A New York Post article today talking about the Mets and a good post from the Red Sox blog Over The Monster each hit a similar theme—problems are all relative. As fans, it is easy to get insulated and see only the problems your own team faces and be oblivious to those faced by potential rivals. We know the Red Sox’ concerns. If John Smoltz can’t pitch well, every fifth day is going to be an adventure. If Mike Lowell can’t stay healthy consistently, there’s no way to expect Mark Kotsay (who would presumably play first while Youkilis moved to third) to match his power production. Even if Lowell can stay healthy, can he get his on-base percentage up from its woeful .319 and start to run better? Is the recent surge of David Ortiz here to stay? Playing in a division where there’s so little margin for error, every problem gets magnified.
But in baseball, as in life, everybody’s got problems. Here’s a brief rundown of what some of our rivals face--
New York—The Yankees have far fewer problems then you might think by reading the always apocalyptic news reports out of the spoiled Big Apple, whose fans apparently not only expect a World Series title, but to get it without even sweating it out. They have the same problems with their fifth starter the Sox do—Chien Ming-Wang’s been worse than anyone Boston’s tried, but also offers a higher upside if he finds his form. The bullpen depth is not as good as ours (the reason I think the Red Sox prevail in the division race), but with the emergence of Phil Coke, the return of Brian Bruney, and the potential of Phil Hughes they have enough to give support to a superior rotation and offense, and make the playoffs. And that’s more than enough to win a short series in October. The biggest problem the Yanks really face is dealing with the pressures of New York noted above and whether Joe Girardi is the right man to handle it.
Tampa—In one respect the loss of Troy Percival from the closer’s spot hasn’t been a serious crimp, simply because Percival wasn’t that dominant. But it did rob the pen of an extra arm. J.P. Howell’s doing a great job as the new closer, but now the setup crew is weakened. You have to question whether Jason Bartlett can keep hitting for the kind of power he’s shown thus far (.570 slugging), but Tampa can reasonably hope for Pat Burrell to pick it up a notch and compensate. In any other division, Tampa’s problems would be barely noticeable, but the potential shortfall of arms in the bullpen can be deadly in the AL East.
Toronto—Will Vernon Wells and Alex Rios ever find their form again? They are each into their second year of struggling, so a resurgence is no longer a given. And how long can Ricky Romero and Scott Richmond can pitching well for Cito Gaston? Can the Jays hang in with only one reliable setup man? Will they really get arms like Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan back in July or August, and can they even be effective if they get the chance? Toronto’s problems would be serious in any division, and in this one they look to be insurmountable.
If you look outside the confines of the AL East, the grass isn’t greener. Detroit’s offense looks nothing like that of a pennant winner and Minnesota’s starting pitching is equally without depth. As the season progresses, I think the White Sox have the look of a team ready to make a major run in the Central, but any team sub-.500 at the end of June isn’t exactly without its problems. And out West, it looks like the Angels aren’t going to get the effective return of Ervin Santana or Kelvim Escobar anytime soon. The Rangers’ have some good frontline talent and a much-improved bullpen, but lack the depth in both the lineup and the rotation that any of the top teams have.
As far as the National League goes, only the Dodgers have been able to separate themselves within the the senior circuit. The second-best record in the NL is Philadelphia’s pedestrian 39-34. And the Phils were swept by both the Blue Jays and Orioles, giving an indication how differently their haphazard rotation would fare in the AL East. Even Torre’s Dodgers did not distinguish themselves in interleague play, going .500. The American League again asserted its dominance, winning 54 percent of the games. That’s a big margin in a fairly large sample size. Put in perspective, it’s the same percentage that Barack Obama won over John McCain, and I’ve yet to hear anyone call the 2008 election a barnburner.
This contender inventory makes clear how little the landscape has changed from the start of the season. Boston is without question one of the best five teams in baseball. The only thing that can stop us is that two of the other top five are in the same division. Somebody’s going to be left without a chair when the music stops. But as we wrap up interleague play, we can say this—Boston’s strengths are uniquely suited to surviving the long haul and our weaknesses are no more debilitating than anything the Rays and Yanks face. That’s no guarantee, but if you bet percentages, you would never bet against Boston’s return to October baseball.