First: Baltimore (25-14)
This is something that I have been waiting for/calling for a long time. With their collection of young talent highlighted by Matt Wieters and All-Star Adam Jones, I am surprised that this did not happen sooner. The O’s lineup is pretty formidable with a bunch of guys that can really stroke the long ball, but I have my doubts about whether they can keep it up. Even more questionable is their pitching staff which, by all accounts, is outperforming most people’s expectations. It’s safe to say that Wei-Yin Chen has been a revelation to this point, but it could be what I like to call the “Okajima Effect” where the league hasn’t really seen enough of him but will learn to hit him soon enough. While we’re on the topic of revelations, what has gotten into Jason Hammel? It must be the altitude. After coming over from the Rockies in the Jeremy Guthrie deal he has looked like a new man, pitching to an impressive 4-1 record with a 2.68 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, not to mention a K/BB ratio of almost 4:1. Being the natural skeptic that I am, I just don’t see how they can expect to get the same production out of those two, while carrying two guys with 5+ ERA’s who were supposed to anchor this staff in Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta. The one aspect of this team I can see being a constant is the bullpen. Since shifting Jim Johnson into the closer role he has been nothing short of outstanding, going a perfect 14-14 in save opportunities and pitching to a 0.48 ERA while fanning 13 batters in 18.2 innings pitched.
Second: Tampa Bay (24-15)
It should really come as no surprise that the Rays are at it again, vying for the AL East crown with their stacked pitching staff. After all, pitching wins in this league and. man oh man, is that one enviable stock pile of young quality arms or what? They have a respectable team ERA of 3.69 with the “Hell Boy” Jeremy Hellickson leading the way with a 2.77 ERA through eight starts. The hallmark weakness for the Rays has typically been their offense, which is not great again this year but far from terrible with the return of Carlos Pena. The Evan Longoria injury was a big blow to them but they have persevered and find themselves only a game out of first place. What I would be worried about is the ability of Fernando Rodney to hold down the closer role because it looks like Kyle Farnsworth (who I also have my doubts about) will be back anytime soon. That said, it’s starting pitching that will carry this team.
Third: Toronto (21-18)
This is arguably the toughest team to figure out because they seemingly have all the pieces in place. They can slug, have a good young pitching staff, and a deep bullpen, but are they still a year away? Whether or not the Blue Jays can remain contenders all depends on consistency, something they have been lacking for a while now. Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek are beginning to manifest the potential that we had been hearing so much about for quite some time. Couple that with the revelation that has been Henderson Alvarez and the typically steady Ricky Romero and it would appear as though the Jays have corrected their pitching woes. However, their success will be dependent upon whether Drabek and Morrow, who both have outstanding stuff, have truly learned to pitch. On the offensive side of the ball, Toronto has a bunch of guys who have been under-performing including the vaunted “Joey Bats” as well as just about everyone else with the exception of Brett Lawrie and Edwin Encarnacion. If guys like Bautista, Kelly Johnson, and Colby Rasmus can pick up their production, the Blue Jays may be able to slug their way to a playoff berth. As for the bullpen, it’s still deep and veteran-laden despite jettisoning Frank Francisco in the off season.
Oh God, where to begin? Internal dissent, injuries, controversy, you name it and the Red Sox are probably going through or have already endured it. The pitching staff has under-performed and now Josh Beckett is getting crucified for wanting to play a round of golf on his off days instead of working out or being with the team. The Daniel Bard experiment has not been a success nor has it been a colossal failure, the results are inconclusive to this point. Clay Buchholz‘s fly ball percentage has finally caught up to him and Felix Doubront is a mediocre place-holder until Daisuke is ready to come back. The injury bug has hit the “Sawks” wicked hahd this season with Carl Crawford showing why you don’t give a guy who makes a living primarily with his legs a long-term, big money deal in his 30′s. Kevin Youkilis can’t seem to stay healthy and is now rumored to be trade bait, while Jacoby Ellsbury going down with a shoulder injury was a huge blow to the already decimated outfield. To put the cherry on top, Adrian Gonzalez still can’t seem to find his Padres’ power stroke. However, David Ortiz has seemingly found the fountain of youth, coming into this season slimmed down and batting .345 with 8 homers and 27 RBI. The bullpen has been a complete mess after they let Paplebon go and converted Bard into a starter. Andrew Bailey was supposed to save the day but, like most pitchers the A’s cultivate, he has to be damaged in some way and has yet to make his Red Sox debut. Depending on a couple of Yankees cast-offs in Mark Melancon and Alfredo Aceves has proved to be a fruitless endeavor. Despite all of this something tells me that they’re not going away any time soon and will emerge from the cellar so…
Final Verdict: Contenders