Aaron Judge sits atop MLB's Game of Thrones

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

Inside Major League Baseball’s offices these days, the marketing people are working hard to figure out how to leverage this manna from heaven that descended into their laps. Aaron Judge is literally everything baseball wants in a star: powerful, personable, photogenic and in New York, no less. There is but one concern with him: nobody wants to screw up such a sure thing.

To call him that after 3½ months and one Home Run Derby may be a bit much, but the first half of the baseball season did revolve around Judge more than anybody. And accordingly, then, so does this super-sized version of 10 Degrees, which expands to preview 2017’s second half, good, bad and Tebow. Before that toast of the Big Apple arrives, let us celebrate …

1. Aaron Judge, a dagger of dragonglass for the White Walker that was Yankee irrelevance. It’s true. As their rebuild kicked into its most earnest stages, never in the last two decades had the Yankees been such an afterthought. Ticket sales were down. TV viewership was suffering. And the savior was going to be a guy who last season hit .179 and struck out 42 times in 84 at-bats? Well, yeah, it turns out. Judge carried the mantle for the sport while …

2. Mike Trout convalesced. Now that he’s back – 4 for 12 with a walk in his first three games, ho-hum – Trout gets to remind everyone he’s still the best player in the world. It’s easy to forget, with him on the shelf for more than six weeks, that Trout’s first two months were his finest yet – and seeing as his five full seasons have ended with two American League MVP awards and three runner-up finishes, the prospect of a better-than-ever Trout boggles the mind. That he and Judge and …

3. Bryce Harper still fall into the 25-and-under category reminds of how good fans of baseball in 2017 have it. If Harper is not exactly his 2015 self, he’s close: hitting for average, disciplined like a monk, powerful and convicted. In a lineup with the game’s most underrated star in Anthony Rendon, the great Daniel Murphy, a reinvigorated Ryan Zimmerman and plenty of other bats, all that stands between the Nationals and the pennant is a good relief corps. And with …

4. Max Scherzer at the apex of his powers, he’s going to do all he can in October to ensure Dusty Baker need not motion to his bullpen come the latter innings. Scherzer is striking out more hitters than ever and holding batters to a .162/.227/.285 average. Mario Mendoza’s career line was .215/.245/.262. Which means in an era when batters are hitting more home runs than ever, Max Schrezer has made the average lineup look like nine Mario Mendozas. Still, it’s not time to crown him the best in the world, not as …

Clayton Kershaw is on pace for 25 wins this season. (AP Images)

5. Clayton Kershaw does Kershavian things. He is 14-2 with a 2.18 ERA. He has struck out 159 and walked 22 in 132⅓ innings. No, the 18 home runs aren’t good. They’re also a function of pitching today, where home runs come with the territory. This is not to excuse them – Kershaw hated all 18 – but to remind that even gods are susceptible. And, yes, deifying Kershaw is reasonable. As he approaches the 2,000-inning mark of his career, his ERA is 2.35. Think about that. A 2.35 ERA with more than one strikeout and less than one baserunner every inning, with 140 victories before he turns 30. He’s still the best there is, even if Scherzer and …

6. Chris Sale are trying to play Jamie Lannister to his Mad King. (There will be more Game of Thrones references. Deal with it.) Sale’s 13-strikeout gem in his first outing out of the break at very least reminded the AL – and the AL East in particular – that the division runs through Boston and, particularly, him. How the rest of the Red Sox’s rotation shakes out will be the fascinating part of the stretch drive. David Price will slot in somewhere. Does reigning Cy Young winner Rick Porcello find himself enough to break up the lefties? Or does manager John Farrell opt for an all left-handed rotation with Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez? First-world problems, no doubt, like the Astros deciding who gets to drive in …

7. Jose Altuve on any particular day. He is the heartbeat of the greatest offense in years. The Astros, as a team, are hitting .289/.356/.500 – essentially nine Jose Abreus. They have scored almost 40 more runs than any other team. They have the most home runs and the fewest strikeouts. A half-dozen of them warrant their own degree. George Springer? He’d be a legit MVP candidate if his teammates weren’t splitting his votes. Marwin Gonzalez? The breakout of the year. All Altuve is doing is hitting .348/.419/.558. And even then, one could argue …

8. Carlos Correa has been a more valuable player for the Astros. It’s easy to forget Correa is just 22 years old. He is hitting .321/.402/.568 and plays a perfectly viable shortstop. He anchors a lineup on pace to score 960 runs. And this season offers him plenty of opportunity to atone for the 2015 division series error that kickstarted the torpedoing of the Astros’ season. That play has gnawed at Correa. He’ll render it moot soon enough, as October dawns and provides canvases for stars like him and …

9. Paul Goldschmidt to carve out their playoff legacies. Certainly Goldschmidt’s place in October isn’t all but guaranteed like Correa’s, but his MVP-type first half positioned the Diamondbacks to make their first postseason since 2011. Goldschmidt was a rookie that season and raked in their division-series loss to Milwaukee, and he has champed at the bit for a return engagement. Arizona isn’t catching the runaway freight train that is the Dodgers. It needs to hold off two teams from overtaking it, one of which spent last October winning a ring. Now that …

10. Kyle Schwarber and the Chicago Cubs have won three straight coming out of the All-Star break – against the scuffling Orioles, yes, but a winning streak is a winning streak – perhaps the worst is behind them. Schwarber stroked a double Sunday, and since his return from his demotion to Triple-A, he has three of them to go with two home runs. Schwarber hasn’t been the worst hitter on the Cubs – hello, Addison Russell – but his struggles were magnified by a batting average that starts with a 1 and a strikeout every third at-bat. Get him going, with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras doing their thing, and the likelihood that …

11. Jose Quintana has joined a playoff team only grows. The Cubs now are as close to the Rockies for the second wild card as they are the Brewers for first place in the NL Central, and Quintana’s 12-strikeout gem in his Cubs debut Sunday reminded the world what Chicago got from its crosstown compatriots. More than better players – the Cubs could use another reliever to stabilize the middle innings should their rotation continue its five- and six-inning starts – they need a guy like …

12. Travis Shaw to stop being so good. The resurgence of Milwaukee came on the back of canny trades, whether it was getting Shaw (.295/.365/.570) for Tyler Thornburg or Domingo Santana (.293/.386/.503), not to mention Josh Hader and Brett Phillips, for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers. The Jonathan Lucroy trade of last season landed the outfielder Lewis Brinson, whom the Brewers have hesitated to include in trade packages but certainly would be quite the sweetener if they want to win the …

13. Sonny Gray sweepstakes. Gray fits Milwaukee. As an arbitration-eligible player, actually, he fits every team: 2½ years until free agency with results closer to his 2014 and ’15 seasons than his disastrous ’16. Oakland’s desire to trade Gray makes sense considering the sheer volume of big league pitching they have and their timetable to win looking more like 2019 and 2020 than next season. Sean Manaea is a star in the making. And if Kendall Graveman can stay healthy and Jharel Cotton find consistency with his killer stuff, they can find another starter out of the Daniel Mengden/Daniel Gossett/Chris Bassitt/Andrew Triggs/Paul Blackburn/Jesse Hahn group, deal a couple of the others and add A.J. Puk to the mix next season. The reconstruction of the A’s started in earnest Sunday with …

14. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson heading to Washington to take the black. The realm might not be safe with just the two of them, though the Nationals have plenty of decent-enough relievers from whom to choose. The left-handed options are more of the could-be-elite type: Brad Hand, Justin Wilson, Tony Cingrani. Feel free to throw Jerry Blevins and Ryan Buchter into that mix. Addison Reed highlights the right-handers, along with David Phelps and A.J. Ramos from the Marlins, Brandon Maurer, Brad Brach, Jim Johnson and as many as four White Sox – David Robertson, Anthony Swarzak, Tommy Kahnle and Nate Jones, the latter two of whom are less likely to go anywhere. They can be had, though, just as it seems will be the case for …

15. Zach Britton should the Orioles continue to falter. The price for Britton will be high, as it ought. If Aroldis Chapman fetched Gleyber Torres and Andrew Miller netted Clint Frazier, a year and two months of Britton means … Alex Verdugo-plus from the Dodgers? It’s a reasonable ask, and the prospect of turning Britton and Kenley Jansen into the Miller-Cody Allen of this postseason delights the Dodgers, particularly when their rotation beyond Kershaw hinges on the ability of Alex Wood, Rich Hill and Brandon McCarthy to stay healthy. Britton may well wind up the biggest name dealt, with the prospect of …

Giancarlo Stanton’s name has popped up in trade rumors. (AP Images)

16. Giancarlo Stanton leaving Miami unlikely but possible. Yes, multiple teams have expressed at least an initial willingness to take on the remaining 10 years and $295 million of his contract, according to sources. There are wrinkles beyond the pure dollars. Stanton can opt out of the final seven years and $218 million. He also holds veto power over any trade. And then there’s the matter of ownership, which really is the biggest holdup. With the Marlins’ sale in limbo, the team is less likely to make any franchise-altering moves. It’s a similar scenario to what the Detroit Tigers face with …

17. Miguel Cabrera as he faces his ages 35-40 seasons with $192 million remaining on his deal in the midst of his worst big league season. A fair bit of that, certainly, has been bad luck, as Cabrera continues to hit the ball hard but has a slugging percentage of .448 that actually ranks in the bottom half of all qualified hitters (88th of 168). Detroit is in an unenviable spot, with big money owed aging players and a payroll almost certain to dip. Their reign in the AL Central is gone, as the Cleveland Indians ride …

18. Jose Ramirez back to a division crown. Even more than Francisco Lindor, their all-world shortstop who, like Cabrera, suffered from poor first-half luck, Ramirez has been the sparkplug for the Indians’ return to prominence. To call Ramirez the best hitter in baseball over the last month would be no exaggeration; he has hit .419/.470/.829. The five-year, $26 million deal Cleveland locked him into this offseason looks particularly genius, with a pair of club options taking the deal to a maximum of $48 million and locking him up through age 31. Even if they need rotation help, the Indians’ lineup is unequivocally better than last season, with Ramirez a star, Michael Brantley back, Edwin Encarnacion joining the party, Lonnie Chisenhall breaking out and Bradley Zimmer stabilizing center field. An Astros-Indians ALCS would be a delightful parade of runs, a perfect antidote for anyone who has seen …

19. Alcides Escobar this season. The Kansas City shortstop is on the verge of joining some ignominious company with his offensive ineptitude. Escobar is in the midst of arguably the worst offensive season in nearly 40 years. Going into Sunday, his weighted on-base average – a metric that aims to capture offense in one number – was .239. The last time a player in a full season qualified for the batting title with that low a figure? Ozzie Smith, in 1979, at .238. So at least Escobar can say he was merely trying to match a Hall of Famer. Oh, and it may not remain there for too long. Escobar went 3 for 4 Sunday, including a pair of singles off …

20. Yu Darvish, his fellow free-agent-to-be. Whether Darvish’s free-agent contract starts with a 1 or 2 depends upon just how dominant he proves in the second half. If he is at his best – a starter who sits around 97 mph, strikes out handfuls, spins a maddening variety of difficult-to-square breaking balls – then it’s well possible some team in desperate need of pitching sees the market set by Zack Greinke and buys into the notion that Darvish is a $200 million pitcher. Otherwise, he’ll be comfortably into the $100 million territory, a number that for …

21. Andrew McCutchen suddenly looks reasonable again. After the worst season of his career and a middling first two months, McCutchen went into a phone booth and came out Superman. He hit .411/.505/.689 in June, has followed with a .375/.468/.725 line in July and would be an awfully attractive year-and-two-months rental if the Pirates were inclined to deal him. They’re not, not with Starling Marte and Jameson Taillon back, giving them the jolt …

22. David Dahl may provide the Rockies. Here’s the thing about Colorado: As suspect as its pitching is – their rookie starters holding up over a full season in Denver remains dubious – it’s the Rockies’ hitting that has proven as questionable. Beyond the redoubtable Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Mark Reynolds, they’ve been just all right. D.J. LeMahieu looks primed to surge, and getting back Dahl – who hit .315/.359/.500 last season as a rookie and is on a rehab assignment now – may well fortify the offense in a manner neither Ian Desmond nor Carlos Gonzalez has. Dahl isn’t the only player in this group without a major league at-bat this season. All hail …

23. Tim Tebow, who the Mets have said isn’t going to arrive in Flushing this year but, well, Mets gonna Mets. Amed Rosario’s call-up will at least temporarily help the masses forget about the abject disappointment that has been 2017. And then comes September, when giving ol’ QB1 a taste of big league action may be too delicious a marketing ploy for ownership to pass up. Surely the Mets’ baseball-operations department understands the folly in this, but Tebow is now hitting .298/.385/.526 in 18 games at High-A, and maybe, just maybe, they could make the case that getting a big league look is good for his development. Actually, no. There is no case to be made for Tebow in the major leagues, but these are the Mets, and they need to sell tickets, and Tim Tebow, for all of his flaws, can sell tickets. He may not be …

24. Cody Bellinger – they are both left-handed-hitting and -throwing rookies … – but then few are. Justin Turner has been better this year. Corey Seager is better long-term. But nobody has been as important as Bellinger to the Dodgers, whose surge since he arrived in late April is beyond impressive at this point. The Dodgers now have won nine in a row and are 64-29. That’s a 111-win pace. Since Bellinger was called up, they are 53-18. That’s a 121-win pace. And in any other year, that might be the most impressive thing a rookie did, but then …

25. Aaron Judge is a rookie this year, too, and, well, so goes that. Judge is like the perfect amalgamation of so many great Game of Thrones characters: the size of Drogon, the strength of The Mountain, the intelligence of Tyrion. If baseball had an Iron Throne, he would sit atop it right now. But then just like Westeros, there are always those who desire change, who care to topple it, and they’d point to Judge’s 1-for-18 start to the second half and say, “See! See!” And look. They may ultimately be right. Baseball is a hard game. Even the most talented men struggle. Aaron Judge did just that last season, and he showed what he does to struggles: like obsidian to an ice zombie, he is capable of vaporizing them.

More MLB coverage on Yahoo Sports:

What to Read Next