Going into the 2011 season, 45 of 45 so-called experts on ESPN predicted the Boston Red Sox, to win the American League East crown. None picked the real champions of the division of that year, your New York Yankees and nobody could have predicted Boston to fall to pieces like they did that September.
Those “experts” apparently didn’t learn their lesson. Most of them picked the Toronto Blue Jays, this year’s version of the 2011 Red Sox, to win the crown and barely any of them picked the Yankees to make the playoffs.
Of course, given all the moves the Jays made and the injuries the Yankees have sustained for the last several months, you couldn’t blame them and boy do they look foolish yet again.
Here the Yankees are, in first place in the AL East and only half a game out from the best record in baseball. Love it or hate it, it’s one of the biggest story-lines of the season. The idea was to tread water for the first couple of months until key players came back, but right now you can just laugh at the idea.
No Derek Jeter, no Alex Rodriguez, no Mark Teixeira, no Curtis Granderson, and many more injuries have occurred but the Bronx Bombers have not slowed down whatsoever. A bunch of has-beens and replacement level players have scored enough runs for a pitching staff made of an ace losing velocity, a couple of old geezers still getting it done, and the greatest reliever in baseball history still doing his thing after missing last year thanks to an ACL injury.
Which is why the division is actually theirs for the taking this year – yet again! Nobody gave them a chance on Opening Day, and they could be the favorites as of right now.
Of course, the AL East is absolutely wide open. Going into the season it was the consensus that just about any of the five teams had at least a decent shot at winning. Each team has very specific weaknesses but also some big time strengths.
Let’s start with the Boston Red Sox. They lost 93 games last year and have seemed to been rebuilt overnight literally and figuratively. The new regime in Beantown has put together a decent team that can mash the ball, led by newly acquired Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli. Their two big aces, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, have rebounded and leading the charge.
Boston’s primary and potentially fatal weakness: Pitching depth, quite a familiar one. Both of their top relivers, Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, are on the DL. After Lester and and Buchholz, their rotation is quite awful and thin. They’ve lost 8 of their last 10, and they could be in trouble because of this quagmire.
The Toronto Blue Jays, everyone’s favorite to win the division and possibly the World title, have been a major disappointment. Nine games under .500, last in the division and the second worst record in the AL. They’ve had their usual injuries, but the facts are simple: they have the second worst team ERA in baseball and the guys they brought in, 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle have to pitch to their baseball cards. They’re way too talented to be this bad.
The Baltimore Orioles, the darlings of 2012, are so far proving they are no fluke. They’ve scored the most runs in baseball and have gotten great performances from the young Manny Machado, franchise star Adam Jones, slugger Chris Davis, and others. Their pitching has improved a bit, and could get even better if top prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman find their way to the big leagues this year.
Next we got the Tampa Bay Rays, always a threat and a force to be reckoned with. Only 19-18, one has to wonder when they’ll get hot. Indeed, their usual suspects, 2012 AL Cy Young winner David Price, 2011 AL Rookie of the Year, and 2012 AL Comeback Player of the Year and closer Fernando Rodney, haven’t been themselves.
Given their success in Tampa, however, you can be sure that they’ll come around and they will make the Rays a serious problem for the rest of the East. Evan Longoria is carrying the offense and will continue to do so as long as he is healthy.
Lastly we got your first place New York Yankees. How did they do it? Is it sustainable? Well, let’s be honest. They haven’t been overly fantastic or overwhelming. They’ve just been winning games. They are 7-1 in one-run ballgames and 15-4 in games decided by two runs or less, both best in MLB. You can owe that to a shut down bullpen, led by David Robertson and Mariano Rivera, who is 15 for 15 in save opportunities in the young season.
The Bronx Bombers haven’t put up eye popping numbers. They are only scoring 4.36 runs per game, which is their worst mark in 22 years. They’ve been getting the numbers from a usual suspect, Robinson Cano. He’s played like an MVP candidate this year in his walk year. Supporting him are unusual suspects: veterans Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, and Travis Hafner. One has to wonder if they can continue their hot hitting ways and stay healthy.
You could expect the decline given all those who are out, but it’s enough to win games because of the bullpen and Mo, and most of all, the starting pitching.
Overall, the Yankees’ staff is in the top 1/3 in the AL in ERA. The rotation ERA is 6th but only .05 points off from 4th. Hiroki Kuroda has been absolutely spectacular, 5-2 with a 2.31 ERA, 179 ERA+, and a sparkling 1.05 WHIP. Andy Pettitte has been all you can ask for, consistently grinding through innings like he always does. Phil Hughes has had a couple rough starts but has pitched better lately save Friday’s start in Kansas City. The major concern is CC Sabathia, who has been pitching good enough but with lost velocity. If he’s still can’t touch over 90-91 mph on his fastball in June or July, it’s a problem.
If you’re a Yankee fan, you have to be very pleased with the results so far. The goal many pundits expected of them was to “tread water” until regular players like Jeter and Teixeira came back. They’ve exceeded that. And guess what, there’s help on the way. Curtis Granderson is close to returning after going seven for 17 with a homer in four rehab games in Triple-A. Mark Teixeira isn’t close but could be back in a month and a half.
You have to think, what will this Yankee team look like in July? Will the replacements still be playing well? Will their primary problems at the moments (offense vs. LHP, infield depth) rear their ugly head? How will the team transit with likes of Granderson, Jeter, A-Rod, and Teixeira returning to the lineup? Who knows, all you can do is enjoy the ride they’re on right now and hope when it all comes together, the Yankees will their way and have a chance to be there in the end. Right now, things are looking mighty good in Yankee Land