Expect a few surprises, plus a fight to the finish
As second half of season begins, many clubs hanging in their division races
It's time to get down to the nitty gritty of the 2012 MLB experience. You are hereby safe to look at the standings, though I suspect you've already done so. But you are also safe to assume that plenty of surprises are still in store. As we head into the second half, exactly half of baseball's 30 teams are within five games or fewer of their division lead, while 19 have a record of .500 or better.Throw an extra Wild Card into the pile, and you have contention chaos, with several teams in the precarious position of deciding whether to sell at the Trade Deadline or hold out hope for a Cardinals-like comeback. That's where we stand at the halfway point, and these are just a few of the more pertinent questions. Will the Tigers roar? The favorite to win the American League Central before the season began, the Tigers have been tamed to the tune of a pedestrian 44-42 record. While Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder seemed a perfect pairing in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots of the lineup, the Tigers haven't gotten much out of the No. 5 spot (i.e. Delmon Young). And the starting pitching turned in a 4.21 ERA in the first half, with Doug Fister battling injuries and Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer battling inconsistency. Still, the surprising White Sox and the second-place Indians haven't run away with anything. The Tigers entered the break 3 1/2 back, and nobody would be surprised if Dave Dombrowski swings a deal for a starting pitcher and/or a second baseman before the Trade Deadline. "With Mr. Dombrowski, you never know what's going to happen," Cabrera said. "He always brings something to the team to help us. Hopefully every contribution to the team helps us." Where is Cole Hamels headed? Or is the elite left-hander, who will be arguably the top arm eligible for the open market this offseason, headed anywhere? For the Phillies to retain Hamels would take a substantial financial commitment on a team already doling out big bucks to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. But while the Phillies' ugly output this season doesn't lead one to believe they're in line for a second-half surge, trading Hamels is no slam-dunk decision. Teams might shy from forking over a prime prospect package for two-plus months of Hamels' services, particularly with no Draft compensation coming their way if he signs elsewhere in free agency. Further complicating matters is Hamels' insistence that he wouldn't rule out a return to Philly even if he is dealt. "The Phillies have done everything for me," he said. "I'm not just going to leave them high and dry. I wouldn't do that to any organization ever, let alone the Phillies." Will the Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg? Washington has asserted itself as National League elite, and given the strength of the rotation, there is little reason to believe they are due for a major second-half decline. But the Strasburg situation is sticky, because the Nats, careful to protect his arm two years after Tommy John surgery, plan to shut him down somewhere in the vicinity of 160 innings (which would be right around early September). That's not ideal, given the Nats' competitive position (their .590 winning percentage leads the NL), but then again, neither is overstressing the arm of one the faces of the franchise. The Nats have the talent to get to October, even if Strasburg isn't a September factor. But his absence would loom large in October. Which surprise club has staying power? Is it the Dodgers, who took a half-game edge into the All-Star break and are getting Matt Kemp back after a six-week absence? Is it the Mets, who have an early MVP candidate in David Wright and are getting a Cy Young Award-type season from knuckleballer R.A. Dickey? Is it the White Sox, who have already reaped the benefits of the Kevin Youkilis trade and are the only AL Central club with a winning road record? Is it the Orioles, who have survived in the brutal AL East despite a low on-base percentage, poor defensive showing and bloated ERAs in three rotation spots? Or is it the Pirates, who were the hottest team in baseball going into the break (winners of 10 of 12) and who have been waiting 20 years for a record over .500, let alone a playoff berth? Can the Angels overtake the Rangers? Early on, it seemed the Rangers would steamroll their way to another AL West title, but injuries hit their rotation and the Angels surged after an abysmal April. Now the race is made all the more intriguing by the knowledge that both payroll powerhouses will likely do whatever it takes at the Deadline to patch their holes. How patient can the Giants afford to be with Tim Lincecum? A two-time Cy Young Award winner deserves a long leash, and the Giants will undoubtedly extend one to Lincecum. He's 3-9 with a 6.08 ERA (ranking 102 among the 104 qualifiers) and a 1.55 WHIP. He's already allowed more earned runs (63) than he did in the entirety of his most recent Cy season, in 2009. What's really glaring, though, is the impact this has had on the Giants' competitive standing. A half-game back of the Dodgers in the NL West, the Giants are 4-14 in games Lincecum starts and 42-26 in all other games. The Freak is holding them back in a big way, and that can't continue. Can anyone in the AL East seriously challenge the Yankees? It's a bit incongruous, but the deepest division in baseball is also the one with the largest first-place lead. That division, of course, is the AL East, where all five teams entered the break at .500 or better, and that lead belongs to the Yankees, who have a seven-game edge. The Orioles are a surprise in second, largely on the might of a hot start. And they might be aggressive at the Deadline (they've already dealt for Jim Thome) to make a run at a worst-to-first finish. The Blue Jays, battered by injuries to the rotation, would need starting help to survive. But make no mistake: The Yankees, Rays and Red Sox are still the big dogs in this division. The Rays are still waiting out Evan Longoria, and the continuing uncertainty of his status hangs over their head. But the Red Sox could be turning a corner in the health department with Jacoby Ellsbury due back soon. Until further notice, though, a Yankees team that still hasn't exactly hit its stride and yet owns the best winning percentage (.612) in baseball is the clear favorite. "There are a lot of guys individually who want to do better, but we've played good baseball at this point," Curtis Granderson said. "The sky's the limit. You just have to get hot at the right time. If any team is an example of that, it's St. Louis last year." As the lesson of those 2011 Cardinals proves, the season is really just getting started.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.