Thursday, April 18, 2019

A Realistic View Of The AL East

The title might be more of a reach as biases will surely crop up here. The one thing that is realistic is that the American League East is nowhere near where anyone expected it to be. The Tampa Bay Rays have jumped the season and its AL East rivals to build a quick five-and-a-half-game lead on the second place New York Yankees and an eight-and-a-half-game lead on the last place Boston Red Sox. How many people saw that coming?

The Yankees' rough start can be (in part) attributed to injuries. No team in baseball has a longer list of disabled players (I will never use the newfangled IL thing, so sue me). The bullpen has not been as much of a strength as expected. Who knows what having a healthy Dellin Betances available at the start of the season would have meant for the Yankees. The offense has been spotty with too many regulars missing and 4-A players getting too many at bats. Then there is the Red Sox.

The Red Sox have started the season in a real funk. Is it a World Series hangover? Did the long post-season take too much out of the starting pitchers? They have some holes, particularly at second, third and behind the plate. Expecting Dustin Pedroia to be able to come back was a pipe dream and now the Red Sox are stuck with an over-the-hill Eduardo Nunez who is terrible in the field and Brock Holt who seems unlikely to repeat last year's career year.

And, finally, there are the Bay Rays who never seem to lose in a similar way the Red Sox never seemed to lose last year. The Rays were projected as a 90-win team and, frankly, I thought that was high. The projection has now shifted to 94 wins and a division title. A lot has gone right for them so far. They lead the Majors in hard hit balls and their offensive OPS is terrific. Pitching was expected to be good, but it has been REALLY good as has the bullpen. Add to all these things the Rays' defense and you have a winning formula.

But let's be realistic here for a moment and try to remain as unbiased as possible. I do not care what the numbers are saying (run differential, offense, pitching), the Bay Rays are not this good of a team. Heck, I'll eat those words if I am wrong, but I do not think I am. Why exactly?

First, look at the early schedule thus far. Yes, they opened the season with the Houston Astros and beat them three out of four. The Astros were not themselves those first four games. The Astros started the season with a slumbering offense. That offense has since woken up and they are playing dominating baseball again. If the Rays were to play THESE Astros, the results would be far different.

After the Astros, the Bay Rays have faced the dregs of the dregs of baseball teams. The Rockies are a bad baseball team. Then they played the Giants, another bad baseball team. Those two teams are going to spar for last place in the NL West. Then they played the White Sox, another team that is not going anywhere. Then, to bring us up to date, the Rays have played five games against the Blue Jays and the Orioles. To recap, they had two series against the worst two teams in the NL West, a series against an also-ran in the AL Central and the two worst teams in the AL East.

The Rays' schedule stays somewhat soft until June. They do have two series against the Red Sox coming up, but those games are sandwiched around two series against the Royals. The other thing to look at is who the Rays are winning with on their roster. Their offense consists of a bunch of guys who they assembled and it has all miraculously worked. Ji-Man Choi? Brandon Lowe? Yandy Diaz? Austin Meadows? These guys have no track records. Are they this good? All of them? We'll see.

Plus, the only serious injury thus far is to Joey Wendle, last years ROY candidate. Ian Snell broke his toe, but he'll only miss one start. The Rays have zero depth. If anything happens to any of its players, they do not have replacements. The return to form of Kevin Kiermeier has been great and Tommy Pham was a good pickup as he has been an on-base machine.

I believe the Rays' pitching will hold up. But I do not believe in this offense over the long season. I still think that after all is said and done, they will be a 90-win team. That is good. Will it be better than the Red Sox and the Yankees?

Let's start with the Red Sox. Chris Sale will be better than he has started. He has been too good for too long to think otherwise. David Price will be fine. Nathan Eovaldi showed good signs last night of getting back to last year's form. The big question marks in the rotation are Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez. Porcello has had a very odd career where he has gone from Cy Young to terrible and back and forth. If this is another of those stinker years for him, that will hurt. Rodriguez still hasn't proved he can take his "stuff" to a winning level.

The offense will not be as good as last year, but it will be better than it is now. Mookie Betts is too talented not to think this is just a slow start. Andrew Benintendi is very good. Xander Bogaerts and Mitch Moreland will contribute meaningfully. JD Martinez is one of the best hitters in the game. The offense will be fine despite a black hole at catcher and at second. Rafael Devers is still only 22-years-old so who knows what he will be. Somehow, the Red Sox will find a second baseman and this offense will be fine.

Can they win 90 games? Yes, sure--even if it does not seem likely at the moment.

And then, there is the Yankees. Realistically, Aaron Judge has not gotten going yet. The jury is still out on Luke Voit long term. Gleyber Torres has been effective but can be so much better. Clint Frazier has found it. DJ LeMahieu has been a great pickup. Giancarlo Stanton will come back as will Gary Sanchez and the ball will start flying around the park again.

The Yankee bullpen will be fine even if Betances does not get back any time soon. Joe Harvey has been a nice find. It would do the bullpen good if CC Sabathia was treated as a five-inning "Opener" with Luis Cessa designated as his caddy (or Gio Gonzalez if they choose to go that route). The Rotation is not killer, but it is good depending on how well Domingo German can hang in there.

The bottom line? Can the Yankees win 90 games? Sure they can. Will they? I still think they will. The injuries sucked off several games of the team's original projection, but you would think things will have to improve on that front eventually.

The Bay Rays are not as good as they have appeared. The Yankees are not as mediocre and the Red Sox are not this bad. Injuries to the Yankees and the bad start by the Red Sox have guaranteed a three team race. But that is what it will be in the end. The Rays are not running away with the division, not in my humble opinion. But talk to me again in July and my perspective might be different.

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