With the All-Star Break officially over for the MLB, fans of baseball can finally awaken from their slumber since last October.
Yes, I know that the season started in April, but essentially every game from April until July is the preface to the real season of baseball.
Teams begin to check their hands and count the positives and negatives from the previous months to decide whether to deal important puzzle pieces or go acquire them from others.
Teams like the Padres, Mariners and White Sox begin to lick their wounds from the failures of the off-season.
Organizations such as the Phillies, Brewers and Rockies have already began looking to either give away players that will not be beneficial in the coming season or have already began promoting how "promising" the future looks in the minors.
Clubs such as the Cubs and Orioles are debating whether to stick with what they have or to go all-in on a trade piece, and the Astros and Yankees are celebrating the surprising positives of their season thus far.
Like I said, the second half of the season is the real baseball season. Every game matters and these next two weeks could ultimately make or break a club's future for years to come.
Here are my top 5 things to watch in this second half:
1) What will happen to Cole Hammels and Johnny Cueto?
The Phillies have been adamant in demanding a king's ransom for Hammels, but I doubt they will get what they're reportedly asking for. If it were my guess, I bet Hammels ends up on a team like the Angels or Pirates. Both of these clubs are looking for that last piece to push them ahead of division opponents like the Astros and Cardinals.
Johnny Cueto is an interesting piece as well for a sinking Reds team. At one point it was thought that they might turn the corner and get hot, but this club has proved to be below average with the inability to come back and win games that it should. For Cueto, he isn't receiving any help with run support but his stock is hurting the longer the Reds hold him.
2) Who will win the AL East?
Arguably the MLB's closest division, the first place Yankees are only 8.5 games ahead of the last place Red Sox. That isn't really the most impressive statistic from this division, the Orioles are four games back of the Yankees for first place. The Blue Jays and Rays are tied at 4.5 games back of first place. All five of these teams could get hot at any point and take this division without anyone noticing.
Personally, I didn't realize that the Yankees were in first until writing this. My bet would be on the Orioles to take this division when it is all said and done. Provided that the bats get hot at the right time for the O's, I don't think that the Yankees have that sound of pitching.
3) How 'bout them Astros and Twins?
The Astros and Twins are the MLB's biggest surprise this season. Both clubs were pegged to finish either last in their division or pretty close to it.
The Astros rebuild seems to be about a year ahead of schedule. Most experts predicted the Angels and A's to be most contested by the rebuilt Mariners. But as it turns out, it looks to be the Angels and Astros divsion to lose at this point with 6.5 games seperating the third-place Rangers and Astros.
The Twins were supposed to be buried beneath the Royals, Tigers, Indians and even rebuilt White Sox but at this point, the only teams that look to be alive in this division are the Royals and Twins. I wouldn't count out the Tigers quite yet, but the Royals are on fire as of late and like we saw last year, it's hard to beat the team with the momentum.
Expect both the Astros and Twins to be active at the trade deadline.
4) How serious are the Cubs?
Call me biased with this one, but my most interesting thing to look at for the second half is within Chicago.
The Cubs, like the Astros, are seeing serious pay-off in their rebuild. Things look to be moving a little quicker than most thought but their offense is starting to finally show growing pains in the last two months.
What is hurting the young Cubs the most, is that they are stuck behind two of the top three teams in baseball in their own division. The Cardinals and Pirates are dominating this division.
While the Cubs are currently holding on to a Wild Card spot, I wouldn't expect them to make a huge deal at the trade deadline. I expect the management to let things play out and see how this young club responds. It could save a lot of key pieces for the future, and also help improve the pieces they already have.
5) Can the Nationals deliver on their promise?
At the beginning of the season of the last two seasons, the Nationals have been the favorites across the country to win the world series. They have all the pieces. From starting pitching to bench depth, this team is stacked. Regardless of what they have, the Nationals find themselves a mere two games ahead of the pesky Mets. D.C is eight games above .500 but for some reason this still feels like an underwhelming result. Will the Nationals turn the corner and make it to the big dance?
MY FINAL PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS:
AL Division Winners: Orioles, Royals, Angels
AL Wild Card: Yankees, Astros
NL Division Winners: Nationals, Cardinals, Giants
NL Wild Card: Pirates, Dodgers
Let's be even more bold, World Series Prediction: Nationals vs Angels
As always, feel free to comment thoughts and questions!