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Weekend before ASG chock full of critical games

MLB.com @castrovince

It's hard to believe the baseball season is half over. Actually, it's really hard to believe, because the baseball season is actually more like 57 percent over.

But don't go settling into the All-Star break just yet. There's still quite a bit of ball to be played between now and Tuesday's 89th All-Star Game presented by Mastercard. So here are five topics to track this weekend.

It's hard to believe the baseball season is half over. Actually, it's really hard to believe, because the baseball season is actually more like 57 percent over.

But don't go settling into the All-Star break just yet. There's still quite a bit of ball to be played between now and Tuesday's 89th All-Star Game presented by Mastercard. So here are five topics to track this weekend.

1. Future World
If your favorite club plays around 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, good news! The SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game taking place at Nationals Park will be broadcast live at 4 p.m. ET on MLB Network and simulcast on MLB.com, so you should be able to watch the present and the future in succession (kind of like how time actually works, so that's neat). If your favorite club's game is later in the day, it's called multi-tasking, people. Get with the program.

Point is, with so much emphasis on and opportunity for young talent in today's game (like, say, first-time All-Stars Ozzie Albies and Gleyber Torres, who are just 21 years old), it behooves you to familiarize yourself with the future, because it's coming on quick. Four of the top 10 players on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list are on the rosters. Shortstops Brendan Rodgers of the Rockies (No. 6) and Bo Bichette of the Blue Jays (No. 7) and right-hander Forrest Whitley of the Astros (No. 9) are on the U.S. squad managed by Torii Hunter, and shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. of the Padres (No. 3) is on the World squad managed by David Ortiz.

Video: Gleyber Torres' six 3-run homers

The full rosters are available here, so start scouting!

2. Welcome back
We've got two prominent starters returning from injury on Friday night, though their returns mean two very different things.

For the Dodgers, Walker Buehler's return against the Angels (10:10 p.m. ET, Dodger Stadium) after five weeks away due to a microfracture in his rib will give them six healthy starters, with the chance of employing a six-man rotation after the All-Star break. Rotation injuries have been a reality of the Dodgers' season, but things are trending upward in that area, and Buehler, who has a 3.44 ERA in 10 appearances in this rookie year, could be an important figure in their postseason push.

Video: ATL@LAD: Buehler K's Flaherty looking in the 5th

For the Mets, Noah Syndergaard's return against the Nats (7:10 p.m. ET, Citi Field) is a little different, obviously, with no such push on the agenda. But could Syndergaard, who has been out since May 26 with a strained ligament in his right index finger, pitch well enough between now and July 31 to compel some club to come to the Mets with an aggressive offer for Thor? It's not totally inconceivable in a market light on reliable and controllable starting help.

Video: NYM@MIL: Syndergaard strikes out Santana for 8th K

3. Yeah Bay-by
Will there be playoff baseball by the San Francisco Bay this year? Perhaps. But honestly, right now, as the A's and Giants begin their annual Bay Bridge Series Friday at 10:15 p.m. ET at AT&T Park, it's hard to say which Bay-area club has the better shot at a spot.

The A's (53-41) are out in front of the Giants (49-46), record-wise, but they have the misfortune of playing in a division with two clubs (the Astros and Mariners) on pace for a triple-digit win total. The Giants are in a much better spot in the NL West. For all their trouble trying to get real traction this season, they haven't been more than 5 1/2 games back in the West at any point since the beginning of May, and they're only three back as of this writing.

The Giants are coming off their MLB-high eighth walk-off of the season, but their offense has managed just three runs or fewer in eight of their last 10, and left-handed starters Brett Anderson (Saturday) and Sean Manaea (Sunday), in particular, could pose a stiff test for them this weekend.

Video: OAK@HOU: Manaea retires Altuve with bases full in 2nd

The A's, meanwhile, have been on a nice run, with wins in 19 of their last 24. That's shifting the conversation surrounding them from "sell" to, perhaps, "buy," as it's not out of the realm of possibility that they could at least chase down the Mariners in the Wild Card pursuit. As a matter of fact, even with the aforementioned division dynamics, the A's, as of this writing, are given slightly higher playoff odds (19 percent) than the Giants (18.3).

4. Battle of the buyers
The Yankees and Indians continue their four-game set at Progressive Field this weekend, and these two AL powerhouses could be steaming toward an October reunion after a dramatic Division Series battle in which the Yankees stormed back from an 0-2 hole to win the best-of-five. Thing is, both of these clubs could look a bit different come October, because they both have needs to address before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

New York's rotation depth is in question, and Brian Cashman is working the phones trying to patch it up in a market light on obvious help. For now, the Yanks need the likes of rookie Domingo German and veterans CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka (all of whom are lined up to start this weekend, opposite Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger and All-Star Trevor Bauer, respectively) to step up.

Video: NYY@BAL: Tanaka fans Rickard, strands a runner in 2nd

The Tribe's issue in the bullpen, which entered this series with the worst relief ERA in baseball, juxtaposed against a Yankees unit with the best such ERA.

Now, if you could combine the Tribe's rotation with the Yankees' bullpen, well, then you'd really have something. But they're both pretty well-off from a power perspective, especially with Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez doing a pretty good Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge imitation in the home run count.

5. Finish strong
The Shelby Miller trade was the last major link between the D-backs and Braves (and yes, even if Dansby Swanson hasn't developed into an All-Star quite yet, that one's still a clear win for Atlanta), but maybe they'll be linked in another way -- as October opponents -- this year.

Miller issues aside, the D-backs have done great work to build off last year's wild run to the NL Wild Card and prove they are a legitimate threat to win the NL West this season. The Braves have done great work to speed up their competitive timetable and emerge as a threat to dethrone the Nationals in the NL East this season.

They've both posted sub-.500 records so far in July, so maybe the break will be good for them as a means of steeling themselves for what is sure to be a difficult division battle down the stretch. First, though, these two clubs meet this weekend in Atlanta, beginning with Friday's 7:35 p.m. ET affair pitting Arizona's Zack Godley against Atlanta's Anibal Sanchez.

Video: SD@ARI: Godley K's Ross to avoid damage in the 15th

Sanchez has been a remarkably reliable starter for the Braves (2.72 ERA, 145 ERA+), but the rotation, at large, has had some stumbles in recent turns, and Saturday starter Sean Newcomb, who has a 9.49 ERA in his last three starts, and Sunday starter Julio Teheran, who seems to vacillate between awesome and rough outings, will look to round out the first half on a positive note. The D-backs' starting pitching depth keeps getting tested this season (and Godley's start had to be pushed to Friday because he was needed in a 16-inning affair against San Diego on Sunday), but they've got All-Stars Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin going in succession on Saturday and Sunday.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Walker Buehler, Noah Syndergaard