AL East division update: Sept. edition

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Just a month ago, the AL East looked like a powerhouse, with two—maybe three—teams from the division cruising to the playoffs. Three weeks remain, though, and the picture is bleaker now for the Rays and the Orioles, both clawing toward a spot in the Wild Card playoff. Let’s examine each team’s path to September and hope for the future.

Boston Red Sox (87-58)

The offseason makeover for the Sox was thorough enough to make me a believer in March, where I saw them as a potential Wild Card contender. Some thought I was “optimistic to the point of trolling,” but it turns out the Sox had all the goods this year and then some.

Their offense has carried them through thick and thin and clocks in as the best in the league (per fWAR) by a long shot. Shane Victorino, exceeding all expectations in the midst of his career year, was one of four every-dayers to flirt with a .300 average. Jacoby Ellsbury is a perpetual headache on the base paths. And that’s only the top of the billing…

The one-two punch was in full form on Sept. 5 against the Yankees. The stats were gaudy, as they combined for five hits, four runs batted in, a couple of runs, two steals and a homer. But in the 10th inning of a grueling game, the pair worked their simple magic.

Ellsbury started things off with a one-out single to right—innocent enough—but promptly stole second after a few pitches. Victorino took some dangerously close pitches on his way to an even 2-2 count, was graced with the fortune of a missed check-swing call that was his third strike, and drove a ball to right center to score his leadoff man. And just as so, the Yankees were conquered.

Over the weekend, though, Ellsbury departed the Bronx before the conclusion of a four-game set with the Yankees to have tests on his injured right foot, which revealed a hairline fracture.

Though the Sox are 10-3 without Ellsbury in the leadoff spot, it would be tough to stomach a potential American League Championship Series match-up with the Detroit Tigers without one of biggest shakers on their team. His style is built for the playoffs: smart base running, steals, plus-plus fielding, and a compression factor could prove to be acid rain on the parade.

If there’s any tangential hope, it comes from the fact that the Sox have patched up holes well thus far. Two closers suffered season-ending injuries, and in stepped Koji Uehara to captain the sinking bullpen ship; and they’ve gone for months at a time without Will Middlebrooks (poor performance) and Clay Buchholz (injury) and survived, nay, thrived.

Tampa Bay Rays (77-64)

The Rays suffered through the last 30 days, scoring fewer runs (94) than the lowly Phillies (96) despite an average team offensive performance (99 wRC+). James Loney’s shine wore off in August, Wil Myers played like a tired rookie, and Desmond Jennings traded hits (.153 batting average) for walks (20.3 percent walk rate).

However, a couple of factors could work in Tampa’s favor in the coming weeks. Firstly, the Rays play a majority of their remaining games at home, where they are substantially better (a .629 winning percentage at home trumps their .465 mark on the road), and six of their nine remaining away games are played on turf.

The difference is larger than one would think: Tampa pitchers have an OPS against of .656 on their home turf, while they are taken to the tune of a .733 OPS against on the road.

Matt Moore should help, as he can take on some of the immense load shouldered by David Price over the past weeks. As Scott Miller of CBS mentioned, the Rays went 13-18 in the 31 games Moore missed.

Perhaps the improved pitching will kick the stagnant offense into gear, or absent a ridiculous cause-and-effect, perhaps luck will aid the Rays to a playoff run. Lest you forget, Evan Longoria—a constant (and healthy!) plus throughout the season (besides a slight snag in late August)—is no stranger to late-season heroics.

Baltimore Orioles (76-66)

Quick quiz: where would the Baltimore Orioles be without the extra 25-plus home runs they have on every other team? The answer, folks, is nowhere near the playoff race. The O’s mashed 40 homers in the last 30 days, six more than the cruising Red Sox, yet scored nearly 40 fewer runs.

Barely an average offensive club per wRC+, the Orioles nevertheless find themselves with a one-in-five chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN. Scott Feldman has been a big part of the reason why: he’s had five superb starts in the last 30 days, including a complete-game shutout this weekend.

Even if this year proves to be a painful taste of failure, the Birds are well positioned for next year. Brian Roberts finally will be off the books after an ill-advised four-year, $40 million contract; the money probably will be spread to Chris Davis, Jim Johnson, Matt Wieters, Brian Matusz, and Tommy Hunter, an impressive list of arbitration-eligible folks due for substantial raises.

And though Davis, at one point on pace for 63 home runs, might end up with only 50-some blasts, his power display is reason enough to keep tuning in. If the Orioles can continue hitting a few long balls each game—and if small pieces like the lefty-mashing Danny Valencia can do their jobs and keep the offensive cogs moving, against the odds—they might just weasel their way into the playoffs.

New York Yankees (76-67)

For a minute there, the Yankees looked like spoilers. Alfonso Soriano, donning the pinstripes once again, has ripped double-digit home runs in the past month. Mark Reynolds remembered how to hit in his new home. Alex Rodriguez indulged in what could be his last days as a baseball player, looking energized while stealing bases and hitting an occasional shot over the fence. And Robinson Cano played like an MVP for the past 30 days.

But Boston corrected the run in the four-game set that ended Sunday. It started off with a roller coaster: the Yankees scored six times in the seventh frame to continue the magical run of the weeks past, but Mariano Rivera, looking tired as he ever has, blew his sixth save. Later, a lousy check swing call allowed Victorino to plate the go-ahead run, and the wheels fell off.

Friday was more of the same brand of blowing it: the Yankees, after mounting an 8-3 lead, gave up a grand slam and then a home run in back-to-back innings. Phil Hughes, credited for allowing four base runners and getting only a single out, playing the role of the antihero this time. And Saturday was a lost cause as soon as Mike Napoli suited up, smashing two long balls, one off of David Huff, who did his best Hughes impression in the 13-9 loss.

Even Sunday’s win had a smell of doom for the Yankees. Once again, they fumbled a lead, with Rivera in the driver’s seat. Once again, they suffered with runners in scoring position, managing only two hits in their 10 chances.

The Yankees have some softballs in the coming weeks, including three-game sets against Houston, San Francisco, and Toronto. But unless they can conquer the Red Sox in the next series in Boston, or at least manage to win once while scoring eight or more runs (all three series losses came in such games), or at least keep bad pitching off the field for a single game … well, then this season will go down in history as the “Let’s get under the luxury tax” year.

Toronto Blue Jays (67-76)

The Blue Jays seem dangerously stuck with their subpar roster in the coming years. They have poor investments galore. Jose Reyes is already showing diminished leg speed and is owed more than $80 million in the next four years. Mark Buehrle is at most a $15 million-a-year pitcher with downside, and is tied up for $39 million for the next two years.

Melky Cabrera may be replacement level without performance-enhancers and is under contract next year for $8 million. Ricky Romero isn’t even the best pitcher on his Triple-A team and is due more than $15 million over the next two years. The list goes on…

So when you hand the Jays’ blueprint over to a third party—say me—and ask what the hell to do to improve it, I admit the following: I have no freakin’ clue. Don’t get me wrong, the Jays are doing the right thing at this juncture, testing out Kevin Pillar, Anthony Gose, and Ryan Goins to see what they have, and I like that Esmil Rogers and Kyle Drabek are getting their fair-share auditions (part necessity, part strategy) to see what work they’ve done in the bullpen and on the farm.

But the Blue Jays don’t have the depth or financial freedom to compete in the AL East. They are boys-among-men team and the runt of the litter right now, and almost all of their top pitching prospects are currently residing at the lower-level minors. The Marlins were smart to hold a fire sale after their unwise 2012 spending spree, and the Blue Jays might be, too.

If the primes of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion—just about the only two positive contracts on the team—call too hard for another run in 2014, though, then the Blue Jays need some major overhaul to their wounded and wobbling pitching staff this offseason.

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