What to Expect From the AL East

As summer rolls on, two things remain a constant: the long, hot, humid summer days (at least in Baltimore), and the American League East.  This is always the toughest division in baseball as the Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays have to fight to contend with the Red Sox and Yankees, who can sign anyone they want to. But recently, with the resurgence of the Orioles and the Rays worst to first turnaround in 2008, the division has become a four team race and could turn into a five team fight to the finish. Here’s what to expect from each team in the second half of the season, as well as what has gone right and wrong so far. Note: All statistics are as of July 22, 2013.

Boston Red Sox (60-40, best record in the American League)

What has gone well: First year manager John Farrell has done a tremendous job with the Red Sox, who are fully removed from last year’s debacle. Farrell has relied on a solid offense which leads the league in runs scored (512), on base percentage (.349) and slugging percentage (.446). They also have a high batting average on balls in play at .331, 13 points higher than any other team in baseball. The offense has been led by a rejuvenated David Ortiz (.322, 19 HRs, 65 RBIs), Dustin Pedroia (.310, 6, 57) and Jacoby Ellsbury (.307, 4, 34, AL high 37 stolen bases). Mike Carp (.316, 8,27) and Mike Napoli (.258, 13, 62) have both contributed career years. Jose Iglesias has exploded after a terrible year last year, to lead the team with a .356 average.

What has gone wrong: Besides Clay Bucholz, who had a 1.71 ERA before going on the DL, the Red Sox have only gotten average production out of their starting rotation. Jon Lackey has been a pleasant surprise, going 7-7 with a 2.95 ERA but Ryan Dempster and John Lester have both been mediocre this year. Lester continues to struggle with a 4.58 ERA, well off his career number of 3.84, and his WHIP is above what it has been in his career. A dominant starting rotation is key to an October run and the Red Sox need to improve this area in order to make a long postseason run.

What to Expect: The Red Sox offense will continue to stay hot and this team will be in the division fight to the end. The pitching will improve with Bucholz’s return to the rotation and Uehara’s emergence as closer. Their run to the division gets tough this week as they have series against both the Rays and Orioles.

Tampa Bay Rays (58-41, first wildcard)

What has gone right: The Rays first four starters have been consistent this season, and they have some underrated pitchers in their rotation. Matt Moore has had a breakout season (13-3, 3.44 ERA) and Alex Cobb (9-6, 3.01) has lived up to expectations as well. Chris Archer has given the Rays another pitcher to already add to their staff, and has gone 5-3 with a 2.65 ERA in 10 starts, including a 0.91 ERA in his last four. James Loney has done surprisingly well this season batting .314 and has surpassed his homerun and RBI totals from last season. Wil Myers has performed well since being called up in late June.

What has gone wrong: The back end of Tampa Bay’s pitching staff has struggled this year, and Jeremy Hellickson has been a major disappointment. The 2011 rookie of the year has gone 9-3, but with a 4.62 ERA. Hellickson has had a lot of run support but his ERA is well above his 2.95 and 3.10 marks in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Some of this may have to do with his struggle against left-handed batters, who hit .273 off of him, as well as his 5.10 ERA on the road. Roberto Hernandez was a huge flop, and the Rays realized he isn’t much better than when he was Fausto Carmona. Besides the production of Jennings (.268, 11, 39,) and Wil Myers (.310, 4, 18), the outfield has not performed well as Kelly Johnson (.253), Matt Joyce (.240) and Sam Fuld (.198) haven’t brought consistent production to the lineup. Rodney is slumping after his unstoppable 2012, with a 4.04 ERA, a full three runs higher than last year.

What to expect: The Rays have won seventeen of their last nineteen and look to continue to stay hot as they head into August. Look for the rotation to get even stronger as David Price has been dominant since coming off the DL. One thing to look for is to see how Myers season ends, as he will need to make adjustments once teams see him a second time. The Rays have 22 games left against the Red Sox, Yankees and, Orioles, including a Sept 20-26 stretch of four against the Orioles and three against the Yankees.

Baltimore Orioles (56-43, second wildcard)

What has gone right: The Orioles have proved last year’s magical season wasn’t a fluke, as they have fought for a playoff spot all year. The offense has been the third best in baseball according to WAR, with a 17.8, and also has the highest slugging percentage (.446) in the majors. Chris Davis has had a breakout season after a strong September last season, already setting career highs in homeruns (37) and RBIs (94), and he’s on pace to set a career high in batting average as well. I could go on about Chris Davis for another 500 words or so, but Manny Machado deserves credit for his stellar season so far. Machado has managed to avoid a sophomore slump hitting .310 with 7 HRs and 47 RBIs, as well as 39 doubles, the best in baseball. Adam Jones (.294, 20, 69) and Nick Markakis (.280, 8, 44,) have had productive seasons, and Nate McLouth has solidified the leadoff role hitting .283, swiping 25 bases and scoring 55 runs. Chris Tillman (12-3, 3.84) and Miguel Gonzalez (8-3, 3.84) have maintained their performance after last year’s breakout seasons. Wei-Yin Chen (5-3, 2.84) has pitched great in his two starts back from injury, and the Orioles have gone 7-1 since his return to the rotation.

What has gone wrong; Even though the rotation has gotten better since Chen’s return, the rotation has had a rocky year with a 4.67 ERA. Jason Hammel (7-6, 5.24) has struggled after a career year last season, and during Chen’s injury the backside of the rotation struggled to stay consistent. They’ve had to plug in the rotation with Zach Britton (6 starts, 4.76 ERA), Freddy Garcia (10 starts, 5.77 ERA), and Jake Arrietta (5 starts, 7.23 ERA). They acquired Scott Feldman to boost their rotation but he has a 5.79 ERA in three starts so far. They have also struggled to get consistent production from second base (.233) and the DH (.214), but Brian Roberts has returned from his injury and has gone back to playing every day at second, starting to return to form. Jim Johnson has been inconsistent, as he leads the MLB in saves (35), but most nights he struggles to get a 1-2-3 inning.

What to expect: The Orioles have a tough second half ahead, as they have over 30 games remaining against AL East opponents. They gained momentum after a weekend sweep of the Rangers, moving back into the second wildcard spot. The rotation will stay strong with the return of Chen, who will help lead the Orioles back into October, and possibly a division title.

New York Yankees (52-46, four games back of the second wildcard spot)

What has gone right: Joe Girardi has managed to take a lineup of reserves and produced a team that is five games over .500. Lyle Overbay has been the strongest reserve batting .257 with 11 HRs and 43 RBIs, while Robinson Cano (.304, 21,69), Brett Gardner (.278,7,34) and Ichiro (.277, 6,25) have had exceptional seasons to keep this team in the hunt. The bullpen has been impressive this year as Mariano Rivera ( 31 saves, 1.78 ERA), David Robertson (23 holds, 2.01 ERA), and Boone Logan (5 holds, 2.05 ERA) have compensated for the lack of production from the lineup this season.

What has gone wrong: The Yankees have struggled to stay healthy, as Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Curtis Granderson, and Francisco Cervelli are all on the disabled list. Derek Jeter returned for one game before being put on the DL again with a strained quad, and Alex Rodriguez’s recovery was delayed by the same injury. The Yankees have produced their worst offensive numbers in about 20 years hitting .243 with just 88 home runs and a meager .308 on base percentage. CC Sabathia hasn’t been performing well recently and his ERA has risen to 4.37. With so many injuries, not much more can go right and this team could continue to drop in the standings, and could battle Toronto for last place.

What to expect: The Yankees need to hope that Jeter can come back to provide a boost to the lineup, but this team needs to get healthy.  But by the time they do it could be too little too late for the Bronx Bombers.

Toronto Blue Jays (45-52, 13.5 GB of Boston)

What has gone right: The Blue Jays offense has carried the load this year, making up for their lack of starting pitching. Edwin Encarnacion (.266, 26, 74, .533 slugging percentage) remains one of the best sluggers in the game after his 2012 breakout season, and has formed a feared tandem with Jose Bautista (.249, 22, 58). Adam Lind (.302, 11, 37) has contributed to the lineup again after 3 disappointing years following his best season in 2009. Jose Reyes (.318, 4, 14, 15 stolen bases, 32 games played) has performed well when healthy and Colby Rasmus (.265, 16, 49) is on pace to set career highs after flopping his first two seasons across the border.

What has gone wrong: The Blue Jays attempted to bolster their starting rotation in the offseason, acquiring Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle from the Marlins, along with R.A. Dickey from the Mets. Most fans thought these trades would bring the Blue Jays back into contention in the A.L. East and Vegas named the Jays the favorite to win the World Series. But the starting pitching has been disastrous so far, ranking 29th in the majors with a 5.14 ERA. R.A. Dickey (8-11, 4.75) has returned back to earth after a spectacular 2012 Cy Young season, and hasn’t been able to adjust to the tough American League hitters. Mark Buerhle (5-7, 4.83) is on pace for one of the worst seasons in his career, as he has struggled to keep the ball in the ballpark (16 HRs in 20 starts), and Josh Johnson (1-6, 5.66) has been awful in only thirteen starts and has regressed from last season. The Blue Jays now realize they will never get the dominant Johnson from 2010 (11-6, 2.30). Brett Lawrie, once a top prospect in the Blue Jays farm system, has been a phenomenal disappointment, hitting just .199, down from .273 last season. The Jays now have to settle for Maicer Izturis, who is hitting just .252 with a weak .295 OBP.

What to Expect: The road doesn’t get any easier for the Blue Jays, who haven’t sustained their momentum after their twelve game win streak in June. The team’s starting rotation needs to perform better if the team wants any chance of making the postseason.

The A.L. East is one of the biggest question marks in terms of which team will come up on top. Look for the Red Sox, Rays, and Orioles to emerge as the main contenders as the Yankees just aren’t healthy enough to contend. The division will come down to the final week of the season when the Red Sox have a three game set against the Orioles, and the Rays have to face the cellar-dwelling Blue Jays, and could overtake both teams to win the division.

-Justin Fitzgerald

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