Are the Yankees on the verge of running away with the American League East?

Brian McCann and Alex Rodriguez have lead the Yankees to a commanding lead in the American League East (Photo: The Associated Press)

Brian McCann and Alex Rodriguez have lead the Yankees to a commanding lead in the American League East (Photo: The Associated Press)

The New York Yankees are en fuego. The rest of the American League East is going down in flames. This week’s sweep of Baltimore may have been a death kneel for the rest of the division.

That’s the simple explanation as to why the Yankees have built a surprising 5 1/2 game lead in the division after going 7-2 in their last three division series, capped by a three-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles. They are now 12-4 in the month of July with everyone else in the East sinking. According to FanGraphs, the Yankees have a 79.3% chance of winning the division and even a 26.4% of winning the American League pennant and going to the World Series (higher than Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Houston)

New York has returned Jacoby Ellsbury and Andrew Miller from the disabled list to bolster their already dangerous lineup and bullpen respectively. They are second in the majors in runs scored and fifth in wRC+. After six innings, they are 39-2. After seven, 44-2. After eight, 50-0. All thanks to their sturdy bullpen. They are just another piece from becoming serious World Series contenders.

The rest of the division is in dire straights. The Toronto Blue Jays are in second with pitching problems. The Tampa Bay Rays are 6.5 games back when they were in first just a month ago. The Orioles are now seven games back. The Boston Red Sox, after climbing to within 5.5 games ahead of their meeting with the Yankees at Fenway Park before the All-Star Break, have lost eight in a row and have fallen to 12 games back. The Yankees are the only team that has surged in July; the rest of the division’s pain is their own gain.

Obviously it would be foolish to call the race over, but the Yankees are sitting pretty while the rest of the division is scuffling and trying to figure out what to do before the trade deadline next Friday. The Yankees don’t need to make a move as much as everyone else does.

A sweep at the hands of the Yankees may have turned the Orioles from buyers to sellers. Now seven games back, they could look to deal several of their free agents-to be: LHP Wei-Yin Chen (2.86 ERA/4.06 FIP in 116.1 IP this season), slugger Chris Davis (21 HR, 119 OPS+, 2.8 bWAR), submarine reliever Darren O’Day (1.04 ERA and a 11.9 K/9 rate and an All-Star selection in 34.2 IP), and Matt Wieters (.683 OPS in 114 plate appearances but remains one of the best defensive catchers in the game coming off Tommy John surgery) could all be dealt in order for Baltimore to retool their scarce farm system.

Tampa Bay has also been in free-fall since the end of June. They peaked at 40-30 on June 20th, but since they are 8-19. They have an elite pitching staff led by Chris Archer, Nate Karns, and Jake Odorizzi; but the blatant lack of major league caliber hitting has finally come back to bite them. According to Marc Topkin of The Tampa Bay Times, the Rays are already listening to offers for their relief corps, particularly All-Star closer Brad Boxberger (22 saves out of 24 opportunities with a  3.18 ERA) and LHP Jake McGee (1.19 ERA in 22.2 IP).

The Red Sox will also likely (once again) become sellers; for the third time in the last four seasons they sit in dead last in the division (and the entire American League as well!). They have the worst pitching staff in the American League, so they aren’t just one move from being relevant. They have one of the best farm systems in baseball, so it would be a bad move to use it up to make a foolish attempt to climb back from a 12 game deficit in the division and a 9.5 deficit for the second wild card.

The biggest threat to the Yankees is Toronto. The Blue Jays have the most dangerous lineup in all of baseball. They lead the majors in runs scored by a significant margin and their run differential is second only to St. Louis. However, they are just one game over .500 because of poor pitching, which ranks 12th in the AL in team ERA. Their only reliable starter is Mark Buerhle (120 ERA+/3.80 FIP), so they look to be active buyers before the deadline, actively looking for whatever starting pitching they can find, even if it isn’t an ace like Johnny Cueto. Just one starting pitcher with this offense will make the Blue Jays a much more serious threat to the Yankees.

The Yankees should look to make a move. They don’t seem to be willing to trade the team’s top prospects, RHP Luis Severino and 6’7″ slugger Aaron Judge for a rental like Mike Leake or Johnny Cueto.

According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, however, they will listen to offers for their other prospects, such as 22 year-old catcher Gary Sanchez. Sanchez is an expendable piece with Brian McCann signed to a huge contract and John Ryan Murphy established as his backup.

New York should look to add a starting pitcher, as their rotation has all-around been shaky: 19th in ERA, 12th in FIP. Although Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda have overall been solid, their health and consistency is still questionable. CC Sabathia and Nathan Eovaldi have pitched poorly all season, but the Yankees are still hoping for more consistency to come in the coming months.

On a more positive note, Ivan Nova has a 3.34 ERA in his five starts since returning from Tommy John surgery. He does have a 4.82 FIP due to a lack of strikeouts and command issues, so there still is some rust. His improvement will lessen the need for a trade.

While the rest of the AL East is figuring out where they go next, the Yankees have their sights set on October.

Mark Teixeira and Andy Pettitte Could Be the Yankees’ Two Most Important Players

The Yankees came off their worst stretch of the season last week: The Rays lit up CC Sabathia, the Mets completely swept the Yankees in an embarrassing four game set, and the Red Sox yet again took another series in the Bronx. 

On Monday night, it seemed their fortunes began to turn around. Long-time veteranAndy Pettitte made his return from a temporary DL stint and also freshly returned first baseman Mark Teixeira made his statement.

Teixeira lifted collected his first HR of the season in just his fourth game, a grand slam that just got over the short porch in right off of Indians ace Justin Masterson. The next day he hit another homer, a three run shot, from the right-handed side of the plate against Scott Kazmir.

On Thursday in Seattle he followed Robinson Cano’s three run homer with a solo shot of his own. Despite having just six hits in 36 ABs on the season, four of them are for extra bases. He also has four walks in 40 appearances at the plate. 

Pettitte was sharp early on but couldn’t get out of the fifth inning, surrendering four runs in Monday’s win. On Saturday in Seattle he was much better: seven and a third innings, three hits, one run, zero walks and six strikeouts. All on 85 pitches. He probably could have at least finished off the eighth if Girardi didn’t have a short leash on him given the injury. 

That win on Saturday was Andy’s 250th of his career. At the same time, the Yankees drafted his son Josh out of high school in the 2013 MLB Draft. Although Josh still plans on playing at Baylor, it’s a great gesture by the organization to one of it’s greatest and classiest players.

Right now, Andy’s importance to this Yankee team continues to be understated. If they want to make the playoffs, they need him to be healthy and have him continue to dazzle. So far, he is 5-3 with a 3.82 ERA and a 108 ERA+ in 61.1 innings. Can’t really ask for any more consistency out of your 41 year old No. 3 starter. 

In Pettitte’s last three seasons with the Yanks (2010, 2012-2013), Pettitte is 21-10 with a 3.29 ERA and a 128 ERA+. However, he has often been hit with injuries. Limiting him to just 265.2 combined innings over those three seasons.

In 2010, he missed two months in the second half with a groin injury. The Yankees would struggle and lose the division to the Rays as with his absence CC Sabathia was the team’s only consistent starter in the second half. Pettitte returned that year to pitch well in two postseason starts against the Twins and Rangers.

 

In 2012, Pettitte again was pitching some of his best innings of his career, but was again knocked out for over two months due to a freak injury. He broke his ankle on a comebacker but returned in September and pitched well in two playoff starts (again) against the Orioles and Tigers

Again the No. 3 starter, but this time on a team filled with injuries, the Yankees will need Pettitte to be healthy this season. If he continues to be this consistent, it’ll help the Bronx Bombers. 

Teixeira, on the other hand, hasn’t been entirely as consistent as Pettitte’s been. Since joining the Yanks in 2009 with an eight year deal, his averages have declined every season. With the injuries to other hitters (Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and twice to Curtis Granderson), his health is also very important. Having him in the lineup everyday again will help Robinson Cano, who is four for his last 30. 

Not only does Tex need to be healthy, but he needs to start hitting. The Yankees are currently 8th in the AL in runs scored and 13th in the league in OPS+. They are currently on pace to score just 648 runs, their worst output since 1990 (Not counting 1994, that is). However, given that guys like Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, Ben Francisco, David Adams, Reid Brignac, and other washed-up vets or scrubs have been given regular at-bats, that should be no surprise.

That’s where Teixeira comes in. As he and Kevin Youkilis are getting back in the groove, Overbay, Brignac, and Adams will be either getting less and less at-bats or off the team. But if the Yankees are going to stay in the AL East race, they will need to start mashing the ball. It starts with Teixeira. 

Mark Teixeira needs to carry the offense and Andy Pettitte needs to help lead the pitching staff. Right now, they are probably the two most important players for yourNew York Yankees

Each Teams’ Flaws Leaves American League East as Wide Open as It’s Ever Been

“You know, Susan. You just CAN’T predict baseball!”

Yes, I just quoted notoriously obnoxious Yankees’ radio announcer John Sterling, but it couldn’t be more true, especially this coming season.

It was a very eventful offseason for the American League East. The Toronto Blue Jaysmade the biggest splash, beefing up to try to make the playoffs for the first time in 20 years when Joe Carter galloped around the bases to deliver Canada’s second consecutive World Championship.

The Boston Red Sox retooled in the winter following their worst season since 1965, and took the Blue Jays’ former manager, John Farrell, and brought him back to New England.

The Tampa Bay Rays, because of payroll restrictions, traded season veteran and gamer James Shields to Kansas City and brought Wil Myers, who appears to be the real deal and Tampa’s future franchise player (along with Evan Longoria)

The Baltimore Orioles did very little to improve on their return to relevance in 2012, but appear to fully trust their skipper Buck Showalter and their shut down bullpen and look to welcome young studs Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman and Manny Machado (already had his taste of the show last fall)

And then there’s the two-time reigning division champions, the New York Yankees. Needless to say, their offseason was a disaster, losing their temporary closer, catcher, and right fielder to free agency and worst of all, three stars who would have been in the Opening Day lineup.

The media is already writing the New York Yankees’ obituary, with the same tired “too old, too many injuries.” talking points. But reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated. The Bronx Bombers remain a threat in the American League, despite their age and injuries.

For one, the three men who have carried this franchise to five championships in the last 18 years are all back and healthy. Mariano Rivera returns for his final ride after having his 2012 cut short. Andy Pettitte and his health will be key to the Yankees’ rotation. Most of all, as long as his ankle holds up, Derek Jeter should have no trouble being his usual consistent self, even at soon to be 39.

While the Yankees don’t have age or overall health on their side, their strong pitching led by CC Sabathia should be able to keep the Yankees competitive.

What helps the Yanks’ chances even more is the state of the AL East. Looking at things objectively, it’s very clear that each team have strengths to boast about and serious flaws that could turn fatal.

We already know about the Yankees. The current injuries to Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira leave them with their weakest lineup in almost 20 years. The concerns are very real and justified. But injuries will eventually heal and people will step up in this marathon of a baseball season.

Moreover, there aren’t many teams in the American League (besides Detroit) that can match their strength in pitching arms. As long as their top three of Sabathia, Pettitte, and Kuroda and their 8th-9th combo of David Robertson and Mariano Rivera are healthy, they could outpitch almost any team in the majors.

Meanwhile, their arch-nemeses the Boston Red Sox have completely retooled their lineup, adding the likes of Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, and David Ross. They also added Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan to be their 9th inning man. However, if Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz can’t rebound from a poor 2012 to lead a train-wreck of a rotation, they’ll easily miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

Returning for the upstart Orioles are long time O’s Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts. If they’re healthy it makes Baltimore’s offense better. Everyone from the second best bullpen in the AL and is still here. The only question is if they can still be successful in 1-run ballgames or in extra innings (29-9 and 16-2 records respectively) or if they don’t need to be. Plus, their rotation has to be better (21st in MLB and 9th in the AL in ERA) or last year may just be a fluke. But, Buck Showalter is the perfect skipper for this team and they will still be a thorn in the big dog’s side.

Tampa Bay, however, boasts arguably the best manager in the game, Joe Maddon. Despite losing James Shields, they still have possibly the best pitching staff in baseball. Fernando Rodney won’t have another season with an ERA under one, but he’s still automatic in the 9th along with the relievers before him. The reigning AL Cy Young recipient David Price leads a very young but immensely talented rotation. However, the offense lives and dies by Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. Like the Yankees, their hitting could stall if both those guys get hurt.

Finally, we got the Toronto Blue Jays, who bulked up in the winter, adding Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle from the Miami Marlins, taking a low risk/high reward signing on previously suspended Melky Cabrera as a free agent, and adding NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. It seems the Blue Jays, like Red Sox were in 2011, are everybody’s pick to win it all this year.

However, if we learned anything from Boston in 2011 and Miami in 2012, it’s never to crown a champion before the games are played. Toronto was historically plagued by the injury bug last year, using TWELVE different starting pitchers. Over the span of five days, they lost three different starters to injuries: Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, and Drew Hutchinson.

Other prominent injuries included catcher JP Arencibia, Brett Lawrie, and of course, franchise player Jose Bautista. Even players they added have injury histories. Jose Reyes has a long one, especially relating to his legs, suffering injuries to his calf and hamstrings during his time in New York, so playing on the Toronto turf for 81 games has to be somewhat of a concern. Josh Johnson also had somewhat of an injury history in Florida, but he has looked stellar in Spring Training.

Although many media members have fallen in love with the Blue Jays and have completely counted out the Yankees (even the Red Sox), it’s clear the American League East is the most wide open perhaps ever. Every team has a good chance of winning it or taking a wild card berth, but any of them can go down in flames if their weaknesses are not overcome.

Currently Baseball Prospectus has the Yankees as the favorites to win the division and Tampa Bay to get a wild card berth: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/fantasy/dc/

NYY: 91-71 (AL East champs)

TB: 87-75 (Wild Card berth)

BOS: 84-78

TOR: 84-78

BAL: 74-88

It’s pretty realistic to say the winner of the division may not win more than 95 games, because they will spend the whole summer beating each other up. Remember: It’s a marathon, so don’t be encouraged or discouraged by the Yankees’ CURRENT situation with their injuries. The Yankees are more than alive in this race.