Yankees, Rays, Red Sox all contenders for AL East

The Rays-Yankees showdown this weekend could be a preview of the American League Championship Series.

Or not.

Each of the three AL East contenders stands a reasonable chance of reaching the post-season as the Rays and Yankees resume play at Yankee Stadium (Saturday, MLB on Fox, 4:10 p.m.)

One rival executive maintains that the Red Sox are the strongest team in the division when healthy. They are not healthy, so for now the point is irrelevant. But the Sox are 40-24 since their 11-14 start, and their overall mark is the fifth best in the majors, if third best in the AL East.

Injuries, of course, will help determine which two AL East teams make the playoffs – if indeed two qualify, considering the Tigers are only five games out in the wild-card race. Trades also will figure prominently, though the market is short on impact players now that Cliff Lee is a Ranger.

The race should be frenzied, perhaps the best in years. The Yankees are the Yankees, but most of their stars are older and vulnerable to injury. The Red Sox are gallant but depleted as they await the returns of their injured players. The Rays, due to their looming payroll cuts, are in an especially urgent position.

A look at each of the three contenders:

YANKEES

The case for: The numbers don’t lie. The Yankees lead the majors in run differential and defensive efficiency and rank second in the American League in both runs and ERA.

The case against: At some point – and we say this every year – the Yankees’ older players will crack.

Closer Mariano Rivera, third baseman Alex Rodriguez and catcher Jorge Posada already have dealt with physical issues. Shortstop Derek Jeter is healthy, but coming off a sub-par first half. Left-hander Andy Pettitte is another injury risk.

The bullpen in front of Rivera is the team’s single biggest area of concern – or should be. The Yankees insist that all is well, pointing to the track records of their relievers. Hello? Joba Chamberlain owns a 5.79 ERA.

Underachiever who must produce: Right-hander A.J. Burnett, who went 0-5 with an 11.35 ERA in June before pitching better in his last two starts.

The Yankees’ month-by-month rotation ERAs, according to STATS LLC: 3.41 in April, 3.94 in May, 4.49 in June, 1.86 in July – and eight of the 11 games in July were against the Mariners and A’s, two of the AL’s four worst offensive teams.

If the rotation falters, the bullpen would be further exposed, creating the possibility of a crippling domino effect.

Overachiever who should decline: Left fielder Brett Gardner, whose .396 on-base percentage and .811 OPS are surprising to everyone, perhaps, but the Yankees.

If Gardner slumps, the Yankees could be looking at two offensive holes in the outfield, the other being center fielder Curtis Granderson.

Ideal trade acquisition: Super-utility man Jose Bautista, Blue Jays.

Bautista leads the majors with 24 homers and is tied for the AL lead with 54 walks. He could play third if A-Rod needed time off and serve as a right-handed hitting alternative to Gardner or Granderson in the outfield. Gardner could play center if Bautista was in left.

Scheduling note: Thirteen of the Yankees’ final 19 games are against the Red Sox and Rays.

RED SOX

The case for: The Red Sox remain in contention despite right-hander Josh Beckett making only eight starts and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury appearing in only nine games – and most of their injured players, including second baseman Dustin Pedroia, should be back by early August.

The case against: The idea that the Sox soon will be healthy might be nothing more fantasy. Ellsbury has healed slowly from fractured ribs. Pedroia might return a lesser player due to his broken left foot. Center fielder Mike Cameron must proceed cautiously as he continues his recovery from an abdominal strain.

Oh, and that bullpen: The Sox relievers, except for right-hander Manny Delcarmen, are healthy – yet the ‘pen ranks 10th in the AL in opponents’ OPS and next-to-last in ERA.

Underachiever who must produce: Right-hander John Lackey, whose 4.78 ERA and .816 opponents’ OPS are more telling reflections of his performance than his 9-5 record.

The Sox rotation still has staggering potential if Lackey gathers himself, Beckett gets healthy and lefty Jon Lester and righty Clay Buchholz continue their first-half performance. Lackey needs to be less of an “if.”

Overachiever who should decline: Third baseman Adrian Beltre, who is unlikely to sustain his .330 batting average.

Beltre’s .366 batting average on balls in play is the sixth-highest in the AL – an indication that his stunning first half was at least partly due to good luck.

Ideal trade acquisition: Outfielder David DeJesus, Royals.

No slight to Daniel Nava and Darnell McDonald, but the Sox need more protection in the outfield. Cameron requires occasional days off and so will Ellsbury once he returns. J.D. Drew’s relative good health, meanwhile, is like a high BABIP – a trend unlikely to continue.

The Royals want a lot for DeJesus, who is affordable through 2011, capable at all three outfield positions and enjoying a career-best season. At the moment, rival executives say, the Red Sox’s farm system is not terribly deep.

Scheduling note: Six of Sox’s last 10 games are against the Yankees.

RAYS

The case for: Best pitching in the league, and not by a small margin. The Rays’ 3.59 ERA is nearly a quarter-run better than that of the Yankees, who are second at 3.81.

The Rays’ rotation, while not as dominant as it was early in the season, ranks third in the league in ERA. Their bullpen, which has emerged as a surprising strength, ranks second; the Yankees are ninth, the Red Sox 13th.

The case against: The Rays’ offense is too inconsistent, in part due to the struggles of first baseman Carlos Pena and center fielder B.J. Upton. And their pitching, while outstanding, might not be quite dominant enough to compensate for the offensive deficiencies.

Underacheivers who must produce: Pena, Upton and to a lesser extent, shortstop Jason Bartlett. The Rays rank fourth in the AL in runs per game. Imagine where they would be if Pena and Upton raised their respective OPSes above the low .700s.

Overachievers who should decline: Relievers Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano. Both have been fantastic, combining for 69 strikeouts and 11 walks. But their BABIPs are absurdly low. If hitters start making better contact – no sure thing – some balls might start falling.

Ideal trade acquisition: Right fielder Jayson Werth, Phillies.

Don’t know how the Rays could do it; the Phillies want major-league players for Werth, and few contenders, if any, are deep enough to pull off such a trade. Still, the Rays need one more thumper – they rank 11th in the AL in OPS from the DH spot.

Werth is too good a defender to stick at DH, but his addition would enable the Rays to put together a solid rotation at the position. The Royals’ Jose Guillen, more of a pure DH, would offer less potential impact.

Adam Dunn? The Nationals’ price for their first baseman is too steep, and Dunn does not want to DH.

Lance Berkman? Great fit, but only if he were willing to waive his no-trade clause without the Rays exercising his $15 million option for 2011.

Prince Fielder? His salary in his final year of arbitration also could rise to $15 million, a number that almost certainly is too high for the Rays.

The Rays’ Opening Day payroll was $71.9 million, while the Red Sox were at $162.4 million and the Yankees were at $206.3 million. Yet, of the three AL East contenders, the Rays might actually be the best bet to make a high-impact move. Pena, Soriano and left fielder Carl Crawford are potential free agents; the season, in some ways, is a last hurrah.

Scheduling note: The Rays could produce a big finishing kick; their final 10 games are against the Mariners, Orioles and Royals.