There’s this weird tradition wherein we refer to the season after the All-Star Game as “the second half” … even though we passed the actual halfway point in the season more than a week ago. So I’m not going to wait to preview the second “half” of the season, division by division, one day at a time.
First up: the surprisingly shockingly weak American League East.
First, there’s not a single move that any team can make that would immediately make it the division’s favorite.
Well, maybe one. The Blue Jays don’t have a great starting pitcher. The Orioles don’t, either. If one of those clubs were to trade for David Price, you might reasonably weigh the scales in that club’s favor. But that’s it.
The Blue Jays have black holes at second base – even when Brett Lawrie’s off the DL, he’s not good enough to play both positions – but there probably isn’t a pennant-deciding second or third baseman available. Unless you think Aaron Hill or Chase Headley is just itching to return to his brilliant form of yore.*
* The Orioles could use a second baseman, too!
The Orioles have a black hole in left field, thanks to David Lough. Or they would, except Steve Pearce has filled in admirably. Can’t count on that lasting for another few months, though. Josh Willingham might help some, even with his execrable questionable fielding.
We started with the Orioles and the Blue Jays because they’re the only A.L. East teams that haven’t been outscored. In terms of run differential, it’s actually not close. The first-place Orioles are +23, the second-place Jays +26 … while the fourth-place Rays actually have the third-best run differential (-27) in the division. Remember when the East was going to dominate the American League forever? Today that’s laughable.
Go ahead. Laugh. We’ll wait.
Sure it’s probably just a blip, a tiny moment in time caused perhaps by an unforeseen and unforeseeable rift in the space-time continuum. But the Yankees did miss the playoffs last year, and the Red Sox are headed for their second losing season in three years.
The Rays, of course, are finished. Essentially, they were finished after getting outscored 249-208 in April and May, during which they went 22-33. It’s difficult to recover from that, and they haven’t. Granted, the Rays are highly capable of playing better than they’ve played. The problem is that if you assume it’ll take 90 wins to reach the postseason, the Rays need to go 49-22 the rest of the way.
Which is incredibly difficult for any team.
Of course almost exactly the same can be said of the Red Sox, now a half-game behind the Rays. And the Red Sox, believe it or not, actually have the worst run differential in the division and the third-worst in the league. It’s difficult to dismiss a well-run team that won the World Series a few months ago, but why would we expect them to improve much? Some of their hitters and some of their bench players will improve. Enough for a great second half, though? And who’s going to rattle off a bunch of quality starts, aside from Jon Lester and John Lackey? The Sox were counting on Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz, and both seem almost irretrievably lost. I expect the Red Sox to fall well short because they’ll have just two-fifths of a championship rotation.
Now, about the Yankees … They’ve certainly got problems of their own. But unlike the Red Sox and Rays, the Yankees a) do have a winning record, and b) are actively trying to get better. Sunday, they beat the Twins to cross the border into Winningland, and they’ve also just acquired Brandon McCarthy and dumped Alfonso Soriano.
Good news for the Yankees: Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran are probably going to hit significantly better than they’ve hit. None of the key players on the roster are likely to hit worse than they’ve hit, with the possible (and mild) exception of Brett Gardner.
More good news: Brandon McCarthy is a hell of a lot better than his 5.01 ERA. Yes, his outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio is tempered by his home-run rate. And it’s even easier to give up homers in Yankee Stadium. Here’s the thing, though: McCarthy is a ground-ball pitcher! He’s just given up a lot more home runs on fly balls than you would expect. He’s also given up a .345 batting average on balls in play, which is awfully high (and out of character with the rest of his career).
Basically, McCarthy’s been ridiculously unlucky this season. Given the same performance and just normal luck, he figures as the Yankees’ second- or third-best starting pitcher.
So between McCarthy and Beltran and McCann, the Yankees might essentially be adding three really good players to their roster for the next few months. Try doing that at the trade deadline.
Go ahead. Try. We’ll wait.
Bad news for the Yankees: They’re not likely to get any real production this season from their second basemen, their third basemen, or their (singular) (All-Star) shortstop. And with Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda, and now CC Sabathia out for a long while, the Yankees have approximately zero rotation depth. McCarthy obviously helps, but the Yanks are still just one frayed elbow tendon away from a last-place rotation. Could they make a trade? Sure. But they don’t have any Grade A prospects to trade. Which probably means their best option is buying off someone’s big contract. Cliff Lee’s, for instance?
But that’s a $50 million commitment, at least. Even the Yankees (supposedly) have a budget, but if you’re going to spend $50 million over the next two-and-a-half seasons, you could do a lot worse than a (supposedly) healthy Cliff Lee. Actually, it seems almost inevitable that an aging lefty with brilliant statistics will eventually wind up in pinstripes. Probably not this month, though. I believe the Phillies will attempt to reload quickly, and that’ll be a lot easier with both Lee and Cole Hamels chewing up innings.
I believe the Yankees will make another move or two, but probably not something that will shake up the pennant race. Granted, last season they picked up Alfonso Soriano and he helped … just not nearly enough.
But the Yankees have a shot. Just not the same shot as the O’s and Jays. And of course both teams might wind up in the playoffs. The actual winner of the East might depend on which is more willing to trade a couple of good pitching prospects, but it’s significantly more likely to depend on which team gets luckier.