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State of the AL East: Why the Yankees are in first place

Nearly a quarter of the way through the season, and there's reason to be optimistic about what's left of the 2015 campaign.

Al Bello/Getty Images

We're nearly a quarter of the way through the regular season, and the AL East is shaping up pretty much as anticipated before the year began. The Yankees have held the number one spot for about three weeks, but they'll have to continue playing at the same steady pace to make that lead a comfortable one. The separation between the Yanks and the last place Red Sox is easily the smallest gap of any division in baseball. Last night's game against the Rays marked the 17th straight game against a division rival. The Yankees have only played 7 games all season against teams outside their own division, and they've handled it fairly well, going 16-12 against those opponents. That trend is over for a while, though, as they won't see any action against an AL East team until June 12.

Tampa Bay and Baltimore appear to pose the biggest threats to the Yanks in their quest for the division crown, but Tampa can't seem to catch a break when it comes to the health of their starting pitchers and the O's have been dealing with some dead weight in their staff between Chris Tillman and Bud Norris. Boston and Toronto have the kind of offenses that you'd expect to see from a division winner, but you wouldn't be able to assemble a single competent rotation between the two teams.

Barring a series of unfortunate injuries or a collective nosedive in production from key contributors, there's reason to feel good going forward for Yankees fans. Most of the glaring question marks from spring training have worked out in their favor. The bullpen has been as good as advertised. Mark Teixeira has seen the resurgence we'd all been dreaming of. Brian McCann has picked up where he left off at the end of 2014 as a much-needed RBI-man in the middle of the order. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner have been as potent a 1-2 punch as you'll find in baseball. And Michael Pineda has been a legitimate ace and Cy Young candidate.

There's still plenty of room for improvement, however. For one, having a healthy starting staff will be a major help. Adam Warren and Chase Whitley have been serviceable, but the return of both Masahiro Tanaka and Ivan Nova will be invaluable. The health of the rotation taking an ugly turn like it did last season is probably the most realistic obstacle in the way of a playoff spot this year.

Although the shortcomings of guys like CC Sabathia, Stephen Drew, and Carlos Beltran have largely been covered for thanks to the solid play of their teammates, the toll it takes on the team will only continue to worsen and become more evident as the season wears on. Stephen Drew is a problem with a much easier fix, but should the Yankees find themselves playing meaningful games late in the year they'll have to find a course of action that saves them from having to give away a spot in the lineup or a start every fifth day.

In all, it doesn't seem likely that the Yankees run away with the division lead anytime soon, but that doesn't mean they won't be able to hold onto it for the rest of the season.