1. The AL West Showdown - How many articles will be written this year with the title "How the West was won". And really, you gotta wonder, how will it be won? Where we sit now, the Texas Rangers hold a four game lead over the Wild Card leading Los Angeles Angels. But can they hold it? No one will question Texas' offensive ability, but it is fair to wonder if they have the durability. Will Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz stay healthy and productive enough to drive this offense forward? Can Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando get healthy enough to stabilize the rotation? Will they even return to the rotation? Even when healthy, can Texas' rotation withstand the onslaught of offense that comes in the summer months in Arlington? On the flip side, do the Angels have what it takes to catch and surpass Texas in the standings? Mike Trout, Mark Trumbo and Albert Pujols are the driving force of this offense, but are they enough? Is this just a first half slump or an injury related struggle from Ervin Santana and Dan Haren or are they really "done" as front of the rotation starters? Will the Angels middle relievers (Latroy Hawkins, Jason Isringhausen, Jordan Walden) hold enough leads? Pay close attention to this one folks. The Angels and Rangers play each other 13 more times this season. More than likely, the winner will be considered the favorite to represent the AL in the World Series while the loser, will get their shot as the AL Wild Card.
2. The Trade Deadline Buzz - The fact is, the rich are going to get richer this month, and the poorer are going to get richer as well. With the exception of October, July has to be the best baseball month of the year. The all-star game, the division races, the trade deadline, it's just a real exciting time. Headlining this year's deadline will be Cole Hamels and Zack Grienke. As always, pitching will be at a premium and pitching desperate teams like (insert your favorite playoff contender here) will be on the lookout for that one extra piece that sends them deep into the playoffs. Meanwhile prospects change teams as quickly as adolescents change their alliances in (insert your favorite teen drama here). The biggest players at the trade deadline this year appear to be the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Texas Rangers. The Dodgers because they finally have the financial backing of competent owners, will getting Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier back healthy and surprisingly find themselves in a dead-heat with the San Francisco Giants. The Rangers because they're the two time defending AL champs, and have made deadline deals the past two consecutive years to push them over the edge. The difference this year? Their need is greater, they legitimate competition and have prospects Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt.
3. The NL Central Showdown - What is it about those Pittsburgh Pirates? It seems no one in the Central can shake them. On paper, there's no reason they should be leading the NL Central, but upon closer examination, this appears legit. First and foremost, Andrew McCutchen cannot be stopped. He's single handedly carrying that offense. Their rotation is steady yet unspectacular and their bullpen is terrific. In a stronger division, this would be a strong case for third place, but the competing teams in the NL Central have issues of their own which may only be greater than that of Pittsburgh's. The Reds sit one game back, have a passable at best offense, a passable at best rotation and a bullpen that's just now becoming the dominant force it should be. Meanwhile the Cardinal sit two and a half back and are trying to get it done without Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan and Albert Pujols, which is proving to be difficult. Without Berkman (and the aforementioned Pujols) the offense is hit or miss, the rotation is "Meh" without Chris Carpenter or a fully functioning Adam Wainwright. The bullpen has nothing in the form of middle relief. This looks like a team in trouble to me. Overall, the winner of this race will be the team that overcomes it's deficiencies the best. There's no reason to believe it can't be the Pirates.
>4. The NL West Showdown - Oh How the West was won? Did I already say that? Of course I did. So did every other writer talking about the Western portion of anything since the late 19th century. Regardless, the Dodgers, Giants and to a certain extent, the D-Backs will be battling one another for superiority. The Dodgers have star power on their side. Kemp, Ethier, Kershaw and Jansen headline this team. But it's the lower tier players that have kept them afloat, like Harang, Capuano, Eovaldi, Abreu and Ellis. The Giants counter with the best pitching staff in baseball (even with Lincecum's struggles) and an unexpectedly semi-potent offense lead by new arrivals Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan. The D-Backs are four games behind everyone else, but don't look like the same team as last year. Still, their offense has Upton, Goldschmidt, Hill, Montero and Kubel and their pitching staff has guys like Kennedy, Cahill, Miley and Bauer. I have a hard time believing they won't jump in and make this race extremely interesting.
5. Trout vs Hamilton, McCutchen vs Votto - How do you pick between these guys? As it is with every year but this year especially, someone is going to get royally screwed out of an MVP award. Votto is currently hitting .348 and before all is said and done, may hit 60 doubles and 30 homeruns this season. In any other year, that'd be ground for a unanimous vote, but Andrew McCutchen will deny him of that. McCutchen is hitting an otherworldly .362 and has a legitimate shot at 30 doubles, 30 homeruns and 30 stolen bases to boot. In the AL, there's going to be just as much drama. Josh Hamilton is hitting .308 and may tally 50 homeruns and 150 RBI's by the end of the year. Absolutely gargantuan numbers. But there's a player out in Los Angeles that's threatening to rob him of an award. No, it's not Albert Pujols. I'll give you a hint, he already robbed J.J. Hardy of a homerun that may have cleared the wall by five feet. That's right, Mike Trout stands in his way. The 20 year old Trout began the season (ridiculously might I add) in AAA where he was hitting .400. He missed the entire first month of the season, yet leads the league with a .341 batting average and 26 stolen bases. If Trout had the opportunity to play 162 games, it's possible he'd eclipse .350/.400 with 40 doubles, 30 homeruns and 60 stolen bases! Add in a strong case for a gold glove and you have one of the most dynamic players in baseball history. And he's not old enough to drink. Alas, he will not play 162 games, but can still produce .350/.400 with 30 doubles 25 homeruns and 50 stolen bases. Still not bad. It's possible this kid can win a World Series ring, Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger award all in the same year.
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3. NL Central: Cards offense is the best in the NL...not really "hit or miss." The Reds pitching is not "passable at best." Reds post the best bullpen era and the 4th best team era. I am curious to see if the Pirates make a splash with a trade for a big bat. They have the system to pull it off. Good race.
I'm hoping Joe Mauer gets his 4th batting crown. It is possible, but it would be very, very hard. I live in Minnesota.