While watching the Yankees just dismantle Roy Halladay, the thought occurred to me:

"The Phillies stink. Who, besides the Rays and Red Sox, is going to give the Yankees a hard time?"

Now, first of all, I don't think the Phillies REALLY stink. Although, this has been a really bad stretch. But it did make me wonder if the talent gap is even greater than in past seasons.

As we stand here today, approaching the 40-percent mark of the season, six of the 30 teams have winning percentages at .400 or lower, and two - the Yankees and Rays - are above .600. At this juncture last season, there was one .400-or-lower team and two above .600. In 2008, there were four awful teams and two great teams (using .400 and .600 as the respective boundaries).

So what's going on here? We can't make too much hay, because of the small sample sizes. It will  be more interesting to compare the end-of-season records; in '09, we wound up with one great team and three terrible ones, with the same ratio in '08.

One note of interest, though: Let's look to see where those six  sub-.400 teams rank in payroll. We'll start from the top and work our way down, using the USA Today salary database from Opening Day.

13. Houston (25-40, .385) has a payroll of $92,355,500.

14. Seattle (24-41, .369) has a payroll of $86,510,000.

17. Baltimore (18-47, .277) has a payroll of $81,612,500.

24. Cleveland (25-38. .397) has a payroll of $61,203,966.

25. Arizona. (26-39, .400) has a payroll of $60,718,166

30. Pittsburgh (23-41, .359) has a payroll of $34,943,300.

So there are no spectacular flops, no awful clubs residing in the top 10. Yet we have three middle-class teams, in the Astros, Mariners and Orioles, playing like paupers. Whereas lower-class clubs like the Padres and Rangers are in first place.

Does it speak to poor management? Sure, in part. But of these six clubs, the only team I would describe as absolutely rudderless is the Astros. The other five have displayed at least some understanding of the basics needed to build a winning club. The execution just hasn't been there, whether it's the Mariners not hitting at all, or Brandon Webb not being healthy enough to pitch for Arizona, or too many of the Pirates' trade acquisitions disappointing.

One other thought: Baltimore (Jake Arrietta), Cleveland (Carlos Santana) and Pittsburgh (Pedro Alvarez, Brad Lincoln, Jose Tabata) already have started to call up highly touted youngsters, while Arizona, with its trade of Conor Jackson to Oakland, has signaled its intent to sell and go with its youth. You'd bet that at least some of those teams will improve, climbing over that .400 mark, with the influx of talent.

Meanwhile, elite clubs like the Yankees and Rays - the number one payroll team and the number 17 payroll team - can keep stomping through the morass of mediocrity and downright incompetence that inhabit their schedule. With the Red Sox, the number two payroll team, ready to do the same to make the AL East a superb race.

That's why I wrote my column about the Yankees having the luxury of patience when it comes to Alex Rodriguez and other banged-up veterans.

--Jim Baumbach spoke with Robert Molloy, one of George Steinbrenner's grandsons, who attended a Yankees community in the Bronx. I used to think that, when George Steinbrenner passed away, the Yankees would sell the team. I don't think that anymore. I think there are too many Steinbrenner family members who have a desire to be a part of the Yankees' operations.

Thanks to the base that George Steinbrenner built and that Brian Cashman, Randy Levine, Lonn Trost and the scouting and development folks maintain and grow, Hal Steinbrenner can oversee things and serve as a face of the franchise without too grueling a work schedule - and, of course, make a boatload of money in the process. As long as reasonable succession choices are made as time progresses, such a setup could continue for generations.

--Meant to mention in last night's post that the Yankees placed Sergio Mitre on the disabled list and recalled Boone Logan. Mitre injured himself taking batting practice on Sunday, which is why Joe Girardi made a crack about interleague play.

To which I respond: Tough. It's part of the game. If this becomes a recurring issue - and of course, the Mitre injury evoked memories of Chien-Ming Wang's baserunning disaster and Hank Steinbrenner's imbecilic response two years ago - then AL teams have to figure out a way to avoid it. Have the pitchers run the bases and hit all season long. Play simulated games. Do something.

--The Mets won again, and as they move further away from .500 and from their road woes, they ensure that ownership will pay for a starting pitching upgrade.

I'd bet against Cliff Lee becoming a Met. Ownership is going to be shy about giving up significant prospects, now that the farm system is looking better. And really, there's no chance that Lee would agree to sign a long-term deal with the Mets. He might as well pick out his 2011 Yankee Stadium locker right now.

So with that in mind, one of the usual suspects - Kevin Millwood or Jake Westbrook - would appear most likely. Both would be upgrades over Hisanori Takahashki, IMO, and such a move would strengthen the Mets' bullpen by returning Takahashi there.

--Carlos Beltran should return in July, Omar Minaya said. Also in this notebook, Jerry Manuel said that John Maine would return to the Mets' roster as a starting pitcher. We'll see if that comes to be, but the fact that Manuel would even suggest it - stipulating that Manuel says some crazy stuff - reminds us not to rush to conclusions. Back when Manuel lifted Maine after the five-pitch outing in Washington, it seemed reasonable to think that Maine would never again pitch for the Mets.

--Good piece by Tyler Kepner on Jamie Moyer and the Year of the Pitcher, in which Tyler cites the research conducted by NaOH in my story from yesterday. Tom Verducci and Joel Sherman also have offered their takes on this phenomenon in recent days.

--It appears that the Rangers' bankrupty hearing is going well for the team, Maury Brown reports, and that could lead to a quicker, cleaner ownership transition. I learned of this report because this might be the Year of the Pitcher, but it's the Millennium of Twitter.

--How about a book giveaway contest this afternoon? Sure, let's do it. And then I'll be at the Stadium tonight for Game 2 of this World Series rematch.




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