Baseball's all-star break begins after Sunday's games, with the All-Star Game scheduled for Tuesday at Citi Field in New York. Globe and Mail columnist Jeff Blair looks at four issues facing both the Blue Jays and the sport as a whole
The Blue Jays' playoff chances are down to a few embers, but that doesn't mean general manager Alex Anthopoulos will back up the truck at the July 31 trade deadline. Anthopoulos can't trust Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, Drew Hutchison or Kyle Drabek this season or in 2014, and, coupled with Josh Johnson's possible free-agent departure and a growing sense that Mark Buehrle wants to go back to the National League, the first priority is adding another front-end starting pitcher. Whether that's Cliff Lee (Philadelphia) or Jake Peavy (Chicago White Sox), it's the type of heavy lifting that might be best done in the off-season. It would be a good time to sell high on outfielder Colby Rasmus, but Anthony Gose's step backward in Triple-A must surely give the organization pause for thought. Either way, with TV ratings in play, there is no way team owner Rogers Communications Inc. will wave the white flag. It will create a playoff race if one doesn't exist.
Who's at second?
Brett Lawrie. Soon. It's the position he played in the Milwaukee Brewers system at the time of his trade to Toronto, and the Jays are intrigued by the possibility of his range and defence coupled with that of shortstop Jose Reyes. Second base has become the black hole that shortstop was before Reyes was acquired (through Thursday, Jays second basemen were tied for dead last in the American League both in batting average, .226, and in on-base percentage, .273, and have the AL's third-worst fielding percentage) and Anthopoulos has reasoned rightly it will be easier to find a third baseman through trade or free agency in the winter.
Bullish on the bullpen?
As of Friday morning, Blue Jays relievers had pitched more innings than any other bullpen in the majors (325 2/3 ) with the fourth-best earned-run average (2.98). The lack of consistency from the starters – they had the fourth-fewest innings pitched in the majors – is the main reason manager John Gibbons has carried extra relievers at the expense of bench players. But he's also done so because the arms of closer Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan require more monitoring. The Blue Jays will disappear if this group wears down during the Dog Days. McGowan and all-star Steve Delabar are the two most-intriguing arms in the bullpen. McGowan could be a candidate for the rotation in 2014, and the Jays are fielding calls from teams that view Delabar as a closer. Anthopoulos might try to parlay his bullpen depth into a three-way trade, such as the one that landed Rasmus in 2011.
What will the Morrow bring?
Among Blue Jays disappointments, Morrow's loss of form is second only to Johnson's failed transition to the rigours of the AL. Morrow has been on the 15-day disabled list since May 29 after going 2-3 (5.63 ERA) in 10 starts, posting a WHIP of 1.49 and a strike percentage of 17 per cent that is 7 per cent off his career number. Morrow, who has repeatedly complained of forearm soreness, is in the second year of a three-year, $21-million (all currency U.S.) contract that includes a $10-million club option for 2015. He is no longer viewed as an ace in waiting; the Blue Jays will take what they can get from him in 2014.
Can baseball avoid a Bio hazard?
Commissioner Bud Selig has resolved to pursue Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun to the end of the earth if it means being able to leave a paper trail showing he suspended them for use of performance-enhancing substances. Selig is rumoured to be ready to levy 50- to 100-game suspensions as a result of an investigation into players' ties to a Coral Gables, Fla., anti-aging clinic (Biogenesis) – and if he casts a wide net, he could reel in several key players from playoff contenders. That has obvious implications for pennant races and risks introducing an unnecessary summer-time narrative and creating a growing sense of unease in several front offices.
Will the Pirates walk the plank?
Twenty years since their last playoff berth, the Pittsburgh Pirates were one of three teams over .600 through Thursday, and have been 21 games over .500 three times this season. They have been a first-half surprise package with a rotation that includes A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, 22-year-old flame-throwing Gerrit Cole and 25-year-old lefty Jeff Locke, a surprise all-star. The Pirates lead the majors in ERA (3.10), opponents' batting average (.221) and opponents' OPS (.644). And despite having one of the worst offences, Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte are the first pair of Pirates teammates to have 100 hits at the all-star break since Omar Moreno and Dave Parker in 1979. They've faded badly in the second half in the two previous seasons, and will be in tough against the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds.
Can Miguel Cabrera double his triple pleasure?
One year after winning the AL batting Triple Crown – the first in 45 seasons – the Detroit Tigers third baseman will hit the break with the greatest offensive first half in baseball history. His slash line through Thursday was .366/.457/.682/1.138, with 30 home runs and 94 runs batted in. The greatest threat to a second Triple Crown would appear to be the power numbers of Baltimore Orioles slugger Chris Davis. If the Tigers can get their bullpen issues addressed at the trade deadline, there's every chance they'll be back in the World Series.
Will youth continue to be served?
According to MLB, five of the top 10 top-selling jerseys are those of players aged 24 years or younger: Bryce Harper (20) of the Washington Nationals, Mike Trout (21) of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Matt Harvey (24) of the New York Mets, Manny Machado (21) of the Orioles – and the Los Angeles Dodgers' 22-year-old Yasiel Puig, who despite debuting on June 3 and has the 10th most-popular jersey. Harper, Machado and Puig seem destined to be key figures in pennant races. So, too, could be rookies Jose Iglesias of the Boston Red Sox, 23, and 22-year-old pitchers Shelby Miller of the Cardinals and Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves. Puig's already saved manager Don Mattingly's job.