Relaying the Signs: Re-evaluating the AL East

Sam Fuld, Tampa Bay's human highlight reel, has revived the Rays. But you'll never guess who our professor of AL East Philosophy is picking to win the division. (AP photo)

Welcome back to Relaying the Signs, a weekly column dedicated to anything and everything that is Major League Baseball. In last week’s initial installment, I shared my skepticism regarding Ryan Braun’s contract extension. This time around, I take you back to your college days for a good ol’ fashioned lecture on the state of the American League East to this point in 2011.

Whether due to your unwavering allegiance to the senior circuit, those distracting NBA playoff games or because, well, you have better things to do, if you’re in need of an American League East refresher, class is now in session. For analogical sake, we’ll call this course, AL Eastern Philosophy 162. Clever, I know.

Aside from undeniable wit, of course, what is required of your typical AL Eastern Philosophy professor? Well, the irreparable social sacrifice of a recluse combined with a mind for baseball greater than that of any mere mortal.

Well, that, or simply an inordinate amount of hours spent watching various teams around the league on a daily basis, plus a little foresight and the ability to form an opinion. Now, while my qualifications regarding the latter two may be suspect in your eyes, I can assure you that the former is not an issue — thanks, MLB.TV!

Anyway, consider this your ALE Phil 162 syllabus. The final exam will not be cumulative as the subject matter is likely to change and not all that we discuss will remain topical come October. Which subject matters you ultimately chose to focus on is entirely up to you. Don’t bother asking me, your professor, because I don’t have all the answers — I just like to pretend like I do. Besides, this is, after all, a philosophical course.

Isn’t college fun? On to lesson number one.

American League East: current events

The East division has been semi-surprising to this point, in the fact that Tampa Bay finds itself in contention and the Red Sox haven’t already clinched a playoff spot. The standings, as they are now, aren’t quite indicative of the way the division has played throughout the entirety of the first month and they will likely change before the conclusion of May. Here’s a quick rundown of the present standings and how they came to be.

1. New York Yankees (17-11)

While New York finishing April atop the East is a surprise, albeit a small one, the way in which they’ve done it sure isn’t. Despite playing the fewest games in the league, thanks to three separate rainouts, the aptly named Bronx Bombers’ offense is among the top five in runs scored, home runs and walks. Their league leading .458 slugging percentage is more than 50 points higher than the next best team from the East, Toronto (.404). Also, fueled by some resurgent pitching performances from the likes of Freddy Garcia (1-2, 2.88 ERA) and Bartolo Colon (2-1, 3.00 ERA), the Yankees managed to roll through the first month of the season without losing a single series. Then again, they’ve played just one against a team with a winning record.

2. Tampa Bay Rays (16-14)

Speaking of winning records, who’d have thought that the Rays — despite the abrupt retirement of their assumed designated hitter, Manny Ramirez, after just five games — would score enough runs to hover above .500? Sam Fuld, that’s who. Alright, but who is Sam Fuld, you ask? Well, when Johnny Damon shifted from the outfield into the vacant DH role left by Man-Ram, it was Fuld who indirectly replaced Ramirez’s spot in the everyday lineup. After playing less than 100 career games prior to this season, all he’s done is lead the league in stolen bases and ESPN Baseball Tonight’s Web Gems. While the offense as a whole has not exactly been explosive, per se, it hasn’t had to be. Their collective staff ERA is the best in the East, at 3.43. A rotation led by James Shields and Wade Davis has been backed by a brilliant patchwork bullpen and the emergence of Kyle Farnsworth as a reliable closer.

3. Baltimore Orioles (14-15)

The rebirth in Baltimore, headed by new manager, Buck Showalter, has stalled a bit in the first month of the season. Not to say that it is surprising to find Baltimore towards the bottom of the standings, it’s just disappointing in the way that it has transpired for O’s fans. The front of the starting rotation, Jeremy Guthrie (3.00 ERA, .247 BAA, 1.08 WHIP) and Zach Britton (5-1, 2.63 ERA, .226 BAA) have been phenomenal. However, their contributions haven’t been enough to overcome an anemic offense and poor outputs from the rest of the pitching staff, which has the team’s collective ERA nearly dead last in the league. It hasn’t helped that their strength of schedule has been abnormally unkind thus far.

4. Boston Red Sox (14-16)

With their first 11 games coming against four of the American League’s current top teams, in addition to playing very, very poorly during that stretch, it’s still surprising that Boston began the season 2-10. The fact of the matter is that Boston, a team with enough star power that NASA is considering naming Fenway Park a certified constellation, should never go 2-10. Ever. Yet, for the first two weeks of the season, Boston’s pitching was terrible and the offense was even worse. Since then, however, they have gone 12-5 thanks to incredible performances from the starting rotation and appear to be back on track, for the most part, offensively. Unfortunately, it’s not 2012 and at least for now, there is still just one Wild Card spot. Can Boston defy the odds and climb out of their early hole to reach the postseason?

5. Toronto Blue Jays (14-16)

Like the Orioles, Toronto has had one of the toughest schedules in the season’s initial month. Also similar to Baltimore is the fact that, outside of a few individuals, nobody on the team is pulling their weight. In the Blue Jays’ case, the few rare positive performances have come on the offensive side of things. Sluggers Adam Lind and Jose Bautista are keeping the team in games with their plate production, but the starting rotation is doing everything it can to spoil that. Newly appointed manager, and former Boston Red Sox pitching coach, John Farrell only wishes he had Buck Showalter’s back end of the rotation woes. Just one of his starting pitchers has an ERA under 4.40 at the moment.

Now that you’re all caught up, let’s move on to the philosophical part of the course. For those of you that are sick of the classroom references, that means we’re moving on to some predictions. Lesson number two, nonetheless.

American League East: foretelling the future

As I stated earlier, the New York Yankees find themselves perched atop the division standings after month number one, but they can’t ignore the fact that two of baseball’s hottest teams are directly on their proverbial heels. While the Yanks have won six of their last 10 entering play Wednesday, the Rays and Red Sox are 30-16, collectively, since each of their historic 0-6 starts.

And again, as I alluded to previously, your two other East clubs — Baltimore and Toronto — have not only had a pair of rough first months from a scheduling standpoint, but also had the disadvantage of some key injuries. For the Jays, the pitching woes experienced by the big league club have only been compounded by the absence of pitchers Jesse Carlson and Dustin McGowan. Baltimore, mainly, misses the arm of pitcher Justin Duchscherer. Despite the inevitable returns of the aforementioned, however, it is unlikely that either of the two teams factor in any postseason play.

That being said, which of the remaining three — New York, Tampa Bay and Boston — are the best bet to reach the playoffs?

Let’s start first with the division’s current front-runner, New York, then work our way down.

As of Wednesday night, the Yankees are on pace to win around 98 games. The question with this team, which hasn’t changed since even before Opening Day, is how their pitching will hold up. C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett have and will be fine, assumedly. The rest of that starting five remains suspect. The likelihood that both — or either, for that matter — Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia continue to provide quality outings out of the back end of their rotation is slim, to say the least. The last time 37-year-old Colon even threw 100 innings in a single season was back in 2005 with the Angels. Garcia, who is 34-years-old himself, surpassed triple-digits in innings pitched last season (28 starts, 157 IP) for the first time since 2006 and hasn’t recorded an ERA under 4.00 since even before that. The other options, Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes, have either been ineffective or inactive to this point. With there being a very thin market potential for starting pitchers later on this season, the effects of Cliff Lee’s decision to return to Philly this off-season may end up being the most notable reason that New York is unable to bring home another title. Although, in general, without having truly been tested by a quality club throughout the first month, it’s hard to gauge where this team stands in relation to the rest of the division.

When it comes to Tampa Bay, which has been dependent on pitching almost entirely through month number one as a result of a struggling offense, the Rays got a shot in the arm in the form of Evan Longoria’s return from the disabled list earlier this week. They’re in need of it, too, as evident by their .303 OBP and .240 BA as a team — both of which rank in the bottom five in the American League. Also, the bullpen, which has been terrific regardless, will receive a boost with the return of J.P. Howell later this month. Similar to the situation in New York, it remains to be seen whether the Rays’ pitching can remain this dominant. Perhaps even more important is whether this team has the type of depth, both on the bench and in the bullpen, to withstand a major injury or even just the wear and tear of 162 games.

A resurgent Josh Beckett has helped Red Sox fans forget the 0-6 start. (Getty Images)

The Red Sox current hot streak (save for the last two games) has been fueled by a historic stretch of quality starts from a rotation that took a few weeks to get going at the onset of the season. Just about the only players, from a hitting standpoint, who haven’t underachieved this season for the Red Sox are David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Jed Lowrie and Jacoby Ellsbury. Even the bullpen, which is perhaps the deepest in baseball, has seen some major disappointments so far. Namely, Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks, both of whom have earned run averages well over 9.00. The biggest question mark of all, uncharacteristically for this team, is at the catcher position. Jason Varitek is another year older and it shows. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the starter at this point, has struggled mightily on both sides of the ball, and there aren’t many viable options within the organization’s minor league ranks.

So, who will it ultimately be representing the American League East in the postseason?

The Boston Red Sox — and for multiple reasons.

First, it’s very clear that, offensively, this team can only improve dramatically. As for the starting rotation, which has seen positive production from six different starters already this season, it figures to continue being the engine of the club — if nothing else, just based on its depth. The bullpen has been solid this season for the most part. Aside from Wheeler and Jenks, who will likely get back on track at some point, the improved pen is noticeably more reliable than last season’s version. It may appear as though the team lacks a quality left-handed specialist for late inning situations, but looks can be deceiving. Rich Hill is currently awaiting a very deserved call-up from triple-A Pawtucket, where he has been phenomenal this season.

The biggest difference between the Sox and the rest of the Eastern contenders may just end up being the resurgence of utility infielder Lowrie. After battling wrist issues for much of the last couple seasons, Lowrie has come from nowhere to steal the starting shortstop duties from Marco Scutaro. In the event that a roster hole ends up revealing itself, Scutaro, who is in the final year of his contract, could be a valuable trade chip for a contender in need. Boston would hardly be sacrificing any bench depth with the departure of Marco as they have a young defensive wiz, shortstop Jose Iglesias, ready to contribute later in the season.

You may be thinking that the odds of a team that started the season 2-10 finishing with 95 or more wins is almost unthinkable, and you may be correct. However, the way that the East is shaping up, it figures to be one of the rare occasions where the winner of this division may do so with something closer to 88-90 wins.

Baseball is all about which team is best built for the long haul. In the case of the American League East, that appears to be the Boston Red Sox.

Until next time, class is dismissed.


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