The 83rd annual All-Star Game is upon us, so let's take a glimpse at how the American League stacks up after the first half.
The typical suspects can be plucked out of a lineup and, as usual, there are some disappointments around the Junior Circuit as well. Some rookies are making their mark in the majors and some clubs can only assume the youth movement will rub off on slumping veterans.
You have New York, Texas, Chicago and Cleveland battling for supremacy in their respective divisions, while others such as Detroit, Boston, Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are counting on a big second half to catapult them back into relevance.
Can manager Joe Girardi keep the Yankees on track for World Series win No. 28? How can Manny Acta push the Tribe past the Pale Hose in the AL Central. Will Jim Leyland be able to right the ship for the heavily favored Tigers? Are Bobby Valentine's days with the Red Sox numbered?
Those are just a few questions to be cognizant of during the remainder of the 2012 campaign, but first here is a breakdown of each division:
COULD THIS BE THE YEAR BALTIMORE ENDS PLAYOFF DROUGHT?
The Baltimore Orioles have been a doormat in the AL East for more than a decade now, last posting a winning record back in 1997 (98-64). Well, Cal Ripken, Jr., Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar are gone, and fresh blood is all that's left.
In fact, for the first time since 2005, Baltimore has more than one All-Star representative. Outfielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters and closer Jim Johnson are three key pieces for manager Buck Showalter, who has skippered the club to second place in the division. The Orioles were once in the driver's seat of the division, but have stumbled recently and sit seven games behind the Yankees. At least the O's are only 2 1/2 games out of a wild card spot.
"We expected a lot from ourselves," Wieters said of the first half. "That was the thing going into spring training. Everybody on the outside can say and watch and believe what they see. But we knew going in we had a different team and a different mentality going in."
The Orioles will get a boost with a healthy return of outfielder Nick Markakis. Placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career on June 1 with a right hamate bone fracture, Markakis is batting .256 with eight home runs and 26 RBI this season. His return will only make Baltimore's chances of extending the season deep into October better. Starting pitching needs to improve since the O's can't rely on just Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen.
With or without Mr. October Reggie Jackson in their corner, the Yankees will do just fine in the quest for another AL East title. Leading the majors with 134 home runs at the break, the Yankees are sitting pretty with a 52-33 mark thanks to their heavy-hitting lineup of Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez to name a few.
"This team is designed to hit home runs. It's kind of our thing," Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher said. "Everyone talks about hits with runners in scoring position, but if you hit 200 home runs per year as a team, that's going to score you an awful lot of runs.
New York also has four starters with eight or more wins and Ivan Nova leads the charge with a 10-3 mark. So whatever Girardi is advising them, the Yankees should continue to listen.
However, Boston may want to have another voice besides Valentine calling the shots because his first season at the helm hasn't been so traditional. Fan favorite Kevin Youkilis was shipped to the White Sox and allegedly didn't get along with Valentine, whose fortunes could change with some injured players returning. Jacoby Ellsbury is recovering from a shoulder injury and Carl Crawford still needs time to heal from wrist and elbow issues, but infielder Dustin Pedroia is laid up with a thumb injury. Starting pitcher Clay Buchholz seems fine after a case of esophagitis for a Boston team still alive in the wild card race, but pretty much dead in the AL East.
Red Sox starters Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have five and four wins, respectively, on the season. Felix Doubront, on the other hand, has shined with a 9-4 record in 17 starts. Pitching will determine how far the Red Sox go.
Tampa Bay and Toronto are mathematically in the running for a postseason berth, but lack all of the pieces to get there. Jose Bautista can only do so much for the Blue Jays and Evan Longoria couldn't return any sooner in Tampa.
TIGERS WILL LIVE UP TO EXPECTATIONS IN SECOND HALF
Spring training favorites to win the AL Central, the Tigers haven't live up to expectations. Surprisingly, they are just 3 1/2 games off the pace for the division lead and still have life in the second half.
Indeed, losing catcher/DH Victor Martinez hurt the offense, but when Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson are healthy, it shouldn't be a problem.
Cabrera hasn't missed a beat since moving to third base, save a cut to the eye in spring training, and leads the Tigers with 18 homers and 71 RBI. Fielder just won the Home Run Derby and is second on the club with 15 homers. He took over Miggy's spot at first when he inked a big deal in the offseason. Jackson is as consistent as they come for Detroit, which has turned it on lately with 10 wins in the past 15 games. A five-game winning streak at the break has helped, too. Also, Delmon Young has homered in four straight games.
Pitching is usually never a concern with Justin Verlander spearheading the rotation. Verlander leads the team in wins (nine), ERA (2.58) and strikeouts (128). Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly have 18 wins among them and it could be more had Doug Fister been a bit sharper in the first half. Porcello, though, is battling a sore right biceps and that could linger in the second half.
"I'm looking forward to some consistency from our pitching staff and good health," Leyland said. "What I'm looking for is that we get some synchronization in the pitching department. If we do, I'd be tickled to death."
Leyland's words may resonate with some players. The offense is there for the Tigers, and they just need strong arms on the mound to even the workload.
Chicago seems to enjoy first-year manager Robin Ventura, and the man better known for taking a bevy of fists to the head by Nolan Ryan has his ballclub atop the Central Division. It's a promising endorsement when the team's best player, Paul Konerko, is singing your praises.
"I guess if there's a natural at doing it, he's got to be right up there," Konerko said of Ventura. "It doesn't seem like anything caught him off guard. The game doesn't seem fast to him. He makes it look easy, I think, for the most part. He manages people well.
"Robin has been great. The whole staff has been. They had a plan coming in from the offseason of what they wanted to do and they have stuck to it -- regardless of the schedules or how we played good or bad -- and just wanted to be consistent with the way they gave us things as we went."
Strikeout machine Adam Dunn is still knocking covers off baseballs and leads the White Sox with 25 homers and 61 RBI. In fact, the White Sox have five players with 12 or more homers and catcher A.J. Pierzynski is second on the team with 16. Pierzynski's career high was 18 homers set in 2005.
The addition of Youkilis could be the final one general manager Ken Williams makes the rest of the season because of money issues. That may not be a bad thing because the offense is clicking.
Williams could add an arm to a rotation highlighted by surging youngster Chris Sale, who is 10-2, and a healthy Jake Peavy. Gavin Floyd and Philip Humber are average at best, but have an entire second half, or just weeks if they're traded, to get better.
Kansas City and Minnesota are on the back burner in the AL Central. Cleveland is not. The Indians are right on Chicago's backside in the division despite inconsistent play from both the offense and pitching staff.
Trading for pitching or a heavy-hitting prospect could change things for the Tribe, and it also could light a fire under such players as Carlos Santana, Johnny Damon or Shelley Duncan. Travis Hafner has been injured most of the season, while the Indians have been led by Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo.
If it were up to Duncan, no changes would be made for the second half.
"We have the talent," he said. "A lot of people out there always talk about bringing in new people, getting a bat and all that stuff. But the guys we have on this team, we honestly feel from the bottom of our hearts, we don't need that. We don't need that at all."
Cleveland has an All-Star closer in Chris Perez, and both Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson seem to be Acta's best pieces in the rotation.
IT'S A TWO-HORSE RACE IN THE AL WEST
Lately Oakland and Seattle have been counted out to make a move in the AL West, and this year is no different.
The AL West boils down to the Rangers and Angels -- two clubs with powerful offenses and strong pitching staffs. Take a look at the AL's All-Star roster and you will see eight Texas players representing the organization. Slugger Josh Hamilton is hitting .308 with 27 home runs and 75 RBI and is a Triple Crown candidate once again.
Hamilton and teammates Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli will start in the Midsummer Classic, and have helped the club to a four-game lead over Anaheim in the division standings.
Rookie starter Yu Darvish is an All-Star as well as a fan favorite. He is 10-5 in 16 starts with a team-best 117 strikeouts, while All-Star Matt Harrison has an 11-4 mark in 17 starts with a Rangers-best 3.10 ERA.
Texas could be in the market for another starter since Darvish and Harrison are the only ones with 10 or more wins this season. However, Derek Holland is back and injured starter Colby Lewis is set to return along with relievers Alexi Ogando, Koji Uehara and Neftali Feliz. Don't forget the Rangers added Roy Oswalt a few weeks before the break.
There's absolutely no need for another bat in a Texas lineup that led the AL in runs scored and batting average in the first half of the season. Michael Young, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler are the other heavy hitters for a Texas team trying to get back to the World Series for a third straight year (0-2).
Texas kicks off the second half with an eight-game trip to the West Coast, including three games against the Angels. Texas and Anaheim have split six meetings this season.
Meanwhile, the Halos are a season-high 10 games over .500 at 48-38 and lead one of the wild card races. The Angels recorded their 13th shutout of the season on Sunday, the most in franchise history heading into the All-Star break, and had just 11 total in 2011. Pitching is usually never a problem when Jered Weaver is at full strength, but it becomes a pressing issue when Ervin Santana, Dan Haren and Jerome Williams are hovering in mediocrity. Haren is battling back issues and Santana has just four wins (4-9). Santana usually gives Anaheim a 1-2 punch with Weaver and is 0-2 in his last three starts.
Left-hander C.J. Wilson made the All-Star team in his first stint with the Angels and the former Rangers ace owns a 9-5 ledger in 18 starts. However, he is dealing with a blister and cracked nail issues on his pitching hand. Manager Mike Scioscia didn't seem to have a problem with it and feels that the healing process would stall if Wilson pitched in the All-Star Game. Chicago's Jake Peavy is taking Wilson's place.
"I think if he were to throw in the All-Star Game, it could push him back a little bit," Scioscia said. "But he should be OK for whenever he's going to get slotted in the Yankees series."
Anaheim will visit Yankee Stadium July 13-15. That means young sluggers and current All-Stars Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout can put on a show in the Bronx. Trumbo leads the team with 22 homers at the break and only four players in club history have hit more before All-Star festivities: Garret Anderson (26), Troy Glaus (25), Mo Vaughn (23) and Don Baylor (23).
Trout has been the talk of the town after tearing up the big leagues to the tune of a .341 batting average, 12 homers and 40 RBI. The breakout year for Trout has turned things around in the AL West and taken pressure off Albert Pujols.
The start of Pujols' tenure with the Angels didn't go smoothly as evidenced by his .217 batting average, no homers and four RBI in the first month. The powerful first baseman and three-time NL MVP didn't go deep in an Angels uniform until May 6.
Pujols entered Sunday's game against Baltimore hitting .322 with 12 homers and 59 hits dating back to May 15, and was one of four players to homer in a 6-0 rout. Pujols' 51 RBI at the break are the most in his career and his turnaround is giving the Angels more confidence that they can abolish Texas for AL West bragging rights.
"We're moving forward and doing so many things on the field that gives us a lot of confidence," Scioscia said. "I don't look at it as looking at the standings or looking where we could be. We're playing good baseball right now, and if we continue to show up and play the way we are, we're very confident in the fact that we'll reach our goals."