Yanks will need outside help to catch Boston

Originally Published: June 18, 2007
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

It's mid-June, nearly at the season's halfway point, and suddenly the American League East, which not long ago billed itself as the toughest division in baseball, is anything but.

Sure, the Boston Red Sox have the game's best record (44-24) as well as the biggest lead (8½ games) of any first-place team in either league.

But what about the rest? Only the New York Yankees are above .500, and it took a torrid nine-game winning streak to get them there.

Is the race over? Is there anyone other than the Yankees positioned to give the Red Sox a possible run for their (considerable) money?

"I don't see it," said one baseball executive from outside the AL East. "The Yankees have a shot because of their lineup. But the Red Sox's starting pitching should keep them out of losing streaks. Of course, if they have injuries like last year, anything can happen. But I'd say they're pretty safe [in terms of taking the division] right now."

Can the Sox be caught? A look at the rest of the East and their chances:

NEW YORK: It was less than a month ago that the Yankees were 14½ games back, and they've nearly halved that deficit with their recent hot streak. Surely, if they can wipe out six games in three weeks' time, they can erase the rest in 3½ months, right?

Maybe. Their starting rotation has been stabilized, but it must now remain healthy. That's not a given considering the recent track records of Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens.

Then there's the matter of their setup relief, which still issues too many walks and is susceptible to overuse by Joe Torre. Bullpen help might be available in a month, but it won't be cheap.

A rejuvenated Bobby Abreu will help the offense, but the Yankees aren't getting enough from hobbled Johnny Damon or, for that matter, anything at all from DH-under-siege Jason Giambi.

Thanks to their age, the Yanks currently field a lineup with players over age 30 at every position except second base and center field. Avoiding injuries will be critical, especially with a thin bench.

The wild card looks eminently reachable if their pitching holds up, but reclaiming their birthright (another AL East title) will be harder. Only six head-to-head games remain with the Red Sox over the final 95 games, meaning they'll need some outside help.

TORONTO: By everyone's estimation, the Blue Jays have done well to remain near .500 despite losing ace Roy Halladay for almost three weeks, closer B.J. Ryan for the rest of the year and No. 1 catcher Gregg Zaun for almost seven weeks. Lyle Overbay and Gustavo Chacin currently reside on the DL.

But more bad news arrived over the weekend: A.J. Burnett experienced shoulder soreness and likely is heading for the disabled list. That's exactly the kind of development the snakebitten Blue Jays didn't need.

Going into the season, the hope was Toronto could get close to 70 starts from Halladay and Burnett. That isn't likely to happen, and the offensive woes of Frank Thomas (.399 slugging) and Vernon Wells (.723 OPS) haven't covered for the pitching deficiencies.

The Jays are getting good looks at Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum, but that's emblematic of the issue at hand.

Contenders? Wait 'til next year.

TAMPA BAY: The Devil Rays may well be the American League's most athletic team, but that hasn't translated into enough wins and won't until the Rays can develop some additional starting pitching beyond Scott Kazmir and James Shields.

For the umpteenth season in a row, the focus is on the future. Injuries have taken out B.J. Upton and Rocco Baldelli, draining the Tampa lineup. When Baldelli returns, the Rays could auction an outfielder for some pitching help, but Baldelli is now viewed as damaged goods and trading their most valued commodity, Carl Crawford, would probably represent a step back.

Tampa Bay has already taken enough of those. Meanwhile, immense talent Elijah Dukes continues to be an embarrassment for the franchise. Seven games under .500, the Rays still have all 18 games remaining with the Red Sox over the final three months.

How soon can David Price get here?

BALTIMORE: To paraphrase former NFL coach Jim Mora: P-p-p-layoffs?

The Orioles would be better served trying to snap an eight-game losing streak, but they can no longer save manager Sam Perlozzo's job.

The pitching staff has been wracked by injuries (Kris Benson, Adam Loewen, Jaret Wright and Danys Baez) and the ace of the staff, Erik Bedard, has four wins in 15 starts despite a 3.64 ERA and less than a hit allowed per inning.

How bad has the run support for Bedard been? In each of his last nine starts, Bedard has allowed three earned runs or fewer, but has exactly one victory in that span.

The Orioles spent freely in the offseason to improve their bullpen, but what they didn't count on was having an anemic offense. The O's are second-to-last in runs scored.

Two regulars -- Nick Markakis and Melvin Mora -- have slugging percentages better than .425. Miguel Tejada has all of 17 extra-base hits and newcomer Aubrey Huff has contributed just four homers.

Playoffs? Hardly. At this rate, snapping the string of nine consecutive losing seasons would seem like a long shot.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

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