Baseball's ceremonial second half is upon us. Clarity is not. The standings, by and large, are a wonderfully muddled mess. There's room even for some currently sub-.500 teams to sneak into a playoff spot.
And if you don't think even the last possible spot in the field has enormous value, the 2014 San Francisco Giants would like to have a word with you.
So let's dig into things here at the not-so-mathematical midpoint and see what the second half might have in store.
Three major storylines
1. Surprising teams tested
No teams have been bigger surprises than the Astros and Twins, both of whom have leaped into legit contention arguably ahead of schedule.
Houston basically owned the American League West in the first half ... right up until it came to a close. The defending division champion Angels got hot just as the Astros lost six straight and eight of nine, a combination of confluent events that gave the Halos a half-game lead at the break. It will be fascinating to see how this predominantly young Houston team handles the adversity, and furthermore it will be fascinating to see what Jeff Luhnow and Co. do to influence events before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline with a well-stocked farm system that gives them one of the best bargaining positions in the game.
Save for a few stray days in late May/early June, Paul Molitor's Twins haven't owned the AL Central. That's the Royals' job. But they do hold the AL's top Wild Card spot just ahead of those Astros. You can attribute that to a dramatically improved rotation (3.86 ERA after a 5.06 mark last year) that, for the first time in a long time, has legitimate depth (which Minnesota might even be able to deal from this month). The Twins are also getting a major midseason spark from hot prospect Miguel Sano (1.138 OPS in 11 games) and could be sparked by youth again once Byron Buxton is healthy.
2. Disappointing teams try to claw back
Here's looking at you, Red Sox, Tigers, Indians, White Sox, Mariners and Padres, all of whom had a penchant for appearing in favorable positions on otherwise intelligent people's preseason predictions.
With a 10-game division deficit and a 7 1/2-game National League Wild Card deficit, the Padres might shift from one of the winter's biggest buyers to one of summer's biggest sellers.
The others mentioned here are all in the AL, which inherently means they're in it.
But the offenses of the White Sox and Mariners simply haven't taken off as planned, the Indians aren't making the most of a stellar starting staff, the Tigers are frustratingly living life without Miguel Cabrera and the Red Sox have had myriad issues preventing them from taking advantage of a watered-down AL East (and now they're without Clay Buchholz for a month).
The GMs of all these clubs will have difficult decisions to make as their clubs straddle the line between buyer and seller (if such a line even still exists in today's game) before the Trade Deadline.
3. The awards watch Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are the game's signature young stars, so it's fitting that they're both in the pole position for their league's MVP Award.
With a Major League-best 1.168 OPS, Harper has willed the injury-riddled Nationals to their expected spot in first place. But don't overlook Paul Goldschmidt (1.064 OPS) leading a D-backs team that is surprisingly just five games out of an NL Wild Card spot? And what if Andrew McCutchen continues a tear now more than two months strong and helps the Pirates overtake the Cardinals in the NL Central? Harper's got to stay healthy if he wants this hardware.
As for the AL, Trout is leading the AL in homers, slugging percentage and runs scored and is the clear AL MVP Award favorite, especially with Cabrera out for six weeks. The guy best positioned to push Trout is Josh Donaldson, an electric player on both sides of the ball who is trying to help the Blue Jays to October for the first time since 1993.
But the NL Rookie of the Year Award race might be most enthralling of all, what with Joc Pederson (.851 OPS, 20 homers, 40 RBIs) and Kris Bryant (.848 OPS, 12 homers, 51 RBIs) firing up our imaginations. Sano and Carlos Correa (.820 OPS) will both be factors in the AL Rookie of the Year Award race.
Last year, Cruz was the only guy in the Majors to reach 40 homers. But this year, even with Stanton currently out with a broken hamate bone, we have multiple candidates to cross that threshold.
Runs per game for the Blue Jays, putting them on pace to score 865 for the season at a time when no other team is on pace to score more than 753. If Toronto keeps up this pace, it would be baseball's most productive club since the 2011 Red Sox (875). But will the Jays get the pitching help they need to win the AL East?
Cardinals opponents' OPS with runners in scoring position, a number that would be the lowest in a full season in at least 40 years, if the Cards' pitchers can sustain it. So ... can they? We don't talk about "clutch pitching" much, but the Redbirds have used it to compile baseball's best record.
Three most pressing questions
1. Can the Royals defend their AL pennant?
They've got some major challenges ahead as they try to get by without All-Star outfielder Alex Gordon for the foreseeable future, but they're in a strong position in the AL Central, and we know what a separator that deep and bullish bullpen can be.
2. Can the Dodgers, Cardinals and Nationals be caught?
For all the craziness of the standings, in general, it's not exactly shocking to see these three elite NL clubs at the top of their respective divisions. But that doesn't mean they've got anything nailed down.
The Dodgers have a clear and pressing need to augment the back end of their rotation thanks to the injuries to Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy. Furthermore, they simply haven't fared very well against winning teams this season, most notably the second-place Giants, who have beaten them nine times in 12 tries. Will the Dodgers get into the Cole Hamels trade market?
Health has also been an issue in D.C., where the Nationals have had trouble fielding their regular lineup with Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Denard Span all making multiple trips to the DL. The supposed "super" rotation also hasn't been quite as super as expected, thanks in part to two-time DL visitor Stephen Strasburg's struggles. If the Mets can get some offensive support, they've got the rotation to give the Nats a run for their money.
And the Cardinals have the Pirates, the team with the NL's second-best record, breathing down their necks. The Bucs took three of four from the Cards in an electric series at PNC Park just before the break, and the clubs with baseball's two best pitching staffs, top to bottom, will likely duel it out until the finish line. Those young, hungry and entertaining Cubs are also going to have their say in how the Central shakes out.
3. Is entropy en route in the AL?
No AL team entered the break more than eight games out of a playoff spot. Heck, only 6 1/2 games separate the first-place Yankees (can Alex Rodriguez keep this up?) from the last-place Red Sox in an inordinately complex AL East.
Really, all it takes are a couple of hot weeks for an AL team to convince itself it is legitimately in the running, and that's what makes the looming Deadline so interesting. Imagine the impact, say, Johnny Cueto or Justin Upton could have on the playoff picture, particularly if they get moved to the AL.
But nothing will be more interesting than that September/early October home stretch and the potential for tiebreaker chaos it presents.