Key questions for MLB's second half

The AL East is easily the best division in baseball, as all five teams boast no worse than a .500...

The AL East is easily the best division in baseball, as all five teams boast no worse than a .500 record at the All-Star break. Yet, the Yankees are doing a good job keeping the other four teams at bay. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters/Files)

JEFF SAUKAITIS, SPORTS NETWORK

, Last Updated: 3:34 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA - The first half of the Major League Baseball season was filled with surprises, and the races in each of the six divisions were competitive.

With the second half getting under way later this week, there are many unanswered questions. Let's take a look at a few of them.

WILL THE YANKEES BE SERIOUSLY CHALLENGED IN THE AL EAST?

The AL East is easily the best division in baseball, as all five teams boast no worse than a .500 record at the All-Star break. Yet, the New York Yankees are doing a good job keeping the other four teams at bay. The Baltimore Orioles are in second place at seven games back, but that's only because they got off to a great start. They're not really a threat to take the division.

The real challengers are Tampa Bay and Boston, who are 7.5 and 9.5 games behind, respectively. If those teams are going to make a run, they'd best do it now, while the Yankees are without injured pitchers CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte.

Tampa Bay has played most of the season without its best player, third baseman Evan Longoria. He won't be back from his torn hamstring until at least mid-August. Boston has been without outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford. Ellsbury is close to returning, but Crawford had a setback on his minor league rehabilitation stint over the weekend.

The scariest thing for the Yankees' foes, though, is that New York has a seemingly comfortable lead in a tough division despite getting subpar performances from stars like Alex Rodriguez and notorious slow starter Mark Teixeira.

WILL THE PIRATES MAKE THEIR FIRST POSTSEASON APPEARANCE SINCE 1992?

First-place Pittsburgh is undoubtedly the biggest surprise team of the first half. After posting 19 consecutive sub-.500 seasons, the Pirates are 11 games above .500 for the first time since 1992. Not coincidentally, that's the last year Pittsburgh played in the postseason.

Solid pitching, an MVP-type season from star centre fielder Andrew McCutchen, and enough production in between strikeouts from slugger Pedro Alvarez have gotten the Pirates to this point. They'll likely remain in contention well into September, but Cincinnati and St. Louis are formidable competition in the NL Central and the Pirates don't have much margin for error.

Pittsburgh will likely need to add a quality bat before the trade deadline. Some reinforcements also could arrive shortly from Triple-A Indianapolis. Elite prospect Starling Marte will probably soon be patrolling the Pittsburgh outfield and trying to deliver the offence that demoted Jose Tabata could not.

WILL THE METS CONTINUE TO STAY IN CONTENTION ALL SEASON?

Despite residing in the majors' biggest market, the New York Mets rank 15th in average attendance this season, at 29,384 per game. Thought to be rebuilding while ownership tried to overcome financial woes, the Mets didn't inspire much preseason confidence from their fan base.

Now they're 46-40 and a half game out of a wild-card berth. David Wright is having a remarkable all-around season. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey has become one of the best pitchers in baseball. Johan Santana has battled back from injury to become something close to Johan Santana again. Still, the Mets' fan base seems skeptical that the team will remain in the playoff hunt when September arrives.

It's understandable. Perhaps the Mets have overachieved to this point, given that they're third in the NL in runs scored. Still, it isn't like a whole lot of their hitters are putting up numbers that would be impossible to duplicate in the second half.

The keys are going to be whether the Mets will be willing to spend at the trade deadline and, if they are, whether they can add quality pitching. The good news is that they've been linked to rumours involving relievers Huston Street and Francisco Rodriguez. Either could help fix the team's biggest weakness.

HAS THE PHILLIES' WINDOW COMPLETELY SLAMMED SHUT?

With major injuries to stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, it was feasible in the preseason to forecast the end of the Phillies' five-year playoff run. It was pretty unlikely, though, to predict the team would sit 13 games under the .500 mark at the All-Star break.

With Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino likely to test free agency, it appears the Phillies would be willing to trade those two -- as well as Placido Polanco, Joe Blanton, etc. -- to the highest bidder. The question is: Will 2012 be a one-year unlucky blip for the Phillies or the beginning of a rebuilding phase?

With Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee expected back in the rotation next year, and with a presumably healthy Howard, Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Hunter Pence and Jimmy Rollins back to lead the offence, it's certainly possible that Philadelphia will contend in 2013. With those guys and closer Jonathan Papelbon around, it's not likely to be a full-fledged rebuilding effort.

One fact that's hard to forget, however, is that the Phillies are in last place with the NL East's oldest roster. That's not a good combination.

WILL THE NATIONALS STAY ON TOP WHEN STEPHEN STRASBURG IS SHUT DOWN?

The NL East-leading Washington Nationals said prior to the season that Strasburg, their ace, would be limited to roughly 160 innings this season because he is returning from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals took the same approach last season with talented young Jordan Zimmermann, who was shut down in September. The difference, though, was that the 2011 Nationals were on their way to finishing 21 1/2 games out of first.

The Nationals figure to be in or around first place when Strasburg hits 160 innings -- something that should happen no later than the first week of September. If he is replaced in the rotation by John Lannan or Chien-Ming Wang for his last five starts, the drop-off would be significant -- maybe even enough to cost Washington the division title. And that doesn't even address how much it would weaken the Nationals should they get to the postseason.

Will the Nationals change their mind and let the prized right-hander pitch in September? That's doubtful, given how adamant they've been about shutting him down. It will be interesting to see if the Nationals rent a quality pitcher at the trade deadline to more adequately replace their ace.

WILL TIM LINCECUM REMAIN IN THE GIANTS' STARTING ROTATION?

He was a World Series hero as recently as 2010, leading the Giants to their first world title since they moved to San Francisco in 1958. He won NL Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009.

Tim Lincecum's considerable success in the recent past will make it extremely difficult for manager Bruce Bochy to remove him from the starting rotation. Still, one has to wonder when Bochy's patience will run out.

The Giants are just a half-game behind first-place Los Angeles in the NL West. They're 46-40 -- six games over .500. Lincecum, on the other hand, is 3-10 with a 6.42 ERA. Insisting he's healthy, he's answered the call for all 18 of his scheduled starts, and the team has gone just 4-14 in those games. He has just four quality starts.

When anyone other than Lincecum has started a game this year, the Giants have gone 42-26 -- a .618 winning percentage that would be the best in baseball.

The best thing that could happen for both sides would be for Lincecum to flip the switch and become The Freak again. It just seems like 18 starts is a large-enough sample to indicate that it's not going to happen this year, and Bochy owes it to the other 24 Giants to give the team its best chance to win.

WILL THE TIGERS GET THINGS STRAIGHTENED OUT AND WIN THE AL CENTRAL?

The consensus heading into this season was that Detroit was the biggest lock to win its division. After all, the Tigers won the AL Central last season by 15 games over second-place Cleveland and 16 games over the Chicago White Sox.

Sure, they lost Victor Martinez for the 2012 campaign with an offseason knee injury, but they added prized free-agent slugger Prince Fielder to take his place. Although Fielder has been fine, something just seems to be missing from this team.

Thought to have 100-win potential in a relatively weak division, Detroit has a mediocre 44-42 record. The Tigers are still hanging around in the race because first-place Chicago, at 47-38, is only 3.5 games better.

The title is there for the taking, but someone needs to step up for the Tigers. They're in the middle of the pack of the AL both in hitting and pitching, and their inconsistency is preventing them from putting big winning streaks together. Adding a pitcher and/or second baseman at the trade deadline would help.

WHICH BATTLE FOR FIRST PLACE WILL BE THE MOST ENTERTAINING?

Aside from the AL East, no other division leader has more than a four-game lead at the All-Star break, so five of the six battles could end up being tight to the finish. The vote here for the most entertaining race goes to the AL West, where Texas holds a four-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels.

Why? They're both elite teams with big payrolls and willing to do whatever it takes to win. The two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers threatened to bury the Los Angeles Angels early, grabbing a nine-game lead over them by late April.

The Rangers tailed off a bit after their strong start, but they were still the first team to get to 50 wins. They survived a tough blow when Neftali Feliz went down with an elbow injury in mid-May, but he's on the road back with a chance to return by late July or early August.

The Angels overcame a painfully slow start from free-agent acquisition Albert Pujols, who didn't hit a home run until May 6. He has 13 homers and 39 RBIs since May 15, which is much more Pujols-like.

With elite players like Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre leading a potent Texas offence, and exciting young players like Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo tearing it up for the Angels, this race could easily go down to the final week. No matter which teams wins the division, though, both will probably reach the postseason.

WHICH PLAYERS WILL CHANGE UNIFORMS PRIOR TO THE TRADE DEADLINE?

Not too many teams are so buried in the standings that they will be clear-cut sellers later this month. One of the few obvious sellers will be the Chicago Cubs, who will shop Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Carlos Marmol, Brian LaHair and Alfonso Soriano.

Elsewhere, Hamels and Victorino of the Phillies could soon have new addresses, as could the Minnesota Twins' Josh Willingham, Denard Span, Francisco Liriano and Justin Morneau, the Kansas City Royals' Jonathan Broxton, the Toronto Blue Jays' Edwin Encarnacion, the Milwaukee Brewers' Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Francisco Rodriguez and Aramis Ramirez, the Houston Astros' Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers, the San Diego Padres' Huston Street, Carlos Quentin and Chase Headley, the Colorado Rockies' Marco Scutaro, Jason Giambi, Jeremy Guthrie, Ramon Hernandez and Rafael Betancourt, the Seattle Mariners' Chone Figgins, Brandon League and Kevin Millwood, and the Oakland Athletics' Brian Fuentes, Grant Balfour and Brandon McCarthy.


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