With star power, baseball looks toward bright 2nd half

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said it repeatedly this week at the 77th All-Star Game in Pittsburgh.

His sport has never been more popular.


An intriguing statement since the performance-enhancing drug scandal hasn't exactly made baseball easier to love.

And then there's the widening financial gap between the haves and have-nots that allows the New York Yankees to have five players each making more money than the Florida Marlins' entire 25-man roster.


But a record 74.9 million people attended games in 2005 and Selig said MLB is on pace to top that this season.

A primary reason is because baseball is in the midst of one of its most exciting periods in recent memory. Upstart teams such as the Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies are in the postseason mix.

Young players such as St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, New York Mets third baseman David Wright and Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer are ushering in a new wave of superstars.

While old favorites such as Houston Astros starter Roger Clemens, Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and Tigers manager Jim Leyland are showing that they have plenty left.

Jason Grimsley affidavit or not, the first half of the 2006 season was pretty entertaining. Here's a list of questions - and a stab at the answers - to ponder as baseball's second half kicks off today.

Can the Tigers keep up this blistering pace? In a word, no. Leyland's Tigers are an opportunistic club with a deep and talented pitching staff, and that should help them coast into the postseason. But with the majors' best record of 59-29 at the break, they are on pace to win roughly 108 games. That won't happen. Still, they are for real and, along with the defending champion Chicago White Sox, should be locks to play in October.

Are the Yankees a playoff team? For the first time since wild-card berths were awarded in 1995, the answer is probably not. The Yankees are just three games behind the American League East-leading Red Sox and that's impressive considering the injuries and ineffectiveness they've encountered so far. Plus, owner George Steinbrenner surely will authorize a couple moves before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

The Red Sox, though, won't be stagnant, either. And since the wild card is likely coming out of the AL Central, only one of baseball's two superpowers will advance to the postseason. Boston just looks deeper right now.


Is the Atlanta Braves' postseason streak over? Yup. Several National League East players said at the All-Star Game that they refuse to write off Atlanta (40-49, 13 games behind the New York Mets) in July. The Braves, after all, have won their division each year (not counting the strike season of 1994) since 1991.

Manager Bobby Cox is the Houdini of MLB. But the handcuffs are too tight this season. Even though they won seven of their past 10, the Braves are buried in the East and are ninth in the wild-card standings.

Which contender flops in the second half? The National League West-leading San Diego Padres. The West is competitive - not necessarily good, but competitive - and the Padres are exceptionally average. That still could be good enough to advance, but don't bet on it. Because the Los Angeles Dodgers have a bevy of prospects to deal for a second-half push, they have to be considered the favorite. The Colorado Rockies are a dark horse if they can shore up their bullpen.

Look out for Angels

Which straggler turns it around? The Los Angeles Angels. They were absolutely abysmal for most of the first half and somehow are only two games out of first at the break. They may have baseball's best mix of talented youth and quality experience. If GM Bill Stoneman desires, he could have his pick of the trade-deadline bounty because his minor league system is stocked.

Which superstar gets dealt this month? There are several candidates, including the Milwaukee Brewers' Carlos Lee, Oakland Athletics' Barry Zito, Philadelphia Phillies' Bobby Abreu, Florida Marlins' Dontrelle Willis and, yes, the Orioles' Miguel Tejada. But the surest of the group is Washington's Alfonso Soriano. New Nationals president Stan Kasten stresses player development and moving Soriano, a pending free agent, for top prospects would help fortify Washington's poor farm system.


Soriano has proved he can play left field adequately and hit home runs in cavernous RFK Stadium. There's no contender that wouldn't love acquiring him. He'd be a particularly good fit in Detroit - which has young arms such as Zach Miner to move - but don't rule out St. Louis or either Los Angeles team. The other players mentioned could stay put for various reasons. Tejada won't be dealt unless the Orioles are overwhelmed.

What will O's do?

Which Oriole switches teams? The best bets are pitchers Rodrigo Lopez and LaTroy Hawkins and first baseman/outfielder Jeff Conine. Catcher Javy Lopez, first baseman Kevin Millar and left-hander Bruce Chen are available, but their stocks are seriously diminished. One GM thinks Hawkins is the Orioles' best chip because so many clubs are looking to solidify their bullpens, and Hawkins is a proven eighth-inning guy. He's someone the club may not move until right before July 31.

Rodrigo Lopez, despite his 5-10 record and 6.77 ERA, has drawn interest from a half-dozen teams. He has, after all, won 14 or more games in three of the past four seasons and several pitching-thin contenders, such as the New York Mets, Texas Rangers and Angels, could use him in their rotation's back end.

In return for their veterans, the Orioles are looking for the best overall payoff, whether it'd be prospects or ready-to-play major leaguers, hitters or pitchers. They would love to land a first baseman/corner outfield type such as the Angels' Casey Kotchman or Colorado's Ryan Shealy, but it all depends on the cost. And remember, if the Orioles aren't willing to deal a superstar like Tejada, the return may be minimal.

Which manager gets axed? The Chicago Cubs' Dusty Baker is the most likely to go soon. Significant injuries have crushed Baker's squad, but the bottom line is the Cubs have the seventh-highest payroll and are 20 games under .500 at the break. The only teams with a worse record are the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals.


Another canning candidate is Philadelphia's Charlie Manuel. The Phillies (40-47) have underachieved in Manuel's 1 1/2 seasons in Philly and he wasn't the choice of current GM Pat Gillick.