We’re almost two months into the season, and the Blue Jays are still spinning their wheels as they try to recapture the American League East title that they won in such spectacular fashion down the stretch last year. But what of the clubs they’re competing with? To find out, we have Greg Brady to take us on a spin through the rest of the division…
1st Place: Boston Red Sox (29-18, .617, 18-10 home, 11-8 road, Run Differential: +72)
vs. AL East: 10-9, AL Central: 6-5, AL West: 8-2, Interleague: 5-2
The Week That Was: 2-1 vs. Cleveland, 2-1 vs. Colorado
Next 3 Series: 3 games at Toronto, 4 games at Baltimore, 3 games vs. Toronto
Team Batting Stats in AL: OPS – 1st (.846), BA – 1st (.296), OBP – 1st (.386), SLG – 1st (.486)
Team Pitching Stats in AL: ERA – 9th (4.06), BA vs. – 5th (.240), WHIP – 7th (1.29), SP ERA: 11th (4.62
5 THINGS YOU NEED TO PONDER:
1. More Bad Clay Buchholz, oh my. Buchholz wasn’t even terrible, really, in Cleveland last Friday night, giving up 3 earned runs, walking 4 and striking out 3 in a 6-inning outing. But he certainly was on Thursday night against Colorado giving up 6 earned runs, facing only 22 batters. Problem is, it was practically a pleasant surprise that Buchholz was so, well, “average” last week. It was a better start than his prior two, but he really only has looked like he belongs in a contender’s rotation a couple of times so far, the most notable of which was probably his excellent start against the Jays on Boston Marathon Day at Fenway. In that outing he went 6.2 IP, allowed 6 singles, no runs, and all looked good for a tight win until the Red Sox bullpen uncharacteristically gagged it all away in the top of the 8th. But in a contract year for him, with the Red Sox unlikely to be an eager suitor (they’ve just seen too much inconsistency since his World Series-winning 2013). At this point he likely needs a big month to even stay in the starting rotation.
2. The Jackie Bradley Jr. hitting streak is over, but it may just springboard him to a star-making season. There always was massive potential for the Red Sox 40th overall pick in 2011, but now we see it. And like at Boston’s most famous watering hole, Cheers, now everyone does know his name, and not just in Massachusetts. Bradley’s streak ended after 29 games, against a Rockies pitching staff that had given up 18 combined runs in the first two games of the series. No one this century has had their streak end at 31 or 32 games. Despite Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins topping 35, I don’t think attention has truly been given to a streak’s potential to get to 40 since Paul Molitor’s 39-gamer in 1987. I remember watching the streak-breaker live with my Dad on WUAB – Channel 43, out of Cleveland, on a warm August night. The Tribe pitcher who shut Molitor down with 9 innings of shutout ball in a 1-0 10-inning win? That’d be Bradley’s current manager, John Farrell. I’m obviously way too young for Joe DiMaggio’s 56, and was just beginning to look at boxscores in the London Free Press when Pete Rose made it to 44. The hitting streak still does fascinate me, I admit, and had Bradley gotten to 35 we’d have had a huge story.
3. Bad bullpen news – Carson Smith is gone for the season. Naturally the Craig Kimbrel acquisition got all the headlines this off season, but getting Smith in a four-player deal in early December, sending SP Wade Miley back the other way, was a good piece of business by the Red Sox. And though he missed most of the first month of the season with a strained right forearm, the early MRIs didn’t pick up major tissue damage, or suggest anything more than a 15-day DL stint. But a new MRI showed a major issue in Smith’s UCL, and he’s gone until early in the 2017 season. A crushing blow, especially for him, but also the Red Sox, who hoped for the 26-year old to be effective enough to maybe make the 7th inning his domain (he had a 1.01 WHIP last season, finishing 23 games, and ending up with 12 saves) prior to Uehara/Kimbrel. The fairly good news is how strong Junichi Tazawa has been in late inning scenarios, with a 0.85 WHIP in 20+ IP.
4. Xander Bogaerts has an under-discussed phenomenal start at the plate. Everyone’s raved about the David Ortiz season, and rightfully given Bradley’s hitting streak its due, but from May of last season, Bogaerts has undeniably been Boston’s most consistent hitter. He’s in the Top 10 for batting average, and at last check, slashing away at .349/.404/.513 with six steals. Already, the AL’s defending Silver Slugger at shortstop (say that ten times fast after seven Stella’s), he’s well on his way to having an even better season. The Red Sox haven’t had a champion for batting average since Nomar Garciaparra in 1999 and 2000, but it hard to think they won’t have a contender in the mix this season.
5. What? Wade Boggs #24 wasn’t ALREADY retired??? What is it with some teams? The Red Sox took care of this, uhhh, mild oversight Thursday night, 24 years after his final Red Sox season, and 34 years after he made his Red Sox debut on April 10, 1982 going 0-for-4 (BUM!) at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Dennis Martinez was the first MLB pitcher he ever faced, and he batted 9th and played 1B that night. Although Fred Lynn had the evening off, Boggs still started in a batting order whose 2-3-4 was Evans/Rice/Yastrzemski. Five batting titles and 3,010 hits later (on quick recall, it sure felt like he topped 3000 by a lot more than that) and yet, I can’t get the damned image of him riding that stupid horse after the 1996 World Series with the hated Yankees, or in a damned Devil Rays uniform, out of my mind. Maybe both those things explain the 24 year wait.
2nd Place: Baltimore Orioles (26-19, .578, 2GB, Home: 17-9, Road: 11-8, Run Differential: +20)
VS: AL East: 9-5, AL Central: 11-5, AL West: 6-9, Interleague 0-0
The Week That Was: 2-1 at LA Angels, 0-3 at Houston
Next Three Series: 3 games at Cleveland, 4 games vs. Baltimore, 3 games vs. NY Yankees:
Team Batting Stats in AL: OPS: 2nd (.763), BA: 6th (.257), OBP: 4th (.322), SLG: 2nd (.441)
Team Pitching Stats in AL: ERA: 4th (3.76), BA vs: 8th (.249), WHIP: 8th (1.30), SP ERA: 7th (4.45)
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO PONDER:
1. Lots of swings and misses. The past four games have seen the Orioles hitters average 14.6 strikeouts/game. Insane. Record-setting, in fact. Baltimore, in their three-game sweep at the hands of the Astros, struck out 52 times in three games, breaking a franchise-record held since Major League hitters used table legs at the plate, and 37 percent of MLB pitchers were transients who just happened to be hanging out near train stations in the Northeast. Now, this shouldn’t be a terribly concerning stretch, given that Baltimore is only 6th in team strikeouts. Ironically, it’s actually the Astros (no longer adorable overachievers but rather sickly-looking non-contenders) who lead the AL in strikeouts with 476 (9.7/game) — and you can’t be a winner doing that unless your own pitching is dynamite. (Hint: it is not).
2. Dylan Bundy is giving the Orioles regular innings now. I didn’t say that was a good thing. It probably is though. The Orioles may finally get to see what they have in the once-hyped prospect, after waiting through a myriad of injuries. Now, Bundy was lousy giving up the winning run in the 13th inning in Houston on Tuesday night (no batters retired, two walks, two hits), but he gave the Orioles the first 3-inning span of his big league career the weekend before. The Orioles have been stuck in neutral on Bundy for five years. He’s injured — can’t use him. Can we trade him? No, he’s injured. What if another team overpays for him? They won’t! Aren’t you reading this? Bundy’s a 4th overall pick from the 2011 MLB Draft, and with Pittsburgh getting wonderful things out of Gerrit Cole, Miami from Jose Fernandez (again), and Oakland from Sonny Gray (until he got hurt), it’s high time Bundy gave the Orioles some production. We’ll see if he can.
3. Pedro Alvarez hasn’t quite been the bat Baltimore was hoping for. After 111 home runs for Pittsburgh over the past four seasons, the Orioles really hoped for some heavy production from Alvarez, despite the fact he’s got a career on-base of .309. He’s feast or famine, and with a team that has Chris Davis on it, he isn’t going to play in the field very much, so all he’s got is his bat, and right now, that’s not much. Just the three dingers in 115 plate appearances, and he’s slashing at .192/.296/.343. Maybe we’re all stuck on his NLDS contributions (a 3 HR series in a 5-game loss to the Cardinals) but there’s been no magic or big moments yet for Alvarez, who only signed a one-year deal, and very late in spring training, at that.
4. Manny Machado is obviously a bit more fearsome than in prior years at the plate. Some of it would clearly be situational, but some of it is just the increased threat Machado is. He leads the Majors in intentional walks with six — and perhaps most interestingly, is the fact he was only walked twice intentionally in 2015, and twice intentionally in 2014. Machado’s transition from 3B to SS has also gone swimmingly, where he’ll likely be a considerable challenger to Alcides Escobar for Gold Glove at that position — as will the Tribe’s Francisco Lindor, who led all AL shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved last season, but given that he wasn’t called up until June, didn’t have enough innings to be eligible. It’s a real good era for defensive shortstops in the AL again, and obviously Tulowitzki adds to the league’s depth, compared to where it was a year ago, as well.
5. It’s been a very good stretch at the plate for Matt Wieters. The 30-year old catcher wasn’t a sure thing by any stretch a year ago to continue being an Oriole long-term. Injuries and inconsistent stretches at the plate hindered him greatly in 2014 and 2015. Even prior to that, despite the 20-HR seasons, he never hit for average or walked enough given some of the hype surrounding him when drafted 5th overall in 2007 (David Price/Mike Moustakas went 1-2). The Orioles played a little bit of offseason “chicken” with Wieters, but he did accept their one-year qualifying offer for $15.8 million, and now he’s playing like a guy quite worthy of a lengthy extension in the offseason. There’s a definitive risk with paying catchers big money as they head towards their mid-30’s, but Baltimore may just do it with Wieters. His May line so far is .368/.379/.596.
4th Place: New York Yankees (22-24, .478, 6.5 GB, Home: 13-12, Road: 9-12, Run Differential: -19)
Record vs: AL East: 7-11, AL Central: 6-3, AL West: 8-8, Interleague: 1-2
The Week That Was: 4-0 at Oakland, 1-2 vs. Toronto
Next 3 Series: 3 game series at Tampa, 3 games series at Toronto, 1 game at Detroit, 3 game series at Baltimore:
Team Batting Stats in AL: OPS: 13th (.688), BA: T-11th (.238), OBP: 13th (.306), SLG: 14th (.382)
Team Pitching Stats in AL: ERA: 10th (4.11), BA vs: T-8th (.249), WHIP: T-4th (1.23), SP ERA: 8th (4.50)
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO PONDER:
1. The pitching has to keep improving, because the bats may not. It’s true, the Yankees have pitched just fine in May. Overall as a team, New York is 2nd in WHIP, 4th in team ERA, and 2nd in K/9. Last week I wrote about how the team couldn’t string wins together consistently (0-6 when attempting to win their 3rd game in a row), and they then put together a six-game win streak, before Wednesday’s loss to the Blue Jays, outscoring their opponents 32-11 on aggregate. They were 8-14 in April, now 14-10 in May, and starting pitching has had a lot to do with it — it’s not just adding Aroldis Chapman to their pen.
2. The end can come quickly for older hitters – are we seeing this with Mark Teixeira? Neck spasms are the issue now for Teixeira, and the 36-year old will be shut down until at least Sunday, after cortisone shots made virtually no difference in the pain level the first baseman was experiencing. A Wednesday MRI didn’t indicate a trip to the DL — a place the slugger’s been all too familiar with the past few seasons. Of course, we already know Yankees fans would be clamouring for Greg Bird to step in — and maybe there wouldn’t even be a dropoff in production after he made a grand entrance onto the MLB stage last summer (11 HR and an .871 OPS in 41 games) — but the 22 year old is gone for the season with a right shoulder labrum tear. As for Teixeira, his first 100 games last season were so good and so consistent (31 HR & a .263/.363/.561), the Yankees can’t do much but wait this out and hope the end isn’t too near. His mega-deal finally ends at the after this season, and he’ll need some production this summer to get more than, say, a 1 year deal in the $10-$12M range, likely incentive-laden.
3. A mildly uncomfortable question but a fair one — how much of CC Sabathia’s struggles the past couple years, were as much to do with boozing as it was injuries or age? Another Yankee at the end of a rich extension — CC re-upped for $122M over five years back before the 2012 season began. After the past three lousy-to-nightmarish seasons, Sabathia looks like a different human being in 2016, or at least his results do. His May starts have seen him give up just the one earned run in 20 IP, and despite no offensive support to speak of in this week’s 3-1 loss to the Blue Jays, most Jays fans would concur that’s as good as they’ve seen Sabathia pitch against their squad since before the Blue Jays tried to leap into contention with their 2012 offseason moves. Are they three magic starts, or is it the start of some consistency that we’ll see throughout the season? Really difficult to say, and for a player who turns 36 just after the All-Star Break and has never impressed anyone with his conditioning or stamina, the Yankees have to have all imaginable digits crossed that he can maintain this.
4. Ivan Nova crashed back down to Earth, so now what? Forced into starting duty again (although I’m sure he didn’t mind), thanks to Luis Severino having a horrible start to 2016 prior to his injury — he makes a rehab start in Tampa this weekend — Nova was decent… until he met the Blue Jays’ lineup. Nova was, it should be noted, a strike away from retiring the Blue Jays in order in the top of the 7th in a 3-1 game, before he hit Edwin Encarnacion on his 107th pitch. It may have been a misstep for Girardi to leave him that long, but it was a close game, and he’d used his preferred bullpen arms (when trailing) the night before in the Yankees’ blowout loss. Still Nova has had a good May, as has the Bombers’ rotation as a collective. Nova has posted a 2.92 ERA, a 0.95 WHIP, and a 4.00 K/BB ratio in May. It’s something the Yankees will take, given it’s been since 2013 that Nova could be trusted, start in, and start out, to be consistent.
5. It’s ok to be conflicted about Brian McCann’s production. If I’m a Yankees fan (and no, I’m not), I’m thrilled McCann is still one of the most productive AL catchers at the plate. What I’m not thrilled about is him being one of the least potent cleanup hitters in the entire American League. There are two spots you sort of cringe seeing a catcher in the batting order, hitting leadoff (Jason Kendall was the last reliable one that I can recall) or cleanup. Not that McCann’s production so far (6 HR in 38 games, and .244/.344/.420) is off from last year’s improved numbers, because it’s very similar, and slightly better than what was perceived at the time to be a quite disappointing Yankee debut in 2014. But with Starlin Castro cooling off in May after tearing it up in April, A-Rod’s injury, and Brett Gardner being unusually lousy at the dish lately, McCann is far from this lineup’s biggest offensive problem, right? Again, you’re fine with McCann doing what he does, but it’s OK (and wishful, mind you) to want better and younger hitters around him. If McCann’s hitting 7th in your lineup, that seems like it’d make all parties concerned rather pleased.
5th Place; Tampa Bay Rays (21-24, .467, 7 GB, Home: 10-13, Road: 11-11, Run Differential: +4)
Record vs: AL East 11-10, AL Central 4-5, AL West 4-5, Interleague 2-4
The Week That Was: 1-2 at Detroit, 1-1 at Miami, 0-2 vs. Miami
Next Three Series: 3 games vs. NY Yankees, 3 games at Kansas City, 4 games at Minnesota
Team Batting Stats in AL: OPS: 3rd (.797), BA: 9th (.252), OBP: 5th (.327), SLG: 2nd (.459)
Team Pitching Stats in AL: ERA: 11th (4.78), BA vs: 9th (.264), WHIP: T-9th (1.38), SP ERA: 6th (4.12)
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO PONDER:
1. Ugh, that Kevin Kiermaier injury. Yeah, “costly” doesn’t quite do it justice. They lose a lot with Kiermaier gone until probably early August. Two bones in Kiermaier’s catching hand snapped after making a catch in Detroit over the weekend on a James McCann blooper. This injury used to happen a tonne more to outfielders playing on artificial turf, given the turf’s propensity to bend a player’s hand backwards on initial contact, but it’s an indication of how hard the impact of Kiermaier’s hand hitting the Comerica Park grass was. The Rays can’t just replace 148 games (his total last season) of Gold Glove center field, and a reasonably decent lower-half hitter in their lineup. Mike Mahtook was called up from AAA and it does seem he’ll make the majority of starts until Kiermaier can come back.
2. You just can’t be getting manhandled in state, but the Rays did. “The Citrus Series” — what could be worse? Well, this year for Tampa, little else, it seems. After the Tigers beat them in a weekend series by loading up on both former mate Drew Smyly, and ace Chris Archer, the Rays had four games in two venues with the Marlins, and won just one of them. They were, in fact, outscored 13-4 in the two Tropicana games. Perhaps it was unfortunate that Smyly found himself matched up with Jose Fernandez, but that’ll happen sometimes, and one proved why he’s an ace. Though I wrote glowingly about Smyly’s 2016 early season returns last week, he was roughed up in this one, giving up two long homers and five earned runs in six innings of work.
3. A cure may be ahead though, given the schedule. Remember how fun it was for Blue Jays’ fans to see the Twins for four straight games looming ahead on the schedule — well, Tampa will visit Target Field for four straight there soon. Getting there is the tricky part — and tonight’s (Friday’s) Tanaka-Archer battle is actually a big game for the Rays to get back on track after losing five of six, the same as Toronto’s Wednesday night game in the Bronx was.
4. Desmond Jennings continues to struggle hitting for average. This is an odd one, and something the Rays are hoping he pulls out of. Despite missing almost all of 2015 with a knee injury, hopes were high that Jennings would get back to a level of “decent, not great” at the plate. But so far he hasn’t even been close to decent. As for Friday, Jennings had struck out in 31 of 122 plate appearances, and has lost a lot of starts and ABs to Brandon Guyer, who happens to be ripping the cover off the ball. Guyer was a tiny piece coming back in the Matt Garza trade years ago, but has taken advantage of his opportunities in 2016. Jennings was able to get his big chance to play in 2013 (he was 7th in AL voting for Rookie Of The Year in 2011) after Melvin Upton’s departure for Atlanta, and he played more in 2012 after Carl Crawford bolted for Boston. But sometimes players just are what they are. Myself and others had always thought Jennings would keep improving and evolving, but he hasn’t.
5. Is Chris Archer going to a 2nd straight All-Star Game? A few AL starters who made it to last year’s game in Cincinnati almost certainly aren’t — namely Sonny Gray and Dallas Kuechel. David Price is a longer shot than you’d think but he’ll have 5-6 starts, beginning this weekend in Toronto, to turn things around. Archer at the All-Star Break last season had a 2.74 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 4.9 K/BB in 19 starts. This season so far in 10 starts? 5.16, 1.61 and 2.3. Nowhere near good enough. I call him an “ace” and you probably do the same, but even his second-half numbers last season dipped significantly from last year’s first half. I’m going to make a more concerted effort to limit “ace” from my vocabulary, written and verbal. Archer’s a nice pitcher, and can be excellent at times — same as Marcus Stroman can be. I suppose there’s potential for both to take that next step (and Stroman is two years younger), but you simply can’t put those names in the mix, and the 2016 seasons so far of Gray, Kuechel, Matt Harvey and others tell you just how freaking hard it is to be Chris Sale, David Price, Felix Hernandez, or (minus a year here and there) Justin Verlander.