The state of the AL East: stretch run

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AL East executives are good for one thing, always: they train us to be quick on our feet, nimble, ready for anything. The latest headline in what’s undeniably been an entertaining season in the American League East division is the Boston Red Sox dump in which they diverted from their road to nowhere in a matter of days, stocking the farm system and freeing up cap space. Kudos to Ben Cherington, who finally brought a chip to the impressive Executive’s Table in the AL East resort and complex.

This move may have the largest payoff of any divisional move made this season, but Dan Duquette of the Orioles may have a case for his Wei-Yin Chen signing (three years, $11.3 million). Andrew Friedman has a case, too, with his inking of Fernando Rodney to a one-year, $1.75 million deal with a $2.5 million option. Only the Blue Jays haven’t provided ample fanfare. When I say ample, I don’t mean to degrade the Brad Lincoln for Travis Snider swap or the J.A. Happ & Co. trade with the Astros. Alex Anthopoulos simply has high standards to live up to.

Shall we take a closer look?

*Playoff odds below are as of Aug. 26, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus.

Baltimore Orioles (69-57 with 13.4 percent playoff odds)

So it’s a hefty reach. Still, a team with an Opening Day rotation that included Tommy Hunter, and Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz is well within reach of a playoff berth. And while they’re only managing to put 25,000 or so bodies in seats at the scenic Camden Yards, this is uncharted territory for the Orioles in this millenium.

It’s fairly easy to tell, too: the hyper-aggressive call-up of top minor-league dog Manny Machado bordered on reckless at first look. First, Machado is tenderly young at 20. Hitting only a mere 22 percent better than his Double-A competition, he hardly screamed major-league ready. And why would anyone expect him to be, with fewer than 500 plate appearances in professional baseball to his name prior to this season?

Still, as things often go in this wonky game, Machado has blossomed; at least he’s survived to this day. He’s holding his own with a .259 average, is 16 percent above league average offensively, and is—sweet mercy—replacing Mark Reynolds’ insufferable third-base defense.

And what the Orioles have learned from the Machado experiment is that, perhaps, assertive and aggressive handling of their farm stars is well worth the collateral risk. Might Dylan Bundy be the next Bowie Baysox wunderkind to flutter into the limelight? That’s the word on the wire, though the concerns with Bundy match or exceed those with Machado: untested, struggling in his first three Double-A starts, and extremely young. The risk seems to outweigh the reward from this objective seat.

But Joe Saunders, seasoned veteran of over 17,000 pitchers, should be expected to thrive in a slightly more neutral hitting environment. He struggled as you would expect him to at Chase Field this year, where he posted a fat 5.80 ERA in his ten starts. Camden should treat him more kindly, and the sneaky acquisition could help.

Often forgotten is that the Orioles’ pitching is far from their greatest weakness. Baltimore’s team WAR on offense is 8.0, worst in the league and a significant drop-off from the 29th-best offensive squad in the league, the Astros. Second base in particular has been a nightmare, as Omar Quintanilla, Robert Andino, Ryan Flaherty, and Brian Roberts have combined for a .220 average, .593 OPS, .257 wOBA, and 2.3 runs below replacement.

Unless they inject some offense into their overperforming machine, the O’s will surely fall off of their near-playoff pace. Until then, enjoy the (legal) testosterone-fueled aggression with their future franchise cornerstones.

Toronto Blue Jays (56-70 with 0.0 percent playoff odds)

And what of the Toronto Blue Jays? For a brief, fleeting moment, a far-fetched scenario could be conjured up in which the Jays squeak into the second Wild Card. Those days are long gone.

The Aug. 23 contest against the Detroit Tigers pretty well sums up the Jays’ latest lost season. Of course, to do so, it needed to feature a home run from Edwin Encarnacion. His 33rd, a two-run towering puppy off a Justin Verlander curveball, came despite Encarnacion being down 1-2 in the count; all but dead meat, he was. And Happ was dealing, so the fact that Toronto’s laughable lineup couldn’t touch Verlander seemed irrelevant.

Cue the bottom of the eighth: John Farrell sticks with Happ for an out, and a heartbreaking walk to Alex Avila after a 1-2 count is it for Happ. Sure, 106 pitches is plenty. Brandon Lyon, capable enough this season, surrenders a single to Austin Jackson, and then gets Omar Infante to fly out—four pitches, minimal damage, and another bullpen shuffle. It’s the musical mound in Detroit this afternoon, folks! Darren Oliver’s turn is a bona fide disaster, with a first-pitch RBI single constituting the initial damage, soon followed by an errant first ball in what turned out to be a four-pitch walk. Yikes.

Clearly, the Jays lineup is no match to scratch out another run versus the best pitcher on the planet. Kelly Johnson first takes to the hopeless task and swings through three out of five pitches; Moises Sierra, somehow better to keep around than Snider, flies out after a valiant six-pitch at-bat, and old Omar Vizquel grounds out in the second pitch of his at-bat.

And despite the liberal bullpen shuffling in the bottom of the eighth, Farrell goes through three more arms to get the next eight outs, included converted starter Lincoln, whom he leaned on for all of six pitches. In the 10th, another run seemed hopeful. Jeff Mathis, filling in for J.P. Arencibia, singles, and some small-ball gets him to second with only one out.

Enter Anthony Gose, the hot Jays prospect who found himself getting booed at home within weeks of his call-up. Surely the one with the 40-percent strikeout rate would jaunt out to the plate in a high-leverage situation in which contact is one’s best friend. Gose lifts one. And then this happened. Which explains the whole Blue Jays season, hampered by injuries to Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie, and seemingly everyone in-between, really. It’s something like: “Damnit, ain’t that enough already?”

New York Yankees (73-53 with 99.2 percent playoff odds)

Exposed over the last few weeks as the flawed faux juggernauts they’ve secretly been all season, the Yankees are nonetheless a near lock for postseason baseball. The gripping question is now how much they’ll play in October, which, up to about two weeks ago, seemed to have a predetermined answer of at least three games.

The beauty of the 2012 Yankees is the sheer amount of weaponry they possess. No one player stays scorching all season—unless that player, evidently, is named Mike Trout—and even Robinson Cano, surely an AL MVP vote-getter in roughly a month, has struggled mightily over the past few weeks. But when one beast naps, another wakes. Derek Jeter has returned to absolutely ripping the ball, hitting .418 with five homers in a span of two weeks. And as Jeter sizzles, so too does Nick Swisher, who’s slipped into the two-hole and immediately started smashing longballs again.

The definition of the 2012 Yankees is what one random, non-New Yorkian citizen in the street might characterize the “Evil Empire” as: an embarrassment of riches, but one that’s only surviving on the star power. At a minimum, three fifths of the Yankees rotation (Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia, and Ivan Nova) can explode. My days as a Russell Martin apologist are over. He’s not playing excellent defense, certainly isn’t hitting, and his well-documented struggles and sulking can hardly be a boon to the dugout cheer.

But two top-20 pitchers can get you places, especially when you have a plethora of sluggers who naturally switch off carrying the load. The days of watching the standings and checking the box scores of division rivals are back, though.

Tampa Bay Rays (70-57 with 66.5 percent playoff odds)

Rewind to July 31 of this year, when the AL West seemed like the dominant horse in the league, and each of the unspectacular foursome at the bottom of the AL East was duking it out to see who could be the second-best, the not quite good enough, the “almost!” squad of the year.

The Sox were in a glory daze, with long, 26-percent odds to make the playoffs, though they still had hope. Tampa Bay was in a similar raft, with a 23-percent chance to play another game, this one more high-stakes than the rest. Baltimore seemed dead in the water at only five percent, and Toronto’s fate was nearly sealed with one-percent odds.

The Rays have hardly assured themselves any extra fun. There’s still a one-in-three chance they slip, fall, and burn while the A’s and O’s, for example, jockey for one Wild Card game. But momentum, if such a thing exists in the long, grinding baseball season, seems to be on their side, having won 16 games in August already.

The Sept. 3-5 series in which the Rays host the Yankees will, for me at least, be the most gripping storyline to come about this year. Surely, it will conjure up memories from earlier in the decade, when the Yankees and Sox, mostly, dueled in grueling series after series. They were often high stakes. They were often sweeps. They often bested four-and-a-half hours a game. It was tense, meaningful baseball at its finest.

What the Rays have going for them is a stellar pitching staff. The squad, led by Cy Young hopeful David Price, doesn’t quite touch 2011 Phillies territory (that staff had a sub-3.00 FIP, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio over 4.00), but it is among fine company. The 2011 Giants championship staff had an ERA less than one-fifth of a run higher, and the 2005 Astros’ NL pennant staff had an ERA slightly higher.

There are still offensive shortcomings, but as usual, the Rays survive on any help they can get. This month, Jose Molina and Jeff Keppinger are among their five best offensive helpers. Only in Tampa…

Boston Red Sox (60-67 with 0.0 percent playoff odds)

And now, a list of kudos:

-Kudos to Ben Cherington for killing two birds with one stone. The prevailing attitude is that the Sox took advantage of, if not robbed, a free-spending Dodgers squad desperate to win, and I’m apt to agree.

Carl Crawford is hardly a league-average player this year and just had major surgery. Adrian Gonzalez was involved in one too many locker room dramas for my taste, and I wouldn’t call his contract anything close to a steal. Josh Beckett, too, didn’t add a crucial piece of leadership to the clubhouse and wasn’t carrying his load every fifth day. Not even close.

So Cherington parlayed that roadmap for failure into considerable salary relief and high-ceiling prospects. And all this time, I was thinking he’d made a series of poor moves from the big suite. Maybe he got lucky…

-Kudos to Bobby Valentine for managing to keep his job this long. I won’t put myself among those who blame the wholly disappointing season on his locker room “tactics.” I don’t agree with some of what he did, but his club was immature, confrontational, underwhelming, and injury-plagued, from what I’ve observed, heard, and deduced.

Still, managers, especially those with a tendency for flare and controversy, often get the boot when someone needs to get blamed. And Bobby somehow didn’t despite Russell Martin-like sulking at times; despite a supposed player revolt; despite specific feuds with Kevin Youkilis and Alfredo Aceves, at least; and, as noted, despite the bottom line, which is a lack of results.

Valentine very well might get the boot a week into October, or perhaps a month after they’re done, but Valentine must be some salesman to still have his job.

-Kudos to Jon Lester for finally trusting his stuff. One of the lone bright spots in an anemic August has been Lester’s resurgence. He’s twirling four plus pitches again, throwing first-strikes 60 percent of the time this month, and is generating plenty of swinging strikes (11.3 percent).

In an ugly season in Beantown that was especially unkind to Lester, it would be easy to imagine a scenario in which he scuttles further as the rest of the team is uprooted. Instead, Lester seems more focused as the antics and ridiculousness picks up, perhaps because his struggles are no longer in the forefront of the Sox headlines

-Kudos to Alfredo Aceves for trusting your stuff, man. We know you like the closer’s role, but Andrew Bailey is a superior pitcher, and Aceves hasn’t been lights out, after all. Aceves’ 27-for-35 success rate isn’t exactly the means for job protection, especially when his most recent opportunity was blown in spectacular fashion (five runs, seven baserunners in an inning). But I’m glad Aceves is putting himself, not the team, first at such a tumultuous time. Is a three-game suspension even enough?

-Kudos to Sox fans for putting up with this mess of a team this season. You still have two years of Lackey to live through, but Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and/or Lester could be in line for extensions. Will Middlebrooks is an exciting talent, as are three of the fourplayers in the haul from the Dodgers (Rubby de la Rosa, Allen Webster, and Jerry Sands, in that order). The days could be darker…

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