Second half: What to watch for
Davis and Cabrera Biogenesis and trade deadline Pirates and Puig-mania
In the immortal words of Nuke LaLoosh, "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains." And sometimes it rains a lot. As commissioner Bud Selig pointed out this week, baseball has already endured 34 weather-related postponements this season compared to 21 for all of 2012.
As the 30 MLB teams return to a deluge of makeup games and unexpected day-night doubleheaders, we're about to go from extraordinarily wet to oppressively hot -- in more ways than one. Baseball will spend the next 12 days navigating the trade deadline then plunge into the dog days and the stretch drive. Playoff berths will be decided, award races will shake out, and a certain investigation into a Coral Gables, Fla., anti-aging clinic will methodically wind toward a conclusion.
As the second half begins with a slate of 15 games Friday night, here are the top storylines we can look forward to between now and the postseason:
The Chris Davis (and Miguel Cabrera) watch
Two years ago, Davis was just another lefty slugger with holes in his swing and a reputation as a platoon hitter-in-waiting. Then he found a home in Baltimore, made himself into a more polished hitter and busted out with 33 home runs in 2012.
This year, Davis hit 37 by the All-Star break, which puts him on pace to hit 62.4375 (give or take a few). Davis kick-started a spirited conversation when he said he's taking aim at Roger Maris' 61 because he regards that number -- not Barry Bonds' steroid-inflated total of 73 -- as the Holy Grail of home run records. Meanwhile, he's fending off the same steroid whispers and potshots that Jose Bautista encountered when he hit 54 homers for Toronto in 2010.
Davis told The Baltimore Sun that he has shut down his Twitter account, more because Twitter isn't his style than because he's allergic to mean-spirited feedback. Whatever his reasoning, it might have been the best move for his mental health if he plans on taking a serious run at 61.
Davis' fate is intertwined with that of Cabrera, who has retired the title of Best Hitter on the Planet until further notice. Last year, Cabrera became baseball's first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. This year, he leads the American League in batting average (.365) and RBIs (95) but has work to do to catch Davis and join Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams as the third two-time Triple Crown winner in history. Cabrera has a seven-homer deficit with 2½ months to play.
"If anybody can catch Chris Davis, it'll be Cabrera," said Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter. "But there's a difference. Chris Davis can hit the ball out of any park, but he definitely can do it at Camden Yards. I'm pretty sure he'll have a lot more homers than Cabrera because of the parks they play in. That's going to make it harder for Miggy to catch up."
According to ESPN.com's park factors, Camden Yards is the eighth-most generous home run venue in the majors, while Comerica Park ranks 15th. Davis has 20 homers and a .722 slugging percentage at home this season, compared to 12 homers and a .656 slugging percentage for Cabrera in Detroit.
The Biogenesis saga
"Whatever happens is going to happen," Rockies outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. "You just want the conclusion to come. A lot of people have said it before: Once you get past one thing, another black eye comes. You want to stop getting those black eyes and have the focus be on the talent that's in baseball."
Baseball officials contend that Biogenesis is less a black eye than a case of the commissioner's office vigorously enforcing the drug testing agreement, which allows MLB to pursue PED users even in the absence of positive tests. As things stand, baseball is collecting information and is expected to present its findings to the players' association sometime in the next month.
Then the real fun begins, as the commissioner's office and the union haggle over the length of suspensions and whether they will remain confidential or be released publicly before the appeal process. Even if MLB doesn't announce suspensions in a mass news release, recent history shows that they might leak out soon enough through the news media.
As union leader Michael Weiner confirmed this week, the process is likely to drag into the offseason, which means the principals could find their reputations and baseball futures in limbo for a while.
Alex Rodriguez's legacy might be beyond repair, and Ryan Braun is treading perilously close to the edge. Even if Nelson Cruz staves off a suspension long enough to help the Rangers make the playoffs, his involvement with Biogenesis could have a significant impact on his pursuit of a long-term deal in free agency.
Biogenesis also will be a hot topic of conversation at the upcoming Hall of Fame weekend. The baseball writers took a pass on the entire ballot for the first time since 1996, and returning Hall of Famers in Cooperstown are likely to make news by expressing their views on the whole steroid debate.
The trade deadline
The Philadelphia Phillies emerge from the break with a 48-48 record. They're 5½ games out of the wild card and 6½ behind of Atlanta in the National League East, and their lineup has taken a pair of hits recently with injuries to first baseman Ryan Howard and center fielder Ben Revere.
"I'm not too worried about it," Lee said. "There are all kinds of rumors and what-ifs, and it's all rumors until Ruben calls me and says, 'Hey, you're traded.' To me, there's no benefit playing them out in my head. What if I was traded to the Giants, or the Cardinals, or the Yankees, or whatever. I don't really put any credence or thought into it until it actually happens. As far as I know, it's not going to happen and I'm a Phillie."
While the Phillies, defending champion Giants and other teams on the edge ponder their course of action, the Cubs and White Sox are actively unloading, and Houston GM Jeff Luhnow will quietly assess the market for pitcher Bud Norris and his other tradable commodities.
From all indications, Cubs starter Matt Garza is the next prominent name who will be packing his bags and heading out of town. Unless the Phillies radically change course or the Marlins get a sudden, unexpected urge to shop Giancarlo Stanton, it appears that most of the top contenders will focus on bullpen help, bench bats and other functional moves to provide depth for their postseason pushes.
Those lovable Pirates
The Buccos aren't flying under anybody's radar anymore. They just placed five players on the All-Star team for the first time since 1972. Closer Jason Grilli appears on the latest cover of Sports Illustrated, and the Pirates are on track to surpass 2 million fans for only the third time since 1991.
Nevertheless, Pirates fans have reason to be apprehensive about a late fade. The bullpen has logged the most innings in the majors, and the pitching staff's low BABIP and high percentage of runners stranded has convinced skeptics that a correction is inevitable. The Pirates went 21-46 down the stretch two years ago and staged a 16-36 collapse in 2012, so doomsday scenarios abound just about everywhere other than the team's clubhouse. In the meantime, the Pittsburgh players continue to have faith.
"To me, we simplify things as a team," said Andrew McCutchen. "It's not like the second half is so much more important than the first half. We just treat every day the same -- to try to win a ballgame and reassess what you did and get ready for the next day. We're not thinking, 'If we can win eight of our next 10, that will put us in nice spot,' or, 'We need to take at least three of five from the Cardinals.' We're taking it day by day. That's the biggest key for us."
The Pirates will be tested right out of the chute, with a 10-game trip to Cincinnati, Washington and Miami followed by a five-game series with St. Louis at PNC Park at the end of the month. By that point, they'll know if general manager Neal Huntington is able to acquire a run-producing bat, some extra bullpen depth or perhaps another starter to solidify the rotation. Pittsburgh's rotation leads the majors with a 3.27 ERA but ranks 26th with 517 2/3 innings pitched. Does something have to give? We'll find out soon enough.
The AL East race
There might be closer races, but you probably won't find a better collection of intriguing team narratives from top to bottom.
The Red Sox lead the majors with 58 wins, which is a mere 11 victories short of their total for the entire 2012 season. And that's with Clay Buchholz being on the shelf with a shoulder injury since early June and Jon Lester sporting a 4.58 ERA.
The Rays are 55-41 and rank 29th in attendance, a dichotomy that prompted some fiery rhetoric from Selig at the All-Star Game. He called the team's situation "beyond disappointing" and said the Rays are operating in a situation that is "economically not tolerable" at Tropicana Field.
The Orioles, coming off their first playoff appearance since 1997, are right in the mix for another postseason berth as they rekindle the city's proud baseball tradition under general manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter.
The Yankees have a $228 million payroll, an aging pitching rotation, a no-name lineup and a star-studded disabled list. Derek Jeter is still trying to prove he's got it at age 39, Mariano Rivera is closing out a Hall of Fame career with a nationwide love-and-affection tour, and A-Rod will continue to keep doing whatever it is that A-Rod does.
The Blue Jays, a popular preseason pick after GM Alex Anthopoulos' flurry of winter activity, are in trouble at 45-49 and need to turn things around quickly if they expect to make any kind of a run. It's hard to tell if Anthopoulos will buy, sell or hold, but he's always in the middle of everything.
The real thing or a baseball mirage?
Yes, we know that much of America thinks Yasiel Puig has been christened a superstar before his time and that ESPN and other media outlets tried to cram him down the public's throat as an All-Star candidate. The backlash was readily apparent in those 19.6 million votes that Freddie Freeman received in the All-Star Final Vote balloting.
Los Angeles Dodgers
But the media didn't invent all those T-shirt sales, the catch in Vin Scully's throat as he raved about Puig's skill set or Arizona pitcher Ian Kennedy's assertion that Puig plays the game with a "lot of arrogance." Puig has been a lightning rod for attention whether he's hitting dramatic home runs, uncorking laser throws from the warning track or nearly steamrolling his fellow outfielders in pursuit of fly balls. His 44 hits in June were the second most by a player in his first career month, behind only Joe DiMaggio's 48 knocks for the Yankees in 1936.
Can Puig keep it up? One NL West watcher points out that Puig is a front-of-the-box hitter who stands up in the box as a hedge against breaking balls. If teams counter by throwing him more high heat, he'll have to figure out a way to adapt.
The Dodgers posted a 24-15 record and reversed their fortunes once Puig arrived from Double-A Chattanooga on June 3. He was followed a day later by Hanley Ramirez, who has been on a similar tear at the plate. Now that the Don Mattingly death watch has subsided, the Dodgers appear poised to make an extended run behind a starting rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and the newly acquired Ricky Nolasco.
While the Dodgers go all-out to win the West, the Arizona Diamondbacks keep grinding away under manager Kirk Gibson and the Giants inch closer to sell mode. The Rockies also have reason to hope they can hang around a while now that Troy Tulowitzki and Dexter Fowler are back in the lineup as they begin the second half with a 10-game homestand against the Cubs, Marlins and Brewers.
Other top storylines: The offensively impaired Nationals try to make good on manager Davey Johnson's "World Series or bust" pledge; Bob Melvin and the feisty Oakland A's compete with Texas for the top spot in the AL West; Terry Francona and the Indians take aim at the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2007; the players' association formulates contingency plans as Michael Weiner fights an inoperable brain tumor; the discussion over instant replay flares up with each new umpiring mishap; the Upton brothers try to turn it around after disappointing first halves in Atlanta; Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and the Angels attempt to stay relevant; Detroit starter Max Scherzer leads a pack of aspiring 20-game winners; human Web Gem factory Manny Machado joins Mike Trout and Bryce Harper as a prominent new face in the game.