Tough task for Sawx, Yanks, Rays: win MLB's best division
The AL East race is so close, it will come down to a few key decisions
Rays need to shake things up; Red Sox, Yankees might do well to stand pat
That the American League East is the best division in baseball is a truism. That obvious fact distorts our picture of the state of play entering the second half like a black hole swallowing all near light.
Consider, for instance, that by all conventional measures, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the best team in baseball. They own the best record at 56-32 while outscoring opponents by 105 runs, the largest margin in the sport. You can't do any better than that.
But the Dodgers are not the best team in baseball. They likely wouldn't be the third best in the AL East. Their gaudy winning percentage is based mainly on a 30-12 record against the National League West, probably the worst division in baseball. Against all other teams, the Dodgers are 26-20.
The Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees, by contrast, have run up the second-, third- and fourth-best run differentials in baseball, while playing each other and the Toronto Blue Jays. If these aren't the three best teams in the game, they're close -- and yet, given the vagaries of the unbalanced schedule, there could well be only one playoff spot for the three of them.
That vastly magnifies the impact of anything the three teams might do between now and the trade deadline. One false move could cost a pennant; one brilliant one could win it. And aside from that narrow margin, executives for the three teams are faced with another, slightly less obvious problem: When you're this good, it isn't easy to get better.
As much as Yankees fans might grouse about the back end of their pitching rotation, or Rays fans about the subpar production they've had from their designated hitters, none of these teams have any simple way to improve. Their weaker spots are nearly all filled by players who are either too established and expensive or too young and promising to replace. That doesn't mean they can't get better. But it means they'll have to either be creative -- which can in practice mean being stodgy -- or risk hurting some feelings.
Six-and-a-half games out of first and 3.5 out of a wild-card spot, Tampa Bay is the team that most badly needs to do something. Luckily for them, they may be the one most capable of doing it. Mild rotation issues should sort themselves out: If Scott Kazmir proves ineffective on his return from injury, or David Price continues to walk six men per nine innings, the Rays can try out passable substitutes like Andy Sonnanstine or prospect Wade Davis, who has little left to prove in Triple-A. And as noted, the team will just have to live with DH Pat Burrell, who has at least been hitting tolerably if not well for the past three weeks. But they do have one spot where they can easily improve: catcher.
Dioner Navarro is 25 and has done far too much in his career for Tampa Bay to give up on him, but facts are facts: Of the 66 major league catchers who have at least 50 plate appearances this year, Navarro ranks 64th in OPS with a miserable .223/.254/.332 line. No team in a race with the Red Sox and Yankees can tolerate a void like that in the lineup, and the Rays shouldn't when there are solutions at hand. Uninspiring as he may be, for instance, the New York Mets' Brian Schneider will be worth perhaps a win more than Navarro over the rest of the season assuming each plays as he has to date. Given that the Mets just shipped out the Schneider-like outfielder Ryan Church in exchange for Jeff Francoeur, maybe the worst regular in the majors, in a move that signaled they're tacitly giving up on the season, one would think a random live arm from the Rays' deep system would be enough to land the reliably mediocre veteran, a free agent after this year.
Of course everything is magnified for them since they live in the self-styled center of the universe, making the odd bad start seem like the end of days, but the Yankees really don't have many issues. Every position is taken up by a perfectly respectable player, and their bullpen has stabilized since Phil Hughes has emerged as an untouchable reliever. They don't have a steady No. 5 starter now, but few teams do. Their best strategy is probably to ride things out and hope their players perform well.
Short of that, though, the Yankees would probably benefit less from a trade than from a move -- in this case, moving Hughes back into the rotation. As wonderful as he's been in 13 games in relief this year, allowing less than a run per nine, that success is mainly predicated on an unsustainably low opposition batting average (.115 as a reliever, against .276 as a starter). Hughes isn't walking all that many fewer men than he did as a starter, or striking that many more out, and given his pedigree as a starter it would probably be worth seeing if the confidence he's gained in relief will carry over to the rotation.
On the other hand, it might not be worth it. While it may not be what the ravenous hordes want to hear, sometimes doing nothing is doing something, and in this case it may be the best possible thing to do.
The Red Sox are likely in the best shape of all here. Not only are they in first place with no enormous weakness, the slight problems they do have are easily fixed. Boston's bench hasn't been tremendous this year -- just as an example, their pinch-hitters have combined for a .499 OPS -- and their various aging corner players such as J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell are going to need some time off down the stretch. Basically, they need a caddy who can play multiple positions, giving the regulars some rest and serving as a situational threat when he isn't starting. The market isn't quite flooded with such players, but Colorado's Garrett Atkins, a third baseman with modest experience at first and in the outfield, and Baltimore's Aubrey Huff, who can play all four corners without killing his team, are both reportedly available and would doubtless fetch less than, say, Roy Halladay.
Landing such a player would send no one into paroxysms. But as anyone who recalls the 2004 Red Sox shipping Nomar Garciaparra abroad could tell you, sometimes the moves that most help a team don't.
Tim Marchman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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