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Take It in Stride

Derek Jeter's battle to rebuild his swing is just one thing the Yankees have to be anxious about thus far. (AP)

Penned by yours truly, the first in-season AL Prospectus Hit List of 2011 is up at Baseball Prospectus today. The Hit List, for those who need a reminder, is an objectively-based power rankings which draws upon our Adjusted Standings, which themselves incorporate actual and Pythagorean-projected winning percentages involving runs scored and runs allowed, run elements, and strength of opponents. During the first month of the season, they also incorporate our preseason PECOTA projections.

The Rangers top the AL list thanks to their 8-1 start. The 5-4 Yankees rank sixth in the league, having been cooled off considerably by the Red Sox, who rebounded from 0-6 to take two out of three in Fenway. The Sox rank 11th, which is bad, but far better than the basement-dwelling Rays. Here's what I had to say about the trio:

[#1 Yankees] Yanked Around: While their AL East rivals flop to a combined 0-12, the Yankees open in strong fashion before troubles new and old emerge. Notoriously slow starter Mark Teixeira blasts four homers in the first five games, three of them three-run shots, before slipping into an 0-for-18 slump, Derek Jeter testily abandons his new swing en route to a .206/.300/.235 line, and Phil Hughes is pounded for 11 runs in six innings over two starts. The latter's missing velocity raises injury concerns, but the team maintains that the problem is merely mechanical.

[#11 Red Sox] Stop the Slide: Heavily favored to win the division and reach the World Series, the Sox instead stumble to an 0-6 start—their worst since 1945—before taking two out of three from the Yankees in Fenway. Newcomer Carl Crawford is just 5-for-38, while Kevin Youkilis is hitting an odd .148/.395/.222, but the real issue is the rotation, about which there were plenty of unsettling questions coming into the year. Prior to Sunday night, the starters have compiled a 7.46 ERA while allowing 2.6 homers per nine, with John Lackey clobbered for 15 runs in 8.2 innings and Clay Buchholz surrendering five homers in 10 innings. Josh Beckett wins the rubber match against the Yankees with eight dominant innings (8 2 0 0 1 10) in his first scoreless appearance since August 7, 2009—also against the Yankees, versus whom the Soulpatch Farmer now has a career 5.90 ERA in 140.1 regular season innings.

[#14 Rays] Underwater: Projected to be the odd team out in the AL East, the Rays lose their first six games and stumble to a franchise-worst record through nine games. Worse, they lose Evan Longoria for a few weeks due to an oblique strain, then watch as Manny Ramirez starts the year 1-for-17 and abruptly retires rather than face another drug suspension. The team is averaging just 2.4 runs per game on .163/.232/.284 "hitting," with John Jaso, Dan Johnson, Johnny Damon, Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, and Reid Brignac all far below the Mendoza line. The team adds new sadness to baseball's lexicon by announcing the recall of career .259/.326/.392 hitter Casey Kotchman to take over first base, with Johnson moving to DH.

Steve and I spent a fair bit of time talking about Jeter's woes vis-à-vis his new swing during Sunday night's Baseball Prospectus chat. What's troubling to me at the moment isn't so much that the Captain has so quickly abandoned the work that he did with hitting coach Kevin Long prior to the season, but that he sounds as though he's on the verge of cracking, and still fails to recognize the flaws in his game. As I noted in the chat, a few years ago (possibly in 2009, when he was tearing it up), somebody asked me in a chat which player I'd be if I could be any player for a day. I said Jeter, because I wanted to know what his kind of seemingly effortless excellence and confidence felt like even in the face of his flaws. Now that we're both older, I'm not so sure I want to be Jeter anymore. To have his wealth, yes, but to face the things he's facing — namely the knowledge that his best years are behind him, and that his body can no longer do the things he expects it to do — not so much. Not that at 41, I haven't already faced some of those things (my fastball couldn't get a ticket on the interstate thanks to a surgically repaired right shoulder), but I've got far fewer obstacles to improving as a writer than Jeter does to improving as a player.

(On that note, over the weekend I reached a milestone — ten years since I started, and thus ten years of writing about baseball. I owe a supersized thanks to my Bible Study partners Steve and Cliff, with whom I've been partners in crime in a variety of manners. And I owe one to you, dear readers.)

In any event, the take-home lesson of the season's first week and a half regarding the AL East is that the three top contenders are all significantly flawed teams. It's hardly out of the question that a failure to overcome their limitations — particularly with regards to sorting out the back end of the rotation in New York and Boston, and finding some offense in Tampa Bay — will mean that only one of them will make the playoffs. Indeed, it's quite possible by year's end that the Yanks and Sox might be green with envy over the freakin' Orioles' rotation, where rookie southpaw Zach Britton has been mighty impressive through his first two turns, and where Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta have shown flashes of brilliance thus far.

Of course, it's all too easy to overreact to the small sample sizes which early-season performances generate. Hughes and Jeter may be merely minor mechanical tweaks away from rediscovering some semblance of their old forms, the way a suddenly healthy Russell Martin has. Maybe Jeter's climb up baseball's all-time hit list to 3,000 won't be the agonizing slog it appears to be at the moment, and his struggles to figure out his stride should be taken in stride. Maybe.