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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.

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