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Why each 50-win team will -- and won't -- stay hot in the second half

The Los Angeles Dodgers have the most wins in the majors coming out of the All-Star break. They and six other 50-plus win teams might be shopping at the trade deadline to help keep those hot starts going. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

As the second half of the Major League Baseball season begins, the game is deep in juiced-ball speculation, trade-deadline anticipation and Aaron Judge- and Cody Bellinger-related fascination.

Division races? Not so much.

There's some bunching in the American League Central, where a three-game spread separates the Indians, Twins and Royals, and the East, where the Red Sox lead the Yankees and Rays by 3½ games. But the Astros, Nationals and Dodgers can feel free to book their postseason travel, and in the National League Central, the Brewers sport a 5½-game lead over the Cubs, who missed their 6 a.m. wakeup call.

Mediocrity abounds. Although the Phillies and Giants are MLB's only sub-.400 teams, a total of 18 clubs are within 10 games of .500 and will spend the last two weeks of July determining which direction they'll head at the deadline.

At the front of the pack, you'll find MLB's gold standard: Two teams with 60-plus victories and five others with 50 or more. What's their outlook as baseball eases out of the All-Star break? Here's a snapshot.

Los Angeles Dodgers (61-29)

Why they should maintain it: Dave Roberts' team has been playing crazy-good baseball for a long stretch. The Dodgers are 52-18 since Bellinger's arrival from the minors, and they lead the majors with a plus-163 run differential at the break. To put it in historic perspective, that's better than Cincinnati's 1975 (plus-151) and 1976 (plus-154) Big Red Machine juggernauts.

The Dodgers rank second in the NL to Washington with a .789 team OPS, are first in ERA at 3.15 and are tied for first with 43 defensive runs saved, so they have no discernible weakness. In 2016, the Dodgers' struggles against left-handed pitching were a major point of concern. This season, they lead the NL with 42 homers and an .819 OPS vs. lefties. Thank you, Justin Turner, Logan Forsythe and Chris Taylor.

Reasons for concern: Clayton Kershaw is making a strong bid for his fourth career Cy Young award, and the rest of the rotation has been solid behind him. But Alex Wood, Rich Hill and Brandon McCarthy don't exactly have track records for durability, and Julio Urias' season-ending shoulder surgery put a crimp in the rotation depth. The Dodgers could use another lefty bullpen piece, and they're likely to spend the next 2½ weeks grazing at the Brad Hand-Justin Wilson-Sean Doolittle-Jerry Blevins-Tony Cingrani buffet.

Cody Bellinger on the challenge of finishing strong in his rookie season: "It's gonna be hard. It's going be the most games I've ever played. [Pitchers] have already made adjustments. I've made adjustments back, and they're going to make more adjustments. It's going to be a cat-and-mouse game all year. We have a lot of veterans on our team, and they're going to help me out. That's pretty cool for me."

Houston Astros (60-29)

Why they should maintain it: They're an offensive powerhouse. The Astros lead the majors in runs, hits, doubles, homers, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, and Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer have established themselves as bona fide MVP contenders. Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann are respected veterans whose leadership will come in handy down the stretch and in the postseason.

Houston has avoided a letdown even though Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton have spent time on the disabled list, and Collin McHugh has yet to pitch this season because of an elbow impingement. The rotation is starting to get healthy, and the rest of the AL West isn't likely to provide much resistance in August and September.

Reasons for concern: Although the rotation has been more than good enough through 90 games, questions linger about whether an upgrade is necessary for the team to make an extended run in October. General manager Jeff Luhnow has the incentive to dip into the farm system and make a trade, but is Sonny Gray an appreciable upgrade over what the Astros already have?

The Astros lost one rotation depth piece when prospect David Paulino went down with an 80-game PED suspension two weeks ago. All-Star Chris Devenski has logged a whopping 52⅔ innings in relief, and manager A.J. Hinch and pitching coach Brent Strom will want to monitor his workload in August and September.

Dallas Keuchel on the difficulty of navigating the Houston batting order: "It's a combination of all the aspects you want: speed, power and contact. Jose Altuve is one of the best hitters in the game, and you can put him at 1, 2, 3 or even 4, so it's very interchangeable. It's really hard to think of another team in recent years that's as deep as this lineup. We literally aren't out of any situation. It's kind of scary when you think about it."

Arizona Diamondbacks (53-36)

Why they should maintain it: The starting pitching has been terrific. Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray and Zack Godley all have sub-3.00 ERAs. Taijuan Walker has looked dominant in several outings, and the team's fifth-best starter, Patrick Corbin, is a former All-Star. The rotation ranks third in the NL in innings pitched, and that has allowed manager Torey Lovullo to pick his spots with his bullpen.

The Diamondbacks showed resilience when they went 31-13 while center fielder A.J. Pollock was out because of a groin injury. That's largely a tribute to Paul Goldschmidt, who is making an eloquent case for National League MVP honors, and Jake Lamb, whose .922 OPS is fifth best among MLB third basemen.

Reasons for concern: Fernando Rodney has pitched better since an epically bad April, but he is always another meltdown away from putting everyone on edge. Although the Diamondbacks have some internal solutions, Archie Bradley and Andrew Chafin have never closed in the big leagues before.

Chris Owings, Nick Ahmed and Ketel Marte have all started at shortstop, so the D-backs lack some of the middle-infield stability enjoyed by other contenders. The lineup also has some inveterate free swingers in Owings, Yasmany Tomas and Brandon Drury. How will they fare when it comes time to grind out at-bats against elite pitching in October?

Robbie Ray on the Diamondbacks' evolving chemistry under first-year manager Torey Lovullo: "His communication has been awesome on and off the field. We had a couple of dress-up days on flights, and it's been a lot of fun. He's a player's manager. Communication back and forth. He's going to be honest with you, and he wants you to be honest with him. That's all you can ask for."

Washington Nationals (52-36)

Why they should maintain it: The middle of the batting order is formidable when Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon are all healthy. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg might be the most dominant 1-2 starting punch in the game. Michael Taylor, Brian Goodwin, Adam Lind and Stephen Drew give Washington a strong and versatile bench. And the Nationals have the good fortune to be playing in a lousy division. They have a combined 26-17 record against the Braves, Marlins, Mets and Phillies, who will appear liberally on the schedule in August and September.

Reasons for concern: The Washington bullpen is tied for sixth in the majors with 14 blown saves, and some of the underlying numbers are alarming. Nationals relievers rank last in the big leagues with a 5.20 ERA, a .276 batting average against and a mere 225 strikeouts.

Koda Glover, Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley & Co. have failed to seize the opportunity to close, and the lack of late-inning stability has become an oppressively downbeat storyline that continues to hang over the franchise. It's a given that general manager Mike Rizzo will add a closer, but when David Robertson, Ryan Madson, A.J. Ramos and Addison Reed are the big names available, there are no quick and easy solutions to the problem.

Ryan Zimmerman on the state of the Washington bullpen: "Every team would love to have a closer that gets 50 saves a year. The problem is, there aren't many of them out there. Rizzo has always done everything he can to give us the best chance to win. Our front office has done that, and I have faith they'll do that again. We also have some young guys down there that we have confidence in, and I hope they have confidence in themselves because they've done some good things in this league."

Colorado Rockies (52-39)

Why they should maintain it: The lineup is dynamic and deep. Ian Desmond will return soon from a calf injury, and it's natural to assume that Carlos Gonzalez will snap out of his funk at some point. He has a very un-CarGo-like .221/.299/.338 slash line through 74 games.

Jon Gray's return has bolstered the rotation, and Chad Bettis is doggedly working his way back from testicular cancer. "You have to figure that would be a huge emotional lift to a bunch of young guys who might be feeling a little tired," one scout said. Manager Bud Black, with the assistance of coaches Steve Foster and Darren Holmes, has done a nice job convincing the young starters that they're good enough to buck the franchise's onerous history. The Rockies continue to believe in themselves, despite the common perception that they'll be ground down by Coors Field.

Reasons for concern: Greg Holland and Jake McGee have been lights-out, but the Rockies need more from Adam Ottavino, Mike Dunn and the rest of their relievers. If that doesn't happen, either general manager Jeff Bridich will have to make a trade or Black will have to get creative and work some of his starters into the bullpen mix.

Charlie Blackmon on the Rockies' recent eight-game losing streak and the impact of Kyle Freeland's no-hit bid before the All-Star break: "He gave us a spark there at the end, and we finished with a series win. That kind of shook everybody awake. It was like, 'Hey, guys, wake up. We're still a good team.'

"If you look at the numbers, there was no way we could sustain being as bad as we were. It was just one of those times where we weren't doing anything right all at the same time. I don't expect that to happen going into the second half at all. I think we'll regain our form."

Boston Red Sox (50-39)

Why they should maintain it: David Price's media rants have obscured a more upbeat storyline: He has actually pitched quite well since his return from an elbow injury in late May. Once Eduardo Rodriguez returns from the disabled list, a rotation of Chris Sale, Price, Rick Porcello, Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz is about as good as it gets in the American League.

Boston's offense remains spotty, but the Red Sox have shown signs of breaking out in July. Hanley Ramirez had a big second half last year (with 22 homers and a .947 OPS after the break), and the Sox would benefit greatly from a similar run down the stretch this season.

Reasons for concern: Boston's third base contingent ranks last in the majors with a .625 OPS. With Todd Frazier, Jed Lowrie, Martin Prado and David Freese all available, David Dombrowski can choose from multiple options if he decides to go shopping.

The bullpen could also use solidifying in front of Craig Kimbrel. Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes have performed well in setup roles, but the Red Sox would like to add a veteran presence to the mix. Could Pat Neshek be this year's Brad Ziegler?

Mookie Betts on the adjustment to not having David Ortiz on the roster: "This is our first year without him, so we don't have that person to lean on in the ninth when he's coming up to the plate. We all collectively have to step in and fill that role. It's not going to take just one. I think we're starting to understand that. We're starting to understand that we have to put innings together, and it may take a couple of hits. It may not be just one home run."

Milwaukee Brewers (50-41)

Why they should maintain it: The Brewers lead the NL Central, even though several important contributors endured disappointing first halves. Ryan Braun has appeared in only 40 games because of a calf strain. Second baseman Jonathan Villar is hitting .221 and has a FanGraphs WAR of minus-0.5. Starter Junior Guerra has shown a troubling inability to throw strikes. If those three players pick up their games, it will give the Brewers a significant lift. The bullpen, an early source of concern, stabilized once the Brewers released Neftali Feliz and inserted Corey Knebel in the closer role.

Reasons for concern: Eric Thames hit .189 in May and June after a torrid start. Now that NL staffs have a more complete book on him, it's up to Thames to adjust. While the Brewers rank fourth in the NL with 451 runs, they also lead the league with 874 strikeouts. There's a lot of swing-and-miss in this group.

The rotation took a hit when Chase Anderson, who was putting up All-Star-worthy numbers, suffered an oblique injury in late June. He's expected back some time in August, but obliques can be tricky. Most important, the defending champion Chicago Cubs are lurking. As sorry as they've played, it's hard to imagine that they don't have a run in them. The Brewers are 4-5 against the Cubs this season and play them 10 times in the second half.

Corey Knebel on Brewers manager Craig Counsell: "He played recently enough that it's helped a lot of us, because he can [relate] to a lot of guys. He's great at teaching, and he just has fun. He knows we're going to make mistakes, but it's what you do afterward that matters. If you carry it over, bad things are going to happen. We've been able to keep our heads on right, just knowing that and listening to him."