First place flipped this week in the AL East, as the Yanks moved past the Sox into the division lead by a half-game. It wasn’t altogether unexpected. With Boston going to Minnesota and Toronto for seven games in Week 8, it was going to be tough to keep a hold on first. No matter good the Red Sox might be, trips into the domes of Minneapolis and Toronto have rarely been pleasant experiences. This week was no different, as it took a badly needed gem from Jon Lester on Sunday to get us to 3-4 for the week.
To be fair to our rivals in New York, they didn’t have a cakewalk schedule. The week started in Texas where the Rangers continue to hold the best record in the American League. I’ve not changed my mind from last week that this is a status that’s going to disappear sooner rather than later, but best in the league is still best in the league, and the Yanks pounded the Rangers twice.
The city of New York is back aglow for its team now, not more than three weeks removed from being ready to abandon the season. The word on the street is that the Pinstripes are ready to fulfill preseason expectations, which included being picked to win the World Series by this Red Sox-partisan writer. Is that what we are to assume from this recent surge? In the words of a commentator on another sport, “Not so fast my friend.”
The Yankee pitching remains abysmal, sitting at 12th in the league in ERA. And if you go deeper inside the numbers, the picture doesn’t get a whole lot brighter. C.C. Sabbathia has had it turned around for some time now. He’s not only 5-3, but he’s averaging over seven innings a start and has a 3.46 ERA. A pitcher of his status might do even better, but you really can’t assume it. Andy Pettite has a 4.10 ERA, certainly no slouch in the tough AL East. Is it realistic to think the aging lefty is going to keep that up? Even the most pro-Pettite observer would have to allow that regression is far more likely than improvement. Joba Chamberlain has gone to the post nine times and is 2-1 with a 3.97 ERA. Not bad, but the dominating Joba of setup relief is nowhere to be found.
Any hopes the Yankee rotation has for improvement can be most realistically pinned on A.J. Burnett and Chien-Ming Wang. The former has a 4.78 ERA. It’s a little on the high side, but there were many of us who believed Hank Steinbrenner bought fool’s gold when he signed the injury-prone Burnett, a pitcher who never managed to stay healthy and consistent for a full year until he had to pitch for a contract in 2008. That’s a resume oddly similar to Carl Pavano, a name that will live in infamy in the Bronx.
Wang is another story. He’s only two years removed from being one of the top pitchers in the American League and he might well have been again last year except for the fluke baserunning injury in Houston that ended his season in June. After three disastrous starts to open the year, he went on the disabled list and his since returned with two relief outings. The first one went rough against the Phillies, but on Wednesday he tossed two perfect innings in Texas. There’s no word on when Wang will return to the rotation, but you can follow the same logic with him that you can with David Ortiz—he has to get better, because getting worse is really not possible. The question for Wang is whether he can be better than Phil Hughes, who’s a spotty 3-2, 5.16 ERA in five starts. The answer is that he probably can, but it’s not a sure thing.
So the Yanks, already near the bottom of the league in ERA, are in a situation where any prospects for improvement in the starting pitching (Wang, maybe Burnett, possibly Sabbathia) are mostly offset by prospects for decline (Pettite, possibly Chamberlain if he doesn’t get his velocity back). And the bullpen is a disaster area in front of Mariano Rivera. The team is hoping for help when Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte come off the DL this month. If they click, Joe Girardi would have a nice righty-lefty combination. But is there reason to think they will? Marte is a journeyman, and Bruney is another one who’s never stayed healthy consistently. New York is hoping to draw to an inside straight—that all the prospects for improvement pan out, while none of the downsides do. Such does happen with at least one or two teams everywhere, but if it becomes what you’re banking on, you’ve got problems. And New York has pitching problems.
But everyone has problems, be it in baseball or in life. How do the Red Sox measure up to our rivals on the mound? The answers here look pretty good. With a rotation generally allowed to have been a disappointment, the Sox were still 7th in the AL in ERA. That’s with Tim Wakefield’s 4.55 ERA making him the ace of the staff, Jon Lester sitting on an ugly 6.07 before Sunday’s gem, Dice-K still searching for his first win, Brad Penny at 5.63. And even with his recent resurgence, Josh Beckett is still at 4.60 ERA. Where are the prospects for improvement here? Everywhere. Is anyone performing at a level that’s over their head? Nowhere.
And if you go to the bullpen, it looks even better. Papelbon and Rivera cancel each other out. In the setup area, Boston has no less than five pitchers who would be the #1 setup guy in the Bronx. Which of Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez, Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima and Takashi Saito would Joe Girardi not prefer over anyone he currently has? Quite frankly, it’s not a stretch to include Daniel Bard in there and say Boston’s top six setup guys are better than New York’s best. Let’s also not forget John Smoltz is due back this month.
If it seems to you that the New York surge has been built heavily on a lot of late-inning rallies and narrow wins, you aren’t imagining things or being overly influenced by ESPN highlights. The Yanks are 8-4 in one-run games, while the Sox are 8-8. Given Boston’s superiority in the pen this can surely be assumed to end up at least even. And that’s being generous. Making things square here alone, picks up four games in the loss column.
New York still has the superior offense, ranking 2nd to Boston’s 6th. This is an area that could get tough for the Sox, as the Yanks could easily be the best in the league, while any improvement from Ortiz could be offset by slowdowns from Jason Bay, Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek. But the Sox still have the top on-base percentage in the league, and should be able to get enough runs to support a strong pitching staff.
I don’t write this to dismiss New York. Their strengths offensively are clearly there, and they have enough in the pitching rotation to be right there in the mix for the long haul. But nothing’s happened so far that should lead us to think that they’ve irrevocably seized control of the AL East. The smart money here still says that these two teams ultimately settle this in the American League Championship Series come October.
IN THE SENIOR CIRCUIT
The Dodgers-Cubs has been MLB’s highlight series of Week 8. Chicago was a trendy preseason pick to win the World Series. Here at the Bos-Wash Corridor we tentatively tabbed them to win a third straight Central title, with the caveat that a healthy Chris Carpenter tipped the balance to St. Louis. Thus far, Lou Pinellia’s Cubbies have disappointed most observers, though they remain in the midst of a heated four-team race. Thus far, they’ve taken two of three from the Dodgers, as the teams get ready to conclude the series in tonight’s ESPN showcase.
Things don’t look for the Cubs in the big picture. They’re performing poorly on offense. Aramis Ramirez is out until early July at least. Milton Bradley isn’t getting it done. Derek Lee looks to be finished as a potent bat. The pitching staff has underachieved in spite of getting decent years thus far from Ted Lilly and Sean Marshall. The temperamental Carlos Zambrano has been okay. He’s capable of getting on a major hot streak, but his reputation has always been better than his consistency. Rich Harden is having injury problems, a circumstance that hardly qualified as huge shock. Ryan Dempster has started having problems with a blister, and those of us who’ve followed the career of Josh Beckett, know that they can be a nagging problem for an entire season. The bullpen is also a problem and Kevin Gregg is the one closer on the four NL Central contenders (Brewers, Cardinals and Reds joining the boys from Wrigleyville) who’s been unreliable.
Meanwhile, life is good in Milwaukee and St. Louis. The Cardinals are getting great pitching and it’s started with the aforementioned Carpenter. He’s 3-0 with a stunning 0.62 ERA in five starts. If the 2005 Cy Young winner finally has his form and his health back, watch out. The rest of the rotation is solid, the bullpen is excellent and any team run by Tony LaRussa will be well-prepared. Offensively, Albert Pujols is having another monster year, and while the lineup is not deep, there’s enough there that it’s not a one-man show.
Milwaukee is surprisingly in first place, in spite of losing Sabbathia and Ben Sheets to free agency. Yovani Gallardo has stepped up as the ace, and Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are still the muscle end of the Family. Even though the Brew Crew lost Rickie Weeks for the season, they have Craig Counsell in reserve, a utility infielder who gets on base, is steady afield and has World Series experience as a key part of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks. An interesting sidebar in this race is that the Central crown could come down to whether the Brewers get good starting pitching from Braden Looper and Jeff Suppan. The former just came over from St. Louis this year, and the latter was the NLCS MVP during the Cards’ run to the 2006 World Series title.
Cincinnati is the fourth wheel in this race, but it shouldn’t be too long before the wheel comes off. The offense was heavily dependent on Joey Votto, their outstanding first baseman, whose .464 OBP and .627 slugging was Pujols-esque. But while Cincy gets decent power from Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips, they have no one else who gets on base consistently. Even had Votto not gone on the DL this weekend (albeit for personal reasons, not medical issues), this is not an offense that was going to sustain through the summer months. If the Reds wonder how well one-man shows work, they need only look across the state where LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are nursing their wounds after being shocked out of the Eastern Conference finals by Orlando. If one-man teams don’t work in basketball, they certainly won’t fly in baseball. The Reds travel to St. Louis to start Week 9 and then come home to host the Cubs on the weekend, so now’s the time for them to plant their feet and stand firm.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Boston concludes this ten-game trip with a visit to AL Central leading Detroit to lead the week off. This will be the prime matchup in all of baseball in the early part of the week. The Yanks will have a seven-game homestand for Week 9 against the Rangers and Rays. The Red Sox return home on the weekend to play Texas, a team that will certainly be challenged to uphold its league-leading status this week. It all sets the stage for another Yanks-Sox brawl in the Fens to open Week 10, which leads into the long 15-game run of interleague play that has become traditional on the June calendar.