Below are nine questions for the second half to answer ...
Are the Padres for real?
The Padres are currently in first place with a 51-37 record, two games ahead of the Dodgers. However, they're doing so on luck, ranking 22nd in runs scored and with a MLB-leading 3.27 ERA. Their 3.81 xFIP suggest there's plenty of regression to be had, and while that xFIP also tops the league, it's the third biggest disparity in the bigs. And San Diego cannot afford regression in its strength. To stay on top, additional help needs to be brought in. Other questions include the surging White Sox, the sexy-sleeper-who-wasn't-supposed-to-be-this-good Reds and the Mets, who will be bolstered by the addition of Carlos Beltran.
Who will be the biggest name traded at the deadline?
There's always a surprise in store, but the early favorite is Florida's Dan Uggla. The Marlins are sliding out of the pennant race and have a second-baseman making $8 million for the penny-pinchers. Uggla will be a nice commodity as he remains under team control for 2011 is having yet another strong season. The Rockies are closely linked to Uggla, but he could end up on any team -- including suitors who may be eyeing him for third base. Don't rule out Adam Dunn being shipped; the White Sox would love to add him to the fold.
Can the Red Sox and Phillies stay afloat?
Boston and Philadelphia have been rocked by injuries, and while plenty of players have stepped in admirably, one can only get by for so long with replacement parts before feeling the sting. One benefit to players going down with injuries is that both teams will eventually be bolstered by returns, but until then, one of three things will happen: 1) Most players will play over their head, 2) Everyone will begin playing to their true level and 3) Trades to bring in complementary pieces will happen. Going with No. 1 is the most foolhardy thing one could do.
Who will be the next impact player from the minor leagues?
There's been a ton of graduations from Triple-A to the majors lately, and that doesn't figure to change in the second half. Domonic Brown could give the Phillies some offense, while Desmond Jennings could do the same for the Rays. How about Aroldis Chapman coming out of the bullpen breathing fire for the Reds or Jeremy Hellickson strengthening the Rays rotation? Could Brett Wallace help usher in a new era in Toronto alongside new shortstop Yunel Escobar? Or will the promotion of Chris Sale to Triple-A serve as a harbinger for a major-league promotion to help the White Sox stay atop the AL Central?
Are the Orioles this bad?
While the O's were overrated entering the year, no one could have expected a 29-59 record at the All-Star break. Now that they have gotten rid of the chaff (goodbye, Garrett Atkins) and are on the verge of getting Felix Pie back, they should play significantly better to the point where it's questionable if they end up with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011's amateur draft. (Key word: Should.) Cleveland and Pittsburgh have better chances of playing worse than Baltimore. It's hard to imagine the O's remaining pathetic, but in a division where the No. 4 team has a 44-45 record, the going will be tough. Another storyline to follow with the Orioles is who the new manager will be -- all indications point to Buck Showalter.
Will Bryce Harper sign with the Nationals?
The signing deadline for prospects is August 16, and many signings will take place around that time. It's hard to imagine Harper turning down an opportunity to get into pro ball right away -- after all, every move of his to date has been with that goal in mind. For Washington's part, there's been a ton of good feelings surrounding the team lately. By failing to sign another young phenom, the Nats' armor would be dented. The move makes too much sense for both sides. The Pirates should ink Jameson Taillon, but can the Dodgers prove everyone wrong that the selection of Zach Lee wasn't motivated by finances? Lee is considered virtually unsignable, and the Dodgers have money woes. Probably not, but it will be just as intriguing a storyline as Harper's decision.
Can anyone hit 40 home runs?
Currently, Jose Bautista leads the majors in homers with 24. He's on pace to end up with 44, but regression to the mean figures to hit Bautista severely in the second half. Josh Hamilton, Adam Dunn, Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto all rank second with 22, and all have excellent chances of cracking 40 -- but it's far from certain. And if Albert Pujols can get hot -- he's on pace for just his third season with an OPS under 1.000 out of 10 -- watch out. The best chance of anyone? Dunn, if he goes to the White Sox or another park kind to big boppers.
Can the Year of the Pitcher continue?
There have been two no-hitters and two official perfect games (one unofficial) so far on the year. It's an unheard of mark, and will be fascinating to see if the trend can continue. There are plenty of quality pitchers on the mound and hitters have looked overmatched all year long. Which is why baseball could very well see someone not hit 40 home runs in a season. Keep your eye on this list -- one of those may be celebrating on a mound near you.
Pay attention to Josh Johnson of the Marlins as well, who has a scant 1.70 ERA and would be the first pitcher since Roger Clemens in 2005 (1.87) to have an ERA below 2.00 if he keeps this up.
Who will win the playoff races?
The AL East has quite the three-way battle brewing between the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox. Two are certain to get into the playoffs thanks to the wild card. One will be playing golf in October. While the Red Sox are currently in third place, more advanced standings suggest Boston should be in second place, while the Yankees are just a few key injuries away from their older and productive stars from tumbling off a cliff. The White Sox, Tigers and Twins are locked in their own-three way battle. And don't count the Angels out of the West just yet.
Over in the NL, Atlanta has a nice lead, but the Mets and Phillies refuse to die, the Central has what promises to be an entertaining seesaw battle between the Cardinals and Reds, and the NL West is anyone's game -- well, except for the Diamondbacks. Will a Game 163 be played again this year? With so many tight races, the odds are strong.
-- Evan Brunell
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