State of the Rays … division races … players on the move

Another All-Star Game is in the books, and it's time to turn our attention to the stories that will captivate and engage us, amuse and enrage us, while subsequently filling our TV viewing hours and dinner table conversations between now and the end of October.

This week's edition of Starting 9 is devoted to nine baseball story lines that will be front and center between now and the end of the season. As we contemplate the possibility of dual Chicago postseason entries for the first time since 1906, it's time to take a deep breath and look ahead.

Rays of Hope?

1 Baseball's sunniest first-half story line took on a worrisome tone approaching the All-Star break, as the Tampa Bay Rays dropped seven straight games to fall a half-game behind Boston in the American League East. The dreaded Yankees, for all their problems, now lurk a mere 5½ games behind Tampa.

Will the break help the young Rays regroup, or will they begin to feel the strain of hanging with the big-payroll behemoths? Can outfielder Rocco Baldelli return from the disabled list and former No. 1 pick David Price give the team a lift, or will general manager Andrew Friedman have to work the trade market to provide an upgrade or two? It's tough for Tampa Bay to count on Baldelli at this point, but Price is 8-0 with a 1.63 ERA in the minors. Keep an eye on him.

Manager Joe Maddon will be sure to emphasize the positive when Tampa Bay resumes play Friday in Toronto. The Rays, who failed to surpass 70 victories in any of the franchise's first 10 seasons, already have 55 wins at the break.

"We're looking at the big picture," said pitcher Scott Kazmir. "We needed the All-Star Game to come a little bit sooner, but everything is still the same. Clubhouse pride is still the same, and our guys still feel as if they have that chip on their shoulder. I think we'll be all right."

Action Central

2 The Milwaukee Brewers, looking for their first postseason appearance since 1982, made a major statement by acquiring CC Sabathia in a trade from Cleveland on July 7. The next day, the Chicago Cubs fortified their pitching staff by picking up Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin from Oakland in a six-player deal.

Sabathia is 2-0 with a 2.40 ERA and a home run in his first two starts as a Brewer, and Harden struck out 10 Giants in 5 1/3 innings in his Cubs debut. Barring injury, these guys are going to have a significant impact on the division race in August and September.

Of course, any discussion of the NL Central would be remiss not to include the St. Louis Cardinals, a surprising 53-43 under manager Tony La Russa.

The Cubs have nine games left with St. Louis and 10 more against Milwaukee, so the three teams will be able to settle their differences sans scoreboard watching down the stretch.

"The key is, you've got to come out firing in the second half," said Cubs starter Ryan Dempster. "A lot of ground can be made up or lost if you don't come out prepared and ready to go. It's going to be a fun race. It's going to come right down to the end."

Adventures in Health Care

3 The Red Sox are looking forward to David Ortiz's return after losing their designated hitter, goodwill ambassador and lineup anchor for six weeks to a wrist injury. Big Papi is scheduled to spend a week on a minor league rehab assignment before rejoining the Sox on July 25 for a series against the Yankees.

Francisco Liriano


David Ortiz


Several other contending clubs are hoping to get a lift from players off the disabled list. Francisco Liriano, 20 months removed from Tommy John surgery, is 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 24 strikeouts in his last 20 innings for Triple-A Rochester, so the Twins are likely to summon him very soon.

The Cardinals, who've done a wonderful job remaining competitive with an unheralded rotation, are banking on the return of two prominent starters in August. Adam Wainwright continues to progress from a finger injury, and Chris Carpenter, making a comeback from Tommy John surgery, threw a simulated game at the team's Jupiter, Fla., complex last week.

The Yankees have scored three or fewer runs in 42 games this year, after doing it 42 times for the entire 2007 season. There were reports that Johnny Damon (shoulder) and Hideki Matsui (knee) might be ready to return after the break, but they were overly optimistic. It now appears Matsui might require season-ending surgery.

Filling Holes

4 Several contending clubs might find their postseason aspirations hinge on the general manager's ability to fill gaping holes on the roster.

The Philadelphia Phillies lead the NL East even though Brett Myers was recently banished to the International League and No. 5 starter Adam Eaton has a 5.71 ERA.

The Dodgers, who've gone with a combination of Nomar Garciaparra and Angel Berroa at shortstop, are looking at Jack Wilson, David Eckstein and some other trade options because Rafael Furcal is expected to be out until at least September.

The Mets hit the break riding a nine-game win streak under interim manager Jerry Manuel, but they still have to address some trouble spots in the lineup. Moises Alou is done for the season (and probably, for good) and Ryan Church's concussion issues remain a lingering concern. No offense to Fernando Tatis and Endy Chavez, but GM Omar Minaya would like to upgrade.

The Angels are the clear favorites in the AL West despite an offense that ranks 23rd in the majors in OPS and runs scored. Will they make a run at Mark Teixeira or Matt Holliday, or cling to the hope that starting pitching, a great closer and a flair for one-run victories can propel them deep into October?

While the Cubs and Brewers have both upgraded their rotations, the bullpens have cause for concern. Setup men Carlos Marmol and Eric Gagne were both booed off the mound in the week leading up to the All-Star break.

Big Names on the Move?

5 Will the end of July be as action-packed as the beginning? That'll be determined by events the next two weeks, which will separate the contenders from the no-hopers and distinguish the buyers from the sellers.

Among the conflicted: Atlanta, Texas, Toronto, Baltimore, Houston and Pittsburgh. The Braves are fourth in the National League East at 45-50, and if general manager Frank Wren decides his team isn't good enough to contend, he'll try to move Mark Teixeira to a team in need of a bat. ESPN's Peter Gammons reported that the Red Sox recently turned down a proposed Teixeira-for-Kevin Youkilis and Craig Hansen deal.

Among the teams already in a position to sell: Washington, Seattle, Cleveland, Colorado and San Diego.

Matt Holliday


A.J. Burnett


Some names you're sure to hear bandied around between now and July 31: Brian Fuentes, Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins, Casey Blake, Rafael Betancourt, Joe Blanton, Alan Embree, A.J. Burnett, Randy Wolf, Raul Ibanez, Adrian Beltre, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Kevin Millar, Tim Redding, Odalis Perez, Jon Rauch, Bronson Arroyo, Adam Dunn, Eddie Guardado and Will Ohman.

While agent Jeff Borris says the chances of Barry Bonds' landing a job are grim, that doesn't mean you'll stop hearing Bonds' name in speculation, either.

Chasing Down Thigpen

6 Now that Ken Griffey Jr. has his 600th homer in the books and Manny Ramirez has tucked away No. 500, the most notable milestone chase is taking place at the back end of the Angels' bullpen.

Francisco Rodriguez


Francisco Rodriguez, with 38 saves, is well-positioned to break Bobby Thigpen's single-season record of 57. Rodriguez has pitched only 42 innings this season, so he should be fresh for his assault on Thigpen's mark.

Another big Rodriguez story line will play out in November, when he becomes eligible for free agency. Given the huge deals signed by Francisco Cordero, Joe Nathan, Mariano Rivera and Brad Lidge in the past year, don't be surprised if K-Rod and his agents shoot for a five-year deal for at least $14 million a year.

The Natural Watch

7 Josh Hamilton was attracting a lot of attention before he hit nearly three miles worth of long balls in the Home Run Derby. With every Yankee Stadium fan that Hamilton conked, baseball's newest version of Mickey Mantle/Roy Hobbs heightened his second-half profile.

Josh Hamilton


Will Hamilton fall victim to the Bobby Abreu-Alex Rios post-Derby malaise, or will he make a run at the first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski achieved the feat with the 1967 Boston Red Sox?

Hamilton is far and away the American League RBI leader with 95. He's third in homers with 21 and ninth in the league in hitting at .310 -- 27 points behind Texas teammate Ian Kinsler.

Hamilton's production in August and September will hinge in large part on his ability to stay healthy. He recently missed time with a sore knee and a bruised hand, and it's been a chore just to make it onto the lineup card some days.

"He's in the hot tub about five minutes before the game," Kinsler said. "I don't know how he does it."

Does Anybody Want this Division?

8 The Arizona Diamondbacks made a startling discovery on their way to blowing away the National League West: They can't hit a lick on the road. The division race, if you want to call it that, is starting to resemble the 2005 season, when San Diego made it to the playoffs with an 82-80 record.

The Diamondbacks, desperate for a bat with Eric Byrnes done for the season because of hamstring problems, aren't interested in Barry Bonds. But indications are they're close to bringing back Tony Clark, who hit 53 homers in 702 at-bats in Phoenix from 2005 through 2007.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have ridden their pitching back into contention, and the rotation could soon be strengthened by the returns of Brad Penny and Jason Schmidt (remember him?) from the disabled list. But closer Takashi Saito left Saturday's game with elbow tightness, and that's never a good thing.

Bye-Bye, Ballparks

9 This is the final season for 85-year-old Yankee Stadium and its Flushing Meadow neighbor, Shea Stadium -- which opened for business in 1964, but just happens to look 85 years old.

Other than Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who loves the place so much he named his third son Shea, there aren't many players lamenting the Mets' transition to Citi Field.

"I don't want to use a strong word like 'dump,' but the Mets definitely need a new ballpark," said Twins closer Joe Nathan. "I have mixed feelings about Yankee Stadium. Obviously, there's so much history here. The House That Ruth Built, and all the magic that goes on inside.

"As a visiting team, we're probably happy to see it go. It always seems like something freaky happens in that place, especially late in the game. So us closers will definitely be happy to see it go."

Other prominent story lines: The surprising White Sox and disappointing Tigers in the AL Central; Ryan Howard's run at 50 homers and 220 strikeouts; switch-hitters Chipper Jones and Lance Berkman battling Albert Pujols for the NL batting title; Ken Griffey Jr.'s final season in Cincinnati (and, possibly, baseball); MLB's attempts to address the issue of breaking maple bats; baseball's investigation into the scandal involving players signed in the Dominican Republic.

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.