PLAYER TO WATCH

Carlos Beltran, OF, New York Mets
The Mets have been without their All-Star center fielder since his Jan. 13 knee surgery. In his first game back, Beltran went 1-for-4 and was caught stealing in New York’s 2-0 loss to Tim Lincecum and the Giants on Thursday. Angel Pagan (.311, 6 HRs, 40 RBI) has filled in well for the injured Beltran, but the Mets need their three-time Gold Glove winner in the field and at the plate to catch the Braves in the NL East or to grab the highly competitive NL wild card.

STORYLINES

1. Beckett back? » Red Sox ace Josh Beckett says he’s healthy and ready to return to the rotation … and Boston needs him. Tim Wakefield is not getting the job done. The knuckleballer allowed seven runs in two innings against the Rangers on Thursday to bump his ERA to 5.65 and drop his record to 3-8. The Red Sox have overcome injuries to score the most runs in the majors, but they need pitching help to make a run at the Yankees and Rays. What Boston doesn’t need is for Beckett to have a 7.29 ERA, like he did in eight starts to open the season.

2. What are the Brewers doing? » Wasn’t it just two summers ago that Milwaukee was trading for CC Sabathia? Maybe the Brewers realized that was their last best shot at a title because it’s been downhill ever since. Now the team is talking about trading away both first baseman Prince Fielder and outfielder Corey Hart. Entering the second half of the season, those were two of the five best home-run hitters in the game. Simple economics, though, as Milwaukee rebuilds. Hart is a one-dimensional player who could help the Brewers get younger. Fielder is another story. He is a Scott Boras client who’ll want top dollar when he becomes a free agent after the 2011 season. But given his — ahem — frame, Milwaukee likely won’t pay it. Time to cash in its biggest chip.

3. Why defense matters » Chicago Cubs. Baltimore. Cleveland. Pittsburgh. Washington. What do they all have in common? Awful defense and — more importantly — records way below .500. Pitching and hitting get all the attention. But nothing helps a team get better faster than good old-fashioned glove work. It’s why you want the Nats’ opponent to hit the ball right at third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (eight errors) — and not at shortstop Ian Desmond (21 errors). It’s not foolproof. The Tigers and Dodgers both make a ton of errors, but are still contending. But they’re doing so in spite of their defensive woes. Of the eight teams in a playoff position entering the second half only Texas (13th) and Atlanta (19th) ranked outside of the top nine in fewest errors committed.

SERIES TO WATCH
Padres at Braves, Tuesday-Thursday
No one expected Atlanta and San Diego to be leading their divisions at this point in the season. The Padres have relied heavily on their pitching staff with a league-leading ERA. The Braves pitching staff is fourth in the majors in ERA, but are getting more offensively than their NL West leading counterpart. Troy Glaus, Jason Heyward, Martin Prado and Brian McCann have all had solid years at the plate. But if Chipper Jones starts hitting, the Braves could run away with the NL East.

The Examiner's weekly power rankings
1. Yankees » Sad week in Big Apple after death of Steinbrenner
2. Rays » Tampa Bay offense seems shaky heading into second half
3. Braves » Rookie Jason Heyward (thumb) back to start second half
4. Padres » Baseball’s best pitching staff just keeps on rolling
5. Red Sox » Injuries will test Bo-Sox ability to stay in AL East race
6. Rangers » Cliff Lee trade should allow Rangers to win the AL West
7. White Sox » Won 26 of 31 entering weekend portion of series against Twins
8. Rockies » Have closed gap on Padres. Will they pass them soon?
9. Dodgers » Does L.A. have financial means for moves at deadline?
10. Giants » One of four NL West teams within 3 1/2 entering weekend
11. Tigers » Have inched closer to AL Central lead than the Twins
12. Mets » It’s been a breakthrough season for OF Angel Pagan
13. Reds » Had the lead at break, but how long can Reds hold on?
14. Cardinals » It’s a two-team race in NL Central; Cards making a move
15. Phillies » Two-time NL champs are still lurking in tough division
16. Twins » Can’t allow red-hot Chi-Sox to open lead in AL Central
17. Angels » Team most likely to make a splash at the trade deadline
18. Blue Jays » Not ready to contend in Toronto; keep picking up prospects
19. Athletics » A top 10 pitching staff stuck with a bottom 10 offense
20. Marlins » Florida got its first look at Strasburg to start second half
21. Brewers » Trade status of 1B Prince Fielder big news for rest of 2010
22. Royals » Farm system finally starting to show some promise in K.C.
23. Nationals » Big story now is what happens with Dunn, Willingham
24. Cubs » That’s a lot of cash ($146 million) to be a non-factor
25. Mariners » Lee trade gave Mariners a batch of quality prospects
26. Astros » Fewest home runs in MLB; let the trading season begin
27. D’Backs » Power — over 100 HRs — hasn’t meant much in 2010
28. Indians » Carmona, Westbrook actually look good at top of rotation
29. Pirates » At least CF Andrew McCutchen has blossomed for Bucs
30. Orioles » Too late — but 2B Brian Roberts is back on the field in minors