Well, this has been stressful. I’ve had a higher level of confidence in choices I’ve made during rounds of Three-Card-Monty than I do in my ability to pick what the order of the division is actually going to be when the season ends. The Red Sox were bad, and now they’ve stormed to the top; the Yankees were streaking, and now they’re not. Baltimore was showing their success last year was an illusion, until it started proving it’s not; the Rays were all offense, but had no pitching; now they have staff-ace David Price back. The only team you could actually confidently count out of the race was the Toronto Blue Jays, until they pulled a recent 180 and emerged as a real threat.
The Red Sox were an absolutely dysfunctional team last year, managing to lose 93 games to end up at the bottom of the division, and weren’t giving anybody a reason to expect an much different ending this year at the start of the season. Now, a peek at the standings shows them sitting at the top.
How’d that happen, you ask? Well, David Ortiz came back from his injury and became the Big Papi of old, turning back into the power-hitter he used to be to lead the team in home runs, RBI, and all-around level of lineup-spot scary. With he and offseason pickup Mike Napoli emerging as the "Big Hairy Monsters," Yankees GM Brian Cashman has usually gone after to anchor his lineup, the Red Sox offense sits at the top of the leader board in the American League. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia also re-lit his spark, once again resuming his part as gritty, grinding team MVP.
As if that wasn’t bad enough for me – lifelong Yankee fan that I am – Boston also finally found pitching. John Lackey returned from Tommy John surgery to look like the staff ace he used to be while still with the Angels. Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester have also decided to start living up to their team’s original expectations, pitching with poise and control to round out a drastically improved Red Sox rotation.
To oversee it all, the Sox jettisoned bombastic Bobby Valentine, who was blamed for last year’s debacle, replacing him with the much calmer, analytic John Farrell as the team’s Manager. All of that definitely makes Boston a scary contender to hold on to their current spot as first in the division. But hey, I guarantee they won’t be as amusing as they were last year with Valentine and cast turning Fenway into a outright carnival.
Normally a pitch-first, hope for offensive later team known for it’s consistently excellent rotation and absolutely toothless lineup, the Rays got off to quite an unexpected start this season. Tampa Bay’s offense was actually decent, filled by a group of capable, consistent hitters not found at the Trop in years. After picking up an underperforming first baseman, James Loney, and trading for a giant question mark in highly touted offensive prospect Wil Myers, manager Joe Maddon sprinkled his magic dust on both to create actual lineup protection to surround face-of-the-franchise third baseman Evan Longoria.
While the numbers may not exactly jump off the page, the Rays offense has been consistent all season, putting rallies together and getting big hits from a revolving crew of different performers like Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar, and of course Longoria, at just the right time all year. This left Tampa Bay with a much different looking lineup – one capable of providing the team with a much higher level of run support than seen all last season (and most of them before that, too).
Unfortunately for the Rays, every step taken forward by the offense seemed to be matched by one backward for the rotation earlier in the year. First, staff ace David Price was under-performing drastically, then had to step away for a nice long stint on the disabled list that left the rotation reeling. The normally strong starters Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson just didn’t seem capable of stringing together multiple solid outings, and with former teammate Big Game James Shields now with the Royals, the Rays had uncharacteristically spotty pitching incapable of giving their newfound offense a chance to win games.
Now, as Bob Barker used to say, "The Price is Right," with him re-emerging to sit atop a rotation on the rebound. Matt Moore and Hellickson appear to be following suit, giving the Rays multiple solid outings in a row. An improved pitching staff more typically found in Tampa Bay paired with the surprisingly productive offense has left the team streaking, with nine wins in their last ten games. Where does that all leave the Rays? Now, with hitting, pitching, and the always entertaining, absolutely brilliant Joe Maddon at the helm, Tampa Bay has re-emerged as a dangerous threat, and currently sits second in the division, right behind the Sox. Now, if only fans actually showed up at The Trop to see it…
Last year’s unexpectedly competitive record and appearance in the playoffs was supposed to be based on nothing but smoke, mirrors, and some seriously good juju, right? Leaving the Orioles due for awful regression this season? It certainly looked like it a few months ago, and when the team got off to a bit of a shaky start, doubters flocked around Camden Yards. The rotation was struggling, and the lineup seemed like it might be merely mediocre this year.
Now one glance at Baltimore’s lineup leaves fans practically looking at the American League All-Star Team. Seriously. First baseman Chris Davis, leader in all things awesome, just emerged as the man that collected the most votes of any player elected to the All-Star team. And he deserved every single one. Davis currently leads the league in home runs, is on pace to present a serious threat to what many consider to be the legitimate single season home run record posted by Roger Maris the year he hit 61, and perhaps best of all, the standout first baseman actually has the balls to admit it. Most players would fall in lock-step with the MLB’s party-line, placating Bud Selig by reminding members of the media that the record has actually already been broken multiple times, first by Mark McGwire, and then by current leader Barry Bonds and his 73. Not Davis. He openly admits that he still considers the real record to sit with Maris and his 61 – not the other inflated totals posted by McGwire and Bonds – and has no problem saying that he’d be the first clean slugger to break it if he actually continues to finish the season with a homer total higher than that 61.
Of course, Davis isn’t alone in the Orioles outstanding offense, with fellow All-Star and doubles-machine Manny Machado sitting right across the diamond at third base. Pair those two with center fielder Adam Jones, who just became the first Orioles outfielder since Brady Anderson to make the All-Star team, and a lineup rife with other capable performers and you have one powerful offense.
The trick has been finding pitchers to make up a rotation that won’t immediately surrender any lead generated by the offense. Baltimore has managed to piece together a staff of mostly capable starters, and recently traded for potential ace Scott Feldman, leaving them in on the Rays' heels at third in the division.
You can pretty much sum up the season The Good Guys (are we allowed to call them that here, or am I supposed to feign impartiality…?) have had as "The Year of Injuries." The team got off to a strong start, but is falling fast as their big names are still injured and the surprisingly productive fill-ins are starting to fade, if they’re one of the lucky ones that hasn’t gotten injured themselves. Hell, even GM Brian Cashman got in on the action, breaking his leg during the offseason while skydiving. If that’s not the biggest case of foreshadowing since a certain Shakespearean soothsayer uttered the phrase "Beware the Ides of March," I don’t know what is…
The list of Yankees occupying the Disabled List is simply amazing. Forget DiMaggio. "Where did you go Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Yankees Power-O?" The team’s infield lost Jeter, Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez right at the start of the season, and when their replacements started performing well, they got hit with the injury bug too. Eduardo Nunez emerged as a sure-handed albeit light-hitting shortstop capable of keeping Jeter’s spot warm until he ended up sitting right there next to the Captain on the disabled list as well. Kevin Youkilis, the man tabbed to cover third until Rodriguez came back, got off to a hot start to the season, but then suffered from a balky back himself, and is now out and in need of surgery.
As if that’s not enough, New York decided to entrust Francisco Cervelli with catching duties after the team passed on Russell Martin during the offseason, and the young Cervelli rewarded the team’s faith by putting up what looked like a breakout season…until he ended up on the DL a few months ago. Power-hitting outfielder Curtis Granderson also went down at the start of the season, and when they finally got him back, the slugger only lasted a handful of games until he was hit by a pitch that broke his hand.
New York has managed to fill out a somewhat capable, albeit rotating, lineup of equal parts fading veteran and rising young prospect, with Zoilo Almonte emerging as perhaps one of the most exciting players on the team in years. Unfortunately, this lineup hasn’t managed to generate any semblance of consistent production beyond that put up by stars Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano.
Exacerbating the situation is the up and down performance put up by the pitching staff in the Bronx. What was expected to be a team strength instantly became a giant question-mark as starters CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, etc. all failed to establish any kind of consistency.
Manager Joe Girardi has managed to do a fantastic job to keep his team in the thick of the AL East race, but after getting off to an unexpectedly strong start to the season, the patently offensive performance of the offense and lack of consistent pitching is certainly a cause for concern in New York. The Yankees are banking on their injured stars coming back and riding in on white horses to save the season and push the team from fourth in the division to World Series glory. If anybody can do it, Derek Jeter can…
Toronto Blue Jays
Who saw that coming? ANY of it. After landing the biggest haul of the offseason, the Blue Jays began the season billed as THE team to beat in the league. Toronto got off to such an epically bad start to the season that suddenly, they were the only team that could actually be written off in the AL East.
The biggest move made by the Blue Jays during the winter was to get Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, ace Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle to fill out what had been a dreadful rotation the year before. Based on their performances out of the gate, it looked like there was some sort of exchange rate that applied to pitcher ERA north of the border as well. All three starters imploded, leaving Toronto’s rotation reeling.
Unfortunately for the Jays, the offense didn’t fare much better. The previously productive players the team had last season all disappeared, and new additions Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Emilio Bonofacio, and Maicer Izturis all went limp. Toronto’s lineup couldn’t seem to generate enough offense to match the dreadful lines given up by their pitchers, stars started slumping, and Jose Reyes was quickly lost to injury.
Now, the rotation has rebounded, Reyes has returned, and Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, and the rest of the lineup have started performing to create the potentially scary-looking offense they were expected to be at the start of the season. This put Toronto on a hot streak that, while they remain last in the division, removed them from their role as laughing-stock of the league. Now our enemies up north suddenly present a dangerous threat in the division.
So how does this all pan out for the division? Well, if I had to guess…wait a minute, I don’t! Although I suppose there’s no entertainment value in that. So here I go, with my completely unfounded prediction based on nothing but sheer hope and whimsy. It says here that Derek Jeter return without missing a beat, Brett Gardner keeps hitting and starts stealing, Robinson Cano announces he’s reached a deal to stay with the team next season during the postgame interview on a night he hit for the cycle to win the game and clinch the division for the Yankees, and Mariano Rivera finishes off his retirement tour by recording the last three outs of the final game of the Yankees’ 28th World Series victory – which I’m in attendance for. Fingers crossed.