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16 Still In The Thick Of It, Surprises A-Plenty

With the second-half of the season underway and the trade deadline looming, here are some facts and thoughts about the pennant races around baseball...

16 of the 30 teams are within 5.5 games of 1st place.

13 of these teams are within 3.5 games of 1st place.

The Atlanta Braves, with a 5 game lead on the Mets, have the biggest margin of any division leader.

Sadly, the A's are not among these 16 teams, though they join Boston as "next tier" teams who aren't within 5.5 games of their division but aren't quite out of it either.

Speaking of the Red Sox, now 6.5 games out and stuck in 3rd place under a system that has not yet adopted the "wild card's wild card," can I take just a modicum of joy in the fact that not one, but two, players -- Adrian Beltre and Marco Scutaro -- shunned Oakland for Boston and cited "a chance to win now" as factoring into their decision?

Don't get me wrong, I don't blame either one. I love, and will always love, Scutaro and he was right: If you want a chance to win, now and each year upcoming, Boston is simply your better bet. And Beltre decided to take a one-year "build your value" deal in a strong hitter's park, rather than accept a multi-year contract after a down year, and he is having a terrific season that should land him a better multi-year deal than he would have accepted from the A's last Winter.

So both did what they did without it really being a knock on the A's so much as a smarter decision for them at this point in their career. That doesn't stop me from smiling when I think they may well be watching the playoffs from the couch this year.

My other thought relates to the NL West, where it's fascinating to try to predict who will actually prevail in a topsy-turvy division the Padres have led for most of the year and in which the Giants are in 4th place but just 3.5 out and looking bullish while the Rockies and Dodgers are poised to make legitimate pushes as well.

I get that the Padres have thrived on the strength of their pitching, but you know what? They may actually have the worst rotation of the four teams. Mat Latos is a stud, no question, but after that...Jon Garland? Clayton Richard? Wade LeBlanc? Kevin Correia? Seriously? This is better than Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, Madison Bumgarner, and Jonathan Sanchez? Or Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa (back today), Jhoulys Chacin, and Jason Hammel? Or Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Vicente Padilla, and Hiroki Kuroda?

As I see it, the Padres have the weakest rotation to go with the weakest offense, so I'm picking them to finish 4th when it's all said and done. My best guess?

Rockies
Giants
Dodgers
Padres

If you're bold and like making predictions you can look back on and go, "Aw crap, that's in writing?" add your guess in this thread and say why. This is going to be one fun division to watch. And major kudos to Bud Black for keeping the Padres on top so long, no matter what happens from here on out. He should be Manager of the Year -- as should "we coulda had him" Ron Washington, just for being the manager when Bengie Molina hit for the cycle.

Chez Nico today! Ballgame at 4:10pm followed by the systematic grilling and devouring of dead animals. For all you NRAFs and "can't make its," we'll take pictures and convey the magic through fanpost. Meanwhile, the A's have a pennant race to get back into. First goal: Become the 17th team to creep to within 5.5 games of the top...