At the break: Expectations flipped in topsy-turvy AL East
Remember when the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays were considered preseason favorites to make the playoffs again? Expectations in the American League East have flipped going into the season's second half. The Rays and Red Sox are in fourth and fifth place in the division, respectively, and only Tampa Bay appears to have hopes to climb from the AL East's depths, though its chances for making the playoffs remain slim.
Nelson Cruz (left) has the Orioles outpacing the the rest of the American League East.
Expectations in the American League East have flipped going into the season's second half. The Rays and Red Sox are in fourth and fifth place in the division, respectively, and only Tampa Bay appears to have hopes to climb from the AL East's depths, though its chances for making the playoffs remain slim.
The Baltimore Orioles, meanwhile, have risen to the top behind the hot bat of Nelson Cruz and good-enough pitching. The Toronto Blue Jays, the division's class for most of the first half, must overcome injury problems to threaten the current leader. And the New York Yankees, who looked primed to ride the momentum from their signing of right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, now must overcome a host of injuries to their rotation ... including Tanaka.
The division appears wide open, which should make for an interesting race in the months ahead. So far, it has featured three of the game's best power hitters (Cruz, plus Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista) and two of its best arms (Tanaka and Tampa Bay's David Price).
Reason for optimism: In a first half marked by inconsistency within the division, the Orioles appear to have the most potential. They're paced by Cruz's notable play, which includes a .287 batting average with 28 home runs, which only trail Jose Abreu's 29 for the major-league lead. Cruz's 74 RBI also are second in the majors, behind Miguel Cabrera's 75. Baltimore has started July with a 9-3 record, so momentum is in ample supply.
Reason for concern: Not much. Right now, the Orioles have many key components in place: A dangerous offense and decent pitching that ranks 15th in the majors with a 3.83 ERA. They entered the All-Star break as the AL East's best for a reason.
Buyers or sellers? Depends. Perhaps the Orioles will look to bolster their pitching, which doesn't properly complement their dangerous offense at this time. Ace right-hander Chris Tillman, for most of the year, has underwhelmed with a 7-5 record and a 4.11 ERA in 20 starts. Stronger arms could mean the difference between winning the division title and staying home in October.
Reason for optimism: For much of the first half, the Blue Jays accomplished what many thought they would last year with star additions such as shortstop Jose Reyes and left-hander Mark Buehrle. They stood 38-24 after play June 6, until they drifted back to other division contenders over the final five weeks before the All-Star break. If their health can stabilize -- they've suffered key injuries to Encarnacion, designated hitter Adam Lind and third baseman Brett Lawrie -- then they can remain a division threat.
Reason for concern: They didn't exactly inspire confidence to close the first half. Beginning June 7, they went 11-23 and turned a comfortable lead into a four-game deficit to the Orioles. They lost eight of 10 games before the All-Star break.
Buyers or sellers? Buyers. Logic suggests the Blue Jays will attempt to bolster their lineup with infielders at the trade deadline. Names like the San Diego Padres' Chase Headley, the New York Mets' Daniel Murphy and the Philadelphia Phillies' Chase Utley have been mentioned as possibilities. However it comes, help is needed to lift Toronto to the postseason for the first time since 1993.
Reason for optimism: Somehow, the Yankees are just five games back in the division. Injuries to pitchers Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda have placed a damper on a year that began with intrigue following Tanaka's signing. Without Tanaka's stabilization in the rotation, it's hard to tell where the pitching needed to compete for a division title will come.
Reason for concern: The Yankees are stuck in a slide. After play June 20, they stood at 39-33, but their inability to sustain the momentum became obvious as June turned to July. Tanaka's partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm, which is expected to keep him out at least six weeks, is cause for concern.
Buyers or sellers? Buyers. New York needs help to bolster its beleaguered rotation. The addition of right-hander Brandon McCarthy, formerly of the Arizona Diamondbacks, is a step in the right direction. But more arms are required to make the Yankees into October contenders.
Reason for optimism: The Rays closed the first half by winning 13 of 18 games. The run gave them a glimmer of hope that competing in the AL East remains possible. They trail the Baltimore Orioles by 9 1/2 games, and with strong play from the Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay's best chance of reaching the postseason appears to be winning the division.
Reason for concern: The math is against them. If the Rays reach the playoffs, their rise from a 24-42 record after play June 10 would be a historic comeback. Baseball Prospectus lists the Rays' odds of making the playoffs at 4.8 percent. They've played better recently, but time will show if it's too little, too late.
Buyers or sellers? Depends. Do the Rays feel they have a chance? If so, they won't sell and will attempt to rally in the second half. If a potential haul is too appealing, though, players like Price and infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist could have new homes soon.
Reason for optimism: Not much. In a stunning turn of events, the defending World Series champions have sunk to the bottom of the AL East. They rank 25th in the majors in runs scored (367), and they're 15th with a 3.83 staff ERA. With many of the core pieces back from last year's championship team, their fall is one of the majors' biggest surprises.
Reason for concern: There doesn't seem to be a major change in fortune in sight. Boston is a flawed team that suffered a 10-game losing streak from May 15-25, and little good has come after that. The re-signing of Stephen Drew hasn't done much (he's hitting an awful .151). The Red Sox won four of five games to close before the All-Star break, but those victories came against the woeful Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros.
Buyers or sellers? Sellers. Right-hander Jake Peavy is being shopped. There have been rumors about first baseman Mike Napoli as well. From the majors' top to the AL East's bottom, the fall has been swift.
AL EAST MVP
Nelson Cruz (Orioles) -- He has hit .287 with 28 home runs and 74 RBI this year. He has played in 93 games, making him a valuable workhorse in the Orioles' climb to the top of the division. Outside of Encarnacion, no one within the division can rival his production.
AL EAST TOP PITCHER
David Price (Rays) -- Despite the trade rumors, he has risen as one of the majors' most effective pitchers of the first half. Had Tanaka not experienced a late slide and sustained an injury, the Yankees right-hander would have received this honor. But Price's five consecutive starts with at least 10 strikeouts from June 4-25 are impressive, and he lasted at least seven innings in each appearance from May 24-July 13.
The Rays' fall -- Many tabbed Tampa Bay as a trendy World Series pick, and it was easy to see why. With the return of Price and first baseman James Loney to complement other key core members like Zobrist and third baseman Evan Longoria, the Rays were thought by many to field their best team under manager Joe Maddon. But key injuries to left-hander Matt Moore, right-hander Alex Cobb and outfielder Wil Myers changed the complexion of their season. Many have underperformed too. They've begun to recover, but time will show if their hole is too large to overcome.
Expect the Rays to continue to play better, but the division race should come down to the Orioles and Blue Jays. There are too many rotation questions with the Yankees, and the Red Sox appear ready to fold on 2014. Only one playoff berth should come out of the AL East, so second-half surges by contenders will include urgency.