Less than a week after the All-Star game, three teams stand separated by 1.5 games atop the American League East. Holding two of those spots, surprise, surprise, are the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. However, wedged in between those teams in the standings, which may have surprised anyone who does not follow the AL East, is the Baltimore Orioles. None of these teams are perfect by any means, so like any guy going into his senior prom, we should expect to see some action before July 31st. What will it take to put one of these teams over the top? Pitching, pitching, and more pitching.
The Boston Red Sox are in first place with a 50-40 record. Their offense has produced as expected scoring a MLB high 500 runs through their first 90 games. They may be able to grab another bat off the bench, but with the likes of John Olerud, Doug Mirabelli, and Kevin Youkilis available to pinch hit, and Gabe Kapler and Alex Cora bolstering the defense, the Sox should have plenty of late inning options. What has prevented this team from building and maintaining a large lead is their bullpen. Before Keith Foulke went on the DL, he was atrocious. He had 5 losses, and ERA of 6.23, WHIP of 1.56, and opponents are slugging .528 off of him. To put it into perspective, the Red Sox barely allow John Halama to have some meaningless innings, and statistically he has pitched much better than Foulke. Things are so bad at closer that the Sox have actually placed a starter that is not even ready to compete at AAA yet in the closer’s role. Yankee’s boss George Steinbrenner for the first time had praise for the Sox front office. Other duds in the Sox bullpen this year have included, well, everybody but Mike Myers and Mike Timlin. The Sox recently acquired Chad Bradford, who if healthy should give them at least a third option in the bullpen. What do the Sox need to win the East? A healthy and effective Foulke back, along with 2 more quality relievers.
What was said about the Red Sox offense basically goes for the Yankees, who have scored the 2nd most amount of runs in baseball. The Yankees need a little pitching help in the bullpen, maybe picking up 1 more quality reliever to compliment Rivera, Gordan, and Sturtze. The Yankees are also hurting for a quality starter, but that is more a function of Brian Cashman building a rotation with more guys that should be part of the American Association of Retired Persons instead of Major League Baseball. If these guys could ever stay healthy, who knows how good they might be? We have Randy Johnson (41) and Mike Mussina (36) pitching well enough for this offense to win a lot of ballgames. Kevin Brown (40) has only pitched 65 innings this year due to an assortment of injuries, and the young pickups, Carl Pavano (29) and Jaret Wright (29) have missed significant time on the DL as well. Their most effective starter, 25-year old Chien-Ming Wang, just went onto the DL and may miss the rest of the season. So what was the Yankees response to this news? They went and grabbed Al Leiter whose not only old (39), but horrible (6.64 ERA, 1.85 WHIP). He is making his Yankees debut today against the Red Sox, and if I were a Yankees fan, I would not even bother turning on the TV unless you enjoy seeing runs scored on the level they were Friday night (17-1 Sox win). The Yankees need a healthy and effective Pavano or Wright to come back from the DL, otherwise they will be shopping for two very elusive quality starters.
That brings us to the Orioles. Though they don’t score the same number of runs as the Yankees or Red Sox, they have a potent lineup. They could use another bat off the bench, but their overall offense should be plenty to get them into the post season. Their starting rotation is solid, with Bruce Chen and Rodrigo Lopez pitching well, and Cabrera pitching better of late. The O’s need Sidney Ponson to start pitching better, and if Erik Bedard can return to the same form he had before his trip to the DL (5-1, 2.08 ERA, 1.04 WHIP), the Orioles will have their legitimate ace, and a very impressive starting 5. Their bullpen is actually a strength. BJ Ryan has saved 21 of his 24 opportunities and boasts a 2.40 ERA. In addition to Ryan, Jorge Julio, Todd Williams, James Baldwin, and more recently, Chris Ray have pitched very well. Overall, the best bullpen in the East and a starting rotation right up there with the Red Sox. What do the Orioles need to put them over the top? Sidney Ponson to pitch better and Erik Bedard to return healthy will give them all the pitching they need. Otherwise, the O’s will need 1 quality starter, and a bat or two off the bench. Red Sox and Yankees fans better start watching the O’s very closely, because they might very well win the East.
Prediction? It’s going to be the best AL East race in decades as pennant fever will grip 3 of the top baseball cities on the East Coast. The Red Sox win the AL East, Orioles win the wild card finishing 3 games out, and the Yankees just miss out on the playoffs, 5 back from Boston and 2 back of Baltimore. Things are going to get really exciting down the stretch.