- In this space last Sunday, The Bos-Wash Corridor took a look at how the Red Sox stood up vis-à-vis the Yankees after the Pinstripes nudged into first place. And the answer was that things looked pretty good. Seven days later, with Week 9 in the books, nothing’s changed. Boston closed a nine-game road trip early in the week in grand style by sweeping the first-place Tigers. We then turned around and suffered a disappointing series loss to the first-place Rangers at home. And the standings held firm, with the Sox a bare half-game behind New York. Perhaps the more relevant question though, is whether the drama of another Red Sox-Yankees duel for the AL East title will matter, or if it will just be a sideshow, as both teams cruise into the playoffs.
If one sizes up the American League, it would appear that this is the case. Who is going to stop both Boston and New York from being on center stage in October? Let’s start with a look at our own division. We can safely eliminate Baltimore right now. The Orioles have some nice young talent and if the core of pitching currently in the minors is as good as advertised, the Birds are not far from October. But that year won’t be in 2009. The AL East is, at best, a four-team race. Can either the Jays or Rays nestle in between their more traditional rivals and upset the applecart. I don’t think so—
*Toronto’s pitching rotation is built around Roy Halladay. Not a bad building block, but there’s got to be something more behind him. The Jays may get help here by the end of this month or early in July when arms like Dustin McGowan and Shawn Marcum come back, but there’s a lot of risk here. While they are projected back in that timeframe, it’s no guarantee and it’s also no guarantee of performance. And offensively, the Jays have some issues. David Ortiz isn’t the only established star who’s tanking at the plate. Alex Rios and Vernon Wells have been subpar offensively, not just this year, but all of last year as well.
*Tampa Bay is struggling with injuries. Akinori Iwamura is out for the year. Troy Percival likely is too. Steve Kazmir is on the disabled list. And free-agent pickup Pat Burrell is doing nothing, joining a long list of players who fall off the pace after a career year when they’re playing for their contract. And how much longer will Jason Bartlett play at an MVP-caliber pace?
Both teams have enough in place that they can’t be casually dismissed, particularly given that neither the Red Sox or Yankees are as powerful as they were in the days of 2003-04, but surely no manager would alive would choose to deal with the problems in Toronto and Tampa if he could instead deal with the problems in New York or Boston.
The odds of the wild-card coming from outside the East are not high. The history alone is imposing. Since baseball adopted the three-divisional format, the AL East has sent two teams to the playoffs 10 times in 14 tries (excluding the 1994 strike year, when the modern format debuted). And there’s little to suggest this year will be different. Detroit is the only team with a winning record in the AL Central. Cleveland is terrible, a long way removed from the team that was one win from the World Series in 2007, with no more C.C. Sabbathia, Fausto Carmona and Travis Hafner having fallen apart and Grady Sizemore injured.
Kansas City and Minnesota are potentially nice teams, but they are more possibilities to steal the division if no one else really jumps up and has a big year. The White Sox are lagging along at 26-30 right now; although they are one team I could see getting their act together. They have the pitching, both in the rotation and in the bullpen to sustain a hot streak, although it does not look like the offense is ever going to generate enough to get them on a major tear. Among all of these teams, Detroit or Chicago are the only ones potentially balanced enough to win 93-95 games. And that’s still a huge stretch. And it’s still a bigger stretch to think they’ll both hit that plateau and make the wild-card come out of the Central.
In the West, Texas, LAA and Seattle are realistic contenders. But the only way for the West to hit the exacta is if the Angels really juice it up. That part is likely, now that most of their pitching staff is back and Kelvim Escobar is not far behind. However, even allowing Texas’ strong showing this weekend, what are the odds the either of the other two teams can sustain it for the long haul. Similar to the AL Central, any hopes for the Rangers and Mariners are predicated on the Angels’ not getting it together, rather than stealing a playoff berth from the AL East.
Every team has problems that can sink them and the Red Sox and Yankees are no exception. But if you dig deep and play the percentages, the odds are a lot better with the two superpowers of the East. I’m not saying this renders the division race meaningless—there’s still the considerable question of pride at stake. But like 1998, 1999, 2003, 2004, 2005 & 2007, it’s not going to be life-or-death.
IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
If the Red Sox or Yankees win the AL pennant, Fox-TV has to smell a juicy World Series opportunity. Los Angeles and Philadelphia have emerged as the class of the National League. The two teams who played in last year’s NLCS are squaring off this weekend in L.A., a series being overshadowed in town by the presence of the NBA Finals at the same time. The Dodgers have won the first two games, with the finale going on ESPN tonight (again opposite the Lakers-Magic across town). Joe Torre’s team has no weaknesses. The pitching is right there, with Chad Billingsley at the top and Hiroki Kuroda back from the DL. The bullpen is competent, and the offense has depth. And that’s even before Manny comes back from suspension on the Fourth of July. What are the odds that your World Series storyline is either Torre’s return to the Bronx or Manny’s return to the Fens? Pretty good.
In Wednesday’s column discussing catchers, I dismissed Atlanta’s Brian McCann. I’m not sure what I was thinking, as McCann’s on-baser percentage is over .400. All I can think is that I saw his .301 batting average and mistook it for OBP, which would indeed by worthy of dismissal. But McCann remains among the elite of the National League and is a legit candidate for the All-Star team again.