The All-Star Game is settled, over and done and counting this time quite well, thank you very much. Baseball has a collective two days and change to sit back and catch its breath before the second half of the season begins Friday night. And with two and a half weeks until the trade deadline -- and front offices still working their phones, computers and budgets non-stop, trying to figure out the smartest moves to make for their teams even over the break -- the All-Star Break is less a lull in the action than it is the eye of a hurricane. Today we'll look at the chases and storylines in the National League as we go to the deadline and beyond.
By record, the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates remain the two best teams in the NL, with the Cardinals having temporarily broken their tie atop the NL Central standings and holding onto a slim, one-game lead as the second half begins. With the emergence of second baseman Matt Carpenter and the return of Jake Westbrook to the starting rotation in mid-June, the Cardinals' only real weaknesses on paper are the bullpen and shortstop.
Shortstop will be the harder of the two positions to fill; pie-in-the-sky options like Jurickson Profar of the Texas Rangers might as well be off the table at this point, and most of the mid-range, solid, sensible, veteran options like Cleveland's Asdrubal Cabrera are playing for teams that are still in the race. In a different year, the Baltimore Orioles might have been willing to part with J.J. Hardy in a trade, but not now that he's started an All-Star Game and the team is contending. There just aren't a lot of good options available from bad teams; the best idea for the Cardinals might be to try to get Brendan Ryan back from the Seattle Mariners on the cheap. He's been just as bad as Peter Kozma at the plate, but he's still a wizard at short and might benefit from moving out of Safeco Field.
The Cardinals have a number of internal options in the bullpen, including Chris Carpenter, who had been presumed all but retired following thoracic outlet surgery last year. Carpenter had an impressive rehab start for Double A Springfield on Monday, going two 2 ⅔ innings and striking out five hitters, while allegedly touching 94-95 miles per hour on the radar gun. The Springfield gun is notorious for being juiced -- about two to three miles per hour some nights -- but for Carpenter, even sustaining 91-92 through three innings is a welcome sign, considering he wasn't supposed to throw a baseball professionally ever again.
And while I'm leery about doing this in the middle of the season, when pitching prospects Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha run up against their innings limits at the end of the year, the Cardinals could bring one or both of them up to bolster the bullpen as rosters expand -- if they haven't already sent them out of town in a trade for a frontline starter, the market for which seems to be focused solely on Matt Garza. (Jake Peavy could join him, though, if he quickly establishes he's healthy after the break.)
The Pirates need to do nothing more than sustain the awe-inspiring year of their pitching staff to make the postseason, but if you think that they've been more lucky than good so far in 2013, they could be in for an awful lot of correction in the second half. With the exception of Wandy Rodriguez, whose best years happened in Houston, every single pitcher on the Pittsburgh staff is having the best season of his career. A.J. Burnett has shaved two runs off his ERA since he pitched for New York. Francisco Liriano has an ERA of 2.00. Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole both have looked like legitimate MLB starters in limited action, and Jeff Locke's numbers would make him the ace of half the rotations in baseball. The worst ERA of the six starters the Pirates are juggling right now? Cole's 3.89. If the Pirates' pitching falls back to earth, then they will, too, but the good news is that it should be almost impossible for them to fall out of the wild-card race, let alone even flirt with falling below five hundred.
The Braves have no excuse not to win the NL East, even with their outfield as disappointing as it is right now due to injury and slumping. They play only 19 games against teams currently over .500 for the rest of the season: seven against St. Louis, nine against Washington, and three against Cleveland. That doesn't include the 13 games the Braves have left against the Philadelphia Phillies, right at .500, but that team is playing over its head as it is, and they should fall out of contention regardless of whether Ruben Amaro, Jr., tries to acquire more talent at the deadline.
Otherwise, the Braves are playing the White Sox, Mets, Cubs, Brewers, Padres, Rockies and most of all the lowly Marlins the rest of the way; 10 games make the Marlins their second most-faced opponent in the second half, after the Phillies, and Miami probably will put up even less of a fight. Atlanta is positioned so well that as long as they show up to the games, they should take home the division crown.
It's worth mentioning, though, that by virtue of how the schedules are put together, while Washington will face Detroit, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Arizona after the break, the Nats too have enough Marlins (and Mets) on their schedule to make climbing back into contention a real possibility, if they start hitting like they should.
The West remains the biggest mystery. Yasiel Puig finally seems to have cooled off, but the Dodgers still have lost only five of their last 20 games. With the offense and pitching staff clicking together for the first time all year, Los Angeles is looking like the team their new ownership group had in mind when they essentially told their front office that they were no longer operating on a budget.
Los Angeles' system is a bit thin right now -- being voracious buyers for the last year or so will do that to a team -- and it might be getting a bit thinner, as top prospect Joc Pederson is nearly an MLB-ready outfielder, and that's a position that's just too crowded at the major league level right now for the Dodgers. If they ship him off to add another frontline starter like Garza, assuming no one else gets hurt, the Dodgers would just need to add a bullpen piece or two to be ready for a nice stretch run. They also need to hope that Juan Uribe continues his competent hitting at third base, instead of turning right back into Juan Uribe, just when they need him the most -- but that's what makes baseball fun for the rest of us. And while the Padres and Giants are probably out of it, the Rockies are still well within striking distance for a wild-card spot, if not the division itself.
That's assuming, of course, that nothing truly crazy happens; that, say, none of the above teams trade their entire rosters before the season ends. And speaking of Boston, we'll be talking about the American League's second half tomorrow.