The analysts were right in their prediction that the standings were going to be bunched up, but that's a lot like predicting that it's going to rain in Seattle. The way things have played out in the division so far have been far from what they predicted and what's interesting is that even with some pretty significant changes in the AL East it's two old favorites who have typically battled each other for supremacy - the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees - that are still at the forefront of things.
As of press time, Boston was leading the division with a 40-26 record and the Yankees and Baltimore Orioles were 2 and 2.5 games back, respectively. While it might be common wisdom to pick the Yankees as the favorites to win the division, or at least think that they would be in contention, the team was plagued by injuries going into the season. First baseman Mark Teixeira started the season on the disabled list, but has recently returned and while outfielder Curtis Granderson returned briefly, he had to undergo surgery late last month to stabilize a fracture in his knuckle. Shortstop Derek Jeter and third baseman Alex Rodriguez are still out and yet the Yankees continue to find a way to win thanks to some of the players they have brought in - like Vernon Wells, Kevin Youkilis, Travis Hafner and Lyle Overbay - to stop the bleeding.
Boston, coming off their worst season since 1965 under former manager Bobby Valentine was not expected to be a front runner either. Instead it was the Toronto Blue Jays who were expected to take the division following a number of huge offseason acquisitions.
Last November, the Miami Marlins had a fire sale - saving themselves a net of $146.5 million by trading All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, and two other players. But Toronto didn't stop there. They also signed outfielder Melky Cabrera - who was having a great year before being released by San Francisco last year following his 50 game suspension for a positive testosterone test. They then traded for last year's National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey who went 20-6 last year with the New York Mets and posted a 2.73 ERA. On paper, the acquisitions gave Toronto a pretty formidable starting rotation with Johnson, Buehrle, Dickey, and Rickey Romero. Combine them with the addition of Reyes and Cabrera and why wouldn't expectations be high?
Then early on Reyes suffered a severe sprained ankle that will sideline him past the All-Star break. Dickey has a bloated ERA of 5.11 and a record of 5-8, Johnson has a triceps injury and Romero's struggling. The Blue Jays currently have a 28-36 record, are 11 games back and it doesn't seem like they'll get out of the cellar anytime soon.
Meanwhile, in Boston, the Red Sox traded for the manager of the Blue Jays last year, John Farrell - a move which is proving to pay big dividends. Farrell was the pitching coach in Boston a few years ago under coach Terry Francona. Since his return, he has been able to return starters Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz - who is 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA - to their previous forms. Other members of the starting rotation such as John Lackey - who has been abysmal since coming to Boston from the Los Angeles Angels at the start of the 2010 season - have also thrown the ball well this year. Couple that with some of their hold overs like David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury, the signing of veterans like Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino and unexpected production from other players and it's easy to understand why they have righted the ship so quickly and are on pace to shatter last season's win total of 69 games.
The Orioles - who have seen a resurgence since Buck Showalter took over as manager in July of 2010 - have become relevant again for the first time since Cal Ripken Jr. was their shortstop. Last year they were battling with the Yankees at the end of the season for first place. While the Yankees took the top spot, Baltimore did clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 1997 - getting in as a wild-card contender. It appears that the O's performance last year was not a fluke and they could very well be vying for a playoff spot again come September.
The Tampa Bay Rays are still very much in the mix as well with a 35-29 record and only 4 games back in the division. For a small market team, manager Joe Maddon has done an excellent job for years of producing competitive teams. As a result, the Rays may also find themselves in playoff contention come September, especially if one of the top three teams gets hit with injuries or goes on a skid.
The current state of the AL East may not be exactly what "experts" predicted, but the changes that occurred over the offseason have made things very interesting. What the second act has in store is anyone's guess, but if it's anything like the first half of this year one thing is for sure, it's going to be entertaining.
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