Barry, Beckett ... and so much more

A baker's dozen of compelling questions for baseball's second half.

Will anyone pitch to Barry Bonds? The San Francisco slugger already has set a record for intentional walks in a single-season, with 71, and he soon will become the first player ever to draw 200 walks overall. Bonds, who set the single-season record for walks with 198 in 2002, is on pace to draw 238 walks.

Will the Red Sox gamble and make big changes before the trade deadline? This is a win-the-World Series-at-all-costs season for Boston -- especially in the aftermath of the blundered A-Rod negotiations -- and while the team played much better in the week before the All-Star break, issues abound.

Would it be better to trade one or two of the prospective free agents -- perhaps Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Lowe -- to simply give the team a little more juice? Or should the Red Sox keep this group together, in the hope that even the players who appear bitter or distracted -- like Nomar -- will focus for the stretch run?

Their first priority: Keep Randy Johnson out of the Bronx.

Can the Cubs' deep starting rotation finally begin to manifest itself in the playoff race, now that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are healthy? Or will the surprising Cardinals, led by the trio of Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds, hold onto their big lead in the NL Central?

The Cardinals' success will depend largely on whether Chris Carpenter can maintain his first half durability -- which might be difficult, in his first full season coming back from arm trouble.

Will Josh Beckett's blisters heal? The Marlins' ace has been hampered by a skin problem on his pitching hand, and Florida cannot defend its title unless Beckett can play some sort of significant role -- whether as a starting pitcher, or perhaps even a dominant set-up man for closer Armando Benitez (which would reduce the chances of a regular blister blowout).

What trades could tip the power in the division races? Before the July 31 trade deadline, the contenders will be bidding for players like Orlando Cabrera, Kris Benson, Carlos Delgado, Lowe, Ugueth Urbina and Jose Mesa
-- and perhaps Carlos Beltran and Randy Johnson.

Are the Houston Astros buyers or sellers? There were high expectations for the team after they signed Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte in the offseason, but Houston is barely hanging in the chase for the NL wild card and could be pushed out of contention in the next two weeks. If so, they might unload Beltran and Jeff Kent, and will inevitably be asked about the availability of Clemens.

The Astros made their first attempt at resuscitation on Wednesday, when they fired manager Jimy Williams and replaced him with Phil Garner.

Who will emerge from the mess that is the NL West? The Giants have two great players in Bonds and Jason Schmidt, the Dodgers have a great bullpen, and the Padres could have great starting pitching. But none of them are great teams.

Can the Texas Rangers sustain their day-to-day energy -- which is probably greater than any other team this season -- and pitch enough to shock Anaheim and Oakland in the AL West? If they do, the A-Rod-less Rangers will be years ahead of schedule in rebuilding their franchise. The key figure in the second half will be Texas' Kenny Rogers, who has never done well under added duress.

Will the Braves continue their streak of division championships after floundering early? They've rebounded in recent days, they're getting back their best player in Marcus Giles, and because Philly and Florida failed to take control of the NL East early, the Braves might take over.

When will Bonds slam his 700th homer? He's got only 19 to go before he becomes the third player in major league history to reach that number, and he could be in position to pass Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron next year.

Will Major League Baseball finally pick a new home for the Montreal Expos? There's an assumption that they wind up in Northern Virginia or Washington D.C., but Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a powerful and deeply stubborn lawyer, will presumably put up a major fight while playing on his legal home field unless he is properly wooed (read: cash, and lots of it). Baseball is running out of time to affect change for 2005, and must either completely surrender to Angelos and put the team someplace like Norfolk, Va., or reach a settlement.

Will the union agree to a tougher drug-testing policy? So far there's been a lot of talk about making the toothless system more effective, but like the issue of the Expos' future, the promises for change have been empty.

And the most compelling question of the second half: Will the Yankees get Randy Johnson? The team's clear weakness is its rotation, but the acquisition of the pitcher who beat them three times in the 2001 World Series would turn the starting pitching into yet another strength, and push the Yankees' payroll over $200 million. If the Yankees get Johnson, they would become prohibitive favorites, presumed winners -- like Smarty Jones was heading into the Belmont.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," will be released later this summer and can be pre-ordered through HarperCollins.com.