MLB: AL East Memorial Day Week Check-In

The AL East had high expectations at the start of the season, with four teams seen as legitimate playoff contenders. The division hasn’t quite lived up to those lofty standards, but they are still collectively playing pretty well. The New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles are setting the pace. The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays are hanging in. And the Toronto Blue Jays are the talented team that we’re still waiting to see turn it on.

Here’s a brief rundown on how each team is looking as the regular season hits the first turn:

New York (37-18)
Playing at a 109- win pace, the Yanks are looking like a threat to reach their first World Series since they won it in 2009. They lead the American League in both runs scored and staff ERA.

The everyday lineup is mostly carried a basketball-style Big Three. Aaron Judge has a stat line of .410 on-base percentage/.629 slugging percentage and has hit 17 home runs. Juan Soto’s line is .408/.571 and he’s got 14 homers. Giancarlo Stanton has gone deep 13 times.

Normally I would look at a lineup this top-heavy and assume they were bound to cool down. I’m not sure in this case. In the first place, Judge and Soto both playing at MVP levels all year long isn’t exactly a huge stretch. Anthony Rizzo might not be what he was in his prime as a Cub, but he’s off to a slow start and can get better. D.J. LeMahieu, one of the best pure contact hitters in the game, is coming back from injury. So, actually, the Yankee offense really hasn’t started to hit on all cylinders.

The same goes with the pitching. The league-best ERA comes even with last year’s Cy Young Award winner, Gerrit Cole being on the injured list. When you look at the current rotation of Carlos Rodon, Marcus Stroman, Nestor Cortes, Clarke Schmidt, and Luis Gil, you see a group of arms that looks steady, but needs a real #1 to be a playoff threat. Cole will amount to a de facto summer trade acquisition and be that ace.

Baltimore (33-18)
The Birds are hanging right with the Yanks, thanks to power on offense and a balanced pitching staff. Baltimore is second in the AL in home runs and second in overall slugging percentage. Gunnar Henderson is having an All-Star year at shortstop, with a  stat line of .361/.588 and 17 homers. Aschley Rutschman continues to be the best young catcher in the game, with a .300 batting average and 10 homers. The only real weak point in the lineup has been Cedric Mullins, and the centerfielder’s history tells us he can pick up the pace.

Baltimore’s offseason acquisition of Corbin Burnes has paid the expected dividends. Burnes has a 2.60 ERA in his 11 starts. Kyle Bradish has been lights-out in his five starts. Grayson Rodriguez is throwing the ball well. The Orioles are fourth in the AL in starters’ ERA and that’s with John Means and Dean Kremer on the IL. Both should be back.

So, the Orioles, like the Yankees, are playing well in the present and have reasonable hopes for getting even better in the near future. That bodes poorly for the three teams trying to get back in it.

Boston (27-26) – Tampa Bay (26-28)
If you’re around .500, you’re in the playoff mix at this point. The Red Sox have been plucky and overcome a ton of injuries. Trevor Story and Garrett Whitlock are gone for the year. That’s in addition to having already lost Lucas Gioloto and Liam Hendrick before the season even began. Triston Casas and Masataka Yoshida are on the IL and have been there for a while. Tyler O’Neil is in and out of the lineup with injuries.

But the Sox are getting pitching. Tanner Houck is doing some serious dealing, with a 1.90 ERA in 11 starts. Kutter Crawford is starting to emerge, with a 2.89 ERA. Even with the injuries, there’s been no weak point in the rotation, and the bullpen has been steady.

Tampa Bay simply needs a few players to drastically pick up the pace. Randy Arozarena and Jose Siri each have batting averages with a 1-handle on them. Yandy Diaz is doing nothing. Aaron Civale is struggling in the rotation.

All of the above are capable of not just doing better, but significantly better. In the meantime, Isaac Paredes is having a good year at third base, with a .390/.497 stat line. Jose Callabero’s 19 steals leads a team that has manufactured offense by running. They’ve helped keep the Rays afloat. Now the stars need to shine.

Toronto (22-29)
The Blue Jays may be in last place, but they’re the most interesting team in this division as we turn into the summer months. They’re capable of so much more, and if they get hot, they can still spurt into a strong third and maybe start to make noise along with New York and Baltimore down the stretch.

Any kind of turnaround needs to start with much better pitching. While none of the starters have been truly bad, Kevin Gausman and Chris Bassitt don’t’ need to be walking around with ERAs in the 4s. And the bullpen has been atrocious.

The heralded offense has been a dud thus far. Vladdy Guerrero is getting on base, but the power is missing—only five home runs for the first baseman. Bo Bichette was one of the league’s best shortstops last year. This season, his stat line is a horrible .298/.353. George Springer has been even worse. Any improvement has to start with those three.

New York and Baltimore are settling in for a heavyweight fight and potentially settling this head-to-head in the Division Series come October. We’ll see what each team does on the trade market. One would think the budget-limited Orioles may have made their move in getting Burnes during the offseason. Will the Yankees wake up the echoes of Boss Steinbrenner and take on contracts like they used to in seasons gone by? We’ll see. For now, I’m expecting them to win the division and get the 1-seed. The Orioles are looking like the 4-seed.

The fate of the three challengers is the most immediate story, with Toronto needing some urgency. I wonder how much rope manager John Schneider has. The Blue Jays have flamed out in the playoffs the last two years, and now are underachieving. I’ve got Schneider on the watch list of first manager to be shown the door if things don’t turn around quickly.