This is part one of a two part series, discussing whether or not the current Red Sox division lead is safe. First I will be visiting why it is that the Red Sox can’t feel comfortable quite yet. Keep in mind that the points I’m bringing up are arguing a certain point of view. So everything I say may not be exactly what I think. For the record however, I honestly don’t feel as if the Red Sox division lead is safe at this point in the season. Next week I will visit some reasons to believe that the Red Sox division lead is in fact safe.
1. Yankees Rotation – Ultimately, much of the Yankees success this season will be contingent on the success of a few starting pitchers. Chien-Ming Wang, the 27-year-old considered to be the ace of the staff has struggled a bit this year. In 5 starts he has an ERA of 4.54 but his WHIP of 1.16 is 0.11 points below his career average. Wang is a much better second half pitcher. After the All-Star break his ERA drops from 4.04 to 3.46 and his winning percentage increases from .630 to .750.
Andy Pettitte could provide the Yankees with a legitimate number two guy. And while Andy Pettitte hasn’t pitched quite as good as his 2.68 ERA would dictate (more hits than innings pitched, 3.58 BB/9, 1.41 WHIP) he is another guy who’s a much better pitcher down the stretch. After the All-Star break, Pettitte’s ERA drops from 4.06 to 3.50, his WHIP dips down from 1.40 to 1.29 and his winning percentage increases from .583 to .703.
And then there is of course Roger Clemens. Last year this guy was 7-6 with an ERA of 2.30 and a WHIP of 1.04. There will be an adjustment to the American League East but still, that’s pretty good for a third starter. Clemens pitches best in the heat of the summer. In July he has a career ERA of 2.85, in August he as an ERA of 3.17 and in September he has one of 3.29. The addition of Clemens also moves Mussina down in the pitching rotation.
Mussina’s control has been good this year, allowing just over 2 BB/9 but he simply isn’t fooling many batters like he did early last year. Mussina’s allowed 26 hits in 22.1 innings and opponents are hitting .299 against him. Even Joe Girardi admits that the Yankees probably see the same Mussina they saw last year as his age begins to catch up to him. But Mussina is the 4th starter. If the Yankees get an ERA under 4.50 from Mussina it will be a bonus from a 4th starter in the American League. Such a performance is well within Mussina’s capabilities.
Finally, the Yankees rotation will likely be rounded out by Phil Hughes. While Hughes has rather limited major league experience he has showed quite a lot of potential for success at the major league level. He allowed 4 runs in 10.2 innings of work for the Yankees while maintaining a WHIP of 1.03. Oh yeah, and there was the no-no he was pitching before the hamstring injury. Hughes could easily be the best bottom of the rotation starter in the entire league. Momentum starts and ends with tomorrow’s starting pitcher and if the Yankees could get all 5 of these starters together and healthy, they’ll be capable of extending winning streaks.
2. 12 Games Remain – The Yankees will still match up with the Red Sox 12 more times this season. While no one expects them to win all those games, it will give them plenty of opportunity to make up some ground. A sweep or even a tough series win could create a shift in momentum. And if the Red Sox go into a Yankees series later this year with some injuries, it could completely change the dynamics of the division as the 5 game sweep did last year. There’s still plenty of baseball to be played.
3. It’s Been A While – It’s been 12 years since the Red Sox last won the American League East. It is traditionally a league that the Yankees have dominated, having won it 11 of the past 13 years. Over that span, the Red Sox have won the division just once. The Yankees often get off to slow starts at the beginning of their seasons and they almost always turn things around. Former Yankee Tino Martinez has criticized the current Yankees team for not taking their at bats seriously and not caring as much as they should.
The Yankees offense got off to a blistering start at the beginning of this season but then cooled off when they didn’t see results in the standings. If they’re given a reason to care, they could easily slip the switch right back on. Haven’t Torre’s closed door meeting become an annual occurrence? And haven’t the Yankees looked like a completely different team once their veteran manager encourages them a little bit? The Yankees already lead the league in runs scored. What could they be capable of when motivated?
4. Trade Deadline – The Yankees are still owned by George Steinbrenner. Like it or not, he doesn’t care how much it costs, he will improve his team at the trade deadline. Last year it was Bobby Abreu that gave the Yankees a newfound fire. This year it could be a bullpen arm or two to protect the starts of a good Yankees rotation. Or it could even be a young, athletic bench player that gives this team some excitement the way Melky Cabrera did last year. The Yankees are kind of like a slumbering giant in that while they are kind of blundering through the season right now, they are capable of great things. It’s a team with a lot of talent and potential and it could be anything that wakes them up this year.
5. Blue Jays – While the Yankees are often considered the only “real” competition for the Red Sox in the division, don’t forget about the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays have had quite a few problems of late, so much so that they’ve become a bit of a punch line among baseball fans. Still, they’re only half a game behind the Yankees in their chase for the Red Sox. The Blue Jays have shown some signs of life lately and they will be getting many of their guys back. B.J. Ryan could be out the entire season but the Blue Jays have some good options to replace him and could always go outside of the organization to replenish their bullpen.
Roy Halladay is one of the best starters in the American League and he can pitch deep into games. A.J. Burnett may be turning things around as well. He’s provided the Blue Jays 3 quality starts in a row and in his last start he went the distance, allowing only three hits and one run. The Blue Jays finished second in the division last year and they’re fully capable of doing so again this year.