AL East Roundup: Playoff Toss-up

Four teams are separated by five games in a tight division.

The AL East-leading Yankees have a 10-game lead atop the division, and yet the AL East remains one of baseball’s most interesting divisions. All five teams remain in playoff contention with the last-place Red Sox sitting just five games back of a wild card spot. It should be an interesting final month and a half, to say the least.

 

AL East Standings – 8/16/2022

 

Yankees

 

The Yankees are no longer the best team in MLB. They’ve been caught by the Dodgers, Astros, and Mets. But that doesn’t mean the Yankees aren’t still squarely in the conversation for the best team in baseball. Their Pythagorean win-loss mark of 78-38 suggests they’ve gotten a little unlucky too.

New York’s play of late leaves little to be desired. The Yankees are 2-10 in their last 12 games, and it has brought the division close enough to believe it’s possible for someone else to make a run at first place. Their offense, which had been one of the league’s best, has scored more than three runs only three times during this stretch. Matt Carpenter and Giancarlo Stanton being sidelined with injuries certainly haven’t helped the recent offensive woes. With Joey Gallo out of the picture and Andrew Benintendi in, things have yet to get a whole lot better in the Yankees’ third outfield spot. In his 17 games with New York, Benintendi is slashing .185/.308/.278. Aaron Judge on the other hand is continuing his all-out assault against opposing pitchers. He’s up to 46 home runs and owns an other-worldly 201 OPS+.

Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes continue to lead a great Yankees pitching staff. The two boast 117 and 145 ERA+ respectively. Frankie Montas has struggled in his two starts since arriving in New York, but there’s no reason not to expect his 9.00 ERA with the team to get lower.

For New York, their focus should be on locking up one of the top-two records in the AL and guaranteeing themselves a bye in the playoffs. Right now, Seattle poses the biggest threat in that department, but they still sit 9.5 games behind.

 

Rays

 

Tampa Bay has managed to rebound from a 3-8 stretch after the All-Star break that looked like it might take them out of contention entirely. Now, with the ship settled, the Rays sit 10 games back in the division and one and a half games up for a wild card spot. FanGraphs isn’t sold yet, giving them a 58.1% chance to make the playoffs.

Shane McClanahan is no longer one of the AL Cy Young Award front runners, but he’s still one of the best pitchers in baseball and the best player on the Rays. He’s got a 2.28 ERA and 165 strikeouts in 134.1 innings pitched. The rest of Tampa’s pitching staff has been solid as well. The team owns a 3.42 team ERA.

The Rays offense on the other hand hasn’t pulled its weight. Tampa Bay ranks No. 23 in MLB in runs scored, not the mark of an elite team. They’ve had some surprising contributors on offense — Yandy Díaz has a 128 OPS+ and Harold Ramírez a 142 — but they lack the firepower to truly compete with baseball’s best. They have battled a plethora of injuries to their lineup with names like Wander Franco, Kevin Kiermaier, Manuel Margot, Josh Lowe, and Mike Zunino all currently out. If the Rays have any hope of competing come October, their offense will have to figure out a way to do enough to support this pitching staff.

 

Blue Jays

 

Toronto’s offense is elite. Make no mistake about that. The Blue Jays rank No. 5 in runs scored across all of MLB right now and their lineup doesn’t have any easy outs. Six of the nine everyday starters have an OPS+ over 120. Santiago Espinal has been about league average at the second base spot, but Toronto went out and acquired Whit Merrifield at the deadline to help shore up that position. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hasn’t been the MVP candidate he was a year ago but he’s still been elite at the dish.

The Blue Jays’ pitching staff is where issues start to arise. José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi just haven’t been able to figure things out. Both have ERAs north of five with price tags that suggest they should be much better. Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman on the other hand have been more than capable, with Manoah owning a 2.56 ERA and Gausman a 3.16. Toronto’s 3.97 team ERA puts them 18th in MLB in that category. Jordan Romano has been great at the back end of games, closing out 27 saves with a 2.51 ERA.

If the Blue Jays offense keeps mashing and they can figure out the back end of their rotation, they could be a force to be reckoned with in the postseason. And FanGraphs likes their odds of getting there. They’re higher on Toronto than Tampa Bay who owns the same record, giving the Blue Jays an 86.6% shot at playing October baseball.

 

Orioles

 

The surprise playoff contender of all surprise playoff contenders has been the Baltimore Orioles. 2022 was supposed to be just another piece of the rebuild, and in some ways, it has been, but Baltimore also finds itself with a very real chance to make the playoffs. The Orioles sit just one and a half games back of the final wild card spot. FanGraphs doesn’t like the Orioles outlook, giving them a 4.5 percent chance at playing playoff baseball. However, there’s no denying that with just a month and a half left in the regular season, Baltimore has situated itself in a position where there’s a very real chance they reach the playoffs.

The Orioles did move some key pieces at the deadline with the future in mind. Trey Mancini and his 115 OPS+ now play in Houston and Jorge López’s sub-2.00 ERA is closing games in Minnesota. Adley Rutschman, the future of Orioles baseball, has arrived with a bang. The catcher owns a 128 OPS+ and has posted 2.8 bWAR to date. The outfield of Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, and Anthony Santander has also been a surprising strength, with Santander having a 127 OPS+.

The bullpen has helped bolster what has been an otherwise uninspiring pitching staff. The rotation lacks a pitcher with a sub-4.00 ERA. As a team, their ERA sits 16th in MLB.

It might be a long shot, but maybe, just maybe, we’ll see playoff baseball in Baltimore this October.

 

Red Sox

 

The Red Sox have been hot and cold all season long. They got off to an awful start, then stormed back to take control of second place in the division. Now, another rough stretch has left them in last place and two games below .500. Yet, they still have a shot at making the playoffs. Baseball Reference pegs them for just a 6.6% shot at making the postseason, but FanGraphs likes their odds more, giving them a 13.2% chance. Either way, it’s going to take another mid-season turnaround for that to happen. That turnaround may have just started though. Boston won its first divisional series of the series this past weekend when it took two of three from the Yankees at Fenway.

The offense, which came into the season with expectations of being one of the league’s best, has struggled to find its groove and ranks 12th in runs scored. Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and J.D. Martinez have done their parts, but past that, there hasn’t been much to write home about. The Sox dealt Christian Vázquez at the deadline, making their offense worse, but added Tommy Pham, improving their outfield bats.

It’s unclear what Red Sox team will show up down the stretch. There will be no Chris Sale, and Trevor Story is still nursing a hairline fracture in his wrist, but Boston has also won three of its last four with a series against the Pirates on the horizon. Check back in about a month and see where things have landed.

 

Artwork by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter)

Noah Bortle

Noah Bortle is a freelance writer from Massachusetts. When he isn't arguing the merits of Shelby Miller or discussing the yips, he can be found traveling, hiking, or playing video games. His writing can also be found at College Hockey News.

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