Since we last looked at how the division was shaping up about three months ago, much has changed and much has stayed the same. For starters, Baltimore is still leading the division despite all the odds being against them and they don't look to be interested in relinquishing top spot anytime soon. Behind them though, the Red Sox and Blue Jays are queueing, waiting for the slightest of slip-ups before pouncing at the opportunity to take first place as we begin to head down the stretch. Meanwhile the Yankees and Rays are falling off the pace, although the former has a much more realistic chance to stage a successful second half comeback.
Here's how things have unfolded so far:
The first few moves in the trade market have been made by the Red Sox, but the rest of the contenders in the division are sure to also make some additions of their own before the calendar flips to August and the trade deadline passes. A look at the current landscape of the Wild Card race and the American League as a whole leads one to believe that the AL East will likely have at least two representatives in the postseason this year. If the season ended right now in fact, they'd have three! Without further ado, let's go around the AL East to assess each team's current outlook as we take the long turn down the final stretch of the MLB season.
Before the season began, I wrote the BBB preview for the Orioles and stated that they'd probably be an average team in 2016. Somehow even that was too optimistic for a lot of people and I ended up having to actually defend the O's against comments like this:
Yes, the Orioles are a terrible team, one that will have very little chance of getting out of fifth.
It turns out I was wrong, saying nothing of the people that thought even less of the team than myself. Baltimore has been quite good this year and currently sit first in the standings with a record of 53-37. All of their bats have shown up this season, which has effectively bailed out their terrible starting pitching night after night. The O's are third in runs scored, which is pretty surprising based off how the team looked entering the year. Massive question marks existed in Hyun Soo Kim and Mark Trumbo, two guys who happen to sit second and third in wRC+ on the team. Add in a guy like Jonathan Schoop having a career year to go along with two studs in Manny Machado and Chris Davis, and you have yourself a pretty potent offence.
One thing I was right about in my preseason preview was a prediction that the Orioles would hit a lot of home runs. The power has come nonstop from this lineup, with Baltimore going into Sunday's action leading the entire MLB in dingers with 140 while the next best team is the Blue Jays at 133.
The downside to this team, as everyone knew entering the season, is their starting pitching. For all of their impressive offensive rankings, the Orioles rotation is on the other end of the spectrum. The group's ERA is one of the very worst in the league and only Chris Tillman has a mark under 4.00. They've also thrown one of the lowest innings totals this season, meaning they're just as inefficient as they are ineffective.
The pitching staff is only saved by the annually staunch Orioles bullpen. Where the starters are unable to get an ERA south of 4.00, the bullpen seems to live under the 1.00 mark. The three-headed monster of Zach Britton, Brad Brach, and Darren O'Day has been as good as usual aside from the latter's injury issues in the last month or so. There's no let off at the back end of the 'pen either, as former top prospect Dylan Bundy is joined by former infielder Mychal Givens in providing some wicked depth.
Going forward it's hard to see the Orioles letting off the gas too much. If the starting pitching continues to be dreadful, the front office will be forced to do something about it but the offence has been able to carry the load sufficiently thus far. I personally still don't think the team has enough to outlast the more complete Red Sox and Blue Jays squads for the division title, but they've proven me very wrong once already so who knows.
Boston Red Sox
Entering the season, the Red Sox were expected to battle it out with the Blue Jays in a two-horse race for top spot. The team had a horrid June, which is the reason they're not currently in first place, but is starting to put it all together and has gone on a huge run in the last few weeks. Boston is extremely similar to the Orioles in the makeup of their team, but is probably even more talented despite currently not being in pole position in the AL East.
On offence they have scored the most runs in the MLB by far and feature a lineup of guys who are nearly ALL hitting above league average. If you rank the lineup by games played, it takes until the eighth guy before you come across someone with a wRC+ of less than 100. Putting Blue Jays bias aside, it's hard to dislike the offence that the Red Sox are running out on a daily basis. David Ortiz is having a farewell tour for the ages with an OBP well over .400 to go along with 22 home runs, not to mention the outfield duo of Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. who lead the team in WAR thanks to solid defensive contributions to go along with outstanding play at the plate. Travis Shaw has stepped into the hole left by Pablo Sandoval and performed admirably making the Panda's future in Boston appear all but over. The lineup also has some depth thanks to their recent addition of former Blue Jay Aaron Hill (sigh), who should be able to hold his own if any of the infielders go down to injury.
The problem, though, is when it comes to the mound. As with Baltimore and their electric offence, the Boston pitching staff is not very good, or at least it hasn't been for much of the first half. Despite having a rotation including David Price and Steven Wright, the starters as a group have failed to keep runs off the board and sit in the last third of the AL when it comes to ERA. Unfortunately for Jays fans, Dave Dombrowski has working eyes and realized the need to make a change to his pitching staff before it was too late. Just a few days ago he went out and got Drew Pomeranz from the Padres, which a big move for the 2016 squad regardless of the steep price he paid in terms of the future. The rotation now lines up as: Price, Rick Porcello, Wright, Pomeranz, and for the time being Eduardo Rodriguez. Even without the addition, the Red Sox starters had been improving month over month since the start of the season and now seem to be finally rounding into fine form. A troubling sign for the rest of the AL East contenders.
The aforementioned Drombrowski even made a trade to bolster his middling bullpen, acquiring Brad Ziegler from the Diamondbacks. The Red Sox relievers aren't quite as intimidating as the O's trio, but the group features Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, and now Ziegler which is not too shabby at all.
Heading down the stretch I still think the Red Sox are the team to beat and see them potentially even contending for a World Series. Their team is stacked and performing extremely well, which should make them tough to beat in the next few months. Keeping with my preseason predictions, I think Boston and Toronto will battle for top spot with the Red Sox prevailing but the Blue Jays settling for second ahead of the Orioles.
New York Yankees
Starting with a fun fact, we are currently experiencing the first season since 1995 in which the Yankees have been under .500 after the All-Star break. Entering the year we knew the Yankees were old and it would take some magic for them to be able to all stay healthy and perform. They haven't, and that's a big reason why they sit on the far reaches of the playoff race as we head into the end of July.
The Yanks had some struggles back in early May but have more or less hovered around .500 the entire season. They don't really have enough in the tank to make a push any higher, but they also boast enough talent on the team to not let their record dip much lower.
On offence, New York doesn't score a whole lot of runs and lacks much in the way of power as well. Although they've mainly avoided the widespread injuries that were expected from the veteran squad, they still haven't produced anywhere near enough scoring. Where Boston has almost their entire lineup hitting above league average, New York has almost their entire lineup below that same mark. Their offensive standout would probably have to be Carlos Beltran, who only has a wRC+ around 130. Meanwhile, their other veteran players in Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira have been remarkably bad while taking up the two power positions of first base and DH. If the Yankees were to have any hope of making the playoffs this year, they would have needed A-Rod, Teixeira, Brian McCann, and Chase Headley to really pull their weight and defy the age curve of a regular major league player.
The starting rotation has remained pretty healthy, but that doesn't mean they've been effective. Aside from Masahiro Tanaka, the Yanks starters has been pretty awful with 60% of the staff currently sporting ERAs above 5.00. The three-headed monster in the bullpen of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances has been as good as advertised (maybe even better), but they haven't been handed nearly enough leads to have much of an effect on the final result. The rest of the 'pen meanwhile, is dreadful.
The remainder of the season seems destined to only bring more average play from New York, with likely a handful of injuries to go along with it. It's hard to see them making a run at the top three spots in the division, but since they're the Yankees, it seems doubtful they'd consider selling either. The Evil Empire hasn't broken 90 wins since the 2012 season and it's almost a certainty that that trend won't be snapped in this 2016 campaign. Can't say I'm upset about it.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays seem to be slowly going back to their "Devil Rays" days as they get farther and farther from the 2008-2013 golden age down in Tampa Bay. That period saw four playoff appearances and five 90+ win seasons, two things the team might not be seeing much of in the coming years if the recent form persists. The bland ball club has struggled along this year to one of the worst records in baseball and is currently last in runs scored in the AL.
With Evan Longoria slowly giving in to age, the team is devoid of stars and has very little to get excited about. In fact, it's hard to differentiate between Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Logan Forsythe, and Steven Souza Jr. when they're on the field, much less when looking at their mediocre stat lines. It's a sad state of affairs down in Florida and you know the calls for relocation are going to start getting louder and louder as the team continues to struggle and attendance continues to plummet.
Even the team's ace in Chris Archer started slowly this year, which hasn't helped matters on the pitching front. The rotation, almost as bland as the lineup, features five guys who are hovering around league average production despite having much higher ceilings. It's becoming more and more likely that the Rays will have to sell off some of their pieces this season to try and kick-start a rebuild that will get the team back to the heights they were at 5-10 years ago. Unfortunately, the market in Tampa Bay may not respond to that so well. One thing is for sure though, the Rays will certainly not be competing for a playoff spot this season.