MLB's 20 Biggest Storylines Heading into the Second Half of the Season

Rick WeinerFeatured ColumnistJune 30, 2014

MLB's 20 Biggest Storylines Heading into the Second Half of the Season

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    Everyone loves a good story, and baseball is more than happy to oblige, providing those willing to listen with more than a few intriguing storylines from year to year.

    MLB's storylines tend to change as the season rolls along, though, keeping baseball fans on their toes, constantly changing the focus of their gaze. What we once considered to be a must-follow story—say Derek Jeter's retirement tour—winds up being replaced with a more interesting and wide-ranging narrative.

    What makes one story more interesting than another? Two things: impact and staying power.

    Will we still be talking about this story a month from now, or is it something that we'll lose interest in in a matter of weeks? Additionally, does the story have a wide-ranging impact, one that affects a divisional race or an entire league's playoff picture? Does it involve a figure who is iconic enough that fans of other teams will have a genuine interest in him?

    The 20 storylines that follow meet at least one of those criteria—and are the biggest in the game as MLB heads into the second half of its regular season.

     

    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and are current through games of June 29. All injury information courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

     

Can Jose Abreu Make History?

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    Despite missing 14 games due to a left ankle injury in mid-May, the Chicago White Sox's Jose Abreu finds himself on track to come close to rewriting the record books—both for Cuban-born players and rookies, regardless of their origin.

    Already one of baseball's most prolific run producers with 25 home runs and 63 RBI, Abreu is projected to finish the season with 49 home runs and 125 RBI.

    Those numbers would shatter the record for a Cuban-born player in his rookie season, both held by Jose Canseco, who put up 33 home runs and 117 RBI for the Oakland A's in 1986. Abreu's 49 home runs would put him in a tie with Canseco's former Oakland teammate, Mark McGwire, who fell one blast shy of 50 in 1987.

Will Mark Buehrle Finally Win 20 Games?

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    One of baseball's most consistent and criminally underrated players since becoming a full-time starter in 2001, Mark Buehrle has a chance to do something that has eluded him over the course of his 15-year career—crack the 20-win mark in a single season.

    Buehrle, who has put together 14 consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins, has come close once before, finishing with 19 wins in 2002 after losing a 3-2 decision to the Minnesota Twins in his final start of the season.

    If we assume that Buehrle stays healthy and makes 32 starts on the season, he's got 16 games left—and he'd have to win 10 of those. That's a lofty goal, but it's one that's certainly feasible, especially with one of baseball's most potent lineups supporting him.

    But history says that Buehrle isn't quite as sharp over the season's second half as he is in the first:

    SplitW-LERAWHIPBB/9K/9
    First Half111-763.611.252.15.3
    Second Half85-704.041.322.05.1

    While there aren't major disparities in his splits, the differences are enough that it could be the difference between a win and a no-decision, with Buehrle sitting one victory short yet again.

How Far Up the All-Time Leaderboards Can Derek Jeter Climb?

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    Derek Jeter has never been about individual milestones, always putting the team ahead of himself. But as the end to the shortstop's legendary career draws near, some of the focus will be on just how high the New York Yankees captain can push his career numbers.

    The only player in baseball history to accumulate more than 3,390 hits, 530 doubles, 350 stolen bases and 250 home runs, Jeter sits within striking distance of some of the game's all-time greats in a handful of statistical categories.

    First up, doubles:

    All-Time RankPlayer(s)Career DoublesJeter Trails By
    30.Rogers Hornsby/Albert Pujols5418
    32.Joe Medwick/Dave Winfield5407
    34.Al Simmons5396
    35.Lou Gehrig5341
    36.Derek Jeter533

    Jeter sits with eight doubles on the season, which, if he's able to duplicate that over the second half, would put him in a tie with Rogers Hornsby, one of the premier second basemen of all time. That said, he'd likely finish his career tied with Hornsby at No. 31 on the all-time list, as it would be dumbfounding if Albert Pujols didn't leg out another double this season to break his tie with Hornsby.

    It's going to take a minor miracle for Jeter to crack the top five when it comes to the career hits list, but he's well within reach of climbing the list to No. 6:

    All-Time RankPlayer(s)Career HitsJeter Trails By
    5.Tris Speaker3.514121
    6.Cap Anson3,43542
    7.Honus Wagner3.42027
    8.Carl Yastrzemski3,41926
    9.Derek Jeter3,393

    Regardless of where Jeter ends up on these career lists, it's not going to have any impact on his Hall of Fame credentials, which should ensure him passage into Cooperstown's hallowed halls when he first appears on voters' ballots in 2019.

Is the Price Right Yet in Tampa?

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    Those still holding out hope that the Tampa Bay Rays will hold onto staff ace David Price are sure to be disappointed by the latest comments from general manager Andrew Friedman, who acknowledges that having to trade talented players like Price is simply a cost of doing business for the Rays.

    Per Tyler Kepner of the New York Times:

    I think, in a lot of ways, it’s our only chance for success. The trades that we’ve made, looking back, the only reason we got good players in return is because we traded really good players. And so it’s important for us to know what our weaknesses are and what our limitations are and operate within them.

    That said, the team is expected to wait until the July 31 trade deadline gets closer, according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, who notes that the club would prefer to trade Price out of the American League altogether but almost certainly won't deal him within the AL East.

Will the Cubs Trade Jeff Samardzija?

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    According to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, two of the teams that have frequently been mentioned as potential landing spots for 29-year-old Jeff Samardzija—the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays—aren't willing to give up what the Chicago Cubs want.

    Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik is loathe to include either of his two best pitching prospects—left-hander James Paxton and right-hander Taijuan Walker—in any deal, says Heyman, who makes a valid point that Seattle needs to add bats, not pitching, if it hopes to make a run at a playoff spot.

    Toronto needs pitching, and there's a deal to be made for Samardzija, according to a source who tells Heyman the Cubs would accept a package of Daniel Norris, Aaron Sanchez and Dalton Pompey from the Blue Jays.

    That's not a price Toronto is going to pay, and it's fair to wonder if anyone is going to meet Chicago's asking price.

    Will the Cubs hold out until the winter or next year around this time to try their luck once again? Or will they take the best offer they get this time around, even if it's not exactly what they were hoping to receive?

Can Masahiro Tanaka Take Home Two Major Awards?

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    It's been more than three decades (33 years, to be exact) since the Los Angeles Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela took the baseball world by storm and became the only player in history to win both his league's Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year Award in the same season.

    Can Masahiro Tanaka follow suit?

    His performance thus far makes a strong case for the Japanese import being able to pull it off:

    StatisticTanaka '14AL RankMLB Rank
    Wins1111
    ERA2.1013
    WHIP0.952T-3
    IP115.236
    K12755
    CG3T-1T-1
    QS1611

    Now granted, Tanaka's path to the American League Rookie of the Year Award is filled with far less competition—only Chicago's Jose Abreu can hang with Tanaka in that race—than he'll face for the Cy Young.

    Toronto's Mark Buehrle, Seattle's Felix Hernandez and the Texas Rangers' Yu Darvish look to be his most ardent challengers, while a handful of other arms (the Houston Astros' Dallas Keuchel, Los Angeles Angels' Garrett Richards and Oakland's Scott Kazmir) are sure to garner various levels of support as well.

    While it won't be easy, it's not impossible to think that Tanaka is the prohibitive favorite for both awards heading into the season's second half—or that he's putting together the greatest rookie season that we've ever seen from a pitcher.

Will the Drought Finally End in Kansas City?

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    When the Kansas City Royals found themselves atop the AL Central standings June 19, it marked the latest point in a season that the Royals sat alone in first place since Aug. 19, 2003, when they held a one-game lead over the White Sox.

    That pales in comparison to the team's current 28-year absence from the postseason, the longest in baseball by a wide margin (Toronto sits in second place at 20 years). To put that in its proper perspective, roughly half of the Royals' current 25-man roster had yet to be born when Kansas City beat St. Louis in the 1985 World Series.

    Despite the team's recent play (3-7 in its last 10 games), the Royals sit less than two games out in the wild-card race and less than five games behind the Detroit Tigers for the division lead.

Is Philadelphia Ready to Rebuild?

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    Sitting 10 games below .500 with almost no chance of making the postseason and with a dearth of quality prospects on the farm to restock the roster, the time has come for the Philadelphia Phillies to blow things up and start over.

    If that sounds familiar, it's because it's a refrain that's been repeated for more than a year, and it becomes more accurate with every utterance.

    But I'm not talking about "rebuilding on the fly," where the team flips, say, Marlon Byrd for a pair of mid-level prospects that never pan out as more than organizational depth.

    I'm talking about a legitimate rebuild, one that starts with general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. letting his counterparts around the league know that he's willing to listen to offers on anyone and everyone—including the ace of his pitching staff, 30-year-old left-hander Cole Hamels (pictured).

    While many of Philadelphia's best players have no-trade clauses and significant money left on their contracts, there is a market for nearly everyone on the roster, with perhaps Ryan Howard, due a minimum of $60 million over the next three years ($73 million if a team exercised its $23 million team option for 2017) serving as the one immovable object.

Will Tommy John Claim Another Victim?

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    The Baltimore Orioles' Matt Wieters became the 24th player on an MLB roster to undergo Tommy John surgery since the beginning of the year, a ridiculous number that has only increased since The Hardball Times' Jon Roegele tweeted this out in mid-April: "Of the 677 pitchers who appeared in a regular season MLB game in 2013, at least 135 of them (20%) have now had Tommy John surgery."

    That's insane.

    The procedure has been performed so many times—and with so many players able to still have fantastic post-surgery careers—that we've almost become numb to the news, looking at it as if it were arthroscopic knee surgery rather than major elbow reconstruction.

    We've become numb to it—and we'd probably be more surprised if another player didn't require the procedure before season's end than we would be to learn that somebody did.

     

    *Tommy John surgery figures courtesy of The Hardball Times' Jon Roegele.

Can Miguel Cabrera Reach 400 Home Runs?

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    By his own standards, Miguel Cabrera is having a semi-disappointing season, especially from a power perspective, as his 13 home runs aren't even the most in Detroit, much less the major leagues.

    Cabrera, who has averaged 38 home runs a season since joining the Tigers in 2008, is on track to send only 27 balls over the outfield fences. That would be the lowest full-season total of his career since 2008, when he hit 26 for the Florida Marlins.

    With 378 career home runs, Cabrera sits 22 shy of becoming the first Venezuelan-born player to gain entry into the 400-home run club and surpass Andres Galarraga, who finished his career with 399 home runs, as the most prolific Venezuelan-born slugger of all time.

Will a Manager Be Fired?

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    You never like to see anyone lose his job, but baseball is a results-driven business, and there are a handful of managers whose teams simply haven't delivered, leaving them to sit on seats of varying warmth.

    A trio of National League managers—the Arizona Diamondbacks' Kirk Gibson, New York Mets' Terry Collins (pictured) and San Diego Padres' Bud Black—seem to be sitting on the hottest seats.

    Gibson's job has seemingly been in jeopardy since Tony LaRussa joined the Diamondbacks as their chief baseball officer, a position that sits higher on the corporate flow chart than that of GM Kevin Towers, one of Gibson's most ardent supporters.

    Collins has the Mets on track for the team's sixth consecutive losing season, four of which have come under his watch. While he's been without his ace (Matt Harvey) and closer (Bobby Parnell), New York has struggled to produce offensively with Collins at the helm.

    Black's situation is perhaps the most tenuous given the recent firing of general manager Josh Byrnes by Padres ownership. While he's well-respected around baseball, San Diego has been a major disappointment this season, and the club could look to completely start over on the management side of things.

Will There Be Any News on the Search for Bud Selig's Successor?

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    Back in May, when MLB announced that St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. would chair the committee tasked with finding a replacement for the retiring Bud Selig as commissioner of baseball, DeWitt spoke briefly on what kind of person the committee was looking for and how important he felt keeping the search quiet was, via Jerry Crasnick of ESPN:

    We're obviously looking for a strong CEO and a visionary leader who has a passion for the game and will look to maintain the integrity of the game. We're looking for someone who will build on the tremendous accomplishments and legacy of Bud Selig.

    The process goes much more smoothly if there isn't all kinds of speculation of names and lists and who's being considered. We don't expect that and hope there won't be any of that.

    DeWitt has largely gotten his way, with committee members remaining tight-lipped about any progress that has been made and a minimum of speculation in the media, though Rob Manfred, MLB's chief operating officer and Selig's right-hand man, remains the prohibitive favorite to take over.

Will Boston Be Able to Extend Jon Lester?

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    Despite being presented with a low-ball, four-year, $70 million extension offer, per Yahoo! Sports Jeff Passan, Jon Lester wants to remain with the Boston Red Sox, as he recently told WEEI's Rob Bradford.

    The Red Sox are ready to reopen negotiations, according to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, but things may not be quite as simple as getting the two sides talking.

    Rosenthal notes that Lester does not want to become a distraction and that it's unlikely the two sides could bridge the sizable gap between Boston's initial offer and what Lester likely believes to be a fair deal between now and the end of the season.

    The closer Lester gets to free agency, the more likely it becomes that he's going to at least test the open market to see what other teams believe he's worth, if for no other reason than to gain more leverage in negotiations with the Red Sox.

    That's a risky proposition for the Red Sox, who may find that other teams value Lester far more than they do.

Can San Francisco Outlast Los Angeles?

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    Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    For the first time since April 24, the Dodgers own a share of first place in the NL West, sitting tied with the San Francisco Giants for superiority in what could be the game's most competitive and exciting two-team race.

    While the Giants have had the Dodgers' number so far, winning seven of the 10 games in which the two teams have played one another, the longtime rivals are pretty evenly matched, each boasting a terrific starting rotation, a powerful lineup and a talented-but-at-times-underwhelming bullpen.

    Should the race come down to which team makes the more significant trade deadline addition, the Dodgers would have the distinct advantage given the team's loaded farm system and ownership's deep pockets.

Will San Diego Be the Trade Deadline's Busiest Team?

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    San Diego is willing to listen to offers on everybody except starting pitcher Andrew Cashner, according to Jeff Sanders of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

    While the Padres have been one of baseball's worst teams, there's no shortage of talent that is sure to intrigue contenders and pretenders alike.

    Between established veterans like closer Huston Street (pictured, right), starter Ian Kennedy and third baseman Chase Headley to youngsters who have yet to play up to their potential, such as catcher Yasmani Grandal (pictured, left) and infielder Jedd Gyorko, the Padres have something to offer everyone.

Can Justin Verlander Get Back on Track?

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    After nearly three months of disappointing, inconsistent performances, it's hard to look at Justin Verlander's past two starts against the Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros and declare, "He's back!"

    But since changing his mechanics, Verlander has thrown the ball pretty well, allowing five earned runs in 13 innings of work (3.49 ERA) and scattering 11 hits while walking two and striking out 16. 

    As Verlander explained to MLB.com's Jason Beck, the changes he made—which included bringing his arm higher in an attempt to improve his command—weren't small tweaks:

    I think this is probably the first drastic adjustment that I've made in the last two years. Last year, I'd call it tinkering. This is a bit more than tinkering. 

    I wouldn't say a complete overhaul. I still throw the same, but this is more than tinkering. This is a change, for sure.

    If Verlander can continue along his current path, the Tigers will find the path to their fourth consecutive AL Central crown far smoother than it has been thus far.

Will a Team Lose 100 Games?

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    For the first time since 2007, it looks as if baseball may finish the season without having a team reach triple digits in the loss column.

    According to FanGraphs, not only is no team in baseball on track to lose 100 games, but only two—the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros—are projected to crack the 90-loss plateau, with the Astros edging out the Cubs by one loss (71-91) for the worst record in baseball.

    That's both a testament to how evenly matched much of baseball is (hooray for parity!) and how difficult it has become for a team to truly separate itself from the rest of the field. 

Can Anyone Catch Milwaukee in the NL Central?

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    After watching three members of the National League Central—the Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals—make playoff appearances a season ago, many pegged the division as baseball's toughest heading into the season, with all three squads having a solid shot of making a return appearance to the postseason.

    But things haven't gone as anyone expected. If the season had come to an end this past Sunday, only the Milwaukee Brewers—not the Cardinals, Pirates or Reds—would be playing for a chance to appear in the Fall Classic.

    Thanks to a potent offense and solid pitching staff, the Brewers sit with a nearly seven-game lead over the Cardinals and Reds and an eight-game lead over the Pirates, the biggest cushion of any division leader in the game.

    If the Brewers have a weakness, it's a lack of organizational depth. Should a regular be lost to injury for any significant length of time, Milwaukee doesn't have the internal options to replace him—or the prospects needed to go out and obtain a quality replacement.

    The good news for the Cardinals and Reds is that, while Milwaukee has gone 15-11 against the division's trio of playoff teams a season ago, 13 of those games—and 10 of those wins—came against the Pirates.

    That at least provides some hope that the two clubs can close the gap between them and first place when they take Milwaukee on head-to-head.

Will Bryce Harper Carry Washington to a Second Division Title?

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    Limited to only 22 games this season thanks to a torn ligament in his left thumb, Bryce Harper is set to return to action for the Washington Nationals, according to The Washington Post's Adam Kilgore and James Wagner.

    His return couldn't come at a better time for a Nationals club that has only been keeping pace with the Atlanta Braves in the National League East despite Atlanta's inability to consistently put runs on the board.

    Few players have Harper's natural ability and raw power, and there's no question that he's capable of putting the Nationals on his back and carrying the team to its second division crown in the past three years.

    But he also plays with a reckless abandon that has led to the youngster missing more than 100 games since making his major league debut in 2012 with a variety of injuries, some of which could have possibly been avoided if he exercised smarter decision-making.

    That includes his latest stint on the disabled list.

    While Harper has looked impressive in his minor league rehab, hitting .643 (9-for-14) with five extra-base hits (four home runs), 11 RBI and a 2.308 OPS over five games, there's a stark difference between facing minor league pitching and the arms he'll be dealing with at the major league level.

    The Nationals need a productive Harper in the middle of their lineup over the second half of the season if they have any chance of not only passing Atlanta in the standings, but putting significant distance between themselves and their strongest competition in the division.

Can the Yankees Obtain the Pitching They Need?

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    One of the worst-kept secrets in baseball is the disarray in which the New York Yankees find their starting rotation.

    Without three of their Opening Day starters (Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia), the Yankees have relied on the likes of Vidal Nuno and Chase Whitley to toe the rubber in games that they can't afford to lose—and they've gotten mixed results.

    Unable to count on Pineda and with serious questions about Sabathia's ability to remain the workhorse of the group, the Yankees are expected to aggressively pursue some of the starters that hit the trade market in advance of the deadline.

    But do they have what it takes to land the arms that they need?

    No matter how much the Yankees may want to land a front-of-the-rotation arm to pair with Masahiro Tanaka, they simply don't have the big-time pitching prospects it would take to pry Jeff Samardzija out of Chicago or David Price out of Tampa Bay.

    While there are a handful of intriguing mid-rotation arms available, adding the likes of a Jason Hammel may not be enough to get the team back into the playoffs after missing out a season ago.