MLB: AL East First Half Recap
A great week of All-Star festivities including one of the best Home Run Derbys ever and an All-Star Game that needed extra innings to complete is in the books. The All-Star break represents the halfway point of the season and gives us a chance to take a look at how teams have been doing this far and what they need to do down the stretch.
Roughly 90 games are in the books which leave 72 games for teams to make or break their seasons. The American League East has been one of the most competitive divisions in all of baseball this year, and it should be no different down the stretch. Here’s how the five teams have done up to this point and what they’ll need to do to make a playoff run into October.
Toronto Blue Jays (41-47)
The Blue Jays have found themselves in the basement looking up at the All-Star break. With the horrific start they put together, their 41-47 record doesn’t seem that bad. There was some expected regression heading into the season for the Blue Jays, but seeing them play this poorly has been an unpleasant surprise.
The bullpen has been strong so far, led by Roberto Osuna, Aaron Loup, Danny Barnes, and Ryan Tepera. They’ve helped a rotation that has struggled mightily outside of Marcus Stroman and J.A. Happ. Stroman has been huge for the Blue Jays, bouncing back from an underwhelming 2016 season. His 3.28 ERA has helped establish him as a front-end starter, something the Blue Jays have desperately needed.
Justin Smoak has been the biggest surprise on offense for the Jays. He took an opportunity left by Edwin Encarnacion and Kendrys Morales and turned it into an All-Star selection. He’s batting .294 with 23 homers and 56 RBI which are all career-bests by far.
They haven’t been scoring, and their pitching depth hasn’t been deep enough to make up for it. They’ve lost Aaron Sanchez, Happ, and Francisco Liriano for extended periods of time and the rotation hasn’t been able to hold its own in their absence. Not to mention they were without their perennial MVP candidate, Josh Donaldson, for six weeks earlier in the season.
Baltimore Orioles (42-46)
A 22-10 start fell by the wayside after a 20-36 stretch left the Orioles at 42-46 and fourth place in the East. This isn’t at all where they envisioned themselves at the break, but they’re still within reach of a Wild Card spot.
There have been bright spots throughout an Orioles’ roster that have been inconsistent throughout the year. Dylan Bundy has developed into the ace of the staff after a surprising first half and has been consistent day in and day out. In the bullpen, Alec Asher and Brad Brach have done an excellent job in filling the void left by Zach Britton. Now that Britton is back, the Orioles should be able to ride their bullpen into a durable finish.
Jonathan Schoop and Trey Mancini have been the stars on offense for the Orioles. Schoop is proving that last year’s power display wasn’t a fluke and he’s even improving on his 2016 season. He’s well on his way to 30 homers and 100 RBI while batting .295 at the heart of the order. Mancini is putting together a surprising season much like Schoop did last year. After playing his way onto the team in spring, Mancini is batting .312 with 14 homers and 44 RBI. They’ve helped pick up the slack left by veterans Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Mark Trumbo.
Starting pitching has been a huge issue for the Orioles, specifically Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman. They’ve provided virtually nothing to the team and has made it extremely hard to put any winning streak together. That, along with Machado, Davis, and Trumbo not hitting much has put the O’s in a bad spot. Machado especially hasn’t been the start they’ve needed him to be. While his 18 homers are nice, he’s batting just .230, and that’s after hovering above .200 for much of the first half.
New York Yankees (45-41)
The Yankees came out of the gate as one of the hottest teams in all of baseball. In fact, they even reached No. 1 in the power rankings for a short period of time. Considering what their expectations were entering the season, the Yankees were one of the biggest surprises in baseball early on. They have since come back down to Earth and have been struggling mightily of late. Despite how they got there though, they’re still at a respectable 45-41 and sit at second in the AL East and are contending for a Wild Card spot.
When things were going well for the Yankees, they were going well. Of course, a guy named Aaron Judge has helped their cause immensely with an MVP-caliber season thus far. He was voted an All-Star along with Starlin Castro, Gary Sanchez, Dellin Betances and Luis Severino with Didi Gregorius just missing the cut. Before their recent struggles, the offense was firing on all cylinders with Matt Holliday, Aaron Hicks and Brett Gardner contributing as well.
Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery have led the pitching staff throughout the first three months. Severino pitched his way to his first All-Star selection and Montgomery may very well be the leading candidate for AL Rookie of the Year had it not been for Judge. CC Sabathia pitched well early in the year before hitting the DL in mid-June, right about when the Yankees’ season took a turn.
Injuries happen to every team, but the Yankees have felt it more than most this year. They’ve had many players spend a significant amount of time on the disabled list, and it’s hindered their success. Greg Bird has barely played this year, forcing the Yankees to use Chris Carter at first, someone that needs no reminder how bad his season has been.
Masahiro Tanaka has been an entirely different pitcher in 2017 for the Yankees. Sure, there’s been games where he’s shown glimpses of dominance, but those performances can be counted on one hand. Not what you want from your ace. Michael Pineda threw a hot start out the window and has since regressed to his usual self, with 20 homers allowed on the season.
Finally, the bullpen. The Yankees lost Aroldis Chapman for much of the year, but their bullpen struggles continued even after his return. Tyler Clippard seemed to find himself in every big situation throughout the recent struggles and well, failed nearly every time. Dellin Betances hasn’t been the same since giving the closer role back to Chapman and is walking batters at a higher rate than any point in his career. The bullpen is perhaps the biggest problem for the Yankees moving forward, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s bolstered at the All-Star break.
Tampa Bay Rays (47-43)
The Rays are making the case that they’re just as much of a contender than anyone else in the AL East. At 47-43 they’re third in the East and in possession of a Wild Card spot at the break. They’ve dealt with injuries as well, but as they are coming off the break healthier, they’re as good a team as any to compete in the East.
Defense wins games, and that’s a big part of how the Rays got to where they are now. They’re currently the league leader in defensive runs saved with 56, 12 more than the runner up. Evan Longoria is the DRS leader at third base, Kevin Kiermaier is the best outfielder in baseball, and a slew of platoon guys are known as defensive-first players. All these guys together have made the Rays a second-place team and a contender in the East.
Corey Dickerson and Logan Morrison have fueled the offense all season. Dickerson is batting .312 with 17 homers and 42 RBI while Morrison has put 24 balls over the fence and has knocked in 57 runs. They’ve been powerful forces in the middle of the offense and have helped give the team depth.
Like the Yankees, the Rays have had a huge problem with injuries up to this point. They’ve had the depth to power through them, but they’ve still taken a toll on the team’s success. Their rotation has had inconsistency problems as well with rookie Jacob Faria providing the most stability. Chris Archer has pitched well, but he hasn’t been the ace we’ve seen in the past.
Boston Red Sox (50-39)
The Red Sox came into the year atop nearly everyone’s lists in the AL East power rankings. They started off the year slow, but have turned it on over the past month and have worked their way to the top of the standings. Their 3 1/2 game lead over the Yankees isn’t monumental by any means, and there’s a sense in Boston that the Sox should be in a much better place than they are.
Regardless, a lot has gone right for the Red Sox thus far. They’ve benefited from dominant first halves by their ace Chris Sale and closer Craig Kimbrel. The dominance from Sale is no surprise considering the price they paid for him in the offseason, but not many people could have predicted a Cy Young performance like this. He picked up a rotation that lost David Price for over two months, and one that’s had its struggles throughout the season. Having Kimbrel on the back end has been huge as well, as he’s pitched like the best closer in baseball over the first three and a half months.
Everyone not named Chris Sale has started to turn it on over the past month. Price has recovered nicely and is starting to return to his old form while Drew Pomeranz and Rick Porcello are finally looking like the All-Star pitchers from last year. The bullpen has been one of the best in baseball as well with Joe Kelly and Fernando Abad doing a nice job in setting up Kimbrel.
Group the solid pitching performances from Sale and Kimbrel with consistency from their young stars, and there’s no surprise that the Red Sox are in first. Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, and Andrew Benintendi are proving that life can go on with David Ortiz and that there’s plenty to look forward to in the future. Dustin Pedroia is having another Pedroia-like season as well and has kept up the leadership role he’s displayed over the years.
The offense has gotten very little out of guys like Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval who were projected to be significant pieces in the Red Sox’s lineup. They’ve battled injuries throughout the year, and it’s caused them to lose some close games that they should have won. Increased production from these two guys would go a long way in the Red Sox’s success.