As the traditional intermission in the regular season, the All-Star break offers the pause that refreshes, an ideal time to contemplate what is to come in the season's second half. This July, the usual look forward can be distilled into one general condition for Baseball 2012:
Intense, crowded competition for those 10 oh-so-sought-after playoff spots,
If you wanted to expand the definition of contention, you could make the argument that as many as 24 clubs still have something resembling a decent chance to reach the postseason.
The next 19 days worth of competition will have a dramatic impact on how clubs in the gray area between contenders and pretenders are going to define themselves. Before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, teams that are currently in the area of marginal contention will have to decide whether they are in or out, whether they should be buyers or sellers.
Some clubs will be a little too sold on their own chances. That happens every summer. But this is where the annual line of demarcation is drawn. Do you make bold moves in an all-out attempt to win now, or do you sacrifice the rest of this season for a better chance to win in the future? It is on the razor-thin decision-making edge of this question that the futures of franchises can rise or fall.
In the races for the postseason, "new" has often been the byword. And for the grand old game, this is a good thing.
There are new names making major differences, most notably outfielders Mike Trout, 20, with the Angels and Bryce Harper, 19, with the Nationals. The usual term "impact player" comes up a little short with this pair. "Transformative player" might be closer. This is not simply a matter of gazing ahead and seeing bright futures. Trout and Harper have made immediate and dramatic differences for their clubs.
On a club basis, teams that were not supposed to be quite this good have climbed into contention and remained in contention. The Orioles may be seven games out in the AL East, but they are in second place in a division that, in part because of the Orioles' performance, is tougher than ever.
The Pirates may be discounted by some because they had a fine first half last season, followed by a second-half fade. But that kind of thinking may be seriously outdated. The Pirates are in first place in the NL Central, and this season, their pitching appears to be significantly more solid than it was in 2011. The Pirates are fourth in the NL in team ERA. And they have one of the game's most impressive young stars, Andrew McCutchen, in center. McCutchen was an NL All-Star but he still probably hasn't been fully recognized for his splendid play.
Leading the NL East, and leading all of the Majors in team ERA, we find the Washington Nationals. Chipper Jones, the face of the Atlanta franchise, has said that the Nationals have baseball's best starting rotation. Neither the numbers nor common sense offers a reason to argue with this future Hall of Famer.
The question is already being frequently asked: What will happen if/when the Nationals are in the midst of a pennant race late in the season and the remarkably talented Stephen Strasburg hits his innings-pitched limit? That is an interesting proposition, but the Nationals do not have to deal with the basic pitching question that most teams have to face. That is: Where can we find more pitching?
The Nationals have the best record in the National League. With their pitching, that record is no fluke. They have been astutely put together and properly managed. The Strasburg issue is one that 29 other clubs might wish they had.
The sport-wide bottom line is this: If you're a baseball fan, the numbers indicate you are in the clear majority if you are pulling for a team that still has not just a chance, but a genuine opportunity, to reach the postseason. As a measurement of fan enjoyment and the health of the game as a whole, that is a fine prospect for the second half of the 2012 season to offer.