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July 20, 1999

AL East Notebook

Second-Half Prospectus

by Joe Sheehan

Second-Half Prospectus

It's not the runaway we saw last year, but the order of the teams is the same. By the end of the year, it's likely the Blue Jays will have caught and passed the Red Sox, snagging the wild card slot.

New York Yankees (52-34, division leader)

It's not easy to play .600 ball and be considered a disappointment, but that's the conundrum the Bombers are in. There was no way this team was going to improve on, or even equal, 1998, and as expected, they're about 10-15 games worse than that record campaign. They're still the best team in the division, the second-best in the league, and their third World Championship in four years is well within reach.

The declines have come on both offense and defense. The rotation that posted quality start after quality start last year has seen Andy Pettitte, Ramiro Mendoza and Orlando Hernandez decline. Roger Clemens hasn't been Cy Young-caliber while fighting a hamstring injury. Only David Cone has improved on his 1998 performance; he's been the second-best pitcher in the league.

Simply seeing the real Clemens will be a significant improvement. There's a lot of rumbling that Ed Yarnall is going to get Pettitte's rotation spot; he can't be much worse, and would probably be an improvement. As he did a year ago, Pettitte looks like he may be injured.

The bullpen is a bigger problem. On both the 1996 and 1998 title teams, the pen was a tremendous strength. This year. Joe Torre has had to make do with just one left-hander, Mike Stanton, which has affected his ability to get matchups late in games. Fewer innings by the starters have worn down the surprisingly effective Jason Grimsley and Dan Naulty, while Mariano Rivera's effectiveness has recently come into line with his declining strikeout rate.

This is where the Yankees can do themselves the most good. They're looking at Allen Watson, who isn't a solution. Using Yarnall as a left-handed long man would both break him in and increase Joe Torre's options in the fifth through seventh innings. Recalling Todd Erdos, whose stuff screams "setup man", would also help shore up the middle innings. There aren't many good options outside the organization, although Scott Radinsky may become available cheaply.

Offensively, the Yankees aren't going to change much. Nick Johnson isn't going to play over Tino Martinez, and there's really nothing the team can do about Scott Brosius. Jorge Posada will hit better in the second half, and the left fielders will be better either by hook--improvement--or crook--a trade for someone like Tony Phillips.

Unless the Yankees do something very stupid--trading for Dante Bichette quickly comes to mind--they will win the division. Making the right decisions about the bullpen and left field will determine whether they can repeat as World Champs.

Boston Red Sox (49-39, 2nd place, 4 games behind)

'Twas nice to see the Fenway faithful get their moment in the sun Tuesday night. Ah...Ted Williams. Ah...Carl Yastrzemski. Ah...Pedro Martinez.

Enjoy it folks: your season has peaked.

The Sox have ridden two absolutely phenomenal performances all season and still have just a three-game lead in the wild card race. This is a team with serious problems scoring runs and a terrible back of the rotation. There's just not enough talent here to win, despite the greatness of Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra. And as great as they've been, both have fought, and still are fighting, nagging injuries. Without those two, this is the Devil Rays.

The Sox can salvage this season by going outside the organization for some offense. They have to get at least one of Trot Nixon (.683 OPS), Darren Lewis (.671 OPS) or John Valentin (.710 OPS) out of the lineup. The performances of Mike Stanley, Brian Daubach and Troy O'Leary are valuable (and a credit to Dan Duquette), but when they're the team's strongest hitters, it's a problem.

The bad news is there's really no one out there who fits the Sox needs. Rondell White is mentioned a lot, and he'd be an improvement on Nixon, but he's also not the .950 OPS guy this team needs, nor is he a right fielder.

There's not much chance the Sox can cut their run prevention enough to make up for their offense. They already have the best ERA and fewest runs allowed in the league. There's some dead wood on the staff like Pat Rapp and Mark Portugal, and Duquette could help the team by not rotating every able body in new England through the final three spots. Settling on Jin Ho Cho as the #5 starter, and leaving Rich Garces alone in the pen, are small moves that would have a small impact.

The Jays are coming, and there's really not much the Sox can do to stop them.

Toronto Blue Jays (47-43, 3rd place, 7 games behind)

Almost the opposite of the Sox, Toronto doesn't have the one or two All-World players. They do have a deep team, starting above-average players everywhere but second base, DH and, for now, center field. They have a pitching staff with upside that's been kept fairly stable.

The key for the Jays is simply getting the rotation straightened out. David Wells and Joey Hamilton are going to be much better in the second half. Chris Carpenter is already an ace. If Kelvim Escobar continues to show the aftereffects of Tim Johnson's abuse last year, they can turn to Roy Halladay, who has been inconsistent, or even Nerio Rodriguez, pitching reasonably well at Triple-A. The solutions are in-house.

Offensively, the Jays can also fix their few problems in-house. Let Willie Greene be the left-handed DH. The team doesn't have a second baseman, letting utility infielder Homer Bush get most of the playing time over utility infielder Craig Grebeck. Letting Grebeck get a greater chunk of the playing time would help.

There's one trade idea that might help: It's probably worth calling the Brewers to see if they'll take Pat Hentgen for Fernando Vina. This is one of the few teams Vina could make a difference on, and you can say the same about the Hentgen and the Brewers.

The Jays are in the driver's seat, and I fully expect them to take over the wild-card lead in August, and win the playoff spot going away.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays (39-49, 4th place, 14 games behind)

They weren't going to win anything anyway, but few teams have been slapped around by Dame Fortune the way the D-Rays have. Every pitcher worth a damn has gotten hurt, and in ways both cruel--the Tony Saunders fracture--and silly--Jim Mecir's season-ending stumble.

The rest of their season has to be devoted to getting as much as possible for their veterans. They have a few guys having unexpectedly good seasons, and need to cash in that good fortune. See if the Braves want the Crime Dog back for a few months. See what the D'backs will give up for Kevin Stocker. There are about six contending teams that Dave Martinez can help. Same for Roberto Hernandez and Wilson Alvarez. There's Brad Penny-type deals out there to be made!

There's not much at the upper levels of the Tampa Bay system, so they're going to need an influx of real talent from other organizations. Yes, the Devil Rays have been unlucky, but they've been responsible for some of that, with their poor Expansion Draft and reckless signing of risky, past-prime free agents. Plan A didn't work, so it's time to implement Plan B, start over, and look to be competitive in 2001.

Baltimore Orioles (36-51, 5th place, 16 1/2 games behind)

Peter Angelos runs his franchise by his own rules, so it's hard to analyze the Orioles. Their best route is to jettison everyone over thir...OK, that's everyone...and rebuild. But Angelos appears to be convinced that Camden Yards will become Olympic Stadium under that plan, so he continues to keep and play an expensive .475 team in the hope that lightning will strike--as it did in 1996--and the Os will miraculously extend their season by a few weeks.

Not this year. Not unless Angelos has inside information about Christy Mathewson's comeback, and he brings a few friends along.

The Orioles need to capitalize on the good first-half performances of Brady Anderson and B.J. Surhoff to get out from under their contracts. If Scott Erickson can put together decent back-to-back outings, they need to get the Indians to give them Jacob Cruz straight up for him. Jettisoning his unspeakably horrid contract is worth it. Harold Baines, though he's a great story and a local boy, was once traded for Sammy Sosa. The Os have to roll the dice and hope to get lucky.

They're probably stuck with Albert Belle, Will Clark and Delino DeShields, but they certainly don't have to play the latter two. Get Calvin Pickering and Jerry Hairston into the lineup for two months; they'll be part of the next good Orioles team.

They should not, under any circumstances, bring up Matt Riley. They'll risk an injury and start the clock running on his arbitration and free agent eligibility. When Rochester's season ends, they need to let him rest his arm for a few weeks, then give him a few starts in the Arizona Fall League. And that's it. No winter ball, no offseason workouts. He's 19.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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