There have been plenty of storylines to keep us busy during the first half of the Major League Baseball schedule, and a number of surprising ones at that.
From the travels of Cliff Lee to the exploits of Robinson Cano and Miguel Cabrera and the firing of two managers, the first half in the American League has provided its share of water-cooler talk.
Lee, who is becoming something of a modern-day mercenary, was traded to the AL West-leading Rangers on Friday in a move that they hope will keep them atop the division standings.
The Dave Trembley and Trey Hillman eras are over in Baltimore and Kansas City, respectively, and the teams at the top of the won-loss columns in the East and Central are already in dogfights that should last well into the summer. Boston and Tampa Bay are making it tough on New York in the AL East, and as usual, the Central Division is up for grabs among the White Sox, Tigers and Twins.
In the National League, those preseason predictions are little more than a distant memory. A pair of surprising teams have emerged - the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres - at the top of the class, while the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets seem ready to unseat the two- time defending NL champion Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East.
The Phils are just one of a few teams that are failing to meet expectations. More was also expected out of the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Injuries have been a factor, as always, and a pair of coaching changes have already gone down in the Senior Circuit.
So with the 81st annual All-Star Game past, here's a look at how the each team stacks up so far, with grades provided for each club.
THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
DON'T MESS WITH TEXAS...OR NEW YORK OR TAMPA BAY
Texas Rangers - Things did not look good for the Rangers when it was revealed during spring training that manager Ron Washington tested positive for cocaine during the 2009 season. But, after Washington apologized for his poor decision and was permitted to remain in place, the Rangers rallied around their manager and began making a big run at an AL West title. A strong first half from Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero stood out on Texas' productive offense, which also includes star infielder Michael Young. Pitching could have been better, though. Youngster C.J. Lewis has had his moments, but Rich Harden has been softer than a TCBY smoothie. Still, the acquisition of Lee gives the Rangers a shot at a playoff run, much like he did with Philadelphia.
New York Yankees - There's not much to criticize about the defending World Series champions, but CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte can't do it all by themselves on the mound. A.J. Burnett seems lost in space, and Phil Hughes still has some things to work on even though he owns double-digit wins. The bullpen could also use some help, and future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera isn't getting any younger. One of the top fielding teams in the major leagues, the Yankees have two MVP candidates in Alex Rodriguez and the red-hot Cano.
Tampa Bay Rays - Two years removed from their improbable run to the World Series, the Rays have proven they can hang with the Yankees in the American League Division. Manager Joe Maddon has one of the strongest pitching staffs in the major leagues with David Price, Matt Garza and James Shields highlighting the rotation. Despite his high average, Carl Crawford hasn't been as consistent as in the past, and B.J. Upton is definitely struggling. Evan Longoria can't do it all, and let Upton know as much during a well-publicized dugout confrontation between the two earlier this season. If Tampa had slick-fielding players like the Yankees, perhaps it would be looking down on the rest of the AL East. Be sure to catch what the Rays do in the second half of the season.
THESE GUYS ARE GOOD, BUT STILL NEED WORK
Boston Red Sox - The injury bug made its way through the Boston clubhouse and a few key players were left licking their wounds. Hitters Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Lowell, Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia and Jason Varitek were all shelved at some point. It almost seems that the entire pitching staff, both starters and relievers, has been disabled ever since ace Josh Beckett and emerging star Clay Buchholz landed on the infirmary list. Injuries aside, however, Terry Francona has kept this ailing ballclub in the hunt for another division title with help from other spots. Jon Lester is still one of the best pitchers in the Junior Circuit and Jonathan Papelbon is nearly unstoppable when he's on point. Kevin Youkilis is battling an ankle problem but it hasn't stopped him from being one of the team leaders in homers and RBI. Even David Ortiz has shed the batting albatross, and Adrian Beltre is enjoying a solid season in New England.
Detroit Tigers - Two players have single-handedly lifted the spirits of baseball fans in Motown with their consistent effort and production on the field. Legendary manager Jim Leyland would be in a world of hurt were it not for starting pitcher Justin Verlander and slugger Cabrera. Cabrera is a Triple Crown candidate, while Verlander's flame-throwing right arm has him near the top of every major pitching category. Leyland's club has one of the best overall batting averages in the majors, but the pitching staff -- minus Verlander -- could use help at the trade deadline. Rick Porcello, Jeremy Bonderman and Max Scherzer have fared no better than Triple-A starters in 2010. It didn't help losing hard-throwing reliever Joel Zumaya to an elbow injury, considering the Tigers are in the hunt for an AL Central crown.
Chicago White Sox - The Pale Hose are in the same boat as Detroit and are also in the running for a division title. Starting pitcher Jake Peavy was leading the staff in strikeouts, but was recently placed on the disabled list with a lat and shoulder ailment. Mark Buehrle and John Danks are expected to pick up the slack until Peavy returns, but the biggest surprise has been right-hander Freddy Garcia. Garcia seems reborn this season and leads the team in wins. As usual, Paul Konerko is leading the team in homers and RBI, while Carlos Quentin has served as his sidekick. Much like Garcia on the mound, veteran outfielder Andruw Jones has come to life under fiery manager Ozzie Guillen. Guillen has a decent bullpen too, with big Bobby Jenks serving as the team's closer in a bullpen with an ERA lower than 4.00.
LA Angels of Anaheim - Had Kendry Morales not been hurt during a post-game celebration, the Angels would have been with the A-class. The loss of Morales was a tremendous one, and now all the attention rests on the broad shoulders of outfielder Torii Hunter. Hunter leads the team in most offensive categories, but Mike Napoli is also enjoying a solid campaign and both Hideki Matsui and Juan Rivera have been productive counterparts. LA's fielding and pitching are both among the worst in the league. That's too bad for the Halos in their battle with Texas for AL West supremacy. On paper, the Angels have an elite rotation with the likes of Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders and Scott Kazmir toeing the rubber, but now have to deal with Lee on the Texas staff. Unlikely starter Joel Pineiro currently leads the team in wins. After averaging nearly 17 wins over the past two seasons, Saunders is still trying to reach double digits in victories this season.
Minnesota Twins - With a rotation easily comparable to the Angels, the Twins will have to punch their ticket to the postseason with their bats. Carl Pavano, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Francisco Liriano have done a decent job so far, but this group of guys will have a hard time carrying the load towards the end of the season. Minnesota's ERA is in the middle of the pack, while its bullpen is one of the best in the major leagues. The Twins have a low ERA in the bullpen, with Jon Rauch serving as full-time closer for injured righty Joe Nathan. Nathan's loss was certainly huge, and the team hopes Rauch can hold up in the stretch run. All-Star Justin Morneau has been his usual impressive self, but Joe Mauer has been plagued by injuries. Outfielder/DH Jason Kubel and outfielder Delmon Young have picked up the slack, and so has future Hall of Fame slugger Jim Thome. Thome is enjoying his first season in the Twin Cities, as he is on pace for a fifth consecutive 20-home run year.
RUNNING ON FUMES
Toronto Blue Jays - It's been rough for the Blue Jays and their fans since they won those World Series titles back in 1992 and 1993, as the Jays' last playoff moment was Joe Carter's legendary home run. The mediocrity will likely continue for years to come, but at least there are a few players who can provide hope. Jose Bautista has the biggest surprise with his 24 home runs, while sluggers Vernon Wells and Alex Gonzalez have shown some longball proficiency as well. Wells has been the most consistent Blue Jay since the club's days of grace in the early 1990s, but is also injury-prone. Catcher John Buck even earned an All-Star nod this season and has a fielding percentage near 1.000. Toronto has a steady group of young pitchers in Shaun Marcum, Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero, but none of them have 10 or more wins. Romero is the best bet for reaching that mark first. Surprisingly, Toronto has had one of the top infields with second baseman Aaron Hill and Lyle Overbay leading the way and the veteran Gonzalez also serving as a credit to the cause.
Oakland Athletics - The only highlight of 2010 that belongs to the Oakland Athletics is the perfect game Dallas Braden tossed on Mother's Day. Braden has been awful since, and is currently on the disabled list. Fortunately there are other young arms in the rotation that will give Oakland something to smile about in the future. Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Vin Mazzaro all have the potential to last as long in the league as A's veteran Ben Sheets. However, like most pitchers who switch leagues, Sheets is having a rough time adjusting to the AL. Oakland does have a decent earned run average overall, but its offense isn't much to write home about. Kevin Kouzmanoff, Ryan Sweeney and Kurt Suzuki are the best manager Bob Geren has to offer. Oakland still has something of a chance in the West at 7 1/2 games off the pace, though if the A's fall out of contention, Geren may not last long to see these youngsters thrive at the major league level.
Kansas City Royals - Even though Kansas City seems to be a team on the rise, it still has some areas of concern. The rotation is below-average at best behind reigning AL Cy Young Award recipient Zack Greinke, and he's not even pitching that well. The Royals can't honestly believe they will have a competitive rotation with Brian Bannister, Bruce Chen, Kyle Davies and Luke Hochevar rounding things out. Kansas City has one of the worst ERA's in the game, but its bullpen is somewhat decent with All-Star closer Joakim Soria doing his best Mariano Rivera impression. Interim manager Ned Yost's job is secure for now thanks to great hitting and a team batting average near .300, though newcomer Rick Ankiel is sidelined with a leg injury and slugger Jose Guillen has been bothered by a strained quadriceps. Guillen leads the team in homers and RBI, and has been a solid veteran presence to his teammates. Billy Butler, Alberto Callaspo, David DeJesus, Yuniesky Betancourt and Scott Podsednik could make this team a playoff contender in a few years. As for now, there's too much competition in the Central to even give KC a legitimate shot.
BAGS ALREADY PACKED FOR VACATION
Baltimore Orioles - The Dave Trembley era ended earlier this season, and for good reason. The Orioles pulled the plug on him after a 15-39 start, and replaced him with interim manager Juan Samuel. The move hasn't made much of a difference, and Baltimore (14-20 under Samuel) is still struggling both on the mound and at the plate despite all of the young prospects. Baltimore is near the bottom of the barrel in starting pitching and relief, and it didn't help when starter Kevin Millwood landed on the disabled list with a strained right forearm. It won't be that much of a loss since Millwood owns just two wins in 2010. David Hernandez, Brian Matusz and Brad Bergesen are solid arms to build around, but some quality veteran arms would help too. Veteran Jeremy Guthrie is one of those veterans, but he also has a less-than-desirable record and ERA. Adam Jones is a stud, so the Orioles are good in center field. All-star Ty Wigginton is enjoying a good season as well, though it hurt the team when Luke Scott went down with a hamstring injury. Baltimore still hasn't lost hope on stud catcher Matt Wieters.
Cleveland Indians - The Indians are last in the competitive Central -- five games back of the Royals -- and are rated in the mid-to-late 20s in every major category. Their bullpen is one of the worst with Kerry Wood handling closing duties. Chris Perez is no better, but has plenty more appearances this season. The bullpen is definitely a major concern, and the same goes for the rotation. Mitch Talbot, Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook should have more wins than they currently own. All three can relate to the bullpen's woes. One would believe Cleveland is stacked offensively with Shin-Soo Choo, new addition Russell Branyan, Jhonny Peralta and Grady Sizemore on the roster. Peralta is struggling and Sizemore is injured, making matters worse as the team heads into the second half.
Seattle Mariners - The Mariners have been one of the biggest disappointments this season, given their aggressive offseason approach. The ballclub landed star lefty Lee to team up with Felix Hernandez, third baseman Chone Figgins and outfielder Milton Bradley in the offseason, but all it has produced is a last- place tag in the American League West. Lee spent the start of the season on the disabled list and has been lights-out ever since. Now he'll take his talents down south to Texas. The rest of the Seattle rotation hasn't lived up to the hype with such hurlers as Jason Vargas, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Doug Fister. The hitting has been much worse, but never count out Ichiro Suzuki. Suzuki is a hit machine and is surrounded by average hitters in Franklin Gutierrez, Jose Lopez and Mike Sweeney. Bradley and Gutierrez are the big hitters in Don Wakamatsu's lineup and hope to beef up their numbers after the All-Star break.
THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Cincinnati Reds - The Reds haven't been in first place this late in a season since 1999 and are aiming for their first playoff appearance since 1995. They have an MVP candidate in Joey Votto, who is among the league leaders in average, homers and RBI, and are leading the league in average, home runs and runs scored as a team. Cincinnati's pitching hasn't been too shabby either, with Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and rookie Mike Leake leading the rotation and closer Francisco Cordero and Arthur Rhodes guiding the bullpen. Rhodes' amazing season at the age of 40 has perhaps best symbolized how the Reds have come out of nowhere to contend. Cincinnati still needs to add a pitcher, but they have reserves in a rehabbing Edinson Volquez (Tommy John surgery) and minor leaguer Aroldis Chapman.
San Diego Padres - Petco Park has always been known as a place where pitchers can dominate, so its no surprise that the Padres are among the major league leaders in team earned run average. Jon Garland, Clayton Richard, Mat Latos and Wade LeBlanc all have earned run averages under four and Latos is perhaps the best pitcher that nobody is talking about. San Diego is also among the league leaders in shutouts, and the club has gotten just enough offensive contributions from Adrian Gonzalez, David Eckstein and Chase Headley to come out on top in a tough and tight National League West. The Padres are perhaps the biggest surprise in the Senior Circuit other than the Reds, but they will need to add offense if they want to be a legitimate threat.
Atlanta Braves - I picked the Braves to be my NL wild card team before the start of the season, but I never envisioned them at the top of the NL East standings. Still, there they sit, holders of one of the top home marks in baseball. Martin Prado has stepped in beautifully at second base as a starter, Troy Glaus and Jason Heyward have added some much-needed power and the bullpen has been one of the best in the league. Add in a healthy and dominating Tim Hudson to lead the rotation, and the return of Jair Jurrjens, and the Braves have the arms to contend. Atlanta's second-half goal should be to improve its play on the road.
DESTINED FOR HONOR ROLL
St. Louis Cardinals - Though they have to be surprised to find themselves chasing the Reds, but the Cardinals are still in position to grab their fifth NL Central title in seven seasons. Albert Pujols has performed below his standards but is still having a good season, while Matt Holliday has come on after a slow start. Starter Jamie Garcia has been a surprise while both Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter have been strong, but St. Louis needs help at the back end of its rotation. If the Reds continue to play well, the pressure will be on the Cardinals to make a move prior to the trade deadline, but with Pujols still anchoring the lineup, anything is possible.
New York Mets - The Mets have rebounded from their injury-plagued 2009 season to contend with the Braves for first place heading into the All-Star break. David Wright has already surpassed his home run total from a season ago and both Ike Davis and Angel Pagan have put together solid contributions, though the club would like to see more from free agent pickup Jason Bay. Starters Mike Pelfrey and Jon Niese have both helped take some of the pressure off the surprisingly inconsistent Johan Santana, who has also been let down at times by the offense. Like the Braves, the Mets have been much stronger at home than on the road, but getting Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran healthy in the second half could put them over the top.
Colorado Rockies - The biggest story of the season for the Rockies -- and maybe the entire league -- has been the performance of Ubaldo Jimenez, who has emerged as the favorite to capture the NL Cy Young Award and is the first pitcher NL pitcher to reach 15 wins before the All-Star break since Greg Maddux in 1988. Don't sleep on Colorado's offense, though, which features emerging young star Carlos Gonzalez, the steady Troy Tulowitzki (though he is currently injured) and the always-dangerous Brad Hawpe. The Rockies have shown an ability to finish strong down the stretch and few teams would want to face Jimenez in a short playoff series.
Los Angeles Dodgers - The two-time defending NL West champions find themselves trailing in the race at the break, not surprising given how streaky the team has been this year. Manny Ramirez has struggled to stay healthy, and both Andre Ethier and Chad Billingsley have spent time on the disabled list. Matt Kemp has mirrored the club's hot-and-cold tendencies and more consistency from him will go a long way in getting the Dodgers back to the top of the standings. On the pitching side, Clayton Kershaw has put it together to become the club's ace and the team has still shown signs of being contenders in the National League.
NEED TO STAY AFTER CLASS
San Francisco Giants - The Giants have cooled off since their quick start in April, but have managed to remain in the hunt in the tight NL West. Two-time defending NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum has looked shaky at times this year, but is still one of the top hurlers in the game and is getting excellent support from a deep rotation that features a resurgent Barry Zito as well as Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez. Offense is always hard to come by for San Francisco, but rookie Buster Posey is showing signs of breaking out and Aubrey Huff has been a solid contributor as well. Even Pat Burrell has rediscovered his game since joining the club in late May. If the Giants are to reach the postseason, however, it will be because of their pitching.
Florida Marlins - Things seemed destined to explode in South Beach when Hanley Ramirez and former manager Fredi Gonzalez butted heads in mid-May, and sure enough, Gonzalez is gone, replaced by Edwin Rodriguez. Starter Josh Johnson has pitched like a Cy Young Award candidate, but the rest of rotation has struggled. Meanwhile, rookie Mike Stanton has shown promise and Ramirez and Dan Uggla remain dangerous, but the offense and pitching is hovering around the middle-of-the-pack to leave the club near but below the .500 mark. The Marlins have found a way to contend over the last few seasons, but some of their magic may be running out.
Philadelphia Phillies - Though their record is near where it was at this stage in 2009, the Phillies find themselves not on top of the NL East, but third behind the Braves and Mets. Injuries to Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz have wreaked havoc on the lineup and the pitching staff has also missed Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin and J.A. Happ. But the offense wasn't hitting when injuries weren't as big an issue and the Phillies seem to be losing some of their swagger that comes with back-to-back NL championships. One also has to wonder where they would be without All-Star Roy Halladay, who could easily have another three or four more wins if not for the inconsistent offense.
BOUND FOR SUMMER SCHOOL
Washington Nationals - The Nationals surprised many when they got off to a 20-15 start that had them near the top of the standings, but the club has since settled into its customary last-place spot in the NL East just behind the Marlins. The emergence of Stephen Strasburg has some hype surrounding the club, but the rest of the rotation (minus the surprising Livan Hernandez) has been pretty bad, which is a shame given how well the offense has played at times. If leadoff man Nyjer Morgan can get it going the second half, runs could come at a faster pace unless the team decides to trade pending free agent Adam Dunn. Still, the club is on pace to finish below 100 losses for the first time in three years and that has to count for something, right?
Chicago Cubs - Expectations are always high in the Windy City and the Cubs have failed to even come close to meeting them this year. They will carry a sub-.500 record into the break and are facing hurdles with the out-of-control Carlos Zambrano and well as a brutal slumps by Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee. If not for a bounce-back season from Carlos Silva and an All-Star year so far by Marlon Byrd, two of Chicago's offseason acquisitions, the Cubs could be sitting further down in the standings. Lou Piniella's club will need to find some consistency in the second half or sweeping changes could be headed Chicago's way.
Houston Astros - The Astros have never really recovered from an 0-8 start to the season and it looks as though Brad Mills' club will be sellers in the second half. Roy Oswalt, the head of an otherwise lackluster rotation, is probably gone, which will leave first-year Astro Brett Myers as the club's top hurler. Lance Berkman has begun heating up in the power category and Hunter Pence is also rebounding from a horrid start to the season, but Houston is already looking ahead and is giving playing time to youngsters like Jason Castro and Chris Johnson. Houston's pitching staff could also receive an injection of minor league talent by season's end.
Milwaukee Brewers - Despite a powerful offense that features two of the top sluggers in the game, the Brewers just can't seem to get over the hump and 2010 is looking no different. Milwaukee appears closer to the 80-win team it fielded last year than the 2008 club that made the postseason and it could lead to the club deciding to trade Prince Fielder rather than pay the first baseman, who has struggled in driving in runs this season. Corey Hart could also get moved, leaving Ryan Braun as the club's lone and brightest star. A recent injury to All-Star hurler Yovani Gallardo could also cripple the club given how bad the rest of the rotation has been.
Arizona Diamondbacks - It has already been a long summer in the desert for the Diamondbacks, who own one of the worst records in baseball and have made a midseason managerial change for the second straight year. That has done little to spark the club, which has seen scant production offensively from Stephen Drew, Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds. Mix in default ace Dan Haren's struggles, and it is of little surprise that the club has one of the worst earned run averages in the game. Even Edwin Jackson's no-hitter came with some eye- rolling, after he walked eight batters en route to the milestone. Thought to be possible contenders for the NL West crown, the D-Backs have instead been the league's biggest disappointment.
LIKELY TO GET HELD BACK
Pittsburgh Pirates - It doesn't look like the Pirates will be able to avoid an 18th straight losing season, but come on, did anyone really expect any different? Pittsburgh is always looking towards next season and that has been the highlight of 2010 as the "Big Three" -- Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Brad Lincoln -- have all been brought up from the minors to earn some big league experience. That trio is meshing with fellow youngsters Lastings Milledge, Neil Walker and Evan Meek as the Pirates continue to go through the motions. Low expectations prevent Pittsburgh from getting a low grade as it nets partial credit for its minor league call-ups.
Grade: Incomplete, repeat next year