Let the second half of the 2014 MLB season begin! Each of baseball’s six divisions are closely contested (also resulting in tight wild-card races), which should make for some fun baseball during the next two-and-a-half months.
Potential trades and playoff races will naturally be the stories followed most closely from now through September. But zooming in from the big picture reveals several developing situations that will be worth watching as contenders try to improve themselves, disappointing clubs plan for the future, and competition heats up for baseball’s major awards.
Here are MLB’s 10 most compelling storylines to follow for the season’s second half.
Will David Price be traded?
The Rays’ left-hander is presumably the best player available on the trade market leading up to July 31. No player could affect the balance of power in MLB more if he’s dealt.
But Tampa Bay may believe it still has a shot at the postseason (despite being 9.5 games back in the AL East and eight games behind a wild-card bid) and decide to keep Price — at least for the rest of this season. Plus, how many contenders can offer the load of top prospects the Rays would seek in return? Oakland’s deal for Jeff Samardzija set the bar high, and a package for Price would have to exceed that threshold. Are the Dodgers really the only team with a realistic shot at doing so?
The National League MVP race
Among the Outside Corner staff, Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was a near-unanimous choice for NL MVP honors. But as impressive as his numbers are, Tulowitzki is playing for a team that could finish last in the NL West. His home-away splits (.417 average at Coors Field, .265 on the road) could also sway some voters.
If the Pirates stay in the NL Central race and make another run at the postseason (both of which look entirely possible), Andrew McCutchen could win his second consecutive MVP award. Giancarlo Stanton is also a factor, especially if he hits 40 homers and the Marlins remain on the fringes of contention. Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy will get consideration if the Brewers stave off their NL Central competition as well, though will probably split voters.
Can the Yankees stay in the AL East race?
The Yankees will get plenty of headlines in the second half because of Derek Jeter’s farewell tour. (A friend suggested that ticket sales might plummet in the Bronx, if not for Jeter.) But the Yanks will warrant even more attention if they continue to contend for a playoff spot. Sitting five games back in the AL East and 3.5 behind in the wild-card standings, it’s a bit of an uphill climb.
Can GM Brian Cashman pull off a bold move or two at the trade deadline to bolster his starting rotation and infield, and one-up the Orioles and Blue Jays? With that, and an aging lineup staying healthy and productive for another 68 games, Jeter’s stretch run could take place amongst meaningful baseball in September and October.
Four-team race in the NL Central
The Brewers had a chance to put some distance between themselves and their competition in the NL Central. But a July slump has endangered what once appeared to be a sure playoff bid for Milwaukee. As a result, the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates are back in the race.
The Cards have always looked like the most talented team in this division, yet a disappointing lineup has held them back. The Reds have been hot, but injuries to Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips might be too much to overcome. The Pirates might be the club that can make the biggest jump, led by arguably the league’s best player and a pitching staff that’s getting healthy at the right time. But is it a mistake to write off the Brewers?
The Royals’ drive for the playoffs
Maybe you’ve heard that it’s been 28 years since Kansas City made it to the postseason. The Royals are 6.5 games behind the Tigers in the AL Central, which might be too big a margin to overcome at this point. But they’re only 2.5 games away from the league’s second wild-card spot, so hopes of ending that long playoff drought remain alive.
Kansas City just added Jason Frasor to its already formidable bullpen, but GM Dayton Moore will likely have to make a bigger move to give his team a push toward the playoffs. A right-handed bat for the outfield or some help for the starting rotation could have a significant impact for this team and follow through on the promise it’s shown during the past couple of seasons.
Clayton Kershaw’s annual NL Cy Young Award
The Dodgers’ ace is in position to win his second consecutive NL Cy Young Award. (I would argue that Kershaw should be contending for his fourth consecutive honors, but should probably just get past that.) In 14 starts, he has an 11-2 record and 1.78 ERA (on pace to lead the NL for the fourth straight season), and is outpacing the competition with a strikeout rate of 11.8 per nine innings.
The Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto of the Reds will present a challenge (and will have more starts, due to Kershaw’s back injury), and either hurler would also be a worthy winner. But if Kershaw continues to pitch as he has, there’s no reason to think he won’t be honored as the NL’s best pitcher yet again.
Jose Abreu’s charge toward 50 homers
With a MLB-leading 29 homers at the All-Star break, the White Sox first baseman is on pace to hit 49 longballs, which would tie Mark McGwire’s record for a rookie. (That would also tie Albert Belle’s franchise record for most home runs in a single season.) Had Abreu not missed 15 games due to an ankle injury, breaking McGwire’s record might seem like a foregone conclusion.
As it is, the 27-year-old is still in a position to make some history. Batting .360 so far through July, Abreu is actually hitting better as the season progresses. Playing his home games at U.S. Cellular Field won’t hurt his chances either (though Abreu actually has more homers on the road this season). The 50-homer mark is certainly within reach for the likely AL Rookie of the Year.
What happens to Matt Kemp?
The Dodgers’ outfield logjam has been an issue for manager Don Mattingly and GM Ned Colletti going back to last season. But Kemp’s struggles — especially defensively — have complicated the situation. The Dodgers have been playing well with Kemp in left field and Carl Crawford on the bench, and apparently don’t want to mess with a good thing right now.
But Kemp hasn’t been hitting well in July and his agent, Dave Stewart, is making noise that his client would prefer to play center field on an everyday basis. That’s probably not going to happen with the Dodgers. So could Kemp be trade bait for some starting pitching and bullpen help? No current contender, other than the Mariners, may be interested. Yet this is worth keeping an eye on for the next five weeks or so.
How low will the Rangers finish?
One of the most surprising developments of the first half has been the cratering of the Rangers, who currently occupy last place in the AL West and have MLB’s worst record at 38-57. Could a team viewed as a World Series contender before the season actually end up losing 100 games instead?
The Rangers have 67 games remaining, so would have to go 24-43 in the second half for a 100-loss season. With all the players Texas has lost due to injury, it’s possible. But a team that can pitch Yu Darvish every fifth day and has Adrian Beltre in its lineup seems like it still has enough talent to avoid that indignity. Maybe the bigger story would be the Astros finishing ahead of the Rangers and avoiding 100 losses for the first time in four seasons.
Are the Phillies ready to blow it up?
Both the Phillies and Padres could be very active at the trade deadline, selling off pieces that contenders covet. San Diego seems more likely to do so, as the team seems more willing to admit it needs reconstruction and likely won’t ask as much in return for its expendable veterans. But Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has the bigger names to move.
Pitchers Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels would make a big impact for a playoff hopeful and yield the big return of prospects that the Phillies so desperately need. Infielders Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley could also draw serious interest, if both players waive their no-trade rights. Perhaps the most likely to go is closer Jonathan Papelbon, who’s already said he wants to pitch for a contender.