As the 2013 MLB season races toward the midway point, the AL East looks primed for a pennant race for the ages, but the bottom of baseball's best division, currently populated by the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, could become the story as the summer unfolds.
While the NL Central, with three teams (St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh) playing .584 or better baseball, can make the claim of housing the most top-heavy division in the sport, no group can touch the AL East in terms of competitive balance.
Heading into play on Tuesday, all five teams in the division are above .500. In last place, after suffering their first loss in two weeks, sit the 38-37 Blue Jays. Despite their struggles for much of April and May, Toronto is back in the race and days away from welcoming back Jose Reyes to arguably the most talented 25-man roster of the bunch.
It didn't take a genius to predict a hotly contested race in this division, but the possibility of all five teams being above .500 is unprecedented. Since baseball realigned following the 1993 season, no division has had all participants over .500 for a full schedule. Even the AL West, which only housed four teams until the Houston Astros joined for the 2013 season, couldn't pull off the feat.
On the surface, the answer to the question posed in the headline is easy: Yes.
There's little chance that a 95- to 100-win team emerges in the AL East, but all of these ball clubs look like 82- to 90-win teams. Between projecting health, roster improvements and regression, each group, from Boston at the top to Toronto at the bottom, looks to have what it takes to at least earn a record slightly over .500 this season.
Of course, it's not that easy.
Due to baseball's unbalanced schedule, divisional opponents play each other more often than other teams, especially in September. In other words, if a team, like, say, the Rays, are scuffling, injured or not playing the brand of baseball we're accustomed to seeing them play heading into mid-September, they will have to finish strong against this gauntlet: Texas, Baltimore, New York (Yankees) and Toronto.
Those last four opponents, three from the AL East, are all likely to be battling for a playoff spot in the season's final two weeks. If the Rays are teetering on .500, those last 14 games could send them below the mark for the first time since the 2007 season.
Considering the schedule imbalance and the likelihood that the strongest teams will feast on the weakened and battered late in September, the key to projecting the AL East race for five teams over .500 is to look at how each squad has fared outside the division thus far in 2013.
In the world of Bud Selig baseball, April and May are very much like September. In other words, divisional opponents square off regularly. From June through August, those tilts aren't quite as frequent. Thus, the five AL East contenders will spend a good deal of the next few months meeting teams from the AL Central, AL West and National League.
Here's how each of the five AL East teams have fared outside of the division thus far in 2013:
New York: 23-21
Tampa Bay: 21-14
The better these records are moving forward, the more likely the team is to enter September with a good shot of finishing with at least a .500 record. Thus far, the Rays and Blue Jays are winning the division race against non-divisional opponents. The New York Yankees are bringing up the rear.
Over the next few months, keep an eye on how these five teams, especially the streaking Jays and scuffling Yankees, fare against opponents outside the AL East. The actual head-to-head battles in September will likely decide the order of finish in this closely contested race, but the games against the Kansas Citys and Seattles of the AL will determine if the 2013 AL East can make history.
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