AL East division update: July edition

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(All stats as of Sunday, July 28th, before game time.)

Prognosticating the rest of the season in the AL East: it’s like betting on horses, only harder. We’ve seen comebacks from seven-and-a-half before, where the Yankees sit at this writing, and perhaps Alfonso Soriano will inject some magic back into Bronx baseball. And no one will contend that Baltimore is out of it at five games back, not with that offensive firepower. Tampa and Boston likely will both sail into the playoffs, but neither team is averse to the occasional late-season meltdown.

From the division that brought you the wildest final day in recent baseball history just two years ago comes another baseball-themed high-octane car chase into October. Buckle up for the ride.

First, let’s talk about Toronto. There was widespread disagreement when I pronounced that the poor Blue Jays were good as dead in my last update. Sure, on June 18th, the hopes of pending reinforcements were high, but no team—except, perhaps, the Orioles—can even make a run for the playoffs with such a hollow rotation.

They’ve dropped eight of their last 11 even with a healthy Jose Reyes. The culprit? Predictably abysmal pitching, as this skid comes even as the three-headed beast of Colby Rasmus, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista are all producing at top form. Vegas Insider has the odds of an American League pennant at 100:1 for the Jays. I call that generous.

It’s time for the Blue Jays to close shop until next year and count their losses (some $35 million in increased payroll). Mark Buehrle, the only pitcher on the roster on pace for a league-average season in terms of fWAR, should fetch something on the pitching-starved market. Josh Johnson may be worth a mid-level prospect. Someone’s hungry enough for a pitcher that they’ll pay, even with his long sheet of shoulder injuries.

Rajai Davis (club option next year) still can run, Adam Lind (club options next three years) still can hit, and Mark DeRosa (impending free agent) still can draw a walk. The only way to compete in the AL East is to plan ahead, and the Jays need to rethink their blueprint.

Next, let’s discuss the New York Yankees, slight laggards behind the pack of the three true contenders. To many, the Yankees’ lousy luck this season is poetic justice, payback from the gods after years of free agent monopoly and good fortune.

A total of 17 Yankees have hit the disabled list this season. Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and the perpetual headache, Alex Rodriguez, have played a combined 25 games. They command $84 million and change this year in salary. Jeter returned Sunday; Granderson should be a week behind.

At two-and-a-half back in the Wild Card race, the Yankees are too close to call it a year. But with four teams ahead of them in the hunt—two division rivals included—they are in an awkward limbo that ultimately may sting. New York began its deadline shopping with old fan favorite Alfonso Soriano, who will welcome the new, unfamiliar Yankee Stadium perk of the short right field porch.

And considering the recent PED developments around the game and a mysterious injury, expecting Rodriguez back and in form would be a stretch and a bigger stretch, respectively. A third baseman to split time with Eduardo Nunez would be a logical next step for Brian Cashman.

If the Yankees were, say, five-and-a-half back of Tampa Bay and Baltimore like the Kansas City Royals, they could explore what would be a booming market for Hiroki Kuroda, who signed a one-year deal this offseason. He’s looking Mike Mussina-like in his age-38 season, and the pitching market is not loaded with talent. Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte, and Lyle Overbay—all free agents next year—would be intriguing properties on the open market.

Alas, the Yankees needn’t all that much to spin correctly in the next eight or nine weeks for them to climb the mountable hill to a one-game playoff. But they’ll certainly want ace CC Sabathia to gather his bearings before that point.

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Potential Yankees Wild Card foes

The remaining three teams would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

Tampa Bay looks more and more like the favorite as the days go on, as the Rays have lost four games in all of July. Chris Archer deserves some credit, as the youngster has been absolutely dealing over the past month (0.96 ERA and 0.79 WHIP in this calendar month).

Still, he’s due for a big, fat regression from his recent performance. He’s sipped a cocktail of luck, managing to keep the balls from falling in play (.182 BABIP), the runners from scoring (89 percent left-on-base percentage), and the homers from flying (one allowed this month).

David Price has been Cy Young-ish in the same time span, but his peripherals for July beg the following question: is he finding his groove and regressing to the mean, or will his good luck turn bad once again as his defense fails him?

Wil Myers has been another instrumental cog in the youth ride. He was hitting .347 for the month going into Sunday’s play (a day during which he mashed two home runs), and his yearlong righty/lefty splits (perhaps the foremost concern with his minor league campaign) are hardly alarming. He could cut down the strikeouts against southpaws (29.7 percent), but Myers still is managing an .842 OPS against them, so how much can one complain?

All told, the Tampa Bay surge may be the confluence of a few talented players peaking at the same time. But after a handful of years of competing in the bloodbath of the American League East, they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Per WAR, the Rays have the best offense in the game, and they have depth (perpetually average major league regular Kelly Johnson, for example, isn’t playing every day). So by that logic, they were a pinch of top-flight pitching away from being World Series contenders. Now Tampa Bay looks like it could be the favorite to win the American League pennant.

And what of Baltimore? The Orioles are still mashing—the 33 homers they hit in July rank third to the Tigers and the Mariners—and Scott Feldman looks good in orange (3.52 FIP in his four July starts). Francisco Rodriguez, who seems to have ditched his temper and tempered his walk rate, is a welcome addition to the bullpen.

So what’s going on? The July birds have been lousy—a reversal of a long line of luck, might I add—in one run ballgames. They’ve gone 1-5 in the month in games decided by one run. Flip those numbers, and the Orioles would be a single game back of the Sox, and a half-game back of the Rays.

Their on-base percentage might be partly to blame for the weak outcomes in close games. Home runs don’t make the same splash without one or two men on base, and the team is reaching base at a .300 clip for the month.

Buck Showalter would do well to remind his boys of the virtue of patience: their 5.4 percent walk rate as a team in July is abysmal. Worst of all is Manny Machado (though his offensive fallout was predictable from a mile away), who has drawn two walks and struck out 21 times in his 108 trips to the plate in the past 30 days.

With a lineup scattered with All-Stars, a rejuvenated Matt Wieters, and a slashing designated hitter in Cuban Henry Urrieta, the O’s have the offensive firepower to make the playoffs. But a home-run prowess that sends scares won’t be enough to clinch a Wild Card berth. They’ll need passable pitching and close-game glory to achieve that.

Finally, we arrive at the Red Sox. The Sox, who ceded first place for the first time in months to the Rays on Saturday, haven’t splashed, or floundered, or floated. Inconsistent is the word that comes to mind: won four in a row, dropped three; won four in a row, dropped two more.

Some interesting tidbits from their month: they swept the worst team they faced (San Diego), (barely) lost a three-game set with the A’s (a possible one-game playoff opponent), went 2-2 in extra innings, and they were shut out four times.

More on the shutout business: though Jacoby Ellsbury (1.1 fWAR in the month) is carrying the offense, Dustin Pedroia—who was just extended for eight years and $110 million—has been nearly replacement level over his past 24 games, managing only a .240 average and a .287 wOBA. Jose Iglesias finally is falling flat (hitting .237 for the month), and Jarrod Saltalamacchia is doing approximately nothing at the dish.

Still, the offense, over the last month, rates 10th-best in WAR, fourth-best in batting average, and ninth-best in wOBA. In other words, the big guns are scoring plenty when they score, but the offensive load is not being spread equally. If Pedroia, Iglesias, and Saltamacchia can join the rest of the pack, and if Boston can replace one of the two lost closers (Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey are both goners), they also look like World Series material.

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Comments

  1. BenMarkham said...

    Good to see the rays doing so well against so many higher priced teams. Even when they were 4th in the division they were second in Baseball Prospectus’ first, second, and third order wins. The Yankees have been under .500 in those categories almost all year. Right now the Rays are first in second and third order wins but still second in first order wins, reflecting the Sox’s better Run differential, 90 to 73.

    With David Price returning to form, Cobb on the way back, and the addition of another good bat in Myers, the Rays look like a lock to at least make it to the wild card game. And right now they’re showing that they can win the division.

    I’m a Cardinals fan first but it sure is fun to root for the Rays, one of the best run organizations in the game.

  2. Rockets Redglare said...

    Definitely agree about the Rays’ organization.  They regularly pull rabbits out of a hat and Maddon knows just what to do with them.

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