How Dangerous Is AL East's Red Sox-Blue Jays-Orioles Trio?

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterAugust 25, 2016

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 04:  Dustin Pedroia #15 of the Boston Red Sox looks on after turning a double play as Russell Martin #55 of the Toronto Blue jays looks on in the eighth inning during the game at Fenway Park on June 4, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The American League East doesn't get enough respect.

Stop yelling back at your computer (or phone or iPad) for a minute and work with me on this.

You've heard plenty this summer about the Chicago Cubs, much of it deserved. You've heard about the surprising Los Angeles Dodgers and the stumbling San Francisco Giants. You've heard about the Texas Rangers and the Washington Nationals.

But when you hear about the three teams doing their summer-long dance atop the AL East, what you mostly hear is how flawed they are.

"We're a team where people find things to pick on us," Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones recently complained to Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun. "We're not doing this well, we're not doing that well. What are we doing well? I'm just saying, it's always something."

Head to Massachusetts, where every other week someone seems to want to fire Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell. Or to Canada, where as recently as Monday Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was the local critics' favorite target.

That's the Blue Jays who over the last eight weeks have the best winning percentage in the American League (.609) and the Red Sox who over the same span have the second-best winning percentage (.604) and are tied with the Blue Jays for first place.

The Orioles are in third place, one game out on 70 wins, and after three straight wins over the Nationals, they hold the second wild-card spot.

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The Orioles will need to survive the loss of Chris Tillman, who held the rotation together before going on the disabled list this week.
The Orioles will need to survive the loss of Chris Tillman, who held the rotation together before going on the disabled list this week.Gail Burton/Associated Press

With apologies to Jones, we'll spend a little time here picking on where the Orioles are lacking: starting pitching, particularly with the team announcing it has placed Chris Tillman on the disabled list. We won't blame everything on Farrell or Gibbons, but we will point out the Red Sox's big flaw (middle relief) and the Blue Jays' weaknesses (inconsistent offense, possibly overextended starting pitching).

First, it's worth pointing out that these are three very good teams, three teams with outstanding lineups and three teams with every chance to win in October. Those records since late June show it, and so do the head-to-head records between the three new Beasts of the East and the other teams holding playoff positions.

Put them together and take out their records against each other, and the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Orioles are a combined 36-25 against the playoff teams from the other five divisions. As limited a sample as that is, it's still evidence these three shouldn't be ignored when looking for a World Series favorite.

But which of the three would it be?

There's no easy answer. When I asked one scout who follows the AL East closely which team will win the division, he first went with the Blue Jays. Five minutes later, he had talked himself into switching to the Red Sox.

"The talent Boston has on the field is really exciting," said the scout, who works for a National League team. "But I still think it's going to come down to the last week."

Let's hope so for drama's sake. That final week of the season has the Blue Jays hosting the Orioles and then heading to Fenway Park to close out the regular season against the Red Sox (while Baltimore is up against the dangerous New York Yankees).

By then, perhaps the Red Sox will have figured out the seventh and eighth innings. Maybe Clay Buchholz can be the answer, as both Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald and Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe suggested. Maybe the Red Sox will take a flier on Greg Holland, the one-time Kansas City Royals closer (and free agent) who is already throwing off the mound in his comeback from Tommy John surgery.

Clay Buchholz has a 1.46 ERA over his last two starts, leading people in Boston to wonder if he could save the bullpen.
Clay Buchholz has a 1.46 ERA over his last two starts, leading people in Boston to wonder if he could save the bullpen.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

The middle of the bullpen is the Red Sox's one remaining huge flaw now the kids have settled the lineup issues, David Ortiz has overcome age questions and David Price's rebound (3.17 ERA over his last 20 starts, 2.36 over his last six) has sparked an overall rotation improvement.

The Red Sox will also need to maneuver through two more three-city road trips, including one to the West Coast. Given their 33-28 road record and the way they've handled their ongoing four-city trip—7-3 going into Thursday afternoon's finale with the Tampa Bay Rays—the schedule may not be a problem.

The Blue Jays have a similar road record (34-28) and a rotation that has been more consistent this season. In fact, the Jays are the only one of the three AL East contenders to rank in the top half of MLB teams in overall ERA.

The bullpen could be a question, and so could health (Jose Bautista will return from the disabled list as a designated hitter), but the biggest issue for the Blue Jays could be that three of their starting pitchers are nearing career highs in innings pitched. The Jays have gone with a six-man rotation and optioned ace Aaron Sanchez to the minor leagues as he skips a start, but the workload could be a concern.

And the Orioles?

With more apologies to Jones, it's easier to find things to pick on with them. Even with Tillman, their rotation has easily the highest ERA (4.92) and fewest innings pitched (684.1) of the three contenders. Now Tillman (15-5, 3.76) is on the DL with shoulder bursitis, and Ubaldo Jimenez (5-9, 6.72 as a starter this year) will go in his place Thursday night in Washington.

Only two teams have made the playoffs with under 900 innings from starting pitchers in a non-strike season. The Orioles are on pace for 880.

Only six teams have made it to October with a rotation ERA over 5.00, all between 1995 and 2001. The Orioles are just under that mark.

In Zach Britton, they have a closer in the midst of a historic season. In Buck Showalter, they have the best manager in the division, a man who can work a bullpen.

In Mark Trumbo, they have the AL home run leader (38). In Manny Machado, they may have the division's best overall player.

In October, they'd have a chance, and it's more than possible they'll join the Blue Jays and Red Sox with a chance to prove it. Heading into Wednesday, the Orioles were two games ahead in the race for the second wild-card spot, with the Red Sox and Jays tied for both the top spot and the AL East lead.

The arguments will go on. The search for flaws will continue.

For one of these three teams, it could continue all the way into November.

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Advanced stats courtesy Baseball-Reference.com.

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