AL East check-in: Unexpected has become the norm early in season
From left: Edwin Encarnacion of the Toronto Blue Jays, Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees, Nelson Cruz of the Baltimore Orioles, David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays and Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox.
Wait, the Boston Red Sox are in last place? The Tampa Bay Rays are in fourth? The Toronto Blue Jays — those same Blue Jays that were one of baseball’s biggest disappointments last year — are in first?
Is this real?
Yes, yes and yes. Welcome to the American League East in late May, where would-be contenders have fallen and would-be underachievers have scratched the "under" from that title for now.
The necessary May disclaimer: This division race resembles uncooked cake batter. There has been a whole lot of stirring since Opening Day, but the finished product is far from done. There’s heat to come.
No bother, it’s never too early to scan the landscape. It’s worth studying developments so far. Here’s a closer look at the division, with each team through at least 50 games.
Stats through May 27 …
TORONTO BLUE JAYS (31-22, 1st)
Strength: Offense, offense, offense. The Blue Jays’ bats have made an impression in a big way early. They lead the majors with 76 home runs, and they’re second to the Colorado Rockies in runs scored (265) and RBI (251). Edwin Encarnacion paces the power surge with 16 home runs and 42 RBI.
Weakness: It’s tough to find any now. With 31 victories, they’re tied with the Oakland Athletics for most in the American League. The starting rotation, which began as a question mark, has proved to be better than expected. Still, there’s room to improve. Toronto entered play Wednesday with a 4.18 staff ERA, which ranks 24th in the majors.
Best development: Who saw this start coming for veteran left-hander Mark Buehrle? He’s 9-1 with a 2.33 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 11 appearances. Consider: He hasn’t finished with more than 13 victories and an ERA lower than 3.59 the past five seasons. He was 4-1 with a 2.16 ERA in five April starts, and he’s 5-0 with a 2.48 ERA in six May appearances.
Biggest question: Can key players stay healthy? Injuries ravaged the Blue Jays’ lineup last season. It’s hard to see them falling off their current pace if health is preserved. Remember when experts pegged Toronto to be a major mover-and-shaker in the division? Turns out, those predictions were a year early.
NEW YORK YANKEES (27-24, 2nd)
Strength: So far, the AL East is the division that pitching forgot, but the Yankees have held their own in the category. They’re 17th in the majors with a 3.89 staff ERA. That’s the best in the division, ahead of the Boston Red Sox (3.99), Tampa Bay Rays (4.18), Toronto Blue Jays (4.18) and Baltimore Orioles (4.25).
Weakness: What’s with the long skids? Already, the Yankees have lost four consecutive games (May 10-13) and five of six (April 29-May 5) this season. Such dips are dangerous for any would-be contender.
Best development: Right-hander Masahiro Tanaka has lived up to the hype. It was hard to know what the Yankees were buying with their seven-year, $155 million man, but they’ve received good returns on their investment. He’s 7-1 with a 2.29 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 10 starts. Money well spent so far.
Biggest question: Can they keep it going? Most thought the Yankees, with an aging talent core, would be no more than a minor factor within the AL East. But so far, everything looks good, thanks to momentum from the Tanaka signing and a roster that has produced more efficiently than expected. If the Blue Jays fall off their current pace, the Yankees won’t be far behind.
BALTIMORE ORIOLES (26-24, 3rd)
Strength: Outside of the Blue Jays, the Orioles hit for power better than anyone in the division. They’re tied for 11th in the majors in home runs with 51. Nelson Cruz leads the majors in the category with 17. They’re a threat to go deep each game, so with that potential, the Orioles have a key ingredient to remain a division contender.
Weakness: At times, they look like one of the division’s most dangerous teams, with a pleasing mix of strong pitching and opportune hitting. Then at others, they lose their edge. Get their act together, and the Orioles could have the most staying power of any division threat.
Best development: Cruz, hands down. You can’t ask much more from someone hitting .300 with 17 home runs and 46 RBI. He has hit a toasty .314 in May with 10 home runs. His RBI total is second in the majors, behind the 49 for the Miami Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton.
Biggest question: Can the Orioles live up to their potential? There’s no reason a lineup that includes Cruz and Chris Davis, who has hit .252 with seven home runs and 25 RBI, shouldn’t remain in contention with this wide-open race. If the pitching can match the hitting, they’ll be tough to beat.
Strength: With so many (unexpected) issues early, it’s hard to spot the good news. James Loney, though, has become one of the Rays’ most consistent plate presences. He leads the team in batting average (.298), hits (57), RBI (28) and doubles (12).
Weakness: Pitching has underwhelmed. Injuries to left-hander Matt Moore and right-hander Alex Cobb hurt. But other members of the rotation must be better. David Price (4-4, 4.42 ERA) has shown flashes of being a dominant ace, but he also has been shaky. The bullpen remains a work in progress, and questions about closer Grant Balfour (two blown saves in 11 attempts) have lingered throughout the season’s opening months.
Best development: A season-high four-game winning streak from May 22-25 that included a sweep of the Boston Red Sox. Other than that, the best sign for the Rays is this: It’s only late May.
Biggest question: Can the pitching become consistent? Offense is cyclical, so there will be spurts to offset the slumps. But for a team built on pitching and defense, one half of the equation can’t be missing. Entering play Wednesday, the Rays’ staff owned a 4.18 ERA, which ranks 23rd in the majors. Moore (Tommy John surgery) will be out for the season. But Cobb is back from a left oblique strain, which was a much-needed development. Meanwhile, right-hander Jake Odorizzi and left-hander Erik Bedard have improved since early struggles. What will right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, currently rehabbing from arthroscopic elbow surgery on his throwing arm, look like when he returns? That could be the question that shapes the rest of the Rays’ summer on the mound.
BOSTON RED SOX (22-29, 5th)
Strength: Well, not much right now. If you search hard enough, you can say the Red Sox know what it takes to win. Don’t underestimate the perspective gained with winning a World Series. Yes, their record is a disaster, but with fiery clubhouse presences like David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jonny Gomes, anything is possible.
Weakness: This is a complete slide. Neither the Red Sox’s offense nor their pitching has impressed. They rank 18th in the majors in runs scored with 209, and they’re 19th in the league with a 3.99 staff ERA. The solution is simple in theory, yet hard in practice: Become sharper in all areas.
Best development: No one is running away with the division … yet. Yes, this is a wicked World Series hangover, but it would be unwise to wave a white flag on this season for now. Only the Houston Astros (21-32) have fewer victories than the Red Sox in the American League. An eight-game deficit for the division lead looks daunting, but at least it’s not late August.
Biggest question: Can they get it together? Plain and simple. No frills, nothing fancy here. It’s hard to repeat — no one has done so since the Yankees won three straight World Series from 1998-2000 — but the Red Sox are better than their record shows.
Call it a tie between Cruz and Encarnacion. They have smacked 33 home runs and produced 88 RBI between them. Cruz holds a slight edge in both categories, but Encarnacion has launched a ridiculous 14 home runs in May. The AL East boasts the game’s best two power hitters, and believe it, both promise more fireworks ahead.
John Gibbons. The Blue Jays were a huge disappointment in finishing 74-88 last season. Injuries were a large part of the fall, but the current group has momentum moving in the right direction. If health cooperates, Gibbons will return the Blue Jays to the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
Red Sox. It might seem silly to consider the defending World Series champions a sleeper, but that’s the case. Some in New England might study the Patriots’ schedule a little earlier than normal with Boston’s recent face-plant. But the Red Sox still have the weapons to shake their funk. Hold off on the countdown to NFL training camp for now.
So about those preseason projections … rip them, crumple them, shred them all and throw them away. The Blue Jays are in first place, the Red Sox are in last and the Rays aren’t far behind in the fall toward the cellar. Just like everyone predicted, right? There’s so much baseball to be played. So much can happen. But how about this: The unexpected has become the norm so far.