Just like in the National League, the end of June sees three distinct playoff races shaping up in the American League: a two-team race in the AL West, a five-way pit fight in the AL East, and the yearly muddled mess that is the AL Central. We've only just passed the midway point of the season, however; the only things that are certain right now are death and the Houston Astros finishing last.
Despite the noise the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim made in the offseason by signing Josh Hamilton -- and in fairness to them, it was a decent amount of noise, because it was a really gratuitously big signing -- without a massive turnaround in the second half, spurred on by some big trades for pitching, the Angels will be playing spoiler from here on out, along with the Seattle Mariners and the Houston Astros. The Astros are about as disinterested in serious contention as a team can be, this side of getting investigated by the MLBPA, and the Seattle Mariners are throwing guys from Triple-A Tacoma against the wall by the handful, trying to find someone, anyone, who will stick. This week's guy is Brad Miller, who became the system's top middle infield prospect by default when the Mariners promoted Nick Franklin a few weeks earlier. Seattle will continue on like this until they run out of prospects, or until they find something that works, or most likely, until ownership decides to start clearing house in the front office.
None of that particularly matters to the Texas Rangers or the Oakland Athletics, the two teams neck and neck at the top of the division as June draws to a close. Given the relative strength of both teams and the weakness of the rest of their division, along with what's going on in the East and Central, it's hard not to pencil in both teams to make the playoffs as they did last year -- one as the division winner, the other as the first Wild Card.
The Rangers entered the month two games up on the Athletics, but they fell as many as three games back before reclaiming a slight half-game lead going into Sunday's action. That has something to do with the Rangers' pitching staff cooling off a bit; while Yu Darvish is as fantastic as ever and Derek Holland has been more than solid, the two junior members of the rotation, rookies Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm, had 5.97 and 9.00 (!) ERAs this month, respectively. Ron Washington reaffirmed his decision to stick with Grimm in the middle of the month, arguably as much for lack of other options as for strong belief in the pitcher's ability to pull through. Despite Grimm ending June on a somewhat stronger note than he started -- 6 ER in his last 10 IP, after 19 in his first 15 -- the Rangers continue to kick the tires for rotation upgrades on the trade market … like just about every other contending team in baseball. The good news is that since starter Martin Perez rejoined the team, he's thrown 12.2 innings and allowed only 2 ER while striking out 6 and walking 2. If he can continue to produce like that, it might mean the Rangers don't have to resort to trading to get Scott Feldman back.
Meanwhile, the Oakland rotation has been rock-solid in the past month, the highest starter ERA belonging to Tommy Milone at 4.11 in 30.2 IP. On Saturday, however, promising starter Jarrod Parker, who's had a fantastic season to date, had to leave the game with a hamstring injury. As devastating as the loss of Parker might be, given the tightness of the divisional race, the A's don't yet know the extent of the injury or even if he'll miss his next start. The guy to replace Parker likely would be Oakland's 2011 first round pick Sonny Gray, who is putting up a 3.02 ERA in the hitter's paradise of the Pacific Coast League, with the peripherals and scouting reports to back it up. That's not to say that he's going to step into the majors and be an ace, but that kind of performance is pretty impressive for a guy who's sixth or seventh on the depth chart.
At the plate, the Athletics are as dangerous as ever -- Donaldson and Reddick put up good months, Brandon Moss led the club with seven home runs in June, and John Jaso, who started last offseason a Seattle Mariner before ending up in Oakland once the trade dust had settled, hit .349/.463/.488. Oakland's a pretty complete team on paper, needing immediate help only in the same places that just about everyone in baseball needs immediate help -- second base. Even then, as far as second base is concerned, a team could do a lot worse than the .266/.345/.339 the Athletics have gotten from Eric Sogard so far this year.
This remains the Detroit Tigers' division to lose, something they've seemed quite intent on doing at points over the last few years. The defending AL champion is, on paper, easily the best team in the Central and one of the best in baseball. Yet even with Miguel Cabrera hitting like a vengeful god and Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta hitting very well behind him, and even with a rotation as good as theirs, the Tigers have only the fifth-best record in the 15-team American League and are somehow unable to pull away from the Cleveland Indians. Don't get me wrong, having the fifth-best record in the AL is far better than doing what, say, the Kansas City Royals are doing -- gradually sliding farther below .500 and away from contention -- but it's still a bit lackluster considering the quality of their divisional rivals.
The Cleveland Indians, for instance, are a heavily flawed team succeeding on the back of perhaps one of the best offseasons in the free agent market we've seen in recent memory. Not only have the Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds signings looked anywhere from solid (Reynolds) to brilliant (Bourn), but the team also has gotten 60.2 innings of 4.30 ERA starting pitching from non-roster invitee and recent disaster Scott Kazmir, whose major league career was supposed to be more or less over. A 4.30 ERA is nothing to brag about for an ace, but that's not what Kazmir has to be; he has to be the guy that gives Cleveland credible innings at the back of their rotation, because when the year began, the team didn't look like it even had five real starting pitchers. While Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister started the year strong, June's heroes in the rotation were actually Ubaldo Jimenez (3.09 ERA in 32 IP) and the improbable Corey Kluber (3.90 ERA in 32.1 IP). On the other side of the ball, second baseman Jason Kipnis turned into the best hitter in baseball for June, hitting .411/.509/.667 for the entire month. The only guys who walked more than Kipnis (19) were David Ortiz (20) and Adam Dunn (21), and those two guys were intentionally walked eight and three times, respectively, to Kipnis's zero. No one doubled more than Kipnis did (12), though both Yadier Molina and Manny Machado matched his number.
The Royals designated Jeff Francouer for assignment on Saturday, a sign that perhaps even they are coming around to the idea that this team is not as good as their front office originally thought. Besides Billy Butler, who has had a respectable if not spectacular year at the plate from the designated hitter spot, the brightest spot in the Royals' lineup in June was Eric Hosmer, who added some power to his bat over the last couple weeks to finish at .297/.339/.525 for the month. Of course, the Royals are now starting someone named David Lough in the outfield, where they would've been able to slot Wil Myers, had they not traded him to Tampa Bay. Alex Gordon was terrible over the last four weeks, and for some reason Miguel Tejada is still on this team. The only thing keeping the team even three games below .500 is the phenomenal month that the starting pitchers had, other than Jeremy Guthrie, who stopped striking out even the modest number of batters he'd been sitting down before and pitched to a 4.82 ERA in 28 IP. Neither that nor the gaudy effectiveness of Greg Holland matters too much if you can't score runs, of course.
As for the Twins and White Sox, good news: It's a seller's market.
After taking a short hiatus last season, the American League East appears ready to resume its traditional position as the alleged best division in baseball, and this time the sobriquet has actual merit: not only are all five teams in the East within seven games of first place, but all five teams in the division are at or over .500. What this means, of course, is that with their infighting, the East has more or less conceded one of the two Wild Card spots to the second place team in the AL West, unless some sort of game-changer opens things up even more.
The big story in the East right now is the Toronto Blue Jays, who were at one point 12.5 games back of first place but stormed back to as close as 5 games behind first-place Boston. Then the schedule threw them back into the AL East meatgrinder, with back-to-back series against the Rays and Red Sox in which they went 2-4. But the team's fortunes are still looking up. R.A. Dickey's knuckleball has looked like the pitch the Jays traded for over his last few starts, and Josh Johnson's fastball is back in the mid-90's. Meanwhile, Esmil Rogers -- whom the Jays got for Mike Aviles, whom they got in turn for now-Boston manager John Farrell -- pitched six shutout innings in the Jays' win Saturday over the Sox and has looked like a strong addition to the Toronto rotation so far in June. With Jose Reyes finally back from his ankle injury, if things come together for the pitching and stay together for the hitting, the Jays could find themselves near the top of the division before too long.
The Yankees, on the other hand, are headed the other way. They've been hovering around .500 over the past month, and quite frankly, that's about where they deserve to be. Outside of Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano, the team doesn't have credible, healthy major league starters at any position. (The jury's still out on Zoilo Almonte, but it's not very likely that he's one, either.) A good but top-heavy staff and a fantastic bullpen can only carry a team so far if it can't hit. New York has the money and the reactionary ownership to take a shot at fixing this, should they desire, but with so much salary already tied up on the disabled list, and this year's anemic roster already the result of cost-cutting measures, it's possible they try to ride out the storm and focus on the bats returning -- Granderson, Jeter and perhaps Alex Rodriguez, pending hijinks.
The Rays and Orioles are keeping their heads above water, each so far covering up their weaknesses with their current strengths. In Baltimore, Manny Machado continues to double, and Chris Davis continues to have only Miguel Cabrera as his competition in the early MVP race, with 31 home runs and 25 doubles in the first half. Their offensive output has covered up an Orioles rotation and pen that has been mediocre to ineffective all season long. Similarly, Tampa Bay's pitching continues to be uncharacteristically bad, considering how much young talent the team has in its rotation, but Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and the recently called-up Wil Myers have hit the ball fantastically well for the Rays in June, helping them power through the poor pitching performances. Unfortunately for the Rays, Longoria has been fighting plantar fasciitis recently -- injuries have been a recurring problem for him for a few years now -- so the Rays' top bat (hitting .275/.370/.604 in June) had to sit over the weekend to rest his feet and hopefully relieve some of the irritation. If Longoria misses any substantial amount of time, as he did in 2012, the Rays soon could be overtaken by the Blue Jays.
That leaves the Red Sox atop the division, precarious as their grip is, relying on one of the oddest offensive outbursts in baseball. Between Mike Carp and Jose Iglesias, for instance, the team has about 300 PA of 1000 OPS ball from a fourth outfielder and a utility infielder, and they showed no sign of slowing down in June, as both they and David Ortiz continued to OPS over 1000. Dustin Pedroia is one of the best hitting second basemen in the league -- no real surprise there -- and right behind him, Daniel Nava is having an impressive season as a regular. He dropped off a bit in June (only a 749 OPS), but that's all right, because Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes each stepped up with an 830-ish OPS, and Jacoby Ellsbury did them even better with 890 on the month. Add that to John Lackey and Felix Doubront performing well recently, and the Sox pen being very solid despite some expected hand-wringing over not having a proven closer, and the Red Sox look to be in a very good spot moving forward.
However, some dark clouds loom -- Jon Lester hasn't been right for seven or eight starts now, and Clay Buccholz, who was having a Cy Young season up until a couple weeks ago, was sidelined by a neck injury from which he hasn't yet been able to come back effectively. The Sox have the pieces to add another starter and a Proven Closer, as well as perhaps to get help at third base where Will Middlebrooks has been a disappointment. But those moves aren't to make them a contender; they're to help separate them from the pack even more, as the (current) best team in the most competitive division in baseball. What a difference a year makes.
Though, for the record, I still think that Victorino contract is ridiculous.