The American League East was seen as the most balanced of baseball’s six divisions when the season began, with no clear dominant team and no clear bad one. The question was whether someone would pull away in either direction in the early part of the season. After three weeks of play, both the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays are, at the very least, having to play with some urgency. While the Red Sox, Yankees and Orioles are all off to good starts, the Jays & Rays are struggling. In today’s American League MLB coverage, TheSportsNotebook will examine why.
TORONTO LANGUISHES IN LAST
Toronto’s problems can be summed up thusly…
*They don’t get runners on base consistently.
*The starting pitching has been horrible.
*Some bad luck with injuries has hit them.
The Blue Jays are in the bottom third of the American League offensively and the main culprit is a team on-base percentage that’s 14th among 15 AL teams. It’s not that there are no signs of life—catcher J.P. Arencibia, rightfielder Jose Bautista and centerfielder Colby Rasmus are hitting home runs. The trio has combined to go deep 14 times, but none are getting on base with any regularity. Notable players like Edwin Encarcion, Melky Cabrera and Adam Lind are just having slow starts period.
Pitching was supposed to cure a lot of ills in Toronto, and maybe in time t will. But right now the ballyhooed acquisitions of R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson aren’t panning out. Johnson’s ERA near 7, Buehrle’s is 6.26 and Dickey, last year’s Cy Young winner, is at 4.30. I am not optimistic that Dickey will turn around—we’re talking about a 38-year-old pitcher who’s been moved from pitcher-friendly Citi Field in New York into an offense-heavy division in the AL East. Other starters include J.A. Happ and Brandon Morrow and they haven’t been any better.
Jose Reyes has been lost until June with a leg injury. Reyes was off to good start, with a .465 on-base percentage. That’s something that directly addresses the team’s biggest offensive problem and it’s done by a player who can be expected to play at a high level over the long haul. While his injury is not a shock, given Reyes’ fragile history, nor was it a foregone conclusion. The Jays can legitimately claim this kind of extended absence as a bad break.
Toronto was the betting-line favorite to win the AL East at the start of the season. If you were the many who believed in them, you will undoubtedly want to give Dickey, Buehrle, Johnson and a lot of those offensive pieces time to click. If I had been one of the believers, that’s certainly the tack I would take. But the Blue Jays were six games out of first coming into Sunday and already trailing all four division rivals. Toronto just began a 14-day stretch that has twelve games against the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox. Believer or not, I think we can all agree that urgency has come early north of the border.
THE PRICE ISN’T RIGHT IN TAMPA
Tampa Bay is only a half-game better than Toronto coming into Sunday, and their early-season issues can be boiled down to this…
*The offense has been predictably subpar
*The bullpen has been unexpectedly problematic.
*David Price has really unexpectedly been terrible.
The Rays are 11th in the American League in runs scored and I don’t know that anyone—including myself who believes in this team—is all that shocked. Evan Longoria is swinging the bat well, with a stat line of .362 on-base percentage/.500 slugging percentage. While Rays fans can reasonably expect Ben Zobrist to hit for more power and Matt Joyce to pick up the pace, they can also reasonably expect James Loney’s good start to soon dissipate.
Whether this team can move into the top half of the American League offensively likely depends on whether Desmond Jennings can become a true table-setter. After a disappointing 2012 campaign, Jennings is off to a slow start. Another possibility might be for the middle infield tandem of Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson to hit, something they have not done thus far.
Either way, no one doubts that Tampa Bay has to pitch at a very high level if they’re going to make the playoffs. That’s what makes Fernando Rodney’s start so concerning. After a 2012 campaign where he was nothing short of lights-out, Rodney has a 4.76 ERA and an early blown save. The pen as a whole has coughed up three saves thus far, and its 2-for-5 closing ratio is the worst in the American League.
Price joins Dickey as reigning Cy Young winners who are struggling out of the gate. Price has a 6.26 ERA in four starts. In this case though, I think the positives in the rotation outweigh the negatives—Alex Cobb is off to a good start, with a 2.53 ERA and Matt Moore has been dominant, with a 1.00 ERA in his three starts. Given the certainty that Price will start to pitch better, the continued growth of Cobb and Moore is a more significant development.
That’s why I expect Tampa Bay to turn it around and climb back up with the Red Sox/Yankees/Orioles trio in a season-long joust, with the question of the bullpen and the offense determining whether Tampa can ultimately get over the top. The Rays host the Yankees to start next week, including an appearance on ESPN’s Monday Night Baseball. That’s followed by winnable road series at Chicago, Kansas City and Colorado. As with Toronto, Tampa Bay has to approach these early games with some extra intensity.
AROUND THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
It was an emotional week in Boston, and the Red Sox delivered a magical moment to their city on Saturday. After a pregame ceremony honoring the victims of the Marathon bombing, Boston beat Kansas City with a three-run homer in the eighth by Daniel Nava. The leftfielder has now hit a grand slam on his first major league pitch (2010) and then jacked the game-winning blast in the first home game after a terrorist attack.
As a Boston fan, I’ve said any number of derogatory things about Yankee fans, and you can be assured that I often thought worse than I actually wrote. As such, I have to tip my cap to their absolute class in singing “Sweet Caroline” to honor Boston this week at Yankee Stadium. And if you see the highlights, the Yankee fans sang the song with real gusto. I’m sure as time goes by I’ll have to throw in some jabs at Yankee backers, but the class and dignity they showed this week will not be forgotten.
The American League Central remains packed, with Detroit unable to gain traction. In the American League West the dynamic has not fundamentally changed since last week, when we looked at yet another slow start for the Angels. It’s still Oakland and Texas with some early separation and Los Angeles—now 6-10—trying to find their footing.