Commentary

A fascinating second half awaits

From Derek Jeter to David Price, to the race for playoff spots, and much more

Originally Published: July 16, 2014
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN.com

The first half of the baseball season was terrific, filled with history, home runs, strikeouts, drama, joy and sadness. And the second half promises to be even better.

Here are 10 storylines.

September (or before) call-ups

A number of top prospects, including Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco, have been recalled, but on the way are even more kids, some of whom might help a contender down the stretch.

The Dodgers don't have a true center fielder; maybe they will bring up Joc Pederson -- a true center fielder -- to see if he can add something in the pennant race. A scout who saw the Orioles' Dylan Bundy recently clocked him at 92-94 mph with good command -- maybe he could throw a few important innings in September. The Pirates could take a look at right-hander Nick Kingham in hopes that he could do something resembling what Gerrit Cole brought to the pennant race last year.

Other call-ups could include four right-handers: the Mets' Noah Syndergaard, Archie Bradley (if healthy) of the Diamondbacks, the Twins' Alex Meyer and Mike Foltynewicz of the Astros.

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonIt's possible the Red Sox could part ways with Jon Lester.

Jon Lester

A source close to Boston's star left-handed pitcher opened a very real possibility that Lester, a free agent after this season, will be playing elsewhere next season. And yet it seems hard to believe that the Red Sox, with all their money and resources, are going to part ways with their best pitcher by far -- a guy who has won two World Series, has been a postseason hero and has at times this season thrown the ball better than ever.

The Red Sox are going to have to come way up from their four-year, $70 million offer of a couple months ago to get him signed, but they don't have much choice given the way this season has gone, and given the rest of their rotation has no ace beyond Lester.

The Red Sox don't want to get where the Tigers are: rejected by Max Scherzer in March and likely having to compete with others to sign him.

Derek Jeter's final game

Unless the Yankees somehow make the playoffs despite all their injuries, Jeter's final home game will be Sept. 25 against the Orioles, and his final game will be Sept. 28 in Boston.

No matter when and where, it will be a grand goodbye for, unofficially, the third-best shortstop of all time, the sixth-best Yankee ever and the face of the game over the past 10 years. Jeter seemingly has enjoyed his final season; he has appeared at ease with his decision to retire and with the adulation he has received from opposing teams and fans across the country. And yet, even he might not be able to hold it together during that final day at Yankee Stadium, and then again at Fenway Park. It will be powerful.

What will Tony La Russa do?

La Russa was named to oversee baseball operations for the Diamondbacks in May. He is so smart, so methodical, that he likely will take the rest of the season to see where the D-backs are before deciding on the fate of general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson.

Those who know him best say La Russa is determined to show the baseball world the old-school way remains the best way to win -- that is, by teaching, by managing, by inspiring the players -- rather than by using a set of statistics to determine who should be hitting leadoff and who should be playing shortstop. Towers and Gibson fit that old-school model, but it's more than likely both will be gone at the end of the year.

The next commissioner

Replacing Bud Selig will not be easy. He has been that good, that progressive, that involved. Sources say the search for his replacement has been extensive, but chances are the replacement will come from inside the game. If so, it's likely that Rob Manfred, Selig's right-hand man, will be the choice. Sources say he is Selig's pick.

Selig has made so many side deals with owners; someone from the outside would take forever to get up to speed. Manfred knows of all those deals, and he has an excellent relationship with the players' association. His transition would be seamless. He would take over a game in great shape.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
AP Photo/Colin E. BraleyMike Trout is far and away the favorite to win the American League MVP.

The awards races

The races are very tight at the midpoint of the season. The only runaway appears to be the incomparable Mike Trout, the only player ever to finish in the top two of the MVP voting in his first two full seasons. And he's on his way to winning the AL MVP in his third year.

The NL MVP race is much closer. Troy Tulowitzki has had the best season, but he is doing so for a team that is not in a pennant race. Giancarlo Stanton's team is under .500, but at least the Marlins are closer in the NL wild-card race. Andrew McCutchen is going for two straight MVPs; he is surging and the Pirates are in the race. If the Brewers hang on to win the NL Central, and Jonathan Lucroy has a second half like his first, he is going to be in the mix as well.

The AL Cy Young was a great race until Masahiro Tanaka got hurt, which leaves Felix Hernandez as the clear leader. The NL Cy Young is even closer. Clayton Kershaw is the only pitcher ever to win eight consecutive starts with 80 strikeouts and a sub-1.00 ERA in one season. Adam Wainwright is the first pitcher in history to make nine scoreless starts of at least seven innings in his first 18 starts.

Tanaka's injury puts Jose Abreu as the prohibitive favorite for AL Rookie of the Year: He had 50 extra-base hits in his first 80 games, the first rookie to do that since Ted Williams in 1939. Billy Hamilton is the leader in the NL. But the beauty of these awards is they mean nothing at the halfway point of the season -- most are decided down the stretch.

Injuries

I can't remember a season in which so many star players have been hurt for extended periods of time, including 23 Tommy John surgeries to major league pitchers. The return of some of the injured players will affect not just pennant races, but October. Tanaka (elbow) is the biggest reason the Yankees are even in a pennant race, but there's no telling where they will be if and when he returns in, say, late August.

Same goes for the Cardinals, who are going to have to find a way to win without catcher Yadier Molina (thumb), perhaps the NL's most indispensable player, for eight to 12 weeks. Same goes for the Reds without second baseman Brandon Phillips (thumb).

The Rays are going to get outfielder Wil Myers back after the break, but will there be time to get back in the race? How will the Blue Jays do without Edwin Encarnacion for two or three weeks? There are so many injuries, so many questions, so few answers. That's what the second half will provide.

Pennant races

They should be great.

Baltimore has created some room in the AL East, but no team is good enough to run away in that division. Can Toronto make the playoffs for the first time since 1993? The Tigers have gotten hot again, but the Royals are still in the hunt to make the playoffs for the first time since 1985. The AL West might send three teams to the playoffs. The A's are the game's best team, but they can't shake the Angels, and the Mariners are also dangerous.

The NL East could go down to the final day between two teams, the Nationals and Braves. Same for the NL West with the Dodgers and Giants. The NL Central could go to the final day with four teams in contention: the Brewers, Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.

The trade deadline

More teams are in races, therefore fewer trades than usual could be made before July 31. Still, there are several intriguing teams out there, led by the Phillies. They aren't going to the playoffs, they are old and rich and not very good, but they have some players with value.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Papelbon
Rick Yeatts/Getty ImagesJonathan Papelbon could be on the move if the price is right.

It begins with Cliff Lee, who hasn't pitched since May and likely will only get one start in the big leagues before July 31. But if healthy, he is a difference-maker. How can the Phillies not at least consider trading him? They also have Marlon Byrd and Jonathan Papelbon, who could help a contender, but will the price be right?

The Cubs made their big deal with Oakland, but it will be interesting to see if the Padres do anything with closer Huston Street. The Rangers have the worst record in baseball, but they might think they could bounce back next season and therefore won't deal closer Joakim Soria or outfielder Alex Rios.

Keep an eye on the Angels. They are charging, and they might be one reliever away from becoming good enough to win the World Series.

Will David Price get traded?

A Rays source recently was succinct about this: If the Rays are in the division or wild-card race at the end of July, Price will stay. If not, Price will go.

The asking price for Price is exceptionally high, and the Rays are not going to settle for anything less than getting exactly what they want. If they don't get it, they can wait to deal him in the offseason or even at next year's deadline. But the most they will ever get for him is right now because he can affect a pennant race this season and next.

The problem is, so few teams have the prospects necessary to get him and the money to sign him long term. The Cardinals likely do. So do the Dodgers. And so do the Giants, maybe. The next 2½ weeks will be fascinating.

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