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May 20, 2000

AL East Notebook

Beantown Dreams

by Joe Sheehan

Taking advantage of the Yankees' complete inability to put runs on the board, the Red Sox moved into first place in the AL East this week. While the 1999 wild-card team was often referred to--OK, mostly by me--as a two-man team of Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, the 2000 version is showing considerably more depth both on the mound and at the plate.

The real difference is the offense. The Red Sox are 5th in the AL in EqA and 6th in runs per game. Carl Everett, who is hitting .341/.399/.724, has been an obscene improvement over the Darren Lewis/Damon Buford scar that occupied center field last year, and represents most of the gain. The improvement of Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek has also been a factor, helping to offset the struggles of Troy O'Leary and Jose Offerman.

It's not all chowder and beans. Third base, whether occupied by Wilton Veras or John Valentin, is going to be a problem, and the team could use a left-handed hitter to platoon with Mike Stanley as the DH. The bench, usually consisting of Lewis, Scott Hatteberg and three lousy utility infielders, is acceptable only in comparison to that of the Yankees. It's still a significantly improved offense, and one that will put up 850 runs or so.

Even in Baseball 2000, The Nintendo Year, that should be enough, because the Sox staff may be the best in the league. Behind Pedro Martinez, who has given up one run in the past four weeks, pitching coach Joe Kerrigan is getting great work from two pitchers who combined for a 6.51 ERA in 1999. Jeff Fassero and Pete Schourek are giving the team six good innings almost every time out. Despite so-so peripherals, both are keeping teams off the board by keeping the ball in the park, having allowed just six home runs combined in almost 90 innings.

In the bullpen, while Derek Lowe is getting noticed for his power groundball mix and his two-inning saves, the linchpin of the pen may be Rich Garces. Garces has been huge in getting games from the Boston's five- and six-inning starters to Lowe. He has a 2.25 ERA in 20 innings, with a 20-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. With a performance like that, you can have Camryn Manheim's physique.

Lowe has been ridden very hard in the early going, a workload that caught up to him in a recent eight-hits-in-three-innings stretch. Despite his pedigree as a starter and his desire for the ball, it would be in manager Jimy Williams's best interests to mix in a one-inning save for Lowe every now and then, perhaps using John Wasdin in the sixth and seventh innings and Garces in the eighth.

This Sox team is much better than its predecessor, largely because of its improved depth on offense. It is a high-maintenance team, particularly the pitching staff, so it will undoubtedly hit a rough patch between now and September. That's where Pedro Martinez comes in, keeping the Sox from an extended losing streak. Even if the Yankees get their offense together and the Blue Jays find some starting pitchers, this Sox team may be the best in the division.

Notes

  • The Orioles are Cubs East right now, with absolutely no safe options in the bullpen. The big-money free agents, Mike Timlin and Mike Trombley, have been a disaster, while B.J. Ryan's good April has been forgotten: he's been charged with at least two runs in each of his last five appearances. The Baltimore defense doesn't help, especially an outfield of two left fielders and a DH.

    If you're Mike Mussina or Sidney Ponson, be very afraid--both are averaging more than 105 pitches per start, and you can expect Mike Hargrove to try and squeeze as much out of his rotation as possible. Not that it matters: this team's collective peak was in 1992 or so.

  • Who will be the backup catcher on the American League All-Star team? Someone from this division, to be sure:

    Darrin Fletcher: .353/.377/.621
    Jorge Posada:    .331/.431/.612
    Jason Varitek:   .312/.425/.462
    

    Posada has playing time over the other two, and if Derek Jeter isn't voted in by the fans, could be one of only two Yankees on the team, along with Bernie Williams.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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