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Juan Soto, the Yankees and Shohei Ohtani: These are the 7 biggest MLB storylines to know for the second half

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The All-Star break didn’t turn out to be much of a break for major baseball news. Instead, it turned into an accelerant as Washington Nationals superstar Juan Soto walked into the game’s midsummer spotlight just as news broke that his team would consider trading him. What had been shaping up as a sleepy trade deadline suddenly has everyone wide awake to the possibility of a seismic deal. With an expanded playoff field and multiple major storylines taking flight, let’s take a look at the seven biggest arcs to follow in MLB’s stretch run.

1. The Juan Soto sweepstakes

Juan Soto is a top three hitter in baseball, and suddenly he’s on the trade block. That’s momentous enough before you realize he’s still just 23 — younger than a good chunk of the sport’s top prospects — and will probably still be one of the best, most impactful players in the sport in literally 2032.

If you’re looking for comparisons to a Soto deal, you’re going to have a hard time finding useful ones. The only players remotely comparable to Soto who were traded in their primes — Mookie Betts, Manny Machado — moved with a year or less remaining under team control. Soto has two-and-a-half years. The last star of this caliber to move with so much time left before free agency was Miguel Cabrera in 2007, a blockbuster that took place in a completely different era of player valuation.

Doing this deal means walking into the great unknown and trying to set the bar for generational superstar deals in the information age. Color me skeptical the Nationals will have the gall or the gumption to do that before the Aug. 2 deadline, but their ownership situation and outlook could make the seemingly impossible a reality.

2. Damn, Yankees

In a contract year flex for the ages, Aaron Judge is spearheading a vintage New York Yankees season, one that erupted when many of us thought they were slipping into a competitive AL East pack. The Bronx Bombers are on pace for 113 wins at the break, putting them in range to chase the 2001 Seattle Mariners’ and 1906 Chicago Cubs' all-time wins record (116).

Maybe the most interesting bit of this narrative is how it could supercharge a playoff showdown with the Houston Astros, who — with and without the sign-stealing scheme — have assumed the villainous role the Yankees played for that Mariners team: Kryptonite.

3. Stranger things

Or maybe, just maybe, someone other than the usual suspects could seize the spotlight. While the ALCS and NLCS feel like they are eternally populated by the Dodgers, Astros, Yankees and Braves, there are rumblings emanating from Seattle and Baltimore that portend a potential journey to the Upside Down.

Rookie star Julio Rodriguez and reigning Cy Young winner Robbie Ray could help a fun Mariners team break a two-decade playoff drought, while the brutal Orioles rebuild has suddenly achieved liftoff just in time to turn the AL East into an all-out brawl. The odds are against these young teams factoring into the endgame in 2022, but stranger things have happened. Like the Mets winning with minimal hijinks.

New York Yankees star Aaron Judge is set to become a free agent at season's end. The stretch run could help determine which club has the most motivation to pony up to sign him. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)
New York Yankees star Aaron Judge is set to become a free agent at season's end. The stretch run could help determine which club has the most motivation to pony up to sign him. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

4. The price of disappointment

Ever had buyer’s remorse on a $200 million expenditure? Yeah, me neither.

But it is about to become a driving force in the baseball universe. Someone is destined to fall short — either of their own high bar for success or the lowered bar for merely making the playoffs. Over the next few weeks, the Mets, Braves, Padres, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Phillies, White Sox and Giants will all be working to avoid that fate.

And over the winter they could be working to remedy it in one form or another. Some will disperse talent and financial commitment. Others — cough, Steve Cohen — could paper over their problems with straight cash, all in an offseason where Aaron Judge, Jacob deGrom, Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Nolan Arenado and Dansby Swanson could become free agents.

5. The firings will continue until the standings improve

Speaking of disappointment, the pressure of expectations has already wiped out a surprising number of managers this year. The Phillies fired Joe Girardi, the Angels fired Joe Maddon and just last week the Blue Jays dismissed Charlie Montoyo. Two of those teams nonetheless have playoff positions heading into the second half.

Then there’s the Angels.

6. Shohei Ohtani

Never content with entertaining us in one way, Shohei Ohtani in inspiring tantalizing questions. The first involves the usual joy of watching him: What will this season’s unprecedented stat line look like? Will he add a Cy Young Award to complete his trophy case? Will he add a second MVP? Both?

Another major question involves his outlook on the Los Angeles Angels, who are verging on hopeless. He’s a year-and-a-half from free agency, and perhaps inclined to seek a new team that can put his unrivaled services to better use. Any indication of that intent would instantly be the biggest story in baseball. And there’s no two ways about it.

7. It’s the end of the game as we know it

Fresh off the creation of a new competition committee that can help commissioner Rob Manfred implement new rules more quickly than in the past, MLB appears primed to enact some big changes prior to 2023.

MLB Players Association director Tony Clark said this week during All-Star festivities that the committee is focused on two major changes for next season: The pitch clock and limits on the infield shift. Minor league players, for what it’s worth, almost unanimously enjoy the pitch clock, but it will undoubtedly be a departure from the norm and an adjustment for some MLB veterans. As for the shift, the effects on game play are hard to gauge just yet, but it seems clear the commissioner and company want to see if codifying the traditional alignment on the dirt can stir up more action.

If you’re into unhurried pitchers and unrestricted infielders, better get your kicks in now.

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