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With MLB All-Star break underway, here are six observations from 1st half

CBS Sports logo CBS Sports 7/15/2018 R.J. Anderson

Jul 12, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; New York Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner (right) celebrates with right fielder Aaron Judge (99) after hitting a solo home run in the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. Jul 12, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; New York Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner (right) celebrates with right fielder Aaron Judge (99) after hitting a solo home run in the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Sunday marked the official conclusion of the first half of the 2018 Major League Baseball season. The league will pause for the next few days in order to observe the All-Star Break.

With that in mind, let's recap the first half by focusing on six of our biggest takeaways.

The AL is great, but boring

Baseball Prospectus tracks a statistic called third-order winning percentage -- basically, it estimates how good each team is when underlying measures, including their quality of competition,is accounted for. Per that measure, the three best teams in baseball are housed in the American League. In whole, five of the top eight belong to the Junior Circuit. 

Anyone paying attention to the standings already knew that was the case. The Red Sox, Astros, and Yankees are probably the three best teams in the game; The Indiansshouldn't be discounted; and the Mariners, meanwhile, are proving that luck is as important as anything. Because of those five teams, the AL playoff field is about set. Just one AL team is within five games of the second wild-card spot; comparatively, there are five teams within five games of the second spot in he National League.

The AL superpowers will spend the rest of the season jockeying for seeding, but unless the Athleticscan continue their improbable run, it seems like one half of the playoff bracket is set. 

Manny Machado could decide the NL

For as neat and orderly as the AL is, the NL is the opposite. No division leader will enter the All-Star Break with so much as a three-game lead in the standings, and the jam in each division promises an intriguing trade deadline -- particularly as it relates to Manny Machado.

The Phillies, Braves, Cubs, Brewers, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers have all been tied to Machado at one point or another, leaving just the Nationals, Cardinals, Rockies and Giants as teams with somewhat realistic playoff aspirations who haven't checked in on Machado.

Presuming one of the above teams does deal for Machado, they'll be adding a shortstop who could threaten 40 home runs en route to new career-highs across the board. Sure, his defense isn't as good at short as it was at the hot corner. But adding Machado to the middle of a lineup could be what decides multiple NL races -- one for a division, the other for the pennant. 

The Nationals are in real trouble

The Nationals will be hosting the All-Star Game festivities, but they won't be landing Machado and they might not be partaking in the postseason. 

Washington has been the most disappointing team in baseball. Bryce Harper's walk year has not gone as expected for him or his team. Instead, the Nationals have seemingly dealt with a near-constant cocktail of underperformance and injury. Per Man-Games Lost, Washington leads the NL with more than 900 games missed. Even now, the Nats will enter the break with nine players on the disabled list, including Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Sean Doolittle, and Howie Kendrick, who is out for the season. Add in slumping bats, and the Nationals are 14-25 since opening the season 33-23. Ouch.

Some of the Nationals' issues will resolve themselves with time -- Strasburg, for instance, should return when the regular season does -- but there's no longer an easy road to the postseason. The Nationals will have to find a way to overcome the Phillies and Braves, each of whom has arrived earlier than expected. Given how the Nats have played thus far in 2018, it's not clear they have the necessary run in them.

Shohei Ohtani was worth the wait

All winter, as the baseball world braced for the arrival of Shohei Ohtani, the hype surrounding the two-way phenom swelled to the point where his odds of validating it seemed slim.

In his first half-season in the majors, Ohtani did more than validate the expectations: He surpassed them. What other conclusion can you draw from his play to date? He's a 24-year-old adjusting to a new culture and league who has hit .285/.368/.526 (146 OPS+) in 156 plate appearances while also tossing 49 innings and posting a 3.10 ERA (132 ERA+) and 3.05 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

For some added perspective, consider the number of players who have done either in equal or greater playing time this season:

  • 146 OPS+ in 150+ PA: 15

  • 132 ERA+ in 49+ IP: 29

All of those other players -- every one of them -- has posted a 146 OPS+/132 ERA+ or better while focusing solely on the task at hand. Ohtani has done his while doing both jobs.

Here's hoping Ohtani can get back on a mound sooner than later. He's a phenom. 

Mike Trout is incredible, too

Since we're on the subject of amazing Angels, let's address Mike Trout. He already has a case for being the best player of all-time, and he's continuing to add to it.

Trout has amassed 6.9 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. If he can maintain his current pace -- and hey, who knows -- he'd check in around 10.5 wins over 650 plate appearances. It's at least possible he gets closer to 700 (or more) plate appearances and finishes with 11 or so wins. If he does, he would have just the 21st such season in baseball history. The other players to accomplish that feat: Babe Ruth, Carl Yastrzemski, Rogers Hornsby, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken Jr., Honus Wagner, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, and Joe Morgan. Impressive company.

Barring an injury or uncharacteristic slump, Trout is all but assured his third 10-plus-win season -- something that only six players (Ruth, Mays, Hornsby, Bonds, Mantle, and Ted Williams) have ever been able to do. A reminder: Trout is 26.

Royals, O's are chasing top pick, history

We'll end with a downer: neither the Royals nor the Orioles are entering the All-Star Break with so much as 30 wins. That's bad -- real bad.

Consider that the 2003 Tigers, the worst team in recent history, didn't win their 30th game until no. 112 and were 27-73 after 100 games. Then note that the Royals (27-68) and Orioles (28-69) are on pace for 46 and 47 wins. Woof. It's unlikely that either the O's or Royals finish with a worse record than those Tigers did, but that we're breaking out the comparison is an awful sign.

Enjoy the Break, Royals and Orioles fans. You've earned it. 

Related slideshow: Best of the MLB season (Provided by photo services)

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