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Baseball is back: looking ahead to the second half

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - JUNE 27: Manager John Farrell #53 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout after Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez allowed an RBI single by Nick Franklin of the Tampa Bay Rays during the third inning of a game on June 27, 2016 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

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The All-Star break officially ends at 2:20PM Eastern time today when the Rangers and Cubs begin play at Wrigley Field (thank you, Chicago, for day baseball on Fridays). Teams have played around 90 games or so, meaning the season is more than half over, but practically speaking, the second half is truly just now beginning. No playoff race has been decided and, with only a few exceptions, no one is really out of the running.

So: let us take a look ahead at what’s in store for the second half.

Wait, first, let’s look back.

Q: Just for fun, who are the first half award winners?

It’s always a little preposterous to do this, but why the heck not?

AL MVP: Flip a coin between Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson. Maybe do a round-robin with Jose Altuve
NL MVP: Kris Bryant, but there are a lot of good candidates, including his teammate, Anthony Rizzo
AL Cy Young: Danny Salazar or maybe Steven Wright
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
AL Rookie of the Year: Michael Fulmer
NL Rookie of the Year: Corey Seager
AL Manager of the Year: Terry Francona
NL Manager of the Year: Dusty Baker

That and a buck gets you a candy bar at the checkout counter. Let’s look forward now:

Q: Who are the real contenders and who are the mere pretenders?

If the season ended today the division winners would be Baltimore, Cleveland, Texas, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco. The Wild Card teams would be Boston and Toronto in the American League and the Dodgers in the National League. The Mets and Marlins are tied for the second Wild Card.

As far as the division leaders go, Cleveland, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco seem like fairly safe bets to me, primarily based on the size of their leads but also based on the flaws of their pursuers. In the AL East, Baltimore, Boston and Toronto all have very similar strengths (offense or offensive potential) but similar weaknesses too (pitching mostly). Boston has moved aggressively to fill their holes via trade and Toronto, given their front office’s change of philosophy since last year is unlikely to make a big splash. Baltimore could definitely use a starter to take some of the pressure off of their very good but very taxed bullpen. I’ll give Boston the edge based on their great offense and the moves they’ve made, but the AL East is likely to be a dogfight for the remainder of the season.

The Rangers have a nice lead in the AL West but the injuries to their rotation make them vulnerable and Houston, I believe, has yet to play their best baseball. I think that division gets closer. The National League division leaders seem pretty solid and the teams chasing them all have injury problems.

As for the wild card: in the American League It’s probably easier to say who isn’t a contender there than who is. If I’m drawing the line I say the Yankees -- who should be and may be sellers -- and everyone with a record worse than them in the AL are really out of it (i.e. Athletics, Angels, Rays and Twins). In the NL it’s the opposite, with only five teams having realistic shots at the two Wild Card slots (Mets, Marlins, Cardinals, Pirates and Dodgers).

Q: Whose schedule presents the easiest path forward? Whose is the toughest?

Let’s keep in mind, above all else, that baseball is not college football, so strength of schedule is not exactly the be-all, end-all. Anyone can beat anyone at any time and there is enough parity in this game to where the differences between a tough schedule and an easy one are pretty small.

That said, over at ESPN Buster Olney broke down the remaining schedules for the contenders. The hardest schedules, in terms of the most games against opponents with winning records going forward, belong to the Tigers (54 games against .500+ competition), Astros (44), Red Sox (31, but A LOT of road games) and White Sox (51). The Yankees (58) actually face the toughest competition, but I don’t really consider them a contender. The easiest: Pirates (33, lots of home games), Dodgers (27), Rangers (36) and Mets (32).

Q: Who are the buyers at the trade deadline and what are they buying?

Just about every contender on that list has some need. As usual, it’s mostly pitching. People always need pitching. That being said, here’s what I see as each contender’s biggest need. Obviously in some cases like with the Mets, Rangers, Mariners and Giants, simply getting regulars healthy is probably a bigger need than trade help:

Red Sox: Starting pitching, though they dealt with that yesterday
Orioles: Starting pitching
Blue Jays: Bullpen help, starting pitching
Indians: Reliever, bench bat, outfielder
Tigers: Starting pitching
Royals: Starting pitching, outfield depth
White Sox: Outfielder
Rangers: Bullpen help
Astros: Corner bat/catcher
Mariners: Bullpen help
Nationals: Outfielder
Mets: Bench help, starting pitching help
Marlins: Starting pitching
Cubs: Bullpen help
Cardinals: Outfielder
Pirates: Starting pitching
Giants: Bullpen help, maybe a back-end starter
Dodgers: Starting pitching, outfield depth

Q: What players are available?

Anyone could be available, at least theoretically. Here, however, are the most commonly mentioned bits of trade fodder available at the deadline, including some reaches in the event the Yankees decide to sell off:

Relief Pitchers: Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller (Yankees); Arodys Vizcaino (Braves); Daniel Hudson, Tyler Clippard (Diamondbacks); Joe Smith (Angels); Huston Street (Angels); Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress (Brewers); Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson (Athletics)

Starting Pitchers: Julio Teheran (Braves); Hector Santiago (Angels); Ervin Santana (Twins); Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, Nathan Eovaldi (Yankees); Sonny Gray, Rich Hill (Athletics); Jeremy Hellickson (Phillies); Andrew Cashner (Padres); Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore, Drew Smyly (Rays)

Catchers: Jonathan Lucroy (Brewers); Steven Vogt (Athletics)

Infielder: Erick Aybar (Braves); Zack Cozart (Reds); Mark Teixeira (Yankees); Danny Valencia (Athletics); Jed Lowrie (Athletics); Steve Pearce (Rays)

Outfielders/DH: Jay Bruce (Reds); Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies) Jeff Francoeur (Braves); Carlos Beltran (Yankees); Josh Reddick (Athletics); Melvin Upton Jr. (Padres); Desmond Jennings (Rays)

So that’s where we stand on July 15th as the regular season, thankfully, resumes.

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