Refreshed and reloaded after a two week vacation spent wandering around in Pennsylvania, I'm going to lead you on a guided tour through the psychadelic world of major league baseball, division by division. We'll start with the AL East, because as you know, it's the only division that really matters to us east-coast-biased media types. Well, actually, who are we kidding? We couldn't care less about the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Devil Food Cakes, or whatever. We really only care about the Yankees and Red Sox, right? Well, no; actually, I have plenty in the cannon for the Three Stooges of the division too, but it turned out I had so much to say about the two Evil Empires that we'll just talk about them today.
First, the Standings:
|Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Toronto Blue Jays
Tampa Bay D-Rays
So as we can see, the Red Sox have zoomed out of the gate and built an early lead, but the Yankees are still stalking them from... wait, what's that? You claim the Yankees are actually 13.5 games back of the Red Sox, not 5.5? Well, that's only because I tricked you and showed you the Pythagorean standings instead of the real standings. Why? Because they demonstrate a really important point: The Red Sox aren't really that far ahead of the rest of the division. They've been lucky, and the rest of the division has been unlucky. You can't take their 10 game cushion away from them, but you can observe that the Yankees and Orioles aren't that far behind them.
A quick team-by-team overview, now, shall we?
BOSTON RED SOX (36-16, 34-18 Pythagorean)
No matter how you slice it, so far the Red Sox are the best team in baseball. How are they doing it? Why, by riding the super-charged bats of their twin sluggers extraordinaire, a lefty and a righty whose awe-inspiring brawn strikes fear into the heart of pitchers all over the American league, two hitters bashing their way to lines of .354/.427/.561 and .330/.386/.573. I refer, as you no doubt instantly recognized, to the awesome duo of Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis. Oh, and that fat gap-toothed guy is slugging .580 or something, too. The space cadet's not doing so hot, but we'll come back to him in a moment.
First, Youkilis and Lowell. This is Reason #1 to suspect the Red Sox are going to regress as the season goes on: I'm a card-carrying member of the Greek God of Walks fan club, but I don't think even Kevin Youkilis' mother thinks he's going to hit .354 all year, and Mike Lowell is, oh, 40 points over his career high batting average (70 over his career mark) and 70 points beyond his career-best slugging percentage. Credit the Red Sox for picking him up in an alleged salary dump; the Marlins supposedly insisted on the Red Sox taking him in the Beckett trade, which honestly should be known as the Lowell trade, at least so far.
Space cadet Manny's hitting .269/.356/.456, and given his age and recent decline, I'm not so sure that isn't about his true ability level these days. The batting average is 30 points lower than he's hit in his life, so he should be able to tick it up to something like .285/.375/.480, but that might be about it. And considering his flight-of-the-bumblebee renditions in left field, I'm not so sure that's an especially valuable player.
Most everyone else on the team is hitting about what we'd expect them to. Alex Cora won't sustain .361/.500, Pedroia might not quite sustain .394/.433, and Julio Lugo, while certainly a bad idea to begin with, probably isn't quite so bad as .291/.340 (ouch!) And we won't even talk about J.D. Drew, OK? So, the Greek God of Walks and Mike Lowell are going to decline significantly, but there's at least room to hope for improvement from guys like Lugo and Drew and the so far god-awful Coco Crisp.
I'm about out of space for these guys, so here's a whirlwind tour of their pitchers: Josh Beckett's current 0.31 HR/9 isn't sustainable, and the ERA will come up along with that stat; Curt Schilling's doing about what you'd expect him to; this is looking like a good Tim Wakefield year, which is a very fortunate thing for the Red Stockings; the Freddy-Kreuger-as-a-starter thing isn't really working out; Joel Pineiro is finding it difficult to make a living with 3.86 strikeouts per nine; Daisuke Matsuzaka ain't no Cy Young candidate, but he is taking the ball and gobbling up innings. He'll improve somewhat.
But the biggest reason why I'd worry if I were a Red Sox fan (I'm not, thank heavens) is how scary good their bullpen's been. We know Jonathan Papelbon's good, but is Hideki Okajima really this good? Can we expect quality work out of Brendan Donnelly and J.C. Romero all year? If a couple of those guys decline – which is likely – the Red Sox are going to start losing some close baseball games, and that's before we discuss the fact that Joel Piniero and Mike Timlin are still gainfully employed.
Bottom line, like last year's Tigers, the hot start has staked the Red Sox to a lead that will prove difficult for even them to blow, but they're unlikely to sport the best record in baseball at year's end.
NEW YORK YANKEES (22-29 actual, 28-23 Pythagorean)
The good news: The Yankees have been the unluckiest team in baseball so far this year. Being 6 games under your Pythagorean at this point in the year should be impressive. Put another way, the Yankees have outscored their opponents 268-244, despite which they're 7 games below the Blue Jays Line (called “.500” in some quarters.)
Now, the bad news: They won't be getting those 6 games back, and a 12 game deficit is sort of tricky to pick away at. Let's do a laundry list of positives and negatives here...
- Jason Giambi is a good bet to remain injured most of the year.
- Hideki Matsui really isn't that good anymore.
- If Darrell Rasner is the third-best pitcher on your staff, that means Darrell Rasner is the third-best pitcher on your staff.
- The good relievers (and a couple of the bad ones) are being worked so hard their arms are going to explode in a spectacular spray of blood and gore sometime in July or August.
- This is a delicate subject, so I'm going to whisper it very softly... Mariano Rivera might be done.
- Mike Mussina isn't doing anything to suggest he hasn't entered the Orel Hershiser circa 1999 portion of his career.
- It turns out Phil Hughes has a grade 3 ankle sprain, which is, um, bad. He's out until at least mid-August, and might be gone for the year. Alas, Phil, we hardly knew thee.
- It turns out Kei Igawa graduated with honors from the Hideki Irabu School of Zen, Pitching and Fleecing the Yankees. I'm guessing here that the Japanese team they paid twenty-some million dollars to for Igawa has already deposited the check.
- They still don't have a first baseman and are growing sufficiently desperate that they may wind up talking themselves into Todd Helton's corpse.
- Just what the hell happened to Bobby Abreu? Dude, get this: He's slugging .289!! Brad Ausmus is a better hitter than him! I don't know what to say! My central nervous system is about to explode! EeEYAAAAAAaaaAAArRGGGHHHH!!
- Any way you want to slice it, if Miguel Cairo's wearing your team's uniform and he didn't buy it at Foot Locker, you have a problem. And let's not even talk about Doug Mientciewicz. I'm not even going there.
- Just who the hell is Wil Nieves, and just what the hell is he doing in the major leagues?
- Carl Pavano's Yankees career appears to be over.
- Alex Rodriguez is in a contract year and is a near-guarantee to be the best player in baseball throughout the year.
- The aging cornerstones, Cap'n Derek and Jorge Posada, have decided to continue being themselves for 2007. Posada in particular has been playing out of his mind.
- Andy Pettite's K/BB is uninspiring, but he's not giving up hits and not giving up any home runs, making him one of the AL's best pitcher's so far.
- Tyler Clippard looks goooood.
- Chien-Ming Wang is still Chien-Ming Wang, if a little less often.
- They have some big husky kid pitching in the minors right now that's supposed to be pretty good.
- Mariano Rivera has actually pitched quite well this year, with a 9:2 K/BB ratio. He's just been unlucky. He'll come around.
- Luis Vizcaino can't possibly stay this bad.
- Robinson Cano can't possibly stay this bad.
- Bobby Abreu can't possibly stay this bad.
- Kei Igawa can't possibly stay this bad.
- Brian Bruney, Scott Proctor, and Mike Myers are all standing on their heads. The Yankees still have hope of fielding a good bullpen going forward.
- Carl Pavano's Yankees career appears to be over.
So put all this together, and what do you have? There's a part of me deep down inside – this is the part that's responsible for making 2007 the 13th consecutive time I have picked the Yankees to win the World Series – that not only suspects, but knows the Yankees will catch fire in August and run down the Red Sox by mid-September, subjecting us all to the usual round of “THE YANKEES ARE TEH BEST TEAM EVAR!!!” stories (fun fact: For years, media outlets have simply been running the previous year's Yankees stories. No new ones have been written since 1999.) After all, Mussina will probably come around, and Clemens is arriving, and Clemens-Wang-Pettite-Mussina-Rasner-Clippard is a pretty sweet starting rotation, right? And the bullpen guys are a little overworked, but they've been pitching lights-out. And Bobby Abreu can't possibly stay this bad. And you know they'll trade for somebody at the deadline, right?
- You know how brilliant experts like myself were predicting the Yankees would field a frighteningly powerful offense this year? Do you know who currently ranks 8th on the team in offensive VORP? Tyler Clippard!
That's what I'm hearing from the Paranoid-About-The-Yankees sector of my brain. But the more I look, the more I suspect the Yankees are really just the 87-win team their Pythagorean record suggests they are, and luck could swing them up over 90 or down around .500 for the year. The pitching staff is precarious, comprised of really old guys and really young guys, and something's going to go wrong with at least one or two of them. Giambi and Damon and Matsui are all declining at various paces. And there's no depth. A serious injury to Posada or Jeter would kill them. Looking at this team objectively, rather than with the assumption that twelve years of dominance breeds in you that they'll take off later in the year like they always do, you see a team that doesn't look like any better a bet to put it all together than the Tigers or the Brewers or the Diamondbacks.
The Yankees are going to finish closer than 12.5 games to the Red Sox. I'm feeling something like Red Sox at 94 wins, Yankees at 89. That many wins isn't likely to get you a wild card (though it could, if the Tigers collapse and the Twins are generous enough to continue employing Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz). Remember, though, the Yankees won only 87 games in 2000 – and won the World Series anyway. All you need to do is catch enough breaks to make it in. Here's a fact we shouldn't forget, too: the runs scored/allowed data says the Yankees are the sixth-best team in the AL right now, after the Red Sox, Indians, Tigers, Angels and Athletics (yes, the A's have also been significantly unlucky, even apart from the injuries.) The race is likely to stay between those six teams all year, two from each division. The Yankees have as good a shot as any of those teams to reach the playoffs. But we can't argue any longer that they're a better team than the Angels or Twins. They might not be.