What to watch for in MLB's second half

The second half of the MLB season unofficially starts Thursday night with Cubs-Cardinals in primetime at Wrigley. You're probably thinking "baseball started?" Don't worry, you're not alone... the rest of America is too.

While the commissioner is busy blaming players for not being marketable (isn't that your job, chief?) we know you've been busy with the NBA Playoffs, World Cup and tons of better shit to do than watch baseball. But now it's summer, the other sports have died down and baseball is starting to heat up. The MLB is center stage, and it's time for you to get ready for second half action. Here's a few things you should look out for in the final 2 1/2 months of the season.

Dodgers going for broke

 Patrick Smith, Getty Images

Patrick Smith, Getty Images

After a poor start to the season, the Dodgers are back in first in the NL West, holding a half-game lead on the Diamondbacks. They went all in Wednesday, sending five prospects (only one - Yusniel Diaz - is in MLB.com's Top 100) to Baltimore for soon-to-be free agent Manny Machado, to replace the injured Corey Seager at short. It's a sign from Andrew Friedman and the front office that they're looking to quickly put last year's World Series failure behind them and end LA's 30-year championship drought.

The Dodgers are still in the market for relievers to help closer Kenley Jansen, but adding Machado restores LA as likely the most dangerous lineup 1-9 in the National League. Manny has somehow raised his game in 2018, hitting 24 home runs and clubbing a .963 OPS in the first half. Now you plug him into an offense that has averaged a .793 OPS and 5.1 runs per game in the team's 37-17 run since May 17th. The Dodgers are still dealing with the decline of Clayton Kershaw, but its offense is more potent than ever.

The American League playoff race is loaded

 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The National League has more teams in playoff contention because it's the lesser of the two leagues, but the AL is bringing some firepower among its top teams. The Red Sox, Yankees and Astros are all at 62 wins or above, and feature stacked lineups with some consistent arms at the front end of their rotation.

The Red Sox got off to a great run as they go for a third-straight division crown, but also their first time out of the ALDS since the 2013 World Series team. Mookie Betts is on another MVP tear (.359 BA, 23 HRs, 1.139 OPS), and core guys Andrew Benintendi & Xander Bogaerts have provided strong offense. But the addition of JD Martinez in the offseason (.328 BA, 29 HRs, 80 RBI, 1.037 OPS) has pushed Beantown to the best record in baseball. There's also FOUR 10-game winners in their rotation, with Chris Sale (10-4, 2.23 ERA, 188 Ks) and Eduardo Rodriguez as their anchors. They could afford to tighten up their bullpen behind closer Craig Kimbrel, but all-in-all the Red Sox are best positioned to win the AL Pennant for the first time in five years.

The Bronx Bombers have withstood an underwhelming start from Gary Sanchez, thanks to their big boppers Aaron Judge (25 HRs, .973 OPS) and Giancarlo Stanton (23 HRs, .864 OPS), the emergence of young guns like Gleyber Torres (.294 BA, 15 HRs, .905 OPS) and Miguel Andujar, and the dominance of ace Luis Severino (14-2, 2.31 ERA, 144 Ks) and closer Aroldis Chapman. They're not done adding to their club - they're in the market for more starting pitching and kicked the tires on Manny Machado before the Dodger trade - so to be only 4.5 games back of Boston at this juncture is really good standing. Also, the Yankees have finished the first half 29 games above .500 three times before - 1939, 1953 and 1998. Each year, they went on to win the World Series.

 Bob Levey/Getty Images

Bob Levey/Getty Images

The resurgence of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has taken defending World Series champs off the front pages, but the Houston Astros are still the best team in baseball until they're knocked off their pedestal. They've had to forge through the inconsistencies of their offense (minus Alex Bregman) and Dallas Keuchel, but after a rough 6-7 stretch against the four other top contenders in the AL, the 'Stros have racked off 27-10 in their last 37 before the break. They may be in the market for a closer, with Ken Giles sent down for sucking and arguing with his coaches, but they could very well stand pat and go back to October with the same guns that won it for them last year.

Don't forget about the Indians either. Cleveland is looking for a third-straight AL Central title, and just added lefty reliever Brad Hand to their already lethal group of relievers, including Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. Corey Kluber remains the ace of the staff with 12 wins, 132 strikeouts and a 2.76 ERA. The solid work of Trevor Bauer (8-6, 2.24 ERA, 175 Ks), Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber gives Cleveland some room to be creative with their rotation, working 11-win righty Carlos Carrasco back from the DL by using him out of the bullpen against the Yankees last weekend. Cleveland sits far behind the other AL powers in the win column, but barring an unlikely surge by the Twins, the Indians will be playing in October, and with strong arms & a top-heavy lineup (Frankie Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion) whoever they meet in the ALDS better not rest on their laurels.

As far as the second wild card goes, the Seattle Mariners are the favorite to end the longest playoff drought in North American sports, but they've dropped four in a row and are now just 3 games up on the surprising Oakland A's. The Athletics' young offense has been really hot as of late, and the addition of some veteran arms could be key to getting Oakland back into October. For Seattle, Robinson Cano's return from PED suspension on August 14th will be a big boost to a club missing his bat in the everyday lineup, even though they haven't been hurt by it so far. Some pitchers to help Marco Gonzalez, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake and James Paxton should be enough to hold off Oakland and make the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

Intrigue in the NL Central

 Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The NL Central have undergone a shit ton of maintenance in the last few years. The Astros left for the AL, the Cardinals - once the crown jewel of the division - have fallen off and now need a new manager, and the Cubs - yes, those Cubs - have ascended as the kings of the Central and are looking to go back-to-back-to-back for the first time in team history. But now, those pesky Milwaukee Brewers are hungrier and want to avenge last season's collapse, and even the Pittsburgh Pirates are in range of a wild card spot.

The Cubs usually heat up in August and pull away from the competition in September, and I expect much of the same this season. The Brewers won't go away lightly though - they were loud in their pursuit of Manny Machado, and have the prospects to fill holes at the deadline, likely with Twins infielder Brian Dozier. They lost their last six games before the break, and 8 of their last 10, so if they want to play October baseball, they'll need to move on those trade pieces before they go elsewhere in the NL.

What's next for the Cardinals is interesting to watch as the season closes; they only sit 4 games behind the Braves for the second wild card. The expectation is for them to go after Joe Girardi, who grew up in East Peoria - the dividing line between Cubs and Cards fans in Illinois. Do they mail it in and start moving towards the offseason, or do they make one last push with the guys they have now?

Several teams push for two wild card spots in NL

The introduction of the Wild Card playoff in 2012 opened the door for all those teams on the fringe to make a move at the deadline and push for that final playoff seed. We've seen some crazy races in the last few years, and this year will be no different. The Brewers, despite their recent slide, are in control of the 1st WC slot, while the Braves.- losers of 7 of their last 10 - hold the second by a half-game on the D-Backs. The Braves are mired in a battle with the NL East-leading Phillies and the .500 Washington Nationals, while the D-Backs are fighting with the Rockies - winners of five straight - and Giants for the Dodgers' top spot in the NL West. All while the Cardinals linger, and the Pirates hold out hope.

There'll be lots of movement in the NL before the trade deadline, so expect the NL Wild Card race to come down to the wire once more.

Bryce Harper watch begins... now

 Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports

Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals are at even .500, 5 games back of the wild card, & 5.5 games back in the NL East. They're MVP and the biggest star in D.C. sports at the moment (sorry Ovie, sorry John Wall) has a big decision to make at season's end.

All Star week might have been one big love-fest between Bryce Harper and Washington D.C., but there's no love in business. Bryce Harper is a former MVP who will be 26 at the start of next season. The Nationals want to retain him, obviously, but Bryce - a Scott Boras client - hasn't definitely said he will stay, and has openly made his affection for the Cubs (his bestie Kris Bryant is there) and the Yankees known. If the Nationals don't make the playoffs, they can all but kiss their $400 million man goodbye. Hell, it's not a guarantee he'll return even if they play into October, but after years of coming up short in the NLDS, if this is it for the Nationals and the greatest player in franchise history, they need to go for it all in the second half.