Next week, all eyes in the baseball world will turn to Yankee Stadium for the 2008 Major League Baseball All-Star Game -- so it's the perfect time to look at where the teams stand and what's left to come.
After all, it's far enough into the season to separate the contenders from the pretenders and to start legitimately talking about the biggest surprises, busts, moves and more of the season.
Any talk about this season's first-half surprises starts and ends with that nearly forgotten franchise down in Tampa Bay, Fla. The Rays had been the laughing stock of the MLB world since their inception in 1998, finishing in last place every single year except 2004, when they finished next-to-last. Yet, they now sit in a position entirely unfamiliar to anyone who follows baseball: first place.
The Rays own the best record in the majors, are two games up on second-place Boston, and have the second-lowest payroll in the league. They're winning with young talent that they signed cheap and early, such as star rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, and the once-abysmal pitching staff is now lights out.
If you claim you saw this coming at the beginning of the season, you're lying through your teeth.
But shocking as it is, and with all due respect to those loveable losers in Chicago, the Rays look to continue the second half as baseball's best success story.
Speaking of the Cubs, they haven't done too poorly for themselves either. They'd be the talk of the sport if it weren't for the Rays, but the Cubs seem content to play second fiddle for now -- as long as they keep winning.
Pitchers Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster both enter the break with 10-3 records, and perennial injury-magnet Kerry Wood has found a comfortable home in the closer's role, converting 23 saves and helping the Cubs to a 4.5 game lead in the competitive N.L. Central.
They'll have to watch their backs, though, because the division-rival Milwaukee Brewers take the crown for biggest player transaction of the first half with their acquisition of reigning Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia. The dominating lefty had a slow start to the season before returning to form, but his then-team the Cleveland Indians were quickly out of contention.
Sabathia became the centerpiece of midseason trade storylines before the Indians pulled the trigger. They sent him to Milwaukee, which hopes he can be the anchor that will get the Brew Crew to their first playoff appearance since 1982.
This season hasn't just been about surprising ballclub turnarounds, though. Several individuals have also made a name for themselves with spectacular play. The biggest and brightest storyline comes from Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, and if you follow baseball at all, chances are you know his story.
The first overall draft pick in 1999, Hamilton was overcome with drug and alcohol addiction before ever making a name for himself. After years of rehab and recovery, he has turned his life around.
Now in 2008, just his second full season in the big leagues, the first-time All-Star leads the league in RBIs, is third in homers and at one point was talked about as a possible Triple Crown winner (leading the league in RBIs, home runs and batting average).
Prior to the 2008 season, Hamilton was traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Rangers in exchange for relatively unproven pitcher Edinson Volquez. That trade turned into Hamilton having one of the best first halves of any batter this season, but Volquez also comes in as perhaps the best pitcher thus far this year.
In the National League, Volquez ranks second in wins with 11, first in ERA with an unheard of 2.36, and third in strikeouts. Those looking for a return to earth for the now-ace starter can keep dreaming, because he has shown no signs of regressing and remains a front-runner for this season's Cy Young Award.
The biggest disappointment, hands down: the Seattle Mariners. Leading up to this season, they were a trendy pick to perhaps go all the way this year, sporting the ninth-highest payroll in the majors and an all-star-caliber lineup of hitting and dominant pitching, anchored by newly acquired ace Erik Bedard.
Fast-forward a few months, and the Mariners are the definition of horribly underperforming. In the span of half a season they have fired their general manager and manager, seen their pitching staff decimated by injuries, and own the second-worst record in baseball.
Analysts speculate that it will take years to undo the damage, but look for the Mariners to start first thing after the All-Star break. Early word is that nearly every player with the exception of a couple Seattle favorites is on the trading block, and the second half will prove very interesting.
With so many teams still in contention and in need of just one piece to give them that extra playoff push, there's a chance Seattle will be a major focus of trade rumors in the weeks to come.
Most likely to choke in the second half:
The Minnesota Twins, perhaps baseball's scrappiest team, has always found ways to win even if when they shouldn't be. So far this season they've continued the trend, remaining only 3 games back in the A.L. Central despite losing Torii Hunter to free agency, all-world ace Johan Santana to the Mets, and promising lefty Francisco Liriano to the rare non-recovery from Tommy John.
But the Twins may not have what it takes to survive the long haul. Their .371 batting average with runners in scoring position is frighteningly good, but much like a hitter's quest for .400, it's just not something that will stick around in the long term. Adding in that they rank in the bottom half of the majors in homers, slugging, and on-base percentage, it just doesn't seem likely that their squad of young players can keep up the run scoring enough to offset inconsistent pitching, especially in a division with the surging Tigers and still-strong White Sox.
Most likely to make a big run:
The Detroit Tigers entered this season with lofty expectations and quickly failed to meet them. Injuries took their toll on ace Jeremy Bonderman and slugger Gary Sheffield, and recently acquired star pitcher Dontrelle Willis proved to be anything but dominating, currently in the minor leagues re-working mechanics. In fact, it took almost the entire first half of the season for the Tigers to post a .500 record, but they did so thanks to a surge in June and the promising return of some big names. Sheffield and bullpen flamethrower Joel Zumaya returned to the club in top form and helped the Tigers gain some ground in the AL Central.
If manager Jim Leyland can keep his players focused and the pitching staff can overcome a less-than-stellar first half, the Tigers might find themselves closer to the top of things in the end than they once thought possible.
Most likely to win it all:
Since winning the World Series in 2002, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have quietly remained one of the consistent top teams in baseball. This season is no different, as they enter the break with one of the best records and a comfortable five-game lead in their division. What makes them so dangerous come October is the way they have won: with hardly any offense. The pitching staff has been nothing short of brilliant and kept them in every game, and lights-out closer Francisco Rodriquez is on pace to break the single-season saves record.
Unfortunately for every other team, that previously non-existent offense is coming around. After a slow start, slugger Vlad Guerrero and Hunter are warming up, and that only means a better-rounded ballclub down the stretch. If things keep improving the way they are for the Angels, they could be devastating come playoff time.