After a wild All-Star Game, business is about to go back to usual for 28 MLB teams (the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals restarted their season a day early on Thursday).
With the Midsummer Classic’s festivities out of the way, the focus is now on the business end of the season. The pennant race, for all intents and purposes, starts right now.
There’s a lot of baseball left to be played, and many variables left to sort out. Trades, injuries, and the general twists of fate of baseball will all exert their power before the playoff field is finally confirmed.
Today, however, we will look through the fog of the future and try to make out a few solid shapes. What will the stories of the second half be? Here are our best guesses.
1 The NL East will be the most entertaining race
With only half a game separating the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves, the NL East is one of the league's closest races coming out of the break—and looks to be its most entertaining.
The Phillies are in first place at this stage for the first time since the last time they made the playoffs in 2011. They were considered a dark horse NL Wild Card candidate this year, but no one was expecting them to be 11 games over .500 and leading the division in late July.
They've ridden a strong starting rotation to this point. Aaron Nola (pictured) has emerged as a true ace. Jake Arrieta has had a season that has been largely successful if not yet the dominant figure that propelled the Chicago Cubs to a title. His impact has gone beyond his own performances: the improvement of young starters Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and Zach Eflin can likely be tied in some part to his influence.
But the Phillies aren't the dazzling force that the 2007-11 teams that won five straight division titles were. They've ground out their position, and they will need improvement from the likes of Carlos Santana, Nick Williams, and Scott Kingery if they are to stick at the top of the division for the long haul, and perhaps a reliable bullpen arm.
The Braves' success has been even more unexpected. After a perceived step back last season, most believed their rebuild was at least another year off. But two dazzling youngsters—second-year second baseman Ozzie Albies and rookie left fielder Ronald Acuña Jr., have triggered a renaissance, and they're now in a prime position to claim their first division title since the Bobby Cox-era Braves ended their epic run of titles in 2005.
Like the Phillies, they haven't been perfect, and a dip in form in June has led to their rivals storming past them, but they're still more than capable of reeling them in—especially if they trade for a reliable starter to augment the likes of Mike Foltynewicz.
The fun of this race is in its participants' youth and inexperience. Usually, if a young team is making a playoff charge, its foil is a more established team, and the race will hinge on what wins out: experience or exuberance.
But the Phillies and the Braves are both coming out of nowhere, and the Washington Nationals, winner of the last two NL East crowns, have shown no signs of righting themselves in time for a last push. This will be two teams completely new to pennant races slugging it out against each other—and we'll all get to watch.
Oh, and if the Nats do pull it together and make themselves a third wheel? How entertaining will that be?
2 The Yankees will miss the ALDS
The Boston Red Sox head into the second half with 4.5 game lead on the New York Yankees for the AL East lead, but don't expect them to pull too far ahead. The Yanks are an offensive juggernaut and will be able to hang with their deadly rivals until season's end.
And that, in the end, may end up being their undoing.
In our scenario, the Yanks and Sawx stay close to each other all season. Close enough for them to battle over the division title—and the right to avoid the Wild Card game—until the season's final weekend.
In the midst of that race, neither team would have the luxury of forming up their rotation to point their ace at the Wild Card game. The Red Sox have the rotation depth to survive that. The Yankees, on the other hand, are fairly weak beyond Luis Severino. CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka are essentially 15-out starters at this point—and the back end of the Yankee bullpen isn't as good as it was last year to make up for it.
The Yankees' lack of depth in that rotation will see them lose the AL East at the death and head into the crapshoot of the Wild Card game, where one of their lesser starters will get jumped by a team—most likely the Seattle Mariners or Oakland A's—that has, by virtue of Houston's big division lead, been able to set up the likes of James Paxton or Sean Manaea to appear.
3 The San Diego Padres will be interesting
The San Diego Padres may have the worst record in the National League—and the fourth-worst in the majors—but they're a team to keep an eye on in the second half of the season.
The Padres have a stacked farm system that only just got better with the acquisition of catcher Francisco Mejia in the Brad Hand trade. Mejia and infielder Luis Urias are both candidates for late-season call-ups, and they could be the first arrivals in a line of exciting young players, headlined by Fernando Tatis, Jr, who is likely to arrive in the bigs next season.
With some good youngsters likely to come up to prove themselves and one of the best young managers in the game in Andy Green, the Padres can certainly make themselves a nuisance, especially in a division that could go down to the wire between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks. Winning the NL West could come down to who prevents the Padres from playing spoiler.
4 Shohei Ohtani won't pitch again in 2018
The excitement of Los Angeles Angels rookie Shohei Ohtani's debut has been dampened ever since he was diagnosed with a Grade 2 tear of his UCL last month.
The two-way sensation opted to rehab his elbow in the manner his fellow countryman, Masahiro Tanaka, did several years ago. He has returned from the DL to serve the Angels as a hitter, and on Thursday the Angels announced he had made enough progress to begin a throwing program.
It will still be weeks before he can think about pitching from a mound again—not to mention that he can't go out on a minor league rehab assignment now that he's back hitting—but the Angels have a lot invested in Ohtani, if not in money then certainly in terms of the team's future. They start the second half a game above .500 but with 14 games separating them from the AL West lead. In the Wild Card race, there are two teams to jump over and nine games to make up.
Quite simply, the Angels will need a serious run to make the playoffs—and unless they make it, they can't afford to allow Ohtani to risk putting himself in a position where he will be forced into Tommy John surgery—which would see him sit out until 2020 at the earliest.
Expect Ohtani to continue to play as a DH, but he won't take the mound again this year unless the Halos make an unlikely run.
5 The Indians win the World Series
It's been World Series or bust for the Cleveland Indians all season.
This is almost certainly the last go-round for the Indians in this form. Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Michael Brantley, and Lonnie Chisenhall are all free agents this winter, and the Indians won't be able to spend to keep them all. Carlos Santana, a mainstay of their last two postseason runs, has already left.
Cleveland will obviously focus its resources on keeping Francisco Lindor on the team to build around. Luckily, their farm system is deep enough that they won't need a full-blown rebuild, but they will need to retool after this season and probably won't be genuine contenders again until 2020.
Blessed with a historically weak division and incredible starting pitching, the Indians are a force to be reckoned with even in an AL playoff picture that boasts as many as four genuine super-teams. After two years of crushing playoff disappointments, Terry Francona's club is again in a position to make a deep run and end the game's longest championship drought.
With the likes of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer leading the way, the Indians will overcome all comers and finally, in the last chance in their current form, will win a World Series.
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