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.

No. 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, then the Mariners. Then, as a topper, they come back home and play the Angels and Mariners again, followed by a makeup game in Washington. In fact, Baltimore's first 26 games out of the All-Star break -- yes, that's twenty-six -- are against teams with records of .500 or better. Brutal.
Big finish:
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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SamardzijaAP Photo/Ben MargotOakland acquired right-hander Jeff Samardzija from the Cubs last week.
The Oakland Athletics are on a pace to win 102 games and their third consecutive AL West title. But they need only 17 more wins to extend another streak that might be even more remarkable: The number of consecutive seasons in which they have won at least 74 games.

The last year they posted fewer than that, Jose Canseco was their designated hitter, Scott Brosius was their third baseman and they had just started to install a young infielder named Miguel Tejada into their everyday lineup. It was 1997, and Oakland finished that season with 65 wins and 97 losses.

Year after year since, the Athletics have ranked near the bottom of the majors in payroll, given the constraints of their market, and yet year after year, they have tried to win. There is something to be said for that.

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CC SabathiaAl Bello/Getty ImagesCC Sabathia might be worth more to the Yankees if he doesn't return.
David Ortiz recently recalled a time when CC Sabathia drilled him intentionally. There was nothing to do but drop the bat and jog to first base, Ortiz said, because Sabathia has so much credibility and accountability that if he hit you on purpose, well, there was no question that it meant circumstances compelled him to do so.

No one in Cleveland will forget Sabathia’s time with the Indians, when he had great successes and took the blame for his failures. In Milwaukee, they will always remember how, with his free agency looming, he repeatedly took the ball on three days’ rest. After retiring, he will forever be invited back to Yankee Stadium for Old-Timers’ Day and be introduced as a leader of the team that won the 2009 World Series.

Sabathia has won many admirers among players and fans during a career that includes 208 victories, nearly 3,000 innings and a Cy Young Award. But the simple fact is that, moving forward, he might be worth more to the Yankees if he never comes back from the knee trouble that is likely to end his 2014 season.

This is because of the regression in his performance, with a 5.28 ERA in eight starts this season after posting a 6.08 ERA in the second half of 2013, and his contract. Sabathia is set to earn $23 million in 2015, under the terms of the deal he signed with the Yankees after the 2008 season, and $25 million in 2016, given the mini-extension he got in the fall of 2011 because of an opt-out clause in his deal. In addition, Sabathia has a $25 million vesting option for 2017, with a $5 million buyout, that kicks in under three conditions during the 2016 season built in because of concerns about his shoulder.

A) That the season does not end with him on the disabled list because of a shoulder condition
B) That he does not spend more than 45 days on the disabled list because of a shoulder injury
C) That he does not make more than six relief appearances because of a shoulder problem

At most, the Yankees could owe Sabathia $73 million over the 2015 to 2017 seasons. At the very least, they will have to pay him $53 million, in salary and the $5 million buyout.
[+] Enlarge CC Sabathia
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesSabathia's days as a big-game pitcher are over, and maybe his career is too.

Sabathia is facing the possibility of microfracture surgery on his knee, and as doctors, Grady Sizemore and many other athletes will tell you, this is no sure thing. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. In Sabathia’s case, even if his knee is OK, it will still be uncertain that he could actually come back and be effective. His fastball velocity has dropped significantly in recent seasons, from 94.1 mph in 2009 to 89.6 in 2014.

The Yankees have insurance on Sabathia’s deal, a record-setting contract at the time when he agreed to seven years, $161 million. Whether the policy covers 50 percent or more, their potential for savings could be substantial if Sabathia never pitches again.

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David PriceAP Photo/Kathy WillensDavid Price is at the apex of his career, but may be switching uniforms before the end of 2014.
DETROIT -- David Price's focus is on doing the best he can for the Tampa Bay Rays, he said here Saturday. But every day, there are reminders that he could be in his last hours with Tampa Bay.

Players on other teams text him daily to ask whether he’s heard anything about an impending trade. Sometimes, they’ll be more direct, as Detroit reliever Joba Chamberlain was Saturday, in approaching Price on the field to chat about the constant rumors.

Price’s answer is consistent: He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t have a special pipeline into the trade talks the Rays have had. He starts against the Detroit Tigers on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET, ESPN and WatchESPN) believing that he is throwing the ball as well as he has at any point in his career, but not knowing whether this might be his last start for the Rays, or the first of another four months’ worth of starts for them.

The folks he works for -- most notably, GM Andrew Friedman -- probably don’t know the answer, either. The Rays have won nine of their past 11 games, and have crawled back to within 8.5 games of first place in the American League East. Close enough for hope, but far enough away for the Rays to strongly consider trading the former Cy Young winner.

Price’s situation probably gained some clarity with the trade of Jeff Samardzija, who was the other big-time starter available on the market. That deal firmly established an acceptable asking price for David Price.

A lot of folks in the industry believe that the Oakland Athletics paid heavily for Samardzija and Jason Hammel, surrendering superstar prospect Addison Russell as well as former No. 1 pick Billy McKinney. Friedman can now use that deal as a way to shape any proposals for Price, because while rival officials were well aware that Samardzija has thrown about 6,500 fewer pitches than Price, Price is still widely regarded as the better pitcher, having had his success in the AL East.

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Johnny CuetoAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesReds starter Johnny Cueto is just one of 27 pitchers with an ERA under 3.00.
The topic of parity came up Thursday on "Baseball Tonight," and Rick Sutcliffe mentioned how the sport has changed over the last decade, in the wake of the steroid era.

Many, many pitchers have used performance-enhancing drugs, for sure, but the simple fact is that since Major League Baseball adopted testing, offensive numbers have been in sharp decline. There is also less opportunity for hitters -- and, by extension, teams -- to distinguish themselves. The potential variance between clubs has declined.

The same sort of thing happened in the latter half of the 1960s, as pitching increasingly dominated. In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, none of the 10 National League teams won less than 72 games, and only one team won more than 88 -- the St. Louis Cardinals, who finished 97-65. Every team averaged between 2.9 runs per game and 4.2 runs per game.

There was a greater range of performance in the American League in 1968, with the Tigers posting a record of 103-59. But every team averaged between 2.9 and 4.1 runs per game that year, and in the season before, 1967, the AL saw an incredible race because of the parity in another season of few runs. Boston led the AL with 92 wins, while Detroit and Minnesota won 91, the White Sox 89, the Angels 84. The Kansas City Athletics were the only AL team to win fewer than 72 games.

Baseball altered the rules in response to the decline in offense, lowering the mound, and if Major League Baseball wants something other than general parity and games with fewer runs, it will probably have to revisit this -- perhaps lowering the mound again, or changing the composition of the ball.

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Kershaw-KoufaxAP Photo/ Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw's performance in the past month-plus has been downright Sandy Koufax-like.
If you're too young to know what Sandy Koufax's excellence looked like in 1965, watch Clayton Kershaw now.

If you need a reminder about how dominant Orel Hershiser was in September and October of 1988, watch Kershaw now.

Or if you're looking for a refresher on how Pedro Martinez controlled games in 1999, when a future Hall of Famer was at his absolute zenith, watch Kershaw now.

Kershaw is a historically great pitcher throwing better than he has at any stage of his career. He carries a streak of 28 consecutive scoreless innings into his start Friday against the Rockies, and he's coming off one of the best months of pitching ever. Kershaw faced 162 hitters in June, and he struck out 61 of them, with only four bases on balls. Of the remaining 97, 65 percent of them (63 batters) hit the ball on the ground, the highest rate for any pitcher in the majors. In other words, in Kershaw's six June starts, 34 plate appearances resulted in a batter hitting a ball in the air.

A.J. Ellis, Kershaw's catcher, traces the left-hander's current performance back to a start he made against the Diamondbacks on May 17, when he allowed seven runs in 1 2/3 innings. Most of the damage done in that game, Ellis noted, was against breaking pitches, and Kershaw came out of that performance angry and determined to throw his curveball and slider better.

With the way he's throwing his slider and curve now, Ellis said, "they look like they're strikes forever, and then bottom out."

Hitters cannot cover every possibility, so they work to reduce the ways in which a pitcher can beat them. They look for a fastball and ignore a pitcher's inconsistent breaking ball, for example. Or maybe they look on the inner half of the plate because the pitcher lacks command on the outer half. They try to corner the pitcher.

But these days, Kershaw is commanding three pitches brilliantly, meaning that the hitters' quandary grows exponentially against Kershaw, as Ellis explained.

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videoBryce Harper returned to the Nationals with an attitude, writes Thomas Boswell. From his column:
Instead of "Nothing But Natitude," Harper's box could've read, "Nothing But Attitude." The 21-year-old exposed the fissures that have gotten more public between the young star and the Nats. Being back in the Nats' lineup after two months wasn't enough for Harper; he wanted to write the lineup, too.

Manager Matt Williams put Ryan Zimmerman at third base, Anthony Rendon at second base, Harper in left field and benched Danny Espinosa. He also batted Harper sixth, exiled from the glamorous heart-of-the-order spots. Harper disagreed, on all fronts, and said so several hours before the game.

"I think [Zimmerman] should be playing left. Rendon's a good third baseman. He should be playing third. We've got one of the best second basemen in the league in Danny Espinosa," said Harper. "Of course, we want the best-hitting lineup in there. [But] I think Rendon playing third and Zim playing left is something that would be good for this team. I think that should be what's happening."

This Harper proposal would also put Denard Span on the bench and Harper himself in center field, the position he's politicked for weeks to play.

Williams has talked about daily designer lineups, constantly changing. Harper's suggestion amounts to a fixed lineup -- to his advantage. If Harper were 10 years more established in deeds, not dolls, it'd be audacious to manage a team after being on the DL for more than half of the Nats' previous 193 games. But to do it with one homer halfway into a season?

Anything else? How are those internal lines of communication working?

"I haven't talked to nobody about anything, so I have no clue," said Harper, who frequently mentioned how happy and excited he was to return but never smiled. "I know I'm playing left tonight, via Twitter. So I guess that's where I'm going."

And what about batting sixth?

"I'm in the lineup. That's all that matters. If I had the lineup, it would maybe not be the same. He's got the lineup card. He's got the pen. That's what he's doing," said Harper. "So there's nothing I can do about it. I'm hitting sixth tonight."

So, the manager has three players out of position, the wrong guy benched, Harper batting in the wrong spot and he has to learn about this stuff on Twitter.

"Hopefully, nobody kills themselves trying to get a bobblehead," said Harper, who knows just how central Nationals marketers have made him to the franchise's merchandising identity.

I cannot recall an example of a young major league player doing anything like this.

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Mookie BettsRich Schultz/Getty ImagesMookie Betts may well be an essential part of Boston's lineup for the rest of the season.
NEW YORK -- One evaluator not paid by Boston offered this take on Mookie Betts, who will make his major league debut tonight, when the Red Sox try to take their three-game series against the Yankees on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN):

“Tremendous feel for the strike zone,” the evaluator wrote. “Handles bat and is not a slap type. There is strength in the swing. Strong running ability. Defense really strong at second base. Limited time in center field, but early indications are that he is really solid.”

Another evaluator said: “He belongs in the major leagues. He’s a good player.”

Betts has almost as many extra-base hits (88) as strikeouts (90) over the past season and a half in the minors, with 132 walks and 67 stolen bases. He is 21 years old and slender and does not hit a lot of homers, yet. But his promotion, and the entrenchment of Brock Holt as an every-day player, seems to signal a change in direction for the Red Sox front office, a shift in lineup building. This is the Summer of the Improv.

Boston has an incredible history of power hitting, from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Jim Rice to the 3-4 combination of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. In the midst of the 1977 season, the Red Sox slammed homers in 33 consecutive games. Home runs have always been the foundation of the Red Sox offense, including in 2013, when Boston clubbed 178 homers -- sixth-most in the majors -- on the way to winning the World Series.

The front office waited for the Red Sox to hit homers again in the first half, after signing A.J. Pierzynski to replace Jarrod Saltalamacchia and believing in Grady Sizemore enough to give him an every-day job.

But it just hasn’t happened; Boston is 24th in home runs, with 61, and incredibly, the Red Sox are 27th in runs. They have looked around for power hitters in the trade market, just like a lot of other teams, and have identified few options.

So now Boston is changing. Instead of waiting for bigger, slower hitters to start mashing homers, the working philosophy now seems to be: If you hit -- no matter how you hit -- you are going to play.

Holt opened the season in the minor leagues, and now he is Boston’s leadoff man, hitting .321. Along comes Betts, who could play right field or center, depending on the needs of the day. Pierzynski probably needs to show something soon or else he will be the next to go, to be replaced by Christian Vazquez, a strong defensive catcher who also doesn’t hit for a lot of power; he has three home runs in Triple-A this season, along with a .325 on-base percentage.

It’s possible that by the time Aug. 1 rolls around, the bulk of the Boston lineup might look like this:

1. Brock Holt
2. Mookie Betts
3. Dustin Pedroia
4. David Ortiz
5. Mike Napoli
6. Xander Bogaerts
9. Christian Vazquez

The rest of the lineup will be determined by who hits. Daniel Nava has improved his batting average from .130 to .216 since he was promoted; if he hits, he will play. Stephen Drew has one hit in 32 at-bats and quite simply looks terrible at the plate, completely off-balance. Bogaerts was moved from shortstop to third base and stopped hitting, but he will probably continue to play while he continues to develop.

The player who probably has the most to lose with the promotion of Betts is Jackie Bradley Jr., who knows Betts better than anyone, having roomed with him in instructional ball in the fall of 2011. Bradley’s defense has been exceptional, but at some point, the Red Sox will need better production from his spot; he is hitting .206 with a staggering 76 strikeouts and just 23 walks. The Red Sox could play Holt in center and Betts in right field, which is incredible, given that both were regarded as infielders just a month ago.

Whatever alignment evolves for the Red Sox, they won’t hit a lot of homers. But they should be pretty good defensively, they should put the ball in play more, and they will be more athletic, with almost half of their every-day lineup made up of players either in their first or second season.

They have waited for the old guard to hit, and it didn’t happen. Now the Red Sox will go with what they hope is basically a lineup of badgers -- not big, not powerful, but aggressive and relentless -- during a season in which the American League East is more mediocre than it has been in years and is there for the taking.

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MaddonRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesJoe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays haven't lived up to expectations so far this season.
We've reached the midway point in the 2014 MLB season, when teams are turning the corner on the 81-game mark. A good or bad week in April or May might’ve been classified as a slump or a streak, but now the sample size is big enough to draw some larger conclusions.

With that in mind, here are the eight most shocking things to me about the first half of the 2014 season:

1. It's stunning how bad the Tampa Bay Rays are

They are 33-49 and 12 games out of first place in the AL East, despite the fact that the division is relatively mediocre this year. Matt Moore was among the legions of pitchers lost to Tommy John surgery, and this undoubtedly has hurt, but the extent of the Rays’ struggles are mind-boggling. Third baseman Evan Longoria, who needs to be the anchor of the lineup, ranks 87th among all players in OPS, at .740 -- and he is the best every-day player the Rays have.

It seemed within the realm of possibility that the Rays would run out of bullpen pixie dust, or that they would have the usual struggles of a franchise that operates without much margin for error and be taken down by injuries.

But they can’t really blame injuries this season, and mediocrity has infected them almost across the board. They’re 28th in runs, they’re 16th in starters’ ERA, 19th in bullpen ERA and they’ve got the worst record in the majors.

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Mike TroutJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesIf only the red-hot Mike Trout could pitch in relief: The Angels have an AL-high 12 blown saves.
It's easy to imagine the Angels succeeding in October -- for seven innings, at least. Mike Trout is already widely regarded as the best player on the planet, and he is in the midst of what is arguably the best month of his career, sporting a 1.228 OPS in June; he has 17 extra-base hits in 73 at-bats and has reached base 41 times. Josh Hamilton is hitting .321, shortstop Erick Aybar is an All-Star candidate, and Albert Pujols is focused and getting results and is on pace for 34 homers and 97 RBIs.

Meanwhile, Garrett Richards, their No. 3 starter, has been among the most dominating starters in the majors this season, and their rotation ranks second in the American League in ERA.

If you watched the Angels' win over Minnesota on Thursday, there was a sequence in Jered Weaver's last inning that was just classic. The Angels led 4-1 in the seventh inning, but the Twins put a couple of guys on base and Brian Dozier got ahead in the count, three balls and no strikes. Weaver's pitch count was at 103, and it was looking like Dozier would be the last hitter he faced.

Weaver threw a 3-0 changeup -- just in case Dozier had the green light -- for a called strike. He followed that with a curveball, which Dozier took for a second strike. Having seen a changeup and a curveball while he was ahead in the count, Dozier probably didn't have a strong feel for what was coming next, and when Weaver fired a fastball, Dozier popped it up for the third out.

But the rest of the game was classic 2014 Angels as well:

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Doug Fister Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesDoug Fister went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA for the Tigers in 2011 after being acquired at the trade deadline.
Three years ago, the Detroit Tigers surprised folks with an under-the-radar trade at the deadline, when they plucked an unspectacular right-hander with average fastball velocity from the Seattle Mariners. That pitcher, Doug Fister, was attractive to the Tigers because of his athleticism, because his fastball moved and because -- and here was the part that really jumped out to officials with other teams -- he was cheap, with very little service time.

For some evaluators, that trade has become a model in how to avoid paying the big prices that are attached to David Price and Jeff Samardzija, among others, and that's why teams are combing through rosters, looking for gems similar to Fister. This is why the Arizona Diamondbacks have been contacted about 27-year-old lefty Wade Miley, who will be eligible for arbitration for the first time next winter, and who has just 34 walks in 105 1/3 innings this year.

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David Price Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesDavid Price leads the majors with a 10.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Only the Tampa Bay Rays know for sure what will be deemed acceptable for David Price, or when they'll be ready to say yes. But rival officials are monitoring the market in the way that meteorologists follow weather patterns, and they believe that the Rays are prepared to move the former Cy Young Award winner. As in, right now.

The Rays aren't actually close to trading Price, according to sources. But the climate is right, given Price's impending free agency after 2015 and Tampa Bay's shockingly poor play this season. The Rays' loss Monday pushed them to 12 games behind the Blue Jays in the American League East, and they are 10 games behind in the race for the second wild card -- stunning, given the consistency of Tampa Bay's success in the past six seasons. From 2008 to 2013, the Rays averaged 91-plus wins per season, reaching the playoffs four times.

But the Rays would have to go 60-24 the rest of the season in order to achieve 91 wins, and given the loss of Matt Moore and the struggles of the rotation (19th in ERA), Evan Longoria, Wil Myers and others, there is little reason to believe Tampa Bay is poised for that kind of turnaround.

And now, Price is back to throwing the ball at a star-caliber: He has 43 strikeouts and four walks in 31S innings, with nine earned runs allowed.

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