After several days of Manny Machado-related intrigue, spirited dialogue about Mike Trout's role as a baseball brand ambassador and debate over whether Bryce Harper's Home Run Derby victory is a sign that he is or isn't "back," the focus shifts from the game's superstars to its super teams.
The Major League Baseball schedule resumes in full with 15 games Friday, and the Dodgers' acquisition of Machado from Baltimore should clear the way for a torrent of trade activity. The Phillies and Brewers are contemplating their Plan B options, and Brian Dozier, Eduardo Escobar and Mike Moustakas are among the veteran hitters who could be coming off the board soon.
The Cleveland Indians made a statement Thursday when they acquired relievers Brad Hand and Adam Cimber from San Diego for top prospect Francisco Mejia. Other contending clubs now will turn their attention to Jeurys Familia, Zach Britton, Kyle Barraclough and a slew of difference-making bullpen arms left on the market.
As the July 31 non-waiver deadline approaches and fence-sitting teams seek clarity on whether to deal or not to deal, here's a snapshot of MLB's six division races, ranging from the most to the least compelling:
1. American League East
Triple-digit wins are a big deal. Since 1942, there have been only six seasons in which three MLB teams won 100 games or more. It's likely to happen for a seventh time this season, with the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros on pace for more than 100.
The stakes are especially high in the AL East, where the winner advances to the division series and the runner-up will be forced to win a wild-card game to advance. Even if Boston or New York has a distinct advantage playing at home versus Seattle or Oakland, it's a high-risk scenario the two juggernauts would rather avoid.
The Red Sox have an MVP candidate in Mookie Betts and a Cy Young-worthy ace in Chris Sale. The Yankees counter with Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Luis Severino. Craig Kimbrel is nails as Boston's closer, and Aroldis Chapman has a 1.35 ERA, a 0.83 WHIP and 68 strikeouts in 40 innings in the Bronx.
Boston has a 28-8 record against Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Toronto, while the Yankees are 19-13 against those three clubs. Intra-divisional play could ultimately be the separator. But it's just as easy to see things coming down to the season-ending series at Fenway Park on Sept. 28-30. Although the Sox and Yanks would love to save their aces for the postseason, they might be in a situation where Sale and/or Severino will have to pitch the final weekend.
Kimbrel on the prospect of a 100-win team finishing second: "It's going to be intense at the end of the year. Each one of us is hoping we don't put ourselves in a situation where we're playing the last four games against each other, then playing a playoff game, then playing each other again. All we can do is play and hope we win the division.
"I wouldn't [blame] the system. Every year, there's a division where two teams seem like they carry the league, and one team wins the division and one is the wild card. It just so happens this year that it's going to be in the East. If it were the Central or the West, people wouldn't be talking about it as much."
2. National League East
The Phillies and Braves, young teams that were perceived as a year away from contention, have expedited their timetables. Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis have led an impressive group of young players who've thrived under Atlanta manager Brian Snitker. The Phillies are 53-42 despite a run differential of plus-18 -- third best in the division. Gabe Kapler, who routinely confounds baseball traditionalists with his new-age strategies and lexicon, will be hard to ignore in Manager of the Year balloting if this continues.
On the flip side, the Nationals have reached the postseason four times from the 2012 season on and failed to advance beyond the division series. Now the sense of urgency is palpable, with Harper approaching free agency and waxing nostalgic about his time in Washington. General manager Mike Rizzo made a pre-emptive strike when he acquired Kelvin Herrera from Kansas City by trade in June, and his history suggests he's not finished yet.
The Braves won seven of their first 12 meetings with the Phillies before the teams went their separate ways May 23. They'll resume head-to-head play with seven games scheduled Sept. 20-30 -- including a three-game series at Citizens Bank Park to end the regular season.
Freeman on the division's second-half outlook: "It's building up to the point where those last 10 games in the season could mean a whole heck of a lot. It looks like Major League Baseball nailed the schedule with those last 10 games. They could be real 'sweaters.'
"I still think it's going to be a three-team race. And you've got to go through the Mets. If you draw [Noah] Syndergaard, [Jacob] deGrom and [Zack] Wheeler, the next thing you know it's a three-game sweep and you've scored two runs. I always feel like the NL East is the toughest division, because runs are so hard to come by. The Nationals are good and they haven't hit their stride yet. Sooner or later, they're going to hit it."
3. National League West
The Dodgers persevered and put together a good enough package to land Machado, who has the potential to change the tone of the race with his impact bat. The Dodgers already lead the NL with 129 homers and rank second to Colorado in slugging percentage. Throw Machado into a lineup with Matt Kemp, Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy, and they'll be able to outslug opponents on a lot of nights. But they're still going to need Clayton Kershaw to stay healthy and lead the staff if they aspire to reach the World Series again.
The rest of the division is a challenge. The Diamondbacks have an inconsistent, strikeout-prone offense. But they're third in the NL with a 3.62 team ERA, and GM Mike Hazen is motivated to deal. The Rockies regained their equilibrium with a five-game win streak heading into the break, and they're hoping Jon Gray's refresher course in the minors is the springboard to a better second half. The Giants, still hanging around at 50-48, need to improve upon their 19-29 road record if they want to make inroads.
Rockies manager Bud Black on the scrum atop the division: "If you don't pitch in the second half, that makes it awful tough. In the dog days of August and September, when the innings are piling up for starting pitchers, that's when some guys break down and performances slide. Teams will supplement their bullpens with their best minor league pitchers, which always helps. And the expanded rosters will help. But I think it's going to come down to that good starting pitching that keeps you in each and every game. If you do that, I think you stay in the race."
4. National League Central
The Central leads the majors in fired managers with two. Jim Riggleman has led the Reds to a 40-38 record since taking over for Bryan Price and made a compelling case to have the "interim" tag removed from his name. The Cardinals responded to a disappointing first three months by firing Mike Matheny and replacing him with Mike Shildt, who has a 69-game audition to show he's the right man for the job.
Higher up the pecking order, the Cubs are looking for stability in the rotation. Yu Darvish is working his way back from triceps tendinitis and an elbow impingement, and Joe Maddon needs him to slot in with Jon Lester, Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks for the Cubs to get on a roll. Darvish brings a welcome dose of swing-and-miss to a rotation that ranks 13th in the NL in strikeouts, but he's given the Cubs a mere eight starts and 40 innings in 3½ months. That won't suffice.
Lorenzo Cain is back in the Milwaukee lineup, but Ryan Braun, Zach Davies, Matt Albers, Eric Thames, Manny Pina, Junior Guerra and Jonathan Villar all ended the first half on the disabled list. After falling short on Machado, the Brewers are poised to make another run at Dozier, Escobar or another middle-infield option to boost their lineup.
The Brewers looked gassed heading into the break, losing eight of their final 10 and five consecutive games in Pittsburgh. Now they have to navigate the Josh Hader fallout and a brutal schedule. They begin the second half with a homestand against the Dodgers and Nationals before an eight-game trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Jeremy Jeffress on manager Craig Counsell's message to the team after the five-game sweep in Pittsburgh: "We had a tough last month. We had 21 straight games and no off days. He knew we needed rest. He could see it in our faces a little bit. He understands, because he's been a player and he knows how long the season is. We didn't end off like we wanted to, but it's still a long season and we have some pieces coming back. I think we'll be fine."
5. American League West
The Astros produced three All-Stars starters in Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton, and Hector Rondon has done a fine job since taking over for Ken Giles as closer. The Astros are the class of the division, and their biggest challenge will be keeping everyone healthy and maintaining their edge for another extended push through October.
For a while, it looked as if Seattle had a lock on the league's second wild-card spot. The Mariners were enough of a feel-good story for GM Jerry Dipoto to land a contract extension and Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, Nelson Cruz and Edwin Diaz to make the All-Star team. But the M's dropped eight of 11 entering the break, and Felix Hernandez and James Paxton are both taking mini-breathers on the disabled list. Dipoto will be looking for starting pitching depth at the deadline, and the offense will receive a stretch-run boost when Robinson Cano returns from his 80-game suspension in August.
Seattle's recent struggles have cracked open a window for the Athletics, who have won 21 of their past 27 with a starting rotation that includes comeback specials Brett Anderson and Edwin Jackson. Judging from third baseman Matt Chapman's plus-22 defensive runs saved (DRS), opponents might want to avoid hitting the ball in his direction.
Jed Lowrie on whether he expects Billy Beane, David Forst and Oakland's front office to make roster upgrades at the deadline: "I hope so. I'm certainly not privy to those conversations. But that's a very smart group in the front office, and I think they recognize opportunity when it arises. Hopefully we're in a position to make the team better and make a push."
6. American League Central
The Cleveland bullpen, a source of stability and strength in recent years, drove manager Terry Francona and pitching coach Carl Willis batty in the first half. Andrew Miller can't stay off the disabled list, Cody Allen has been shaky at times, and Cleveland's relief contingent ranks 14th among the 15 American League teams with a 5.28 aggregate ERA.
So Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff swallowed hard and traded the organization's top prospect, Mejia, to San Diego for Hand and Cimber. After patching things together with Neil Ramirez, Oliver Perez et al, the Indians went bold and decided to go all-in on the 2018 season.
At 52-43, the Indians have a 7½-game lead over Minnesota in the AL Central. The Twins are teetering on the brink of sell mode, and it won't take much for them to pack off Escobar, Dozier, Lance Lynn and Fernando Rodney and declare surrender.
Once you get past Cleveland, the other four Central clubs have a combined .380 winning percentage (145-237) and an aggregate run differential of minus-412. That qualifies as compelling viewing only if you're a connoisseur of bad baseball.
Trevor Bauer on the challenge of staying focused with a big lead: "We've been fortunate enough to have experience in the postseason against really talented teams the last couple of years, so we know the level of play that's required to win. Regardless of who's close or isn't close in our division race, we're mainly focused on playing at a level that we can be proud of. We're trying to establish that culture where we feel comfortable matching up against anybody. That's where our main focus is."