Much to the dismay of Yankees and Red Sox fans, the American League East division has seen a notable rise in parity over the last several seasons as their fellow division rivals the Rays, Orioles, and Blue Jays made much anticipated returns to relevance. Having won 12 of the last 16 division crowns and four World Series in that timespan, the Yankees have reigned supreme the most. The Red Sox though, have won three World Series in the last decade including last season’s triumph over the Cardinals in six games. This season hasn’t been as kind to Boston, as they currently are the lone dwellers in the AL East cellar, and this week’s trade deadline could see them move key members of their championship roster.
While Boston has not yet been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, it’s safe to say their chances are significantly slimmer than the rest of their divisional opponents. Their struggles this season have opened the door for a new age of the AL East where the standings are constantly being altered as the balance of power shifts to the hottest club. The Orioles currently reside in first by just a small cushion over Toronto, which they have held fast since July 3. The Blue Jays however, have managed to spend the most days total in first place so far this season.
What’s gone right for Baltimore so far?
For starters, they lead their division in bullpen ERA, which has helped them post a solid 19-16 record in one-run games. They’ve also managed an impressive 32-23 record in road games and a 26-18 record against other AL East teams, a statistic that could prove crucial for tiebreaking purposes should the division or wild card race come down to the wire with another divisional opponent. Baltimore has put themselves in a prime position to win their competitive division with a strong month of July in which they’ve posted a .682 win percentage.
The Blue Jays have the most dangerous lineup in the AL East
Nipping at the Orioles’ tails are the Blue Jays, who have scored the most runs in the AL East and boast arguably the most dangerous lineup of the five teams. Their 2014 success has been bolstered by a torrid month of May, in which they went 21-9, helping them jump out to six-game lead in early June. Sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, both of whom rank among the top 10 leaders in on base plus slugging percentage thus far in 2014, spearhead their stacked lineup. Encarnacion has been out of the lineup since early July due to a quadriceps strain, but that hasn’t slowed the Jays’ lineup down.
Baltimore will have their passports stamped for a crucial three-game series at the Rogers Centre next week, and with Toronto less than three games behind the O’s in a tight race, there is plenty on the line. A quick glance at the schedule shows that the teams will meet again at Camden Yards in mid-September, before closing out their regular seasons in Toronto with another three-game set. Tickets to those games could be hot commodities if the current standings hold until autumn is upon us.
Rays to Riches
Written off by most following an abysmal start to the season, the Tampa Bay Rays have quietly surged back to the fringes of relevance. They’ve completely turned their season around, winning nine of their last 10 games and 21 of their last 27. This run includes imposing series victories over Boston, St. Louis, Toronto, Detroit, Baltimore, Minnesota, and New York. Trade discussions surrounding ace David Price also appear to have hushed as a result of the hot streak.
Even with their backs against the wall, the Rays have not waivered. Their recent success has left them with a slim chance to contend for the wild card, but it represents an opportunity nonetheless. Besides the usual suspects in their lineup like Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria, they’ve rode the back of rookie outfielder Kevin Kiermaier who has driven in 12 runs so far in this month, good for second on the team. Kiermaier, an Indiana native and former 31st round pick also has made a name for himself with several highlight reel catches since joining the Rays, including this one.
The Rays’ resolute month of July bares plenty of similarity to their 2013 campaign, in which they finished the same month with a season-high 21 wins. That streak allowed them to start August with a 64-44 record, a vastly superior record to their current one. An outside shot at a playoff berth is all they have, and the performance of their pitching staff will determine whether they stick around in September. If the current standings hold, Tampa Bay will fail to push their record over .500 for the first time since 2008, the rookie season of Price and Longoria.
Yankees in an unfamiliar spot
That just leaves the New York Yankees in the contending column. The perennial AL East juggernauts find themselves in an unfamiliar position at this point in the season. Their offense has proven inconsistent and has been constantly stymied by opposing pitchers. Despite an overhaul of their lineup in advance of 2014, their only player currently in the top 50 in WAR is outfielder Brett Gardner (3.7). He is well on his way to setting career highs most in major offensive categories, and has certainly rewarded the Yankees for their faith in him after he signed a contract extension this past offseason.
Keeping New York in flux is the ongoing scenario surrounding their ace Mashiro Tanaka. An injury to his UCL ligament could derail his rookie season, which has the potential to elevate him to Cy Young status. His first 18 starts proved all of his preseason hype true. Tanaka’s dominance can be attributed to his pinpoint control and nasty arsenal of pitches. He’s walked only 19 batters and allowed just 15 home runs demonstrating his remarkably short learning curve. The Yankees need Tanaka back if they want to make the postseason as he gives them a chance to win every time he makes a start.
Trade deadline is key
Trade deadline and August acquisitions could decide what the AL East looks like at season’s end, as all of the contenders have glaring needs in their starting rotations. Baltimore can offer the most attractive package containing blue-chip prospects like Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, and Hunter Harvey, but they’ve been reluctant to part with them thus far. The Yankees and Blue Jays are more limited in terms of what they can offer a rebuilding team from their farm systems, but other moves are not out of the realm of possibility.
The way it looks right now the Orioles seem like the favorites to win the division, but the Blue Jays are playing terrific baseball and will keep it interesting. This division won’t be decided until the final week of September, and the team that misses out has a prime chance to capture the second wild card berth. The Yankees have been much improved since returning from the All-Star break, but need to win more games at home if they want to close the gap. Their season could come down to their final 20 games, all against AL East opponents and 11 of them in the Bronx.