As we were saying in March, we knew that at mid-season the San Diego Padres would have applied a World Cup Theory to baseball -- score first, game over -- and have the best record in the National League, have the best run differential, and for those who want to credit every success to Petco, a better road than home record.

Of course, just as we all predicted that at mid-season, Jose Bautista would be leading the Major Leagues in home runs, Joakim Soria would be the saves leaders, the Red Sox would be leading the Majors in runs despite having the top third of their batting order in place for eight games and after losing both the most productive catching tandem in the Majors and both their catchers in Triple-A, leaving them with a July 4 catching staff of Kevin Cash and Gustavo Molina.

Sure, we knew Alex Gonzalez would lead all AL shortstops in OPS, homers and RBIs ... with a .298 on-base percentage. Or that Martin Prado would be leading the NL in batting, Joey Votto would be leading in runs created, OPS and VORP, David Wright would go from being "done" to leading in RBIs, Vladimir Guerrero and David Ortiz would have a combined 35 homers, 124 RBIs and .929 OPS. Or that life would be so unfair that Matt Cain would have 13 quality starts and three wins on a team whose bullpen's save percentage is the second best in the National League.

And don't start me to talkin' 'bout former Santa Clara equipment manager Daniel Nava, who had to sit on two telephone books to take his driver's test at the age of 16 and was once released by the Chico Outlaws.

Bigger than them all, the question of whether Stephen Strasburg would be named to the All-Star Game three months into his professional career became a national debate, a tribute to his ability, his preparedness for the spotlight and the need to be freed from the past and move on to the future. When Jason Heyward is announced in Anaheim on Tuesday, he will be cheered for Strasburg, Buster Posey, Mike Stanton, Brennan Boesch, as he's talking 'bout his generation.

Now we move on to the six major stories of the next few weeks.

The first, of course, is the buildup to the July 31 Trading Deadline. We know Cliff Lee is The Prize, as well as Ted Lilly, possibly Roy Oswalt and others. We know relief pitchers are so valued that Scott Downs may be hotter than Oswalt.

There are clear buyers. The Twins have been hot on Lee for weeks now. So have the Reds. And Mets. The Eastern Bloc -- Yankees, Red Sox, Rays -- are all buyers, although the Rays could be buyers and sellers if things fall right; they toyed with the notion of exploring the B.J. Upton market, but as of Tuesday had backed away, especially with Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena to be free agents at the end of the season.

The Cardinals are buyers. The White Sox probably will be, as well, because their pitching is so good and they still need at least one productive left-handed bat. The Dodgers are buyers, although there is a severe limitation on their credit line, which necessitates having to give up young players and get the trading partner to eat money, which cost them Carlos Santana and Josh Bell the past two deadlines. The Phillies remain buyers, if they can stay close without Chase Utley, although as they showed when they moved Lee, they can become sellers at any given moment.

The Rangers would like to be buyers, but their pending sale complicates matters. The Angels are buyers, as they shop for another bat for the middle of their lineup that is without Kendry Morales.

The Cubs are in full sell mode, beginning with Lilly (whom they'd try to re-sign as a free agent), Derrek Lee, Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot, et al. This has been an odd year for the Cubbies, who are not as bad as their record. They are second in baseball in quality starts, but are 11-19 in one-run games. Lee, who will be 35 in September, came into the season with a career .284 average/.873 OPS resume and has struggled, while Aramis Ramirez -- whose OPS was over .900 from 2007-09 -- has a .539 OPS and is owed $16.6 million next season. Fortunately, they seem to have a well-stocked farm system.

The Astros are clearly sellers, although getting three prospects for Roy Oswalt without having to pay off most of his contract may be impossible. Seattle obviously is a seller. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Kansas City (with perhaps the fastest-rising system in the game), Baltimore, Toronto, Arizona and Oakland are sellers; Ben Sheets remains interesting.

The Nationals are buyers and sellers. Mike Rizzo is listening on Adam Dunn (who would prefer not to DH) and others, but badly wants to upgrade his team's defense as he awaits what he hopes will be the return of Jordan Zimmermann and Chien-Ming Wang in early August. Never underestimate the ability of Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos to sell and buy simultaneously. Florida could be buyers and sellers; so too the Brewers.

The industry feel is that the Twins are the leaders for Lee with catcher Wilson Ramos (.208, .573 OPS in Triple-A), a current member of the starting rotation and perhaps a prospect such as Aaron Hicks as potential return for Seattle. The Yankees hover. The Reds have Yonder Alonso for a bat, Major League-ready pitching and catcher Devin Mesoraco. The Mets are trying to stay in. So are the Cardinals.

Once Lee goes, the markets for Danny Haren, Oswalt, Lilly, et al, will be defined.

The Red Sox do not think Mike Cameron can continue much longer playing with his abdominal problem and are looking for an outfielder, as well as relievers. The Angels don't seem as enamored with Dunn as some think, but have to find more offense. At one point, Mike Scioscia was talking about 19-year-old Mike Trout, whom he compares to Grady Sizemore, and when asked where Trout would finish this season, replied, "What about Anaheim?" He was kidding. Sort of.

The second question is: Who gets the relievers? The Diamondbacks (6.88 ERA) and Brewers (5.35) have well-documented problems. But when the Rockies scored nine runs in the bottom of the ninth on Tuesday against the Cardinals and the bullpen that went into the game with the fourth-best bullpen ERA in the Major Leagues, the volatility was merely underscored. The Red Sox have left Terry Francona hanging from the Mystic River Bridge trying to get from his starters to Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. Manny Delcarmen is hurt, Hideki Okajima has been inconsistent and Ramon Ramirez has been unable to harness his dominant stuff; that's why Daisuke Matsuzaka's 112-pitch, 15-out performance in blowing a 6-1 lead Monday in Tampa Bay was a critical moment in the race.

The Phillies have lost six games they led after six innings and lost another five in which they were tied entering the seventh. The Yankees have lost six games they led after six; the Red Sox five ahead, five tied; the Giants four ahead, seven tied; Florida seven ahead, four tied; Colorado six ahead, four tied. To make a PR move and shake up the organization, Josh Byrnes was dismissed as GM because the bullpen has cost them nine games in which they were tied and nine more in which they were ahead entering the seventh.

Downs currently is the hottest name on the market, although the Jays would prefer to deal Jason Frasor. Kerry Wood is available, but one GM says, "we can't afford the money right now and we're not sure how he'd take to pitching the sixth and seventh innings." The Dodgers have a concern because their bullpen has thrown more innings than any team but the Pirates, and the Rangers and Mets are already over 260 innings and could face serious strains in the heat of July and August.

"There are some names you might take a chance on and hope they turn it around," says one GM. "That's pure chance." He mentioned Chad Qualls and Juan Gutierrez in Arizona, Todd Coffey in Milwaukee, Brandon Lyon in Houston (big contract), Blake Wood in Kansas City, Craig Breslow and Brad Ziegler in Oakland and Octavio Dotel in Pittsburgh. The Pirates will not deal Evan Meek or Joel Hanrahan, both of whom are throwing very well.

Add the Tigers to serious bullpen buyers because of the loss of Joel Zumaya. Detroit's starters have gotten one more out than the Orioles, whose starters have the fewest outs and innings in the American League.

The third issue is the managerial sweepstakes. The Buck Showalter/Baltimore process was nowhere near as far along as reported early in the week, but he and Eric Wedge have been strong candidates. Andy McPhail has been thoughtful and methodical, and Showalter certainly makes sense for an organization that badly needs to be re-evaluated and directed.

Hopefully Kirk Gibson will be given every opportunity to succeed in Arizona. There is some feeling that Cito Gaston may retire at the end of the season. The Junior Griffey departure clearly hurt Don Wakamatsu, a very well-respected manager in an uncomfortable situation. Florida is TBD.

The fourth issue is whether or not the Phillies and Red Sox can survive their injuries. It has been exhausting for Philadelphia to play hurt and have the bullpen problems all season, but while Utley maintains he will return faster than some predicted, there are no guarantees. If the Braves and Mets weren't as good as they are, overcoming a draining season wouldn't be so difficult, but it appears both Atlanta and New York are on the rise.

While the Red Sox should get a healthy Josh Beckett back after the All-Star break, their pitching has to carry them. The Ortiz return has been miraculous and Adrian Beltre has played like a star, but they don't know when Jacoby Ellsbury can return, and don't know if Cameron can continue, period. Victor Martinez isn't sure about his thumb, Jason Varitek may be out until August, Dustin Pedroia until mid-August.

This is a team driven by the energy and leadership of Pedroia, Varitek and Martinez, so they are huge losses. They thought with Ellsbury, Pedroia and Martinez, they would have one of the best top thirds of an order in the game; they have been together for eight games. Darnell McDonald, Nava, Eric Patterson, Billy Hall, et al, have performed very well, but in a division with the Yankees -- who have yet to have a hot streak from Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira -- and the Rays -- who have the best run differential in the league -- the Sox have to get to mid-August in contention, get healthy and let Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Beckett and John Lackey get them to Bard and Papelbon. For what it's worth, according to Lee Sinin's sabermetric rankings of pitchers, Lester, Buchholz and David Price were 1-2-3 at the mid-season mark.

Finally, there is the August 17 deadline on Draft signings. Bryce Harper will sign and with what Strasburg has done for the Washington franchise, for something slightly less than the Gross National Product of Brazil. One of the more interesting cases will be LSU pitcher Anthony Ranaudo, who was one of the highest-ranked players in March but had some arm problems and was taken in the sandwich round by Boston. Scott Boras is looking for top-10 money and when the Red Sox front office showed up at one of his games on the Cape, Ranaudo's family came in full LSU gear. The contractual issue is what he is and what he might be, as Ranaudo has been effective (no runs allowed) but not dazzling (92-94 mph, not many missed bats with his fastball).

Check in at 11:58 p.m. on August 17. There will probably be 35 signings that day.