David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
In a year, not much changed with the All-Star Game. Mike Trout was named MVP again, the American League won again -- securing home-field advantage for the World Series, of course -- and everyone talked about how much they watched, or didn't watch, an event that now, after 86 of them, tends to struggle with its relevancy.
As for the games that truly count, for most of Major League Baseball anyway in the second half, those resume Friday. And as it stands now, 19 teams either currently possess a playoff spot or are within 51/2 games of one.
If the postseason began Friday, in the AL, the Yankees would play the Angels in the first round, with the Royals waiting for the wild-card winner between the Twins and Astros. In the NL, the Nationals would face the Dodgers, with the Cardinals in line for the winner of the Pirates- Cubs wild-card game.PhotosFive key questions facing the Mets
That's a few new story lines for October, but here's some to consider before we get there in the second half.
1. Sell-off in San Diego? Huntington native A.J. Preller got an A-plus for effort this winter in attempting a quick rebuild of the Padres. But all they've accomplished so far is to get manager Bud Black fired and limp to a 41-49 record, which has them 10 games out in the NL East (71/2 in the wild card). That should put Justin Upton, the key piece of Preller's makeover, on the trading block as the general manager figures out how to fix his $108-million mess. Preller's costly, aggressive moves were risky, and for now, the gamble has backfired.
2. The AL Beast. What was initially decried as one of the weakest seasons ever for the usually formidable American League East has instead turned out to be the opposite. Not only are the five teams within 61/2 games of the division lead, the first-place Yankees are eight games over .500 -- despite dire predictions -- and the Rays, dumped by both manager Joe Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman, are in second. There's still a good chance the Orioles show the strongest kick in September, prodded by manager Buck Showalter. If the Blue Jays can find an elite starter and bullpen help by the deadline, that will keep this race bunched up to the wire.
3. Bye to the Billy Goat? The Red Sox kicked the Curse of the Bambino with a self-proclaimed bunch of Idiots in 2004. Now the Cubs are trying to beat their own 70-year hex, maybe a season ahead of schedule, with a young roster that should keep being fortified with their own prospects. Catcher/designated hitter Kyle Schwarber has hit 16 homers in 75 minor-league games and is expected to be called up to join the Cubs in Atlanta Friday. But look for infielder Javier Baez to be moved in a deal for a top starting pitcher, the one piece that could get the Cubs in position to make history and return to the World Series.
4. Beane there, done that. The A's made some shocking moves during the offseason, including the trade of third baseman Josh Donaldson to Toronto, but all that's left now is dismantling a 41-50 team that isn't climbing back into contention. And it should be a busy two weeks before the trade deadline for GM Billy Beane, with Mr. Versatile Ben Zobrist, closer Tyler Clippard (17 saves) and starter Scott Kazmir (2.49 ERA) all very much in demand. Throw in the possibility of moving disgruntled outfielder Josh Reddick (11 HRs, .799 OPS) and the A's could leave their stamp on October despite not getting there.
5. (Under) Dog Days of Summer. The two most unlikely contenders reside in Houston and Minnesota, which then begs the question: Can they hang on for the next 10 weeks? The Astros spent 81 days in first place, but lost six straight and eight of 11 to fall behind the Angels at the All-Star break. During the losing streak, Houston hit .165 (31-for-188), which could prompt them to deal for a bat by the deadline, as the pitching staff ranks fourth in the AL (3.58 ERA). The Twins were just the opposite, winning three straight and seven of 10 to move into the second wild-card spot. With the fifth-ranked rotation (3.86 ERA) and a 31-16 record at home, the Twins could have the formula to stick around for a while.