Jeffery LoriaSteve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsOwner Jeffrey Loria and the Marlins are only six games behind the Nationals in the NL East.
Before you dismiss the notion that the Miami Marlins could be serious players in the market over the next few days, it's worth noting that after their wild comeback win over Washington on Monday, they are closer to their leader in their division -- six games behind -- than the Tampa Bay Rays, who are seven games behind the Baltimore Orioles.

Remember, too, that for all of his quirks and odd ballpark colors and home run sculpture, Miami owner Jeffrey Loria is an optimist at heart. And despite fielding teams with minimal payrolls, his expectations have always been high for his baseball operations employees. In 2003, he watched a bunch of youngsters named Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Juan Pierre revive themselves in midseason and go on to win the World Series, and after it was over, Loria ran around the bases at Yankee Stadium. Loria is a dreamer, and staffers past and present talk about meetings in which they thought they would to be told to rebuild and cut their losses. Instead they walk away having been ordered, in so many words, to find a way to win.
Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwireGetty ImagesA change in the voting process has diminished the chances of some players making the Hall of Fame.
For Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire, the chances for Hall of Fame induction through the vote of the writers appears to be all but eliminated, given the implications of the rule change announced Saturday. Maybe you agree with that, maybe you disagree.

But the chances for some players who haven’t been linked in any way to performance-enhancing drugs, like Tim Raines, will also be hurt, which is flat-out ridiculous.

Under the terms of the new rules, players will now appear on the Hall of Fame ballot for 10 years, rather than 15, a switch that also accelerates the time frame in which the issue of past PED use can marinate in the minds of voters.

To date, a clear majority of the BBWAA members have determined that they will withhold their votes for players based on either an established or suspected link to performance-enhancing drugs. Last year, for example, Bonds received 34.7 percent of the vote, after receiving 36.2 percent in his first year. Jeff Bagwell -- a player with overwhelming statistical credentials for the Hall -- has never been linked to PEDs in any substantive way, other than suspicion, and he hasn’t received more than 59.6 percent of the vote.

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Pat GillickL Redkoles/Getty ImagesPat Gillick and other former execs and players are looking into ways to shorten game times.
Pat Gillick reminisced the other day about an amateur baseball tournament in Kansas, in which games were started from morning until midnight, the schedule pushed along by the clock. If the hitter wasn't in the box 90 seconds from the last pitch of an inning to the first pitch of the next half-inning, well, everybody understood a strike would be called.

There was a lot of baseball to be played in a confined time frame, and the coaches and players understood that the pace needed to be pushed for the sake of the event. "Unless they got inclement weather," Gillick recalled, "they'd get off eight, 10 games in a day," with the games averaging two hours to perhaps two hours and 15 minutes.

Game times like that almost never occur anymore in professional baseball, but in the independent Atlantic League, rule changes will go into effect Aug. 1 that will push the pace and move the game along faster. Gillick, who was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 2011, is part of a committee that agreed on these measures. Among them:

• The defensive team will be limited to three "timeouts" per game, in which mound visits or on-field conferences take place with the current pitcher. Pitching changes will not be counted as timeouts, and in the case of extra innings, one additional timeout will be permitted at the start of the 10th inning and every three innings thereafter. Umpires will enforce a strict 45-second time limit on said timeouts. If the umpire's warning is disregarded by the defensive team and play continues to be delayed, the umpire shall declare a "ball" for the batter at the plate.

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Cliff Lee and A.J. BurnettMitchell Leff/Getty ImagesThe complex contracts of Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett make them tough to value on the trade market.
The trade deadline of July 31 won't apply to Cliff Lee, some officials believe, because he's so expensive and there are enough questions about his elbow that nobody would claim him if he were to be placed on waivers in August. "He'll get through waivers," one executive said. "Nobody's going to want to take that contract."

Lee is guaranteed to make $48 million through the end of the 2015 season -- that's $48 million for the next 14 months -- because of the $12.5 million buyout attached to a vesting option for 2016.

Beyond that, rival officials are wary of some of the red flags raised with Lee's time lost to an elbow injury this summer. He has been a horse throughout his career, all but free of arm problems, but with him having spent more than two months on the disabled list and having mentioned along the way that he didn't feel completely right, some evaluators are wary of a persistent problem.

But with or without arm trouble, Lee's value is much affected by his contract.

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Cliff LeeMitchell Leff/Getty ImagesTeams in the playoff hunt are evaluating whether Cliff Lee would help their starting pitching needs.
There are two windows in every baseball calendar year in which small sample size really matters. In October, of course; as Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone and Dave Roberts can attest, bits and pieces of success can live forever.

The other time frame in which one game or one week can make a difference -- really good or really bad -- is just before the trade deadline. Multiple scouts were dispatched to watch Cliff Lee in his return to the rotation Monday, the 322nd regular-season start of his career. Rival executives are well aware of all that Lee had accomplished before Monday’s game, with the Cy Young Award and the four All-Star appearances and the postseason dominance, but all they wanted to know was how Lee is throwing the ball right now, in this moment of his career, as they assess whether to pursue a deal with the Phillies.

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Ryan Braun's power outage 

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
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Ryan Braun AP Photo/Morry GashRyan Braun ranks 146th out of 163 qualified batters in percent of hits pulled (30.8).
An experienced and smart evaluator who has seen Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun a couple of times this year noted all the twists in his career in a conversation on Monday.

“Wins the Most Valuable Player Award [in 2011] hitting with all kinds of power,” he said. “Tests positive, [but] wins his appeal. Has another big year, with power, second in the MVP. Then, Biogenesis.”

Yes. He was suspended.

“He’s had a lot of injuries. Now he’s completely different.”

How so?

“Takes the ball to the opposite field a lot,” said the evaluator. “I think he’s more of an opposite-field hitter than almost anybody in baseball. He doesn’t really pull the ball anymore, and I don’t think he hits the ball as far as he used to.”

On home runs?

“No, in general. I don’t think the ball goes nearly as far.”

Braun is having a good season, without question, with a .354 on-base percentage. He’s on track to accumulate a respectable 63 extra-base hits -- but with 19 homers and 37 walks, very different from his 2012 totals of 41 homers and 63 walks.

The observations were interesting, so I asked “Baseball Tonight” senior researcher Justin Havens, half of the podcast Fireball Express, to look more deeply into Braun’s performance, to see how close the evaluator’s eye test is to reality.

What Justin found was amazing.

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David PriceKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDavid Price has fired 16 consecutive scoreless innings for the Rays.
ST. LOUIS -- The Tampa Bay Rays keep complicating an already wrenching decision -- by winning.

Their sweep of the Minnesota Twins over the weekend cut their deficit in the American League East to 7½ games and in the wild-card race to six games, gaps they have overcome in past seasons.

There are 10 days until the July 31 trade deadline. Ten days to mull over the trade options of their franchise pitcher, David Price. Ten days to decide whether to buy, sell or both. Ten days for other teams to try to make the same aggressive play that Oakland did when it swapped star prospect Addison Russell, among others, for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

The Rays will factor many things into their decision as to whether to trade Price, including their place in the standings, how well they are playing, their need for prospects and Price's trade value, which gradually slides downward as he nears free agency. But one executive involved in the conversations with Tampa Bay believes that, ultimately, it's the potential buyers that will clarify the choice for the Rays with the quality of their offers.

"It all comes down to which team decides to be aggressive, the Dodgers, Cardinals or Mariners," said the rival official. "Maybe none of them will be."

Other teams are monitoring Price's situation, but some rival officials view the Dodgers, Cardinals and Mariners as the teams best positioned to make a deal. There are lots of pros and cons for each of those teams as they assess the possibilities.

For the Dodgers, here are the pros: Adding Price would increase the club's chances of winning the World Series, which is the working order from the top down.

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Mark Appel and Jeff LuhnowScott Halleran/Getty ImagesThe decision to draft Mark Appel is already looking like a bad call for the Jeff Luhnow and the Astros.
Perception matters, which is why the chief justice of the Supreme Court has historically worked for unanimity in decisions, and why the loser in the presidential election gives a concession speech, to legitimize the process.

Perception is particularly important in business, when you are asking potential customers to buy your product, and buy into your product. Perception is why the St. Louis Cardinals will never substantively alter their timeless logo, and why the New York Yankees will always wear pinstripes.

But the power of perception is what the Houston Astros have ignored in their machinations, including those leading up to their failure to sign No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken by Friday's deadline. The perception of their decisions -- in the eyes of some of their own players, players with other teams, agents and, most importantly, potential customers -- may take many years for them to overcome. Evan Drellich was right in what he wrote in late May: The Astros have an enormous perception problem.

The Astros have had an incredible opportunity, having picked at the top of the draft for three straight seasons, but time and again, they have been penny-wise and pound-foolish and damaged their brand along the way.

The Astros have their own self image, but they need to know that among players and agents, they are seen as a team that tried to strong-arm the best player in their organization, George Springer, into a team-friendly extension, and then punished Springer when he didn’t agree to a new deal by sending him to the minors, again. The fact that Springer has starred since being called up April 16 has only reinforced the perception among agents and some players that the Astros were more interested in manipulating Springer than they were about winning.

Mark Appel was at or near the top of a lot of draft boards in 2013, but some rival executives were surprised that the Astros chose to take him over third baseman Kris Bryant with the No. 1 overall pick. “Taking a position player means a lot less risk,” said one high-ranking executive.

Some decisions work out, and some don’t, but the timing of how this one is playing out could not be worse. Appel is struggling badly in the minors while Bryant is wrecking his way to the big leagues, averaging a home run every 10 at-bats, and the choice of Appel over Bryant has a chance to surpass Phil Nevin over Derek Jeter in Houston draft lore as the draft decision that turned into a disaster.

The Astros are widely viewed by rival executives as a team that tanked the 2013 season, seemingly designing a team for a degree of failure that only the 1962-65 New York Mets could rival. The Astros opened the year with a $20 million payroll, and then traded almost every player making more than $1 million. You’ve heard of too big to fail? Well, Houston had so little talent and so much inexperience that there was no chance the Astros could compete.

Not surprisingly, the team went 51-111, earning the Astros the first pick in the 2014 draft; and now, in spite of all that losing, and the summerlong string of wipeouts, they failed to sign Aiken.

Only Astros officials know for sure why they reduced their offer to Aiken, and they maintain they have done nothing wrong. The perception in a lot of corners -- including that of the players' association -- is that the Astros shifted their offers around in an effort to lock up three draft picks, and not just Aiken. Anybody with a paper and pencil can figure out that the scope of the attempted reduction for Aiken almost perfectly matches the money discussed with fifth-round pick Jacob Nix and 21st-round pick Mac Marshall.

[+] EnlargeBrady Aiken
Larry Goren/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesBrady Aiken became only the third No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft not to sign.
The problem for the Astros -- the great miscalculation -- is built around the fact that widely respected and generally understated agent Casey Close is an adviser to both players. He knows when the proposals were altered, and by how much. He is well aware how Nix arrived with his family in Houston, prepared to sign, only to be told the agreement was null and void. The perception of that stinks. He can speak firsthand to both the Aiken and Nix families about how this played out.

It stands to reason that Aiken’s family would not take the calls of the Astros on Friday because of that perception -- about the Houston offers shifting from $6.5 million to $3.1 million to about $5 million. Or maybe the Astros couldn’t get the Aikens to take their phone calls because of how the Astros’ concern over Aiken’s ulnar collateral ligament leaked out, not long before published stories about Aiken’s college eligibility being in jeopardy. As one longtime agent said, “I stopped believing in coincidences a long time ago.”

It may be that the Astros boxed themselves in, negotiating the signing bonus with Nix while assuming that eventually Aiken would capitulate and agree to their reduced terms. It’s possible that by the last hours, they weren’t in position to give Aiken the $6.5 million initially promised because that would have ended any chance of them revitalizing the Nix deal.

But in the end, the Astros had a $5 million-ish offer on the table to Aiken, a rollback of $1.5 million over the initial agreement, which tells us that while they still had concerns about Aiken’s medicals, the UCL issue was hardly a deal-breaker. At some moment in this process, the Astros should’ve stopped obsessing over the numbers and instead taken a step back and assessed the potential for damage to the perception of the organization if the worst-case scenario happened, that Aiken and Nix failed to sign.

This is because the fallout from that outcome could linger for years, hanging over the team like a radioactive cloud. For the sake of $1.5 million.

If the Astros could have navigated their way out of the Aiken mess somewhere along the way -- before their concerns about his medicals leaked out -- the savings in how they’re perceived, the protection of their brand, would’ve been worth a whole lot more than $1.5 million.

The surcharge for their recent actions is already in place, and figures to cost them even more going into the future. Last winter, Scott Kazmir -- a Houston native -- opted to sign a two-year deal with the Oakland Athletics instead of following up on the Astros’ overtures.

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Yasiel PuigAdam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsThe average MLB game in 2014 has 15.4 strikeouts, the most in the history of the sport.
Brady Anderson swung as hard as he possibly could throughout the 1996 season and blasted 50 homers. He swung hard on the first pitch, he swung aggressively when the count was 0-2, he swung aggressively always.

He scored 117 runs and compiled 92 extra-base hits, 76 walks and 106 strikeouts, and late that season, Orioles hitting coach Rick Down mentioned that before Anderson, he had never seen anyone succeed with that approach. Most hitters made adjustments according to the count, Down noted at the time, cutting down on their swing when they reached two strikes, protecting against a strikeout.

But more and more, that sort of thinking has become outdated, and a whole lot of hitters are thinking like Anderson did. Swing hard throughout the entire count. Look to damage throughout the entire count.

The problem for them -- and for baseball, really -- is that this approach is not really working.

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David PriceBrian Blanco/Getty ImagesMany teams would love to trade for David Price, but few teams have the top prospects to do so.
Executives with some teams have not gotten a sense of urgency from the Tampa Bay Rays yet. They say David Price has not been pushed yet. Some other clubs haven't received a final call for a last, best offer.

"But they're preparing," one AL official said recently. "I don't think there's any question about that."

What that entails is identifying the young players who would become targets in other organizations if the Rays decide to move the All-Star left-hander, as they did before sending Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs -- and getting a young pitcher named Chris Archer as part of the package -- and James Shields to the Kansas City Royals as the centerpiece of a deal for Wil Myers.

Rival officials continue to believe that the Rays won't have a lot of palatable choices when they do decide to trade Price, whether it's in the next 14 days or after the season. "It's a specialized market," one executive said. "I don't think a lot of teams have the kind of prospects they would require, and on top of that, how many teams can absorb a $20 million-plus salary for next year?"

Price is making $14 million this year and will be eligible for arbitration over the winter, before becoming eligible for free agency in the fall of 2015. He'll be in line for a record-setting award if he doesn't negotiate a deal before then.

It does not help the Rays that it appears a lot of the big-market teams don't appear to be in play.

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Adam WainwrightElsa/Getty ImagesAdam Wainwright admitted to giving Derek Jeter "a couple of pipe shots" during the All-Star Game.
Adam Wainwright is earnest and honest and yes, he probably revealed a little more than he intended to about that pitch that he threw to Derek Jeter. But let’s put this into context. The tradition of pitchers working to provide a moment for a hitter goes back way beyond the first time the All-Star Game was played, and Wainwright is only different because he acknowledged what everybody already knew, when viewers could react in real time on social media.

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Oakland AthleticsAP Photo/Tony AvelarThe first-place Oakland Athletics should do plenty more celebrating in the second half.
On July 23, 2013, the Cleveland Indians were 52-48 and slogging along. But what they had in front of them was opportunity, as noted then, in the form of one of the easiest second-half schedules in the big leagues. They proceeded to take full advantage of it and made the playoffs.

With that in mind, what follows is how the second-half schedules stack up in 2014. These notes are based on records going into Sunday's play, and the contenders are ranked from the toughest schedule to the easiest.

1. (most difficult second-half schedule): Baltimore Orioles
Home/away: 32 games at home; 36 on the road.
Games against teams with records of .500 or better: 42
Schedule notes: With the rest of the division something of a mess, the Orioles appear to have a great opportunity to win the AL East. But they will be challenged right out of the All-Star break: 10 straight games against the AL West beasts, beginning with Oakland, then the Angels and Mariners. Then, as a topper, they go back home and play the Angels and Mariners again, followed by a makeup game in Washington. In fact, Baltimore's first 26 games after the All-Star break -- yes, that's twenty-six -- are against teams with records of .500 or better. Brutal.
Big finish:

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Masahiro Tanaka and Matt WietersAP Images, Icon SMIMasahiro Tanaka and Matt Wieters are both out with injuries that previously could have been treated differently.

BALTIMORE -- In his last start before Masahiro Tanaka landed on the disabled list, his average fastball velocity was 92.1 mph. He pitched 6 2/3 innings and allowed five runs. As the Yankees learned two days later, following an MRI and three doctor consultations, Tanaka had been broken in that last start against the Indians, with a small tear in an elbow ligament. But he was also still functional, like a car with a faulty fuel pump.

Now he'll be shut down for at least six weeks, and if his condition doesn't improve, he could have elbow reconstruction surgery.

Two weeks into the season, it was apparent that Matt Wieters was having some sort of arm trouble, particularly evident in his struggle to throw the ball to second base. Wieters was still playing effectively, hitting over .300 with five homers in his first 26 games. He was functional, but broken, and after weeks of treatment while he was on the disabled list, he had Tommy John surgery.

As Major League Baseball searches for answers about why so many players have been shut down in 2014, in comparison to past seasons, one of the reasons

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Ruben Amaro Jr. AP Images/Matt SlocumPhillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has at least four high-priced players who could help contenders.
Philadelphia Phillies fans aren't happy, and they're expressing that through the ticket office: The team's attendance has plummeted, from an incredible (and unsustainable) 44,021 per game just two years ago to the current 30,438 per game. That's a 31 percent drop-off.

The fans saw the Phillies win the World Series in 2008 and field the best regular-season team in 2011, but then the team fell back to .500 in 2012 and won just 73 games last season.

At the current pace, Philadelphia will win just 72 games this season, which is an extraordinary failure, given the amount of money the team has invested. With the problems of the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees and the Phillies -- three teams with massive payrolls -- 2014 is shaping up to be like a baseball version of the banking industry. Too big to fail, indeed.

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Masahiro TanakaAP Photo/Julie JacobsonMasahiro Tanaka's total of 12 wins this season is tied for the major league lead.
Editor's Note: This blog has been updated to reflect official injury news regarding Masahiro Tanaka, released Thursday evening.

Somebody wearing a uniform undoubtedly uttered the words "I told you so" on Wednesday night after news of Tanaka's elbow issue spread across the majors, and it's very possible that this was a four-word refrain in a lot of clubhouses. That four-word refrain would only be repeated on Thursday night when the league learned that Tanaka had a partial UCL tear in his elbow, an injury that often leads to Tommy John surgery. That's because over the first two months of this season, even as Tanaka dominated hitters and earned the respect of opponents, there was a feeling among many players on other teams that it was only a matter of time before he broke down.

That opinion was not based on his daunting accumulation of pitches in Japan, where he threw 160 pitches in a start last fall before pitching in relief the next day. Rather, opposing hitters and pitchers and coaches and managers watched him throw splitter after splitter after splitter at high velocity, and they reached the conclusion that he was destined for surgery.

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