For the better part of the last two decades the American League East has been dominated by the big fish, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Recently the Tampa Bay Rays have been able to break into that triumvirate to steal a couple of playoff births and division titles. Last season brought more parity and more disturbance to the big budget empires with the Baltimore Orioles surprise run to 94 wins and a Wild Card spot, leaving only the Toronto Blue Jays out in the cold.
But this offseason, the established order in the AL East may finally be fully overthrown. The Yankees are old, injured, and cutting payroll back to a modest $189 million. The Red Sox are coming off their worst season since 1981 and they aren’t signing any of the big name players either, instead opting for character guys on short-term deals. Toronto (yes, Toronto) is ramping up payroll and making franchise-altering trades to add a staff full of pitchers, one that includes 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Tampa Bay is doing their usual thing, trading for young, unproven talent while rebuilding on the cheap. And Baltimore, well, they’ve stood pat thus far.
The sharks are circling. From the looks of it, everybody has a shot in the AL East. No other division in baseball can say that. So why don’t we take an early peak at the division race, position by position, to see where things stand?
How much does momentum matter on a baseball field? Can a team that enters the playoffs at its lowest point top one that’s been riding a hot streak for more than a month now? How much stock do you put into the notion that the team with the most talent eventually wins out? Does being a two-time defending champion with all the benefits of big game experience matter? Or can a team that’s seemingly been playing above its head continue to their magical ways? These are just a sampling of some of the storylines floating around a compelling winner-take-all contest between Texas and Baltimore to kick of the American League playoffs.
- The scalding hot St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis has been red-hot all year and now has the best record in the National League to go along with the best run differential in baseball. New manager Mike Matheny has invigorated the lineup, unleashing the Cardinals on the base paths as well as at the plate. St. Louis is tops in the National League in homeruns, bashing 7 in their last 2 games alone, and is 2nd in the league in steals. Carlos Beltran may be having one the finest seasons of his career, hitting 10 homers and 26 RBI in the first 30 games. Last night he had 2 homers, including a grand slam, to push the Cards to victory. Another recent addition, Rafael Furcal, is also on a tear to begin the season. Furcal has yet to be caught in 6 steal attempts and is hitting .342/.409/.496, scoring 22 runs which is important for a leadoff hitter. Meanwhile the pitching staff hasn’t gotten a single inning out of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright has an ERA over 5.00, but they rank 2nd in the National League in runs allowed. Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse, and Lance Lynn are a combined 14-3. Each pitcher has an ERA under 2.20, with Lohse and Lynn having WHIPs under 1.00. The news keeps getting better in St. Louis because Allen Craig has returned and bashed the ball in his first 6 games, slugging 2 homers and 3 doubles for a .364 batting average. The Cardinals have a lot of depth, both on the mound and in the lineup, and they look to be emerging as the early favorites in a jumbled National League.
- Josh Hamilton’s monster night. Last night in Baltimore Josh Hamilton became the 16th player in history to hit 4 homers in a game, and the first since Carlos Delgado accomplished the feat in 2003. Hamilton’s production also included one double and 8 RBI to cap off a perfect 5-5 night. He totaled up 18 bases for his efforts, 1 shy of Shaun Green’s major league record 19 from a May 2003 game. Hamilton also took over first in baseball in the batting average, slugging %, total bases, and in the home run race after just this one game. And what’s more impressive may be the home runs. Baltimore’s Camden Yards is a hitter neutral park, and 3 of Hamilton’s 4 jacks were to straightaway center, over 400 feet away. The one homer he didn’t hit to centerfield was no cheapie either. Hamilton bombed it to opposite field, for a 380-foot blast. Hamilton is completely locked in at the plate and the rest of the league needs to look out right now.
- Baltimore’s Bullpen. The biggest reason the Orioles are surging right now? Their bullpen has been lights out. When Buck Showalter turns the game over to his bullpen, Baltimore has not let him down. Out of the Orioles 6 most frequently used relievers (all with more than 13 innings pitched), only 1 has allowed more than 3 runs. Closer Jim Johnson and middleman Luis Ayala have yet to allow an earned run over a combined 28 innings. Even the position players are getting in on the act. During Sunday’s 17-inning marathon against the Boston Red Sox, DH Chris Davis was called upon to pitch. He responded by throwing 2 scoreless innings striking out 2, while Adam Jones provided the offensive lift, hitting a 3-run homer. If Baltimore’s firemen continue to pitch this well, the O’s could stay in the race for the long run.
- Milwaukee’s infield situation. On Sunday the Brewers lost the 2nd member of their Opening Day infield, when Alex Gonzalez went down with a torn ACL after Mat Gamel had already gone down with a season-ending knee injury. The Brewers have responded by going uber-defensive, starting Cesar Izturis at short and Travis Ishikawa at 1st. Izturis is one of the worst hitters in the majors with a career 64 OPS+ in 4000 at-bats. Ishikawa is also a very light hitting 1st baseman, with 17 career homers in 643 at-bats. Milwaukee will need to find an upgrade if they want to compete for the playoffs this season, because they can’t afford any more light hitting bats. Nyjer Morgan and Rickie Weeks are off to terrible starts, hitting under .200 apiece, and Aramis Ramirez hasn’t been much better, batting only .216. Milwaukee has already fallen into 5th place in the NL Central, 6 behind St. Louis, and they need to get things turned around quickly.
- Colorado’s Starting Pitching Staff. You know its bad when your best pitcher to date has been 49-year-old Jamie Moyer. The Rockies have gotten almost nothing out of their pitching staff, ranking last in the National League in runs allowed, homeruns allowed, hits allowed, and ERA. The aforementioned Moyer is the only Rockie checking in with an ERA+ above league average, and he’s just barely over at 110. The biggest issues so far have been the inability to strike batters out and locating pitches in the strike zone. We knew Moyer would struggle with this, but who would have thought that Jeremey Guthrie would post a 1.8 Ks/9 rate in his first 24 innings? No one on the staff has a K/BB rate better than the league average of 3. The worst perpatrator has been poor Jhoulys Chacin, who has been bombed so far, giving up 7 homers, 31 hits, and 15 walks in just 24.2 innings of work. It’s a shame too, because the Rockies offense is rolling, ranking 2nd in the National League in homeruns and OPS, as well as 3rd in runs scored behind a resurgent Carlos Gonzalez.
- Daniel Bard’s balky 2nd inning. Last night in Kansas City Daniel Bard had a little bit of a problem with balking. On his 1st balk, Bard had a runner on 1st and 3rd. He attempted the old fake-to-3rd-throw-to-1st, but never made a legitimate move to the 3rd base bag. Bard attempted to argue, but the umpires made the correct call, because Bard’s foot came up but never got close to moving in the direction of 3rd. The move led to the Royals’ 1st run of the game, and moved the runner on 1st down to 2nd. The 2nd balk was also an easy call the umpires got right, and occurred during the same at-bat 2 pitches later. A pitcher is not allowed to make a move toward a base and not throw the ball and when Bard brought his foot down, then turned to 2nd, he was caught red-handed. It ended up costing Bard and the Red Sox another run when Chris Getz singled home Moustakas. Bard appeared to get a little jumpy with the base runners on, which is interesting because the runner both times was Mike Moustakas, the owner of 3 career steals in nearly 500 at-bats. Moustakas is a very nice looking young hitter, but he’s not exactly Ricky Henderson out there.