Just one off-day remains before the start of the second half, and the start of what should be a three-team race for the ages in the AL East.

So much happened over the first 88 games of the season, and so much is expected to happen over the next 74, that it only made sense to talk to the voice of reason when it comes to the Yankees, Sweeny Murti, and find out what he thinks about this year’s club at midseason.

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Sweeny joined me to talk about what we have seen so far from the Yankees and what we might see the rest of the way in our final conversation of the first half in 2010.

Keefe: When I woke up last Friday, the first thing I found out was that the Yankees were close to acquiring Cliff Lee. As the day went on, they got even closer, only to have the deal blown and to watch Lee go to the Rangers. It was a devastating turn of events since the idea of having CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee at the front of the rotation had me ordering bottles by the dozen of Andre Champagne for October.

Many people thought that Lee to the Yankees would be too much or even “overkill” given the already star-studded roster. I was clearly not one of those people and even though I have been anxiously awaiting the debut of Jesus Montero, I could deal with the Yankees losing him given the depth of catchers in the minors. The Yankees would have gone from favorites to win the World Series to heavy favorites, and would have had a real chance to run away and hide in the AL East.

As you can tell, I am still disappointed by the non-trade, but at the same time I am happy that Lee didn’t end up with the Rays, but there is still the opportunity to sign him in the offseason.

Murti: For the last several weeks and months I thought starting pitching was not an area of need for the Yankees. I would have been shocked if they had pulled off this deal (which they essentially did, because the Yankees agreed to all the players the Mariners asked for). I would have been curious to see what the next move would have been (trade Vazquez, trade Burnett, Hughes to the bullpen, whatever).

I don’t think it was a necessary move to make, but I’ll repeat what one GM said to me last week when I told him the Yankees didn’t need Cliff Lee. He said to me, “Everybody needs a Cliff Lee!”

It goes against everything Brian Cashman has done the last few years, waiting for Sabathia and Teixeira to become free agents rather than deal for them, but the Yankees’ system has improved to the point where they felt they were covered depth-wise. The more I thought about it, the Yankees were doing a smart thing.

First off, it always hurts to lose some good prospects, but the Yankees have known how to do this for a long time. Over the last 20 years, how many times have the Yankees truly regretted trading away a minor league prospect? The Austin Jackson/Curtis Granderson deal is still too early to tell. Dioner Navarro? Juan Rivera? C’mon, the Yankees have no regrets about giving up these guys. Jesus Montero might be different, but weren’t Ruben Rivera and Drew Henson supposed to be once-in-a-decade prospects too? As good as Montero is, the Yankees felt good enough about evaluating their own catching depth and felt good enough to make the deal. The Yankees have been successful at the “who to keep, who to trade” game for a long enough time that I give them some benefit when they decide a prospect can be traded.

Second, two of the teams interested in Lee were Texas (where he obviously landed) and Minnesota. Both are teams the Yanks could face in October, and Lee has proven how dangerous he can be in a five-game series or seven-game series. Keeping him away from those teams would have had benefit.

I know this wasn’t the traditional “have need, fill need” trade, but despite whatever questionable players the Yankees may have brought in here over the years, they haven’t really been on the bad end of trades that involved prospects all that often. I think it was a gamble worth taking. When you can get Cliff Lee and not trade anybody from your major league roster and have enough depth where it doesn’t kill your system either, how do you say, “Don’t make that deal?”

Keefe: It would have been interesting to see what the Yankees planned on doing to cut down their rotation. In my mind, it would be a setback to put Phil Hughes back in the bullpen, and it would have made more sense to find a suitor for A.J. Burnett (would be hard given his contract and his limited no-trade clause) or Javier Vazquez (would have been a lot easier). Maybe that doesn’t sit well with Yankee enthusiasts who are too scared to say bad things about the players they root for, but I like to think of myself as a realist, and I don’t care how Burnett has pitched these last two games or how Vazquez has looked recently.

The truth of the matter is that neither of these guys can be trusted (forget Game 2 of the World Series and remember the other postseason starts), and it is scary to think of either one of them starting Game 3 or 4 in the playoffs. There is a lot of talk about Hughes possibly reaching his innings limit and ending up in the bullpen for the playoffs or late in the regular season. Maybe it’s crazy override Burnett or Vazquez given their experience, but right now I would want Hughes starting Game 3 for me in the ALDS rather than pitching the seventh or eighth inning.

Murti: We’re going to butt heads on the Burnett thing for a long time, because I think it is wholly unfair to “forget Game 2 of the World Series.” You forgive Andy Pettitte for getting hammered in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series, for losing twice in the 1997 ALDS, for nearly blowing Game 5 of the 2000 ALDS, and for getting shelled in the 2001 World Series, don’t you? You can’t just throw away Burnett’s good games because you don’t like him. He helped your team win the World Series, bottom line.

His inconsistency has been with him his entire career. I thought he had latched onto something that was going to make him a better pitcher and more consistent, but it’s clear to me that it hasn’t taken affect the way he wants it to or anybody else wants it to for that matter. When he has that focus he’s as good as anyone, but he just doesn’t always have it. The Yankees paid a lot of money and have a lot of time invested in the idea that they can make him better and more consistent. Clearly he’s not there yet, but you can’t just ignore the good games.

Hughes will have to deal with his innings limit, and yes he might find himself in the bullpen come September or October. That’s the reality of being 24. Haven’t we had this argument before too? He may very well be a guy you want to see starting a postseason game, but let’s ask you this way: If he started all the way through the postseason this year, would you be OK if he had a bad 2011 and hurt his arm because of the overuse like Mark Prior? Or would you rather have him pitching deep into postseasons for the Yankees year after year if it meant a bullpen role in 2010?

Keefe: I’m not saying I don’t like Burnett, but I think it’s important to remember all five of his postseason starts from 2009 and not just Game 2 of the World Series, which was the only game he won (even if he did pitch well in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Twins).

We haven’t had the Hughes argument before, but I don’t think there is an argument. I am a believer in innings limits and think it’s necessary. All I am saying is that I feel more comfortable if the team could find a way to limit him in September so he could start in October rather then be in the bullpen in October.

A week ago, the big story with the team was how bad the bullpen has been and I was on Greyhound.com searching for bus tickets to Scranton for half of the pen (they are more expensive than you think) and I was on Cot’s Contracts for the other half trying to find out who was owed what and who would be the easiest to get rid of.

Right now the bullpen problems have been masked by the great run from the starters and the offensive production from Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez that finally showed up. At some point in the near future the bullpen problems will become a hot topic again, so we might as well address them now. Let’s get Chan Ho Park and Chad Gaudin out of town … now.

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Murti: I agree the bullpen problems haven’t shown up as much lately. Funny how that happens when starters go seven or eight innings and the team reels off winning streaks.

I’m about ready to give up on Park too. What the Yankees saw in him just hasn’t happened, and he’s been given plenty of opportunities. Gaudin still has some value for me. He’s still a guy who can give you five innings if Pettitte’s back tightens up one day, if Sabathia feels a twinge somewhere or if the Yanks are losing 9-2 and need someone to suck up a few innings.

I know you want everyone to be throwing lights out in the bullpen, but if the 11th or 12th guy on a staff was lights out all the time, he wouldn’t be the 11th or 12th guy on a staff. Those roles are difficult to get consistency from. Their workload varies from sporadic to overused with little in between and they have to constantly try to pitch at the same level. It’s just hard to do. The ones who are good at it are closers and setup men. The rest just try to find it when it’s their turn to pitch.

It is still an area of need though, and I suspect the Yankees will get a few more bodies in here. I wouldn’t be too upset if it doesn’t happen before July 31. I will all but guarantee post-waiver deadline activity on relief pitchers.

Keefe: Joba Mania seems like it was a decade ago at this point, and I long for the days when Joba retired the side in order and whirled around the mound fist pumping like he was at Karma on the Jersey Shore. Joba has gone from the near-Mariano level of trust to the Chan Ho Park/Boone Logan level of trust, and whenever you think he has finally turned the corner, he puts up a performance like he did on Saturday night against the Mariners.

Joe Girardi is loyal to his players and says he is sticking with Joba as his eighth inning guy, and while I can understand Girardi not throwing Joba under the bus, I don’t understand how he can’t let someone else (other than Park or Gaudin) take a shot at becoming the 8th inning guy. At this point, someone else needs to be tested in that role, and though he has struggled at times, I think David Robertson should be given a few games to be the setup guy.

Murti: Joba has great stuff. It should translate into the late-inning role. He continues to run the ball up there mid-90s or higher, but his control and command are major issues, and it appears that repeating his delivery has become a problem. The Yankees have invested a great deal in Joba, so they will continue to work with him. The baffling part is how great he can look one night, like he did in Oakland, and then just a few days later blow up like he did in Seattle.

As I see it, one of the biggest things Joba needs to learn is how to keep things close when he doesn’t have his best stuff. It looks easy for him to blow guys away some days that it’s not even fair. But on the days he doesn’t have it, giving up three or four runs isn’t acceptable. Even in the Saturday night game against Seattle, there’s a difference between giving up one run and maybe going to extra innings and giving up four runs and going home with a loss. He’s had five games since May 16 in which he’s allowed at least three runs. Preserving the lead is foremost, but minimizing the damage would be nice too.

I still think the biggest problem Joba faces is trying to live up to 2007, and in many ways that’s unfair. He was facing hitters who had never seen him and was used very carefully, with the Joba Rules in place and never pitching back-to-back days. Now, as a full-time reliever for the first time ever in his career he has to learn how to be ready with his good stuff every time out and back-to-back days and three times out of four, etc. His arm should be able to handle it, but maybe mentally he’s not fully accustomed to it.

Whatever the case, and its hard to tell because Joba rarely gives great insight into the process, I don’t believe the Yankees “ruined” Joba as many are fond of saying. Whatever they asked him to do, they still asked him to pitch and get guys out. If he’s as good as we all believe, he should be able to do that.

Robertson is an option, but he had his problems earlier this season as well. The Yankees may find themselves in a position where they are forced to overpay for a reliever on the trade market. I still believe that there will be arms that get through waivers after July 31 as well.

Keefe: The trade deadline is still a couple of weeks away and we will have plenty of time to talk about what areas of the team might need immediate attention between now and then. Aside from the possible reliever you mentioned the Yankees might make a move for, and the possible top-of-the-line starter (Roy Oswalt or Dan Haren have been mentioned), where do you see the Yankees upgrading or making a move, if any?

Murti: I don’t think they’ll pursue Oswalt or Haren. I think they saw a unique opportunity with Cliff Lee and that prompted that near-trade, but I don’t think they feel an overwhelming need to add a starter. As for other help, I think they are in need of a right-handed bat for the outfield, someone who can spell Brett Gardner or Curtis Granderson against left-handed pitching. The Yanks have had a little more trouble against lefties this year than they did last year, although they handled them very well on this recent swing through Oakland and Seattle. I mentioned this about two weeks ago on the site.

Things will get interesting as we get closer to the deadline.

Keefe: Entering the season, I said the difference between No. 28 and a third-place finish would be how the aging Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera performed, and how The Bridge to Mariano would hold up. So far the entire Core Four have held up their end of the bargain, but the bridge has been another story.

Right now if I had to pick the biggest surprise and disappointment of the season through the first half I think I would pick Brett Gardner’s offensive production for the surprise and Joba Chamberlain’s bullpen troubles as the disappointment. Would you agree?

(On a side note … If Pettitte has been this good for the first three months, and is known as the best second-half starter in the game, how good might he be down the stretch?)

Murti: I agree on both Gardner and Pettitte. As for Pettitte, I would be surprised if Pettitte’s second half was as good as his first, despite past history. He even admitted Sunday that the Yankees have gotten a little lucky to not have a major rut yet for the rotation as a whole. I know Burnett and Vazquez have had some individual problems that we touched on, and even CC Sabathia had a short stretch, but Pettitte and Hughes have been superb. Maybe that’s the biggest surprise to me is that Pettitte and Hughes are All-Stars. I believed in Gardner offensively, so I am not totally surprised, although it is more than any of us expected.

The biggest disappointment to me would have to be the bullpen. As much as other problems have existed (Teixeira, Granderson, the bench) it seems that the only thing that’s kept the Yankees from really being better is the setup corps, and last year it was a strength of this team. Hughes had a lot to do with that, but the others were better too, and Park has been a big letdown. The Yankees can still win a lot of games and maybe make the playoffs with this bullpen, but the last 11 wins they strive for every year will be harder to get if something doesn’t change there.

Follow Neil on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NeilKeefe

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Follow Sweeny on Twitter at http://twitter.com/YankeesWFAN