With the All-Star Game now behind us, the baseball world turns to the second half when the season really starts to pick up steam as the playoff race intensifies. While the Yankees do have good odds to make the playoffs according the Fangraphs (a 78.4% chance with a predicted division-winning record of 87-75), there's still a lot of baseball left to be played and a crowded division in which anything can happen. Let's look at all four teams chasing New York and see just how they might catch the Yankees before October.
Tampa Bay Rays - 3.5 games back
Somehow the Rays are always in it. This year, they're doing it with good pitching and great defense. Their staff has the 8th best ERA in the league, and while they've overachieved a bit (they're just 13th in FIP), their elite defense takes care of a lot of balls that would fall in for hits otherwise. While they rank just 24th in runs scored, their offense actually isn't as bad as it seems. They've got the 16th highest wRC+ in baseball, and Brandon Guyer and Logan Forsythe have had surprisingly great seasons at the dish. Guyer has posted a 115 wRC+ this year - improving on his 107 wRC+ from 2014 - but Forsythe has been especially terrific, managing a .274/.357/.419 triple slash with a 126 wRC+ after hitting just .223 with an 80 wRC+ last season. Evan Longoria has predictably been solid, and the rest of their offense hasn't been awful - but their luck has. As a team, their BAPIP is a bit below league average, and their negative offensive Cluster Luck shows that they've been unlucky with stringing their hits together. With Chris Archer having a terrific year (2.65 FIP, 10.87 K/9), Matt Moore back in the majors (albeit struggling in his first three starts), and Drew Smyly looking towards an August return, the Rays pitching should improve from above average to potentially elite. If they get a bit luckier at the plate, they'll be in the hunt, even if they stand pat at the trade deadline.
Baltimore Orioles - 4 games back
The Baltimore Orioles are once again depending on all that slugging power to be found up and down their lineup. A year after leading the league in homers, the Orioles rank fifth this year, which has helped them to score the 8th most runs in the league. They probably would rank higher if not for their penchant for terrible at-bats. While they're clubbing long balls, they strike out over 22% of the time and only drawing walks on 6.7% of their at bats. Both marks rank well below league average. Their pitching staff has over performed so far, posting a combined 3.74 ERA - good for 12th in the league - but just a 4.05 FIP (21st). Ubaldo Jimenez has come off a terrible 2014 that saw him demoted to the bullpen to post a 2.81 ERA with a 3.21 FIP and lead the team with 2.2 fWAR. But if he's your best pitcher, that's a major problem, even with one of the best defenses in the league. While Manny Machado looks like an MVP-candidate this year, and Adam Jones is still one of the best all-around outfielders in the game, unless the Orioles trade for an ace (unlikely) or their young arms surprise people (also unlikely, as top prospect Dylan Bundy has been shut down indefinitely and young arm Kevin Gausman hasn't lived up to his promise), they won't have enough pitching to steal the division.
Toronto Blue Jays - 4.5 games back
Much like the O's, the Blue Jays crush homers and can't pitch, but to even greater extremes. Toronto's offense is by far the best in the league so far, ranking third in long balls (one behind the Yankees' 116 homers) while destroying the rest of the league in the runs scored category with 486. The Yankees are second with 409. Unfortunately (for them at least), Toronto's rotation has not been able to overcome the March injury to presumed ace Marcus Stroman. Mark Buehrle remains dependable, and Drew Hutchison's 3.65 FIP suggests his 5.33 ERA will come down. However, after that, the rotation falls off a cliff - Toronto starters rank 23rd in the league in fWAR and have the 5th worst FIP in the league at 4.13. While they have their own MVP candidate in Josh Donaldson - who's hitting .293/.351/.532 with a 143 wRC+ to go along with his excellent defense at the hot corner - and Jose Bautista (141 wRC+) continues to be one of the best sluggers in the league, without upgrading the starting rotation, Toronto will be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
Boston Red Sox - 6.5 games back
The prohibitive favorite to take the division in many analysts' minds this spring, the Red Sox got off to a terrible start thanks to their mediocre rotation and poor defense. Yes, I'm looking at you, Hanley Ramirez (although perhaps replacing him in the field with Alejandro De Aza, as they've recently done, will make a difference). The Red Sox came into the All-Star Break having gone 15-9 in their last 24 games, however, so they have found a bit of success in late June and July. As expected their pitching has been disastrous (28th in ERA and 19th in FIP), and outside of Clay Buchholz and perhaps Eduardo Rodriguez, no one looks like more than back of the rotation fodder. Their offense, supposed to one of the league's best, has been just average. Big signings Pablo Sandoval (89 wRC+) and Ramirez (121 wRC+) haven't produced like stars, and the well-publicized declines of David Ortiz and Mike Napoli have further crippled a lineup that has been without Dustin Pedroia since June 25th. Xander Bogaerts, Brock Holt, and Mookie Betts have all had promising seasons (together, they're averaging a .290/.346/.431 triple slash), but we all know the only way the Red Sox become serious players in the division: trade for an ace. Rodriguez has been a nice surprise, but without Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto heading up the pitching staff, Boston probably doesn't have enough this year.
The division remains up for grabs, and every team has plenty of question marks. However, the Yankees look to have fewer than their rivals. Boston and Toronto desperately need pitching at the deadline, the Rays need bats (and likely won't get them), and the Orioles might just have to stand pat and hope the pitching comes around. The Yankees have an elite offense, a pitching staff that should improve based on the discrepancy between their ERA (3.96) and their FIP (3.63), and the second best bullpen in the game (2nd in fWAR, behind only the Dodgers). If their older players don't completely fall off a cliff stats-wise down the stretch, the Yankees have a terrific shot at getting back to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.