On Sunday, Nik Wallenda became the first person to walk across the Grand Canyon on a wire.
His confidence soaring, the daredevil is said to be preparing for another, even more perilous challenge — successfully predicting which team will win the American League East.
By this point in baseball’s 162-game tightrope, the standings typically reveal a handful of conclusions. Not so in the 2013 AL East, which is — indisputably and without any hint of regional bias — the best division in the major leagues.
Thanks to the Toronto Blue Jays’ serendipitous 11-game winning streak, all five AL East teams are above .500. No other division has more than three teams with winning records.
And while it’s true that all five AL East teams were over .500 on the morning of last June 24, this is different.
Here’s how: The Jays are 38-36. They had the same record after 74 games last year and were in last place. The New York Yankees led the division. Baltimore was second, four behind. Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto were 5-1/2, 6-1/2 and 7-1/2 back, respectively.
But as of today, no one in the division is more than five games behind division-leading Boston. That is the narrowest top-to-bottom spread of any division in the majors. In fact, according to STATS LLC, the smallest gap between first and last place in the wild-card era (1995-present) was the ’05 National League East. That year, nine games separated the champion Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals.
As my friends at STATS LLC and SABR reminded me Sunday, the ’05 NL East marked the only time since the wild card was introduced that every team in a division was at or above .500. (The Nationals finished 81-81.) So, it’s mathematically possible — even with the new scheduling format — that every team in the AL East will finish with a winning record this year.
Of course, you want to know what the final order will be. Well, I don’t know. No one does. As one National League executive told me Sunday, “I could paint a believable picture of how each of them wins it.” And so my new objective with the AL East is to do less predicting and more watching, because the latter promises to be much more fun.
I was sure I was right in spring training, when I picked Toronto to win the division and go to the World Series. And I was sure I was wrong in April, when I saw the Blue Jays in person and was alarmed by (a) their underwhelming response to high expectations and (b) how much starters R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle struggled in their initial adaptation from the NL.
Look at the Jays now: Buehrle and Johnson have June ERAs of 2.16 and 2.84, respectively. Chien-Ming Wang and Esmil Rogers — pitchers who weren’t supposed to be in the rotation at all for Toronto this year — have combined to go 3-0 with a 2.01 ERA in six starts this month. The Casey Janssen-led bullpen has been excellent. The lineup is second only to Boston in runs scored this month among AL teams, and that’s without Jose Reyes, who’s expected to return soon from the disabled list.
In short, there are valid reasons to believe the Jays can make their first playoff appearance in two decades — even though they’re tied for fourth place with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays, frankly, must feel similar optimism. They came away from Yankee Stadium with a hard-earned weekend split thanks to promising starter Chris Archer — who, in true Rays form, spent the first two months of this season in the minor leagues. The team’s elite outfield prospect, Wil Myers, needed less than one week in the majors to hit his first grand slam. David Price, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, should return from the disabled list and contribute in the second half.
The division is so tightly contested that trade deadline moves could tip the balance one way or the other. Will the Red Sox bring Jonathan Papelbon back to Boston? Can the Orioles convince Cliff Lee to waive his no-trade clause and come to Baltimore — as the No. 1 starter they desperately need? Do the Yankees even need to make a big move, if Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Michael Pineda, and, yes, Alex Rodriguez all make meaningful contributions?
The Red Sox lead the second-place Orioles by only two games, so it’s not a criticism of Boston to say the division remains there for any team to take. It’s reality. Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz, an All-Star candidate, is still on the disabled list, and Jon Lester has one quality start since May 15. If Buchholz and Lester are the bellwethers for John Farrell’s team — as many believe — then there is cause for concern at Fenway Park.
That, in a sense, is the beauty of this division: We said during the offseason that all five teams could finish in any position. Remarkably, we can make the same argument now.
Good thing Wallenda had so much time to think about his picks while walking along the air.