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Sunday, July 9
Ten second-half questions for the AL



So you knew that David Cone would have one win the first half of the season and that the White Sox would have the most wins in baseball?

You fully expected, no doubt, that Cal Eldred and James Baldwin each would have more wins than Mike Mussina.

It didn't surprise you, not one bit, that Darin Erstad would be on pace to break the record for most hits in a season.

Saw all of that coming, we suppose?

OK, we've got some more brain busters for you. Have a go at 10 questions for the second half of what has already been a wildly unpredictable American League season.

1. How will the White Sox handle adversity?

The White Sox are unquestionably the biggest surprise of the 2000 season, exceeding everyone's expectations, including their own. But the White Sox haven't had a losing streak longer than four games, haven't lost more than two in a row since a rough 1-7 patch in the first week of May, and likely won't get to October without encountering a slump of some sort.

Frank Thomas
Frank Thomas eyes an AL Central title for the White Sox.

For a team with very few veterans beyond Frank Thomas and Eldred, that rough road could spook some young players. How will they respond to that pressure?

The White Sox have set the pace through the first three months and made themselves the team to catch. But sooner or later, they're going to have to show everyone that they're capable of surviving the inevitable dip.

2. Can the Indians get healthy in time?
The Indians are unaccustomed to being out of first, having won the last five Central division titles. This season, wracked by injuries, the Indians are slipping into the sunset.

Already, they've gone through a staggering 26 pitchers. Some key players are still rehabilitating. It's doubtful that first place is still an option, since the Indians are 10 games behind the White Sox. But if they get Jaret Wright and Charles Nagy back healthy, they might still have a shot at the wild card.

If not, look for the Indians to flip the switch from buyers to sellers, and unload some veteran players with an eye toward retooling -- not rebuilding -- for 2001.

3. Can Randy Smith save face -- and his job?
The Tigers' general manager has seen a blockbuster deal blow up in his face. Juan Gonzalez, obtained last November, was supposed to bring excitement to Comerica Park and production to the Detroit lineup.

So what happens? Gonzalez gets off to a slow start, finds that he hates the roomy new ballpark and is limited by injuries over the first half of the season.

Now that it seems clear Gonzalez won't be making Detroit his permanent home, Smith must deal him somewhere in the next four weeks. Already, Gonzalez scuttled a deal that would have sent him to the Yankees.

Smith may have to settle for 50 cents on the dollar. Anything would be better than watching Gonzalez sign elsewhere over the winter, leaving the Tigers with only a draft pick and Smith, likely, with a pink slip.

4. Will Peter Angelos throw in the towel?
In recent seasons, the Orioles owner has refused to cash out, even after it became evident the season was a lost cause for his team. Had Angelos trusted the advice of some baseball people (Pat Gillick, Frank Wren), he might be overseeing a re-stocked minor-league system rather than presiding over an aging, expensive and underachieving club.

There's plenty of talent available here. Catcher Charles Johnson, starter Scott Erickson, shortstop Mike Bordick and outfielder B.J. Surhoff would be attractive to contenders.

As presently constituted, the O's are several years away from competing in the AL East. But if they cut their losses and begin the rebuilding now, the trip back to respectability will be shorter.

5. Does Texas have anything left for a second-half kick?
The Rangers, with three playoff appearances in the previous four seasons, never got untracked this season, thanks in part to injuries. Before two months had been played, they had seen each of their starting outfielders land on the DL, with promising Ruben Mateo gone for the season.

Still, while the Rangers are in the West cellar, they're only two games under .500 and the wild card is at least within shouting distance. The Rangers have some savvy veterans, including Royce Clayton, Rafael Palmeiro and Pudge Rodriguez who could help key a turnaround.

Winners of seven of their last 10, a strong final weekend of the first half would give them some momentum heading into the second half.

6. Can the Seattle bullpen hold up?
The Mariners have put together the second-best record in the American League, and the team's relievers are a major reason why.

After a rough initiation, imported closer Kazuhiro Sasaki has settled into the role and the set-up work of Brett Tomko, Robert Ramsay, Arthur Rhodes, Jose Paniagua and Jose Mesa has been reliable.

The imminent return of Freddy Garcia will boost the rotation, and Jamie Moyer and Aaron Sele are proven inning-eaters. But Lou Piniella has a history of sometimes overworking his staff and he'll need to preserve his pen for the last month in order to hold off Oakland or any other challengers.

7. What will the trade activity be like in the next few weeks?
Who can say? Some believed that one trade would lead to an avalanche of moves in response, but that hasn't happened in the wake of the Yankees' acquisition of David Justice.

There are plenty of free-agents-to-be to be had, but the fact that only five AL clubs can be eliminated from second-half contention (Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Detroit Minnesota) limits the number of trading partners, and it's no different in the NL once you get beyond the NL Central.

With pitching in such short supply, some teams may follow the Yankees' lead and bolster their lineups in hopes of bludgeoning opponents into submission. Or, some may overpay for back-of-the-rotation pitchers, on the theory that any pitching is better than none at all.

8. Is it realistic to think that anyone can hit .400?
It's been more than a half-century since anyone has reached the hallowed mark. But as records fall and offensive numbers soar, why should this figure necessarily be out of reach?

Nomar Garciaparra went into the weekend at .393, and no less an expert than The Kid himself (Ted Williams, baseball's last .400 hitter) has chosen Garciaparra as the game's best bet. And that was before this season.

Garciaparra probably doesn't walk enough -- to limit his at-bat total -- but he's among the best bad-ball hitters in the game, so when he makes contact, it doesn't matter where the pitch is thrown.

The Red Sox shortstop is remarkably consistent and gets his hits in bunches. Sure, it's a long shot. But so were Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998.

9. Which team will be this season's version of the A's?
Last year, the A's got a head start on this season with their strong second-half play (44-31). It didn't get them into the playoffs, but it did ready them for 2000.

Tampa Bay and Baltimore are eliminated by age considerations, and the Angels and Mariners have already demonstrated great improvement.

That leaves three also-rans in the AL Central -- the Royals, Twins and Tigers. Give a slight edge to the Royals, who have enough offense to win now, but must develop pitching. New GM Allard Baird will be busy evaluating the talent on hand, with the hint of some cash infusion from new ownership.

10. Can the Yankees get off the mat?
OK, so being tied for first-place on the final weekend of the first half is not exactly a calamity. But the Yankees are clearly nowhere near as strong as they've been and major holes exist on the pitching staff. Calling up Doc Gooden to pitch Saturday smacks of desperation, and Cone, their go-to mound man of the championship years, hasn't won since April.

The Yankees are a proud bunch, and in steady manager Joe Torre and skilled GM Brian Cashman, they've got the right people calling the shots. But a lot of improvement needs to be made for the Yankees to get back to the World Series. At this point, not even a playoff appearance is assured.

Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal-Bulletin covers the American League for ESPN.com.
 



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Ten second-half questions for the NL

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