Mighty AL East not looking too tough

The American League East is supposed to be orderly.

The Yankees and Red Sox contend every year, because they spend millions on superstars. The Rays compete with them, thanks to pitching excellence and front-office efficiency. The Blue Jays are the best fourth-place team in baseball. The Orioles sell a lot of tickets to fans from Boston and New York.

At least, that’s what we’ve come to expect. This season may not follow the pattern.

Boston’s horrid 4-10 start has received much of the attention, but that’s actually part of a larger, more intriguing phenomenon: The AL East doesn’t have a dominant team.

The AL’s top teams played over the weekend, just not at Fenway Park: The Rangers took three of four from the Tigers, proving (as they did in October) that they are a little bit better.

Meanwhile, the East teams are squeezed together like passengers on the No. 4 train: The Yankees and Blue Jays at 9-6, the Rays and Orioles at 9-7, and then the lonely, lowly Red Sox.

The most recent Baseball Prospectus calculation projects that the Yankees will win the division with 93 victories. The win total is the most noteworthy aspect of that calculation: The AL East champion hasn’t won fewer than 95 games since 2000.

The teams have plenty of time to pull away from one another, but I expect more parity in the AL East this year than we have seen in a decade or more. Here are some early observations about each team in baseball’s most closely followed division:

1. The Yankees, while flawed, remain the best team.

Obviously, the Yankees can hit. Few teams on the planet could overcome a 9-0 deficit while scoring seven runs in back-to-back innings, as the Yankees did Saturday at Fenway. I know the Red Sox bullpen is inept. But the Yankees staged a jaw-dropping offensive display.

The Yankees have scored more runs this year than every AL team except Texas. And they’ve done that despite slow starts from Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Russell Martin. Rodriguez, who turns 37 in July, is a concern because of his age, contract and sub-par (for him) 2011 season, but he’s had better at-bats over the past week.

The New York bullpen is the American League’s best. Remember Mariano Rivera’s season-opening blown save? Well, he’s permitted a .118 batting average and zero earned runs in the five innings since. He’s going to be OK.

One concern: Yankees relievers have thrown 54-2/3 innings, the most in the majors entering Sunday. Simply put, the rotation hasn’t pitched long enough or well enough. After three complete turns of the rotation, Ivan Nova is the only starter with an ERA below 5.00.

CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda at least have provided innings. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia have yet to complete the sixth in any of their starts. Andy Pettitte seems likely to supplant Hughes or Garcia by sometime next month — and the ol’ lefty might be the last of the internal reinforcements for the foreseeable future. Michael Pineda suffered a setback in his bid to return from right rotator cuff tendinitis and could miss months, not weeks.

2 . Byrd in center and Bard in the bullpen won’t fix the BoSox.

Yes, the Red Sox started 4-10 last year and nearly made the playoffs. But that was a more talented team, with a healthy Jacoby Ellsbury and lockdown eighth- and ninth-inning pitchers. Sunday’s postponement allowed the Red Sox to move Daniel Bard back to the bullpen on at least a temporary basis. But it’s foolish to think that will fix their problems. For one thing, is Bard going to become the closer? Like the other candidates, he hasn’t proven he can handle that job on a fulltime basis, either.

Even if Bard becomes a permanent reliever, with Aaron Cook coming up from the minors to take his spot in the rotation, embattled manager Bobby Valentine will have to continue giving the ball to many of those responsible for the worst bullpen ERA in baseball (8.44). Alfredo Aceves, the closer for now, has failed to record an out three times this season after entering with the Red Sox tied or ahead.

Meanwhile, as was the case last September, the starting rotation has been a bellwether for the rest of the team: Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz have ERAs of 5.00 or higher. Unless two of those three have All-Star-caliber seasons, the Red Sox may struggle to finish with a winning record.

Marlon Byrd was an All-Star two seasons ago, and he’s 34 years old, so his .070 batting average with the Cubs this season can’t possibly suggest that he’s finished … can it?

3. The Rays’ bullpen is their biggest impediment to winning the East.

Red Sox fans may be writing mournful Facebook posts about their state of their team’s bullpen, but the Rays’ relievers haven’t been much better: a 7.49 ERA, with just as many losses (three) as their Boston counterparts.

Fernando Rodney, mercurial with the Angels, has been surprisingly stable as the Rays’ closer (5 for 5 in save opportunities, 0.55 WHIP). All the innings before the ninth have been the problem. J.P. Howell and Jake McGee, the lone left-handers in the bullpen, are allowing batting averages of better than .300. In a division with so many lefty sluggers, that can’t last.

The absence of 2011 closer Kyle Farnsworth has been a key factor in the chaos. He has been on the disabled list all season with an elbow strain.

4. The Blue Jays can finish with 86 or 87 wins — maybe more.

Toronto entered the offseason needing a No. 2 starter and middle-of-the-order bat to become a serious contender this year. General manager Alex Anthopoulos acquired neither, sending the message that winning in 2012 wasn’t necessarily the top priority.

Then the season began, and the Blue Jays made the decidedly win-now move of promoting 21-year-old Drew Hutchison from Double-A to join the rotation. So, it’s hard to know exactly what the Jays’ plans are.

Jays officials have said they are comfortable expanding the payroll when the time is right. Well, what if they are within range of the two wild cards in June? Would Astros lefty Wandy Rodriguez become a possibility for the rotation?

Those questions are relevant because one sees the makings of a playoff team with the Jays’ roster. Ricky Romero is a legitimate ace, and the lineup ranks third among AL teams in runs scored even though slugger Jose Bautista is off to a slow start. Closer Sergio Santos is on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation, but veteran Francisco Cordero (37 saves last year) is more than qualified to replace him.

5. Baltimore will be more competitive than originally thought.

I know: The Orioles fooled us last year, when they started 6-1 before losing eight straight. They finished last, in a season noteworthy only because of how they ruined the Red Sox.

The encouraging part of the Orioles’ start this year is that the right players — the pieces of their future — have performed well. Three of Jake Arrieta’s first four starts have been good. Wei-Yin Chen, the rookie left-hander from Taiwan, turned in a quality start against the Angels. Matt Weiters and Nolan Reimold are hitting for power. Adam Jones has been his productive self. Robert Andino looks like he might be an everyday player after all.

The Orioles aren’t better than the Yankees. They aren’t better than the Red Sox, either, regardless of the current records. But they are better, generally, than they were at this time last year. There will be no cheap wins in the AL East in 2012. Come September, the standings will show that.

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