July 18, 2013
Five most interesting teams
1. Pirates: They haven't had a winning season since 1992 but might be the best team in the majors right now. They have pitching, defense and enough hitting with Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte. Manager Clint Hurdle still has a challenge keeping his players positive after the last two seasons when they were a combined 56-93 in the second half after putting together a .543 winning percentage in the first half.
2. Red Sox: Maybe the 93-loss season a year ago was an outlier. But it's remarkable how quickly they have rebounded after cutting the cord with manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein after 2011. Club President Larry Lucchino and owner John Henry have a lot invested in getting this team deep into the playoffs, which will change the tone around Fenway Park. They will go as far as David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia carry them, as usual.
3. Dodgers: Here they come. The Guggenheim Partners powerhouse finally seems ready to win, with Hanley Ramirez healthy and Yasiel Puig raking. But the starting pitching beyond Clayton Kershaw is a concern and manager Don Mattingly still is feeling the heat. Matt Kemp is probably the guy who will determine if it's a magical October or a bitter September.
4. Indians: Francona's new team has a chance, even if few people in Cleveland know it. They deserve better than the 19,183 per game who have come to watch them at Progressive Field, but it may take one more big player move to finish the job. Matt Garza is a possibility.
5. Astros: What, you expected the Yankees? Houston played well to end the first half on pace for a 57-105 season, but things could get really ugly in August and September, especially if they trade Bud Norris.
Five most interesting hitters
1. Yasiel Puig: He's not this good, is he?
2. Miguel Cabrera: Fourteen players have won the Triple Crown, with only Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby doing it twice. Nobody has done it in back-to-back seasons, but Cabrera can if he can make up the seven-homer deficit to Chris Davis (37-30).
3. Bryce Harper: He's only 20 but has the talent to carry a team. With the Nationals six games behind the Braves in the NL East, he has a chance to put himself into the MVP conversation if everything comes together.
4. Matt Kemp: Getting healthy isn't enough. Since his stunning first half in 2011 — .982 OPS with 27 stolen bases — he has had mortal totals of 44 homers and 31 stolen bases in 900 at-bats. Nothing would lift the Dodgers more than Kemp getting his 2011 swagger back.
5. Raul Ibanez: Among all the mistakes the Yankees have made recently, including the decision to let Russell Martin leave, nothing is more inexplicable than failing to hang on to the 2012 postseason hero. Ibanez, 41, quietly turned in a monster first half for the Mariners, delivering 24 home runs and an .892 OPS in one of the best post-40 performances ever. He could be the top bat traded at the deadline.
Five most interesting pitchers
1. Clayton Kershaw: Greg Maddux led the majors in ERA three years in a row (1993-95). Kershaw, who has a 2.30 ERA since the start of 2011, has a chance to duplicate that feat for the Dodgers. His 1.98 is better than any qualifier right now, with the Pirates' Jeff Locke at 2.15.
2. Jason Grilli: The Pirates' closer was the oldest first-time All-Star at 36. Now he's being asked to sustain a terrific first-half performance (29-for-30 in save situations) in summer-time heat.
3. Chris Carpenter: Long the Cardinals' bellwether, the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner is battling potentially career-ending nerve damage in his shoulder and neck but hit 95 on the radar gun in a recent rehab assignment. He says he will take a bullpen assignment happily if he can't stand up to six or seven innings in a game.
4. Matt Garza: A free agent at year's end, Garza is in line for a big contract if he can duplicate the success Anibal Sanchez had after being traded from the Marlins to the Tigers last year.
5. Max Scherzer: The Tigers stud is on track for a 22-2 season, which would be one of the best years ever for a starting pitcher (even if his 3.7 WAR ranks 10th among starters).
Five guys most under the gun
1. Mike Rizzo: The Nationals' GM has no regrets about protecting Stephen Strasburg last year. He may develop them if his team doesn't make an extended playoff run.
2. Ryan Braun: No one has more credibility to lose in the Biogenesis investigation than the Brewers' cornerstone player, who would be having a miserable season even without the PED cloud continuing to hang over his head.
3. Don Mattingly/Mike Scioscia (tie): The two Los Angeles managers can't say they weren't dealt hands they should win with. Both could be gone without playoff appearances.
4. Rob Manfred and Dan Halem: MLB's top lawyers were livid when Braun wriggled off the hook after a positive test for a banned substance in 2011. They need to secure suspensions from the aggressive prosecution of players tied to the tainted Miami clinic Anthony Bosch ran.
5. Yu Darvish: It's time to find out if the Japanese import is a big-game pitcher or just a show pony. He had a 4.26 second-half ERA last year when the Rangers couldn't hold off the Athletics.
Five most intriguing prospects
1. Byron Buxton, Twins: The 19-year-old second overall pick in last year's draft has hit .305 with an .896 OPS in 132 games as a pro. Will he get to the Twins as quickly as Joe Mauer, who played only 284 games as a minor-leaguer?
2. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, free agent: The 26-year-old Cuban hasn't signed yet but could find himself working big innings for the Dodgers, assuming that the Cubs or someone else doesn't outbid them.
3. Josh Phegley, White Sox: If the White Sox are going to avoid a total rebuild, they need some pleasant surprises from within their farm system. Phegley created a lot of excitement with three homers in his first 18 at-bats, including a grand slam, and suddenly looks like a great addition for a franchise that is about to lose Paul Konerko.
4. Michael Wacha, Cardinals: There are lots of arms in the wings if the Cardinals need them.
5. Micah Johnson, White Sox: The second baseman from Indiana University has a .415 on-base percentage and 65 steals in Class A this year, 13 more stolen bases than celebrated thief Billy Hamilton.
Five (theoretical) game-changing trades:
1. Addison Reed, Jesse Crain, Matt Lindstrom, Adam Dunn and cash to the Tigers for Victor Martinez, Nick Castellanos and Bruce Rondon: General manager Rick Hahn is willing to trade within his division, and this is the one blockbuster that could fix the Tigers' fatal flaw. The White Sox add a potential fixture (Castellanos) and an unproven power arm (Rondon) while changing their look with Martinez in Dunn's slot next year.
2. Giancarlo Stanton and Steve Cishek to the Rangers for Jurickson Profar, Martin Perez and power freak Joey Gallo (26 homers, 135 strikeouts in 83 games in low A): The Marlins say they're hanging on to Stanton but why? This is an offer they couldn't ignore.
3. Hunter Pence to the Nationals for outfielder Brian Goodwin: He was a godsend for the Giants a year ago and could have that same impact for Washington's stuck-in-the-mud lineup.
4. Matt Garza, Kevin Gregg and cash to the Indians for Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar: Before an injured finger sidelined him, the 25-year-old McAllister was turning a corner.
5. Jake Peavy and Lindstrom or Crain to the Diamondbacks for outfielders Jason Kubel and Adam Eaton: If the White Sox are changing their whole team, why not?
Five most interesting series
1. Pirates at Reds, July 19-21 and Sept. 27-29: The Pirates begin and end the second half at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. If they're going to blink, these are times when it could happen.
2. Red Sox at Rockies, Sept. 24-25: Year-round interleague play means AL teams could be playing without their designated hitters in huge late-season games, and this two-game series the last week of the season is probably the best example. It's hard to imagine anything will be on the line when the Tigers visit the Marlins the final weekend.
3. Yankees at Red Sox, Sept. 13-15: Mariano Rivera has saved 56 regular-season games against the Red Sox. His last visit to Boston should be special, with seats adjacent to the visiting bullpen in heavy demand.
4. Dodgers at Nationals, July 19-21: With the All-Star Game scheduled later than normal this season, it's more important than ever to get off to a good start in the second half. As is true with Pirates-Reds, a sweep in this back-to-work series would be huge.
5. Marlins at Cubs, Sept. 2-4: The fate of North Carolina State lefty Carlos Rodon, an instant ace, or California high school shortstop Jacob Gatewood could be determined by how baseball's bottom-tier teams do in head-to-head matchups like this one. Because draft order is determined by reverse standings, the loser wins.
Twitter @ChiTribRogersverse standings, the loser wins.
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