Commentary

AL East … King Albert … and lots more

The second half of the season promises to be eventful and filled with plenty of intrigue

Originally Published: July 15, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Nick Adenhart and Mark Fidrych left us during a gut-wrenching week in April. Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson reached major milestones, and Matt Wieters and Tommy Hanson arrived from the minors to begin what should be long and productive careers.

What else have we learned since Opening Day? The new Yankee Stadium is a bandbox. Life is one big series of Groundhog Days for Milton Bradley, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cleveland Indians' bullpen. And it just might have been a little hasty to declare Jonathan Sanchez a reliever in San Francisco.

Now that the first half of the 2009 Major League Baseball season is complete, it's time to ponder what's next on the agenda. This post-All-Star edition of Starting 9 takes a look at the news developments that are likely to dominate baseball's conversational landscape between now and October.

The American League East Race

The conventional wisdom in March: New York, Boston and Tampa Bay were the three best teams in the game. The wild card was likely to emerge from the AL East, and one unfortunate team was destined to win 93 games and be an afterthought come October.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesDavid Ortiz and the Red Sox head into the second half with the best record in the American League.
The reality in July: As good as the Dodgers are, we might have been dead-on in spring training.

The Red Sox, Yankees and Rays hit the break with a combined .577 win percentage, and they have the second, third and fourth best run differentials in the game, respectively.

Boston DH David Ortiz, written off by baseball alarmists in May, has 11 homers since June 6. He's tied with Juan Rivera for most in the majors in that span. New York's big pitching acquisitions, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, are a combined 16-10 with a 3.82 ERA. Tampa Bay's pitching has had some issues, but rookie David Price has 47 strikeouts in 44 innings and could be a difference-maker with better fastball command.

Manager Joe Maddon's Rays, 6½ games behind Boston in the division, will have plenty of opportunity for a late surge. The Rays play Boston and New York 13 times in September and October, and close out the season with a three-game series against the Yankees at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay is 87-39 at home over the past season and a half.

His Royal Highness, King Albert

St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols leads the National League with 32 home runs and 87 RBIs at the break. He's also fourth in the league with a .332 batting average -- 17 points behind NL leader Hanley Ramirez of Florida.

Albert Pujols
Pujols
It marks only the fifth time in 60 years that a player has held the outright lead in homers and RBIs while batting above .330 at the break. Mickey Mantle went on to win the Triple Crown in 1956, but Hank Aaron (1957), Tony Perez (1970) and Barry Bonds (1993) all fell short.

So what are Pujols' chances of becoming the first hitter to win a Triple Crown since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967? National League pitchers certainly aren't betting against him.

"He hits the ball so hard no matter where it's pitched," said San Francisco's Matt Cain. "He'll take a ball down-and-away and hit it back up the middle or to right field. He's getting walked a ton, but he still goes up there and he's locked in and seeing pitches well. That's a tough situation when you're not getting a real at-bat all the time."

Time will tell if teams plan to challenge Pujols as the season progresses. Of his major league-leading 71 walks, Pujols has received 32 intentional passes. Chipper Jones and Adrian Gonzalez are tied for second with 13 each.

"The way he's swinging, I think it'll be tough for teams not to put him on [base] and make the rest of his guys beat you," Cain said.

Ichiro
Ichiro

Joe Mauer
Mauer

The Great Batting Race

It's time to stow the talk of Twins catcher Joe Mauer's making a run at .400. In his final game before the All-Star break, Mauer went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts against the White Sox. That was three more whiffs than Mauer accumulated in his entire high school career in St. Paul, Minn.

Mauer, nevertheless, entered the break with a .373 average, and is poised to make a run at his third batting title. His biggest challenge will come from Seattle outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, a fellow two-time batting champion who leads the majors with 128 hits and is hitting .362.

Ichiro has a built-in advantage because he's going to get more leg hits than Mauer. Catchers also tend to wear down in August and September, for obvious reasons. But Mauer missed all of April with a back problem, so he might be fresher than usual late in the season.

Mauer certainly has his advocates.

"I think Joe Mauer is the best hitter in baseball right now," said Boston's Kevin Youkilis, who doesn't have much chance to see Pujols in the American League. "I've seen him come up. We got drafted the same year. And to me, it's amazing how he's maturing and getting better every day."

Happy Halladays (and Hollidays)

Last year, Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin landed the big trade target early when he acquired pitcher CC Sabathia from Cleveland on July 7.

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
Morry Gash-Pool/Getty ImagesMight Roy Halladay land with a playoff contender in the next few weeks?

This year, the big fish will probably be out there a while. Everybody loves Toronto's Roy Halladay. But interested suitors will have to raid their farm systems, pay him $7 million this year and $15.75 million in 2010 and at least consider the possibility of signing him to an extension.

Oakland's Matt Holliday could also change teams this month, but not as the big run-producing, pennant race weapon that everyone envisioned. Holliday has eight homers in 315 at-bats this season, and a lower slugging percentage (.419) than former A's infielder Marco Scutaro. Think he might like a chance to reconsider the reported five-year, $84 million offer the Rockies made in the spring of 2008?

Among the other names that are going to be bandied around the Internet over the next two weeks: Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Orlando Cabrera, Garrett Atkins, Nick Johnson, Adam LaRoche, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Jarrod Washburn, Erik Bedard, Doug Davis, Jon Garland, Kerry Wood, Carl Pavano, George Sherrill, Danys Baez, Cla Meredith, John Grabow, Rafael Betancourt, Matt Capps, Aubrey Huff and Chad Tracy. That's just an appetizer.

The Steroids Saga

So let's review: In February, the news broke that Alex Rodriguez came up positive for a banned substance during "survey testing" in 2003. He confessed his sins to Peter Gammons on ESPN, blamed his transgression on na´veté, then missed two months because of hip surgery.

In May, Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez received a 50-game suspension for violating MLB's drug policy. Ramirez worked himself back into shape amid packed houses and adoration in the minors, and the Dodgers have gone 6-3 since he returned to the lineup in left field.

Just when things get quiet, another monster revelation will surface. Maybe it'll be another name leaked from the 104 positive survey tests in '03, or a hard-line Hall of Famer lamenting the steroid scourge at the induction ceremonies in Cooperstown later this month.

Even players who have never tested positive for performance enhancers have come to realize their accomplishments will be scrutinized ad nauseam. Albert Pujols took a public offensive against steroids speculation during a Spanish-language interview at the All-Star Game this week.

"My house is always open," Pujols said. "They can come anytime to do all the tests they want during the offseason."

Los Angeles Dodgers

L.A. Story

Manager Joe Torre's Dodgers rolled into the All-Star Game at a major league-best 56-32. It's the franchise's best record at the break since the Steve Garvey-Ron Cey-Dusty Baker team went 59-33 in 1977. That Dodger club went on to lose to the Yankees in six games in the World Series.

The Dodgers have yet to lose three straight games this season, and they've shown a flair for winning the close ones: They're 18-9 in one-run games and 9-2 in extra innings.

"We knew in spring training that we had a chance to be something special," said pitcher Chad Billingsley. "But there's a difference between wanting to win every time out and expecting to win. Having that attitude makes a huge difference."

Orlando Hudson and Casey Blake have been terrific, and Juan Pierre stepped in and gave the team a major lift during Manny Ramirez's suspension. James Loney takes an 11-game hitting streak into Thursday's game against Houston, and Matt Kemp is hitting .432 (16-for-37) in July.

Now general manager Ned Colletti will try to fortify the pitching staff at the trade deadline. Closer Jonathan Broxton recently got a cortisone shot in his right big toe, and set-up man Ronald Belisario is on the disabled list with irritation in his right elbow. The L.A. bullpen has already logged 302 innings -- second most in the majors -- so some guys out there are running on fumes.

The Strasburg Affair

The first-year player draft remains a prime venue for MLB teams to try to exercise fiscal discipline. The 30 clubs want to hold the line after commissioner Bud Selig recommended a 10 percent reduction in draft bonuses.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziThe Aug. 17 deadline for Stephen Strasburg to sign with the Nationals is looming.

So far, so-so. As Baseball America reports, 11 first-round picks from this year's draft have signed, but they're primarily economy choices who weren't looking to shoot the moon. The big test will come as the Aug. 17 deadline approaches and the elite picks determine their futures.

Lots of attention will focus on San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg, winner of the Golden Spikes Award as college baseball's best player. Washington absolutely, positively must sign Strasburg to bring hope to a dispirited fan base. The Nationals are 26-61 (and they're on pace to lose 110-plus games), they rank 24th in the majors in attendance and they're running out of people to fire, so it's an understatement to say the franchise needs a happy ending.

The potential for tension exists in negotiations between Washington president Stan Kasten and Strasburg's adviser, Scott Boras. But we'll have to wait to see if things get as contentious as the Pedro Alvarez-Pittsburgh talks last summer.

Boras also represents North Carolina first baseman Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick by Seattle, and several other high choices, so he'll be a busy guy in August.

Surprise Contenders

Can the Texas Rangers unseat the Los Angeles Angels in the AL West and make the playoffs for the first time since 1999? The answer depends, as usual, on pitching. The Rangers rank ninth in the American League in ERA, and now they're awaiting the arrival of top prospect Neftali Feliz and his upper 90s fastball from Triple-A Oklahoma City.

"People are starting to get the itch again," said Rangers third baseman Michael Young. "Texas is a sports-crazy place, and in the summertime it's just us. [Terrell Owens] is gone now, so Cowboys training camp shouldn't be as big a story this year."

The Rangers aren't the only team surpassing expectations. Seattle is hanging around the AL West lead despite the league's 13th-best offense. Detroit, picked to finish third or fourth in the AL Central, has taken the division lead behind Miguel Cabrera's bat, an improved defense and the pitching tandem of Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson.

Meanwhile, the National League wild-card race has "free-for-all" written all over it. The Mets and Cubs have underachieved because of injuries and generally lackadaisical play, and San Francisco and Colorado have moved to the top of the pack coming out of the break.

Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey

Randy Johnson
Johnson

Hall of Fame Swan Songs?

Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent retired from baseball last winter. Frank Thomas, Luis Gonzalez, Jim Edmonds and Tom Glavine never formally quit, but it might not be their call to make in the end.

This season, four more players with Hall of Fame-caliber résumés might be approaching the end. The list includes Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Ken Griffey Jr.

Johnson, 45, recorded career win No. 300 in June and recently went on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. Martinez will use the next 2½ months in Philadelphia as a possible springboard for 2010. But first he has to show he can handle cozy Citizens Bank Park on guile and middling velocity.

As for Smoltz, he still has to decide whether the pain and personal sacrifice are worth it. He's made four starts for Boston and has a 1-2 record and a 5.40 ERA to show for it.

Finally, there's Griffey, who turns 40 in November. Junior is hitting only .222, but he has 10 homers and appears to be having lots of fun in his return to Seattle. If he decides to hang it up, the Mariners will have their own brand of fun counting gate receipts during the season's final homestand.

Other storylines worth monitoring: The Phillies take aim at a second straight World Series title; the Mets keep a vigil for Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes et al to return from the disabled list; a possible Chicago Cubs bankruptcy filing could be a prelude to a sale of the team; the Cubs gear up to make a run after a disappointing first half; Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, Josh Johnson, Felix Hernandez and other elite young starters make their mark; the Players Association transitions from Donald Fehr to a new leader, Michael Weiner; Rickey Henderson prepares to give the most eagerly awaited Hall of Fame speech in recent memory.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer