Five storylines to watch in MLB second half

By Michael Dixon
Courtesy of Kamil Krzaczynski, USA Today Sports

For MLB fans, it doesn’t get much better than the second half of the season. We start with the build up to the trade deadline. After that, we shift right into the playoff races, and of course, the postseason.

Looking forward to the rest of the 2016 season, there’s still a lot to be resolved.

Looking at the final two-and-a-half  months of the MLB season, what are the top storylines to follow?

1. Early play of New York Yankees

The Yankees have trade chips.

Any team looking bullpen help is certainly salivating at the notion of adding either Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller. Teams looking for a good bat could do a lot worse than Carlos Beltran.

Unfortunately for the rest of baseball, one question needs to be answered before those guys are moved. Is New York really a selling team?

At 44-44, the Yanks sit at 5.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, who are tied for the American League’s two Wild Card spots. Given the number of divisional games the second half offers, 5.5 games isn’t necessarily a huge margin.

The problem is that five other teams sit between those two and Yankees. This means the New York will need a fair amount of help.

If the Bronx Bombers are going to fall out of contention, we’ll find out quick. They open the first half with a 10-game home stand against Boston, the Baltimore Orioles and San Francisco Giants — three teams in playoff position. If that stretch doesn’t go well, this team is going nowhere.

If the Yankees can’t do any better than 5-5 in those 10 games, expect some big names to be moved by August 1st.

2. How will the Chicago Cubs handle adversity?

For most of the first half, the Cubs were baseball’s best team. For a while, it even looked like they might challenges MLB’s single-season wins record.

A 2-8 finish to the first half has stalled those talks.

Make no mistake. It’s not time to press the panic button at Wrigley Field. Chicago still sits in first place in the National League Central by a wide margin. The Cubs also have baseball’s second-best record. Still, some things are noticeable.

For the first time in a while, Jake Arrieta is struggling. Going back to the beginning of June, Chicago is 3-4 in Arrieta’s starts. During that very same span, the reigning Cy Young Award winner has a 4.81 ERA.

Offensively, Chicago has started to strike out at a high rate. One-quarter of the way into the season, the Cubs had the sixth-fewest strikeouts in baseball, putting them with elite company. Now, slightly more than halfway through the year, Chicago’s hitters have the sixth-most strikeouts in the league.

Things are still okay in the Windy City. But this team is definitely going through a funk right now. How well they deal with this funk may provide a nice October preview.

3. How will San Francisco Giants stars recover from injury?

The Giants currently have eight players on the disabled list. Three starting position players (Hunter Pence, Joe Panik, Matt Duffy) and another key reserve (Kelby Tomlinson) are included on that list. Starting pitcher Matt Cain is also on the shelf.

If we give the team that finished the first half with baseball’s best record some key players, it will only get stronger, right? Not necessarily.

Oftentimes when a team is replacing a key starter, success boils down to some luck. If your starter goes down, he’s being replaced by a reserve. Generally, that reserve is not as good as the starter.

Still, the reserve is capable of running off a hot streak. In many ways, that’s what’s happened in San Francisco. In the absence of the regulars, guys like Ramiro Pena, Conor Gillaspie, and Mac Williamson have had hot streaks. Expecting those players to maintain this hot is not realistic.

But it also wouldn’t be realistic to expect those starters to come back completely strong, at least not immediately. When a player is out of action for a while, it usually takes a few weeks (or at least games) to get back to form.

Additionally, while the starters are better overall players than the men who replaced them, they may not be as good as those players were during their hot streaks.

With baseball’s best record and a 6.5-game lead in the National League West, the Giants certainly have wiggle room. But the progress of these players will be an important storyline as they return to the field.

4. American League arms race

Looking at the American League playoff picture, something jumps out. The Junior Circuit has a handful of contending teams that need starting pitching help in a big way.

That is certainly unique. Sure, some teams can compete for playoff spots without great starting pitching. But it’s certainly not normal for that many teams with poor starting pitching to contend this deep into the year.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, a team with good starting pitching is also in the trade market. The Texas Rangers are interested in Drew Pomeranz, who figures to be one of the best pitchers on the trade market this year.

If a team like the Rangers lands someone of Pomeranz’s, they can be very difficult to beat in the American League. If another one of the contenders lands Pomeranz, or another top starter, that team will have a nice advantage in the playoff race and the postseason itself.

5. Crazy wild card races

In the American League East, the Baltimore Orioles have a two-game lead on the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays. At the moment, none of the other five divisions are closer than 5.5 games. So, the division races may not provide much excitement.

The wild card races, on the other hand, look to be quite thrilling.

In the American League, only 5.5 games separate the top wild card team from the squad in eighth place. The reigning champion Kansas City Royals are one of the teams in the race.

Sitting 2.5 games clear of the second National League wild card team, the Los Angeles Dodgers are in good, but not great shape. But even if we concede that spot to Los Angeles, the Senior Circuit still features a four-team battle for one spot.

The New York Mets and Miami Marlins are tied for the second spot. The St. Louis Cardinals sit one game behind the Mets and Marlins while the Pittsburgh Pirates are a game behind the Cards.

Looking far down the road, that many teams contending for a few playoff spots should make for a fun September. In the nearer future, that many teams in contention will make for a crazy deadline filled with rumors and deals.