So who had the New York Yankees as one of the best teams in the American League by the end of April?
More bets were probably placed on them rather than the Milwaukee Brewers leading baseball in wins -- after all, just from a historical perspective, it makes very little sense to bet against the Yankees for any sustained period of time, and the Brewers didn't just spend the offseason adding almost half a billion dollars in new payroll commitments trying to avoid the "embarrassment" of another season spent barely over .500. That said, the AL East features the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox and the always-trendy Tampa Bay Rays, both of whom were atop pundit lists coming into the season -- and both of whom are languishing at the bottom of the division come the end of the first month of the campaign.
This is, of course, transitory: The regular season is about one sixth over, for some teams creeping closer to a fifth. No one is going to be clinching anything based off their April record, and to be one of the best teams in the American League is different from being one of the best teams in baseball. The best team in the AL by record -- the Oakland Athletics -- is trailing behind the Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves in wins, both of whom have the day off to travel.
The American League in general has had less distance between first and last place than its counterpart the National League -- you can call that parity or mediocrity or you can say that's just how one month's worth of games happened to work out without privileging any kind of explanation, but while the best team in the NL had three wins more than the best team in the AL going into Monday's action, the worst team in the NL had three more losses than its counterpart in the other league -- and that counterpart is Houston. It takes some gumption to lose more games than the Astros over any period of time longer than 48 hours, but the Arizona Diamondbacks have pulled it off.
Where the Yankees sit at the top of the AL East, therefore, has just about as much to do with their competition as it has to do with them themselves. So far, the AL East has been rather uninspiring from top to bottom. All of the division's five teams had a negative run differential going into Monday's games, and only Tampa Bay was in action -- against the Chicago White Sox, currently the best offense in baseball, who doubled them up. Despite the fact that outside Tampa Bay the division's offenses outstrip their rotations by healthy margins, it's unlikely that state of affairs will continue. Clay Buchholz isn't as good as his sub-2 ERA from last season, but he's surely better than the 6.66 ERA he's put up so far this year, for instance, and while losing Matt Moore for the season to Tommy John surgery is a big blow to the Tampa Bay rotation it's hardly a fatal one -- they just need David Price and Chris Archer to step up and pitch like they've shown they can pitch. Of course, one of those guys has a much longer and more established track record than the other.
But let's not take away from the Yankees, who have two of the better young starters in this young season in Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda. Pineda, he of the 19.2 IP of 1.83 ERA baseball, is currently serving a 10 game suspension for using pine tar, but let's be serious here -- he's actually serving a 10 game suspension for being so bad at cheating that the opposing manager, John Farrell, had to call him out on it or look like a moron. If pine tar is necessary to Pineda's success this time of year, the appropriate people in the appropriate places will simply teach him how better to play that particular portion of the game. Pine tar or no, Pineda's true talent level isn't in the 1.83 ERA range, but as long as he keeps his shoulder together and doesn't re-injure himself he's got true middle of the rotation talent, and those guys can go on a tear sometimes; it's just the way the game works.
Tanaka, meanwhile, is even better than advertised: 35.2 IP of 2.27 ERA ball with a ridiculous 7.67 K/BB ratio. The question of who has the best pure splitter in the world is down to him and Koji Uehara of the Boston Red Sox -- but Tanaka's been able to use his effectively as a starter three times through the lineup, so he wins most value comparisons by default. There are very few ways to make your team feel better about spending $155 million on a pitcher sight-unseen than by spending the first month wiping the floor with just about everyone in baseball who steps up to the plate against you.
That's not to say there aren't room for improvements -- not only in the rotation, which needs C.C Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda to step up and needs to find a long-term replacement for Ivan Nova, who will require Tommy John surgery of his own, but on the hitting side of things as well. Right now the Yankee offense runs through Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixiera, and ... Yangervis Solarte, who was the 25th man on the roster coming into the season. Never let it be said the Yankees won't play you if you perform. Kelly Johnson, Brett Gardner, and Alfonso Soriano are flirting with league average, while Brian Roberts, Brian McCann and Derek Jeter all need to step it up. Roberts has gotten a pass on his performance because he came cheap and no one expected him to even remain healthy this long, and Jeter's gotten a pass because he's Jeter and this is his retirement tour -- but Brian McCann's mysterious reservoir of New Yorker goodwill has got to run dry at some point, given that he was brought in to hit and so far he's hitting .235/.279/.370.
Of course, everyone else is having weird early season sample size issues, too -- Matt Wieters on Baltimore looks like the second coming of 2010 Joe Mauer that Orioles fans were promised, while the only other guy on the club who has any idea how to hit appears to be Nelson Cruz; Toronto pretty much looks like it should, you know, outside of Mark Buehrle having a 2.16 ERA. This is what you agree to deal with when you follow baseball in April, and the Yankees are no more or less prone to it than anyone else. What is for real, however, is the Yankee bullpen -- just about every single piece in the pen, from rookie Dellin Betances to new closer David Robertson, is a legit talent, and Brian Cashman and his people have proven to be perhaps the league's best bullpen builder over the past decade regardless of whether Mariano Rivera was hanging around or not. A great bullpen helps teams over perform their run differential, and with all due to respect to the Red Sox, right now the Yankees have the best bullpen in the business.
Other than that, though, despite New York's sole possession of the AL East's top spot we don't know much about them yet -- besides the fact that they're the Yankees. They don't stay down for two years in a row. It's not how they're built.