It was an interesting Cubs' first half to say the least.
The highlight for me, without a doubt, was Travis Wood's ascendance.
I've always liked how he competes, but this year he has added a laser-like side-to-side command of all of his pitches and it has made him an elite guy, at least for half a season.
The challenge now is to do it for the rest of the year and beyond. At the moment, a guy you'd have called a fourth or fifth starter several months ago is pitching like an ace.
The most intriguing 25-man roster development has been the bullpen turnover. The Cubs started the year basically with Carlos Marmol, Kyuji Fujikawa and Shawn Camp as their top guys -- and all are off the roster. (Fujikawa is still on the team, but is on the disabled list for the rest of the year).
Now, they have Kevin Gregg, Blake Parker and James Russell leading the way with an intriguing Pedro Strop and Matt Guerrier also contributing.
The early relief problems are the main reason this team is under .500. With a better start from the pen, I think the Cubs could have been on the edge of the wild-card race going into the break.
But, as we know, there are no do-overs, so you look ahead to a second half that will likely feature more changes as we near the trade deadline.
The Cubs should be in much better shape in the rotation if they trade Matt Garza than they were after Paul Maholm and Ryan Dempster were dealt last year. This team has way more depth in that area now and could get Scott Baker back from his season-long DL stint in a few weeks.
My main focus will be on the two core-position players with the longest contracts -- Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. This is their team now, and after an up-and-down first half for both, it's time to see some consistent excellence in all phases.
I have a quick thought on tonight's Home Run Derby. I don't like it, not in its current form. It takes way too long and by the finals, the contestants are fatigued, creating an anti-climactic finish.
Why not play a nine-inning team game using an American vs. National League format and also incorporating some retired sluggers. You could have a 1-9 batting order and play it like a game -- each "at-bat" counts as either a home run or an out (you could even allow fouls to count as such and have at-bats only end on fair balls). Have guys like Frank Thomas compete for the AL and Jeff Bagwell for the NL. I'm sure they could still reach the seats once or twice.
Speaking of retired players, since we have the Futures Game, why not an Old-Timers Game, too?
Who wouldn't want to see Greg Maddux facing Cal Ripken one more time for fun?
Last, I am still not a proponent of the All-Star Game having any effect on the World Series. I do not believe fans care who wins the game tomorrow night. It is an exhibition game and should be treated as such.
If baseball is determined to base World Series homefield advantage on something, let's first start with the best record. If my team wins 112 games, then I'd like to know that's worth homefield advantage all the way through. And if that's not good enough, then the collective interleague records of the AL and NL should decide it. Those are immensely better methods of sorting out a key component of the World Series than who wins the All-Star Game.
•Len Kasper is the TV play-by-play broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs. Follow him on Twitter @LenKasper and check out his [URL]blog entries;http://wgntv.com/news/stories/len-and-jds-cubs-baseball-blog/[URL] with Jim Deshaies at wgntv.com. To post comments or questions for Len, click on the comment link with his column at dailyherald.com.[/URL]