The All-Star break is over, and now maybe some of the All-Stars will return.
Not the guys who played in that game Tuesday night in Anaheim. No, this is the about the guys who couldn't play.
Dustin Pedroia (who walked through the American League clubhouse on crutches). Chase Utley. Jose Reyes. Carlos Beltran. Troy Tulowitzki. Josh Beckett. Jason Heyward. Clay Buchholz. Mariano Rivera. Victor Martinez. Justin Morneau.
|Dustin Pedroia hopes to return 'in a couple of weeks, maybe in a week and a half.' (AP)|
That's 12 players, with a combined 53 All-Star selections. None of whom, with the possible exception of A-Rod, was healthy enough to play in this game "that counts."
And all of whom, without exception, could have a great impact on the pennant races to come, the ones that really do count.
Sounds like a pretty good place to start a rundown of second-half talking points:
1. The injured players. The ever-optimistic Pedroia said in Anaheim that he hoped to play "in a couple of weeks, maybe in a week and a half."
The more-cautious Red Sox are hoping to have Beckett and Buchholz back in their rotation by the end of this month, and Pedroia, Martinez and Jacoby Ellsbury back in their lineup by the middle of August.
In the tough three-team race in the American League East, it's hard to see the Red Sox winning if they don't get most or all of them back.
"With the teams in our division, you've got to have all of your firepower," Pedroia agreed. "But we went on a streak earlier, and Jacoby wasn't even there. And we felt we were the best team in baseball."
It's hard to say which injured star is the most important, because to their teams, all of them matter greatly. But if you had to rank them, the middle infielders (Pedroia, Utley, Tulowitzki and Reyes) would be at the top of the list.
Tulowitzki said he plans to take batting practice on the field this weekend, but he still lists his return date as anywhere from 2-5 weeks from now. The Mets believe that both Reyes and Beltran will be in their lineup Thursday night, but they really can't be sure how healthy or productive either will be.
As for Utley, the Phillies only say that his history shows that he comes back from injuries quicker and stronger than expected. And, they say that he has helped them even while hurt.
"Missing him on the field is a huge part, but as long as we can keep him around the team, I think that's a huge part of why the team is successful," Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay said. "Obviously, having him on the field would be even better."
2. The wounded teams. Of the eight teams that made it to the postseason last year, just two would have made it back had this season ended at the All-Star break (the Yankees, and either the Dodgers or Rockies, who were tied for the National League wild-card lead).
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That leaves six 2009 playoff teams in some sort of trouble, including the Phillies, who have played in the World Series the last two seasons, and the Angels, who have won the American League West five of the last six years.
They may need some sort of trade, which leads to. ..
3. The marketplace. Just as happened two years ago with CC Sabathia, the biggest prize on the July shelves, was claimed before the All-Star break when the Rangers acquired Cliff Lee from the Mariners. But the post-break trading season got underway early, with Thursday's swap of shortstops that sent Alex Gonzalez to Atlanta and Yunel Escobar to Toronto.
There may not be any more huge trades, but there will no doubt be plenty of huge rumors (some of them even true). The potential for big movement is there, simply because the Diamondbacks are willing to move Dan Haren (among others), because the Brewers are willing to talk about Prince Fielder and Corey Hart, and because the Astros are more open to trading Roy Oswalt.
One thing that all four of those players have in common: They won't be free agents at the end of this season, so there's much less pressure to get a deal done.
4. The jumble. In the American League, eight of the 14 teams are within five games of first place, which could mean some wild pennant races. It shouldn't come as any surprise that only 3½ games separate the top three teams in the AL Central, which has required a 163rd game two straight years.
The question this year: Will even 163 games be enough, or will this be the year the Central ends in a three-way tie?
The picture isn't any clearer in the National League, where nine of the 16 teams are within 4½ games of first place.
5. The history. A-Rod begins the second half with 597 career home runs. Miguel Cabrera begins the second half leading the American League in batting and in RBI, and just two home runs off the league lead. Josh Hamilton is virtually tied for the batting lead, two back in the home run race and 13 back in the RBI race.
And Andy Pettitte is 11-2, virtually guaranteed an incredible (and record-setting) 16th consecutive year without a losing record.
6. The managers. The Braves are giving Bobby Cox a chance to go out on top. The Cubs are making Lou Piniella miserable in what looks more and more like his last year. And Joe Torre? Everyone figures this is his last year with the Dodgers, but he says he won't decide until later.
7. The owners. Will baseball (and the courts) ever get this Texas mess settled? General manager Jon Daniels, and club president Nolan Ryan, deserve tons of credit for building a first-place team -- and trading for both Lee and Bengie Molina -- without a real owner in place. Meanwhile, Torre and general manager Ned Colletti will try to hold the Dodgers together while their owners try to break apart in a messy divorce.
8. The rock star. Stephen Strasburg's first seven major-league starts drew an average of 37,465 fans. In his only two road starts, he gave the Indians and the Braves their biggest crowds since opening day. We can only guess how much the record-low ratings for the All-Star Game would have been improved by Strasburg's presence.
And we can only wait and see how long people keep jamming the turnstiles every time he pitches. His first post-break start will be Friday night in Florida, followed by starts in Cincinnati and back home against the Braves.
9. The next Strasburg? Will agent Scott Boras be able to convince the Nationals that top draft pick Bryce Harper is worth record-setting money? It can't hurt that the Nationals are already getting paid back on the $15.1 million deal they gave Stephen Strasburg last year.
But can Harper become the rock star that Strasburg already is? Leading up to the Aug. 16 signing deadline, expect Boras to make the case that he can.
10. The surprises. Sorry, but we can't tell you what the second-half surprises would be (if we did, they wouldn't be surprises!). But we can tell you that you'll be watching to see if the Padres and Reds, the two biggest first-half surprises, can keep it going.