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.

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2014 American League East Preview

 

I recently did a series of comparisons between the New York Yankees and the rest of the American League East, which is arguably the toughest division in all of baseball. The Boston Red Sox won it last year with 97 wins and went on to win their third World Series in 10 years. The Tampa Bay Rays won a crucial Game 163 in Arlington, TX to sneak in the playoffs and disposed of Cleveland in the Wild Card game before falling to Boston in four in the ALDS.The Yankees and Baltimore Orioles won just 85 games a year after taking it to the limit in the division race and in the Division Series in 2012. The Toronto Blue Jays, last year’s paper champions, were major disappointments and finished dead last.

This season, just about any of these five teams can make the playoffs or even win the division. The Yankees have made improvements but also have their problems. The Red Sox are the defending champions and have young talent on the way, but they did lose some important pieces. The Blue Jays and Orioles whiffed on some major free agents, but Baltimore managed to salvage the offseason with some late pick-ups.

Who will win the division? Will there be more than one playoff team out of the East? Well, as John Sterling says, “you just can’t predict baseball”, but I’ll try.

Division Champion: Tampa Bay Rays (96-66)

USATSI

The Rays have been contenders just about every year since 2008, but they have not been out of the ALDS since that 2008 season when they won the pennant after 10 years of struggle. After months of speculation, they did not trade ace David Price, so they remain serious contenders, perhaps good enough to win it all. Along with Price, they have one of the deepest rotations in the league with Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer. Their offense looks to improve with a healthy Evan Longoria and a full season of Wil Myers. They also brought back Grant Balfour, who is an improvement over Fernando Rodney, so their bullpen is rock solid. They have enough to make the playoffs for the fifth time in seven seasons, and will take their third AL East crown.

Wild Card Qualifier: New York Yankees (94-68)

Associated Press

You may have heard: The Yankees are too old. The Yankees are overpaid. The Yankees are very injury-prone. The Yankees have to get younger. Big deal. The point of them losing Mariano Rivera, Robinson Cano, and Andy Pettitte has been made to death without regarding what they did do: They improved big time at catcher with Brian McCann and twice over in the outfield with Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira are better than what they had at short and first last year.

Pitching wise, they got the best arm available in Masahiro Tanaka, who should be at least half as good as advertised. CC Sabathia has reinvented himself and the rest of the rotation looks great. Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda have looked fantastic this spring and could play a huge role moving forward. Even without Mariano, the Yankees’ bullpen has a backup plan with several pieces in the minors. The Yankees are a much better team than the one that somehow won 85 games last year. That is a fact. They will make the playoffs for the 18th time in 20 seasons.

Just A Bit Short: Boston Red Sox (89-73)

Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox / Getty Images North America

Let’s just get this straight: Everything went right for the Boston Red Sox last season. Everything. They set themselves up to be a solid but not serious team and it all came up pay-dirt. The acquisitions of Mike Napoli, Mike Carp, Stephen Drew, and Shane Victorino all paid off big time. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia stayed healthy. Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John freaking Lackey all pitched great again, and a 38 year-old Koji Uehara became the savior for their bullpen.

This isn’t to say the Red Sox were a fluke. If anything, the 2012 season was a fluke for them. They still have a solid team that should be considered a serious threat, but they will not be as good. They downgraded significantly at catcher with a 37 year-old A.J. Pierzynski replacing Jarrod Saltlamacchia (118 OPS+ last year). They replaced Jacoby Ellsbury with Grady Sizemore. If Boston fans think Ellsbury is injury-prone, look at Sizemore, who has not played in three years and barely has any knees left. With no other significant moves this offseason, the Red Sox are counting on everything to go right again. That will not happen. They will miss the playoffs for the fourth time this decade.

Not Quite: Baltimore Orioles (80-82)

Carlos Osorio/AP

The O’s had a mostly disastrous offseason. They traded Jim Johnson to Oakland to sign Grant Balfour, but Balfour failed his physical and signed with the Rays. Thus, they’re forced to go with Tommy Hunter as their closer. It wasn’t until February where they made some serious moves. They improved their pitching with Ubaldo Jimenez and Korean Suk-Min Yoon and also brought in Nelson Cruz on the cheap after he was embroiled in BioGenesis. Their lineup looks loaded, but do they have enough pitching? Not likely.

In the Cellar, Again: Toronto Blue Jays (78-84)

The Blue Jays were supposed to be great last year after acquiring Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, and R.A. Dickey, but they were anything but, finishing dead last. They whiffed during free agency, specifically on Ervin Santana. They have a very deep lineup featuring Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, but can their pitching go from an Achilles to a strength? Their bullpen is solid, but their rotation is old and thin. They will finish  dead last again in 2014.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Andy Pettitte, home runs lead Yankees to 9-4 over paper champion Blue Jays in Toronto.

After being scratched on Sunday night, Andy Pettitte returned to the mound and was sensational again. The offense also clicked and the Yankees pounded Blue Jays 9-4 in Toronto on Friday night.

On just 90 pitches, Pettitte pitched 7.1 innings, allowing just three runs on six hits (two runs on a HR to Jose Bautista), while walking one and striking out five. Andy picked up his third win of the season.

The offense did more than its job against Toronto righty Brandon Morrow. Robinson Cano went 3 for 5 with a double and an RBI. Francisco Cervelli and Ichiro both doubled twice.

Travis Hafner doubled and homered, bringing his slugging percentage to a Ruthinian .767. Former Blue Jays Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay also homered for the Bronx Bombers. New York leads the American League with 25 round-trippers.

Entering the season, much hoopla surrounded the Jays following their acquisitions of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Melky Cabrera, and R.A. Dickey. On the other hand, virtually the entire mainstream media counted the Yankees out before a pitch was thrown.

Well, here we are, about three weeks into the young season. The Yankees are 9-6 and have won eight of their last ten games. The top of the rotation and the offense have kept this team afloat. Not to mention Mariano Rivera has returned.

The Blue Jays sit at 7-10 and already the injuries are piling up. Reyes sprained his ankle and could be out one to three months. Dickey was pulled from his last start due to stiffness and he and Johnson have both pitched horribly.

For a team that was supposed to bring back the memories of Joe Carter and the back-to-back world titles of 1992 and 1993, they sure aren’t off to a good start. Long season, but I told anyone who listened that injuries would hurt this team like they are to the 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.

Andy Pettitte’s return boosts Yankees

Things are starting to come together for the New York Yankees. After a season filled with injuries to several important players, another one came back to lift the Yanks and gave them hope for the stretch run.

Andy Pettitte finally returned today from an ankle injury that had kept him on the shelf since the end of June and delivered. On a 75 pitch count, he did just that, throwing five innings of scoreless, although not exactly dominant, ball, 46 of those 75 for strikes (61.3%).

Pettitte got his fourth win of the year, as the he and the Yankees hung on to knock off the injury-plagued Toronto Blue Jays 4-2. The Jays were without top sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

Pettitte allowed just four hits, walked two and struck out three. He managed to work through some tough jams set up by bloop singles and a couple of errors by Nick Swisher at first base. His best inning was his last, using his last seven pitches in an easy 1-2-3 inning. Andy often touched 90 mph with his cutters and fastballs but got into quite a few 3-2 counts.

The Yankees got to Blue Jays right-hander Henderson Alvarez in the 1st inning, scoring three runs on singles by Ichiro and Nick Swisher, an RBI double by Robinson Cano, a run scoring groundout by the resurgent Alex Rodriguez, and a sacrifice fly by the red hot Curtis Granderson.