth-most hits in the AL, second-most doubles and a league-low 521 strikeouts. Yet the Royals rank 12th in runs scored. The pitching staff has given up the most hits in high-leverage situations in MLB. The Royals have lost 10 one-run games. The AL Central standings could get tight if the Royals can find a way to be more resourceful.
Player to watch: Wil Myers. Hopefully sooner rather than later.
Best case: Royals fans, energized by the All-Star performance, turn Kauffman Stadium into the loudest place in the majors and help make the Royals unbeatable at home. OK ... that probably doesn't happen. But maybe the Royals hang on to their core group of talent instead of trading one or two away for a front-line pitcher. Why not keep Jonathan Broxton? Then, spend some money in the offseason on an impact starting pitcher because 2013 and 2014 look promising.
Second-half key: Surprisingly, the Twins got three strong outings from starting pitchers in Texas heading into the All-Star break. They'll need a lot more of that in the second half to play the ~.650 ball it will take to get back into the race. That's pretty hard to imagine considering the club's AL-worst 5.68 ERA from starters.
Player to watch: Francisco Liriano. If the Twins are to charge back into contention, the mercurial lefty will almost certainly have to carry the rotation. In the likelier event that Minnesota -- currently 11 games out in the AL Central -- elects to sell, the impending free agent will almost certainly be shipped out, and he could be a difference-maker for a playoff-bound team.
Best case: The Twins take nearly every series from here on out, winning 85-88 games and coming out on top of a relatively weak AL Central.
--Nick Nelson, Twins Daily
Second-half key: Health. A bit hackneyed, yes, but three-fifths of the Rangers' Opening Day starting rotation was absent due to injury going into the All-Star break, the bullpen has been hammered by physical ailments, there have been various and sundry viruses floating around the clubhouse for months, and you're still left to worry about injury-prone position players in the vein of Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton. This team could be a second-half and/or postseason monster ... but, above all else, it needs to get healthy, and it needs to stay healthy.
Player to watch: Michael Young. Yes, he's a player we've watched in Texas for more than a decade, but his situation is particularly interesting (or distressing) right now because he's batting a paltry .270/.303/.353 while primarily filling a 1B/DH role and not furnishing any walks or power out of his mid-order position. Despite a very recent drop in the batting order to sixth, he's going to continue to get his everyday playing time, and unless he's able to recover some semblance of his past offensive usefulness, he's going to persist as a thorn in the side of the Rangers' offense.
Best case: The Rangers rebuild some lasting momentum and pull away from the Angels, sapping any potential excitement from the AL West race and buying Texas a legit shot at the No. 1 playoff seed coming out of the American League.
--Joey Matschulat, Baseball Time in Arlington
Los Angeles Angels
Second-half key: Somehow the Angels are 10 games over .500 even though Dan Haren and Ervin Santana have gone a combined 10-17 with a 5.30 ERA. Both will have to pitch better ... or the Angels will look to bolster their rotation, perhaps by acquiring Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels.
Player to watch: Mike Trout, of course. After his monster first half (.341/.397/.562) landed him on the All-Star team, the 20-year-old rookie put himself into the MVP running alongside guys like Josh Hamilton and Robinson Cano. If he keeps hitting, running and fielding, he could join Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki as the only rookies to win the MVP Award.
Best case: Haren and Santana pitch better and the team trades for Greinke, allowing the Angels to pass the Rangers for the AL West title -- and make them the favorite heading into the postseason.
Second-half key: Yoenis Cespedes hit well while he was on the field, but he played only 54 games due to injury, and he sprained his thumb heading into the All-Star break. The A's will have to keep hitting if they want to keep winning, and Cespedes keeping his body in one piece is a major component.
Player to watch: Jarrod Parker had one big league start coming into this season, but 85 innings with a 2.86 ERA later, he's living up to his prospect promise. His walk rate is still too high, but he has the stuff to be dominant. If Brandon McCarthy is traded in the next few weeks, Parker will be Oakland's clear ace.
Best case: The A's are just 2½ games out of the second wild card, but there are three teams ahead of them (Tampa, Cleveland, Detroit) and two more tied (Boston, Toronto). A lot of leapfrogging has to happen to get Oakland to October, so a realistic best case is a good return on their best trade assets (McCarthy, Grant Balfour, Jonny Gomes) combined with strong play by the team left behind for a solid 85-win finish, leaving them out of the playoffs but with their best record since 2006.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball
Second-half key: It's always imperative for a losing team to build for the future, but for the sake of placating the alarmingly small crowds at Safeco Field, somebody has to start hitting. With the offense as stagnant in Year 2 of Jack Z's rebuilding project as it was in Year 1, heads might start to roll if internal options don't begin producing soon.
Player to watch: It's tempting to list one of the trio of struggling former prospects (the saddest of possible words: Ackley to Montero to Smoak), but I'll go with Casper Wells. Wells will never have his gonfalon hung from the rafters, but if he can build on a solid first half, he might work his way into the club's long-term plans. Honorable mention goes to Ichiro, who could be touring the league for a final time.
Best case: While nobody is ready to give up on Jesus Montero or Dustin Ackley, M's fans have been bitten too many times by "can't-miss" prospects not to be concerned by Montero's poor approach and Ackley's Groundhog Day-esque grounders to second. A strong finish from either (or both) would give the fan base some momentum heading into 2013.
--Brendan Gawlowski, Pro Ball NW