Red Sox, Orioles rise in AL East’s first half

More than three months into the season, offseason unknowns in the American League East seem like distant history. Let’s revisit some of the key questions coming out of spring training:
* Will the Boston Red Sox recover from a disastrous 69-93 campaign in 2012? Answer: Yes, and better than expected.
* Will the Baltimore Orioles show that earning last season’s playoff berth, their first since 1997, was no accident? Answer: Yes, and they look capable of making a repeat appearance.
* Will the Toronto Blue Jays, remade after gaining marquee names from the Miami Marlins in a controversial offseason trade, change their tepid image? Answer: No, and they have become one of the American League’s most disappointing developments because of it.
All teams in the division are past the season’s halfway mark. As they near the All-Star break, it is worth revisiting the surprises, disappointments, best developments and biggest questions facing each club in the second half.
Like those early questions that have been answered, more will arise in the months ahead. But enough baseball has been played that identities for each team have emerged. Here is what has been learned so far …
Boston Red Sox (52-34)
Surprise: Efficient offense has been a major reason for Boston’s rise. The Red Sox lead the majors in runs (437) and RBI (426), and they are second in hits (816) and team batting average (.276).
Disappointment: It is hard to nitpick, given how the Red Sox are tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for the most victories in the majors. But Boston batters have struck out 701 times — the Houston Astros (787) are the only other American League team to do it more often — so there’s that.
Best development: Right-hander Clay Buchholz has impressed when healthy. He is 9-0 with a major-league-best 1.71 ERA in 12 appearances, but a neck injury has kept him absent since making a start June 8 against the Los Angeles Angels.
Biggest question: Can they keep it up? The Red Sox’s outlook looks strong, but the Baltimore Orioles leave little room for error, and the Tampa Bay Rays are capable of a second-half rally.  
Baltimore Orioles (48-37)
Surprise: No power shortage here. The Orioles pace the majors with 117 home runs, and Chris Davis’ 32 lead the cause.
Disappointment: Pitching has been vulnerable. Baltimore has a 4.41 staff ERA, which is tied with the Minnesota Twins for second-worst in the majors, only topping the Houston Astros’ 4.77.
Best development: Davis began the season with four home runs and 16 RBI in his first four games, and he has shown little letup since. He leads the majors in home runs, and he is second in RBI with 83, two behind Miguel Cabrera.
Biggest question: Can their pitching hold? Baltimore has the bats to climb to the top of the division, but the men on the mound must perform when the pressure is high late.
New York Yankees (45-39)
Surprise: The Yankees were 12 games above .500 as late as the end of play May 25. Given the rash of injuries to key stars, staying near the top of the division was an achievement.
Disappointment: Much of New York’s early momentum has disappeared. Since June 11, the Yankees are 8-13.
Best development: Robinson Cano’s consistency remains a positive. He has a team-high 56 RBI, and he is batting .299, which is tops among Yankees hitters with at least 50 plate appearances.  
Biggest question: Is recovery possible? The Yankees did more with less than anyone in the division for much of the season, but they seem to be on the decline.
Tampa Bay Rays (45-40)
Surprise: Kelly Johnson was signed to a one-year deal in the offseason primarily as a second baseman, but he has spent time at multiple infield and outfield spots as Tampa Bay’s Mr. Versatile. He hit a torrid .330 with seven home runs and 26 RBI in May.
Disappointment: Left-hander David Price still has time to recover, but in many ways, the first half was a lost period for him. He owns a 2-4 record with a 4.65 ERA in 10 starts and has just returned from a disabled-list stint after sustaining a strained left triceps.
Best development: James Loney has not finished hitting above .300 since he went .331 with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2007. But he leads the Rays with a .318 average and is third on the team with 42 RBI.
Biggest question: Is a run possible? Tampa Bay has the talent to slide into the postseason, but it will take more consistent play, specifically improved starting pitching, to make it happen.
Toronto Blue Jays (41-43)
Surprise: The Blue Jays hovered near 10 games below .500 most of the season before making a mid-June run that gave them a winning record for the first time all year. More was expected after revamping their roster in the offseason.
Disappointment: Jose Reyes was a jewel of Toronto’s offseason additions. However, the star shortstop has played only 18 games, largely because he sustained a severe left ankle sprain in April in Kansas City.
Best development: The 11-game winning streak from June 11-23 offered some hope, however fleeting it may have been. Since, Toronto has lost seven of 10 games.
Biggest question: Which team will be seen in the second half: The one that sank early or the one that showed promise in June? Reyes is back, and right-hander R.A. Dickey has improved from a slow start. But unknowns remain.
Most Dangerous Player
Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles
Little surprise here. Along with Miguel Cabrera, Davis has made a strong case for the American League’s most valuable player in the first half. He is hitting .331, and his home run and RBI totals have made him one of the majors’ most prolific threats at the plate.
It will be fascinating to see if he can maintain the production. He has never finished above a .285 batting average for a single season (with the Texas Rangers in 80 games in 2008). Consider: Already, he is one home run short of his career-high set last season.
Best Manager
John Farrell, Boston Red Sox
He was hired to ease the tension in Beantown after a circus last season under Bobby Valentine. So far, mission accomplished.
The Red Sox are only 17 victories short of their entire win total from last season. Barring a major late-summer collapse, they appear primed to make a return to the postseason for the first time since 2009. The Orioles and Rays could threaten in the months ahead, but the Red Sox have placed themselves in a favorable position.
Sleeper
Toronto Blue Jays
They were the division’s sleeper to start the season. They remain that way because, despite all their problems early, they still have talent and potential.
Edwin Encarnacion (23) and Jose Bautista (19) have combined for 42 home runs, so the threat of power is there. Will R.A. Dickey continue his ascent? Will the Blue Jays’ pitching stabilize, after producing a ho-hum 4.11 staff ERA? The climb looks daunting, but as they showed in June, a recovery is possible.
Final thought
As expected, the AL East has shown in the first half how difficult it can be. The Yankees overachieved for most of the opening months. But in recent weeks, the Red Sox and Orioles have positioned themselves as the division’s front-runners.
Will the Red Sox slow? Will Chris Davis continue to hit? Will the Rays rally? Will the Yankees gain a second wind? Will the Blue Jays play to their potential? All are questions that will be answered in a strong, deep AL East.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.