The Week Ahead: Star-studded storylines

The Week Ahead: Star-studded storylines

The Week Ahead: Star-studded storylines
It's July, and there's one more week on the Major League schedule before we take a collective breath, turn our attention to Kansas City and celebrate the halfway point of another great season.

The 83rd All-Star Game will give us our annual showcase of the game's best players, and after the Midsummer Classic is logged into the scorebook, the winner of home-field advantage in the World Series.

It figures to be hot at Kauffman Stadium -- probably in the high 90s -- and the storylines are heating up, too. There's more than enough intrigue to carry us right into the break and beyond. Here are some of the most compelling developments from the first half, as we arrive at the All-Star break:

R.A. stands for Ridiculous and Amazing, or, in other words, Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is the king of reinvention. The 37-year-old right-hander proved again Friday night that he is one of the best pitchers in baseball this year and, if he keeps this up for the rest of the season, one of the most incredible single-season stories ever.

It's almost unfathomable to think that a man who could hardly get Major Leaguers out as recently as 2 1/2 years ago now seemingly can't be scored upon. But Dickey followed up his one bad outing against the Yankees two Sunday nights ago with another gem Friday, pitching eight scoreless innings against the Dodgers. He now leads the National League with 12 wins and ranks second with 116 strikeouts, third with a 2.15 ERA and first with a 0.88 WHIP.

"A lot of people think the knuckleball is a gimmick," Dickey said. "I like to try to prove that it's much more than that."

Consider it done. The only question now is: What's next when he faces off against the Phillies and Cliff Lee on Thursday in his last outing before his possible start in the All-Star Game for the NL? The world can't wait to find out.

The same can be said for the nightly adventures of Mike Trout, the 20-year-old phenom who was selected to his first All-Star Game on Sunday and is creating highlight reels almost every time he puts on a big league uniform.

Trout isn't just the leadoff man, catalyst, center fielder and hitter extraordinaire who finished play on Sunday with an American League-leading .339 batting average, .938 OPS, nine homers, 33 RBIs, 22 stolen bases and a lot of pundits proclaiming him the leading candidate for AL MVP Award honors.

Trout is also the guy who has helped the Angels go 36-21 since he was called up on April 28, vaulting them back into the postseason picture.

And then there was his high-flying catch in Baltimore last week, in which he leaped high above the Camden Yards wall to snare a J.J. Hardy home run in an effort that will take some beating for play of the year.

"That's probably the best play I've seen against me," Hardy said. "Maybe the best I've seen against anyone else, too."

Then again, let's not forget Bryce Harper. He's still only 19, and has been dealing with some minor back issues, but he exited Sunday's play with a .274 batting average, .819 OPS, eight homers and 22 RBIs, and he's already has mesmerized the city of Washington with his hard-nosed play and infectious love for the game of baseball.

Harper might not be tearing it up like Trout just yet, but he's an NL Final Vote contender for the All-Star Game, so he's got a legitimate shot to join Trout on the field in Kansas City.

Other new faces worth following in the week leading up to the All-Star Game are the 25 men of the suddenly scorching Pirates.

Pittsburgh might just be ready to contend all year, and if the bats continue to produce the way they have in June, the Pirates might be ready to party like it's 1992.

Led by the astounding All-Star Andrew McCutchen (.346, 15 homers, 51 RBIs, 14 stolen bases through Sunday), Pittsburgh won 17 games in June, the first time its won that many in a month since August 2007. The Pirates scored a Major League-leading 146 runs and hit 39 homers in the month, leading the NL in that category and tying a club record for a month, set in 1975.

"It's starting to click for guys, and guys are putting good swings on good balls, starting to score a lot more runs," McCutchen said. "It's good to see what we're capable of doing day in and day out. Just being patient and staying within ourselves and not trying to do too much."

In the desert, not trying to do too much could be the theme of the week for Arizona second baseman Aaron Hill. He hit for the cycle again Friday, a mere 11 days after he hit for the cycle the first time. That's two cycles in one year, the first time that has been done since 1931. That's pretty much unheard of. So we'll see what Hill does this week.

The same can be said for his teammate, 21-year-old rookie pitcher Trevor Bauer, who made his big league debut on Thursday night, lasted four innings, had some groin issues, but is reportedly ready to go for two starts this week.

And what about Yasmani Grandal? San Diego's top catching prospect, recalled from Triple-A Tucson on Saturday, became the first player in MLB history to have his first two career hits be homers from opposite sides of the plate in the same game, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

So what's Grandal going to do this week? And who else should we be watching for?

Well, one is Reds slugger Joey Votto, who remains on pace to break the record for doubles in a season. And then there are the Red Sox, who could get a lot better in a hurry soon, with injured outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford continuing their Minor League rehab assignments this week.

The Dodgers appear to be in a freefall, but their main man, All-Star outfielder Matt Kemp, should be making strides this week toward his stated goal of returning to manager Don Mattingly's lineup on July 13. Kemp could begin a rehab assignment as early as Tuesday.

You know he can't wait, and neither can the Dodgers, so they're working the July 9 State Farm Home Run Derby into the tail end of Kemp's rehab schedule.

"The plan right now is that it would be part of what he's doing," Mattingly said. "We're going to try to build it into the program."

Doug Miller is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.