Welcome to the age of unpredictability in baseball, when a career .266 hitter is chasing a Triple Crown, a team in Washington is in first place, and the New York Yankees, baseball's $208 million version of Gigli, can't win a series at home against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, whose owners have been accused by their own manager of not trying. What, you're surprised? Well, the second half of this season promises to be as head-scratching as the first. While the eventual answers may not be obvious, these are the 10 most pressing questions for the next three months.
Will the three biggest surprise teams--the White Sox, Orioles and Nationals--all make the playoffs?
Highly unlikely. Chicago has the best shot because of its pitching--its starters have lost a major- league-low 14 times in 74 games--and its 91/2-game division lead at week's end. The Sox could play .500 ball over their last 88 games and still win 94. Of the 44 teams to win that many games in the wild-card era, 43 made the postseason and the other, the 1999 Reds, lost a one-game playoff.
Baltimore has wobbled recently, going 12--14 in a soft portion of its schedule (Tigers, Red Sox, Pirates, Reds, Astros, Rockies, Blue Jays). The Orioles play 13 of their final 19 games against the American League's three highest-scoring teams, the Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees.
Washington, which has been outscored by its opponents (316--310), will be in trouble if it doesn't add offense. Among NL teams only the Astros have scored fewer runs. But the Nats play 25 of their final 38 games at RFK Stadium, where they have the best home record in the majors (26--10).
Can Derrek Lee win the Triple Crown--or bat .400?
Forget .400. Since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941 only four players have hit even .377 in a full season, and all of them were career .300 hitters at the time: Williams (.388 in 1957), Rod Carew (.388 in '77), George Brett (.390 in '80) and Larry Walker (.379 in '99). Lee, 29, entered this year a .266 lifetime hitter, so he's bound to cool off. The Triple Crown is almost as unattainable--Carl Yastrzemski was the last to do it, in '67. Lee had a 51-point lead in the batting race at week's end, but he'll have to contend with the Cardinals' Albert Pujols and the Brewers' Carlos Lee for the RBI title and the Braves' Andruw Jones and the Reds' Adam Dunn for the home run crown.
Will Barry Bonds pass Babe Ruth on the alltime home run list this season?
Yes. Bonds, who turns 41 on July 24 and is recovering from operations this year, told MLB.com last week that he doesn't know if he'll be back before August. But two months is enough time for Bonds to hit the 12 home runs he needs to pass Ruth's 714. Bonds has hit 18, 12 and 17 homers after July 31 in the past three years.
Will Roger Clemens be traded?
Not as it stands now. The Yankees are likely the only team to which Clemens would agree to be dealt, but a few weeks ago the ace righthander met with Astros owner Drayton McLane, who is on record as wanting to keep Clemens, and said, "If you're going to make a move, you're going to have to sell it to me too." Clemens is enjoying playing in his hometown with his friend Andy Pettitte; and his son, Koby, an 18-year-old third baseman whom the Astros recently drafted in the eighth round, might soon be in the same organization.
Is a postseason possible without the Yankees and the Braves?
Definitely, even if it hasn't happened since 1990. The Braves have stayed in contention despite having their best hitter (third baseman Chipper Jones) and three fifths of their rotation (Tim Hudson, Mike Hampton and John Thomson) on the DL. They're still the team to beat in the NL East if they get healthy.
Because of the depth in the AL the Yankees probably need to win the East to get in--and that's not looking good. The chief causes of their inconsistency don't figure to improve much: poor defense (11th in the AL in fielding percentage) and starting pitching (10th in the league in ERA).
Will anyone hit 50 home runs this year?
Not unless the Reds' Adam Dunn (left) avoids his usual September crash. He's a career .213 hitter in that month with 10 homers in 258 at bats. The Braves' Andruw Jones led the majors with 24 dingers at week's end, but he's notoriously streaky and has never even hit 40.
Which division is baseball's weakest?
The NL West, which doesn't figure to get much better. The Padres should ride their 22--5 hot streak in May to the title. San Diego is 20--29 otherwise, and a 43--43 finish might still be enough to win the division. For the first time in the 10 full seasons of the six-division format, the NL West champ will have fewer than 90 wins.
What is standing in the way of the Cardinals making back-to-back World Series appearances for the first time since 1967--68?
Nothing. St. Louis is clearly the class of the National League, leading the league in both hitting and pitching. Righthanders Matt Morris (above) and Chris Carpenter, neither of whom was healthy last October, have been solid.
"I know everything is cyclical," one AL scout said after studying NL teams for interleague play, "but the National League stinks right now. There's only one NL team that could compete on a day-to-day basis in the AL, and that's St. Louis."
The AL, despite the DH, actually has four of the top five pitching staffs and a lower overall ERA than the NL. The team that finishes second for the AL wild card, despite going home in October, might be better than anything the NL has to offer this side of the Cardinals.
Which playoff contender most needs a trade?
The Twins. Pitching-rich Minnesota is one bat short of being a bona fide World Series contender and needs to upgrade its weak-hitting infield. Third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo of the Giants, third baseman Joe Randa of the Reds or second baseman Bret Boone of the Mariners (right) would thus be a good fit.
Which teams will make the postseason?
The Red Sox, White Sox, Twins (wild card) and Angels in the AL; the Marlins, Braves (wild card), Cardinals and Padres in the NL.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
JOHN BIEVER (2)
ERIC RISBERG/AP (BONDS)
ROBERT BECK (PADRES)
JOHN BIEVER (CLEMENS)
TIM PARKER/REUTERS (MORRIS)
JOHN IACONO (JETER)
MIKE SIMONS/US PRESSWIRE (DUNN)
KATHY WILLENS/AP (BOONE)