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Nine story lines to think about in second half

The second half kicked into gear Friday night and, amazingly enough, we’re less than three weeks to the trade deadline. What are some stories to watch? Here’s my starting nine:

1. Cubs teetering: They finished the first half 6-15. They started the season 25-6. In between they went 22-14. So which version will we see in the second half as the pressure and the weight of history grows? There has been no expectation of a World Series like this around the North Side of Chicago in a long time. Seasons like 1984, 1989 and 2003, for instance, crept up on Cubs fans but a 100-win campaign was the thought in spring this year.

There have been no World Series at Wrigley Field since 1945 and no titles for the Cubs since 1908. The starting rotation, with an ERA over 8.00 in the 10 days prior to the break, needs to get back to where it was earlier in the year. And the bullpen could use some reinforcements. Perhaps from one of the Yankees’ big three.

2. Can Blue Jays deal again? There aren’t many prospects left after last year’s purge brought Troy Tulowitzki, David Price and Ben Revere. But it will be interesting to see what goes down in Toronto, be it another bat like Jay Bruce or more help to the pitching staff. Which takes us to ....

3. Can the Blue Jays really take Aaron Sanchez out of the rotation? Remember, that’s the plan to preserve his arm. He’s 9-1, 2.97 and was named to the All-Star team and it seems inconceivable they could take him out, but that remains the plan. He’s not getting shut down like the Nationals did to Stephen Strasburg, but instead likely going back to his eighth-inning relief role he served last year. 

4. Yankees Poker – Hold ’em or Fold ’em?: In a story published Thursday by, GM Brian Cashman is reportedly ready to take what in this view is a prudent approach and find buyers for the studs in his bullpen, veterans like Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, a free agent like Ivan Nova, an arbitration-eligible like Nathan Eovaldi and even the bloated contracts of Jacoby Ellsbury or Brian McCann.

But in the win-all-the-time mode are owner Hal Steinbrenner and president Randy Levine, who think a team that hit the break 44-44 and fourth in the AL East is still built for the long run. Winning three of four in Cleveland last week fueled their belief that it’s not over.

The problem is the Yankees entered the weekend just 10-17 against the AL East, and only the Twins’ 6-21 mark in the AL Central contains fewer wins by a team in its own division. The Yankees are 34-27 outside the AL East. The decision might be made for them by the schedule. Out of the break, the Yankees have 10 straight brutal home games – three against Boston, four against Baltimore and three against San Francisco. Then they go to Houston for three games. That takes them to July 28, four days before the deadline. Bet Cashman’s view will hold more water by then.

5. Will the Mets’ arms hold up?: Matt Harvey is down for the season, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz are pitching with bone chips in their elbows and Bartolo Colon is 43. For the last 55 games, the defending National League champions are below .500. They can’t get old teammate Daniel Murphy out at all when they play the Nationals. The Pirates and Dodgers look better suited for wild-cards.

6. LeBron magic carrying across the plaza: The Cavaliers broke Cleveland’s 52-year title drought and now the Indians look to have a chance to bring home the city’s first World Series title since 1948. They have one of the game’s best rotations and a manager in Terry Francona who knows how to win. But they don’t have many players familiar with October. They could use another bat and another reliever.

7. Giants even-year mastery: The World Series trophy landed in San Francisco in 2010, 2012 and 2014. If the Giants do it again this year, they will join the Red Sox of 100 years ago and the Yankees of multiple reincarnations as the only franchise to take four titles in a seven-year stretch. Manager Bruce Bochy might qualify for the Hall of Fame already with three rings. If he wins a fourth, he’ll become a lock.

8. Papi’s Farewell: No Hall of Famer ever hit 30 home runs in his final season but the remarkable David Ortiz looks like he might hit 40 at 40 on his way to Cooperstown. His Farewell Tour might last well into October, but it will be particular interesting to see how things go down during his final visit in September to Yankee Stadium. Back in spring training, Ortiz openly asked fans in the Bronx to give him a standing ovation on Sept. 29 during his last game there.

9. Do the Red Sox make it or break it? There’s been an up-and-down quality to the season in Boston. The trade to get All-Star pitcher Drew Pomeranz from San Diego is a clear and correct sign the Sox feel the AL East is up for grabs in Ortiz’s final season. You wonder if John Farrell survives as manager if the Sox don’t make it, and if Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Torey Lovullo gets the call to take over if Farrell doesn’t.

If that doesn’t happen, there’s still plenty of rumblings that Lovullo will get interest from Atlanta about managing the Braves next year in the first season at their new ballpark, SunTrust Park.

Tigers tiring of Gose

It’s not going well for former Bisons outfielder Anthony Gose in Detroit. Once the Tigers’ starting center fielder this year, Gose now finds himself at Double-A Erie after getting into a dugout tiff last weekend in Toledo with Mud Hens manager Lloyd McClendon.

Gose and McClendon argued during the first game of a doubleheader and the 25-year-old was pulled from the game and benched for the nightcap. Gose didn’t show up the next day and the Tigers sent him off to the Eastern League.

“After collectively evaluating the situation in Toledo, we spoke with Anthony and emphasized our organization’s expectations of him,” Tigers General Manager Al Avila said in a statement. “Most importantly, Anthony’s transfer to Erie is a move to give him a fresh start to his overall performance as he works his way back to Detroit.”

The Tigers got Gose for Devon Travis, a pretty one-sided trade to say the least. Gose hit .209 in 30 games for the Tigers this year and just .185 in 50 games at Toledo. He stole a combined 43 bases for the Bisons in 2013 and 2014 but found a home with the Tigers last year by batting .254 and stealing 23 bases in 140 games.

Channeling Bettman?

In his annual All-Star Game chat with the Baseball Writers Association of America, Commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday in San Diego there’s been no change in baseballs despite a spike in home runs. He also said he remains committed to the stadium battles in Oakland and Tampa Bay.

Then he was asked by a Cincinnati writer if he was worried about how many teams, especially in the National League, seem to be tanking to angle for top draft picks. The answer sounded like the same one I got from Gary Bettman when I asked him a similar question in 2015, while the Sabres were on a road trip to Vancouver in the midst of their zero-win January.

“Clubs have always gone through periods of time where they decide, ‘Whatever I have going on with my current complement of players, it’s not going to get me over the top,’” Manfred said. “ ‘I’m going to go young, start over again, rebuild and go from there.’ This is not a new phenomenon, point blank.”

Manfred went on to say tanking is “not a word I particularly care for” and didn’t agree with the notion.

“A strategy, where I’ve decided I’m going to lose a whole bunch of games and get as much access to amateur talent as I possibly can ... is a self-checked strategy, right? Because the more people adopt the strategy, the less likely it is to be successful. By definition, only one guy can get the No. 1 pick. There is a natural checking mechanism to that strategy.”

Around the horn

• Plenty of eyebrows raised in Toronto about Ortiz’s news conference on Media Day in San Diego. Big Papi was open about wanting Edwin Encarnacion and/or Jose Bautista to join the Red Sox next season after he’s retired. That’s pretty blatant tampering right there and MLB needs to crack down on that. Especially when you ponder the type of free agent classes that could be on the market the next two years.

• You want a pitching matchup, check out what’s going on Tuesday at Wrigley when the Mets-Cubs game features Syndergaard vs. Jake Arrieta.

• Former Mets second baseman and Bisons manager Wally Backman, the skipper for the last four seasons in Las Vegas, has joined Twitter at @Wally_Backman6.

• St. Bonaventure’s Connor Grey, the Frewsburg native drafted by Arizona in the 20th round in June, took a no-hitter into the eighth inning Tuesday at Rookie-level Missoula. He ended up giving up one hit over 7∑ innings and striking out a season-high eight in a win over Great Falls. Grey is 3-0, 2.22 in his first five pro starts, striking out 20 and walking eight in 28∑ innings.


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