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Top 5 storylines of the second half

Baseball returns from the All-Star break on Friday, beginning the unofficial second half of the 2013 season. With the resumption of the regular season, we can get back to the business of games that matter, along with rumors and speculation leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. Teams can make deals now without having to incur the wrath of commissioner Bud Selig for overshadowing MLB's showcase midseason event. 

But most importantly, there will be baseball to watch on TV and at the ballpark. There are playoff races to follow and player achievements that demand our attention. Those developments create the narratives that make every season worth watching. These will be the top five storylines to monitor during the second half of the MLB season. 

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Will the Pirates make the playoffs? The Pirates (more specifically, closer Jason Grilli) are the Sports Illustrated cover boys this week for the magazine's second half preview. Pittsburgh was the surprise of the first half, hanging with the Cardinals in the NL Central and tying for the best record in MLB at one point. At the All-Star break, the Bucs are only one game behind the Cards in their division and have a firm grip on the NL's first wild-card playoff spot. 

But there's still an underlying concern among baseball fans and commentators that the Pirates may not be able to carry this success through to the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. During the past two seasons, Pittsburgh looked like a potential contender in the first half of the season, only to collapse back into mediocrity after the All-Star break. Could this happen for a third consecutive season? Could the Pirates' run of losing seasons extend to 21 years? 

With a 56-37 record (a .602 winning percentage), the Bucs' chances of finishing over .500 look strong. But the ambitions are a bit higher in Pittsburgh these days. Will this team make the playoffs?

The Pirates' pitching — leading MLB with a 3.07 ERA — gives them an excellent shot. But an offense that has scored the second-fewest runs in the NL could use some reinforcements at the trade deadline. Will general manager Neal Huntington get some help at shortstop or right field to boost his team's run production? Or will the Pirates stick with what's been successful thus far? 

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY SportsCan Chris Davis hit 62 home runs? The Orioles' first baseman capped off a tremendous first half of the season by hitting his 37th home run just before the All-Star break. That put him on pace for 62 home runs, which would break Roger Maris' single-season mark. 

But wait — didn't Barry Bonds hit 73 homers in 2001? Isn't that the record for most home runs in a season? Didn't Mark McGwire surpass 61 homers twice? Sammy Sosa hit at least 63 home runs three times.

However, the prevailing belief is that those three players achieved those marks with the help of performance-enhancing substances. (McGwire has admitted to using steroids when he hit 70 homers in 1998.)

Davis says he's clean, as you might expect. It's difficult not to be skeptical about any notable athletic achievement these days. But MLB's drug testing program at least conveys the impression that the sport has cleaned itself up, making it harder for players to get away with gaining a pharmaceutical edge. 

Perhaps Davis will be viewed as "the people's home run champion" if he becomes the first player to hit 60 or more home runs since 2001. If he does so during an era in which many fewer players (presumably) are juicing, Davis' achievement should be viewed as especially impressive. His accompanying story could make it even more so. This is Davis' third full major league season. He was cast away by the Texas Rangers for not fulfilling his potential. 

Even if Davis doesn't catch Maris, he could unseat Miguel Cabrera as the AL MVP and prevent the Tigers first baseman from winning a second consecutive Triple Crown. That's another storyline worth following. 

Is Yasiel Puig a flash in the pan? Other than Davis and Cabrera, no player seemed to attract more attention in the first half of the season than the Dodgers' Cuban sensation. Prior to Puig getting called up from Double-A Chattanooga at the beginning of June, the megabucks Dodgers drew headlines for being a massive disappointment. 

Before Puig joined the team, the Dodgers held last place in the NL West, 8.5 games behind the Diamondbacks. The 22-year-old was hitting well in Chattanooga, compiling a .313 average, .982 OPS, eight homers and 37 RBI in 167 plate appearances. With Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford, the Dodgers needed a healthy body to play the outfield. But more importantly, they needed someone to jolt the offense and give the team some life. 

Puig certainly did that, hitting .436 with an 1.180 OPS, five doubles, seven home runs and 16 RBI in June. He became must-see viewing for baseball fans, not just for his hitting but also his rocket arm in right field. People wanted to see him in the All-Star Game, despite being in the minors for the first two months of the season and playing only 38 games in the majors. 

As could be expected, however, Puig has tailed off since that torrid start. He's hitting .300 with a .750 OPS in July, but is striking out much more. Puig is also drawing some resentful snark from fellow MLB players, such as the Phillies' Jonathan Papelbon and D-Backs' Miguel Montero. His seemingly brash behavior and unwillingness to talk to the media has resulted in some backlash developing. Will Puig become more of a villain than hero to fans as the season progresses? 

Yet the more important question for the Dodgers is whether or not he can continue to be a major run producer and help his team overtake the D-Backs for the NL West lead. 

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY SportsCan the Nationals catch the Braves? The Dodgers and Angels have been viewed as major disappointments because of their huge payrolls and superstar additions. But would any MLB team fail to live up to expectations more than the Nationals if they don't make the playoffs? 

The Nats were predicted by many to win the World Series this year, following up on their breakout success last season in which they won 98 games and finished with the best record in baseball.

But this time around, there would be no worries about an innings limit for Stephen Strasburg. Bryce Harper would have nearly a full big league season of experience to build upon. Denard Span provided the center fielder and leadoff hitter that general manager Mike Rizzo has pursued for years. 

Yet at the All-Star break, the Nationals are six games behind the Braves in the NL East with a 48-47 record. Harper, Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Ross Detwiler have all missed time with injuries. The bullpen hasn't been nearly as effective as it was last season. Dan Haren (4-10, 5.61 ERA) has been a free-agent bust. 

Can the Nats recover in the second half? As well as the Braves have played, they don't look particularly dominant with so many underperforming players in their lineup. Not only are the Nationals becoming healthy, but they've also improved by replacing Danny Espinosa at second base with Anthony Rendon and getting Wilson Ramos back at catcher. 

Rizzo will likely try to get another starting pitcher for his rotation, providing what Haren has failed to. If he's able to get someone like Matt Garza or Yovani Gallardo, could that give the Nats enough of a boost to overtake the Braves? Winning the NL East will likely be the only way Washington makes the playoffs, unless the Pirates and Reds fall in the NL wild-card standings. 

Will MLB issue suspensions for the Biogenesis scandal? This is the storyline most baseball (and sports) fans don't really care to follow. The general public just doesn't seem to share the same level of outrage that the media — and MLB — holds for those who are subverting the rules and trying to gain an edge over their competitors with steroids. 

But if MLB does suspend Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun — two of its biggest stars and both former MVPs — for their alleged involvement with the Biogenesis clinic in Miami and "nutritionist" Tony Bosch, that will send shockwaves through the sport. Other players who have reportedly associated with Biogenesis — such as the Rangers' Nelson Cruz and Tigers' Jhonny Peralta — could affect their respective teams' playoff chances if they receive 50- or 100-game penalties. 

It's difficult to imagine that MLB could level those sorts of suspensions without the players union putting up a major fight. Can a player receive one suspension for using PEDs and get another for lying about it? Does baseball have sufficient evidence for such penalties? 

Yet as Wendy Thurm pointed out at FanGraphs, MLB will likely try to justify those suspensions with language in baseball's Joint Drug Policy that allows player discipline due to "just cause" and "the best interests of baseball." Under those circumstances, MLB does not have to prove to an arbitrator that a player violated its drug policy. Commissioner Selig would be the final authority and could say he has "just cause" to suspend all of the players linked to the Biogenesis clinic. 

The last thing MLB and its fans should want is for an off-the-field scandal to grab the headlines and possibly affect the competitive product on the field. Yet that seems to be what baseball intends to do. This story is gaining momentum. One consolation is that players appealing whatever penalties are issued will likely draw the entire process beyond the 2013 season and into next year. 

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the managing editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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