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5 burning questions for the second half of the MLB season

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 7/18/2018 Gabe Lacques
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Two weeks remain until Major League Baseball’s trade deadline, and two-plus months in its season, yet there are so many things you can already take to the bank.

The Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Houston Astros will win 100 games. The Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles will lose that many.

Mike Trout will transcend, Manny Machado will look great in Dodger Blue, and rest assured that dozens of ballplayers are double-checking tweets they sent when they were barely old enough to drive.

Yet, plenty of questions remain as the symbolic second half of the season begins with most clubs approaching the 100-game mark. Let’s explore a few:

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A Nationals embarrassment?

This side of Houston, there was no greater consensus pick to win its division than the Washington Nationals, thanks to a loaded roster, a franchise player headed for a salary drive and a division featuring four clubs either rebuilding, tearing down or waiting another year before making a real run.

Yet at 47-47, 5 ½ games out of first and chasing not one, but two teams, the Nationals are in real trouble. And they know it.

“Confidence is a choice,” says Nationals ace Max Scherzer, whose club opens the second half with a three-game series against the second-place Atlanta Braves. “What’s going to be different in this clubhouse in the second half is we have to compete better than the Phillies and Braves to win the division.

“We need to win. This is kind of a key checkpoint. (The Braves) are playing good baseball, they’re in front of us. We need to win.”

They’ll also get tangible bumps beyond the fresh start a second half provides. Stephen Strasburg, out since June 8 with shoulder inflammation, will start that first game against the Braves. Daniel Murphy, who did not debut until June 12 due to off-season knee surgery, finished the first half with eight hits in 15 at-bats. Bryce Harper? Well, it certainly can’t get any worse than a .214 average and 25% strikeout rate, right?

The Nationals certainly hope so; they have little room for error.   

Are there impact options on the trade block?

The impending trade of Machado to the Dodgers is like opening Christmas presents on Thanksgiving. The glitziest name on the trade block is a goner some two weeks before the deadline.

So, who’s left? Well, a passel of starting pitchers that at this point could be described as serviceable but not much more than that: Left-handers J.A. Happ, Cole Hamels and Francisco Liriano and right-handers  Tyson Ross, James Shields, Zack Wheeler, Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Archer and Michael Fulmer head the bunch, though many come with salary or injury issues, or may not land on the block at all.

Per usual, a load of relievers will be available, headed by Mets closer Jeurys Familia. Orioles closer Zach Britton will be on the move, and the O’s still have time for him to further build up his value as he comes back from an Achilles injury. Everyone could use Padres closer Brad Hand, but he won’t come as cheaply as his team-friendly salary.

Need offense? The group of hitters available comes with its own set of issues. From a pure production standpoint, the best option may be Rangers DH Shin-Soo Choo, a longtime on-base machine who’s having one of his best seasons (a .911 OPS) at 36. The Rangers would eat much of his $40 million owed the next two seasons, but trade partners could soften the blow in prospects by taking on more of that money.

A likelier Met in September: deGrom or Tebow?

That trade group would be significantly strengthened if the Mets decide it’s time to deal deGrom, whose agent used the All-Star break to amplify his client’s desires: Lock me up long-term or trade me. At 39-55, the Mets will likely deal Familia, Asdrubal Cabrera and other vets to contenders, but the deGrom decision has far deeper ramifications for the course of the franchise. A commitment approaching $200 million might not make sense for a club with significant holes; a trade would indicate a large-scale rebuild, which can be a tougher sell when the other team in town is a juggernaut.

Meanwhile, Eastern League All-Star Tebow has put up stomachable numbers in 291 Class AA appearances: A .272 average and .333 OBP, but just 20 extra-base hits. Would a September call-up be a nice validation for retiring GM Sandy Alderson and the hopers and dreamers in all of us, or an easily dismissed sideshow intended to distract from a poor on-field product?

Did the Brewers already blow it?

Milwaukee was in first place on July 25 last year and within three games of the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 19. Then Chicago took three of four and that was that. In 2014, a 53-43 first half was followed by a 29-37 record after the break.

Now, the Brewers come into the second half off a humbling five-game sweep by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in 10 days went from 2 ½ games up on the Cubs to 2 ½ behind. And now, they must navigate the Josh Hader controversy.

Did that rough patch ice a third straight NL Central title for the Cubs, or will the Brewers find some second-half gumption?

“We know we belong, in the end, with everyone else,” insists All-Star reliever Jeremy Jeffress. “Not just the team that will win and then fall off. We know we’re supposed to be there.”

We’ll find out soon enough. The Brewers open with the Dodgers and play 17 in a row against teams with at least a .500 record.

Are the Dodgers a ‘super team’?

OK, let’s get this straight: Such a concept doesn’t exist in baseball. You can’t just toss the ball to Clayton Kershaw or Machado, clear out and let them go 1-on-1. That said, Machado’s pending arrival gives them a daunting, deep and flexible lineup, now that Enrique Hernandez and Chris Taylor can return to their roaming ways in the infield and outfield.

The Dodgers will pound more home runs than anyone. They will get serviceable starting pitching, now that Kershaw is averaging less than six innings per start and a gaggle of others rarely get deeper than that. And so they’ll need at least one more impact reliever to patch those late innings and get the one out they needed in Game 2 of the 2017 World Series.

As for a seventh straight NL West title? With Machado calling Chavez Ravine home, there’s little question about that.

Related slideshow: 2018 MLB season (Provided by photo services) 


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