Second-half trends to monitor

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The
first half of a baseball season isn’t all that different from a wild and crazy
night out on the town.

 

There
are all kinds of surprises, twists and turns, bizarre and inexplicable
anomalies. The best thing you can hope for is that you’re in one piece by
morning. Then, you can clean yourself up, shower, get coffee, enjoy breakfast
and get back to the real world.

 

Well,
it’s morning time. The real world beckons.
Out with “anything goes” and
in with conventional wisdom.

 

Who
usually thrives after the All-Star break? Who sinks? Who will be the postbreak Ben Zobrist, the late-summer Mark Reynolds?

 

The cast
of characters may change, but the basic guidelines remain the same year in and
year out.

 

Here are
the rules of the second half:

 

Target
the typical slow pokes

 

Players
have habits, just like humans do. You’ve heard of morning people and nightowls.
Well, some players simply don’t get going until All-Star break has passed. For
better or for worse, there are a handful of usual suspects who start slowly and
heat up down the stretch annually.

 

Nobody
knows why first baseman Adam LaRoche coasts through the first half and
awakens during the second half — he just does. His .250 average and .447
slugging percentage this year eerily resemble his respective career marks of
.252 and .447. So why should this second half look anything differently than
the career .297 average and .548 slugging percentage he’s delivered? If there’s
one quintessential second-half player to target, it’s LaRoche, especially if he
ends up being dealt to a stronger lineup down the stretch.

 

Anyone
who’s stuck by Jimmy Rollins through rough thick and thin can at least
take comfort in the fact the best has yet to come. Rollins — one of the biggest
first-half busts of all time — once delivered a slugging percentage down the
stretch that was 119 points higher than he’d compiled over the season’s the
first three months. Look for the former National League Most Valuable Player’s
.229 average and .355 slugging percentage to climb significantly, and for his
steals and runs scored to follow suit.

 

Ditto Aubrey
Huff
, who’s pushed many a fantasy owner ahead of the pack with his usual
dose of second-half thunder. He’s practically made a career out of strong finishes,
dating as far back to the conception of the Tampa Devil Rays. With a career
.299 second-half average of .and a .514 slugging percentage — including a
diesel .332/.376/.558 output down the stretch last season — he’s bound to heat
up once again in a revamped Orioles lineup.

 

Other
late risers worth watching include Mark
Teixeira
, Rafael Furcal, Troy Tulowitzki, Garret Anderson, Robinson
Cano
, Bobby Abreu, Freddy Sanchez, Placido Polanco, Carlos
Beltran
, Randy Winn, Jeremy Hermida, Jorge Posada and Felipe
Lopez
.

 

Ditch
young pitchers

 

Churning
out 200 innings is no easy task for any pitcher, especially if that pitcher
lacks experience — even 150 frames is asking a lot from a guy in his first or
second full season. The majority of young hurlers seem to hit a wall in August,
often resulting in injury or implosion.

 

Josh Johnson knows this all too well. The
wear and tear of 24 starts during the right-hander’s rookie season resulted in
a second-half ERA roughly two runs higher than his first-half mark and
eventually led to Tommy John elbow surgery that forced him to miss almost all
of ’07. Getting beyond that 24-start mark this year could prove problematic for
Johnson, who logged only 87 1/3 innings last season.

 

Johnny Cueto got pounded down the stretch
last season, and his small stature (5-foot-10) only raises concerns about his
durability. The jury is out on whether he can sustain his current 3.62 ERA as
the workload piles up.

 

Even Daisuke Matsuzaka wore down in his first
season stateside, finishing with a 5.19 ERA in the second half of ’07.

 

And whatever
happened to Greg Smith, who helped
anchor Oakland’s staff last season? The heavy load took its toll on him, as it
did on Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan, both promising Blue
Jays starters whose breakthrough seasons were cut short by major injuries.

 

Will
fellow Toronto pitcher Ricky Romero
avoid that fate? For all of his first-year accolades, who knows how the young
lefty will cope with the grind of 150-plus frames.

 

Those of
you expecting another 3.16 ERA from 21-year-old Clayton Kershaw in the season’s final few months will probably
leave be left disappointed, too, as will those hoping for another 96 innings
from Max Scherzer.

 

How will
Joba Chamberlain, Brad Bergesen, Tommy Hanson, David Price,
Randy Wells, Scott Richmond, Ross
Ohlendorf
, Kenshin Kawakami and
the entire A’s rotation respond to the taxing new workload?

 

Not
every young pitcher is destined to deteriorate down the stretch, but for those
of you with something to lose, the unknown is worrisome enough to consider
cashing in your chips.

 

That
makes veteran rubber arms like Mark
Buehrle
, Javier Vazquez and Derek Lowe all the more valuable.

 

Know the
good teams from the bad

 

It
sounds novel at first, but distinguishing between contenders and
pretenders can be critical down the stretch.

 

Teams
with nothing to play for let the young kids loose earlier than do contenders.
The further out of the race Baltimore falls, the sooner we’ll see their prized
trio of pitching prospects: Chris
Tillman
, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta. The more ground Milwaukee
loses in the NL Central, the more playing time will be doled out to
infield prospects Mat Gamel and Alcides Escobar. Will the last-place
Indians move Victor Martinez over to first and play uber-prospect Carlos Santana behind the dish? When
will Matt LaPorta be back up?

 

Knowing
the difference between buyers and sellers also pays off at the Trade Deadline.
We’ve already seen Nate McLouth go
to Atlanta, opening the door for the exciting Andrew McCutchen in center field. Are Matt Holliday and Roy
Halladay
headed to more favorable surroundings?

 

If the
Rockies are out of the playoff hunt, there are a number of players who could be
changing addresses. With Carlos Gonzalez,
Seth Smith, Ian Stewart and Eric Young
Jr.
waiting in the wings, it may be in the team’s interest to part with Brad Hawpe, Garrett Atkins, Todd Helton
or Clint Barmes, all of whom rely
heavily on Coors Field for offensive support.

 

The
closer situation always takes on a different look when the Trade Deadline
passes. Will the Rockies deal fireman Huston
Street
to a team in need of a setup man? Will George Sherrill still be finishing games come Aug. 1? If the Rays
find themselves a full-time closer, will they cut short J.P. Howell’s ninth-inning run? With Tony Pena now in the South Side bullpen, will the White Sox trade Octavio Dotel or Scott Linebrink to teams looking for fill-in closers? If there were
ever a time for fantasy owners to trade saves, it’s now.

 

Hitters
hit

 

It’s
summertime, and the living is easy for hitters. Studies have shown that balls
fly further when the temperature is warmer, so going after home run hitters is
one way to ensure yourself of a strong second half.

 

–Alex Cushing, MLB.com

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