Is it possible for a team with the best record in baseball -- a team with six straight division titles, unlimited resources and an all-star at eight of the nine positions in its batting order -- to be worried? If so, the New York Yankees may be exactly that.
Silly as it may seem on the surface to question the Yankees' championship prospects, imagining this team facing the Bostons and Anaheims of October is a far different proposition than watching it steamroll the Baltimores and Colorados of June.
Here is the take of one scout who has seen the Yankees frequently this month: "Their starting pitching is not that sound. [Jose] Contreras belongs in the bullpen. [Kevin] Brown is out for who-knows-how-long. [Jon] Lieber is up and down. Right now, [Mike] Mussina and [Javier] Vazquez are the only guys pitching well, and they both look beatable."
If you believe it takes three very good starting pitchers to win in October (or two exceptional ones in the case of Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson in 2002), the Yankees are at least one short.
There were two big questions hanging over the summer trading season, and now, with Carlos Beltran in a Houston Astros uniform as of Thursday, there is only one: What are the Yankees going to do?
One Yankees source this week acknowledged the need for a starting pitcher, but put that item second on the team's list of priorities, behind a left-handed relief specialist. And it's true: The Yankees need somebody other than Felix Heredia facing the likes of Boston's David Ortiz and Anaheim's Garret Anderson in the late innings of October.
So look for the Yankees to snag a lefty reliever in the coming weeks, and then fix their sights on Seattle right-hander Freddy Garcia, who has already professed his desire to be traded to the Yankees. The Yankees love Garcia, and they almost always get the player they want.
Sitting out the Beltran sweepstakes was a smart move by the Yankees. With Bernie Williams playing well, they simply had no need for an all-star center fielder (though that has not always stopped George Steinbrenner in the past), the Yankees are more likely to trade a center fielder (Kenny Lofton) than add one.
And besides, as one Yankees source pointed out with typical smugness, "We'll just sign [Beltran] in the winter."
And Past Their Prime?
Another bit of food for thought regarding the Yankees, prompted by Derek Jeter's turning 30 yesterday: Couldn't it be argued that of all their key players, only Vazquez and Alex Rodriguez clearly have their best years ahead of them?
Think about it. Brown is 39. Mussina and Williams are 35. Jorge Posada will be 33 in August, nearing the age when catchers start to decline. Lieber and Mariano Rivera are 34. Jason Giambi is 33 with a 40-year-old's knees, and probably won't make it to the end of his contract, which expires after 2008. If Contreras is 32 as he says, it is an old 32. Hideki Matsui is 30 and unlikely to duplicate his Japanese League numbers.
Jeter is a borderline case. His awful start this year made one believe he will never produce another season like he did in 1999 (.349, 24 homers, 102 RBI). But his June numbers suggest he is still capable.
One could also argue that Rodriguez, who turns 29 next month, is not likely to have any more seasons, numbers-wise, like he had in Texas, given the far more unfriendly dimensions of Yankee Stadium for right-handed hitters.
That leaves only Vazquez, who turns 28 in July.
One supposes Steinbrenner's money can always keep the Yankees not only competitive but championship-worthy. But it makes you wonder how long this gravy train can keep chugging.
Astros Take Their Shot
The Astros' acquisition of Beltran -- which cost Houston its closer (Octavio Dotel) and one of their best prospects (catcher John Buck) -- was a gutsy move on the part of GM Gerry Hunsicker, as well as an obvious indication that this is a win-or-else season in Houston.
With Roger Clemens on a one-year deal, and with the team holding options on Jeff Kent and Craig Biggio for 2005 that it probably will not exercise, Hunsicker made a move reminiscent of the one he pulled off in 1998, when he pried Randy Johnson away from the Mariners for three young players (including Freddy Garcia).
The Astros lost in the first round of the postseason that year, and there is still no guarantee they will make it even that far this year. They entered the weekend in fourth place, five games back, and two of the three teams ahead of them are legitimate contenders.
The St. Louis Cardinals have shot to the top of the division standings with a pitching staff that stands as one of the most pleasant surprises of the season, while the Chicago Cubs are still waiting to get both their young guns healthy at the same time -- Mark Prior is fine now, but Kerry Wood is still a week or so away.
The Astros also must be worried about their bullpen, which was compromised by losing Dotel. Brad Lidge should make a smooth transition to closer, but they don't have a comparable arm to replicate Lidge's excellent set-up work.
Schmidt Should Start for NL
Clemens is likely to get the honor of starting for the NL all-star team, given the sentimental value of seeing Clemens on the mound at Houston's Minute Maid Park, but San Francisco's Jason Schmidt has been the best pitcher in the league over the first half of the season. Schmidt, who has thrown two one-hitters this season, is 10-2 with a 2.43 ERA; opponents are batting .178 against him. . . .
Arizona's Johnson needs eight strikeouts to become the fourth pitcher to reach 4,000, with his next start scheduled for Tuesday night at Phoenix's Bank One Ballpark. . . .
Diamondbacks second baseman Roberto Alomar is healthy again after a two-month recovery from a broken hand, but has returned to find his path to the starting lineup blocked by Scott Hairston. So Alomar has asked the Diamondbacks to trade him. . . .
Barry Bonds has dropped Scott Boras as his agent and reportedly gone back to the Beverly Hills Sports Council. . . .
Former Oriole Jeff Conine is hitting just .175 with runners in scoring position this season for the Florida Marlins, and the team is considering calling up 28-year-old minor league outfielder Joe Dillon, who has hit a combined 25 homers at Class AA and AAA.
As he did last year when the Marlins acquired him from the Baltimore Orioles in August, Conine could make a good summer pick-up for some contender in need of a right-handed bat, although he is signed through 2005 at $3 million annually.