07/15/10 — Opinion: Plenty to watch in MLB races

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Opinion: Plenty to watch in MLB races

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on July 15, 2010 1:47 PM

Major League Baseball's All-Star Game has come and gone, the temperatures outside read like Stephen Strasburg's fastball on a radar gun and dreaming of college football season has me waking up in a cold sweat at least once a week.

The second half of the MLB season gets underway today and there's plenty to watch as pennant races heat up and summer turns to fall. Here's four things worth keeping an eye on during MLB's second half:

* Surprise party: The National League's three divisional leaders, Atlanta, Cincinnati and San Diego finished last season a combined 40 games out of first place. Those same three teams currently lead their respective divisions by a collective seven games over their closest divisional competition.

Atlanta has gotten it done with solid pitching, the resurgence of first baseman Troy Glaus and consistent production from rookie phenom Jason Heyward. Second baseman Martin Prado leads the National League with a .325 batting average. The Braves entered the All-Star break having won 29 of their last 43 games and also own baseball's best home record at 30-10.

The Reds have been led by All-Star first baseman Joey Votto and his 22 home runs, which are tied for first in the National League. Cincinnati is among the top-10 in baseball in team batting average, home runs, RBI, hits and slugging percentage.

San Diego boasts baseball's best team earned run average at 3.25, and is in the top-10 in saves, shutouts, innings pitched, strikeouts, earned runs and opponent's batting average. The Padres also have four starting pitcher's with ERA's under 4.00.

* Let's make a deal: Baseball's July 31 trade deadline is approaching quickly and the next few weeks should determine which clubs are buyers and sellers.

Houston pitcher Roy Oswalt, Florida second baseman Dan Uggla, the Chicago Cubs' Alfonso Soriano and Derek Lee and Milwaukee's Corey Hart and Prince Fielder are just a handful of players who could be on the move.

* Child's play: Strasburg, Heyward and fellow rookies Jaime Garcia of Louis', Cincinnati's Mike Leake and the Mets' Jonathon Niese all made an impact during the first half of the season.

Strasburg struck out 14 in his MLB debut against Pittsburgh, and is currently 3-2 with a 2.32 ERA in seven starts. Washington has said it will shut the right-hander down once he reaches 160 innings, meaning Strasburg has roughly 10 starts left.

At 20-years-old, Heyward was selected to the All-Star Game and was among the National League leaders in RBI, slugging, on-base percentage and walks before being sidelined with a thumb injury.

Garcia, Leake and Niese, all starting pitchers, are a combined 20-8 with ERA's at 3.53 or better. As the season drags on, only time will tell if the grind of a 162-game season will take its toll on these youngsters.

* Best in show: It's never too early to start thinking about handing out some hardware. Votto and Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera are the early leaders for the National League and American League MVP awards, respectively. Albert Pujols, David Wright, Robinson Cano and Justin Morneau figure to be in the mix by the end of the regular season.

Florida's Josh Johnson (9-3, 1.70 ERA) and Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez (15-1, 2.20 ERA) should continue to duel for the NL Cy Young award. Texas' Cliff Lee (8-4, 2.64 ERA) appears to have the inside track in the AL.