Figuring Out the A.L. East

 

The American League East is annually the most talked about division in all of baseball. While not always the best division, when you have big media markets and historic clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox, you’re going to get some big time attention. Throw in all the rivalries and the fact that since 2010 every team has at least one division title and you’ve got the premier division in Major League Baseball.

This year appears to be one of the seasons where the division actually warrants all of the attention. Entering play on Friday, only 6.5 games separate the first place Orioles and the last place Rays. The A.L. East is the only division where it’s this close from top to bottom. In fact the Cubs, Giants and Rangers all have at least a 6 game lead or larger over second place in their respective divisions. With all five east teams making their case for a run at a division title, we will break down each team in order of where they currently sit in the standings entering a big weekend of baseball.

Baltimore Orioles:

Randy Haines: My heart wants me to talk about how the Orioles are going to hit their way to the 2016 A.L. East crown and that it will not matter how suspect the starting pitching currently is, while my head is telling me “Dude, Ubaldo Jimenez is still on this team”. There’s a chance both sides are correct when it comes to the 2016 Orioles. Baltimore is currently fourth in the American League in runs scored per game, first in home runs, and second in team OPS. The Orioles relief pitchers are currently tops in the A.L. based on average WAR by position despite top setup man Darren O’Day missing time with a hamstring injury. As many predicted in the pre season, the starting rotation will make or break this season for Baltimore. Chris Tillman (2.87 ERA through 14 starts) is currently carrying this rotation and Kevin Gausman has been solid this season except when he pitches against Boston. He has an ERA of 11.00 in 2 starts vs the Red Sox this season, but  an ERA of 3.00 against the rest of the league. The rest of this rotation has been an absolute trainwreck to this point. Yovani Gallardo has been a combination of bad and hurt so far. Tyler Wilson has been nothing special (4.19 ERA, 1.12 WHIP). Mike Wright has been terrible (5.31 ERA, 1.48 WHIP) and also recently felt the need to take a shot at one of the league’s best power hitters Edwin Encarnacion. Wright would probably be the staff’s biggest eyesore if it wasn’t for Ubaldo Jimenez’s league worst 6.89 ERA along with his 13 million dollar salary for this season. As much as I would love to see the A.L. East crown back in Charm City, it is going to be very difficult unless the Orioles can get a one of their four struggling starters to step up or make a trade for a starter which is probably even more difficult to accomplish considering their current lack of talent in the farm system. Will they dangle former top prospect Dylan Bundy in any offers? That may be their only chance.

Sean Demetrakis: My co-writer makes a lot of good points, but don’t listen to him. I’ve never met a guy who says they are a “die-hard” fan and just rags on his own guys all day long. The first week of the season I was getting “Joey. Freakin. Rickard.” texts on a nightly basis. Now, the kid hits a little rough patch and he wants him on the pine for good. I’ll leave the rest of that rant for another day. Now on to the Baltimore Orioles. Your current A.L. East leaders have hit their way to the top of the division and will look to continue to ride the success of their bats. The team leads the league in home runs with 102 and have three players (Mark Trumbo, Manny Machado, and Chris Davis) among the top 10 league leaders in that category. This team is going to score and they are going to score in bunches. As Randy alluded to above, the Orioles starting pitching is no where near where it needs to be. The starting rotation has a better ERA than only 5 teams in the league and all but one of those teams is at least 10 games under .500. Their bullpen however, and especially the backend of the bullpen, has been lights out. Brad Brach is pitching to a 1.26 ERA in 29 innings of work, Zach Britton is 20 for 20 in save opportunities, and Darren O’Day, one of the best setup men in the league, has been sidelined since June 3rd due to a hamstring injury. If they can continue to keep pitching like this until Darren O’Day comes back fully healthy, this team stands a great chance at making a run at the A.L. East Crown and making a deep run into the playoffs with one of the best bullpens in the game.   

Boston Red Sox:

RH: The current top three teams in the A.L. East standings all have a similar make up; loaded lineups with a pitching staff they hope can do just enough to survive. The Boston Red Sox are currently atop the American League in runs scored per game, team batting average, team on base percentage as well as team slugging percentage. It is safe to say they have the best lineup in the league right now. Their team ERA of 4.19 (as of 6/16) actually ranks fourth out of the five A.L. East teams despite knuckleballer Steven Wright doing his best impression of 2012 R.A. Dickey and David Price is pitching like the ace Boston paid him to be after a rough April (5.76 ERA). Price has an ERA of 2.69 since May 12th. A lot like the Orioles, Boston does not have much going on after their top two starters. Rick Porcello has been decent enough, but his career ERA of 4.35 and an average of 5.9 strikeouts per 9 innings shows you that he is really nothing special. The group of Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens and Sean O’Sullivan have all made starts this season and have all been either bad or hurt and are showing little signs of turning it around. The difference could very well come down to if Boston decides to dip into their well stocked farm system and go trade for starting pitching help, a luxury they currently have over Baltimore. As much as it hurts me to say this, I am making Boston the slight favorite in this race, having a little deeper of a lineup than the Orioles and a much better farm system to help acquire talent at the deadline. However, nothing would surprise me in what should be a tight division race all summer long.

SD: Boston has built their strong start to the season in much the same way the Orioles have done. The Red Sox are scoring 5.89 runs per game, a run and a half more than the league average and just shy of a full run above the next highest scoring team. Their offense is lead by Mookie Betts, the 23 year old superstar in the making. Mookie leads the league in runs scored per game, is third in hits per game, and is fifth in runs batted in. Randy has a huge man crush on this guy. He named one of his fantasy baseball teams after the kid and last week when Mookie hit 5 HRs in 7 ABs against the Birds, I was hearing about it for what seemed like forever. Boston, however, has not been getting any help lately from their starting rotation either. David Price has not been himself since signing 7 year, 217 million dollar deal, Clay Buchholz has not been able to regain his form from 2013, and Eduardo Rodriguez is pitching no where near close to the pitcher the Red Sox thought they got three years ago when they received him as part of the Andrew Miller deal. Their one bright spot has been the knuckleballer Steven Wright. He has won his last six consecutive starts with an ERA of 2.81. The backend of their bullpen has also been underperforming. Craig Kimbrel has blown two saves, Koji Uehara has an ERA of over 4 in 24+ innings of work, and Junichi Tazawa has also had his struggles this season with an ERA over 3. If this team can get David Price back on track and if the backend of the bullpen can pick up the slack, this team will be able to keep the pressure on the Birds all summer.

Toronto Blue Jays:

RH: Man I am getting no love from my partner so far, but I can’t expect much from someone who has been backing Ubaldo Jimenez for the last three seasons. Anyway, the reigning division champions are not quite off to the start they had hoped for, but are not out of the race by any means. Like the O’s and Red Sox, the Blue Jays also built their team around star hitters and a staff they hope could just get them by. Toronto. however, has seen different results from Baltimore and Boston as they are currently just slightly above league average in runs per game, but currently have the third best team ERA in the American League. A team that has Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion will more than likely finish well above league average, I’m fairly confident of that. The issue is this is a lineup that outside of their all-star trio, does not pose much of a threat elsewhere. Outfielder Michael Saunders has played well to this point, but has never really been able to stay healthy throughout his career. Last season’s big trade deadline acquisition, Troy Tulowitzki is consistently hurt and has been terrible when he has played this season. I see Toronto as a slightly worse version of Boston and Baltimore, and could be in some trouble if their pitching staff regresses any as veteran starters Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ are both severely out performing their peripheral stats to date.

SD: The Jays have been looking for the same kind of success that the Birds and Sox have had with the lineup they have put together this year, but it just has not quite panned out the way they had expected. Led by the reigning MVP Josh Donaldson along with Joey Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, this team can put up runs with the best of them. Encarnacion and Donaldson are among the league leaders in HRs and guys like Michael Saunders have been stepping up and providing solid offensive production. Unlike the Red Sox and Birds, the Jays starting rotation has played a big part of keeping them within striking distance of the division. Their starters have the second lowest ERA in the AL at 3.66 and lead the league in WHIP at 1.20. Marco Estrada has kept opponents to a .168 batting average this year and J.A. Happ is leading the staff with 8 wins. The one spot the Jays need to improve on is in their bullpen. They rank 12th out of 15 teams in the AL and have blown 10 save opportunities. The Jays will keep things interesting for most of the summer and may make a push for one of the Wild Card spots, but I don’t see this team hanging with the Red Sox and Orioles without a strong bullpen.

New York Yankees:

RH: I am actually surprised the Yankees have as many wins as they currently do. They are currently last in the A.L. East in runs scored and have the highest team ERA. Give manager Joe Girardi credit as he does not have a lot to work with on this roster. One bright spot has been that starter C.C. Sabathia appears to have both his personal life and his career back on track with a 2.20 ERA so far this season. I actually feel bad for true Yankees fans, outside of ace hurler Masahiro Tanaka and the promise of top prospect Aaron Judge, what is there to be excited about with this team? And even that is not exactly the start of the next Core Four. As for other Yankees fans, at least Lebron made the Finals again and the Cowboys should win more than 4 games this year, so you have that going for you.

SD: The AL East appears to be shaping up to be a three team race, but the Yankees only sit 6.5 games off the lead with just under 100 games to play. This team has the potential for the best backend of the bullpen in the league. The three headed monster of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances can basically shorten every game to six innings. When any of these guys step on the bump, opponents are going to struggle to generate runs. CC Sabathia also seems to have returned to form after struggling the past three seasons with the team and Masahiro Tanaka continues to impress. Both Tanaka and Sabathia are holding their opponents under a .225 batting average. Offensively though, this team doesn’t put fear into any opposing pitchers. Alex Rodriguez is 40 years old and has regressed after his 33 HR year last year. He might need to make a trip back to Florida to see his doctor to get his numbers back up to where they were a year ago. Carlos Beltran is also 39 and holding off Father Time for now, but I don’t think he can carry this offense for another 100 games. I don’t see this team continuing to hang around near the top of the division for much longer and expect the 6.5 game deficit to grow as the summer wears on.

Tampa Bay Rays:

RH: No matter how much roster turnover the Rays have from year to year, they usually find a way to platoon and defensive shift their way into contention all while making as many in-game pitcher changes as possible. Tampa has the pitching staff to win this division after calling up top pitching prospect Blake Snell, making what was already a deep staff even better. The Rays annual problem again this year is they never seem to be able to score enough runs. One of the keys to turning their offense around could be outfielder Corey Dickerson who, after being acquired in an offseason trade from Colorado and after a brutal first two months of the season, has an .843 OPS so far in June. As a baseball nerd, I always enjoy following the Rays and enjoy the way their organization is run, but I just do not see them having enough to be a serious division contender this season.

SD: The Rays are the other team that look to be on the outside looking in on this division. Their pitching has not been up to the normal Tampa Bay standard we had been accustomed to the last few years. Chris Archer has not found his stride yet and is giving up an ERA of 4.61, Drew Smyly hasn’t seemed to find his stride either with an ERA of 4.75, and Jake Odorizzi has struggled over his last seven starts, going 3-2 with an ERA of 4.54. Their offense has been somewhat of a bright spot this year. This team surprisingly has some firepower. Stevie Pearce and Steven Souza are stepping up and contributing with the long ball with 9 and 10 HRs respectively. Corey Dickerson has had the power this year with 12 HRs, but has not been hitting for any kind of average. Evan Longoria continues to do what he does with 16 HRs and a .278 batting average. If Dickerson can get his offense turned around and the starting pitching returns to the normal Rays standard we have become accustomed to, this team could make some noise this summer.

Final Standing Predictions:

Randy:

  1. Boston Red Sox (hangs head in shame)
  2. Baltimore Orioles
  3. Toronto Blue Jays
  4. Tampa Bay Rays
  5. New York Yankees

Sean:

  1. Baltimore Orioles
  2. Boston Red Sox
  3. Toronto Blue Jays
  4. New York Yankees
  5. Tampa Bay Rays

-Sean Demetrakis and Randy Haines

Photo credit: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Sports

Statistics per Baseballreference.com and MLB.com

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