AL East Report: The Post-Mariano Yankees

Now that Mariano Rivera is gone for the year what does this mean for the New York Yankees? With Rivera sidelined and the Boston Red Sox a self-imploding disaster, has the AL East completely flipped on its head? At the very least, is Tampa Bay now a top-heavy favorite? I’ve always thought the most important thing to focus on after a major injury is to keep the attention on the players who are still there. If you ask, can the Yanks win without Mariano, it implies an answer that goes one way. Asking whether they can win with Jeter, C.C., Cano, Granderson & Co., puts a different spin on it. That’s the spin that matters, so TheSportsNotebook takes a brief look at the post-Rivera Yankees and then the rest of the AL East…

*New York is not swinging the bats well right now, ranking 13th in the American League in runs scored over the past week, including just one run last night at home against the Rays’ fourth starter Jeff Niemann. Derek Jeter remains as hot as ever and Curtis Granderson is up to ten home runs on the year while still getting on base consistently. Robinson Cano seems to be waking up from a cold April and has gone 8-for-24. Nick Swisher is hitting But Mark Teixeira has not followed Cano and C.C. Sabathia in terms of putting April behind him and picking up the pace in May. Russell Martin is a big offensive liability at catcher. Raul Ibanez has enjoyed a little power surge in recent days, but the overall production isn’t good. Brett Gardner is on a rehab assignment in Triple A. Alex Rodriguez is having a decent offensive year, but the power numbers are middling at best and given his age and hip issues, there’s no guarantee he picks up the pace. So while the current team-wide slump won’t carry on at current levels, nor will Teixeira stay in the tank forever, any improvement from the first baseman will be offset when Jeter starts to come back to earth (and before Jeter fans flip out, the man went 14-of-29 last week. I don’t care how good a year he has, the numbers are going to come down. So chill out).

*Sabathia has, as usual, gotten settled in as the weather warms up and he has a big showdown tonight with Tampa’s David Price. Hiroki Kuroda has been better than I expected with a 3.75 ERA, a stat that could jump half a run and still be pretty decent in this ballpark and this division. After that’s a huge problem though. There’s no reason to think Phil Hughes is going to turn it around. Ian Nova’s ERA is over 5 after six starts. There’s reason to hope for better things here, but not the kind of track record that gives Joe Girardi reassurance that an uptick is inevitable. Girardi has given a couple starts to Notre Dame grad David Phelps, who has pitched well against the Royals and Rays, but been sharply limited in his workload to the point he hasn’t been allowed out of the fifth inning. Finally, Andy Pettite makes his return to the mound on Sunday against Seattle. Nova, Phelps and Pettite are who the season hinges on—and that’s given the team the benefit of the doubt on Kuroda the rest of the way. Yes, this is a huge problem.

*Now we come to the bullpen. David Robertson blew the save last night against Tampa Bay, turning a 1-0 lead into a 4-1 loss against Tampa and did it on national television. The question can be fairly asked if Robertson is someone whose psyche is better suited to be a supporting pitcher n the eighth, rather than the closer. We know Rafael Soriano has the psyche to close, but does he have the consistency Robertson’s shown over the last couple years? And most important, with Robertson and Soriano moving up one notch in the ladder, there’s now depth concerns in the bullpen. Even if the ninth inning stabilizes, the three automatic outs that Rivera was good for aren’t going to be easily replaced further up in the game.

If you look at this team, there’s enough frontline talent to compete and win, but the ceiling is around 90 wins and that’s presuming the starting pitching gets pieced together. But the problems are serious and I think it’s fair to say that the loss of Mariano at the very least make Tampa a prohibitive favorite.

Around the rest of the AL East…

Tampa Bay (20-11): Their hot streak came to an end over the weekend with consecutive losses at home to Oakland, but the one big concern about this team in March was how the bullpen would look. The relief corps combined last week to throw 21 innings and post a 2.14 ERA. If the pen is even adequate, the Rays win the division. At this level, they’ll be drinking champagne by August.

Baltimore (19-11): A friend of mine whose an Orioles fan looked at the combined 24-6 two-game thrashing the Rangers handed the Birds the last two nights and wondered if an inevitable descent was about to start. At this point, let’s not rush to bury Baltimore as fast as we elevated them—Texas is the best team in the American League and crushing the ball right now. Besides, with a home series against the Rays on the weekend and the Yanks coming in after that, this is just the beginning of a May testing phase.  Shortstop J.J. Hardy and third baseman Mark Reynolds have gotten their bats rolling in time for these next  seven games against the contenders.

Toronto (17-14): The Jays are surviving the West, having gone 3-3 against the Angels and A’s. The road trip continues tonight, but it’s four games in Minnesota, which should be more manageable. Waiting at home are the Rays and Yanks next week. Jose Bautista might want to consider actually hitting by the time these AL East rivals come to the Rogers Centre.

Boston (12-18): Red Sox fans knew the bullpen would be a problem and the starting pitching’s 4-5 slots would be a concern. What wasn’t expected was that Clay Bucholz would be an unmitigated disaster and easily the worst pitcher on the staff on May 10. Add in that Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard are going through growing pains, Josh Beckett is playing golf at the same time he’s skipping starts for injuries, and all this team has is a genuinely good offense and 6-7 innings every fifth day from Jon Lester. Last place and the first losing season in Fenway since 1997 are very realistic.