The AL East: a two-team raceby Lucas Apostoleris
August 08, 2011
It’s the second week in August, and we now have confirmation that it’s a two-team race in the AL East between the Yankees and Red Sox. The Rays have slipped after being within a few games of first place for the first two months of the season, and the spotlight is now on the teams with the league's two best records. Let’s go one-by-one and see what’s up.
… well, it’s not going too well for Buck Showalter’s boys. On June 26th, they were only five games under .500 at 35-40, and 9.5 games behind the division-leading Yankees. But since then, aided by a few five-plus game losing streaks, they’ve gone 8-27 to sink their winning percentage to just .391, worst in the majors aside from the Astros. Their pitching has been atrocious: in those 35 games, they have allowed 228 runs in the 299 innings pitched, or 6.9 per game. The trading deadline made them sellers of their star reliever Koji Uehara (7.8 K/BB out of the setup role), who was shipped to Texas for Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter. Another reliever, Jim Johnson, is showing good stuff, but other than him there’s no standout pitcher on the team right now. Youngsters Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman have all struggled and/or have spent time in the minors, though Tillman has looked better with improved velocity in his recent return to the majors. On the offensive side, they’re also unspectacular; Adam Jones is having a solid season and is on pace for three and a half wins or so. Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis are league-average players and are not progressing as much as the Orioles would like. Overall, the Orioles have a long way to go until they can think about competing in the AL East.
The fourth-place Toronto club is hovering around .500 and is still being led by outfielder Jose Bautista. Joey Bats’ pace isn’t as ridiculous as it was in May or June, but he’s still accumulated seven WAR and has an 1.100 OPS. Yunel Escobar has probably been the team’s second-best hitter, with a .383 on-base percentage and as many walks as strikeouts - impressive coming from a middle infield spot. The recent addition of Colby Rasmus from the Cardinals is very intriguing, considering that they likely underpaid for his talent due to Rasmus’s issues with Tony La Russa. Pitching-wise, the Blue Jays have a solid one-two punch in Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow, and Carlos Villanueva has been solid since entering the rotation from the bullpen early in the year. The bullpen now features some effective groundball machines in righty Casey Janssen and lefty Luis Perez, while strikeout artist Frank Francisco has had trouble with the home run ball at times this year. The Jays look like a team with plenty of bright spots (Bautista and Morrow stand out), but not enough overall talent to make a splash in the division.
Having fallen off to 10 games off the first-place pace, the Rays are mainly looking towards next year, acting as sellers at the deadline by entertaining offers for James Shields. Speaking of Shields, he and flame-thrower David Price have combined for 6.5 WAR at the front of the Tampa rotation. Since coming back from an injury in June, Jeff Niemann has looked improved, sporting a K/BB ratio above 3.00 since June 20. The bullpen is always a question for Tampa, and aside from closer Kyle Farnsworth, Joe Madden doesn’t really have anybody whom he can turn to with confidence. Offensively, Ben Zobrist is their best hitter right now, with his power and patient approach (not to mention his fielding value). Evan Longoria is having a down year, but is still near 3 WAR. Matt Joyce (since coming down from a first start) and B.J. Upton have been solid, and the lineup is posting a league-average OPS.
Having scored 614 runs already, the Red Sox are setting the offensive pace in the American League. They have THREE players in their lineup (Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez) who have already surpassed five WAR—only 11 teams have ONE hitter over 5 WAR in the lineup. That alone would make their lineup scary, but throw in good seasons from Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, and newcomer Josh Reddick, and it becomes frightening. In addition to the offensive juggernaut, the Red Sox can pitch some, too. They've been hurt by a likely year-ending back injury to Clay Buchholz, but Josh Beckett (looking to be back in prime form) and Jon Lester are a good 1-2 punch in the postseason. Maybe recent acquisition Erik Bedard can help things out in the rotation as well. If the starters can get through six, things look alright with Matt Albers, Daniel Bard, and Jonathan Papelbon shutting things down (all have FIPs under 3). The Sox are a well-rounded team featuring a monstrous offense and more than enough pitching to succeed in the postseason.
The Bronx Bombers are right up there with the Red Sox, though there're doing it a slightly different way. Somehow, the Yankees are pitching exceptionally well and are third in the league in ERA and second in FIP despite their heavy reliance on offseason depth moves Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, who have mostly pitched out of the rotation this year. They have certainly exceeded everyone's expectations. Ace CC Sabathia has kicked it into another gear since the third week in June, adding some velocity to his fastball and racking up Ks like mad. Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett have struggled this year, and Ivan Nova's recent strong performance has given manager Joe Girardi something to think about. The bullpen is anchored by setup man David Robertson, who has done an excellent job (1.44 ERA, 1.68 FIP and a league leading 68 relief strikeouts) in the setup role, and the ageless Mariano Rivera. The Yankees' offense looks pretty good, too: their team OPS of .788 is second only to the Red Sox. Both of these teams look like they're in very good shape, and it'll be fun to see them duke it out for first place.