The AL East is tightly bunched up right now, with four teams tied at the top with 10-7 record and only the Red Sox having achieved some separation in the wrong direction. Toronto and Baltimore are right there with the more heralded Yankees and Rays. TheSportsNotebook runs through all five teams to see how the first two and a half weeks of play have shaken out…
NY Yanks (10-7): I think what we’ve seen from this Yankee team is mostly what we’ll get. There’s a ton of offense, with Derek Jeter continuing to defy age and those of us who say he’s finished, as The Captain is hitting over .400 and has popped four home runs. Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson are swinging the bats well, and even catcher Russell Martin has a .400 OBP. While Martin had a hot start last year before declining, any fall-off from him will likely be picked up by Mark Teixeira, in his usual April deep-freeze, and Robinson Cano, who isn’t hitting badly, but hasn’t really found his All-Star caliber rhythm yet. The issue is going to be starting pitching. C.C. Sabathia, like Teixeira, has April problems that are well-documented, so his 5.27 ERA after four starts isn’t sending off any alarm bells. But in spite of last night’s good outing in Texas, Hiroki Kuroda has gotten roughed up and Freddy Garcia’s 9.75 ERA is showing that last year was probably his swan song as an effective major league pitcher. We can grant Sabathia’s resurgence, which moves the Yanks up into the 90-95 win category, which is probably enough to win the division, but it’s not the standards this team measures itself by, nor does it make them an undisputed frontrunner.
Tampa Bay (10-7): Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena have come out blasting, each with OBPs on the high side of .400 and slugging percentages in the high .500s. Matt Joyce is also sizzling hot and these three hitters have kept Tampa Bay in the top five of the American League in runs scored. They will need more depth to the attack and the best bets to come through are second baseman Ben Zobrist and leftfielder Desmond Jennings, the latter being a young prospect in his first full season in the majors. The top three of the rotation—David Price, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson—is settled in, but highly touted Matt Moore is struggling. A big part of Tampa Bay’s presumed success this season was built on the presumed stardom of Jennings and Moore, based on very limited time last year. That’s a lot to presume and why I stand by my preseason prediction that this team would not win 90 games. One area that is getting cleared up is the bullpen, where Fernando Rodney has nailed all five of his save chances with a buck-23 ERA.
Toronto (10-7): The Jays are playing winning baseball and Jose Bautista has only hit one home run. The team’s meal ticket has taken 14 walks and with no one else in the lineup besides second baseman Kelly Johnson getting on base consistently, there’s no reason for anyone to give Bautista anything to hit. Johnson has been the team’s best offensive player in April, with a .395/.459 OBP/Slugging line. But while other players—Edwin Encarcion and Colby Rasmus—are hitting with some power, there’s a problem with table-setting. Either that gets fixed, or there will be some long offensive droughts ahead, with Bautista getting bases-empty walks. Manager John Farrell’s expertise is pitching and he’s got a reliable top three right now with Ricky Romero steady, and Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek coming through early on.
Baltimore (10-7): Adam Jones’ contract situation is a topic of conversation in Baltimore, with the centerfielder coming up on free agency this offseason. He’s hitting .304 and has hit five home runs already. It was a mistake for the Oriole front office to leave him without an extension this long, and with him off to a hot start, his price tag only rises each day. The team must re-sign Jones and make him, along with Matt Wieters, the cornerstone of their rebuilding. Wieters, by the way, is hitting the ball almost as well as Jones and with improvement each year he’s been in the majors, has become arguably the American League’s best catcher. Pitching is the big concern in Charm City, and in that light, the solid April of Japanese import Wei-Yin Chen is heartening, the poor month of Brian Matusz disappointing, but the fate of the staff ultimately rests with Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter. Each have ERAs in the 4s and can swing either direction going forward.
Boston (6-10): It’s not the offense that’s weighing Boston down, as last Saturday’s epic collapse against New York showed, when the Sox blew a 9-0 lead and lost 15-9. Not only is David Ortiz locked in early, along with Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez, but question marks like Mike Aviles, Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross are making significant offensive contributions. The starting rotation is troubled—Felix Doubront’s 3.94 ERA is a nice story, but when it’s the best in your rotation you’ve got issues. That is somewhat misleading—Josh Beckett is at 4.56, with the ERA coming down rapidly as he’s pitched extremely well three straight times after a disastrous first outing. The issue is the bullpen. Daniel Bard made an appearance out of the pen on Monday in Minnesota, so it’s looking like the Red Sox might be coming to their senses and putting Bard back where he belongs. In a division where there’s no clearly great team and in a playoff format that now has two wild-cards, Boston certainly has time to turn it around, but they have to demonstrate they can get through the last nine outs of a game without giving New England a collective heart attack.