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What to watch for in the second half

Derek Jeter is, presumably, rested and ready to go for the second half. Robinson and Jose Cano will go their separate ways after breaking out their heartwarming "Father Throws Best" routine in the Home Run Derby. And Justin Verlander, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels and all those pitchers who were forbidden from throwing Tuesday night will have the wraps taken off later this week.

Now that the 82nd All-Star Game is history, it's time to look ahead to the trade deadline, the dog days, the postseason and beyond. In this edition of Starting 9, we check out some storylines that are sure to dominate the Major League Baseball landscape in the coming weeks and months.

Pitching, pitching and more pitching

We've seen no-hitters by Verlander and Francisco Liriano, breakthrough performances from Jair Jurrjens, Justin Masterson and Jordan Zimmermann and late-career revivals by Ryan Vogelsong, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. Jurrjens and Jered Weaver both have sub-2.00 ERAs, and with the exception of the injured Roy Oswalt, Philadelphia's vaunted rotation has lived up to the hype. In Tampa Bay, "Complete Game James" Shields has gone the distance seven times -- exceeding the total for 26 big league teams.

A total of 19 clubs sported sub-4.00 ERAs at the break. In 2001, only five MLB pitching staffs achieved that feat. And ESPN Stats & Information duly notes that there have been 87 double-digit strikeout games this season, the most in 10 years. Run production in the two leagues is at its lowest level in two decades.

"The game in general has been headed in that direction the last few years," said Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun. "If you look at it, there are a lot of young starting pitchers coming up who have really good stuff. It feels like guys are throwing harder overall, and velocity always gives you room for error.

"Now that they've cleaned the game up -- the drug testing is legit -- there are far less guys who are able to hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs. That's really changed the game in its entirety. There's more focus on pitching and defense and baserunning."

Braun, Michael Cuddyer and other hitters aren't just imagining things when they point to a rampant uptick in gun readings. According to FanGraphs, 41 starting pitchers this season have an average fastball velocity of 92 mph or above. Only 16 pitchers fit that description in 2002.

Although pitchers are thriving, lots of established hitters are giving new meaning to the term "struggling." Adam Dunn looks so lost and forlorn, Jose Canseco is giving him hitting tips. Dan Uggla has been a major disappointment in Atlanta. Ichiro Suzuki has a .640 OPS. Joe Mauer is homerless with a .288 slugging percentage. And Jayson Werth, Washington's $126 million man, is in a deeper funk than Teddy Roosevelt, who's still riding a career oh-fer in the between-innings presidential races at Nationals Park.

Airtight races

In the six major league divisions, the biggest gap between first and second place is in the NL East, where Philadelphia leads Atlanta by 3½ games. The most jumbled mess exists in the NL Central, where the Brewers, Cardinals, Pirates and Reds are separated by only four games.

The most compelling heavyweight smackdowns are taking place in the two East divisions. In the American League, the Yankees are within a game of first-place Boston even though they're 1-8 head-to-head against the Red Sox this season. Still, good luck finding a Boston player who'll so much as chuckle at the perception that the Red Sox "own" Team Steinbrenner this season.

"I remember a few years ago people said the same stuff and [the Yankees] ended up winning like eight in a row against us," said Boston's Josh Beckett. "You never feel like they're out of a game. It doesn't matter if they're down eight runs. If they're down eight, you feel like, 'We've still got to make pitches here. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.'"

While Boston and New York outslug the masses, the Phillies and Braves keep putting opponents into sleep mode. Philadelphia is first in the majors with a 3.02 ERA, and Atlanta is right behind at 3.11. The teams meet only six more times this season, but that three-game series at Turner Field in late September has a chance to be very interesting.

The trade deadline

Everyone looks forward to the trade deadline with great anticipation. But a multitude of factors suggest the headlines will be moderate in comparison to recent years.

For starters, there's no transcendent star player who's assured of dominating the conversation, as Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Matt Holliday and Cliff Lee have done in recent years. Three difference-making position players are on the cusp of free agency and might typically be mentioned in July trade speculation. But Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are playing for teams enmeshed in pennant races, so they're staying put. And every signal the Mets emit suggests they plan to hang on to Jose Reyes and take their chances in November.

Obstacle No. 2 to a trade-deadline blockbuster: A select few teams (that means you, Astros, Orioles, Royals, A's and Cubs) are so bereft of hope that they've already reached the lost-cause stage. The Padres, Dodgers, Marlins and Mariners appear to be moving in that direction.

"I think there's going to be action," a National League executive said. "But there are so many teams still in it, you're not going to see as many early trades. I think you're going to see an intense week from July 25 to the deadline. A lot of teams are going to wait."

Some names we're likely to see making the rounds: Carlos Beltran, Jeremy Guthrie, Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy, Hunter Pence, Brett Myers, Chad Qualls, Ryan Ludwick, Heath Bell, Mike Adams, Jeff Francoeur, Jeff Francis, Josh Willingham, Coco Crisp, Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly, Jamey Carroll, Carlos Pena, Kosuke Fukudome, Erik Bedard and Jason Marquis. That's just a trade-speculation appetizer.

The Dodgers' debacle

The Dodgers aren't winning many games this season, but they're churning out embarrassing headlines with proficiency. The daily updates from Chavez Ravine alternate between sad and surreal, black comedy and outright lunacy.

Dodgers

On Friday, Steve Garvey confirmed that he's been fired from his job in the team's marketing and community relations department. Garvey has made no secret of his desire to assemble a group to buy the beleaguered franchise.

On Saturday, the Dodgers came within an out of getting no-hit before pulling out a 1-0 win over San Diego. A group of fans congregated outside the park to protest Frank McCourt's ownership, but apathy is so rampant in L.A. that fewer than 100 people mustered the outrage to attend.

Feel free to pick a side. McCourt is the obvious villain with his flair for finding new and innovative ways to debase the franchise. But commissioner Bud Selig and MLB owners also deserve their share of criticism for welcoming McCourt into the club despite an abundance of caution flags.

As the McCourt saga plays out in bankruptcy and divorce courts, the negative impact on one of baseball's marquee franchises is undeniable. The Dodgers are on pace to draw fewer than 3 million fans for only the second time since the strike in the mid-1990s. And the longer the ownership picture remains in chaos, the more difficult it will be for the franchise to sign All-Star outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier to long-term deals.

Two good things to emerge from the McCourt fiasco: (1) Compared to the Dodgers, the Mets look like a pillar of stability; and (2) those "Frankrupt" T-shirts make for a witty fashion statement.

Rust Belt revivals

The Indians and Pirates left spring training as long shots to rank high on anybody's list of 2011 feel-good stories. But here we are, more than halfway through the season, and they continue to make noise in their respective divisions.

PiratesIndians

The Pirates, at 47-43, are 10 victories short of their total for all of 2010. The players have responded to new manager Clint Hurdle's approach, and the city has embraced the team with zeal. PNC Park, one of baseball's most aesthetically appealing venues, is seeing bigger, more enthusiastic crowds, and the Pirates are feeding off the energy.

But is it sustainable? The Pirates rank near the bottom in the National League in multiple offensive categories. They're ninth in the majors in team defensive efficiency, and they'll have to continue to play fundamentally sound ball behind a rotation (Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, Paul Maholm, James McDonald and Jeff Karstens) that doesn't miss many bats.

The Indians, who blazed out to a 30-15 start, went into a funk when the schedule got tougher, then regained their equilibrium. But lots of questions remain. What kind of contribution will Grady Sizemore and the injured Shin-Soo Choo provide the rest of the way? Can prospects Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis have an impact down the stretch? And what can coaches Tim Belcher and Scott Radinsky do to fix Fausto Carmona, who gave the team seven quality starts in 18 outings in the first half?

If Indians GM Chris Antonetti makes an addition through a deadline trade, it's likely to be an outfield bat. If Cleveland needs a starter, it most likely will be Zach McAllister, David Huff or somebody else on the farm.

"We continue to be encouraged by the way we've played and how our guys have responded to adversity," Antonetti said. "We'll continue to look at opportunities to improve the team as we approach the trade deadline."

General-manager-speak? Sure. But when the Indians are looking to upgrade in July rather than sell, it's welcome news in Cleveland.

Jim Thome's 600th homer

Now that Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit is in the books, the next big milestone target belongs to Thome, who needs five homers to become the eighth member of the 600 club. Thome has been bothered by injuries to his back, quadriceps and left oblique this season, and now he has a sprained big toe, so he's gradually running out of healthy body parts.

Jim Thome

Jim Thome

#25 DH
Minnesota Twins

2011 STATS

  • GM40
  • HR6

  • RBI19

  • R11

  • OBP.352

  • AVG.219

Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez didn't generate many positive vibes with their 600th, but Thome is widely regarded as a "clean" player and one of baseball's nicest and humblest stars. The Twins' biggest challenge might be finding enough guys to hoist the big lug around on their shoulders.

"Selfishly, you want to be a part of something like this no matter who it is," teammate Michael Cuddyer said. "Then you look at the person. For me, there's not a better guy I've met in my life than Jim Thome. Maybe Harmon Killebrew, and that's it.

"He's so unassuming. He's the type of guy, if you're his next-door neighbor, he'll mow your grass for you if you're going away for two weeks. To see a guy like that accomplish a feat like this would be incredible."

Albert Pujols, with 426 career homers, has a lot more exploding scoreboards in his future, but the outlook is thin beyond "The Machine." Chipper Jones (444) and Vladimir Guerrero (443) probably don't have enough left in the tank to reach 500.

The free agents-in-waiting

Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes are all destined to become wealthy men this offseason (or maybe "wealthier" is a more accurate description). We won't know where they'll land until sometime after Thanksgiving. But there should be plenty of intriguing plot twists along the way.

Pujols, the best player of his generation, has been tested over the past few months. He looked very un-Albert-like in April and May, then broke his wrist in June. But Pujols showed quick-healing power by returning in 15 days, and now he's intent on punishing the ball in the second half.

Broadcaster Tim McCarver recently speculated that Fielder, who's having a monster year, has been the beneficiary of all the attention thrown Pujols' way. "There has been so much emphasis put on Pujols and the Cardinals that this has allowed Prince to relax and have a terrific year this year, unlike Albert," McCarver told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I don't think Prince feels it like Albert does. Players deny that, but from the way I see it, I think you certainly can make a case for it."

The two sluggers aren't the only ones who'll take their contract talks to heart. Scott Boras represents Fielder, and Dan Lozano is the agent for Pujols, and if you don't think they want to outdo each other on the big stage, you don't know much about the agent business.

Reyes has burnished his superstar credentials with a monster first half for the Mets. But he's on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, and he needs to get healthy and come back strong if he wants to land a deal in the Carl Crawford, $142 million range. There's nothing like a strong finish to keep a guy from slumming in the eight-figure neighborhood.

Baseball labor deal

Baseball's collective bargaining agreement expires this year, and players and owners have been negotiating for months amid a cone of silence, free of threats, doomsday proclamations and public posturing. Selig and Michael Weiner, head of the players' association, both used the word "constructive" Tuesday to describe the state of the talks.

Given the climate in the NFL and NBA, is anyone out there complaining over the lack of blow-by-blow details?

Of course, MLB has its share of issues. Oakland and Tampa Bay have major stadium problems to address. The Dodgers are a mess, and the Mets have a lot of work to do to move past Bernie Madoff. The Yankees sported an Opening Day payroll of $202 million, while Cleveland, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Kansas City all came in below $50 million. Players and owners have to find common ground on realignment, the first-year player draft, scheduling issues and a slew of other questions.

But revenue sharing and the luxury tax have helped produce more parity in the game, and Selig began his annual All-Star meeting with baseball writers Tuesday by crowing over attendance, revenues and other tangible signs of the game's popularity.

If Weiner and Rob Manfred, MLB's top lawyer, can get a deal done, it will assure baseball of a two-decade run without a shutdown. To borrow one of Selig's favorite adjectives, that's "remarkable" for a sport that wrote the book on contentious labor relations.

The Roger Clemens saga

Take a random survey of baseball fans or U.S. citizens in general, and chances are a healthy percentage will tell you the Clemens perjury trial is: (1) a colossal waste of the government's time and money; or (2) the perpetuation of a steroid saga that will never end.

Roger Clemens

Clemens

But it's still a fascinating case study of the hubris and tunnel vision that can kill an athlete's reputation and put him in the public eye for all the wrong reasons. Not long ago, Clemens was lauded for his work ethic and dedication on the way to 354 victories and seven Cy Young Awards. Now he's all lawyered up and fighting to save his reputation and his Hall of Fame chances.

Think the Barry Bonds perjury trial was a slog? Get set for a parade celebrity witness, high-profile revelations and lots of Brian McNamee-related headlines during the coming months, all courtesy of The Rocket.


Other stories of note
: Jose Bautista and Adrian Gonzalez duke it out for American League MVP with their prolific offensive numbers; Matt Kemp chases a 40-40 season in Los Angeles; the San Francisco Giants try to overcome the loss of catcher Buster Posey in their quest to repeat; Joe Mauer is taking his lumps amid a trying season in Minnesota; Stephen Strasburg tries to return from Tommy John surgery; Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar enter the Hall of Fame; megaprospect Mike Trout hopes to stick in Anaheim at age 19; Bryce Harper keeps working his way through the Washington Nationals chain; tensions between umpires and players fester as Jim Leyland, Jack McKeon and other managers go public with their complaints.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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