With the All-Star break officially over, Tom Maloney has a look at the key story lines that will dominate the news cycle in Major League Baseball.
Pursuing their first winning season since 1992 and playing in spectacular PNC Park, the small-market Pirates signed free-agent catcher Russell Martin of Montreal, in part for his experience in stretch runs with the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees. Pittsburgh collapsed the past two seasons after promising starts. Poised once more at the break for a playoff run, the Pirates are in a three-team race with the first-place St. Louis Cardinals and third-place Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central. The Pirates have 14 games remaining with the Cardinals, five of them in four days at PNC this month. The Pirates could use another bat, and a reliever to boost a weary bullpen.
Cabrera and Davis
Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers' slugger, leads the American League in RBIs and batting average, and trails Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis by seven home runs in the chase for a second consecutive Triple Crown. Last season, Cabrera became the first since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to win the crown. Davis, with 37 homers at the break, powering a team that leads the AL in homers, has seemingly come out of nowhere, prompting one young fan to ask him directly on Twitter whether he's using steroids. "No," came the reply. Davis considers the Roger Maris record of 61 homers a true target.
With starting pitchers Jake Peavy and Chris Sale plus outfielder Alex Rios said to be available, the Chicago White Sox could most influence the pennant races in an otherwise lean trade market as they unload salary and rebuild the farm system.
Boston Red Sox
Tumbling to a 69-93 record a year ago, Boston dumped prominent players and hired John Farrell away from the Toronto Blue Jays as manager after the season. The starting pitching came around, the clubhouse culture changed, and Boston leads the AL East at the all-star break. They've been without starting pitcher Clay Buchholz (neck strain) since June 9; he'd started 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA and is expected to return soon. The Cleveland Indians, with former Boston manager Terry Francona at the helm, represent the other major turnaround story this season. They're tracking the Tigers in the AL Central, and Detroit is vulnerable in late innings with a weak bullpen.
War on drugs
With the steroid era in the rear-view mirror, batting averages and runs scored per game are at their lowest rates since 1989, while on-base plus slugging percentage has plummeted to a 21-year low, Sports Illustrated reports. Fewer runs equate to closer games, yet attendance is down at 20 of 30 major-league parks since the same juncture last season. Undeterred, commissioner Bud Selig is going after Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez and other players tied to the Biogenesis clinic in Florida, hinting at long suspensions, while the players' union warns of appeals. Many players endorse measures to eradicate performance-enhancing drugs. Still, we may be seeing the beginnings of a cold war between a commissioner bent on sealing his legacy and a union that will not tolerate autocracy. Adding a sad dose of complexity to the ordeal, union head Michael Weiner is battling brain cancer.
The Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants and Chicago White Sox, with six of the nine highest payrolls in the majors, were out of playoff position at the break. After remaking the roster in the off-season, it'll be fascinating to see whether Blue Jays GM Anthopoulos stays the course with this club, especially if the Jays sputter during the 10-game homestand that started Friday. The non-waiver trade deadline arrives on July 31, and he has moveable commodities. He could do nothing in hopes the team will jell (if not this season, then next), make minor moves such as dealing a reliever, or make a brave, bold splash in search of culture change.
The all-star game provided a taste of a new generation of young, talented players, led by Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, joined in-season by Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig. Machado threatens to break a record for doubles in a season, held by Earl Webb since 1931, with 67.
On the other end of the generation gap, New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera received a lovely tribute from players and fans alike at the all-star game at Citi Field. Meanwhile, in the National League dugout at Citi Field on Tuesday, Davey Johnson attended his final all-star game as a manager, serving as one of Bruce Bochy's coaches. Johnson, 70, intends to retire after this season. His team, the Washington Nationals (48-47), was considered a preseason favourite, but trails the Atlanta Braves by six games in the NL East. With Bryce Harper off the disabled list and Johnson heading into the sunset of his career, expect the Nationals to make a run, and soon. Rivera's Yankees are in danger of a rare feat during his era, missing the playoffs. Sitting fourth in the AL East, they'll have shortstop Derek Jeter (ankle, quadriceps) and third baseman Alex Rodriguez back for the last two months.
Los Angeles teams
The new owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers paid $2.1-billion (U.S.) for the team and its stadium, and pumped payroll to a major-league high $220-million in part by extending Matt Kemp for $160-million and eight years, and Andre Ethier for $75-million and five years, and bringing in pitcher Zack Greinke for $147-million. Staff leader Clayton Kershaw, a free agent to be, could take a third consecutive ERA title and a second Cy Young award. After struggling out of the gate, the pitching-rich Dodgers promoted Yasiel Puig, obtained pitcher Ricky Nolasco from the Miami Marlins, and climbed to .500 just before the all-star break. Now everyone is repredicting the Dodgers as the NL West favourite, especially with the Arizona Diamondbacks hanging on to the division lead with inordinate success in one-run and extra-inning games. Meantime, the Los Angeles Angels are desperate for starting pitching while Albert Pujols hobbles and free agent signee Josh Hamilton struggles. Could the Angels be sellers rather than buyers at the trade deadline? Tom Maloney