The Week Ahead: Exciting slate to conclude first half

Drama builds in division races as teams clash in final days before All-Star break

The Week Ahead: Exciting slate to conclude first half

Take a look at the just-revealed rosters for the American League and National League All-Star teams. Let them settle in a bit. Then discuss them at work today. Argue them, if you must. Start thinking about whom you might select in the Final Vote. Figure out who might win the Home Run Derby. Decide who's going to win home-field advantage for the World Series.

But don't forget for a second that The Week Ahead is packed with seven days of very important games leading up to the All-Star break and that contending teams are doing whatever they can to add finishing flourishes to strong first halves.

The Oakland A's, of course, rocked the baseball world on Friday, setting off serious fireworks while the rest of the country sat on blankets and watched the real ones explode. Their acquisition of starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in a blockbuster deal with the Cubs to beef up a staff that already had the best ERA in the AL served notice that they're not willing to sit on the best record in the Major Leagues. They want to get better. And this week, we'll see how that new rotation begins to shake out for manager Bob Melvin.

It's good timing, too. The A's head into another crucial week with a tough seven-day slate. They begin with four games against their Bay Bridge-rival Giants -- two home and two away -- and finish up the weekend with a three-game set in Seattle against the Mariners, who are 48-40 and trying to chase them down from seven games back in the AL West while the Angels lurk in second place, only 3 1/2 back of Oakland.

"I think it would be a bit arrogant and presumptuous to think this is a postseason move when we've got two teams behind us that are very, very good teams that aren't going to go away," A's general manager Billy Beane said after the July 4 deal was finalized. "Right now, we have a tremendous amount of respect for the talent that the Mariners and Angels have. Our priority is to win the division first, and then we'll worry about the postseason."

It seems many teams are doing the same a week before baseball takes a brief break and all eyes turn to Target Field for All-Star festivities. All of a sudden, there's not a division lead of more than five games, and races are heating up everywhere you look.

In the NL East, for example, things are on full boil between the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals.

After Sunday's games, the Braves have a half-game lead over the Nationals, and both teams have been playing well. Atlanta just saw a nine-game losing streak come to a close. Washington, with Bryce Harper back in its lineup, has steadily improved its play of late to tie the Braves in the loss column.

"We weren't going to win the rest of the games," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said after his team dropped a 3-1 decision to the D-backs on Sunday. "There was going to come a time [when the streak] was going to come to an end."

The Braves can try for another streak starting this week when they go on the road for four games against the Mets and three against the Cubs. The Nats will play a home-and-away four-game set against their natural Interleague-rival Orioles before heading up to Philadelphia for a weekend set against the Phillies.

The NL West also is very tight at the moment, with the Dodgers holding a half-game lead on the second-place Giants. The Giants will have those four crucial games against the A's before the weekend, while they play the D-backs three times at home over the weekend.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, will get a day off Monday before embarking on a quick two-game road trip to Detroit and then returning to Dodger Stadium for four games against the Padres.

In the AL East, the Orioles have taken a two-game lead in the division over the Blue Jays, who just got swept by the A's in Oakland over the weekend. The Yankees are 3 1/2 games back in third but just made a bold move, trading lefty starter Vidal Nuno to Arizona for veteran right-hander Brandon McCarthy in an attempt to bolster their rotation. McCarthy should get the ball for his New York debut Wednesday in Cleveland.

"At least it's an end to the rumors," McCarthy said. "It's [nice] not having to think about it anymore. There's some finality there. It's still the Yankees, no matter what. Everybody knows the Yankees. If you don't know baseball, you know the Yankees. It's a worldwide known thing. That's a very, very cool thing."

And they're still in the race, as are many teams, including the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds, who are chasing the NL Central-leading Brewers, and the Royals and Indians, who are still within shouting distance of the AL Central's top team so far, the Detroit Tigers.

And then there's the possibility of a slew of trades to open things up. That's why this week is hardly all about All-Star Game excitement, although that's certainly an added bonus.

Just ask Samardzija, who went from tough-luck starter on the rebuilding Cubs to a first-time winner with the first-place A's, all in the course of a single holiday weekend.

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