'Vaunted' AL East Not Shaping Up as Expected so Far in 2014

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterMay 14, 2014

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Remember when the American League East was the best division in Major League Baseball?

Heck, just last season, four of the five teams finished above .500—by a whopping eight games or more, to boot—a feat no other division could match. And, of course, the Boston Red Sox went on to win the World Series.

Back in January, after the majority of the offseason's biggest transactions had happened, yours truly ranked all six divisions based on talent heading into 2014. Not surprisingly, the vaunted AL East came out on top.

Now, a little more than four months later, it's a heck of a lot harder to make the same claim.

All five clubs are struggling for one reason or another. In fact, through Wednesday and with the middle of May upon us, the inverse of the 2013 turnout is true: Only one of the five AL East teams is over .500.

To that end, the AL East is the only division among the six in MLB without more than one team in the black when it comes to run differential:

AL East Run Differentials By Team
Red Sox19-19160166-6
Blue Jays20-20199183+16

Run differential isn't the be-all, end-all statistic, but the name of the game, obviously, is for teams to score more runs than they allow. If nothing else, this proves that these five are having quite a bit of trouble accomplishing as much.

Let's take a quick team-by-team run through the division, based on the current standings, to better explain why, exactly, so much more has been going wrong than right so far.

Baltimore Orioles

The O's don't feel like they belong in first place, right? But yet, here they are sitting atop the East. Somehow.

A lineup that was expected to be among the very best in baseball after leading the sport with 212 home runs in 2013 and then adding Nelson Cruz late in the offseason has been merely so-so. In part because of injuries to wunderkind Manny Machado, reigning home run champ Chris Davis and most recently Matt Wieters, Baltimore is in the bottom half in both runs scored (150) and homers (32) through its first 37 games.

With Manny Machado and Chris Davis back, the O's lineup could take off.
With Manny Machado and Chris Davis back, the O's lineup could take off.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

The pitching has been a similar story, as the staff rates below average in ERA (4.07) and WHIP (1.42). That's personified by Ubaldo Jimenez, the team's top free-agent acquisition. While he has been better of late, the right-hander is still as inconsistent and enigmatic as ever. And yet, a case could be made that Jimenez's start is the best of the O's rotation.

The bullpen? Well, closer Tommy Hunter already has mishandled three of his 14 save opportunities—including a brutal blowup Tuesday in which he allowed back-to-back homers to Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez in a 4-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers—and is sporting an ERA of 6.60. There is no clear second option, either, unless you want to argue that submarining righty Darren O'Day should be entrusted to try to get out lefties in the ninth.

Ultimately, Baltimore will need to bash its way to the top of this division and perhaps add another starter somewhere along the way. Maybe top prospect Kevin Gausman, the No. 4 overall pick in 2012 who is expected to be promoted to start Wednesday, per Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com, can provide a lift. 

Boston Red Sox

While Hunter and the Orioles were busy imploding Tuesday night, the Red Sox were suffering their own gut-punch defeat in losing 6-4 to the Minnesota Twins on a walk-off two-run shot by, of all people, Chris Parmelee.

Now 19-19, the reigning champs have looked downright average across the board. While David Ortiz bashed his eighth and ninth homers in the loss, the usually formidable offense hasn't been clicking overall. That tends to happen when a club chooses to rely on a pair of promising-but-inexperienced rookies in shortstop Xander Bogaerts and center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr.

The pitching has been a bit better, thanks mainly to closer Koji Uehara and the bullpen. But aside from left-hander Jon Lester and righty John Lackey, the five-man rotation features two starters (Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront) with ERAs north of 5.00.

If the Red Sox are to turn things around, the arms will be the key, as manager John Farrell told Ricky Doyle of NESN earlier in the season:

It's got to be led by our starters. That's where, to me, any continuity and consistency can originate from; it's that group. And that's not to place added pressure on them. That's just to say that in past years and situations or stretches of games where you see it like this, it has to come from the starting rotation to set the tone.

New York Yankees

Well, the Yankees are in injury hell. Again. In 2013, the team lost practically every big name for some or most of the season, from Derek Jeter to Mark Teixeira to Curtis Granderson to Alex Rodriguez (remember him?).

This time around, the pitchers have been hit harder, with three-fifths of the rotation—CC Sabathia (knee), Michael Pineda (shoulder) and Ivan Nova (elbow)—currently on the disabled list. Nova is out for the year after Tommy John surgery. While Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka has proven to be the real deal (5-0, 2.57 ERA, 1.00 WHIP), the Yankees are being forced to give starts to the likes of Vidal Nuno—who lost Tuesday's 12-7 blowout to the New York Mets—and someone named Chase Whitley, who will make his MLB debut Thursday:

New closer David Robertson missed two weeks early on, and after replacing Robertson in the ninth, fellow righty Shawn Kelley went ahead and replaced him on the disabled list this week.

That's not to say that the position players aren't dealing with their share of ailments, too. Teixeira lost time with a balky hamstring in April, and now Carlos Beltran is hoping to avoid surgery to fix a bone spur in his right elbow, according to Erik Boland of Newsday.

This was already an aging club last season. Add another year onto that, and maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise to see this happening all over again. 

Toronto Blue Jays

On the bright side, hey, Toronto is the only team with a positive run differential, as noted above.

The Jays also have one of MLB's highest-scoring offenses, ranking third in runs at 199 and second in homers with 53, thanks to returns to health from slugger Jose Bautista (10 homers) and fellow outfielder Melky Cabrera (.329 average). 

On the downside? Well, Toronto's dealing with its own injury and pitching woes, too.

Shortstop Jose Reyes has yet to get untracked (.288 OBP) after spending two weeks on the DL in April with yet another hamstring injury. And closer Casey Janssen—who notched his first save in Tuesday's 5-4 nail-biter over the Cleveland Indians—only just made his 2014 debut to try to help stabilize one of the worst bullpens in baseball (4.86 ERA, second-highest).

As for the rotation, hot-starting Mark Buehrle has been a godsend as the first seven-game winner in baseball, but other than him, not a single Toronto starter has an ERA under Drew Hutchison's 4.37.

The first six weeks of 2014 have gone a whole lot better than they did in 2013—despite high expectations, Toronto was just 16-24 at this time last year—but it's fair to wonder if a team that hasn't finished better than fourth in the AL East since 2007 actually can win it.

Tampa Bay Rays

Sadly so far, the Rays are the most disappointing team in what has been the sport's most disappointing division. Even after a 2-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday, fueled by David Price's complete-game gem and an inspiring ninth-inning comeback, Tampa Bay is just 17-23—the fifth-worst record in the majors.

While Price was dynamite on this particular night, he's been inconsistent at best otherwise (4.02 ERA), and the rest of the Rays' five-man rotation is in shambles. Injuries have taken out right-handers Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson for most of the first half, and southpaw Matt Moore made all of two starts before his season came to an end following TJ surgery. Second-year starter Chris Archer is healthy, apparently, but lost (5.16 ERA).

Chris Archer isn't the Rays' only second-year player who's been struggling.
Chris Archer isn't the Rays' only second-year player who's been struggling.Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Oddly, Tampa Bay's lineup has been the team's strength, ranking 11th in both runs scored and OPS to date. Still, secondary players like David DeJesus (.863 OPS), Matt Joyce (.827) and James Loney (.803) have been the best batters. The club is waiting on cornerstone position players Evan Longoria (.734) and Wil Myers (.691)—who beat out Archer to win Rookie of the Year in 2013—to get going.

While that's likely to happen, the Rays may have too many injuries and issues on the mound for any offensive outbursts to matter much.


The Bottom Line

The AL East remains a division loaded with talent, and because of that—as well as how strong this batch of teams was just last season—none of the clubs should be overlooked or underestimated. Only six weeks in, it's too early to draw any definitive conclusions.

And yet, that can be spun the other way, too. As in, only six weeks in and already there are very real issues, problems and concerns that each club has been dealing with and will need to address in order to help the division as a whole regain its "vaunted" qualifier.

Otherwise, it won't be long before that adjective gets attached to a division other than the AL East.

Statistics come from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, except where otherwise noted. Statistics and records current through games played on May 13.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11


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