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July 7, 2000

AL East Notebook

Questions to Ponder

by Dave Pease

Questions to Ponder

As we make our way to the All-Star break, there's a heck of a dogfight at the top of the AL East. The perennial division champion Yankees lead the Red Sox by a single game...and both teams are looking up at the Blue Jays. Overall, just 1 1/2 games separate these teams, and nobody else is close.

For those who picked the Jays to win the East (take a bow, Messrs. Sheehan and Neyer), it isn't hard to predict how the rest of the season will turn out: more of the same, with Toronto winning a close division race and the Yankees and the Red Sox battling for the wild card. I still doubt that outcome, and think the second half will be defined by how the following questions are answered:

Will the Red Sox staff run out of smoke and mirrors?

Through July 5, the Boston starting rotation ranked first in the majors in Support-Neutral Win/Loss, .02 ahead of the Seattle Mariners. One-fifth of that is obviously the best pitcher in baseball in Pedro Martinez, but the other four spots have been pitching much better than expected. That would concern me, were I a Red Sox fan.

Jimy Williams and Joe Kerrigan do an excellent job year in and year out with the cards they are dealt, but a lot was made of last year's successful pitching staff that might not have anything to do with this year's. Last year's rotation featured a more healthy than not Bret Saberhagen, who had an excellent season, while this year's model has Pete Schourek and Jeff Fassero playing important roles. Not to rain on anybody's parade, but there's a difference in quality here: Saberhagen has always been good but fragile, while Schourek and Fassero couldn't buy a Quality Start last season. Look at what happened last year with Pat Rapp and Mark Portugal: they were kept healthy and in the rotation, but they weren't magically changed into effective pitchers.

Fassero's performance was already deteriorating by the time he hit the DL, and I expect Schourek to follow suit. The Sox have a bunch of mediocre arms and Pedro Martinez; so things could be worse, but these guys will be hard-pressed to lead the league in performance in the second half.

Will The Boss make another deal?

In the last AL East Notebook, we said the Yanks should stand pat and wait for their offense to wake up, rather than bankrupting the farm system for Sammy Sosa. Well, that's sort of what happened. The team dealt for Dave Justice instead of Sosa, and only gave up Ricky Ledee, the man he'd be replacing in the batting order, in the process.

Justice will help; he's been much more effective at the plate than Ledee. Even taking into account he'll only be playing in pinstripes for half a season, he should be worth a one-game improvement or so from here on out, and as the standings show, one game could be huge in this race.

The trading deadline isn't past yet, though, and as we noted elsewhere, the two players to be named later in the Justice deal are probably Tweedledee and Tweedledum, meaning the Yankees still have a full deck to deal with. The great Yankee teams of the late 1990s were built on the pitching staff; might King George make another deal for a starter?

The quality of the available pitchers took a hit with the Brad Radke signing, but there are plenty of pitchers out there who could change the makeup of the New York rotation in the second half. Or, considering everybody involved in the proposed deal but Ledee is still in the New York system, the Yankees could trade for Sosa after all and boot punchless Paul O'Neill into a DH platoon with Shane Spencer.

Will the Blue Jays grow a brain?

Take a look at the makeup of this team's offense for a moment: they currently rank fourth in the league in runs scored, but 11th in the league in Equivalent Average. Before taking this as a scathing indictment of our own tool, remember that the Blue Jays don't have your average offense:

Pos  Player               Rank/Qualifiers
C    Darrin Fletcher      11/28
1B   Carlos Delgado       3/35
2B   Homer Bush           34/34
SS   Alex Gonzalez        25/30
3B   Tony Batista         13/30
LF   Shannon Stewart      14/33
CF   Jose Cruz Jr.        25/32
RF   Raul Mondesi         27/33

(Whodathunk Raul Mondesi was as big a problem for the Jays, relative to his peers, as the widely reviled Jose Cruz Jr.?)

DH Brad Fullmer is certainly among the better designated hitters in the league thus far.

What you've got is an incredibly bad supporting cast for the core of this offense, especially with born defensive replacement Alberto Castillo subbing for Fletcher behind the plate. That'll bring down the average for any system--like EqA--that looks at the parts irrespective of where they bat in the order.

The Blue Jays are getting a season for the ages from Carlos Delgado. Tony Batista is slugging, and Fullmer and Shannon Stewart are doing everything well with the bat. The middle infield is gorier than those slasher movies everyone used to see at the drive-in on Friday nights, and if there's one position on any of these three teams that is easily upgradeable, it is second base for the Blue Jays.

Again, despite getting nothing from the bottom of the order, the Jays are in first place. They've got the most easily addressable problems of these three teams; they just need to forget what Homer Bush and Alex Gonzalez did last year and sit them down.

Dave Pease can be reached at dpease@baseballprospectus.com.

Dave Pease is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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2000-09-28 - Team Of The Decade
2000-08-25 - NL West Notebook
2000-07-24 - NL Central Notebook
2000-07-07 - AL East Notebook
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2000-06-15 - NL East Notebook
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