Ten burning questions heading into the second half (cont.)
6. Is there a viable title contender in the seemingly mediocre AL Central?
It's hard to look at the AL pecking order and envision any of the three teams in the Central currently above .500 posing a serious threat to the big dogs of the AL -- namely the Red Sox, Yankees and Angels (and, perhaps, the Rays). But if there is, it would be the Tigers, who have compensated for a surprisingly weak offense with a starting pitching staff that is tailor-made for playoff baseball. In Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson and Rick Porcello, the Tigers have three quality arms to match up with the front three of any of those other staffs, especially in a short series.
7. Will Stephen Strasburg make his big league debut?
Until Strasburg actually signs, this is a moot point, but the Nationals drafted him not only for his powerful right arm but because he is the ultimate "quick to the big leagues guy," in the words of general manager Mike Rizzo. If Strasburg signs soon enough to allow himself some proper development time in the minors, it would seem to make perfect sense to have him get a taste of big-league life -- and show off their prize to a fan base starving for good news -- when rosters expand in September. The problem is that if Strasburg doesn't sign until the mid-August deadline, that would severely hinder his chances to be ready to take a big league mound just a few weeks later.
8. Will any big names be traded?
Stars in their prime getting dealt is one of the annual rites of passage for every baseball season, so the better question is, how many big names will be traded and how big will those names be? Last year's trading market saw three of the 18 players who either had or would by year's end sign $100 million contracts (Manny Ramirez, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira) be traded within just a few weeks of each other. This year's market is unlikely to top that for sheer star power. Additionally, those trades had a "Can you top this?" feel. The Brewers acquired Sabathia from the Indians, forcing the Cubs to respond in kind the very next day by getting Rich Harden from the A's. There are certainly players who could be dealt that would impact a pennant race (perhaps Oakland's Matt Holliday or Cleveland's Victor Martinez, to name just two), but it seems unlikely that teams will be able to engage in the arms race we saw last year, especially not so far away from the deadline (Sabathia and Harden were traded on July 7 and 8, respectively).
Another complicating factor will be the standings. As of Tuesday morning, 22 of the game's 30 teams are within six games of a playoff spot. Until teams (like the Mariners) can be sure whether they are buyers or sellers, the market will be slow to develop.
9. Which team will be the biggest surprise of the second half?
AL: This league has already seen several surprise teams, namely the Blue Jays, Rangers and Mariners, stay competitive far longer than anticipated at the beginning of the year. So for the second half, don't overlook the Twins. They're only a game and a half behind the Tigers in an AL Central race that will probably be won by a team with fewer than 90 wins, and the Twins came from behind to steal the division title from the Tigers in 2006. This year could offer more of the same if they can get Francisco Liriano to be more consistent and give them a third excellent arm in the rotation to match Detroit's aforementioned trio.
NL: Cubs. There is simply too much talent and not enough of a deficit for this team not to be heard from before the year is out. They may not make a run at 100 wins or wrap up a playoff spot before rosters expand the way they did a year ago, but in the confounding NL Central there are wins to be had, and a quality team like the Cubs is just the club to grab them.
10. Will anyone pitch a no-hitter?
Although there have been several impressive pitching performances this year (witness Jarrod Washburn's one-hitter on Monday night) and a handful of pitchers have flirted with no-nos, there has still not been a no-hitter this season. Insignificant you say? Well, yes, but historically intriguing just the same. There has been at least one no-hitter in 17 of the past 19 years. If history is any guide, the year's first no-no may come from a most unlikely source. The last time a season went this long without a no-hitter in a year in which one was eventually pitched came in 2006 when Florida rookie Anibal Sanchez did it in just his 14th career start. Sanchez's no-hitter ended the longest drought between no-nos in baseball history.
MLB Truth & Rumors