MLB 2nd Half Outlook (American League)

All-Star Dustin Pedroia and the Red Sox currently rule the roost in the AL East (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

How exciting has this baseball season been so far to watch (and should be going into the second half of the season)? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first time in the 20 years of the six-division format in Major League Baseball that at least five of the six division leaders possessed a three-game lead or less at the All-Star Break. And yes, it HAS been 20 years since the six-division format first started in 1994. (Time sure flies, doesn’t it?)

With the close division races as the backdrop, we’re going to take a close look at a few of the storylines to pay attention to during the second half of the baseball season, which begins tonight.

AL East: Pride of the Yankees?

Somehow, someway (injuries, A-Rod, an average CC Sabathia, et al.) the New York Yankees are seven games over .500 despite using almost as many players last season (44) as they did all of 2012 (45). And being in the seventh month of the Gregorian calendar usually portends more solid play, as the Bronx Bombers have had a non-losing record in July each of the past 20 seasons (they’re currently 9-5 in the month in 2013).

But if there’s a chance that the attrition will catch up to them, July is the time for it to happen, with the Yankees playing on the road in Boston and Texas to start the second half. That’s followed by a short three-game homestand with Tampa Bay – winners of nine of 10 before the break – then a west coast swing to face the Yasiel Puigs (a.k.a. Dodgers) and the Padres. The on-field return of Derek Jeter, and his immediate return back to the DL with a quad strain, complicates things even more for a team that needs its “in theory” ace (Sabathia) to turn it up in the second half and its “in practice” ace, Hiroki Kuroda, to continue his career year (2.65 ERA, 1.05 WHIP).

Five non-division leaders are at least seven games over .500 in the AL, and playing the two teams that currently occupy the two wild card spots in the next 10 days (Tampa, Texas) should determine whether the Pinstripes stay in touch with the leaders (AL East or Wild Card) for the final two months.

AL Central: Can anyone pull the Tiger by the tail?

Their ace has not been his usual dominant self, the bullpen is as much of a heebie-jeebies causer as it was to end 2012, yet the Detroit Tigers begin the second half of the season with a game-and-a-half lead over its closest competition, the Cleveland Indians, in the AL Central.

Justin Verlander, despite still averaging more than a strikeout per inning, has been hit hard this season and far from vintage Cy Young Verlander. Add that to the fact that the Tigers’ bullpen ERA (4.15) is only ahead of Seattle’s and Houston’s in the American League, and that could have been (and might still be) a recipe for collapse. Thank goodness for the Tigers that the offense of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, and the dominance of Max Scherzer on the mound means that they’ll be near or at the top by October.

Scherzer started 13-0, the first time since 1986 a pitcher started a season with 13 consecutive winning decisions (AP Photo/ Elsa Pool)

Even more than Cabrera, Fielder and Scherzer, the tepidity of the chase mounted by the teams behind the Tigers is the main reason Detroit hasn’t had too much to worry about. Cleveland is Detroit’s closest challenger, and closed out the first half in fine fashion to stay within striking distance of the AL Central lead and the Wild Card spots. Although would you trust a team to be in a pennant race for the long haul if you knew that that team started 26-17, only to win four of its next 20, then finish the first half 21-11? A similar dismal stretch in the second half like the Indians went through that started in late May, and the city Cleveland will turn its attention to the Browns by August and September…oh, the humanity.

Neither of the rest of the Central teams are consistent enough to mount a serious charge to Detroit’s crown, although we’re rooting for Kansas City (eight games behind the Tigers) to stay within touch, only because we need to see more shots of Billy Butler’s rally BBQ sauce in the Royals’ dugout.

AL West: The Rangers are going to mess things up royally by…?

For as good…really good…as the Texas Rangers have been under Ron Washington (81 games over .500 in his six-plus seasons as manager), the past few seasons has left fans, including in Arlington, wondering when the shoe is going to drop. From blowing a five-game lead with nine left to play last season (and losing the one-game Wild Card playoff at home to Baltimore) to coming one strike away in multiple occasions of winning the World Series in 2011 against St. Louis, Texas has recently picked up a penchant for being on the wrong side of Kodak moments.

The season hasn’t started as well as others in the past couple of seasons, but the Rangers hold one of the two Wild Card spots going into the second half, and their offense is still as lethal as it has been in the recent past. Yu Darvish and Derek Holland have been stellar, but that No. 3 pitcher has been a question mark all season. If the rumors are true and Matt Garza, who is having a fine season with the Cubs, is on his way to Texas in a trade, it would be major upgrade to the rotation, without necessarily making that many waves in the news. But can it stop another tragic fall in the postseason?

Oh, yeah, and then there’s the matter of the first-place Oakland Athletics.; non-descript, kooky, hirsute…and good! They’ll be in it for the long haul given their stellar rotation and even more stellar 30-15 home record. Continuing to win two out of three home games should see them in the postseason, and with the Rangers the only real threat in the division (sorry Los Angeles Angels), losing the division lead could still have them end up being in one of the Wild Card spots.

**Click here for the National League 2nd half outlook

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