In a sense, the portion of baseball's schedule prior to the All Star break is a play-in tournament.
There are some teams clearly out of contention and without any chance of reaching the postseason. Yet, the majority of clubs are still very much in contention. Of Major League Baseball's 30 teams, 18 are within 6 1/2 games of a spot in the playoffs with more than 40 percent of the regular season remaining.
Also, the trade deadline is less than two weeks away.
So the baseball season begins in earnest after the break.
What follows are five compelling questions to be answered following the All Star break:
Will the Pittsburgh Pirates make the playoffs? The franchise of Honus Wagner and Roberto Clemente hasn't had a winning season, let alone made the playoffs, since Jim Leyland was considered a young manager and before Barry Bonds left for San Francisco — 1992. We know this about the Pirates: Center fielder Andrew McCutchen is a great all-around talent and they have power arms galore in the bullpen. What is difficult to discern about the Pirates, though, is whether they will finally succeed because journeyman-turned-star Jason Grilli is their closer, or ultimately fade because Jason Grilli is their closer.
What is going to happen in the American League East? Boston, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, the Yankees — it should be quite a race. Boston's closer situation remains precarious, but the Red Sox played exceptionally well the first half. David Ortiz has been incredible. The Rays are remarkably resilient. Their two premier players, third baseman Evan Longoria and Cy Young Award-winning pitcher David Price, were far less than 100 percent healthy before the break. Yet, Tampa Bay is just 2 1/2 games behind the Red Sox. The Orioles don't seem to have the necessary pitching and lineup balance to win the AL East, but the playoffs are a strong possibility. The Yankees aren't what they used to be and have the distraction of Alex Rodriguez about to enter the clubhouse. Look for this to become a two-team race.
How high is Miguel Cabrera's ceiling? The Tigers' third baseman is on pace to hit .365 with 52 home runs and 161 RBI. Those are Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig in the mid-1920s numbers. Baltimore slugger Chris Davis has 37 home runs compared to 30 for Cabrera, and Davis plays in the ultimate band box home ball park, but odds look about even for Cabrera to capture baseball's Triple Crown for the second year in a row. He is, simply put, the best hitter of his generation by a wide margin.
The Giants, the Nationals, the Dodgers, the Phillies — which of the National League's underachieving teams will start achieving? The Giants have won two of the last three World Series, but have been awful this season. Yet, they are on the fringes of the NL West race because the rest of the division is so feeble. The Dodgers have not lived up to the hype and have earned their .500 record despite the greatness of Clayton Kershaw and emergence of Yasiel Puig. It's stunning the Nationals are below .500. They are too talented to sputter like they did before the All Star Game. Is it time for a fire sale in Philly? Well, the Phillies are just 6 1-2 games out. The first 10 days coming out of the break will be the most telling, and important, of the season for the above-mentioned clubs.
Ultimately, what teams will be standing at the end? I see a World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals. Tigers' general manager Dave Dombrowski has a track record for making significant trade deadline deals, and likely will augment Detroit's decidedly mediocre bullpen. Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson...the Tigers have become what the Yankees wish they were. The Cardinals' knack for finding players is amazing. And no team plays better fundamental baseball on a more consistent basis. Sleepers? Oakland pushed the Tigers to Game 5 of the ALDS last year and played very well before the break. There is a lot of the Cardinals in the A's. And look out for Cincinnati in the NL. The Reds are lurking under the radar as a solid team, very much in contention for a playoff spot, but the Reds have yet to play their best baseball and could peak at the right time.