What to watch for in se­cond half

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­post.com

As Ma­jor League Base­ball emerges from the all-star break, the fin­ish line is start­ing to come into view. The four-day break af­fords a chance to re­set start­ing ro­ta­tions, and in places such as Wash­ing­ton, Los An­ge­les and Hous­ton, it isn’t too early to start count­ing in five-day chunks to line up your Game 1 starter. Else­where, the wild-card stand­ings be­come an es­sen­tial part of each morning. The next few weeks will bring trades, in­juries and re­turns from in­jury that af­fect the play­off races, but you can feel the days of sum­mer dwin­dling, and be­yond it the ap­proach of fall.

As the se­cond half be­gins, here are the nine story lines, one for each in­ning, that will dom­i­nate the base­ball dis­course in the com­ing weeks.

1. Play­off races. Three of the six divi­sion lead­ers — the Astros, Na­tion­als and Dodgers — hold com­mand­ing (not the same as unas­sail­able) leads, and in the Na­tional League, the Diamondbacks and Rock­ies are run­ning away with the two wild cards. But no fewer than 19 teams, in­clud­ing 12 in the Amer­i­can League, en­ter the se­cond half ei­ther in line for a play­off berth or within six games of one. That means crit­i­cal games on the sched­ule ev­ery day from here on out, and some cold, hard choices to be made be­tween now and the July 31 trade dead­line.

2. Trade dead­line. The de­fend­ing World Se­ries cham­pion Chicago Cubs, who opened the se­cond half 51/2 games out of a play­off spot, jump-started the pro­ceed­ings with a block­buster deal Thurs­day for Chicago White Sox lefty Jose Quin­tana, at a cost of four prospects. But there will be more. Not even the Astros or Dodgers, with one eye apiece on Oc­to­ber, are sat­is­fied with their current ros­ters, and both could add a start­ing pitcher in the com­ing weeks.

Big-mar­ket con­tenders such as the New York Yan­kees and Bos­ton Red Sox could make small deals, and small-mar­ket con­tenders such as the Mil­wau­kee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays could make big ones. But no team has a more glar­ing need than the Na­tion­als, who have spent the sea­son’s first four months try­ing to iden­tify a closer on their ros­ter, only to con­clude they don’t have one. There may not be any re­liev­ers like An­drew Miller or Aroldis Chap­man avail­able this year, but at this point, the Na­tion­als can’t af­ford to be picky.

3. Aaron Judge. It may seem a reach to have the New York Yan­kees’ rookie phe­nom this high on the list, with just 113 big league games un­der his belt, but at times this past week’s All-Star Game — where he won the Home Run Derby on Mon­day and bat­ted third in the AL’s start­ing lineup Tues­day — felt like one big coro­na­tion of the 6-foot-7, 282-pound slug­ger as the next “Face of Base­ball.” (Hav­ing been in his moun­tain­ous pres­ence a few times, I pre­fer to think of him as the next “Torso of Base­ball.”)

Al­ready the front-run­ner for both the Amer­i­can League rookie of the year and MVP awards, Judge has a chance to make his­tory. With 30 homers at the break, he was on pace for 57, which would shat­ter Mark McGwire’s 1987 rookie record of 49, and with a lit­tle luck he could make a run at 60, a thresh­old just five play­ers have reached (a to­tal of eight times), and none since Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa in 2001.

4. The Astros and Dodgers. The AL’s and NL’s re­spec­tive jug­ger­nauts are on pace for 109 and 110 wins, which, should they keep it up, would rank them among the best reg­u­lar sea­son teams ever. Only two teams in the last half-cen­tury have notched 110 or more wins: the 1998 Yan­kees, who won 114, and the 2001 Seat­tle Mariners, who won 116.

But reg­u­lar sea­son suc­cess, of course, does not nec­es­sar­ily trans­late to the same in Oc­to­ber. Of the four win­ningest teams of the past quar­ter-cen­tury — the 2001 Mariners, the 1998 Yan­kees, the 1993 Braves (104 wins) and 2004 Cardinals (105) — only the Yan­kees went on to win the World Se­ries. Which is why both the Astros and Dodgers, de­spite their siz­able divi­sion leads, likely aren’t done con­struct­ing their Oc­to­ber ros­ters.

Keep in mind as well that, with the end of the era of “This Time It Counts,” home-field ad­van­tage in the World Se­ries no longer goes to the league that won the All-Star Game, but the team with the bet­ter record.

5. The Cubs. They get their own en­try be­cause of the pop-cul­ture phenomenon they be­came in the wake of their 2016 ti­tle and their baf­fling un­der­achieve­ment in the first half, which saw prac­ti­cally ev­ery 2016 stal­wart take a ma­jor step back­ward — in the case of Kyle Sch­war­ber, a step that landed him all the way back in the mi­nors for a spell.

Many teams that find them­selves 51/2 games out of a play­off spot at the break pack it in on the current sea­son and start look­ing ahead to the fu­ture, but the Cubs knew they couldn’t do that, so they made one last des­per­a­tion move — giv­ing up their two top prospects in the pack­age that landed Quin­tana — and opened their se­cond half in Bal­ti­more on Fri­day with a fight­ing chance to get back in the race.

6. Home runs. Bar­ring a sud­den, se­cret in­fu­sion of dead­ened base­balls, we are all but cer­tain to see a record-set­ting num­ber of homers this sea­son. At the end of the first half, teams were on pace to hit 6,127 of them, which would blow away the record of 5,693 in 2000, at the height of the steroids era.

The home run spike was a con­stant topic of dis­cus­sion at the All-Star Game in Miami, with Com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred in­sist­ing again the balls aren’t juiced this year, but finding him­self oth­er­wise at a loss to ex­plain the spike and ul­ti­mately re­veal­ing that the league has be­gun test­ing the com­po­si­tion of bats in an ef­fort to find out what is go­ing on.

7. Pitch clock. No, it isn’t com­ing by the end of 2017, but it is al­most cer­tainly on its way by next Open­ing Day. Fed up with the stalling, wait­ing and mound-vis­it­ing that have con­spired to make this year’s av­er­age time of a nine-in­ning game (3 hours 5 min­utes) the long­est in his­tory, Man­fred is adamant about in­sti­tut­ing a 20-se­cond pitch clock by next sea­son and has threat­ened to ram it through with or with­out the union’s ap­proval.

You won’t hear much about the on­go­ing talks be­tween Man­fred and union chief Tony Clark, as they have vowed to con­duct them out of the me­dia sphere, but make no mis­take: This is one of the big­gest sto­ries in base­ball, be­cause of its im­pact on fu­ture sea­sons.

8. NL Cy Young. There is prob­a­bly no other pitcher in base­ball you would want start­ing Game 1 of a post­sea­son se­ries this fall more than the Na­tion­als’ Max Scherzer. He was lead­ing all MLB pitch­ers in ERA, WAR and WHIP and has at the very least re-opened the de­bate over the iden­tity of the best pitcher in the game.

True, the smart pick for that honor re­mains the Dodgers’ Clay­ton Ker­shaw, for his sus­tained great­ness and three Cy Young Awards. But Scherzer could equal him in hard­ware by the end of this sea­son, and at least through the first four months of 2017, he has been the bet­ter pitcher.

9. Adrian Bel­tre. Let’s save a shout-out for the dis­tin­guished gentle­man from Texas, the Rangers’ bril­liant third base­man, who should col­lect his 3,000th ca­reer hit — he is cur­rently at 2,978 — in another month or so.

His is al­ready a com­pelling Hall of Fame case, which in­cludes a home run ti­tle in 2004, five Gold Gloves and 453 ca­reer home runs through Fri­day. But rightly or wrongly, it could take his join­ing the 3,000-hit club to put him over the top in the eyes of many vot­ers.

MIKE EHRMANN/GETTY IM­AGES

The Yan­kees’ Aaron Judge, Home Run Derby cham­pion, could be chas­ing Mark McGwire’s rookie record for home runs with weeks left in the sea­son.

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