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NL Central gets trading season underway a little early

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Chris Ruddick Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - I was all prepared to write this column on what a great move it was by the Milwaukee Brewers to go out and get big lefty CC Sabathia, how it more than likely shifted the balance in the NL Central to their favor.

Then, lo-and-behold, the Chicago Cubs answer with an ace-level acquisition of their own just a day later, picking up right-hander Rich Harden from the Oakland Athletics.

Of course, the moves in question give the Brewers and Cubs perhaps the best 1-2 punches atop the rotation in the league. Milwaukee already has Ben Sheets, who has been one of the best pitchers in the NL this season, while Chicago is led by right-handed horse Carlos Zambrano.

Now, pairing them with Sabathia and Harden, you have yourselves an extremely tough out in the postseason, not to mention an incredible race over the next couple of months in the Central.

As good as both moves sound on paper, though, they do have their risks.

Sheets and Sabathia are free agents at season's end, and more than likely both will be pitching elsewhere next year. This is strictly a move for this season. In case you haven't noticed, the NL is very winnable. The Brewers are going for it. Who cares about next year if you can win a World Series this year?

But if they miss the playoffs, those four premium picks in next year's draft are not going to be much of a consolation to their fanbase.

Then there's Harden's injury history. When he is right, there are not many better, but he has been on the field so infrequently over the past three seasons, Oakland decided to let another team worry whether or not his next pitch would be his last.

I guess patience starts to wear thin after six trips to the disabled list in the last four years.

When it is all said and done, I think both teams are going to get in. Milwaukee will probably get the bigger bang from their buck and win the division, while the Cubs will hold off either the Phillies or Mets for the wild card.

History tells us that Harden will probably have to shut it down at some point, but Lou Piniella's crew is deep enough to withstand another DL stint from him. Heck, they've barely skipped a beat without Alfonso Soriano, and until recently, Zambrano.

The Phillies could be the next team to add a pitcher, and it could be their downfall if said hurler is Erik Bedard. There has been a lot of talk about Bedard to the Phillies, but in the end, if it happens, that will be their undoing. Mark it down.

Bedard, who has recently been placed on the 15-day disabled list, has been bothered by nagging injuries all season and that will continue to be the case for whatever team deals for him. As mentioned previously in this space, he's not durable, doesn't seem tough enough, and shuts it down due to seemingly small, nagging injuries.

You might get that ace-caliber performance from him, but the problem is instead of every fifth day, he takes the ball every 15th day or so.

Not to mention he is reportedly not the best clubhouse guy. The Phillies may have the best chemistry of any team in the NL. Do they really want to take a chance of screwing that up?

Either way, it should be a wild next couple of months in the National League.

FIRST-HALF AWARDS

AL MVP - JOSH HAMILTON, OF, TEXAS
By now everyone knows the story of Hamilton, who has risen from the depths of drug addiction to challenge for a home run and RBI title in the AL. Hamilton was picked up from Cincinnati this offseason and has responded with the best offensive season of anyone in the Junior Circuit. Texas probably won't be reaching the playoffs, but if they have any chance at all, Hamilton will play a big part in it.

AL CY YOUNG - CLIFF LEE, LHP, CLEVELAND
Lee is the most unlikely of all these recipients. The left-hander struggled last season, and was demoted to Triple-A. This season, he had to fight a for a spot in the starting rotation and responded by allowing runs in just two of his first seven outings. He has cooled off since, but is one win shy of the league lead and his ERA is still among the league leaders. You can make an argument for Los Angeles' Francisco Rodriguez, but Lee has been the best pitcher in the league so far this season.

AL ROOKIE - EVAN LONGORIA, 3B, TAMPA BAY
Longoria was the odds-on favorite to win this award at the start of the season, but did not start the year with the big league club. Then Willy Aybar went down with an injury in early April and the rest, as they say, is history. Longoria has been a big part of the Rays' surprising success, hitting .281 with 16 home runs and at 22 years of age, may already be the best defensive player in the league at his position.

AL MANAGER - JOE MADDON, TAMPA BAY
This is about as easy a choice as there is. A lot of people felt Tampa could finish .500 for the first time in their history this season, but nobody saw this coming. As I write this, the Rays own the best mark in baseball at 55-35 and sit atop the AL East standings, two in front of the Boston Red Sox. Whether or not they stay there will be an interesting storyline to follow in the second half, but regardless of how things turn out, they seem poised for their first winning season in club annals.

NL MVP - CHASE UTLEY, 2B, PHILADELPHIA
There are not too many players ahead of Utley in the discussion of best all-around players in the league. Utley was incredible over the first two months for Philadelphia, but has cooled down considerably. He still has 25 homers, and the Phillies would not be in the position they are without the All-Star second baseman. If he keeps it up and Philly reaches the postseason, Utley may very well be the third different Philadelphia player to win the award.

NL CY YOUNG - EDINSON VOLQUEZ, RHP, CINCINNATI
Quick...raise your hand if you had Volquez winning this at the start of the season. When he was acquired this winter for Hamilton, which by the way looks to be one of the most even trades in recent memory, nobody thought he would be as good as he has been, let alone start the All-Star Game. Volquez, though, is one of a few reasons Cincinnati fans are optimistic about the future. He has 11 wins and has surrendered more than three runs in just one of his 17 starts, while surrendering two or less in 14 of them. This one's a no-brainer.

NL ROOKIE - GEOVANY SOTO, C, CHICAGO CUBS
Soto might be pushed by the Reds' Jay Bruce for this award in the second half, but the Chicago backstop has definitely been the best first-year player from the start of this season. His efforts thus far have already earned him the right to be the first-ever rookie catcher on the NL All-Star team.

NL MANAGER - TONY LA RUSSA, ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Not much was expected from the St. Louis Cardinals this season. However, despite a make-shift rotation that has been incredible through the first half, and a DL stint by Albert Pujols, La Russa has his Cards right in the mix of the NL Central and wild card races. However, the team was counting on Mark Mulder in the second half and it looks like he may be done. Not to mention their cause wasn't helped any with the recent pickups by Milwaukee and Chicago. For these purposes, though, La Russa has done the best job in the NL up to this point.

FIVE BOLD SECOND HALF PREDICTIONS

1. BARRY BONDS WILL PLAY IN THE POSTSEASON
I can't tell you what team he is going to be playing for, but some contender is going to add the Basher at some point in the next few weeks. I can't fathom for the life of me why he isn't on a roster right now. Are you telling me that in a league that has wife beaters and drunk drivers among other fine citizens, that it has finally found a conscience when it comes to the all-time home run king? Sure you will have to deal with the madness that is Bonds when he first arrives, but after that, sit back and watch him produce. The moment he steps on the field, he will still be one of the most feared hitters in the game. And in the end, isn't that all that counts? Arizona may be without Eric Byrnes for the rest of the season, the Mets desperately need another bat, and who knows how David Ortiz's wrist will hold up once he starts swinging with some ferocity. Are you telling me that Bonds wouldn't improve any of those teams right now?

2. THE YANKEES WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS
I make this prediction every year at the All-Star break when it appears the Yankees are down and out, and every year they prove me right. I learned a long time ago that the MLB season is a marathon not a sprint. You tell me the Yankees are dead, then show me the body. I can't believe with all the talent on that team that they will be watching the postseason from home, especially if that lineup continues to be their biggest concern. I am sure a lot of teams would like that to be their problem. And in case you haven't noticed, despite what you may read, their bullpen has been incredible since Joba Chamberlain was inserted into the rotation. They do need another starter, they will get one, and a 14th straight playoff appearance will follow. Death, taxes and October baseball in the Bronx. Bank on it.

3. THE DETROIT TIGERS WILL WIN THE AL CENTRAL
The writing is already on the wall for this one. You can just sense that the Tigers are going to be a big factor in the second half. Just about everyone predicted a postseason appearance for Jim Leyland's crew at the beginning of the season, but the Tigers got off to an abysmal start and everyone was left scratching their heads. Detroit, though, played better than .700 ball in June to get itself back into the discussion. The offense is starting to click and you have to think that Justin Verlander is going to be better than he was the first three-plus months.

4. JOSE REYES WILL WIN THE NL MVP
Over the past month or so Reyes has shown why he has often been referred to as the most exciting player in the game today. It's also no coincidence that the Mets' resurgence as a team has gone hand-in-hand with Reyes' improvement. Bottom line is, as Reyes goes, so go the Mets. For whatever reason Reyes had not been a factor since about the middle of last season. Lately, though, he has been, and the Mets have taken off. He is electric when he is on and the team feeds off that energy. I may not like all his antics and he throws a few too many tantrums for my liking, but he is one of those players I will stop and watch when he is on his game. The Mets will ride Reyes to an NL East crown in the second half, and the shortstop will become the team's first-ever MVP.

5. ALEX RODRIGUEZ WILL CONTINUE TO DRAW ATTENTION TO HIMSELF
For a guy that supposedly does not like attention, he sure has an uncanny knack for finding the limelight. Whether it is his ridiculous comments from time-to-time, or his latest exploits with, of all people, Madonna, A-Rod always finds a way to make himself the story. His pending divorce hasn't bothered him on the field, but that situation - which figures to be a nasty ordeal - will bear watching in the second half. But then again, Rodriguez thrives when he is on the front page, for whatever reason. And, like they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity, so maybe he will continue to feed off of it.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.

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