AL East check-in: The slumping Yankees, surging Red Sox, and more

May 6, 2023; St. Petersburg, Florida, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Domingo German (0) looks down during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
May 6, 2023; St. Petersburg, Florida, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Domingo German (0) looks down during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

It was 1992. Silence of the Lambs was taking home the Academy Award for Best Picture, a future Call to the Pen contributor was walking home from seventh grade with Rage Against the Machine’s debut album in his Sony Walkman, and the New York Yankees were experiencing the last losing season they would see for at least 30 years.

With key injuries piling up, and only 127 games to go, the New York Yankees are middling around .500, and in last place in the AL East. The Tampa Bay Rays are essentially playing in video game mode this season, the Jays, Orioles, and Red Sox can all smell blood in the water, and the calls for the manager’s head have started to get louder in the Bronx. It’s too early to count the Bombers completely out, but in the most competetive division in baseball, the 10-game gap between first and last place is starting to get worrisome.

There are grown adults in this world who have never seen their team experience true loss, as the New York Yankees currently own an unparalleled run of 30 consecutive winning seasons. However, as the team inches closer to .500, you can certainly start to see the panic in their eyes. It was never supposed to be this way, though. Carlos Rodón has yet to throw a pitch after taking home a duffel bag full of honeybuns this offseason, Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Donaldson have produced just 68 at-bats between them, and, with Aaron Judge on the shelf as well, Yankees fans have to put up with Jake Bauers playing corner outfield like Edward Scissorhands.

It hasn’t been pretty, but it hasn’t been all doom and gloom, either. Gerrit Cole is 5-0 in eight starts and carrying a 2.09 ERA. Luis Severino is slated to begin a rehab assignment this week and should be back in the rotation soon, and there is no reason not to be optimistic about Nestor Cortes (at least not yet). The bullpen has been great, first in ERA, first in hits per 9, third in WHIP. Even if Rodón doesn’t sling a single curveball this year, there is still enough pitching to hang in this division.

Anthony Rizzo is having his best season in years, and trying to hold down the fort until Judge and Stanton are back from the injured list. Harrison Bader is finally healthy and roaming center field with his Gold Glove, as well as chipping in some timely hitting of his own, and once Bauer’s interpretive dance in the outfield is replaced by an MVP, the lineup starts to look a little rosier … still flawed, but rosier. The Yanks are 24th in runs scored and 27th in OBP. They score four runs per game which puts them in the same company as the Reds, A’s, Royals … teams like that. With the division in the shape that it’s in, it will be a tough climb from the bottom, but not impossible.

At 28-7, the Tampa Bay Rays are the best team in baseball and it’s not even close. Built on the back of an exceptional pitching staff, the Rays are also first in team batting average, first in OBP, OPS, runs scored, home runs, and sixth in stolen bases. There isn’t a player on this team that isn’t absolutely raking right now, and it looks like they are in a full on sprint to the finish line.

Even as injuries begin to deteriorate the pitching staff, there is no obstacle too big for this club. Injuries to Tyler Glasnow, Zach Eflin, and Jeffery Springs could have sunk other teams, but Tampa just rolls right through them, throwing out a mish-mosh of relievers and former starters. They have used 10 different starting pitchers already this year, including a top prospect, Taj Bradley, who was great in three starts. The bullpen has been equally as outstanding, Jason Adam and Colin Poche have allowed just four earned runs in 27 innings between them and as Pete Fairbanks hits the injured list, the Rays just pluck Chase Anderson out of Cincinnati’s minor league system and trot him out for a three-inning save against a tough Pittsburgh team last week. Living the charmed life, it seems like everything this team tries this year will work.

Five and a half games behind Tampa, and holding a slim lead over Boston and Toronto, are the Baltimore Orioles. At 22-12, the O’s aren’t sneaking up on anyone this year, and have instead chosen to just bulldoze right over them. Led by some aggresive baserunning, the Orioles are third in stolen bases, and sixth in runs scored. Backed by a lights out bullpen, Baltimore is 7-4 in one-run games. Kyle Gibson has been predictably solid as a starter (4-1 in seven starts) and the team has lost just twice with him on the mound. Top prospect Grayson Rodriguez has replaced Cole Irvin in the rotation, and while it has understandably been a bit of a roller coaster with a 23-year-old on the mound, the team has won five of his six starts while Rodriguez has put up 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings. The breakout pitcher on this staff, however, could very well be Tyler Wells. Wells has thrown 40 innings across six starts, while posting a 3.15 ERA and 0.775 WHIP. Except for one little hiccup against Kansas City, where he surrendered three long balls, but still managed to come out with the win, he has been pretty solid in his last five starts or so.

Baltimore is 6-4 in their last 10 games, but enjoyed a nice 12-3 run before that, and have just been piling runs onto the scorecard all season. Cederic Mullins sets the table and has 11 steals on the season, but also leads the team with 28 RBI, all from the leadoff spot. Ryan Mountcastle has 26 RBI of his own, Anthony Santander has 20, Jorge Mateo has 19 to go along with 12 stolen bases, and it’s almost impossible to overstate just how important Adley Rutschman is, not only to the batting order, slashing .280/.406/.416, but also to the pitching staff.

This offense is really clicking right now, but just two games behind them, the hottest team in baseball is right on their heels.

The Boston Red Sox are 21-15 overall, but 8-2 in their last 10 games with a couple of losses sandwiched around a nice little eight-game winning streak that ended Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia. Boston, like Baltimore, is filling up scoreboards with runs (third-most in baseball), they just don’t have the pitching to lean on. The Red Sox starters are 27th in ERA, 21st in WHIP, 26th in hits allowed, 29th in HR. It hasn’t been pretty, and while Chris Sale has shown signs of life, lately, no one has stepped up to consistantly lead Boston’s staff.

Rafael Devers has paced the Sox offense all season, with 11 HR and 34 RBI, and Alex Verdugo has really come into his own this season, batting .307 on the year so far. Rookie Masataka Yoshida has really turned it on lately, posting a .401/.455/.718 slash line, with three homers and 10 RBI across his last 10 games, and Jarren Duran has hit .366 since becoming the everyday center fielder, but Boston will need more from its pitchers to sustain any success and hold off the Yankees and creep ahead of the Blue Jays.

After picking up a Wild Card last season, Toronto entered 2023 with high expectations and is probably the best team in the AL East (on paper). That they are 7.0 games out of first, and still in a Wild Card spot a week into May, speaks to just how good Tampa has been. Just a game and a half behind Baltimore, and three games up on the Yanks, this is a preview to how this whole division could play out, if Boston and New York don’t figure out solutions to their issues.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. leads a potent lineup that can produce runs throughout. Matt Chapman’s bat has cooled off a bit, but he is still batting .349 with a 1.038 OPS, Bo Bichette leads all of baseball with 49 hits, and 78 total bases, and the Jays as a whole play a pretty good defense behind a solid pitching staff.

Kevin Gausman is posting career-best strikeout numbers this season with 12.4 strikeouts per nine, and while the rest of the rotation has been shaky at best, the Blue Jays have enough firepower in the lineup and bullpen to keep things interesting.

While Tampa has shot out of the gate, and shows no signs off cooling off, any of these teams could find themselves playing games in October. This will be a fun division to track as the summer unfolds.

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