The Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs will take part in baseball's marquee weekend matchup when they begin a three-game series Friday at Wrigley Field. During an interview at the All-Star Game on Tuesday, Texas ace Cole Hamels broke into a smile when asked if the series could be a preview of the 2016 World Series.
"That would be cool," Hamels said. "At least you'd know some team that hasn't won it in a long time is going to win it."
The Cubs haven't captured a World Series since 1908, and the Rangers have gone title-free since their inception as the Washington Senators in 1961, but they're entitled to dream big as two of the eight MLB teams with 50-plus wins at the break, with the Boston Red Sox (49), Houston Astros (48) and New York Mets and Miami Marlins (47) next in line.
Even beyond that group, several dark horse teams are lurking. St. Louis and Pittsburgh are poised to strike in the NL Central if the Cubs continue to stagger. And just try telling the Kansas City Royals they're not in prime position to make it to their third straight World Series.
"If we can just be consistent and play the game we know how to play, our record could be a lot better than it is now," Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "If there's a team that can go on another run, it's definitely our team."
As the MLB schedule resumes Friday with a full slate of games, here's a snapshot of the eight 50-win clubs and their outlook from here to October.
San Francisco Giants (57-33)
Why they should maintain it: The Giants have been formidable at home (29-17) and on the road (28-16), and they're strong in all facets of the game. They're fourth in the National League with 424 runs scored, fifth in the league with a 3.55 ERA, and second to the Cubs with 41 defensive runs saved. Hunter Pence, Matt Duffy and Joe Panik are all working their way back from the disabled list, and the Bruce Bochy factor is always a plus. No manager in the game is better at guiding his team through injuries and worst-case scenarios.
Reasons for concern: Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto might be baseball's best one-two pitching punch. But Jeff Samardzija has a 5.88 ERA since the start of June, Jake Peavy has been up and down, and Matt Cain will have to show he can stay healthy when he returns from a hamstring injury next week. San Francisco's starters lead the NL with 562 innings pitched, and that has allowed Bochy to protect his bullpen. But Brian Sabean, the team's executive vice president of baseball operations, and GM Bobby Evans will be trolling the market for pitching upgrades at the deadline. With the Giants, it almost always comes down to pitching.
Catcher Buster Posey on the Giants' ability to plug in unheralded, homegrown players with little to no drop-off in team performance: "I think our front office has made a conscious effort to have guys in the farm system they feel can [help]. Obviously, we'd love for everybody to stay healthy all year. But the front office has done a nice job of developing guys who can step in. We don't get too far ahead of ourselves. That's a big strength for us. Stay in the moment, and try to focus on what you can do today and help the team win a game."
Chicago Cubs (53-35)
Why they should maintain it: The Cubs looked a lot like a juggernaut when they were 25-6 and sporting an 8½-game lead in the NL Central on May 10. They have two legitimate MVP candidates in Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, and a lot of young legs that should hold up well in August and September. Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler are on their way back from the DL, and the schedule gives Joe Maddon's team a nice opportunity to regain its equilibrium. The Cubs play 24 of their next 32 games at Wrigley Field, where they're 26-14 this season.
Reasons for concern: After winning the 2015 NL Cy Young Award and getting off to a dominant start this season, Jake Arrieta is 1-3 with a 6.75 ERA in his past four outings. He has been running up big pitch counts and hasn't gone seven innings in a start since June 11. It was widely assumed that president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer would pursue a front-line reliever at the trade deadline. Now that Chicago's rotation has begun showing signs of wear, the front office could dabble in the starter market as well.
Second baseman Ben Zobrist on the Cubs' recent struggles: "Sometimes it's difficult to push yourself when you feel like you're out to a big lead. The game is coming so easy when you're playing well, you can let off the gas pedal a little bit. Maybe we did that. We have to focus on putting the pedal to the metal and executing every day.
"Everybody wants to look at the wins and losses, but the more important thing for our team is the way we've lost. If we're gonna lose games, we need to get beat instead of beating ourselves. There have been a lot of games in this past stretch where we beat ourselves. We can be so much better."
Washington Nationals (54-36)
Why they should maintain it: Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are a formidable one-two punch atop the rotation, and the Nats are solid at the back end with Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, Joe Ross and (if necessary) Lucas Giolito. The Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos triumvirate anchors the lineup in the Nos. 3-4-5 slots in the lineup, and the Nats have gotten more production of late from Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa. If Harper gets on a roll and rediscovers the .286/.406/.714 Bryce of April, it will go a long way toward burying the Mets and Marlins in the NL East.
Reasons for concern: With Ben Revere and Michael Taylor logging the bulk of the at-bats in the No. 1 spot, Washington's leadoff men rank last in the majors with a .576 OPS. Ryan Zimmerman had a rough first half, and now he's on the disabled list with a rib injury. Washington's bullpen has been solid with a 3.11 ERA and a .227 batting average against, but Jonathan Papelbon's average velocity of 90.9 mph is down about 4 mph from his 2011 peak in Boston, and the relief corps could use another big arm at the back end. Washington GM Mike Rizzo has both the motivation and the weapons to make a run at relievers Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman.
Murphy on manager Dusty Baker's influence in the dugout: "Dusty is very calm. When you look over there in the middle of the game and something doesn't go your way, it seems like it's exactly like what he expected. As a player, when you look over and you don't feel like your manager is ever panicking, it makes it much easier for you to relax and just go out there and play the game as hard as you can."
Texas Rangers (54-36)
Why they should maintain it: The Rangers have a nice mix of veterans and young players, and they bonded under manager Jeff Banister last year, posting a 38-22 record in August and September and zooming past Houston to win the AL West. The ageless Adrian Beltre keeps his teammates loose, integrates the newcomers into the mix, and wills the Rangers to win during the dog days. The Rangers lead the majors with a .292 batting average with runners in scoring position, and they have the potential for a dynamic one-two pitching punch with Hamels and Yu Darvish.
Reasons for concern: Texas' starting rotation ranks ninth in the majors with a 4.07 ERA, but it's a fragile mix. Darvish is set to rejoin the rotation Saturday, but he is still only 16 months removed from Tommy John surgery. Derek Holland is out with a sore shoulder, and Colby Lewis was recently transferred to the 60-day DL with a lat strain. Prince Fielder showed signs of awakening from his slumber in June, but that .639 OPS is particularly unsightly given the $100 million-plus left on his contract through 2020. While Texas' .600 winning percentage is impressive, it's built in part on a 19-7 record in one-run games. The Rangers have a run differential of plus-16, which ranks 13th among the 30 MLB clubs.
Outfielder Ian Desmond on the Rangers' chemistry: "There's some serious resilience in our clubhouse. You've got [Banister], who grinded his way to Manager of the Year last year. It wasn't like he was some phenom manager who was given a job. He worked his butt off to get there. You've got Adrian Beltre, who's played 19 years in the big leagues and seen everything. You've got [Rougned Odor], who's a tough little son-of-a-gun who plays the game extremely hard, and Robinson Chirinos, who keeps coming back from injuries and performing.
"When you put a bunch of good character guys in the room, you're generally going to draw out the best in each one of them. I think that's what you've seen with our team. There's no lead that's too much for us to feel like we can conquer."
Cleveland Indians (52-36)
Why they should maintain it: The Indians have baseball's best rotation, one through five: Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin. They've been a good road team, and they never lost more than three games in a row at any stretch before the All-Star break. The lineup is also better than expected, with five players (Tyler Naquin, Carlos Santana, Francisco Lindor, Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis) sporting an OPS of .800 or better and Mike Napoli right on the cusp at .793. The Tribe could receive a big lift after the break when outfielder Michael Brantley returns from a shoulder injury.
"He's going to play defense and drive in runs, and he's going to help us be successful, just with his demeanor and the way he talks to us," Lindor said. "He brings so much just with his presence."
Reasons for concern: Brantley rushed back from his injury in April and gave the Indians only 43 plate appearances before returning to the DL. How much can he give the Indians this time around? Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen have been generally solid at the back end of the bullpen, but they've combined to walk 34 hitters in 74⅓ innings, which can lead to some suspense at times. The Indians could really use a shutdown lefty. But it's a stretch to see them making a run at Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller, which leaves Fernando Abad and Will Smith among the potential options.
Orioles closer Zach Britton on the Indians: "They're a dangerous postseason team just because of their rotation. I don't know if you want to play a short series against those guys."
Baltimore Orioles (51-36)
Why they should maintain it: The lineup has major quick-strike capability. The Orioles lead the majors with 137 homers, and they're second to Boston with a .467 team slugging percentage. GM Dan Duquette should get executive of the year consideration on the basis of that Mark Trumbo-for-Steve Clevenger trade alone. The bullpen has been terrific, and it'll be even better once Darren O'Day returns from a strained hamstring. The Orioles have great clubhouse leadership in Adam Jones and Chris Davis, and manager Buck Showalter is better than anyone at coaxing a bullpen through a long, demanding schedule.
Reasons for concern: The rotation is a fiasco once you get past Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman. Baltimore's starting ERA of 5.15 ranks 28th among the 30 MLB teams -- better than only the Minnesota Twins and Cincinnati Reds. Yovani Gallardo has shown signs of turning it around, but the heat is on Duquette to make some kind of upgrade, and the lack of elite talent in Baltimore's farm system means he'll have to get creative in making a deal.
In a surprise announcement Friday, the Orioles said former first-round pick Dylan Bundy will make his big-league starting debut Sunday against Tampa Bay. Bundy has thrown 38 innings in the bullpen this season after injuries limited him to a total of 63 1/3 innings from 2013-2015, so it'll be interesting to see how far the Orioles try to push him.
Britton on Bundy: "Everyone was talking about him a few years ago. He's got the stuff. Watching his progression in the bullpen, he's pretty ready to be able to start in the big leagues. I'm watching him attack the hitters, and he's starting to get the confidence and his velocity back. He's a weapon down there. I just don't know what the innings would be like."
Los Angeles Dodgers (51-40)
Why they should maintain it: The Dodgers are 18-10 against the Padres, Rockies and Diamondbacks, and they still have 29 games left against the NL West's three bottom-feeders. Now that Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu have returned, there's reason to hope for more consistent innings from the rotation. Rookie of the Year front-runner Corey Seager carried the offense in the first half, but Adrian Gonzalez is slugging .629 in 35 July at-bats and Howie Kendrick also began heating up before the break. Andre Ethier is expected to return from a fractured tibia in early August. That might lessen the sense of urgency for the front office to acquire a bat at the deadline.
Reasons for concern: Clayton Kershaw is such a pivotal part of the Dodgers' rotation, the front office gets nervous when he sneezes. If his back issues linger or reduce his effectiveness to any extent in the second half, it would be devastating to the Dodgers' outlook. Los Angeles' bullpen logged the sixth-heaviest workload in the National League by the All-Star break, and the Dodgers need more length from their starters to keep the pen fresh down the stretch.
Seager on life under rookie manager Dave Roberts: "He's been great. You don't know what to expect in the first half, but we've kind of broke down the walls and come together united, and it's starting to roll a little bit. It's taken some time for us and for him, but we're starting to understand what each of us wants and needs. We're in a good spot, for sure."
Toronto Blue Jays (51-40)
Why they should maintain it: Everybody knows the Blue Jays can mash, but the pitching has been surprisingly good. Marco Estrada and Aaron Sanchez made the All-Star team, and Toronto's rotation leads the majors with 823⅔ innings. Marcus Stroman, the only Blue Jays starter with an ERA over 4.00, has begun to figure things out his past few starts and is poised for a big second half. Josh Donaldson has that MVP gleam in his eye, and Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Michael Saunders have some extra motivation to finish strong in their free-agent walk years.
Reasons for concern: Estrada, who ranks first among MLB starters with a .173 batting average against, missed his last start with back soreness and has had several cortisone shots to address the issue. Of greater concern, Sanchez is at 118 innings and is fast approaching his single-season high of 133⅓ innings in 2014. Will the Blue Jays move him to the bullpen and plug Drew Hutchison into his spot in the rotation? As the Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey situations showed in recent years, these decisions can be quite dicey.
Estrada on the Sanchez innings dilemma: "Yeah, he's open to being a reliever if he has to. But I know in his mind he's always wanted to be a starter. To finally get the opportunity, he's showing what he can do. He's an All-Star, and I don't think he's making it back to that bullpen. I hope he doesn't.
"I'd like to see him stay in the rotation with us. We need him. He's one of the best pitchers out there. I know he has that whole limit on his innings. But we're trying to get to the playoffs and win a World Series, and we're going to need him to start. I know it's not up to him, and it's not up to me. It's up to the front-office guys, so it's kind of out of his hands."