If the second half of the baseball season matches the first half in its unpredictability, then we are, as always, in for a great second half.
Here are 10 compelling storylines.
10: Great pitching
It dominated the first half. Runs per game (8.2) are at the lowest point since 1981. Zack Greinke had a 1.39 ERA in the first half; the only three lower ERAs at the All-Star break came in 1968, the "Year of the Pitcher." Greinke hasn't allowed a run in five straight starts, taking a 35 2/3-inning scoreless streak into the second half. Chris Sale tied a modern major league record with eight consecutive starts with double-figure strikeouts. Max Scherzer has 14 walks and 150 strikeouts in 132 innings pitched. The record for strikeouts in a season likely will be demolished again, and there's a very outside chance that the record for most 1-0 games in a season -- we are at 32 -- will also fall. The record is 82 -- set, of course, in 1968.
9: Pete Rose
He will meet with baseball commissioner Rob Manfred sometime in the near future. Surely, it will be cordial. But there is little to no chance that Manfred will reinstate Rose, especially in light of the latest allegations that Rose bet on baseball while he was a player-manager for the Cincinnati Reds. And there is little or no chance that Rose will make progress trying to find his way onto any sort of Hall of Fame ballot. No one will take away his hits, his rings or his headfirst slides, but getting back into baseball, or in the Hall, is unlikely for now.
8: The St. Louis Cardinals' alleged cyber theft
The FBI is expected to soon announce its findings regarding the Cardinals' allegedly hacking into the computer system of the Houston Astros. The Cardinals' scouting director (Chris Correa) has been fired by the club, not necessarily because he was part of the hacking, but perhaps because the hackers might have worked for him in some capacity. Major League Baseball likely will hit the Cardinals with a big fine, and might take away a draft choice, but probably not more than that.
7: The Chicago Cubs
They are a year ahead of schedule in their plan to contend. With a shot to make the playoffs, look for them to be aggressive and try to add a pitcher -- maybe even a big-name guy -- Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto -- for the stretch run. Ideally, they could trade shortstop Starlin Castro as part of a package, then move second baseman Addison Russell to shortstop, where he belongs, and hope that second baseman Javier Baez is ready to be promoted from Triple-A. But there doesn't appear to be a market for Castro. And from all indications, the Cubs will not mortgage their future by dealing any of their best young players.
6: The Houston Astros
They are a year, maybe two years, ahead of schedule to contend. They have a shot to win the American League West, but were fading fast when the first half ended: six losses in a row and a total of seven runs scored during that stretch. They need a veteran starting pitcher to take some pressure off ace Dallas Keuchel, who is great, but in his first pennant race. The Astros could also use a couple of veteran players to help the young, everyday players deal with their first pennant race. But from most accounts, the Astros, somewhat like the Cubs, are going to stick to their plan, and not deal anyone who's a vital part of their future.
5: The San Diego Padres
Their stunning rebuild in the offseason hasn't worked; they are a distant fourth in the National League West, with few signs that suggest they're going to make a run in the second half. It seems unfair to their fans, and their new players, to blow up their plan after only four months, but they might not have a choice if they keep losing. Justin Upton can be a free agent after the season. So many teams are looking for a bat, and with so few available, moving Upton might be one way to recover some of the minor league system that was lost in the offseason maneuvers. Maybe closer Craig Kimbrel also will be dealt if the losing continues, but despite rumblings, it would seem that James Shields is likely to stay.
4: The AL East
This division is so close and so competitive, every team has a different way to win in the end. The New York Yankees aren't expected to do anything major at the deadline; just fill in with bullpen and bench help. The Baltimore Orioles probably won't do anything big, either, but seem hopeful they will make a charge like they did at this time last year. The Tampa Bay Rays are finally getting their pitching healthy -- first Matt Moore, and at some point, Drew Smyly. The Boston Red Sox, who have worked their way back to the edge of contention, could be a major player -- could they make a push to acquire Hamels or Cueto? -- at the trade deadline. But the team that has to do something before July 31 is the Toronto Blue Jays, who haven't been to the playoffs since 1993. They have the best offense in the AL, but they desperately need another starting pitcher. Hamels, with his no-trade rights, won't go there. The Jays have roughly $10 million to spend on an upgrade. Cueto seems to be a fit, but the competition for him will be fierce.
3: The Los Angeles Dodgers
They have more money to spend than any team. Their urgency to win is greater than any team, including the Blue Jays. Just making the playoffs again, and not advancing to the World Series, will not be enough. They are short on starting pitching, and sources say they covet Cueto. But they will not deal their best young kids, notably 21-year-old shortstop Corey Seager. But they're also not going to sit pat and not add at least a useful piece.
2: Johnny Cueto
The Reds are not going to make the playoffs, but their owner, Bob Castellini, always thinks they are, which is admirable but not prudent, given the current situation with the team. With Cueto and fellow starter Mike Leake headed for free agency after the season, the Reds should, several general managers have suggested, move both and get as much as they can in return. Cueto's second-to-last start before the All-Star break -- a two-hit, one-walk, 11-strikeout masterpiece against the Washington Nationals -- proved again that he is a difference-maker, a guy who could turn a noncontender into a contender, and a contender into a champion.
1: Cole Hamels
The Philadelphia Phillies are beyond awful. Hamels is 0-4 with a 4.47 ERA in his past eight starts; his previous victory came on May 23. He still has really good stuff and can help a contender. Trading Hamels will also bring young players to a Phillies team badly in need of them, but sources say the asking price is still unrealistically high. That has to change, and likely will. The same goes for closer Jonathan Papelbon. He could help a contender, and he wants to leave. The best thing would be for the Phillies to trade him and get something in return.