By Marc Normandin
The American League East has been the beast in baseball for years now, but, of late, there's been a shift to assign that reputation to their junior circuit cousins out west. And why not? The Rangers went to consecutive World Series, the Angels began to sign the likes of C.J. Wilson, Albert Pujols and most recently Josh Hamilton to lucrative, long-term deals, and neither of those two even won the division thanks to the Athletics.
Add in that, heading into 2013, the Yankees were older, the Orioles considered a fluke by many, the Rays had lost key players and were reloading their farm system, and the Red Sox had gone from disappointing and mediocre to protected draft pick bad in short order, and you can see why so much focus was out west. Yes, the Blue Jays made a couple of big trades, but the perception was that they would dominate the rest of the division.
None of the above has proved true. Instead, a much more dominant AL East has reemerged. The Yankees are old, and they have many injuries, but they were also in control of one of the league's two wild cards heading into Wednesday's contests. The one-year wonder O's are anything but at this point, and sit just one game back of the Yankees. Despite their poor start to the season, the Rays are 35-29, and one back of Baltimore. Then there are the Red Sox, who were the only AL club with 40 wins already entering Wednesday, as their off-season retooling has worked out where Toronto's more headline-grabbing affair failed.
Even without the Blue Jays playing up to lofty preseason expectations, this is a division with four viable playoff teams, three of them with a better record than the AL Central-leading Tigers. The existence of the Athletics and the Rangers means the East will never be alone in the wild card hunt, but there's a very good chance they take both of them.
The East is back, again, and coming out of it is only going to be become more difficult.
In April, the Yankees survived injuries to the likes of Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira thanks to ridiculous performances by part-timers like Vernon Wells. In May, that trick could not be repeated as expertly, with New York dropping just shy of 100 points off their team OPS while posting a collective sub-.300 on-base percentage. They still managed to go 15-13 on the month, though, keeping themselves in it for when the lineup could once again be healthy. There is still waiting to be done, but if they can continue to succeed for just a bit longer, the wait should turn out to be worth it.
Granderson should be back by the end of June, or close to it. As Vernon Wells has seen his production falter after a strong start, that will be huge, and should improve the outfield defense as well -- Granderson might not be the center fielder he used to be, but he's still overqualified for left field. There's Derek Jeter, who, for all his failings afield, remains a more than viable bat for a shortstop, one who has hit a combined .294/.352/.396 over his last three seasons. Complications in his recovery mean the Yankees have to wait longer than they expected for him, but with Jayson Nix and his .250/.317/.304 line taking up the bulk of playing time at shortstop, any amount of Jeter should be a boost.
Then there's Alex Rodriguez: he's a polarizing figure, but the Yankees have received very little from Kevin Youkilis at third base this year. Despite injury, Rodriguez hit .272/.353/.430 in 2012, and Yankees third basemen this year are at just .262/.306/.363. As with Jeter, even a diminished Rodriguez should be able to improve on that production.
The Red Sox have also faced injuries. Shane Victorino has had back and hamstring injuries knock him out on separate occasions; closer Joel Hanrahan is out for the year after Tommy John surgery; most of the rest of the bullpen has spent time on the shelf (much of it concurrent); Jacoby Ellsbury, like he did last year, seemed bothered by his shoulder and was lacking power; Will Middlebrooks, John Lackey, David Ross, and Stephen Drew have all visited the DL, and the team didn't even have David Ortiz in the lineup for the season's first few weeks thanks to fallout from 2012's Achilles injury.
Despite all this, their depth has kept them in it, and now the lineup is whole for what seems like the first time. Ellsbury is hitting once more.Victorino has been huge for an outfield that lacked defense last year. You'd never know David Ortiz ever missed time, as he owns a 167 OPS+ and 27 extra-base hits in 47 games. Then there's Dustin Pedroia, who has a fully torn UCL in his thumb, sustained on Opening Day, but has played in all 66 Red Sox games and has a career-best OPS+ to show for it.
If the problems they do have continue -- Felix Doubront fails to take that next step in the rotation, Ryan Dempster fails to find the strike for far too long -- they have reinforcements in the form of Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, top young pitchers acquired from the Dodgers in 2012's Nick Punto trade. The outfield can lean on Jackie Bradley Jr., who looks like a different player than he did back in April, now that he's spent some time mashing at Triple-A. They have reinforcements, budget room for a July trade, and a talented core. They're for real -- though the nature of the division requires a reminder that this guarantees nothing.
For a team with as much luck as the Orioles had in 2012, there was plenty of room for regression in their favor. The lineup was supposed to be the strong point of last year's squad, but it was mostly average, with no real standout and just a bunch of solid contributors filling out the lineup. There was more talent than that in it, though, and if it started to manifest itself, they were going to make noise. That's just what's happened, and it's why they remain in contention despite a rotation that could use a hand or three.
This year's Orioles have a team OPS+ of 108. While they once again have that (mostly) solid top-to-bottom thing going on in the lineup, they also have a few serious run producers. Adam Jones is replicating his 2012 breakout campaign at .301/.325/.515 with 19 homers, and Chris Davis has entered the realm of elite hitters -- changes to his swing and approach late last year have led to this year's .335/.416/.683 line and Jose Bautista-esque coming out party. The one that's most surprising of all, though, even more so than Davis, is Manny Machado. Last year, he looked promising, but far off from being a serious contributor. He's broken out in his age-20 campaign, with a league-leading 27 doubles and a .315/.350/.480 line. If he can continue to hit, and maybe even develop, that will be huge for the Orioles' chances to stay in this thing.
They could also use Kevin Gausman taking a step or two forward in his development as a pitcher in order to shore up a rotation in need of that sort of thing, and, failing that -- or even with it -- they might need to be buyers at the deadline in order to bolster their starting pitching. If they keep hitting, though, they're going to be competitive, and dangerous in the AL East.
Last among these four, but maybe only for now, are the Rays. Back on April 18, we profiled the Rays and said it was too early to count them out, as their lineup was much better than it had shown itself to be. They were just 5-10 at that point, but are 30-19 since, and are now second in the American League, behind only the Red Sox, in team OPS+. Even great teams will have awful stretches, so there's no need to play the "what if" game about their start. The important thing is that they're back in the mix now, and are dangerous offensively. Where they have room to improve is, in a surprising turn for the Rays, on the mound. That's doable.
The Rays' worst pitcher has been Roberto Hernandez, the former Fausto Carmona. He's replaceable, possibly even internally, once the Rays decide they're comfortable with someone like Chris Archer (Baseball America's #36 prospect) or Alex Colome (24 years old, 2.89 ERA and 9.2 K/9 at Triple-A) taking the job from him. They will also get David Price, the reigning AL Cy Young winner, back from the disabled list shortly. Price suffered through command issues that have led to a horrible season, but remember: he's David Price. If he can work out his command, we're talking about one of the league's top starters. Getting that version of price back, and adding one or both of Archer and Colome to the permanent rotation mix, could mean an entirely different Rays' rotation in the second half.
All of these teams are flawed, but they are all in a position to be even better than they already have been. Even the Blue Jays, as poor as their season record looks, have been better of late: they're just under .500 since April turned to May, though the damage from that first month is already done. They might not be in the playoff mix as expected, but their four cousins of the East should all be involved -- and that's a scary proposition not just for AL East clubs, but the rest of the American League.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has writtenforBaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.