Tribune writer Matt Simpson takes a look at who’s up, who’s down and who’s on the way out - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Tribune writer Matt Simpson takes a look at who’s up, who’s down and who’s on the way out

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Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2006 6:33 am | Updated: 2:32 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Halfway through the major league baseball season, here’s what we know. Roger Clemens and Michael Jordan share a mutual understanding of the word “retirement.” Barry Bonds is the greatest left-handed slugger of all time but a bore of a reality-TV star. And the National League can’t stand up to the American League in interleague play or the All-Star game. Ho hum.

The second half of the season should offer considerably more excitement.

Are the Tigers and job security for major league managers for real? Are Bonds and the New York Yankees finished? Are Joe Mauer, Francisco Liriano, Jonathan Papelbon and David Ortiz human?

With the unofficial second half beginning today, here are 12 questions we hope to have answered by the end of October.

1. Will the Tigers party like it’s 1987 or (gasp!) 1984?

Detroit hasn’t advanced to the postseason since 1987 and hasn’t won the World Series since 1984. That could change this year. The new-look Tigers have won 59 games, 12 fewer than their entire win total last year, and are on pace to finish with 122 Ws. However, a brutal August and 23 games against the world champion White Sox and redhot Twins could derail the Tiger express. Still, with Kenny Rogers leading a stable of hardthrowing young starters, the Tigers could mercifully delay interest in the Lions until November.

2. What’s with all the home runs?

Over the last three years, the only player to hit 50 or more home runs was Andruw Jones, who knocked out 51 last season. Don’t look now, but the home run is back. Two players have 30 or more home runs, 11 have 25 or more and 23 have 20 or more. Some have hinted that the balls (and not the players, for once) are juiced. That’s no doubt fine by the seven sluggers who are within five clouts of major league leader David Ortiz (31). Anyone from a group that includes Jim Thome (30), Albert Pujols (29, despite missing three weeks), Adam Dunn (28), Ryan Howard (28), Jason Giambi (27), Alfonso Soriano (27) and Carlos Lee (26) could lead the majors when all is said and done.

3. Speaking of home runs, is Barry Bonds going to jail?

Sources are reporting Bonds will be indicted as early as next week on charges of perjury and/or tax evasion. Such a development could eventually lead to a criminal trial and jail time of five years or more. If he is indicted, the question then becomes whether anyone outside of San Francisco will care. The guess here is that they won’t, judging by the public’s reaction to ESPN forcing Bonds’ home run chase and reality show down its throats.

4. Are the Yankees finished?

The Yankees have not missed the postseason since 1994, but they are three games behind the Red Sox in the AL East and aren’t anywhere near the wild-card picture. Usually, New York would just offer up some prospects, open up George Steinbrenner’s wallet and raid the Devil Rays or Royals for talent. General manager Brian Cashman insists the team won’t deal prospects this year and there may be too many holes to fill anyway. The starting pitching is bad and outfielders Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui won’t be back any time soon.

5. Will Jonathan Papelbon or Francisco Liriano make history?

No American Leaguer has ever won the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young awards in the same season. Either Papelbon or Liriano could lay claim to both this year. Papelbon has given up three runs and eight walks and has a ridiculous 0.59 ERA while converting 26 of 29 save opportunities in the Fenway Park fishbowl. Liriano is 10-1 with a 1.83 ERA, including 9-1 with a 1.36 ERA in 10 games since sliding into the Twins rotation behind (or is that ahead of?) Johan Santana. Heck, if the Twins can pass the White Sox and Tigers, you may as well give Liriano the MVP, too.

6. But wait. If the Twins make the playoffs, shouldn’t Joe Mauer be the MVP?

OK, you got us. Mauer, the AL batting leader with a .378 average, batted .452 in June and not coincidentally the Twins won 73 percent of their games. Unfortunately, they didn’t trim anything off the Tigers’ 10-game lead in the AL Central. Even if the Twins finish way back in third in the Central, Mauer could pursue a couple of individual goals. No player has hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941 and no catcher has won his league’s batting title since the Boston Braves’ Ernie Lombardi led the National League in 1942.

7. Who will change uniforms this month?

With so many teams within striking distance of the postseason, it’ll take time to determine who the market’s buyers and sellers will be. Time’s running out though as the trade deadline looms on July 31. Dontrelle Willis, Barry Zito and Carlos Lee seem to be off the market, but plenty of names remain. Need a starting pitcher? Jake Westbrook, Greg Maddux and Livan Hernandez have all had their names dropped in trade rumors. A position player? Alfonso Soriano, Julio Lugo, Bobby Abreu and Juan Pierre may all be available. There could be a flurry of movement in the last week of July.

8. Can a designated hitter win the MVP?

This debate has been waged before, with Boston’s David Ortiz coming up on the losing end each time by finishing in the top five of voting in each of the last three years and second in 2005. He’s joined in the discussion this year by Chicago’s Jim Thome. Ortiz (31 home runs, 87 RBIs) and Thome (30 homers, 77 RBIs) lead the AL in home runs and RBIs and both are respected team leaders. If they maintain their paces and the Sox and Sox win their divisions, it’d be hard to snub them just because they don’t kill time between at-bats playing first base.

9. Who will win the Wild Wild Wests?

The baseball may not be the best, but the two most interesting races are out here in wildfire country. Though three of the West’s nine teams have losing records, none are out of contention. In the AL, the first-place Athletics are 2 1 /2 games ahead of the last-place Mariners. In the NL, the first-place Padres own a five-game lead on your last-place Diamondbacks. With unbalanced scheduling (Arizona, for example, plays 42 division games in the second half) the standings in the Western Divisions could flip and flop plenty over the final three months of the season.

10. Will the Mets win the NL East by 20 games?

The Mets have turned the NL East “race” into a laugher. They lead the second-place Phillies by 12 games and seem to have already ended the 14-year division title run of the Braves, who are 13 games back. No team has won its division by 20 games or more since the Indians finished 21 1 /2 ahead of the White Sox in 1999, and no NL team has made such a mockery of its rivals since the Braves finished 21 ahead of the Mets in 1995. And it could get worse. The rumor mill has the Mets interested in adding a starting pitcher and a second baseman.

11. When will the first manager get axed?

A full season hasn’t passed without at least one skipper walking the plank since 2000. With eight managers in their first year with their teams and only four managers in the last year of their contracts, job security is higher than usual. It doesn’t hurt that 19 teams are within five games of a postseason slot. Assuming someone doesn’t make it, the leading candidates to miss out on September call-ups are, in order of likelihood, the Cubs’ Dusty Baker, Philadelphia’s Charlie Manuel, Cleveland’s Eric Wedge and Washington’s Frank Robinson.

12. Will the Cardinals falter in the NL Central?

The Cardinals have won five of the last six National League Central titles and were the favorite on paper again this year until they closed out the first half of the season losing 13 of 19 games. Now the door is open for three other teams that are clustered around .500. The Astros could challenge now that Roger Clemens has returned and Aubrey Huff has been acquired in a trade from the Devil Rays. Even the Reds and Brewers think they have chance and seem to have changed their minds about dealing Adam Dunn and Carlos Lee, respectively.

How about a lucky 13th question ...

13. Who’s going to be playing in

October?

The guess here is that the White Sox will navigate a tough American League playoffs also featuring the Red Sox, Angels and wild-card Tigers. And the Mets will make short work of a National League field consisting of the Cardinals, Dodgers and wildcard Astros. In the World Series, the White Sox will close out the Mets in six. But what do we know?

Make the case for your picks on The Daily Word at pagetoo.evtrib.com.

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