Boston Red Sox in a tight race for the AL East division title

A look at how the Boston Red Sox compare with their division rivals in what assuredly will a close competition in the final month of the season.

Aug 20, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (34) celebrates with right fielder Mookie Betts (50) during the fifth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 20, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (34) celebrates with right fielder Mookie Betts (50) during the fifth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t a division in Major League Baseball more wide open than the AL East.

The Toronto Blue Jays enter the day on Wednesday sitting atop the division, but the Boston Red Sox are hot on their heels at a mere two games back and the third place Baltimore Orioles are only a game behind Boston. Then there is the New York Yankees still lurking as a dark horse candidate in this race at 6.5 games back.

Any one of these teams could finish strong to claim the division crown, while at least one of the runner-ups is likely to claim a Wild Card spot.

The last time that the Red Sox were in the playoffs was in 2013, when their postseason run ended with a parade celebrating the third World Series title since the turn of the century. Since then the franchise has languished through a pair of miserable last place finishes. While it’s nice to finally be playing meaningful games in September again, anything short of a return to the postseason will be met with crushing disappointment.

A Wild Card spot may appease a rabid fan base suffering from postseason withdrawals, but who wants to rely on a one-game playoff to advance? The introduction of a second Wild Card has given winning the division significantly more importance, so that remains the goal for each of the teams in this race.

September if shaping up to be a crucial month with a number of series against divisional foes on the schedule. Let’s examine the outlook of each of the teams in this race to see who stands the best chance of ending the season at the top of the AL East.

Jun 10, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) celebrates as he crosses home plate after hitting a home run against Miami Marlins in the seventh inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Jun 10, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) celebrates as he crosses home plate after hitting a home run against Miami Marlins in the seventh inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Blue Jays

Current Record: 75-57 (first in AL East)
Remaining Divisional Games: Orioles (4 games), Red Sox (6 games), Yankees (7 games).

Why they will finish first

A two game cushion in the standings gives them a leg up in the competition, although it’s not enough for them to get complacent. They have a loaded lineup led by Josh Donaldson, who is making a compelling argument for repeating as the AL MVP by producing a 6.8 WAR that ranks fourth in the AL.

Toronto’s pitching staff leads the league with a 3.80 ERA, giving them arguably the best rotation in the division. Veteran J.A. Happ is having a career year at the age of 33, tallying 17 wins so far to go along with a 3.23 ERA that puts him in the top 10 in the league.

Why they won’t

Aaron Sanchez has played a significant part in vaulting the Jays pitching staff to the top of the league in his breakout season, but he’s already surpassed his career-high in innings pitched. Toronto recently demoted him to Single-A in an effort to manage his workload. He’ll return to the mound Wednesday, but uncertainty over how much he can contribute down the stretch has to be a concern. A move to the bullpen would still make him a valuable asset, but would also significantly weaken their rotation. They traded for Francisco Liriano to help protect against the possibility that Sanchez could be shut down, but he provides a steep downgrade from the team’s ace.

The Jays have a difficult west coast trip coming up that takes them to Seattle to visit the Mariners and Los Angeles to face the Angels – two teams that have both beaten them in a series in Toronto since the break.

X-Factor

Jose Bautista is back in the lineup following his second stint on the disabled list this season. Since being activated on August 25, Bautista is 7-for-25 (.280) with a home run and three doubles. He’s hitting .250 with an .802 OPS overall in August, an improvement over his season stats. If Joey Bats can return to form down the stretch, as well as stay on the field, then he’ll give the Jays a boost at the top of the order.

Aug 20, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Boston Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi (left) center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (center) and right fielder Mookie Betts (right) celebrate after the game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Red Sox win 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 20, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Boston Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi (left) center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (center) and right fielder Mookie Betts (right) celebrate after the game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Red Sox win 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Red Sox

Current Record: 73-59 (second in AL East, 2 games back)
Remaining Divisional Games: Blue Jays (6 games), Orioles (7 games), Yankees (7 games).

Why they will finish first

The Red Sox have the best offense in baseball with a lineup that includes four players in the top 10 in batting average. They lead in just about every significant offensive category and have proven capable of putting up runs even when the opposing team’s ace takes the mound.

Mookie Betts may be the front runner for MVP at the moment. He’s second in the league with a 7.5 WAR, trailing only Mike Trout (8.9 WAR), who plays for a team that won’t sniff the postseason. Betts is obliterating his career highs, hitting .320/.360/.563, mashing 30 homers and driving in 96 runs, despite spending the bulk of the season in the lead off spot.

The much maligned rotation has shown signs of improvement, with David Price finally looking like the ace the Red Sox anticipated. Steven Wright has returned from injury and Drew Pomeranz has settled in after a rocky start following the trade that sent him over from San Diego. Rick Porcello, who was nearly run out of town after last year’s disaster, has been the steadiest presence in the rotation with his league-leading 18 wins. Boston’s pitching staff owns a 3.73 ERA since the break that ranks fourth in the league over that span. If they remain healthy and pitch to their potential, this Red Sox rotation has the highest ceiling in the division.

Why they won’t

While they seem to have figured out their rotation issues, the bullpen remains a concern. Craig Kimbrel has been solid in the ninth inning, but bridging the gap between he and the starter has often been an adventure. Injuries have hit this bullpen hard, depriving them of many of their most reliable options. Brad Ziegler has helped since being acquired from Arizona, but manager John Farrell hasn’t committed to giving the 8th inning role to the former closer. The late inning formula has been a mess for a while now. Farrell has made some baffling moves with the bullpen, but also hasn’t been given much to work with.

19 of the team’s final 29 games are on the road, easily giving the Red Sox the most road games in the division down the stretch. The only silver lining to the schedule is that 9 of those road games come against last place teams – Oakland, San Diego and Tampa Bay.

X-Factor

David Ortiz is having one of the best seasons of his career at the age of 40, hitting .316/.404/.627 with 31 home runs and 101 RBI. He also leads the league with a 1.031 OPS and 42 doubles. The production he has provided is unprecedented for a player in their final season, let alone one his age. If we can give bonus points for the added motivation of sending Big Papi off into retirement with one last postseason run, Boston gets a bit of an edge.

Aug 30, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado (13) hits his 100th career home run in the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Orioles

Current Record: 72-60 (third in AL East, 3 games back)
Remaining Divisional Games: Blue Jays (4 games), Yankees (6 games), Red Sox (7 games).

Why they will finish first

You can never count out a team that hits as many home runs as the O’s. They lead the league with 71 homers, topped by Mark Trumbo‘s major league-leading 40. Baltimore also has a pair of hitters tied for 8th in the league with 32 homers, making them the only team in the league to have three sluggers in the top 10 in that category.

Manny Machado is one of those heavy-hitters. He is one of the game’s best all-around players, providing stellar defense regardless of if the team places him at shortstop or third. Machado is fifth in the league with a 6.1 WAR and seventh with a .920 OPS.

Half of Baltimore’s remaining 30 games are at home, where they are 42-23 this season.

Why they won’t

Baltimore’s starting rotation ranks 13th in the league with a 4.94 ERA and they have now lost ace Chris Tillman to a shoulder injury. Three out of the five starters currently making up their rotation include Yovani Gallardo (5.69 ERA), Ubaldo Jimenez (6.46 ERA) and Wade Miley (7.14 ERA), none of whom have any business starting for a playoff contender.

The offense is dangerous, but Baltimore’s woeful pitching staff has been the culprit behind a +9 run differential that is light years behind the two teams ahead of them. Boston has an AL-best +119 run differential and Toronto is right behind at +104. Baltimore’s run differential suggests that they have played at the level of a team barely above .500, so they are fortunate to be this close in the race as it is.

X-Factor

The O’s have the ability to finish teams off late in tight games with a dominant 1-2 punch of All-Stars Zach Britton (owner of a ridiculous 0.67 ERA) and Brad Brach. In a tight race that could come down to the final days of the season, a game blown by the bullpen could mean the difference between winning the division and settling for a Wild Card. Of the teams in this race, Baltimore has the least to worry about securing those late-inning leads.

Aug 28, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees designated hitter Gary Sanchez (24) hits a double against the Baltimore Orioles during the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

New York Yankees

Current Record: 68-63 (fourth in AL East, 6.5 games back)
Remaining Divisional Games: Orioles (6 games), Blue Jays (7 games), Red Sox (7 games)

Why they will finish first

Because there is an unwritten rule that we aren’t allowed to count out the Yankees? Seriously though, what makes the Yankees dangerous is that they are playing like a team with nothing to lose. Everyone was ready to give up on them when they started selling off key pieces, yet they’ve managed to improve their position in the playoff hunt since the deadline. An infusion of young talent on the roster has given this team a boost to get back in the race.

Masahiro Tanaka has returned to ace status after a couple of injury-shortened seasons to begin his career. He has already blown by his career-high since coming to the US with 173 innings and owns a 3.12 ERA that ranks seventh in the league.

The Yankees are a long shot to vault to the top of the division, but they are only 3.5 games out of a Wild Card spot. Tanaka gives them a solid chance in a one-game playoff, so there is still hope for this improving Yankees team.

Why they won’t

They are too far back and have too many teams to climb over in the AL East. They have been playing good baseball lately, but at some point they will feel the effects of giving up so many quality veterans. The bullpen is severely weakened by trades that shipped out Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, while the middle of the lineup will miss the power of Carlos Beltran‘s bat. He still leads the team in homers and RBI, despite being traded a month ago.

The Yankees have a -11 run differential that suggests they should be below .500, not five games above it. Sure, this is a different Yankees team than what we’ve seen for the bulk of the season, but not one that is necessarily significantly better. When is the last time a team made the playoffs with a negative run differential? I looked back as far as 2003 and couldn’t find a team that came close in recent memory. The 2012 Orioles had the lowest run differential of any playoff team in that span at +7. I wouldn’t count on this Yankees team being the one that bucks the trend.

X-Factor

It’s hard to do more to impress than Gary Sanchez has done to begin his career. The 23-year old catcher is hitting .383/.448/.819 and recently became the first player in major league history to blast 11 home runs in the first 23 career games. A Yankees team that was near the bottom of the league in scoring all season suddenly shot up to first in runs scored for the month of August. It’s no surprise then that Sanchez became a fixture in the lineup on August 3. Can his bat help carry the Yankees to the postseason or is it too little, too late?

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