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Looking ahead to the playoffs for the AL East

It might not be baseball’s best division this year, but as the battle for the playoffs really gets underway, it’s almost assured to be the wildest.

Patrick McDermott

With the second half underway, the AL East is getting quite crowded at the top.  While the Orioles cling to first, both Toronto and New York are just a few games back, and Tampa Bay, playing terrific baseball of late, is suddenly lurking in not-so-distant fourth.  It's going to be quite intense as we enter the last two months of the season, so let's take a look at the Yankees' divisional rivals, their upcoming schedules, and some notable trends to see what we can expect down the stretch.

The Orioles: 56-45, - GB, +28 run differential

The Orioles have begun the second half with a brutal stretch against the best of the west.  Their first five series are all against the top three teams in the AL West: one against Oakland (Baltimore went 1-2 in that series), two against the LA Angels, and two against Seattle.  They won't play a team under .500 until August 18, which should give the Blue Jays and Yankees (who play worse competition) a chance to catch up. While they're still slugging away (first in the league in homers), they remain limited as far as pitching goes. But with Kevin Gausman (3.38 FIP this season, 3.70 lifetime over two partial MLB seasons) squarely situated in the rotation for the remainder of the season, him plus Wei-Yin Chen and Chris Tillman might be just enough to hold off the rest of the East.

The Blue Jays: 54-49, 3 GB, +22 run differential

While the Orioles slog through an arduous schedule, Toronto will have an easier go of it during the next week - after facing the Yankees this weekend, they'll face Boston and Houston in their next two series.  This couldn't come at a better time for them, as it should allow them to pick up some wins while resting their injured sluggers. Edwin Encarnacion is still out with a strained quad, Adam Lind has a broken foot, and Brett Lawrie has a broken finger.  They'll need all of these guys healthy down the stretch if they hope to regain some of their early season magic, as Toronto hasn't been nearly as good lately as they were early in the season.  On June 6th, they were 14 games over .500; since then, they've been just 16-25, including 8-15 on the road in June and July.  If Lind and Encarnacion come back swinging big bats, though, they could still make some noise.

The Rays: 49-53, 7.5 GB, -8 run differential

The Tampa Bay Rays, deemed doomed by many pundits earlier in the season, have snuck back in the race recently and have played tremendous baseball over the past month. After losing 14 of 15 games across late May and early June, the Rays have become a different team, posting a 13-4 record in July, including a seven-game winning streak.  With pitcher Jeremy Hellickson finally coming off of the disabled list, and David DeJesus and Wil Myers set to return sometime in August, the Rays are getting healthy at the most important time of year.  If Hellickson and Myers can perform like they were expected to this year, a Rays comeback could become one of the baseball season's biggest stories.  It's unlikely, but certainly not impossible.

The Red Sox: 47-55, 9.5 GB, -31 run differential

The Boston Red Sox are bad, and their schedule in August should end any chance they may think they might have of making the playoffs (they'll play just one team below .500, the Astros, next month).  It's been a tough year for the defending World Champions, and it's been awesome.

The AL East battle should be one of the best story lines in baseball for the rest of the season.  Toronto is seeking to end a twenty-year playoff drought, the Yankees are trying to avoid missing the playoffs for the second straight year for the first time since the early ‘90s, and Tampa Bay wants to make one of the year's most dramatic comebacks.  Baltimore holds the advantage now, but the Yankees have made some decent upgrades and have an easier schedule over the next month, giving them a great opportunity to bank some wins and maybe even jump into the lead by mid-August.  If the Yankees can add one more piece or two, and get Tanaka and/or Pineda back, they should at least have a shot at sneaking into October.  And once they're there, anything can happen.

What do you think will happen in the AL East over the next month?  Any early predictions on a division winner?  Sound off below!