First-place Jays best beware: O’s have what it takes to win AL East

BALTIMORE — The Toronto Blue Jays lead the Baltimore Orioles by 3½ games in the American League East. Toronto’s starting rotation has been over a half-run better than Baltimore’s. And the Orioles seem likely to lose their All-Star catcher, Matt Wieters, to season-ending elbow surgery.

So why does it feel like the Orioles, as presently constituted, have the better chance to win the division?

Thursday at Camden Yards, the Orioles won the opener of a moderately important series between the teams — for June, at least. More significant was the way Baltimore did it: Kevin Gausman, the Orioles’ first-round pick two years ago, threw his second consecutive quality start against a first-place team. (He also beat the A’s Saturday night.)

Afterward, Gausman said he’s no longer in awe of major-league stadiums, the way he was when he made five starts with the big club last year, and manager Buck Showalter said the 23-year-old has learned “what it takes” to win at this level. With Miguel Gonzalez on the verge of returning from the disabled list, the Orioles can credibly utter one of the most exclusive phrases in baseball: We have starting pitching depth at the major-league level.

The Jays aren’t able to make the same boast, as my colleague Ken Rosenthal outlined in his column earlier this week. The Jays summoned their own 2012 first rounder, Marcus Stroman, and he’s turned in three quality starts — while striking out nearly a batter per inning — since joining the rotation.

But even if Gausman vs. Stroman is a push, the overall rotation comparison favors Baltimore in the second half.

Critics of the Baltimore starters say there isn’t an ace in the group. I agree. And Dan Duquette, the Baltimore general manager, is already considering whether to add a starter via trade. But all the pitchers in the Orioles’ season-opening rotation — Gonzalez (30), Ubaldo Jimenez (30), Bud Norris (29), Wei-Yin Chen (28) and Chris Tillman (26) — are in their prime years. They’re old enough to know what to expect from the six- and possibly seven-month grind and young enough for their bodies to withstand the rigor.

Toronto, meanwhile, is relying on a 35-year-old All-Star lock who’s likely to regress in the second half (Mark Buehrle); a 39-year-old knuckleballer (R.A. Dickey); a 31-year-old who hasn’t thrown 150 major-league innings in a season since 2011 (J.A. Happ); a talented 23-year-old who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012 (Drew Hutchison); and Stroman.

For reasons of age, health history and inexperience, you could argue that manager John Gibbons will need to back off any one of those five starters in August and September. Gibbons can handle doing that with one. Two or three would be untenable.

The Jays may be the major-league team that would most benefit from swift action on the trade market. The quicker they acquire a pitcher — even a rental, such as the Cubs’ Jason Hammel — the sooner they can manipulate their roster to ensure their existing starters rest before the late-season fatigue sets in.

The 2013 Red Sox utilized that philosophy — with champagne-soaked results — as the July acquisition of Jake Peavy meant the injury-prone Clay Buchholz needed to make only four regular-season starts after the All-Star break.


• Speaking of Buehrle, AL manager John Farrell will face an intriguing decision when he announces his starting pitcher on the eve of next month’s All-Star Game. Buehrle has been one of the majors’ most respected pitchers over the past decade, and he’s having a sensational year for the first-place team in Farrell’s division. But ranks Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, Texas’ Yu Darvish and New York’s Masahiro Tanaka as the AL’s top starters, according to Wins Above Replacement.

Hernandez would be an outstanding choice — particularly because he’s never started the All-Star Game, despite being a strong candidate any number of times over the past decade. (Buehrle started — and won — the 2005 Midsummer Classic.) But if the object is winning the game, it would be hard to argue against Tanaka. In addition to leading the AL in ERA, he brings the element of surprise. Many NL hitters haven’t faced Tanaka yet, and, as his performance this season shows, his diverse and powerful repertoire is difficult for unfamiliar opponents to handle.

We’ve had a lot of heated baseball debates in recent years. This promises to be another.

• As the Blue Jays search for pitching, one option is to trade center fielder Colby Rasmus for an arm and play Anthony Gose in center field. But there are a few issues with that scenario.

Gose, while a superior defender to Rasmus, has cooled offensively of late. Also, Rasmus — who’s expected to return from the disabled list soon — possesses the power bat that could rouse the team from its recent offensive malaise.

While the Atlanta Braves look like a potential trade partner — Rasmus is from Georgia, and the Braves’ center fielder (B.J. Upton) continues to disappoint — they don’t view Rasmus as a trade fit.

• This is a shame: The Cleveland Indians, who made the playoffs last year, are one of the game’s hottest teams over the past several weeks, and have a rising star in outfielder Michael Brantley. Yet, the Indians rank last in the majors with an average home attendance of 15,253.

I’ll never tell fans how to spend their money, but it’s disappointing that — coming off a year in which they made the playoffs — the Indians aren’t better supported.

And please don’t tell me the good folks of Northeast Ohio are otherwise consumed by glee over the Heat’s imminent demise. That’s so 2011.