Around The Bigs: If Recent History Is Any Indication, Maybe Astros Should Be NL Central Favorites | Sharapova's Thigh

The Houston Astros are 1 game back in the NL Central and it's their time of the year.

The Houston Astros are only one game out of first place in the National League Central, tied for second place with the Chicago Cubs and behind the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite that and an offense featuring Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, and Miguel Tejada, most people in the baseball world would probably still predict that they finish behind(in no particular order) the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, and Milwaukee Brewers due to a sub-par rotation after Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez.

However, we're in the second half of the season now, and that alone should have Astros fans optimistic. You see, the Astros had a better second half record than first half record each of the last dozen seasons(1997-2008). Obviously they've made some major trades at the trade deadline, such as the ones made for Randy Johnson in 1998 and Carlos Beltran in 2004 to make their teams much better, but that certainly hasn't been the case every season.

Last year with basically the same team throughout the season, the Astros went 44-51 in the first half and 42-24 in the second half. Who knows why this really keeps happening and if there's anything to it at all, but it's certainly worth noting and is something the players are all clearly aware of. It should be a nice confidence boost for the entire team, if they even need one after going from 9.5 games back on May 31st to within just one game of the division lead now...

Easily the biggest topic in the baseball world right now is about the Toronto Blue Jays possibly trading their superstar pitcher, Roy Halladay. While the constant rumors could be tiresome, I'm fine with listening to them all because this is the attention this guy has deserved for years. He's going to give you a chance to win pretty much every game, usually make sure that you win the games, and he eats innings unlike any other pitcher in the game, so he's basically upgrading your bullpen as well.

Of the rumored teams(realistic rumored teams at least) to be going after him, I'd say only the Texas Rangers, Milwaukee Brewers, and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim wouldn't be the new favorites to win it all after acquiring him. Still, those teams would still be threats of course because you can throw him three times in a short series.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, and St. Louis Cardinals still might not be a better team than the likes of the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, or Tampa Bay Rays, but keep in mind that they don't have to go through all of those teams of course to make it to the World Series. Put Halladay on any of those National League squads and they're without question the favorite to represent the National League in the World Series, whereas the possibly more talented American League teams have a much more difficult road to get there.

The Dodgers would have Halladay and Chad Billingsley to toss at teams with a lineup that's had the terrific Matt Kemp batting eighth most of the year because they're so loaded(although he should've been no lower than fifth or so all along). The Phillies are the defending champions with a better lineup than last year's team thanks to the signing of MVP candidate Raul Ibanez and continued improvement of Jayson Werth, and would have a tremendous 1-2 punch in Halladay and Cole Hamels. And the St. Louis Cardinals, yikes. They'd have the best 1-3 in a starting rotation since the Atlanta Braves teams of the 90s with Halladay, Chris Carpenter, and Adam Wainwright.

Even with the talk that Roy Halladay would not sign an extension in Toronto, general manager J.P. Ricciardi absolutely does not have to deal the right-hander right now as his contract is not up until after the 2010. He should accept nothing less than a boatload in return featuring at least three superb prospects, and ideally a major league proven young player or two in return. Because it will be difficult for any team to give into doing that, I'd still be surprised if he gets moved by this apparent July 28th deadline...

The Boston Red Sox continue to add on to what may have already been the most playoff-ready team in baseball, notably with the addition of first baseman Adam LaRoche who they acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday. LaRoche is a superb defensive first baseman and has 25-30 homer run power. He's particularly effective against right-handed pitching with a career .847 OPS, and had 10 homers with a .833 OPS in 258 plate appearances against them this year.

The Victor Martinez rumors are still floating out there, and reports are that the Red Sox wouldn't give up 24-year-old right-hander Clay Buchholz to acquire the Indians' catcher/first baseman. Principal owner of the franchise, John Henry, said yesterday via Twitter, "trading deadline hasn't passed but don't expect blockbuster(s). like this club; love the prospects it might take to do a blockbuster."...

New York Mets general manager Omar Minaya said yesterday that he's looking to acquire players, not trade them away leading up to the trade deadline. This is a bit puzzling given the Mets' current situation. They're currently 10 games behind the Phillies in the National League East, and 7.5 back in the Wild Card race, with seven teams ahead of them. They're certainly not officially out of that race yet, but with players on the disabled list left and right including Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes, and numerous holes to fill, Minaya would probably be better off facing the reality of the state of the franchise.

Of course it's possible, and maybe even likely he's just saying that to get his team to have some confidence and maybe pick up a few games in the Wild Card race before July 31st. The Mets have three games with a team ahead of them in the Houston Astros, and then the team that currently leads the National League Wild Card race in the Colorado Rockies for four games in New York. That series concludes on July 30th, so if they can win some of those games, it will be really interesting to see what Minaya decides to do...

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have won five games in a row and 13 of 18 in July, moving themselves three games up on the Texas Rangers in the American League West race. A major reason why is 25-year-old shortstop Erick Aybar. The switch-hitter is having an absolutely sensational July, batting .466(27-58), with 13 runs, 15 RBI, and a 1.139 OPS. He's now eighth in the American Leauge in batting average at .313. He's also been terrific defensively at shortstop and his .984 fielding percentage is fifth in the majors at the position...

And just for fun, let's see what numbers Albert Pujols is currently on pace for...
Albert Pujols Pace Watch: .328 AVG, 57 HR, 151 RBI, 124 BB, 64 K, 1.161 OPS.

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