BALTIMORE – When the Baltimore Orioles conclude a series with the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night, they will have played 32 games. Twenty-nine of them will have come against their own division, the American League East.
There is no question that, for more than a decade, the AL East has been the toughest division in baseball. The last time the AL East champion won fewer than 95 games was 2000, a baseball generation ago. Over the past 10 years, the winner has averaged 96.9 victories, highest of any division in baseball. (NL West champs, by contrast, have averaged 90.5 wins.) Eight times over the past decade, two AL East teams have won more than 90 games. In no other division has that happened more than three times.
A glimpse at the standings Wednesday morning – and the standings only, without watching a game or considering a stat – might lead one to believe that the same would be true again. The New York Yankees sit atop the division, playing at a .618 clip, on pace to win 100 games.
But there’s not a scout nor an executive nor, likely, a player who thinks that pace will play out.
“I don’t think Boston and New York are the powerhouses anymore,” Orioles closer Zach Britton said. “I think anybody in this division is capable of winning.”
Moreover, anyone in this division is capable of losing.
Here’s a bet: The 2015 American League East champion will win fewer than 95 games. Would you take it? Given what we know right now – that the Yankees have played at a surprising pace, but Boston, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Toronto are all sputtering within three games of .500 – what might the over-under be to take the title? Ninety-two victories? Ninety?
“Nobody knows what it’s gonna take,” Blue Jays Manager John Gibbons said. “But so far everybody’s kind of beating on everybody a little bit. It may stay that way.”
This would be the classic coach/manager take: In such a tough division, there’s no separation because we all keep each other in check. And with this unbalanced early schedule in which each AL East team has played at least 25 games against division opponents already, it could look that way. The Blue Jays have beaten up on the Orioles, thumping them 10-2 Tuesday night for their sixth win in the eight games between the two teams. But the Rays in turn have beaten up on the Blue Jays, going 6-1 against Toronto thus far. The Yankees have followed by crushing the Rays, losing for just the second time in eight games against Tampa Bay Tuesday night.
Round and round we go. But does this run through division play represent quality or mediocrity?
“We are who we are,” Showalter said. “It’ll all start separating. Our curiosity will be satisfied. We’ll all seek our level. The game’s too much of an exposer of strengths and weaknesses.”
Just more than five weeks into the season, more weaknesses than strengths have been exposed in the East. Yes, the Blue Jays are the top run-scoring team in the game, and Toronto, Baltimore and the Yankees rank third, fourth and sixth respectively in on-base-plus slugging percentage. Throw in a Red Sox lineup that is without the injured Hanley Ramirez but still features David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Pablo Sandoval, and offense shouldn’t be the issue.
“For us, I think it’s the pitching,” Britton said. “Our offense is one of the best in the game – similar to Boston. Toronto’s lineup, Boston’s lineup, New York. Tampa can score runs. I think the division’s going to be won by the team that can pitch the best.”
But who can? Boston’s ERA is an AL-worst 5.05 entering Wednesday. The Blue Jays rank 26th in baseball; the Orioles, 22nd. The Yankees — partly on the back of late-game relievers Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, neither of whom have given up an earned run yet this season — have pitched surprisingly well thus far, posting the AL’s top ERA at 3.32. But would-be ace Masahiro Tanaka is on the disabled list because of forearm and wrist issues, and though he came through a 30-pitch bullpen session Tuesday without issue, he is not currently anchoring a rotation that includes CC Sabathia’s 5.20 ERA.
The Rays, who must win with pitching, are the only other team in the division who entered play Wednesday above .500. Yet Drew Smyly, the key piece they received in last July’s trade-deadline deal that sent ace David Price to Detroit, has a torn labrum and almost certainly will undergo surgery, which would end his season. Tampa Bay, the only AL East team with a payroll below $110 million, simply doesn’t have the organizational depth to absorb such a loss.
Boston? Blech. Jon Lester is gone, making a new home at Wrigley Field after helping win two World Series for the Red Sox. In his place as would-be ace is former Tiger Rick Porcello – middling at 3-2 with a 4.50 ERA. The rest of the rotation’s ERAs: 5.73 (Clay Buchholz), 6.35 (Joe Kelly), 6.37 (Justin Masterson) and 6.91 (Wade Miley). Before the season, the Red Sox, with a deep and talented farm system, seemed in the best shape in the division to land one of the starters who undoubtedly will come free on the trade market this summer: Cole Hamels of Philadelphia, Johnny Cueto of Cincinnati or the like. But if this group continues to pitch like this, why make that move?
Which brings us back to the Orioles. They won 96 games and the division title a year ago. They have an internal expectation to repeat that type of performance and return to the playoffs for the third time in four years. But right now, like much of the rest of the AL East, they’re treading water, 14-17 overall, 13-15 against their four most important rivals. Could they win it? Sure. Not because they’re great, but because no one is.
“I think there’s really not one team that separates themselves, that you play them and say, ‘OK, this is the team to beat here,’” Britton said. “It really hasn’t been that way in a couple years. There’s been some teams where you’re like, ‘Well, they’re struggling.’ But there hasn’t been a clear winner.”
It’s early, and a long hot summer awaits. But when we get to September, might this division, once inarguably baseball’s best, end up being its worst?