2014 MLB All-Star Game: Winners and Losers from Tuesday Night

The 85th MLB All-Star Game is in the books, with the American League securing home-field advantage in this year's World Series with a 5-3 victory over the National League.

Derek Jeter was the story coming into the game, and he didn't disappoint, turning in a two-hit game and earning a pair of lengthy ovations from the fans in attendance.

Mike Trout walked away with the MVP honors, tallying an RBI triple in the first and an RBI double in the fifth, but there were a number of individual standouts on both sides.

As we reflect on a memorable night at Target Field in Minnesota, here is a look at the biggest winners and losers from this year's Midsummer Classic.

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Stock Up, Stock Down for Chicago Cubs Top 10 Prospects for Week 15

The Chicago Cubs prospect rankings were shaken up last week when the team acquired Addison Russell, Billy McKinney and Dan Straily from the Oakland Athletics in a trade that saw Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel depart.

With that move, a strong case can be made that the Cubs now have the best farm system in all of baseball, though they are still thin on impact pitching prospects.

Regardless, the future has never looked brighter in Chicago, and for second baseman Arismendy Alcantara, one of the team's top prospects, the future appears to be now.

So here's an updated look at the team's current top 10 prospects and how they performed at the minor league level over the past week. This series will be updated weekly, with a stock "up," "even" or "down" indication given to each prospect based upon the direction in which his performance is trending.

 

No. 5 prospect SP C.J. Edwards (shoulder) spent last week on the disabled list. He will not be included here until he is active. He is 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 20.2 innings on the season at Double-A Tennessee.

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MLB Power Rankings: Where All 30 MLB Teams Stand at the 2014 All-Star Break

With All-Star weekend kicking off Sunday, we have officially concluded what will be called the first half of the 2014 MLB season.

The entire season has been a dogfight to this point, and while the Oakland Athletics have separated themselves from the pack and there are a handful of others, like the Los Angeles Angels, Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers, that look strong, for the most part, things are still wide-open across the league.

When putting together the rankings on a weekly basis, the following factors are considered:

  • Previous week's record
  • Quality of opponents
  • Key injuries/trades
  • Recent performance beyond the last week

Once this week's All-Star festivities wrap up, the baseball world will turn its attention to the rapidly approaching non-waiver trade deadline as contenders look to shore up their rosters and pretenders look to cash in their trade chips.

With all of that said, here is an updated look at where all 30 MLB teams stand at the break. Be sure to check back here every Monday morning for the most recent edition of our MLB power rankings.

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Ranking the 10 Most Impressive Prospects from the 2014 MLB Futures Game

MLB All-Star weekend kicked off on Sunday with the 16th annual Futures Game, with the USA Team topping the World Team 3-2 at Target Field in Minnesota.

The yearly showcase of some of the top talent minor league baseball has to offer is often dominated by electric pitching arms, and while this year's game was no different, there were a pair of home runs and a few offensive highlights as well.

Having just finished watching the game, here is a quick take on the 10 most impressive prospects from the 2014 MLB Futures Game.

These aren't necessarily the 10 guys who had the best statistical games or the 10 guys with the most potential to be big league stars. These are simply the 10 guys who impressed me personally the most while I watched the game, ranked up to the most impressive.

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Position-by-Position MLB Player Rankings Heading into the All-Star Break

Position-by-position MLB power rankings will once again be a staple this year, and as we head for the All-Star break, it's time for another update.

My preseason rankings came out March 7, with subsequent updates coming on April 17June 3 and July 4.

What follows is a look at the best players at each position based on their performance this season. Past reputation and future projections mean nothing here; it's all about what these guys have done in 2014.

I have taken into account players' all-around offensive abilities, their defensive contributions and what they have meant to the success of their respective teams.

Included in my statistics is each player's Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement or WAR. While WAR is a useful stat in gauging a player's value, it is not the be-all, end-all stat that some view it as. As such, do not expect this to simply be a list of the top 10 in WAR at each position.

With that said, here is a look at the best players each position has to offer heading into the All-Star break. With so much change from the first rankings to midseason, it will be interesting to see how different these are by season's end.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and cover games through Thursday, July 10.

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Rocked by Masahiro Tanaka Injury, What Options Are There for Yankees in 2014?

Standout rookie Masahiro Tanaka has a partially torn UCL, and while the news could have been worse and there's a chance he'll avoid surgery, it's still a significant blow to the New York Yankees' playoff hopes.

Tanaka met with three different doctors, each providing the same diagnosis, and he has opted to try rehabbing the injury, a process that will sideline him for at least six weeks.

That according to a pair of tweets from Bryan Hoch of MLB.com, with a number of others verifying the report.

As Hoch points out, Tommy John surgery is still a possibility if rehab doesn't work, as Matt Harvey took a similar route to surgery last year.

Either way, the Yankees will be without their best starter and the one reliable arm in their rotation until roughly September.

The team already acquired Brandon McCarthy in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks and was expected to at least kick the tires on adding another starter.

This could expedite that process, as New York's current staff does not have the look of a legitimate contender.

Picking up McCarthy was a nice move by the front office, as his peripheral numbers suggested he was pitching far better this season than his 3-10 record and 5.01 ERA during his time with the Diamondbacks indicated.

He went 6.2 innings in his Yankees debut, allowing nine hits and four runs (one earned) to come away with a no-decision. If he can pitch to his 2011-12 A's form (3.29 ERA in 43 starts), the Yankees will be much better off.

Hiroki Kuroda is not a Cy Young candidate like he was midway through last season, but he remains capable of going deep into games. He's turned in 10 quality starts in his 18 outings and is averaging just over six innings per start.

David Phelps has also been a viable option since moving to the rotation, going 3-4 with a 4.04 ERA in his 12 starts, though he is best-suited as a fifth starter.

Then there are the two rookies Chase Whitley and Shane Greene, who have done admirably considering nothing was expected of them at the big league level this season. However, relying on them every fifth day during a second-half playoff push is probably asking too much.

So basically, New York is currently working with what would constitute three-fifths of most contenders' rotations and a pair of unknown commodities.

It would appear the Yankees can approach the days and weeks to come in three different ways.

  • They go all-in and try to land a frontline starter to replace Tanaka.
  • They go after a mid-level starter or two to try to put a Band-Aid on things.
  • They stand pat, hope Tanaka returns, and accept their fate if he doesn't.

The first option would be ideal, if the Yankees had the chips to move and there were an abundance of front-of-the-rotation arms on the trade market.

David Price is the biggest name that could wind up available, but there is no chance the Tampa Bay Rays would trade him in-division, and the Yankees don't have the chips to acquire him anyway.

Beyond Price, the list of frontline guys that could be available seems to begin and end with Cliff Lee of the Philadelphia Phillies. He's currently sidelined with a forearm strain and may not return until after the deadline.

Injury issues aside, the Phillies seem set in their stance that they will only move him if someone takes on most or all of the $37.5 million remaining on his contract (which doesn't include the rest of this year's salary) and parts with a significant package of prospects.

So let's go ahead and say:

  • They go all-in and try to land a frontline starter to replace Tanaka.

After spending nearly $500 million on free agents this offseason in an effort to revamp the roster and avoid missing the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1992-93, it's hard to see the Bronx Bombers simply standing pat and hoping for the best.

As of writing this, they sit just 3.5 games back in the AL East, and with no runaway best team right now, the division is up for grabs.

With that in mind, we can also probably say: 

  • They stand pat, hope Tanaka returns, and accept their fate if he doesn't

That just leaves the second option of them going after a mid-level arm or two between now and the trade deadline, and there are a number of intriguing options of varying ability and price to be had.

Here is a quick overview of pitchers who could be made available in July, all of whom the Yankees are capable of acquiring given their tradable assets.

The two names that stand out have both worn pinstripes before: Bartolo Colon and Ian Kennedy.

After sitting out the 2010 season, Colon made his comeback with the Yankees in 2011. He was 8-10 with a 4.00 ERA in 29 games (26 starts) that season, helping what was also an injury-plagued Yankees staff turn things around.

He's coming off a solid month of June, in which he posted a 2.57 ERA in six starts. With what figures to be an abundance of starting pitchers vying for rotation spots next season, the Mets could be motivated to move him.

The 41-year-old is due $11 million next season, so picking him up would represent a fairly large commitment beyond this season, but he could come relatively cheap.

Kennedy may be the most intriguing name of the group, though, as he's capable of providing the Yankees with the frontline arm they need if he can pitch to his capabilities.

The Yankees took Kennedy with their first-round pick back in 2006 but shipped him to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the three-team blockbuster in 2009 that also included Curtis Granderson, Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson and others.

Everything came together for him in 2011, as he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA to finish fourth in NL Cy Young voting, emerging as one of the top starters in all of baseball during his age-26 season.

He fell back to earth in 2012, though, going 15-12 with a 4.02 ERA, and things got even worse for him last season.

With a 5.23 ERA through 21 starts, the Diamondbacks opted to make him available at the deadline, despite the fact that they were still in the hunt for a playoff sport.

The San Diego Padres jumped at the chance to buy low, swapping lefty reliever Joe Thatcher for him, and he's turned things around in a big way during the first half of this season.

His 2.93 FIP ranks 14th among all qualified starters, and while pitching in Petco Park has certainly helped, he actually has a lower ERA on the road (3.49) than he does at home (3.92) so far.

This is all just speculation, and the Yankees could indeed opt to hope for the best and try to ride things out while Tanaka attempts to rehab his elbow.

One thing is for sure: The loss of Tanaka is a serious blow for the Yankees and for baseball fans everywhere. He was in the midst of a special rookie season and had become must-see TV every time he took the mound.

Here's hoping the rehab works and he's back pitching again in the estimated six weeks. History says the odds of that happening are fairly slim, but crazier things have happened.

 

Note: Stats up to date through games on July 9.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

MLB’s Biggest Surprises, Disappointments Entering the All-Star Break

One of the best things about the game of baseball is how unpredictable it can be on a year in, year out basis. Even with all of the advanced metrics and in-depth scouting that takes place these days, it's still impossible to predict how things will play out.

On an individual basis, there are always a handful of surprise players that come out of nowhere each season. On the flip side, there are also more than a few players who enter the year with lofty expectations, only to fall on their face.

As we head into the All-Star break, here is a look at the 10 biggest surprises and 10 biggest disappointments of the first half of the 2014 MLB season.

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Every MLB Team’s Trade Deadline To-Do List

The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline is right around the corner, and, while we have already seen one blockbuster deal between the Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics, there should be plenty more action between now and then.

The following article breaks down all 30 MLB teams' 2014 trade deadline to-do list, and you will see the following four terms used when referring to potential moves:

  • Trade: A player that should be traded, due to an expiring contract or his status on a rebuilding team.
  • Shop: A player that could be traded, but only if the price is right.
  • Add: A clear area of need a contending team should address.
  • Explore: A potential area of need a contending team could address, and one worth at least exploring options for at the deadline.

So, with that made clear, here is a rundown of what all 30 MLB teams need to do in order to have a successful trade deadline.

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Yasiel Puig Could Steal the Show in 1st MLB Home Run Derby

Los Angeles Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig was among the more notable absences from MLB All-Star weekend last year, as he was just 38 games into his big league career.

This year, his talents will be on full display at Target Field in Minnesota, and he has a chance to steal the show.

Not only was he voted to start in the NL outfield, joining Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Gomez, but it was also announced on Tuesday that he will participate in the Home Run Derby.

Dodgers MLB.com beat writer Ken Gurnick confirmed the news:

Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (18 HR) was named the captain of the National League side, so it was him who selected Puig to participate.

"He has tremendous power, watching him from afar," Tulowitzki told Thomas Harding of MLB.com last week when mentioning Puig as a potential candidate.

Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista (17 HR) will captain the American League squad, and he'll be joined by reigning champion Yoenis Cespedes (14 HR), Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones (16 HR) and second baseman Brian Dozier (16 HR) of the host Minnesota Twins.

Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton (21 HR) and Cincinnati Reds third baseman Todd Frazier (17 HR) will join Puig and Tulowitzki on the NL side. One more participant from each league has yet to be announced, per an MLB press release.

Nelson Cruz, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout all declined invitations from Bautista to swing it for the AL side, according to Mike Axisa of CBS Sports.

Trout noted that he'd rather take the event in as a spectator, while Cabrera didn't want to mess with his swing.

Puig made it clear he was not worried about his numbers suffering as a result of his inclusion in the Derby, joking that he has already been struggling of late:

Puig was hitting .344/.436/.615 with 11 home runs at the end of May, ranking as one of the most productive hitters in baseball.

However, he's hit just .252/.324/.362 since the start of June.

Recent struggles aside, Puig was made for this kind of event.

He has tremendous raw power and has always played with a flair that borders on cocky. Now he'll legitimately be the center of attention and have a chance to put on a show on the national stage.

Puig will be looking to follow in the footsteps of fellow Cuban defector Cespedes, who put on a show in last year's Derby with 17 home runs in the first round and 32 overall on his way to claiming the trophy.

Moonshot home runs are what the Home Run Derby is all about, and while Puig ranks just 27th in the NL in long balls, his average distance of 417.3 feet is good for third in all of baseball.

We could dive into all sorts of advanced statistics for Puig and his power numbers through his first year-and-a-half in the league, but instead let's just watch some video of his more notable bombs.

A 453-foot bomb off Jacob Turner of the Miami Marlins on May 3 of this year, the longest of his career:

A 451-footer off Adam Ottavino back on July 2 of last year in the launching pad that is Coors Field:

A 444-footer off Chase Anderson of the Arizona Diamondbacks on May 17 of this year:

A 442-footer off Brandon McCarthy that is the definition of a moonshot:

The one disappointing part of Puig in the Derby? No bat flips.

Luckily, the Los Angeles Dodgers Twitter feed has you covered there:

Who knows, maybe it will come down to a slug-off to end it, and Puig can still work a bat flip in with a walk-off winner. Regardless, Puig in the Derby should make for good television.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Stock Up, Stock Down for Chicago Cubs Top-10 Prospects for Week 14

The rich got richer last week, as what is already a loaded farm system for the Chicago Cubs got even better with the additions of Addison Russell and Billy McKinney in a trade that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics.

This prospect list was re-ordered last week, with top pick Kyle Schwarber and 19-year-old right-hander Jen-Ho Tseng joining the top 10, and Jeimer Candelario and Pierce Johnson falling out.

Things shake up once again, as Russell slides in right behind Kris Bryant and Javier Baez as the team's No. 3 prospect.

So here's an updated look at the team's current top-10 prospects and how they performed at the minor league level over the past week. This series will be updated weekly, with a stock "up," "even" or "down" indication given to each prospect based upon the direction in which his performance is trending.

 

*No. 5 prospect SP C.J. Edwards (shoulder) spent last week on the disabled list. He will not be included here until he is active. He is 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 20.2 innings on the season at Double-A Tennessee.

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MLB Power Rankings: An Updated Look at Where All 30 Teams Stand

It was an exciting week around MLB, with a blockbuster trade between the Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics on Friday and All-Star rosters announced Sunday.

Over the past few weeks, it seems the contenders have started to separate themselves from the pack a bit, as the line between buyer and seller from now to the trade deadline has become a bit more clear for a number of clubs.

The moves that are made over the next couple of weeks will go a long way in determining who is playing in October, and they will certainly have an impact on these rankings.

When putting together the rankings on a weekly basis, the following factors are considered:

  • Previous week's record
  • Quality of opponents
  • Key injuries/trades
  • Recent performance beyond the last week

There is still a lot to be sorted out between now and October, and all of the close races should make for a busy trade season and exciting stretch run.

All of that said, here is an updated look at where all 30 MLB teams currently stand. Be sure to check back here every Monday morning for the most recent edition of our MLB power rankings.

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2014 MLB All Star Roster: Biggest Snubs and Surprises

The rosters have officially been announced for the 2014 MLB All-Star Game, and that means it's time for the annual arguments over who really deserves to be an All-Star and which guys were the biggest snubs.

Oakland Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson was far and away the biggest snub in either league last year, and while there may be no clear-cut No. 1 snub this time around, the field of deserving guys left off of their respective rosters may be bigger.

A higher number of deserving NL players found themselves left out of the Midsummer Classic this year than AL, but with talent stacked in both leagues there were certainly more snubs than surprise selections.

With that being said, here is a quick look at the biggest snubs in both leagues, as well as the biggest surprises among players who did find their way onto the rosters.

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Re-Grading the Impact Deals of MLB’s 2013 July Trade Season

The month of July is here, and with it comes the start of another MLB trade season, as contenders look to shore up their rosters for the stretch run and also-rans look to add young talent for the future.

Last year's trade deadline was relatively quiet compared to years past, but it still saw a handful of impact players on the move before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

A year later, we have a much clearer idea of who got the better end of each trade, so it's time to revisit each of those deals and regrade both sides.

Taking into account things like the progression of prospects included in each deal, whether or not the players acquired by contenders helped their teams reach the playoffs and who benefits most long-term from the deal, the grades for each trade were adjusted compared to last July's grades.

Keep in mind, guys like Alex Rios (CWS-TEX), Marlon Byrd (NYM-PIT), John Axford (MIL-STL), Justin Morneau (MIN-PIT) and Michael Young (PHI-LAD) were not traded until August, so their deals will not be included here.

 

*Note: Quotes and grades for the "What I Said Then" section taken from a live tracker I wrote last July.

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MLB Position-by-Position Player Power Rankings, July Edition

Position-by-position MLB power rankings will once again be a staple this year, and as we have just passed the midway point of the season and turned the calendar over to July, it's time for another update.

My preseason rankings came out March 7, with subsequent updates coming on April 17 and June 3, all leading up to these July positional rankings.

What follows is a look at the 10 (or 15, in the case of outfielders) best players at each position based on the numbers they have accumulated up to this point.

I have taken into account players' all-around offensive abilities, their defensive contributions and what they have meant to the success of their respective teams.

Also included in my statistics is each player's Baseball-Reference WAR, or rWAR. While WAR is a useful stat in gauging a player's value, it is not the be-all, end-all stat that some view it as. As such, do not expect this to simply be a list of the top 10 in WAR at each position.

So with that, here is a look at the top players at each position here in July. There has been a good deal of shuffling once again and several new players join the ranks this month as well, so this is a much different-looking list than a month ago.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and cover games through Thursday, July 3.

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MLB International Free Agency 2014: Preview, Predictions and Prospects to Watch

Wednesday officially marks the start of the 2014 MLB international signing period, and while the process has become far more regulated with the addition of signing bonus pool restrictions, it remains perhaps the biggest crapshoot in all of professional sports.

After all, most of these prospects are still just 16-year-old kids who have seen limited scouting exposure playing in Latin America, and teams will soon be shelling out seven-figure bonuses banking on them living up to their potential.

There is undoubtedly some risk, but these days, teams almost have to get involved on the international market, with so many star-caliber players coming out of the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and, on a smaller scale, Colombia, Mexico, Taiwan and South Korea.

So as teams look to find the next superstar international free agent, here is everything you need to know about the signing process, the top available prospects and the leading suitors to land each top prospect.

 

*Prospect rankings reflect a prospect's average ranking position in the top 30 international prospect lists from Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com and Ben Badler of Baseball America.

*Top suitor predictions also taken from those two sources, as many prospects already have verbal agreements in place prior to the signing period opening.

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Identifying Suitors for Top 10 International Prospect Targets

The 2014 international signing period officially opens on July 2, and while the frenzy of international free agency has been quelled a bit by the new bonus pool system, there is still plenty of competition for the best high-ceiling talent Latin America has to offer.

For as big of a crapshoot as the MLB amateur draft has proven to be over the years, shelling out seven-figure deals to 16-year-old kids with little scouting exposure is infinitely riskier.

That being said, it's a chance teams almost have to take these days. If you're not playing the international market, you're missing out on a chance at finding the next Miguel Cabrera or Pedro Martinez who could one day turn into a superstar in the majors.

It will be years before we really find out whether these players were worth the money they'll receive in the weeks to come, but here is a look at the top 10 international prospect targets and the teams expected to procure their services.

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Stock Up, Stock Down for Chicago Cubs’ Top 10 Prospects for Week 13

After taking a week off from the prospect stock watch, we're back this week, complete with updated rankings following the first half of the season and the MLB draft.

Up until this point, the rankings were based on the Baseball America Prospect Handbook's preseason rankings. But with the Chicago Cubs' top draft pick, Kyle Schwarber, signed and already tearing up minor league pitching, now seemed like a good time to update.

Schwarber is not the only newcomer to the top 10, though, as Taiwanese right-hander Jen-Ho Tseng also climbs the rankings with a terrific start to his pro career.

Heading in the other direction, right-hander Pierce Johnson falls out of the top 10 for the time being, as he has struggled with command issues this season and was recently demoted to Single-A Kane County.

Also falling out of the rankings is third base prospect Jeimer Candelario, who still has a bright future ahead of him at just 20 years old, but he also earned a demotion after hitting just .193/.275/.326 in 218 at-bats for High-A Daytona.

So here's an updated look at the team's current top 10 prospects and how they performed at the minor league level over the past week. This series will be updated weekly, with a stock "up," "even" or "down" indication given to each prospect based upon the direction in which his performance is trending.

 

*No. 4 prospect SP C.J. Edwards (shoulder) spent last week on the disabled list. He will not be included here until he is active. He is 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 20.2 innings on the season at Double-A Tennessee.

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MLB Power Rankings: Where All 30 Teams Stand at the End of June

We have officially passed the midway point of the 2014 MLB season, as all but a handful of teams have already played their 81st game of the year.

It's been an interesting year so far, with no clearly dominant team outside of the Oakland Athletics and Milwaukee Brewers, but some squads are starting to put things together for a potential second-half run.

The Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates have both been playing much better baseball of late, while the Toronto Blue Jays and San Francisco Giants have dropped off significantly in the month of June.

When putting together these rankings on a weekly basis, the following factors are considered:

  • Previous week's record
  • Quality of opponents
  • Key injuries/trades
  • Recent performance beyond the last week

There is still a lot to be sorted out between now and October, and all of the close races should make for a busy trade season and exciting stretch run.

All that said, here is an updated look at where all 30 MLB teams currently stand. Be sure to check back here every Monday morning for the most recent edition of our MLB power rankings.

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The Truth Behind MLB’s 10 Biggest Surprises of 2014’s 1st Half

The first half of the 2014 MLB season is in the books, and as with any season, there has been no shortage of surprises on both an individual and team level around the league.

From the impressive debut performances of Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu as they made their way to a new league, to the Oakland Athletics' dominance from a run-differential standpoint, to the contention of teams such as the Seattle Mariners and Milwaukee Brewers, surprises abound.

So here is a look at the 10 biggest surprises of the 2014 first half and whether they will continue for the remainder of the season and beyond.

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Why We May Finally Be Witnessing a Changing of the Guard in AL Central

With three straight division titles, resulting in a pair of ALCS trips sandwiched around an AL pennant, the Detroit Tigers have been the class of the American League Central division for some time now.

Entering the 2014 season, expectations were high for the team once again, and rightfully so with a roster as talented as any in the league, even after some offseason retooling.

They remain atop the standings here at the midway point of the season, but it appears as though the rest of the division has started to close the gap.

Could we finally be witnessing a changing of the guard in what has been a Detroit-dominated division for the past three years?

At this point last season, the Tigers had an identical 42-32 record and the exact same four-game lead in the division, albeit over the Cleveland Indians. When all was said and done, they wound up winning the AL Central title by just one game, as the Indians used a late-season push to reach the playoffs themselves as a wild-card team.

So what's different this time around that could signify the end of the Tigers' divisional dominance? It starts with a look at their roster.

Last season, their starting rotation was very much in the conversation as being the best in all of baseball. They led the AL with a 3.44 starter's ERA, and the foursome of Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister was as good as any in baseball.

Fast forward to this year, and though the team sits a respectable fifth in the AL in starter's ERA at 3.81, they have not been nearly as dominant as a group.

Fister was moved to the Washington Nationals in the offseason, but his absence has not been the issue, with Drew Smyly stepping into the rotation and posting a 3.53 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in 12 starts. Those are respectable numbers, to be sure.

The reigning AL ERA leader Anibal Sanchez has been brilliant once again, pitching to a 2.64 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in his first 13 starts. The trouble starts with the vaunted duo of Scherzer and Verlander.

After winning AL Cy Young honors last year, Scherzer has seen his ERA (2.90 to 3.71), WHIP (0.970 to 1.256) and BAA (.198 to .251) all jump considerably. Is he still a plus arm? Sure, but he has not been one of the best pitchers in the game this year.

Then there is Verlander, who is set to make $140 million over the next five seasons. After an up-and-down 2013 season, he capped things off with a terrific postseason and looked poised for a bounce-back year when he threw 20 scoreless innings during spring training.

Instead, he has a 4.82 ERA and 1.51 WHIP with just nine quality starts in 16 games. He looked sharp his last time out, allowing five hits and two runs (one earned) in seven innings, but he is no longer a guy who can carry a rotation.

B/R's MLB Lead Writer Jason Catania wrote an article a few days ago breaking down whether or not Verlander's days as an MLB ace are over, and it's worth a look if you have not read it yet. It would appear that the transition from overpowering hitters in his prime to being a savvy veteran pitcher has not gone as smoothly as hoped for the former AL MVP.

Offensively, the Tigers are a very different team this year following the Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler trade during the offseason. With Fielder out for the season and Kinsler playing to a 3.4 WAR (eighth in AL) there is no question the Tigers won that deal. And with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez both putting up terrific numbers on top of Kinsler's production, the team has a dangerous offense once again.

However, Martinez is set to hit free agency at the end of the season along with veteran outfielder Torii Hunter. The following offseason, it is a trio of key pieces in Rick Porcello, Austin Jackson and Alex Avila that could be headed to free agency.

What the team does with those guys will certainly hinge on the future of the aforementioned Max Scherzer, who turned down a huge six-year, $144 million extension offer this past winter and could still very well be headed elsewhere when the season is over.

Even with his numbers dropping off from where they were last year, he still figures to easily top $100 million as the top arm on the market, and he could very well receive a contact that exceeds the amount money he turned down in the offseason.

The Tigers have some solid young arms in the system, with Robbie Ray getting his feet wet already this year and the future looking incredibly bright for guys like Jake Thompson and Jonathon Crawford. Losing Scherzer would be a huge blow, though, and it could set the franchise back.

Finally, there is the bullpen, a group that is tied with the worst ERA in baseball at 4.75 and has converted just 21 of 29 save chances. Veteran closer Joe Nathan has been shaky at best in a roller coaster of a season so far, and outside of the Joba Chamberlain-Al Alburquerque duo, the team has really had no one they can truly rely on.

For what it's worth, GM Dave Dombrowski says the team is not looking for a closer, according to Tony Paul of the Detroit News.

"Well, we do not need a closer at this point, so we would not look for that. We may need a little bit of help in the bullpen, maybe middle relief," said Dombrowski. "But we’re not looking for that closer, and that gives you a very comfortable feeling."

The Tigers could certainly be active at the trade deadline, but it's this coming offseason that will shape the future of the franchise. That being said, the rest of the AL Central pack has closed the gap, regardless, and things don't figure to get any easier moving forward.

The Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox remain at the bottom of the division, but both represent franchises on the rise, as each possesses good young talent with room to add on to rosters that have already begun to undergo the rebuilding process.

The Cleveland Indians have seemingly taken a step back from where they were at last year, but they have enough talent to be right back in the thick of things with a few minor additions. Big decisions lie ahead for them as well, though, with key pieces in Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera set to hit free agency this winter.

The real team to watch in 2014 and beyond is the Kansas City Royals, who recently overtook the Tigers for first place in the AL Central on the heels of a 10-game winning streak. Granted, they have lost six of seven since, but if anyone is going to challenge the Tigers for the division title in 2014, it will be them.

It's been a slow rebuilding process for a team that has not seen playoff baseball since they won the 1985 World Series, but the Royals have finally begun to see the fruits of their labor. After a strong finish to the 2013 season left them still contending for a wild-card spot into September, manager Ned Yost feels the team is better prepared for a second-half push this time around.

"I feel like the experience that they had last year, when they went through it last year, I don't think that they knew that they could get out of it," Yost told Dick Kaegel of MLB.com. "This year they've been through it before, and they know they can get out of it. There's a lot more confidence this time now than there was this time last year."

Workhorse starter James Shields is a free agent at the end of the season, and Billy Butler has an option year in 2015 before he hits free agency as well. But for their most part, the Royals' good, young core figures to be around for a while.

Budding stars Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer are leading the offensive charge this season alongside Alex Gordon, but it is the pitching staff that has been the team's biggest strength by far in 2014.

The loss of Ervin Santana in free agency initially looked like a major blow, but the signing of Jason Vargas has gone a long way in offsetting his departure.

Flame-throwing rookie Yordano Ventura has shown flashes of ace potential and done a nice job holding down his rotation spot, but it's the move of Danny Duffy from the bullpen to the No. 5 starter spot that has really solidified things.

Behind them is a bullpen that led the AL with a 2.55 ERA last year and looks strong once again with the one-two punch of Wade Davis and Greg Holland having All-Star-caliber seasons.

Pitching wins championships, and as long as they can stay healthy and continue hitting at a league-average level, the Royals won't be going away any time soon.

The Detroit Tigers are still the most talented team in the AL Central, and they may very well go on to win their fourth straight division title this season. That being said, however, it would appear that their hold on division supremacy is tenuous at best looking to the future, and this season may very well represent a changing of the guard.

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