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Despite Yankees’ lead, the AL East remains a dogfight

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While the Orioles and Blue Jays prepare for the future, three teams gear up for second-half playoff runs.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

It’s the beginning of the home stretch — the very beginning, mind you, but the beginning nonetheless.

More than half the games have been played, the All-Star Game is in the rearview mirror, and the trade deadline is speeding towards us faster than you can say, “Ninja Cash.” We all know how the Yankees have made it to this point, but what about the rest of the division? With some time off from actual games, now is a good time to check in with the rest of the division, and see what their stories have been this season.

Baltimore Orioles (27-62, .303, 30.5 GB)

Somehow, the Baltimore Orioles continue to outplay last year’s atrocious squad — although they have fallen far off their 56-win pace from the beginning of the season and are now only in line to win 49 games.

Yep, that’s how bad it has been in Baltimore. They have two quality starters (John Means and Andrew Cashner), three above-average bats (Trey Mancini, Pedro Severino, and Renato Nunez) and absolutely no quality bullpen arms. Their offense has outscored only the Detroit Tigers in the American League and the pitching staff has given up more runs than anyone but the Seattle Mariners. And this is before they inevitably trade away their few quality players at the deadline.

It’s going to be a long second half in Baltimore.

Toronto Blue Jays (34-57, .374, 24.5 GB)

The future is bright for the Toronto Blue Jays. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. announced his presence to the world in a big way at the Home Run Derby, setting the record for most home runs in a round with 29 before breaking it in overtime during the following round. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has actually outplayed Guerrero as well, hitting 16 home runs and posting a 158 OPS+ in 53 games, and Cavan Biggio has done well in limited playing time.

Make no mistake, however: the 2019 version of the Blue Jays is far from a good team. They will likely start playing even worse once Marcus Stroman and Ken Giles, the two best arms on the team, get traded. Even so, with the young stars that the team already has, the Blue Jays are trending in the right direction.

Boston Red Sox (49-41, .544, 9.0 GB)

I don’t know about you, but I much prefer the Boston Red Sox that were a floundering mess in the month of April than the team that has been 20-12 since the start of June. Their offense has exploded with a bang, scoring 509 runs (tied for most in the AL) thanks in large part to contributions by Rafael Devers and Michael Chavis. Mookie Betts has also bounced back from a rough April. Easy outs are found few and far between in this lineup, and they go by the names of Jackie Bradley Jr., and Eduardo Nunez.

The pitching staff, however, has been Boston’s Achilles heel all season. Chris Sale has had an up-and-down season that has seen just as many clunkers as ace-like performances, leading to an ERA of 4.04 and a FIP of 3.32. Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello have been consistently inconsistent. Only David Price has had any sustained success so far this year.

As bad as the rotation has been, however, the bullpen has been ten times worse. All relievers have floundered on more than one occasion with the sole exception of Brandon Workman, who has done his best to patch the leaky mess that is the Boston bullpen. While saves and blown saves are admittedly a misleading stat, Boston is currently tied for second in the league in blown saves with 18, behind only the Mets, and have as many blown saves as they do saves. The bullpen has been so bad that, despite their need for reinforcements in the rotation, Nathan Eovaldi will return from the IL as the team’s closer.

If the season ended today, the Red Sox would be spending their October at the golf course. If the defending champs want to dig out of the hole they have dug, they need to get moving — and fast.

Tampa Bay Rays (52-39, .571, 6.5 GB)

At the quarter-mark of the season, the Tampa Bay Rays were the hottest team in baseball and on track for 103 wins. That pace has now dipped to 92, as the team’s pitching staff has come down to Earth (although it is still heads and shoulders above the rest of the league), and the lineup has not stepped up to shoulder the burden.

Yonny Chirinos and All-Star Charlie Morton lead a rotation that has been among the best in the league despite losing ace Tyler Glasnow and his 1.83 ERA after only 8 starts. Cy Young winner Blake Snell has struggled to the tune of a 4.70 ERA (3.43 FIP), including a start against the Yankees in which he was knocked out of the game after recording only one out. The bullpen, while still elite, has likewise taken some hits, with Diego Castillo sidelined since June 23 and Jose Alverado struggling.

The lineup has been consistently above-average, led by All-Stars Austin Meadows and Brandon Lowe and All-Star snub Tommy Pham. They too, however, have been beset by injuries, with Lowe and Ji-Man Choi hurt. Still, while lacking the depth that Boston and the Yankees contain, it is not a lineup to be overlooked. They will likely target at least on bat as the trade deadline approaches, though.

The first half of the season has been a rollercoaster in the American League East, with first the Rays and then the Yankees going on hot streaks to take control of the division. Meanwhile, Boston has steadily climbed from the basement to overcome its slow start and make itself relevant in the division race. If the first half is any indication, the next two months are going to be intense.