As we all catch our breath at the All-Star break, St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones looks back at the first half of the major-league season and looks ahead with a few predictions:
|National League||American League|
|It feels automatic to just jot down the name "Albert Pujols,'' and it seems you can never go wrong calling Pujols an MVP. If you're starting a team right now, Pujols would be everyone's first pick. But we're going to go away from the norm and pick someone completely different — the Reds' Joey Votto, who went into the weekend with a .315 average and 22 homers (both better numbers than Pujols), as well as 60 RBIs, just one behind Pujols headed into the weekend. Votto has the surprising Reds ahead of Pujols' Cardinals in the NL Central.||Remember a year ago when the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera embarrassed himself by staying out drinking and then landing in jail overnight after an argument with his wife during a key season-ending series against the Twins? He cleaned himself up in the offseason and has responded with a sensational first half. He is a legitimate Triple Crown candidate.|
|Cy Young||Cy Young|
|The NL is loaded with serious arms — Roy Halladay, Josh Johnson, Adam Wainwright, Tim Lincecum. But the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez has been lights-out, racking up a 15-1 record, including a no-hitter. Halladay has superb numbers for the Phillies, including seven complete games, a perfect game and three shutouts, but the pick is Jimenez.||Go ahead and call us homers, but we're going with the Rays' David Price. Anyway, we have the numbers to back our pick. Coming into the weekend, Price led the American League in victories (12) and was second in ERA (2.42).|
|Rookie of the year||Rookie of the year|
|Plenty of rookies are having good, although not spectacular seasons, such as the Braves' Jason Heyward, the Cards' Jaime Garcia, the Cubs' Tyler Colvin and Nationals pitching sensation Stephen Strasburg. By season's end Strasburg could be the pick, but at the halfway point, Heyward (11 homers, 45 RBIs going into the weekend) is the choice.||The plan in Detroit was to bring along outfielder Brennan Boesch slowly. But the guy has been so good that skipper Jim Leyland told the Detroit Free-Press, "How can I take Boesch out?'' Answer: He can't, not with the kid hitting .345 with 12 homers and 48 RBIs going into the weekend.|
|Manager of the year||Manager of the year|
|Dusty Baker has done a big-time job turning around the Reds and, based on his stint with the Cubs, we're surprised how effective he has been in Cincinnati. But no one expected the Padres to be any good at all, and they go into the break in first place in the pretty-good NL West. That's why our pick is San Diego's Bud Black.||Considering all the injuries the Red Sox have had, as well as a bad start to the season, it's a wonder they are even within shouting distance of the Yankees and Rays. Credit goes to manager Terry Francona, who has done a great job mixing and matching his lineup to keep the Red Sox breathing.|
|Most surprising team||Most surprising team|
|The Padres won only 75 games last season. Going into the weekend, they had already won 50 this year.||We were going to say the Blue Jays, who were alive and well despite missing Roy Halladay for two months, but they've fallen off a cliff the past three weeks. The funny thing is, all the decent teams in the American League were supposed to be decent. So it's Toronto, by default.|
|Most disappointing team||Most disappointing team|
|The defending champion Phillies haven't had a great first half. They went into the weekend a mere four games over .500 and in third place in the NL East. But the team we expected more from was the Cubs. Instead of battling for a playoff spot, the question is whether manager Lou Piniella is going to last beyond this season. If he isn't fired, he just might quit over how maddening this team has been.||The Mariners loaded up in the offseason, bringing in players such as Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley and Ken Griffey. Lee was just traded, Griffey retired and the Mariners are bringing up the rear in the AL West.|
Top five stories of the first half
1. No-nos. Four pitchers have thrown no-hitters. That includes two against the Rays. And that includes the A's Dallas Braden's perfect game against the Rays and the Phillies' Roy Halladay's perfecto against the Marlins. Speaking of perfect games, the Tigers' Armando Galarraga should've had one, but umpire Jim Joyce blew the call.
2. Stephen Strasburg. Last year's No. 1 pick arrived in Washington with plenty of hype and somehow managed to surpass that hype, winning his first two starts and striking out 32 in his first three starts.
3. Ken Griffey Jr. retires. One of the best players of his or any generation decided to walk away quietly after a disappointing homecoming with the Mariners. Still, Griffey, right, leaves the game as baseball's fifth all-time home run hitter with 630.
4. Red Sox injuries. Look at these names: Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Mike Lowell, Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia and Jason Varitek. That could be the makings of an all-star team. Instead, it's Red Sox players who are on the disabled list.
5. Same old, same old. As much as you think things change in baseball, one team continues to be the dominant one of this generation. The defending champion Yankees are on the way to their 14th postseason in 15 years. Just think about how hot the Rays started this season, yet it's the Yankees in control in the AL East.
Five predictions for the second half
1. The Rays will just miss the postseason as the Yankees win the division, while the Red Sox get healthy in time to steal away the wild card.
2. The addition of Cliff Lee will push the Rangers to the AL West title, while the Tigers will pull out the Central on the last weekend of the season.
3. The Phillies will make a late-season charge to sneak into the playoffs, and then they'll go back to the World Series again, becoming the first National League team to win three consecutive pennants since the 1942-44 Cardinals.
4. The Reds won't hold on in the NL Central as the Cardinals rally to take the division. The Rockies will win the West with the Mets grabbing the wild card.
5. The Yankees take yet another World Series title, beating the Phillies in five games.