Questions abound at season's midway point
Can the Phillies win it all again? Where's Halladay going?
It's time for the second half of this Major League Baseball season, and no one can predict what magical moments and crushing disappointments lie ahead. What fans do have are a lot of tickets to watch it unfold and a lot of questions to ask in the meantime.
Here are 20 of them you might be asking.
1. Is it time for Major League Baseball's next back-to-back World Series celebrations?
The Yankees were the last team to repeat, doing so from 1998 to 2000. The Phillies might have become naturally complacent after such a breakthrough last October, but they have been steady leaders atop the National League East. Can Cole Hamels regain the form that made him untouchable postseason? Can Brad Lidge get back to "Lights Out" status? Will the Phillies have the same drive through to the end?
2. Does anyone stop Joe Torre and the Dodgers from ending a 21-year drought of World Series titles?
The Dodgers have been in control atop the Majors all season. What will it mean having Manny Ramirez the rest of the way after he was out with a 50-game suspension for most of this run? Last year he was the key to Los Angeles' push into the postseason.
3. Is Roy Halladay's time up in Toronto?
Blue Jays general manager J.P. Riccardi has repeatedly said that the club is not shopping its steady ace, but he will listen to offers. Who can throw in the kitchen sink? Will Halladay be a difference-maker for someone else in the pennant race? Philadelphia was among the first to subsequently scout him, and there is not one Major League club that wouldn't want him in its rotation. The question is, Which one can make a deal happen? And there's also the question of whether the Blue Jays can stay in the race with him.
4. Can Joe Mauer become MLB's first .400 hitter since Ted Williams averaged .406 in 1941?
No way, right? Well, at least it is a topic worthy of discussion this late into a season. Mauer was hitting .388 entering last weekend. One thing working in his favor is the fact that he did not reach the minimum required plate appearances until last week. The numbers tend to catch up with you, and it actually might work in his favor that he has such a low number of plate appearances. In addition, you are going to see pitches when you bat in front of Justin Morneau. Mauer is as even-keel cool as they come -- a huge factor.
5. Will Albert Pujols win the National League's first Triple Crown since fellow Cardinal Joe Medwick did it way back in 1937?
Pujols was tied for second in batting behind Florida's Hanley Ramirez, and well ahead in homers and RBIs entering last weekend. The first baseman has experienced winning a batting title and a home run title, but he has never won an RBI title, and he is likely to be pushed hard by Prince Fielder of the Brewers. How the Cardinals fare will be an X-factor, because a runaway division title usually means resting regulars. And can Pujols hit 60-plus homers?
6. Will the Nationals sign No. 1 overall Draft pick Stephen Strasburg?
This is what Nats fans are waiting to see. Will the club approach the $50 million price tag reportedly affixed by agent Scott Boras? In the meantime, can this Washington team reach 50 wins? The Nationals were 25-56 at the halfway mark. It would take a second half for the ages to get into contention.
7. Can the Yankees duplicate 1923 and win a World Series in the first year of their new ballpark?
It has happened only once since Babe Ruth and the Bronx Bombers did that -- in 2006, when the Cardinals opened the new Busch Stadium and won it all. The 2009 Yankees have had some fits and starts along the way, but they entered the midseason looking strong and capable of title No. 27 and the first in new digs. Of course, that leads to this question:
8. Can the Yankees beat the Red Sox?
Boston has its rival's number, going 8-0 so far in their season series. It has been Boston-New York sitting 1-2 in the standings lately, with all the makings of a classic second half in the storied history of the franchises' hate-hate relationship. Should they meet in the postseason, the question right now is whether Joe Girardi can find a way to beat Terry Francona's guys.
9. Can the Rays win on the road?
The reigning AL champs were only 4 1/2 games out of the division lead after Friday night, mainly because they are so good at Tropicana Field. But what is their problem on the road? While the Red Sox and Yankees have been balanced, the Rays were 30-13 at home and 18-26 away. Nine of the other 13 AL teams had better road records.
10. Is there enough offense to go along with all that pitching in San Francisco? Do the Giants trade for a bopper, and if so, how much did Jonathan Sanchez's asking price just go up?
Not many people would want to face the Giants in a short series. Tim Lincecum is a candidate for consecutive NL Cy Young Awards. Matt Cain is an All-Star. Barry Zito is showing signs of returning to his prior All-Star form. There's a playoff-tested 300-game winner in Randy Johnson, and when Big Unit went down, Sanchez filled in with a no-hitter. That's a lot of pitching, and a lot of bargaining power. The Giants are in the NL Wild Card picture, leading the NL by two games at the break, but they have to put up more crooked numbers to make the playoffs.
11. Will the names of Matt Holliday, Erik Bedard, Nick Johnson, Brad Penny, Jason Marquis, Adam Dunn, Jarrod Washburn and Gil Meche stay on the backs of their current jerseys -- or will any of those guys become more than trade rumors?
12. Is Rick Porcello the AL Rookie of the Year -- or is his success a case of "first time around the league?"
The Tigers' right-hander was 5-0 in May, but he entered last weekend 8-6 and struggling to go deep into games. His presence was a big first-half lift for a Detroit team that has been steadily on top of the AL Central yet surely in for a battle with the White Sox and Twins.
13. Are the Marlins due, and will they fill seats?
The Marlins shocked everyone in 1997 -- first by winning the World Series and then by trading off the pieces that made them a winner. They did it again six years later. This is another six years later, and Hanley Ramirez and the Marlins are right on the Phillies' heels in the NL East. Is Florida for real? Is it time for another title, maybe this time without the subsequent dismantling?
14. Are Cubs fans too quick to get down? Is the dream still alive in 2009? Forget 1908 -- can the Cubs stay in contention? Can Alfonso Soriano get it together?
Yes, there is a bit of grumbling in Wrigleyville -- but only because expectations were so high after the club reached the last two postseasons and had the NL's best record in 2008. The fact is, they are still right there in the NL Central race with a full pack of competitors.
15. Can the Brewers solidify their starting rotation and pull out the NL Central?
Last fall, Milwaukee made its first postseason appearance since 1982, and there was a feeling that the 2009 club is close. Can the progress continue this summer? The atmosphere is electric in a town that used to get fired up mainly about the Packers. They are hungry to go all the way. Can they?
16. Will Houston make one of its patented second-half runs?
The Astros' presence in the NL Central race is one of the most pleasant surprises of the season given the low expectations. Will they have enough to take the NL Central or win the Wild Card? Is Houston a a buyer now, too?
17. Do the Mets need to drive up to Saratoga Springs for some mineral baths?
Rarely do you see a team so collectively snake-bitten with this level of marquee talent, and unfortunately for the Mets, the flood of injuries has coincided with the dawn of a new ballpark era. Can they stay healthy in the second half? Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and J.J. Putz will remain out after the break. The Mets are hoping that Jeff Francoeur, newly acquired in the trade that sent Ryan Church to Atlanta, can provide an energy boost.
18. Will John Smoltz get back to the World Series for the first time in 10 years -- and will he return to form and be a difference-maker down the stretch for Boston? When Jed Lowrie returns, who will emerge as Boston's everyday shortstop -- or do Lowrie and Nick Green platoon? Will Boston have its first pair of 20-game winners since 2002?
19. Is Texas next in line for a World Series breakthrough party?
Texas is one of only three active franchises never to have appeared in the Fall Classic, along with Seattle and Washington/Montreal. Last year the Rays made their first showing, and the Rockies did the same the year before that. The Astros did it in 2005. That's three of the past four years with a new participant, and you can throw in the Angels and D-backs earlier this decade. The Rangers have the pitching this time to stay in the hunt, and they have shown lately that they have answers to the Angels.
20. Is Seattle next in line for a World Series breakthrough party?
See previous paragraph. The Mariners were only 4 1/2 games out entering last weekend.
There are many more questions, and this is the time when everyone is asking them. Can Colorado continue its resurgent ways and get back to the World Series after falling back a year ago? Will Mark DeRosa be the key piece of the puzzle in St. Louis? What will Rickey Henderson's Hall of Fame Induction speech on July 26 sound like -- and how many Red Sox fans will cross the Mass Pike for an emotional look at Jim Rice's speech? What will the Metrodome sendoff be like?
It's time to find out the answers. Let the second half begin.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.