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Insider

Strasburg's ceiling, second-half storylines

7/11/2012

The other day in the visitors dugout in Boston, Alex Rodriguez talked about how much he looked forward to a breather for a few days, to spend time with his daughters at a lake house. Somewhere out on an Oregon river, Billy Beane has been fly fishing, and today Adam Dunn, fresh off his All-Star experience, will catch a day with his kids.

But players will begin to get back to business Thursday, with some teams slated for workouts leading up to Friday's full slate of games.

These will be the biggest stories of the second half:

1. Stephen Strasburg and his innings ceiling

An All-Star player grinned and shook his head on the field the other day, chatting about the Nationals' plans to shut down Strasburg after he reaches his predetermined limit of innings -- right in the most critical stage in the organization's history.

"If they [the Nationals] actually do that, I'll actually have more respect for them, because that's going to take some serious guts," said the All-Star, chuckling at what could be the most discussed and dissected decision in the second half of the season.

Strasburg is one of the best pitchers on the planet, with a 9-4 record and a 2.82 ERA in what is his first full season in the big leagues, and the inning he threw in the All-Star Game on Tuesday was his 100th of the season. Soon after he reaches 160 innings, the Nationals' intent is to bench him for the rest of the year, and they have insisted privately and publicly that this is what they will do despite all that is at stake for the franchise -- a playoff berth, postseason success, future ticket sales. Their plan is to trade short-term benefit for the long-term health of Strasburg, who is just a couple of years removed from Tommy John surgery.

The Nationals could stretch that innings limit some, as a rival executive noted recently, but ultimately, if their intention is to protect Strasburg, they are poised for a very difficult choice. He's on track to reach his innings limit sometime in the last couple of weeks of August, just as the playoff race begins to heat up, and for Strasburg -- who is extremely competitive and also a very private person -- this will be a difficult time, as he suddenly is driven into the vortex of the old school vs. new school national debate.

During the past decade, almost all teams have adopted innings limits for their young and developing pitchers, but Strasburg's stature and situation is bound to turn into a very, very big deal.

2. The races for the playoffs

The addition of one wild-card team for each league was designed to give hope to more teams, and we're already seeing this take shape. Eight teams -- eight teams -- are within 2.5 games of one another in the American League wild-card race. In the National League, seven teams are within five games of one another. There will be leap-frogging, there will be mad rushes toward the front of the pack, there will be collapses to the back of the pack. It's possible that we'll never see a finish as great as the last days of the 2011 season, but this is shaping up to be a doozy.

3. The Pittsburgh Pirates are reborn (or not)

Almost 20 years have passed since Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds' throw to home plate and since the Pirates last finished better than .500 and seriously contended into August and September. But they're in first place now and look deeper than last year's team, which collapsed at the end of July. This Pittsburgh team has an older and better version of Andrew McCutchen, an NL MVP front-runner who helped the Pirates score more runs than any other team in June, and two rotation anchors in James McDonald and A.J. Burnett. It appears to have a very favorable second-half schedule, with just 26 games remaining against teams with records better than .500; its first 19 games after the All-Star break are against teams with records worse than .500.

The emotions of Pittsburgh's final home game before the All-Star break were remarkable, with inspired Pirates fans summoning their heroes for curtain calls, and this team will continue to be baseball's darlings if it can reach the playoffs.

4. What more will Mike Trout and Bryce Harper do?

They already have done things that no other players in baseball history had at their respective ages -- Trout will turn 21 on Aug. 7, and Harper will be 20 on Oct. 16 -- and each is fully capable of raising the bar even higher in the second half. Trout is a strong favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year, and Harper might be at the head of the class in the NL. Trout also has a legitimate shot at AL MVP. We'll see; young players often fade late in the season.

But these guys -- baseball's version of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson -- are not like other young players.

5. The new rules and the trade market

General managers are doing a lot of talking these days. But some of them believe increasingly that the changes to the draft-pick compensation rules are going to dramatically impact how many trades are executed before July 31. For example: The San Diego Padres have left fielder Carlos Quentin, and teams like the Cincinnati Reds, Pirates and Cleveland Indians are interested. To make the trade worthwhile, the Padres would need to receive at least something close to the equivalent of a supplemental first-round pick, which they would receive if they kept Quentin and let him walk away as a free agent.

Here's the catch: In the past, the team that acquired Quentin would be eligible for that draft pick -- but not this year after the changes to the collective bargaining agreement. A team that acquired Quentin or Cole Hamels or any other major free agent-to-be won't get draft picks if that player then departs during free agency, a significant change in the value of these would-be trade targets.

So the Reds and others have to decide whether swapping good prospects for just two months of Quentin is worthwhile.

6. Hamels and his Phillies future (or not)

It's expected that sometime in the next 15 days, the Phillies will make one last, big-time offer to Hamels. With the left-hander only about 2.5 months from effectively reaching his free agency, Philadelphia's proposal must be a whopper if it wants to keep him -- an offer that places Hamels in the contractual neighborhood of Johan Santana, Cliff Lee and Barry Zito. If the Phillies don't make a top-of-the-market offer -- or if they do and Hamels rejects it anyway -- then Philadelphia will follow up on trade conversations it has already started with interested teams.

Contending in 2012 is really a secondary part of the Phillies' motivation for signing Hamels at this stage, with the team 14 games out of first place. This is about whether they can lock up a rotation anchor or get a nice prospect, like the Texas Rangers' Mike Olt, to build around.

7. When and where will Justin Upton be traded?

A few years ago, Upton was viewed in the same way that Trout and Harper are now, but for whatever reason, Upton and the Arizona Diamondbacks have become oil and water, and Arizona is looking to move the 24-year-old two-time All-Star. Pittsburgh could be in the mix.

What follows is speculation that makes sense: If the Rangers ever decided to jump in for Upton and flexed their organizational muscles, they would also have a potential match for Upton by offering Olt -- the Diamondbacks are looking for a third baseman, and the Rangers have the depth in prospects to round out a deal. The addition of Upton could help prepare Texas for the possible departure of Josh Hamilton and give the Rangers extraordinary cost certainty.

By the way: Contrary to previous reports, Upton's limited no-trade clause blocks deals to a handful of big-market teams, including the New York Yankees.

The Diamondbacks are looking for major leaguers.

8. How will the Boston Red Sox drama end?

During the next week, they will be bolstered by the return of Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz and Carl Crawford, with Andrew Bailey and Daniel Bard to follow sometime after that, and it may be that the Red Sox will climb forward and outpunch seven other AL contenders for a wild-card spot. If it happens, they can all share the postseason gold. But the place continues to be saturated with frustration; there is a remarkable maze of folks angry with someone else in the organization's chain of command for one reason or another. If the Red Sox don't win -- and even if they do -- there will be many changes, because it's hard to imagine many of them wanting to carry on with the status quo.

Dan Shaughnessy writes: The Red Sox are a train wreck.

9. How many at-bats for Evan Longoria?

There is serious concern within the Tampa Bay Rays organization about whether Longoria will be able to contribute much this season, after he suffered a setback with his hamstring injury and is essentially being forced to restart his rehabilitation clock. Because the Rays have such limited resources, they desperately need Longoria if they are to contend for a playoff spot. Without him, they'd have to make very modest upgrades to their lineup -- like Alfonso Soriano, perhaps, after the Cubs eat 90-95 percent of the money owed to him and turn him into a $1.5 million to $2 million-a-year player -- or punt.

The Rays came into the year with high hopes and remain a very dangerous team, sitting a half-game out in the wild-card race. But Tampa Bay's defense has been surprisingly awful, its offense is a daily struggle, and if the Rays decide at any point to become sellers, their cache of players -- like James Shields -- will alter the marketplace. Longoria's status will be an enormous part of their self-evaluation.

10. Chipper Jones exits stage left

The future Hall of Famer has but a handful of games left in his career, with the final bows and an encore to come, perhaps in the postseason. He needs 30 more hits for 2,700 in his career, 14 more runs for 1,600, six more RBIs for 1,600, and he is sitting at 460 homers. By the way: Old Man Atlanta still can play and is capable of a final signature moment, as his .318 batting average indicates. Jones ranks fifth among all third basemen with at least 175 plate appearances.

Chipper had a cool moment in the All-Star Game.

Notes from Kansas City

• Giants fans were criticized for their ardent voting on behalf of their players, and as it turned out, the team that wins the NL should thank them for home-field advantage in the World Series (and maybe that'll be the Giants).

Justin Verlander was roughed up.

• The All-Star Game provided Kansas City with a glimpse of glory, writes Sam Mellinger.

• A former Royal was named MVP.

Robinson Cano is upset about the treatment his family received.

From Elias Sports Bureau: This was the third time that reigning MVPs went head-to-head in a batter-pitcher matchup in an All-Star Game. The results:

2012: Ryan Braun doubled vs. Justin Verlander

1940: Joe DiMaggio flied out to right vs. Bucky Walters

1934: Jimmie Foxx struck out vs. Carl Hubbell

From Elias: This year was the 20th time a team hit for the cycle in an All-Star Game (last time was the 2007 NL team). It's the fourth instance of a team hitting for the cycle in an All-Star Game by the end of the fourth inning. The others: 2004 AL, 1983 AL and 1960 NL.

From Elias: Melky Cabrera, who smacked a two-run homer to help lead the NL to its 8-0 victory, called Kansas City home during the 2011 season. Only two other players have hit a home run in an All-Star Game that was hosted by a team for which he once played. Detroit's Ray Boone hit a home run in Cleveland in the 1954 game after playing for the Indians in 1948-53, and St. Louis' Frankie Frisch went deep in 1934 at the Polo Grounds after having spent eight seasons (1919-26) with the New York Giants.

From Elias: Braun, Pablo Sandoval and Rafael Furcal each hit a triple for the NL. That is the most triples by a team in All-Star Game history. The NL hit only one triple in the 13 All-Star Games played from 1999 to 2011 (Carlos Beltran, 2007).

Moves, deals and decisions

The union may file a grievance on behalf of Nick Hagadone.

Dings and dents

1. Dillon Gee needed surgery. The issue is not expected to be career-threatening.

2. Joba Chamberlain threw 97 mph.

Other stuff

• Bud Selig calls the Rays' attendance inexcusable.

Here's the excuse: The fans chose not to attend, which they're allowed to do.

• Michael Weiner doesn't think the Mitchell report was a productive exercise.

• Juan Rodriguez gives his in-season grades for the Miami Marlins.

• An in-season HGH test could be added.

And today will be better than yesterday.