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

Who Should the Yankees Sign? Part Two: Jacoby Ellsbury

Part Two:

CF Jacoby Ellsbury

Born: September 11, 1983 in Madras, Oregon (Age 30)

Major League Debut: June 30, 2007 (Age 23)

Teams Played For: Boston Red Sox (2007-2013)

By the Numbers:

2013 Numbers: .298/.355/.426/.781, 114 OPS+, 52 steals in 56 attempts, 5.8 WAR

Career Numbers: .297/.350/.439/.789, 108 OPS+, 241 steals in 287 attempts, 21.0 WAR

Previous Contract: 1 year, $9 million

Projected Contract: 6 years, $112.4 million, $18.7 million AAV, made $9 million in 2013

Pros- When healthy, Ellsbury is an outstanding five-tool talent. He’s led the league in steals three times, and is pretty efficient in doing so with an 84% success rate. He is an outstanding center fielder, averaging over 10 UZR/150 in the last four seasons. He has the ability to give you a parade of extra-base hits, even on the road. He’s one of the more valuable players in the game when healthy.

Cons- Ellsbury is very injury prone. In 2010 and 2012, he played in just 92 games due to rib and shoulder injuries. Freak injuries, yes, but it’s definitely a red flag. Also, in August he suffered a compression fracture but returned to the team a month later. But what’s more concerning is the history of giving long-term deals to players like Ellsbury who rely on speed. The Red Sox already made that mistake with the Carl Crawford contract.

Normally the first thing to decline in a baseball player in his 30s is his legs. Other than 2011, Jacoby has never been a power hitter. In fact, his numbers are pretty similar to Crawford’s when he became a free agent. Worst of all, his value is no doubt being juiced by that outlier 2011 season when he hit a whopping 32 HRs, batted .321 with a 146 OPS+, and led the majors in total bases, earning him the runner-up spot to Justin Verlander in the MVP balloting. Never in his career has he gotten even close to power numbers like that, and it’s unlikely he’ll come close again in his 30s.

Verdict- There’s justway too much risk to give him over $18 million per year well into his 30s. He’s way too injury prone, so his legs may go even sooner than Carl Crawford’s. Also, that much money is too much for a guy who has had only one season in his career to justify the contract. Also, Scott Boras is his agent, so you can bet he’ll be even more overpriced than projected. Pass on Jacoby Ellsbury. Let another team suffer the consequences.

What the Yankees Can Learn From the Cardinals and Red Sox

This is a little painful to write, but here goes:

For the first time since 1999, the teams with the best records in their respective leagues met in the World Series. The Boston Red Sox defeated the St. Louis Cardinals four games to two to win their third World Series title in 10 seasons. Both teams finished with 97 wins , but their roads to the Fall Classic were very different.

The Cardinals were in the World Series for the second time in three years. After surviving a tough five game series against upstart Pittsburgh, they clinched their 19th NL pennant after disposing of the star-studded Dodgers in six games thanks to some homegrown prospects, including NLCS MVP and 21 year-old rookie RHP Michael Wacha.

Despite the loss, the Cards will continue to be one of the top teams in baseball for a long time, thanks to a plethora of young aces like Wacha, Joe Kelly, and Shelby Miller. Their bullpen is loaded with power arms who throw close to 100 mph. They also have young studs coming up like OF Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong, who got some burn in the Fall Classic.

Let’s not also forget that the Cardinals’ haven’t even been in position to draft so high. Wacha was drafted with the pick they received from the Angels when Albert Pujols left in 2012. He and Miller were selected 19th overall in their respective drafts (2012 and 2009). Kelly was a third rounder in 2009. Oscar Taveras was an undrafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic as a 16 year-old in 2008.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, completed one of the most stunning turn-arounds in sports in years, going from last place in 2012 to World champions. After they dumped over $270 million on the Dodgers, Boston signed scrappers like Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, and ALCS MVP Koji Uehara to short-term deals, and had several underachieving players have bounce back seasons, lifting them to their best record since 2004.

Everything went right for Boston this year. They could have easily settled for 85 wins in maybe a wild card spot, but they won the whole darn thing. Their three top pitchers, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and John Lackey all bounced back big time this year. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia managed to stay healthy. Finally, of course, all their short-term investments came up paydirt.

So what does this have to do with the Yankees? Well, a lot. The Yankees missed the playoffs winning just 85 games this year, as you all know. A lot of that has to do with the injuries, but a common theme every season for them, the age and lack of young talent, finally started to bite them in 2013. Instead of young guys, the Yankees regularly started has-beens and never-beens like Vernon Wells, Ichiro Suzuki, and Chris Stewart every single day.

The Cards and Sox (dare I say it) have provided the blueprint for greatness for the Yankees. Both teams, while having high payrolls, were built by bright GMs with smart short-term deals and outstanding minor league development, both of which the Yankees currently lack.

The surplus of pitching the Cardinals have from their own system is absolutely ridiculous, featuring three young aces and several power arms in their bullpen. Of course, don’t forget Oscar Taveras, a top five prospect in baseball. The Yankees have had young arms too, but poor development and bad luck had minimized their impact in the last several years. Let’s just say Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly, and Shelby Miller could end being what Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Ian Kennedy did not become.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox, after paying much less than they did during their fateful shopping spree in the 2010-11 offseason. But also, they have plenty of homegrown guys on their roster as well. Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Jacoby Ellsbury were Theo Epstein products all first making their marks in their last title run in 2007.

Now, they have plenty of young talent coming up next year led by Xander Bogaerts, who hit .296/.412/.481/.893 in 34 plate appearances in these playoffs. He’ll likely be right at home on the Red Sox’ left side of the infield, possibly Pedroia’s double play partner. The Yankees need a Xander Bogaerts.

Basically, the Cardinals and Red Sox are trying to become what the Yankees have been since 1995: a long run of success sustained by homegrown talent from within as well as some high priced talent. The Yankees need to find a way to get back to that.

The Yankees don’t have a Michael Wacha or a Xander Bogaerts. They need one with Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and soon Derek Jeter gone to retirement. There’s no youth movement coming in next year, maybe the year or two after. That’s totally unacceptable. Like Boston and St. Louis, the Yankees need a strong young core like in the 90s if they’re going to get back to being legitimate World Series contenders over the long term..

If the Yankees are going to be competitive in 2014, they have no choice but to be big spenders. Their likely targets include catcher Brian McCann (enough of Chris Stewart already!), Jacoby Ellsbury or Carlos Beltran (no more Ichiro and Vernon Wells! Please!), Matt Garza or Japanese righty Masahiro Tanaka (easy upgrade over Phil Hughes!), and of course, Robinson Cano. Cano is by far the best second baseman in the game, and he demands big money like A-Rod or Teixeira, so the Yankees are damned if they do sign him and damned if they don’t.

But that’s another problem in itself. Is solving the problem on the short term again still worth it if it means they aren’t immediately focused on rebuilding? Keep in mind what the Red Sox did this season was nothing short of amazing. They had everything go right for them, and the risk was minimal, since they signed several mid-range free agents to short-term contracts.

Signing guys to long-term deals into their mid to late 30s is a huge risk that the Yankees are willing to take on. But is it worth it? Everything will also need to go right for them for them to win in 2014, as it did this year for Boston. Like Lackey, Buchholz, and Lester for Boston, the Yankees need a bounce back season for their ace CC Sabathia. They also need whoever is left on offense to be healthy, especially Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira.

But hey, if the Red Sox could go from 93 losses to World Champions, it’s not impossible for the Yankees to return to glory next year.

2013 Division Series Previews and Predictions

Aside

NLDS A: #4 Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68) vs. #1 St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)

Head-to-head: Pittsburgh won 10-9

Numbers:

PIT: .245/.313/.396/.709, 101 OPS+, 3.9 R/G, +57 differential, 3.27 ERA, 108 ERA+

STL: .269/.332/.401/.733, 104 OPS+, 4.8 R/G, +187 differential, 3.43 ERA, 107 ERA+

Matchups:

Game 1: PIT A.J. Burnett (10-11, 3.30 ERA) vs. STL Adam Wainwright (19-9, 2.94 ERA)

Game 2: PIT Gerrit Cole (10-7, 3.22 ERA) vs. RHP Lance Lynn (15-10, 3.97 ERA)

Game 3: STL Joe Kelly (10-5, 2.69 ERA) vs. PIT Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA)

Game 4: STL TBD vs PIT Charlie Morton (7-4, 3.26 ERA)

Game 5: Probably rematch of Game 1 between Burnett and Wainwright

Breakdown: It’s very tough to call. Both teams are arguably the best in the NL. The Pirates have a very underrated pitching staff and their offense improved over the course of the season with the addition of Marlon Byrd. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have the deepest lineup in the NL even without Allen Craig and a solid but inexperienced rotation. The series may come down to the late innings and the Pirates may have the superior bullpen.

Prediction: Pirates in 5.

 

NLDS B: #3 Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70) vs. #2 Atlanta Braves (96-66)

Head to Head: Braves won 5-2

Numbers:

LAD: .264/.326/.396/.722, 104 OPS+, 4.0 R/G, +67 differential, 3.25 ERA, 110 ERA+

ATL: .249/.321/.402/.723/, 97 OPS+, 4.2 R/G, 140 differential, 3.18 ERA, 122 ERA+,

Matchups:

Game 1: LAD Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA) vs. ATL Kris Medlen (15-12, 3.11 ERA)

Game 2: LAD Zack Greinke (15-4, 2.63 ERA) vs. ATL Mike Minor (13-9, 3.21 ERA)

Game 3: ATL Julio Teheran (14-8, 3.20 ERA) vs. LAD Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00 ERA)

Game 4: ATL Freddy Garcia (4-7, 4.37 ERA) vs. LAD Ricky Nolasco (13-11, 3.70)

Game 5: Likely rematch of Game 1 between Kershaw and Medlen

Breakdown: Simply, without Tim Hudson, the Braves may not have enough arms to match up with the Dodgers’ two aces, who could have their way with the strikeout-prone Atlanta offense. The key for Atlanta is to keep it close and get a late lead for Kimbrel.

Prediction: Dodgers in 4.

 

ALDS A: #5 Tampa Bay Rays (92-71) vs. #1 Boston Red Sox (97-65)

Head to Head: Red Sox won 12-7

Numbers:

TB: .257/.329/.408/.737, 107 OPS+, 4.3 R/G, +54 differential, 3.74 ERA, 102 ERA+

BOS: .277/.349/.446/.795, 117 OPS+, 5.3 R/G, +197 differential, 3.79 ERA, 108 ERA+

Matchups:

Game 1: TB Matt Moore (17-4, 3.29 ERA) vs. BOS Jon Lester (15-8, 3.75 ERA)

Game 2: TB David Price (10-8, 3.33 ERA) vs. BOS John Lackey (10-13, 3.52 ERA)

Game 3: BOS Clay Buchholz (12-1, 1.74 ERA) vs. TB TBD

Game 4: BOS Jake Peavy (12-5, 4.17 ERA) vs. TB TBD

Game 5: TB David Price vs BOS Jon Lester

Breakdown: The Rays definitely have the edge on the pitching side, and David Price may go twice at Fenway where he is 6-1 with a 1.88 ERA in 10 starts. But they have their hands full with this lethal Red Sox lineup. Luckily, their lineup isn’t exactly made entirely of scrubs either. Tampa has to get the lead late because Boston’s bullpen has been un-hittable last few months.

Prediction: Rays in 4

 

ALDS B: #3 Detroit Tigers (93-69) vs. #2 Oakland Athletics (96-66)

Head to Head: Athletics won 4-3

Numbers:

DET: .283/.346/.434/.780, 110 OPS+, 4.9 R/G, +172 differential, 3.61 ERA, 117 ERA+

OAK: .254/.327/.419/.745, 110 OPS+, 4.7 R/G, +142 differential, 3.56 ERA, 105 ERA+

Matchups:

Game 1: DET Max Scherzer (21-3, 2.90 ERA) vs. OAK Bartolo Colon (18-6, 2.65 ERA)

Game 2: DET Justin Verlander (13-12, 3.46 ERA) vs. OAK Sonny Gray (5-3, 2.67 ERA)

Game 3: OAK Jarrod Parker (12-8, 3.97 ERA) vs. DET Anibal Sanchez (14-8, 2.57 ERA)

Game 4: OAK Dan Straily (10-8, 3.96 ERA) vs. DET Doug Fister (14-9, 3.67 ERA)

Game 5: Likely rematch between Scherzer and Colon

Breakdown: It’s very tempting to pick the Tigers since they have the most star power in the playoffs, but they have some weaknesses at the bottom of their lineup and in their bullpen. Oakland does not have their problem and their offense can keep up with Cabrera and Co. if they need to. Plus their bullpen is absolutely loaded. These are the two best teams in the American League. Whoever wins this series goes onto the World Series.

Prediction: Athletics in 5.

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.

The Yankees Are Now in Complete Control of Their Playoff Destiny Thanks to Some Help From the Rays and A’s

It has to be October, because the New York Yankees sure looked like a team that could win it all Monday night at Yankee Stadium.

The Bronx Bombers rode the power a nine run second inning against Clay Buchholz, hitting four home runs, one Mark Teixeira, freshly returned. CC Sabathia did his job, going eight innings against the PawSox, allowing just two runs on four hits and struck out seven.

All of this coupled with a Baltimore Orioles loss to the Tampa Bay Rays put the Yankees back in sole possession of first place in the AL East with two games to go. With a Texas Rangers loss to the Oakland A’s, the Yanks are now on pace to not only win the division, but also clinch home field advantage throughout the American League playoffs.

Oakland also clinched a playoff berth and are trying to win out to steal the Western division title against the Rangers, so they still have plenty of play for. However, them winning has officially eliminated the Rays and LA Angels, which may take some incentive out for the Rays to beat Baltimore in the final two games with James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson on the hill.

Still, thanks to the Rays and A’s, all the Yankees need to do is win out against a Red Soxteam that looks like it doesn’t care much for playing spoilers in order to win the highest seed possible. David Phelps replaced the struggling Ivan Nova (5.02 ERA, 83 ERA+) for Tuesday night’s game against the also-ran lefty Jon Lester (4.94, 88 ERA+). For the season finale, the Yankees will send the veteran Hiroki Kuroda, who has struggled lately but has proved to be a great and reliable signing for the Bombers (3.34 ERA, 125 ERA+) against his fellow countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka (7.68 ERA, 57 ERA+ in 10 starts).

Winning the division AND the #1 seed is very important for the Yankees in order the put themselves in the best position to win. Now that they are one game ahead of the O’s, winning out guarantees the title. Finishing ahead or tied with Texas would allow them to start the ALDS on Sunday instead of Saturday in Detroit, who looks to be a much tougher foe with Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and the crew despite having the worst record among all playoff teams.

Not winning out the next two games could yield the possibility having to play a tiebreaker on Thursday in Baltimore to decide the AL East, which would require them to useAndy Pettitte. Losing this game would likely mean playing the Wild Card game in Oakland or Arlington, TX on Friday, forcing them to use Sabathia on three days rest.

If the Yankees do indeed get the division and number one seed, they can comfortably set their rotation to:

LHP CC Sabathia, 15-6, 3.38 ERA, 124 ERA+

RHP Hiroki Kuroda, 15-11, 3.34 ERA, 125 ERA+

LHP Andy Pettitte, 5-4, 2.87 ERA, 147 ERA+ (in 12 starts)

RHP Phil Hughes, 16-13, 4.23 ERA, 99 ERA+

That’s a rotation that can certainly beat just about anyone in the postseason. Even as inconsistent as Hughes is, he’s as good as any #4 and could benefit pitching at home for Game 4 in this 2-3 Division Series setup.

The Yankees are in complete control of their destiny, it’s up to them if they want to make their road through the postseason easier or more difficult for themselves.