Checking on the American League at the season's half way mark
Going into the season, most pundits gave all five teams at least some chance of making the playoffs, but the general consensus is that the Blue Jays and Rays would end the reign of the Yankees and Red Sox. Naturally, Tampa Bay (41-39) and Toronto (39-40) are in 4th and 5th place, while Boston (49-33) leads the division and the Yankees (42-37) have spent most of the season in at least 2nd. The Red Sox look very good so far, leading the AL in runs scored. There are some pitching concerns though, with Clay Buchholz hurt and Jon Lester in a big slump. No one knows if John Lackey can keep pitching as well as he has either. Still, it looks like the 2012 season was just a blip for Boston.
Their rivals the Yankees, however, are trying to do it with smoke and mirrors, and it has stopped working. Mark Teixeria is now out for the year, joining Jeter, Youkilis, Granderson, and the circus that is A-Rod on the shelf. Guys that propped up the lineup early, like Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner, have fallen back to earth, and the result is a pretty bad group outside of Robinson Cano. The Yankees are third worst in the AL in scoring as a result. CC Sabathia isn’t having a great year (4.15 ERA), but the pitching so far has been enough to keep the Yankees in it, and barring some big trades, will need to keep doing so.
No, I didn’t forget my Orioles (45-36). They sit in second place in the East on the strength of their lineup. Chris Davis has taken the 27 year old breakout season to new heights with a league leading 27 homers, while Manny Machado has made the leap to stardom. The issue is the starting pitching. Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez have been solid, but Jason Hammel has regressed, Wei-Yin Chen has been hurt, and after that it was ugly enough that Freddy Garcia got 10 starts. Unless Kevin Gausman gets through his growing pains quickly, reinforcements aren’t there. This has been putting a big workload on a bullpen that is not as good as 2012 (which it inevitably wouldn’t be). How will it end up for Baltimore? I have no idea. I've given up trying to predict this team; I'm just enjoying the ride.
The Rays, meanwhile, are still in it, but have problems scoring runs, and haven’t gotten what they expected out of their starting pitcher. They need David Price back soon, and they need Evan Longoria’s injury from last night not to be serious. Toronto needed an 11 game win streak just to get back in it, but overall it’s been a disappointing season. With Jose Reyes coming back and RA Dickey looking better though, they might not be done yet. In a division that had all five teams above .500 until a few days ago, no one is done yet. Expect at least one wild card to come out of this division.
Once again, everyone expected the Tigers (43-35) to run away with the division, but once again they haven’t. Detroit is only two games ahead of the Indians (42-38) going into Saturday. The Tigers don’t lack for star power of course, and most of them are playing like it, particularly Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer. Justin Verlander hasn’t been what he was the last few years, but that's a hard bar to clear. The main issue for the Tigers is, of course, the bullpen. Jose Valverde is gone for now, but he wasn’t the only problem child. We’ll see how the Tigers address the pen this month.
Cleveland has been a team of streaks all year, and right now they’re back on an upswing, having won 7 of their last 10. Like Baltimore, the Indians have no trouble scoring (4th in AL), led by Carlos Santana and a red hot Jason Kipnis. Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher have also been solid after signing their free agent deals. The problem, however, is pitching. Justin Masterson is their only healthy starter with an ERA+ of 100, and too much of Cleveland’s season is dependent on the arms of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. They’re not out of it, but the pitching will probably keep them from shocking the Tigers.
The Royals (37-40) made their offseason moves like this was their year, but it hasn’t materialized. James Shields has been good, but the offense hasn’t, and it’s killing them. Things have improved from their young hitter since George Brett became hitting coach though. The Twins (35-41) are below average in every way, but are starting to develop some front line talent in the minors. Joe Mauer, meanwhile, is still awesome. Finally, the White Sox (32-45) are a disaster offensively, with only Alex Rios and Adam Dunn sporting an OPS+ over 100. The pitching after Chris Sale isn’t any great shakes either. If reports are true, everyone but Sale and injured franchise stalwart Paul Konerko are available, which is the right move at this point.
The conventional wisdom in April was that the AL West was a three team race between the Rangers, Angels, and A’s. Two out of three ain’t bad. Texas (47-33) and Oakland (47-34) are separated by a half game, and look like they will duel throughout the summer. The loser will probably be a wild card, but as we saw last year with these two teams, the distinction is important. We’re used to the Rangers winning with hitting, but it’s the pitching that stands out for them this year. It ranks 2nd in the AL in runs allowed (behind only Kansas City of all teams). Yu Darvish is the #1 reason for that, as he leads in the league in strikeouts with an ERA under 3. Derek Holland has proven to be a very good #2 starter, and the bullpen has been one of the best. The offense has been solid, but unspectacular, with few black holes except Elvis Andrus, who’s having an awful year with the bat (.242/.298/.283).
Oakland’s whole is more than the sum of its parts, but the parts aren’t bad either. Breakout years by Josh Donaldson and Jed Lowrie have sparked the offense, making up for a beat up Josh Reddick and a Yoenis Cespedes who has lost the strike zone (.289 OBP). The pitching hasn’t been led by Jarrod Parker as expected, but rather A.J. Griffin and the voodoo magic of Bartolo Colon. Like their Texas rivals, the Oakland bullpen has also been excellent. You could argue neither team has the superstar power you need in the playoffs, but both teams are well on their way to at least being in the playoffs, meaning the hard part would be over.
Skipping the Angels for a minute, Seattle (35-45) once again can’t score any runs, and once again their young hitting talent has been a disaster. To top off the misery, after King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma, the pitching is in shambles as well. It’s a mess right now. The Astros (30-50) were supposed to be bad and are, but they play hard and right now are on pace for 60-102, which is awful but not historically awful like some predicted.
And now we come to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (37-43). They sit 10 back of Texas, and that’s after winning four in a row. After a meh April, Mike Trout has been awesome again, and Albert Pujols is coming around after another slow start. Everyone else (with one exception) is hitting to expectation. Most of the blame for the Angels’ struggles has been laid at Josh Hamilton, whose .220/.274/.385 defies even the most pessimistic expectations of his mega deal. As bad as he’s been though, it’s really the pitching that’s been the culprit. Only the Astros have given up more runs in the AL. CJ Wilson hasn’t held up his end of his big contract, Jered Weaver got hurt early and hasn’t been effective since coming back, and after that, it’s been ugly. The Angels have the financial resources to make trades, but not the prospects. They’re probably too talented to be completely dead yet, but at 7 ½ back of the second wild card, they need to get hot fast.
Check back tomorrow for a look at the National League at the midway point.