The second half of the MLB season begins Friday, and everyone wants to come out strong. But for which team, player and manager will it be most important? Our experts make their picks.
1. The team that most needs a strong second-half start is ________.
Chad Dotson (@dotsonc), Redleg Nation: The Pittsburgh Pirates. The Bucs finished the first half by winning 10 of their final 12 games and sliding past Cincinnati into first place in the National League Central. Flash back to 2011: The Pirates were in first place after winning their first game after the All-Star break. That didn't work out so well for them (fourth place, 72-90 record). The Pirates need a strong start if they want anyone to believe they are serious contenders this time around.
Jayson Stark (@jaysonst), ESPN.com: The Miami Marlins. How many of us have said this is the most important season in Marlins history? Well, it sounds as if they could be one bad week from pulling the plug and selling off players such as Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante. That might make great baseball sense, but its consequences on the business side could be ominous.
Jason Wojciechowski (@jlwoj), Beaneball: The Detroit Tigers. They were supposed to run away with the Central, but poor team defense -- more hits allowed on balls in play than any other American League team -- and horrendous production from multiple spots on the field, especially second base and right field, have pushed the Tigers into a dogfight. They won five in a row going into the All-Star break, and they'll need more of the same to avoid being buried.
2. The player who most needs a strong second-half start is ________.
Dotson: Matt Kemp. Kemp hasn't played since May 30, and he hasn't hit a homer since April 30, including his disastrous performance in the Home Run Derby this week. Despite his absence, the Dodgers might have been the most surprising team of the first half, thanks primarily to Clayton Kershaw and Chris Capuano. The offense, however, has been simply miserable. L.A. needs a healthy Kemp in the worst way.
Stark: Tim Lincecum. The Giants have put themselves in tremendous position to take charge of their division, but they can't do that if Lincecum doesn't get his act together. I still can't believe he has given up more earned runs at the All-Star break than he gave up in four of his previous five full seasons. But he has. He needs a big second half as much as his team does, because a messy finish could cost him millions of dollars.
Wojciechowski: B.J. Upton. The Rays are right in the thick of things for the second wild-card spot, and a strong half from Upton would be significant. The impending free agent also needs a strong performance to launch himself into the market. His .303 on-base percentage will lower the odds that he can obtain the life-altering contract he surely has desired since his breakout 2007 season.
3. The manager who most needs a strong second-half start is ________.
Dotson: Bobby Valentine. Valentine has been on a roller-coaster ride in Boston since day one. The Red Sox were seven games under .500 after a month but clawed their way back to five games over. Six losses in seven games before the break, however, have them tied for last place. Boston is only 2½ games out of a wild card, however, and the offense has been as good as ever. If Valentine can figure out what to do with the pitching staff, the season can be salvaged. If not well, Valentine's seat will be very warm indeed.
Stark: Dusty Baker. It might be a stretch to say Baker is in any imminent danger of losing his job, but his contract status seems as if it's becoming a bigger topic every week in Cincinnati. The Reds would be in the playoffs (as the No. 1 wild card) if the postseason started today, and they're talented enough to win the division. If they don't, Baker could vault to the top of the endangered manager list. Remember, his current GM, Walt Jocketty, didn't hire him.
Wojciechowski: Bobby Valentine. I've opined in this space before that the Red Sox are a smart organization regarding their manager, but the team living up to its run differential (plus-43, just one behind the Angels) and taking a strong position in the wild-card chase could really ease the media and fan pressure.