The American League East lead has flip-flopped between the Red Sox and Yankees on nine occasions since the last week of May. Neither team has held a lead of more than three games. While the existence of a wild card has sapped some of the drama from their race, it is, historically speaking, one of the closest battles in which the two rivals have ever engaged.
The margin for error will, in all likelihood, remain very small until the final week of the season, or even the final day. With that in mind, having just one play made by the last guy on the bench could have a lasting impact. And that last guy on the bench could be in the minors right now.
Indeed, September call-ups are a few days away. As Boston and New York get ready for a sprint to the finish line, we look at five names that could help both teams in the final month of the regular season. Remember, any player called up has to be on the 40-man roster by that date, but being on the roster does not mean that one will be called up. The organization must balance a player's preparedness, his health, whether he can truly help the team and if he is headed to fall or winter ball, which is more pressing for pitchers on an innings limit. Not every player makes an impact, but in a tight race, it may just take one moment to have an effect.
1. Ryan Lavarnway
He's already here, the replacement when Kevin Youkilis went on the disabled list, so there won't be any need for a phone call to Pawtucket to keep Lavarnway around in September. He has already shown his ability to handle the bat, something that comes as no surprise given the numbers he put up in the minors.
Lavarnway's presence can have a twofold effect. As a player who needs to improve defensively, he will gain plenty from just being around Jason Varitek, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and bullpen coach Gary Tuck. He also may make a few appearances behind the plate late in routs, as he did Wednesday night, which can give the other two catchers a tiny break here and there.
As a hitter, he won't see many starts, if any, but if you need a home run late in a game and a lefty is on the mound, here's a great option.
2. Felix Doubront
It's been a frustrating campaign for the oft-injured lefty, but the organization still sees an ability to be a solid major league pitcher. And in a Red Sox bullpen that has lacked a consistent shutdown presence from the left side, Doubront could gain an important role. His recent slump (11 earned runs allowed in four innings over his last two starts) signals some cause for concern. Keep a close eye on the results of his start Friday against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
3. Jose Iglesias
The defensive whiz got a taste of the bigs earlier this year and seemed to fit in just fine. He can roll out of bed and be a late-game defensive replacement, something which could pay off for a team that may want to rest guys like Marco Scutaro, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia if any of the playoff scenarios are locked up.
Iglesias remains a work in progress at the plate. He is batting just .197 (13-for-66) in August and .227 for the season. Do not expect him to deliver many game-winning hits, but he might prevent one or two with his glove or score a game-winner with his legs, as he did in his second major league game back in May.
4. Kyle Weiland
If and when the Red Sox are locked into any playoff spot, and if that comes earlier than expected, guys like Weiland become incredibly valuable. As it stands, he likely will serve as an extra arm out of the bullpen, which is important enough. But imagine a scenario where the AL East is locked up with five days to go and all Terry Francona needs to do is get his postseason rotation lined up. That may require a spot start by someone like Weiland, or a lengthy relief session after someone like Josh Beckett throws two innings in an October tune-up.
Like others on this list, Weiland has his taste of the big leagues. This second opportunity will help him expand on what he already knows and perhaps be more of a major league factor in the next year or so.
5. Junichi Tazawa
Not far removed from Tommy John surgery, Tazawa, and the organization, does not want to rush anything with the righty. However, he is pitching so well that the club may want to give him a test and a springboard into what will be a very important offseason.
Tazawa has allowed two runs while striking out 15 in just 11 1/3 innings for Pawtucket. He was promoted to the PawSox after finishing up very strong at Double-A Portland. In 53 2/3 innings at three levels this year, he has 55 K's against just 14 walks. That kind of strike-throwing can be beneficial out of the bullpen. If Bobby Jenks, who is about to begin a rehab stint, has any further physical issues and Matt Albers continues to struggle, the club could use another right-handed option or two. Tazawa, as well as Weiland, Michael Bowden and Scott Atchison, will wait their turn.
Others to consider: Bowden, Atchison, first baseman Lars Anderson, left-hander Hideki Okajima, left-hander Randy Williams, outfielder Ryan Kalish (currently on DL).
1. Jesus Montero
The Yankees' Lavarnway, Montero could be the latest to cause a Jorge Posada issue. The 21-year-old top prospect has had a slight dip in his numbers this year, but there's no denying he can hammer the baseball, and he will get a chance to do so when New York faces some lefties down the road. Posada enters Thursday's play hitting .102 against lefties.
While the media may turn this into a firestorm, the Yankees could try to turn it into a golden opportunity for Montero. In the same way that Lavarnway can benefit from Varitek, Montero, who's been rumored to be a bit complacent at Triple-A, could glean something off Posada, who is no longer a catcher but at least has been through the wars as one. And if it makes the DH position that much stronger and gives Montero just the right exposure he needs to mature, then it's a win-win situation. Or is that win-win-win?
2. Dellin Betances
A 6-foot-8 right-hander, Betances has just recently been exposed to Triple-A ball. He has just over 30 innings before he hits his innings limit, so using up a few of those in some middle-inning relief could help spare a Yankees bullpen that has been great but also ravaged by some injuries.
Betances was a prime target in trade talks last month, but general manager Brian Cashman was reluctant to part with the promising righty. The 23-year-old has plenty of work to do; a rate of five walks per nine innings is less-than-appealing. Pitching in some low-leverage situations against major league hitters could do him some good down the road.
3. Manny Banuelos
Most of what was just said about Betances applies to Banuelos, but with one big difference. He's a lefty, and New York's bullpen has lacked that presence much of the year outside of Boone Logan. Not that Banuelos is going to get big outs in the eighth inning on Sept. 1, but he could face someone like Adrian Gonzalez in the sixth inning of a contest at some point down the road. Banuelos is also close to an innings cap, perhaps closer than Betances, so his call-up is no sure thing. Cashman may choose to let him finish up at Triple-A and then look to 2012.
Banuelos made an impression on the Red Sox in a start against them in Fort Myers this spring. After that game, the 20-year-old said, "I feel ready for this, man. I really do."
4. Brandon Laird
A young power threat that can play the corner infield spots, as well as the outfield, Laird would be a nice bench piece for Joe Girardi. He got into four games in a call-up earlier this season. With Alex Rodriguez coming off knee surgery and Mark Teixeira playing all but one game, the club could always use another option for a late-game replacement.
5. Lance Pendleton
Another arm that can spell some of those in the bullpen, Pendleton has something the other two pitchers on this Yankees list do not — experience at the major league level, albeit limited. In 14 innings earlier this year for New York, he posted a 3.21 ERA. Pendleton is 27, so he's not new to this whole thing.
Others to consider: right-hander Adam Warren, right-hander Andrew Brackman, outfielder Chris Dickerson, catcher Austin Romine.