AL East Report: It’s Tampa Bay’s Time To Take Control

The American League East has essentially hit the re-set button, with all five teams packed within three games of each other heading into Tuesday night’s games. You can make an argument that this favors the underdog teams—Baltimore, and to a lesser extent Toronto, as an underdog always benefits from shortening the game, or in this case the season by a couple months. You can argue that it works to Boston’s favor, who navigated an early season filled with wounds, both medial and self-inflicted. I don’t see how it works in New York’s favor, although they could certainly still win the division. The team I think really has to be pleased right now is the Tampa Bay Rays, who hold the narrow AL East lead and are well-poised to add to that as summer wears on and we start seeing some separation.

While Tampa Bay’s injuries aren’t as voluminous as Boston’s, there’s been no higher impact loss that the Rays losing Evan Longoria a month in and not getting him back until about two weeks from now. Before Yankee fans hit the roof and wonder about Mariano, I’m just talking about injured players who are going to return this year and therefore impact the race. Longoria’s talent alone speaks for itself, but further consider that Tampa Bay’s one weakness is consistent power hitting, so you not only remove a team’s best player when he goes to the disabled list, but the one whose absence is least able to be covered for.

Furthermore, Longoria’s not the only injury. Desmond Jennings, the promising left fielder who played so well after his callup midway through 2011 has also been out. Jennings is expected to return tonight when the team visits the Bronx. The young hitter hadn’t exploded out of the gate or anything, but with a .333 OBP was already respectable and one good hot streak away from being outstanding. Jennings is the table-setter Joe Maddon desperately needs for his offense.

Tampa Bay is therefore a team that lost its best table-setter and one of its only power hitters, who also happens to be one of the game’s best all-around talents and they’re still nominally in first place in a division on re-set.  And it’s not because other everyday players stood up and filled the void—Carlos Pena has been awful, batting .201 and his eight home runs being about his only good at-bats of the year. Luke Scott has been a similar disappointment. Give credit to Matt Joyce, with his .400/.535 OBP/Slugging line for being the only bright spot the offense has had.

Where Maddon deserves tremendous credit is in the bullpen. The starting pitching has been solid, but everyone expected that. The pen was a weak area and Fernando Rodney has stabilized the back end by closing 17/18 save opportunities with a 1.03 ERA. That’s Cy Young-caliber stuff if he keeps this pace up. Where the manager comes in is that while the rest of the pen is above average individually, they have collective results that are dominant. The Rays rank third in the American League in save percentage, a stat that includes late inning spots when the setup team is still working to pave the way to Rodney. It tells us that Maddon is doing a yeoman’s job getting the right pitchers into the right spots and making the most of what he has. But at this point in his career, and that of this organization since 2008, why should we be surprised anymore? Tampa Bay has a tough schedule this week, with road games against the Yankees and Marlins, but between now and the end of July I’m looking for them to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the AL East.

And speaking of the rest of the AL East, here’s a brief check-in on the four other contenders…

Baltimore (30-24): We knew this time was coming for the Orioles. They’re in a funk, having lost four straight series, going 3-9 in the process. Every team has to come through this, but with Baltimore’s track record they’ve got everyone’s eyes upon them, looking to see if Buck Showalter’s team can take a punch. The biggest weakness the Birds have is the inability to get runners on base consistently. Other than Adam Jones, who’s having a monster year, only Nick Markakis is a really consistent OBP man, and he’s now on the DL to the end of June. That’s a lot of pressure on the pitching and the ability of Jones and J.J. Hardy to carry the offense with home runs.

NY Yankees (29-24): The Pinstripes are on a nice run right now, having won series against Kansas City, Oakland and Detroit sandwiched around losing two of three to the red-hot Los Angeles Angels. The wins aren’t against Murderer’s Row, but there is a consistency there that Joe Girardi has to like. What Girardi can’t like is how dependent his pitching is on Andy Pettite right now. The veteran lefty is doing well, with 3.49 ERA in four starts, but how long can he go. I think Pettite’s the baseball equivalent of New Jersey Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur. He’s an old warrior and he’s going to absolutely have some great moments. But there’s also going to be those share of times when age just simply becomes apparent.

Toronto (28-26): While the Jays swept Baltimore early last week, the other results suggest that’s more about the Oriole slump than anything Toronto is doing, as they’ve lost series to Tampa, Texas and Boston and now start a three-game set against a hot Chicago White Sox team over on the South Side. The bullpen is a massive problem—no team has a worse percentage in closing saves than the Blue Jays. Manager John Farrell is a good mind whose background is as a pitching coach. I think he’ll get something figured out, but this is a division with little room for error.

Boston (28-26): Speaking of figuring out the bullpen, the Red Sox are a team that has and they’ve figured a lot else out since the season hit its nadir in the first part of May when the record was 12-19. But if the Yankees should be concerned that Pettite’s role is too important, so too do the Sox need to be worried about the fact that right now their ace is Felix Doubront. At 6-2 and a 3.75 ERA in 11 starts, he leads the rotation in wins and ERA. If Pettite’s like Brodeur, I’ll analogize Doubront to Braden Holtby, the Washington Capitals’ goalie who had a magic run in the first round of the playoffs, but started to crack a little bit one round later. The Jon Lester-Josh Beckett-Clay Bucholz trio has to step it up and at least Bucholz and Beckett have shown signs of doing that.