Is the AL East Wide Open?

Rays fans are not the only fans of an American League East team staring at a big question mark in one part of their team's game.   The Rays problems have been more pronounced as they have coincided with dismal performances by the offense and the loss of Evan Longoria to injury.  These problems have been further magnified with the sudden retirement of Manny Ramirez after a failed drug test. 

After a 1-8 start, the Rays offense is starting to settle in with Sam Fuld and Johnny Damon at the top of the order and will receive an additional boost once Evan Longoria returns from the disabled list in about two weeks.   Getting Evan Longoria back in the lineup will not cure all the ills of the Rays offense but it will certainly improve it (not to mention adding a gold gloved defender to the infield).    The one area that the Rays have an advantage over the other teams in the AL East is in starting pitching.  Unfortunately, starting pitching depth is something whose strength is revealed over the course of a season and not over a two week period. 

The American League East has always been regarded as the best division in baseball and with the rosters that the Yankees and Red Sox and recently the Rays have been putting together it would be hard to argue that point.   As for the 2011 season, I don't get the same feeling about the AL East, and that can only bode well for the Rays as they try to establish an identity with all of the roster turnover from the 2010 team.   Let's take a look at the other teams in the AL East and determine if the AL East is a wide open division in 2011 or if the Rays as a whole roster are in any worse shape than the competition. 

Entering this weekend's action the Yankees (7-4) are in first place 1 game ahead of the upstart Baltimore Orioles (6-5), 2 games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays (6-6), 3.5 games ahead of the Rays (4-8), and 5 games ahead of the last place Boston Red Sox (2-9).  The Rays will continue their 4 game series with the Minnesota Twins (4-8) while the Yankees host the Texas Rangers (9-3), the Orioles travel to Cleveland to play the surprising Indians (8-4), and the Blue Jays travel to Boston.   With a few victories and a couple of breaks, after this weekend the Rays may find themselves back to square one and right back into the discussion as contenders in the American League East. 

NEW YORK YANKEES

Over the winter it was assumed that the Yankees would run a rotation out there that included CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, AJ Burnett, Andy Pettitte, and Phil Hughes.  Of course, Lee played the Yankees like a harp and went back to Philadelphia. Andy Pettitte, possibly recalling the lack of respect showed to him by the Yankees when he left for Houston, decided that he wasn't ready or willing to grind out another season in the Bronx.   Two words that exemplify the Yankees urgency to land a starting pitcher: Carl Pavano.  If anyone has read Tom Verducci/Joe Torre's book "The Yankee Years" you'd think that everyone in the Yankee organization viewed Pavano as the devil but it was confirmed that the Yankees offered him a contract.   

Early into the 2011 season, the Yankees are very thin at starting pitcher.  After CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett the Yankees rotation is a mess.  The Yankees had hoped that Phil Hughes, after resting over the winter, could rediscover his velocity that mysteriously vanished over the second half of 2010 season, but Phil Hughes is off to a miserable start and the velocity has not returned.  Ivan Nova has been unable to get through the batting order multiple times.  The Yankees have yet to use a fifth starter but plan on turning to Freddie Garcia as the first candidate.   If Hughes has to go to  the DL or Nova or Garcia stumble, the Yankees are prepared to give Bartolo Colon, Kevin Millwood, or Carlos Silva a few turns in the rotation. 

The Yankees hope that the offense can score enough runs to get the ball to the back end of the bullpen where they have Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano, and Mariano Rivera ready to close games.  But, the real question for the Yankees will be if they can get enough innings from their rotation to not burn out the bullpen before the all-star break. 

Boston Red Sox

Much like the Yankees, the Red Sox Achilles heel is their starting rotation.  The Red Sox have invested heavily in their rotation as Josh Beckett is signed to a 4 year/68 million dollar contract extension which carries him through the 2014 season, John Lackey is in the second year of a 5 year/82 million which also carries into the 2014 season, and Daisuke Matsuzaka was signed to a 6 year/52 million deal that ends in 2012 (not to mention the 50 million posting fee to sign Matsuzaka).   The contractual obligations of the Red Sox starting pitchers is a variable in evaluating their pitching because it makes it harder for Terry Francona to maneuver when he can't justify sending a high contract guy like Matsuzaka or John Lackey to the bullpen.   

After Jon Lester, the Red Sox rotation has many question marks.  Some may argue that Clay Buchholz is a high ceiling top of the rotation pitcher, but I have yet to be convinced.  In 2010 he enjoyed what can only be described as a series of fortunate events in 2010 or in other language, he was the beneficiary of luck.  Josh Beckett looked like his old dominant start against New York last week, but not so sharp in his first start in Cleveland.  John Lackey has seen a decreasing trend in performance in almost every category over the last three seasons and Daisuke Matsuzaka has looked to be very hittable over the last few seasons.  The Red Sox, like the Yankees hope to score a number of runs and get the ball to the back end of their bullpen where they have Bobby Jenks, Daniel Bard, and Jonathon Papelbon ready to close the game.

Baltimore Orioles & Toronto Blue Jays

Despite a surprisingly strong finish and a good start to the 2011 season, it is hard for me to envision the Baltimore Orioles as a deep enough team to run away with the AL East.  In my opinion, getting to .500 would be quite an achievement for the Orioles.  Of course, many were saying that about the 2008 Rays who never slowed down and just kept adding victories to the win column.  The Orioles will have to overcome a lack of starting pitching depth, a very shaky bullpen, and hope that the team stays injury free as they have very little depth in their minor leagues.

The Blue Jays have a chance to surprise in the AL East as they are beginning to compile a balanced roster and a very capable starting pitching staff and they are getting Brandon Morrow back next week, just in time to face the Rays.  It is unfair to try and predict the Orioles or the Blue Jays long term success in the American League East, but one thing that is certain is that both teams are going to make it more difficult on any team in the division from running away.

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