The very flawed and wide open AL East

In case you haven’t noticed, the AL East is a dumpster fire this season. Here are the standings before we go any further:

AL East standings 050814

Yuck. All five teams are clustered together in mediocrity. Dan Syzmborski posted his updated ZiPS division projections yesterday based on what has already happened this year, and the system has the Blue Jays in last place at 80-82. It also has the other four AL East teams tied for first at 83-79. Keep in mind that’s not a prediction of what will happen, it’s just an estimate of each team’s talent level. Point is, the division is crazy close.

As we’ve seen the last few weeks, the Yankees are no doubt a flawed team. They need another starting pitcher and another infielder, and another bullpen arm wouldn’t hurt either. Playing better defense would help too. More than anything, they need players like Carlos Beltran, Derek Jeter, Brian McCann, and CC Sabathia to improve their performance going forward.

The Yankees are a flawed team and that’s okay because the other four AL East teams are flawed too. We’ve learned a lot these last five weeks. Here’s what we know about the division a little more than one month into the season.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Overall Batting: 94 wRC+ (17th in MLB) and 4.32 R/G (9th)
Overall Rotation: 4.42 ERA (24th) and 4.32 FIP (25th)
Overall Bullpen: 3.81 ERA (16th) and 4.38 FIP (27th)
Defensive Efficiency: .683 (29th)

Machado. (Presswire)
Machado. (Presswire)

The O’s went into the offseason needing a starter and they still need a starter. Ubaldo Jimenez (5.19 ERA and 4.83 FIP) has not worked out so far — turns out making a bunch of starts against the Astros, White Sox, and Twins late last year didn’t mean he had turned his career around — and the Miguel Gonzalez (5.28 ERA and 4.86 FIP) magic has finally worn off. Bud Norris, Chris Tillman, and Wei-Yin Chen are solid but nothing more. The middle relief unit is also a mess, though the trio of Tommy Hunter, Zach Britton, and Darren O’Day have been outstanding. The other four guys are the problem. Now that Manny Machado is back and Chris Davis (oblique) will soon come off the DL, Baltimore will out-hit many of their pitching problems this summer. That strategy can work, we saw the Yankees do it from 2005-07. They do lack high on-base players to fully capitalize on their power, however.

BOSTON RED SOX
Overall Batting: 100 wRC+ (13th) and 4.15 R/G (16th)
Overall Rotation: 3.85 ERA (15th) and 3.83 FIP (14th)
Overall Bullpen: 3.14 ERA (9th) and 2.91 FIP (3rd)
Defensive Efficiency: .693 (22nd)

On paper, the Red Sox are the most complete team in the division. They’re average or better in every phase of the game, including defensively now that Shane Victorino (hamstring) is off the DL and Jackie Bradley Jr. has replaced Grady Sizemore as the regular center fielder. Bradley and A.J. Pierzynski are the lineup weak spots, Edward Mujica and Craig Breslow the bullpen laggers, and Felix Doubront the rotation drain. Jake Peavy’s walk and homer problems suggest he might perform worse going forward as well (3.09 ERA and 5.07 FIP). Otherwise Boston has productive players in just about every roster spot, a deep farm system, and a pretty big wallet. If they need help, they can go out and get almost anyone they want. The Red Sox are not as good as they were last year, nor are they as bad as they were for the first few weeks of this season.

New York Yankees
Overall Batting: 101 wRC+ (12th) and 4.27 R/G (10th)
Overall Rotation: 4.27 ERA (22th) and 3.88 FIP (16th)
Overall Bullpen: 3.91 ERA (19th) and 3.52 FIP (12th)
Defensive Efficiency: .690 (25th)

Outside of Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees have not had another reliable starter all season. Maybe Hiroki Kuroda will be that guy after his very good start against the Angels earlier this week and maybe Michael Pineda will be another one when he returns from his shoulder muscle problem. The back of the bullpen has been excellent. The lineup is being held back because of several underperformers, specifically Beltran and McCann. The Yankees have a ton of money, it’s just a question of how willing ownership is to use it to add players at midseason. The farm system is improving but it still remains to be seen whether other teams want some of their prospects in trades. But you knew all that already.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Overall Batting: 108 wRC+ (7th) and 4.24 R/G (11th)
Overall Rotation: 4.44 ERA (25th) and 3.76 FIP (11th)
Overall Bullpen: 4.17 ERA (23rd) and 4.23 FIP (22nd)
Defensive Efficiency: .701 (18th)

For the first time in a long time, the Rays have serious pitching problems. Matt Moore is lost for the year with Tommy John surgery, and both Jeremy Hellickson (elbow) and Alex Cobb (oblique) are still weeks away from returning to the rotation. They’ve been stuck relying on Erik Bedard, Jake Odorizzi, and Cesar Ramos to make starts. Those guys wouldn’t be anywhere near their pitching staff the last couple of seasons. The offense is fine but the bullpen is weak because it’s been worked hard thanks to the shaky rotation, though replacing Heath Bell with Brad Boxberger will help somewhat. Unlike the other teams in the division, Tampa doesn’t really have the financial wherewithal (or the prospects, at this point) to go out and make a trade to improve their weakness. They’re just trying to get by until Hellickson and Cobb return, hoping they’ll be the difference makers.

Imagine Dioner Navarro being your biggest offseason move. (Abelimages/Getty)
Imagine Dioner Navarro being your biggest offseason move. (Abelimages/Getty)

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Overall Batting: 111 wRC+ (4th) and 4.88 R/G (5th)
Overall Rotation: 4.04 ERA (19th) and 3.75 FIP (10th)
Overall Bullpen: 4.94 ERA (27th) and 4.23 FIP (23rd)
Defensive Efficiency: .692 (24th)

You didn’t need the updated ZiPS projections to tell you Toronto is the weakest team in the division. They have a top heavy lineup with several black holes (second and third bases, in particular), one and a half starters (Mark Buehrle and Drew Hutchison, maybe R.A. Dickey on a good day), and a disaster of a bullpen. They gutted the farm system last offseason and are reportedly up against their payroll limit. Money is so tight that several players offered to deferred salary this winter if it helped the team sign then-free agent Ervin Santana. That blows my mind. In a division of flawed teams, the Jays have the most and biggest holes. That doesn’t mean they can’t make life miserable this season though. They’re always a pain.

* * *

The AL East has been the best division in baseball over the last 15 years or so, and I don’t even think it was close. At first it was just the Yankees and Red Sox, then the Rays got in on the fun, then two years ago the Orioles started making noise.

Instead of evolving into a division of powerhouses, it’s currently a division of mediocrity. It’s a collection of good but not great teams right now. The opportunity is there for any one of the five clubs to run away with the division but right now no one seems to want it. A blockbuster trade or unexpected development (like, say, a prospect coming up and having immediate impact) could decide the AL East.

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4/22-4/24 Series Preview: Boston Red Sox

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the second time in a little more than a week, the Yankees and Red Sox meet for what is sure to be a tense, time-consuming, over-hyped, and over-analyzed series. This time the scene shifts to Boston and Fenway Park. The Yankees won three of four from their rivals in the Bronx the weekend before last. This will be Jacoby Ellsbury‘s first trip back to Boston since signing with New York.

What Have They Done Lately?
Since these two teams last met, the Red Sox took two of three from the White Sox and split a four-game series with the Orioles. They are 9-11 with a -6 run differential overall, which currently has them in the AL East cellar. Little too early to start worrying about division standings, but that’s just me.

Offense
The BoSox were really struggling to score runs when they were in town a week and a half ago, but they scored six runs in each of their last two games and appear to be coming around offensively. They currently average 3.8 runs per game with a team 92 wRC+, both below-average marks. The Red Sox are currently without OF Shane Victorino (hamstring) and 3B Will Middlebrooks (calf), neither of whom is expected to return this series even though they are out on minor league rehab assignments.

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

As usual, manager John Farrell’s lineup is anchored by 2B Dustin Pedroia (95 wRC+) and DH David Ortiz (100 wRC+), both of whom are off to slow starts compared to their usual levels of production. 1B Mike Napoli (140 wRC+) has been the team’s best hitter, and the recently called up Brock Holt (173 wRC+) has taken over at third base and the leadoff spot. SS Xander Bogaerts is having a strong rookie campaign (123 wRC+) as well.

Platoon OF Jonny Gomes (98 wRC+) is seeing more playing time than he should, mostly because OF Daniel Nava (38 wRC+) has been awful. OF Jackie Bradley Jr. (82 wRC+) is starting to take playing time away from OF Grady Sizemore (80 wRC+). The catching platoon of C A.J. Pierzynski (61 wRC+) and C David Ross (125 wRC+) has been okay overall. IF Jonathan Herrera (55 wRC+) and 1B/OF Mike Carp (89 wRC+) fill out the bench. Obligatory it is still early and those numbers came from small samples reminder.

Pitching Matchups

Tuesday: RHP Masahiro Tanaka vs. LHP Jon Lester (Career vs. NYY) (Pitcher GIFs)
Lester, 30, has been as good as ever in 2014, just as he’s getting ready to test the free agent waters this coming offseason. He has a 2.17 ERA (2.39 FIP) in four starts and 29 innings, pairing excellent strikeout (9.00 K/9 and 25.7 K%) and walk (1.24 BB/9 and 3.5 BB%) rates with a strong ground ball rate (46.1%). Lester has crushed left-handed batters (.237 wOBA) and been slightly less successful against righties (.280 wOBA). A low-90s fastball and upper-80s cutter set up his mid-80s changeup and mid-70s curveball. Lester held the Yankees to two runs in 6 2/3 innings the weekend before last.

Rare photo of Lackey being uphappy about something. (Jim Rogash/Getty)
Rare photo of John Lackey being uphappy about something. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Wednesday: RHP Michael Pineda vs. RHP John Lackey (Career vs. NYY) (Pitcher GIFs)
One reason the Red Sox won the World Series last year was Lackey going from injured and awful to a reliable workhorse starter. The 35-year-old has a 5.25 ERA (4.74 FIP) in 24 innings and four starts so far, though his strikeout (8.63 K/9 and 22.1 K%) and walk (2.63 BB/9 and 6.7 BB%) numbers remain very good. He is very air ball prone (38.0% grounders), however, and righties have just mashed him (.416 wOBA). Lefties aren’t doing so bad either (.331 wOBA). Lackey throws both a low-90s fastball and a mid-80s cutter, and his upper-70s curveball remains his go-to pitch. He doesn’t throw a changeup anymore. The Yankees roughed Lackey up for six runs in 5.2 innings in their last series.

Thursday: LHP CC Sabathia vs. LHP Felix Doubront (Career vs. NYY) (Pitcher GIFs)
Doubront, 26, has a 5.48 ERA (4.30 FIP) in four starts and 21.1 innings this year, making him the clear weak link in Boston’s rotation. His strikeout rate (6.33 K/9 and 15.6 K%) has fallen quite a bit these last two years, but he still walks a bunch (3.80 BB/9 and 9.4 BB%) and his ground ball rate (44.3%) has remained static. Lefties has crushed him so far this year (.438 wOBA), but that’s a sample size problem. Righties have gotten him for a .309 wOBA. Doubront’s big breaking mid-70s curveball is his money pitch, and he’ll also throw low-90s heaters, mid-80s cutters, and some low-80s changeups to righties. The Yankees scored three runs in 6.2 innings against the southpaw in their last series.

Tazawa and Uehara. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)
Tazawa and Uehara. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)

Bullpen Status
The Orioles did the Yankees a real favor yesterday. Baltimore knocked Clay Buchholz out of the game in the third inning, forcing Farrell to get 6.2 innings out of his bullpen. RHP Burke Badenhop (4.31 FIP) threw 3.2 innings and 40 pitches, so he’ll be out of commission tonight. LHP Craig Breslow (2.48 FIP) threw two innings and 23 pitches, and could be limited tonight if he’s even available. LHP Andrew Miller (2.39 FIP) has pitched each of the last two days. Their lefty relievers have been worked hard these last few days.

Closer RHP Koji Uehara (0.36 FIP) recently returned from a little shoulder issue. He’s set up by RHP Junichi Tazawa (1.19 FIP) and occasionally RHP Edward Mujica (2.37 FIP). LHP Chris Capuano (1.48 FIP) has graduated from strict long relief work to more of a medium-to-high-leverage guy. All of them except Uehara pitched Sunday night. The Yankees had yesterday off and are in good shape bullpen-wise, especially since David Robertson was activated off the 15-day DL this morning. Check out our Bullpen Workload page for recent reliever usage details, then check out Over the Monster for the latest and greatest on the Red Sox.

4/10-4/13 Series Preview: Boston Red Sox

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees and Red Sox rekindle their rivalry tonight and this weekend with a four-game series at Yankee Stadium. As usual, expect the media coverage to be insane. It always is. The Red Sox have actually played quite well in the new Stadium, winning seven of ten games in the Bronx last season and 22 of 37 games since 2010. That’s annoying.

What Have They Done Lately?
Boston came from behind late to beat the Rangers yesterday afternoon, upping their record to 4-5 in the early going. Same record as the Yankees. The Sawx took two of three from Texas but before that they were swept at home by the Brewers. Can’t say I expected that to happen when the series started.

Offense
The Red Sox had a relentless offense last season, leading baseball with a team 115 wRC+ and an average of 5.27 runs per game. No other team was within a quarter of a run of that rate. This year as been a different story though, perhaps because Boston said goodbye to Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Stephen Drew this winter. They have a team 102 wRC+ so far in 2014, and are averaging just 3.89 runs per game. Injuries to OF Shane Victorino (119 wRC+ in 2013) and 3B Will Middlebrooks (83 wRC+ in 2013/122 wRC+ in 2014) haven’t helped either. Neither will return this series.

Bogaerts. (Rob Carr/Getty)
Bogaerts. (Rob Carr/Getty)

As usual, the Red Sox offense is led by 2B Dustin Pedroia (115/65) and DH David Ortiz (152/114). 1B Mike Napoli (129/160) does plenty of damage as well. OF Daniel Nava (128/-2) and OF Jonny Gomes (109/60) have been platooning at the leadoff spot recently, though they will typically stay in the lineup and bat lower in the order against same-side hitters. SS Xander Bogaerts (86/117) is a Rookie of the Year candidate and OF Grady Sizemore (183 wRC+ in 2014) is a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. Sizemore doesn’t play everyday though. He gets regular rest so he doesn’t break down.

1B/OF Mike Carp (139/90) was a force off the bench a year ago, but otherwise C A.J. Pierzynski (90/97), IF Jonathan Herrera (77/111), and IF Ryan Roberts (90/36) aren’t scaring anyone. Herrera and Roberts are platooning at third while Middlebrooks is out. OF Jackie Bradley Jr. (69/174) sees regular time in center and right fields. C David Ross (86/48) is the backup catcher and will usually start against lefties. It’s worth pointing out that other than Bradley, Boston’s outfield defense is a disaster. Among the worst in the game. Hit the ball in the air this weekend.

Pitching Matchups

Thursday: RHP Michael Pineda vs. RHP Clay Buchholz (Career vs. NYY) (Pitcher GIFs)
Not many pitchers leaving you wanting more than Buchholz. The 29-year-old pitched like an ace last season — 1.74 ERA (2.78 FIP), 7.98 K/9 (23.1 K%), 2.99 BB/9 (8.7 BB%), and 47.7% grounders — but he was only on the mound for 108.1 innings because of a neck problem. He has yet to throw 190 innings in a season and only twice has eclipsed even 110 innings. Buchholz has nasty stuff, but his fastball has been sitting mostly upper-80s since returning from the neck problem. Once upon a time it was regularly in the mid-90s. He also throws a mid-80s cutter, a low-80s changeup, and a mid-70s curveball. The changeup is his bread and butter and the reason why he has had just a tiny platoon split throughout his career. Buchholz allowed six runs on 13 hits in only 4.2 innings in his first starter, which is pretty terrible.

Lester. (Rob Carr/Getty)
Lester. (Rob Carr/Getty)

Friday: LHP CC Sabathia vs. LHP Jon Lester (Career vs. NYY) (Pitcher GIFs)
Lester, 30, turned back in the ace midway through last season and helped carry his club to the World Series title last fall. He had a 3.75 ERA (3.59 FIP) overall in 213.1 innings in 2013, pairing an okay strikeout rate (7.47 K/9 and 19.6 K%) with good walk (2.83 BB/9 and 7.8 BB%) and ground ball (45.0%) numbers. Lester pitched much better against same-side hitters, holding lefties to a .294 wOBA while righties got to him for a .317 mark. A low-90s fastball and upper-80s cutter are his top two weapons, which he’ll use to set up a mid-80s changeup and a mid-70s curveball. Lester allowed four runs (two earned) in 7.1 innings in his first start and two runs (both earned) in seven innings in his second start. He has faced the Yankees a ton over the years, but this is a different lineup. Lots of new faces.

Saturday: RHP Hiroki Kuroda vs. RHP John Lackey (Career vs. NYY) (Pitcher GIFs)
Lackey brought his career back from the dead last summer, returning from Tommy John surgery and two terrible years to become a rock solid mid-rotation workhorse. He had a 3.52 ERA (3.86 FIP) in 189.1 innings last year, with an excellent walk rate (1.90 BB/9 and 5.1 BB%) and good strikeout (7.65 K/9 and 20.7 K%) and ground ball (46.8%) rates. The 35-year-old also had a big reverse split, holding left-handed batters to a .290 wOBA while righties tagged him for a .331 wOBA. Lackey’s fastball sits in the low-90s these days, and he’ll also throw a mid-80s cutter. An upper-70s curveball is his trademark pitch. He rarely throws his changeup anymore, believe it or not. Lackey allowed one unearned run in seven innings in his first start and two earned runs in six innings his second time out.

Sunday: RHP Ivan Nova vs. LHP Felix Doubront (Career vs. NYY) (Pitcher GIFs)
Man, Doubront owned the Yankees back in 2012. He held them to seven earned runs in 25 innings across four starts, and I’m surprised they scored that much. He really seemed to have their number. Doubront, 26, pitched to a 4.32 ERA (3.78 FIP) in 162.1 innings last year, though his strikeout rate took a tumble to 7.71 K/9 (19.7 K%). It was 9.34 K/9 (23.6 K%) the year before. Doubront got some grounders (45.6%) though his walk rate (3.94 BB/9 and 10.1 BB%) was a bit too high. Righties (.336 wOBA) hit him quite a bit harder than lefties (.290 wOBA). Doubront lives off his big breaking mid-70s curveball, setting it up with low-90s heaters and mid-80s cutters. He’ll also throw low-80s changeups to righties. His first start of the season was okay (three runs in 5.1 innings), but his second one stunk (five runs in 2.2 innings).

Uehara. (Rob Carr/Getty)
Uehara. (Rob Carr/Getty)

Bullpen Status
RHP Koji Uehara (1.61 FIP in 2013/0.42 FIP in 2014) was arguably the best reliever in baseball last season and definitely the best in the second half. He was unhittable. RHP Junichi Tazawa (3.22/1.14) is his primary setup man right now, but I think LHP Craig Breslow (3.60 FIP in 2013) will see some late-inning time now that he’s just off the DL. Both Uehara and Tazawa pitched yesterday.

The middle relief crew is a little shaky right now, at least compared to last season. RHP Edward Mujica (3.71/2.79) still looks like the guy who lost the closer’s job with the Cardinals late in the season (15.43 ERA), and RHP Burke Badenhop (3.53/3.02) has been hit hard early this year (9.00 ERA). LHP Andrew Miller (3.05/3.22) is unpredictable and soft-tossing LHP Chris Capuano (3.55/0.72) is the long man. Mujica, Badenhop, and Miller have been lights out in the past, but that isn’t the case right now.

As for the Yankees, they’re without closer David Robertson, who will be on the DL for another eleven days at the very least. He can’t be activated until April 22nd. Check out our Bullpen Workload page for the recent reliever usage. Seems like Shawn Kelley will be unavailable tonight. For the latest and greatest on the Red Sox, Over the Monster is the place to go. There is a surprising shortage of quality Sawx blogs.

2014 Season Preview: The AL East

Over the last 15-20 years or so, no division has been as consistently tough as the AL East. The Yankees and Red Sox have dominated the top two spots, and in recent years both the Rays and Orioles have become more serious threats. The AL East has produced 15 of the 21 AL wildcard teams since the system was introduced in 1995, giving you an idea of how many great teams it’s housed. How is the division competition looking heading into 2014? Here’s a breakdown.

Ubaldo. (Presswire)
Ubaldo. (Presswire)

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Notable Additions: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, OF Nelson Cruz, RHP Ryan Webb, RHP Suk-Min Yoon, OF/DH Delmon Young
Notable Losses: RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Jason Hammel, RHP Jim Johnson, OF Nate McLouth

This isn’t a loss in the sense that he was on the team and now he’s not, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that third baseman Manny Machado will start the season on the DL following offseason knee surgery. He should return sometime in April.

The Orioles played the market well and landed both Jimenez and Cruz on favorable contracts. They sorely lacked an ace and while Ubaldo might be the most unpredictable pitcher in the game, he can be absolutely dominant for long stretches of time. Baltimore got a weak .245/.293/.405 (87 wRC+) batting line out of their DHs last season, so Cruz and even Young should help correct that problem. Between Cruz, Chris Davis, and Adam Jones, the O’s have three guys who could legitimately hit 30+ homers. They hit 24 more homeruns than any other team last season and added yet another power hitter this winter.

Even though Johnson always seems to blow games against the Yankees — he blew four of his last nine save chances against them and also took a loss after entering a tie game — the Orioles are worse off in the late innings without him. Webb is underrated and I’m sure Tommy Hunter will be fine in the ninth inning, but Johnson was a very good workhorse reliever and that will be missed. Baltimore is better than they were last season because of Jimenez and Cruz, though I’m not sure if they’re good enough to make a serious run at a wildcard spot. I guess it depends on how long Machado is out, which Jimenez shows up, and how the bullpen shakes out without Johnson.

BOSTON RED SOX
Notable Additions: RHP Burke Badenhop, LHP Chris Capuano, RHP Edward Mujica, C A.J. Pierzynski
Notable Losses: RHP Ryan Dempster, SS Stephen Drew, OF Jacoby Ellsbury, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia

I assume the Red Sox will not re-sign Drew at this point, which means they lost three key up-the-middle position players this winter. Grady Sizemore has had a great spring, but replacing Ellsbury with him is the poor man’s version of replacing Robinson Cano with Brian Roberts. Jackie Bradley Jr., last spring’s MVP, is the backup plan there. Pierzynski takes over for Salty, and rookie Xander Bogaerts will replace Drew. He’s a stud and appears poised to be a force for years to come.

Boston has earned some leeway after winning the World Series, but they lost a lot of good players this winter and are counting mostly on internal solutions to replace the lost production. That’s dicey, especially when talking about prospects. If Bogaerts or either of the center fielders don’t produce, the Sox will be left scrambling. Luckily for them, the pitching staff is deep and stalwarts like Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are still around to anchor the lineup. The Red Sox have a great farm system and a ton of money, so they have the wherewithal to address any needs at midseason. That said, they won the division by 5.5 games last year and the gap appears to have closed a bit.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Notable Additions: RHP Grant Balfour, RHP Heath Bell, C Ryan Hanigan
Notable Losses: RHP Roberto Hernandez, RHP Fernando Rodney, DH Luke Scott, RHP Jamey Wright

Old face, old place. (Presswire)
Old face, old place. (Presswire)

The Rays will be without Jeremy Hellickson for a few weeks following offseason elbow surgery. They still have David Price and Alex Cobb to front the rotation, but Matt Moore is having a real problem throwing strikes this spring. Like 15 walks in 14.1 innings problem. Chris Archer had a strong rookie season and rookie Jake Odorizzi will replace Hellickson for the time being. Tampa always seems to crank out quality young starters, but with Moore struggling and Odorizzi projecting as more of a back-end arm than anything else, their staff seems more vulnerable than it has been at any point in the last five of six years.

After getting great production from one-year gems like Casey Kotchman and Jeff Keppinger, the Rays doubled down on James Loney and re-signed him to a three-year, $21M contract this offseason. That is the largest free agent contract the team had handed out since the current ownership group took over in 2005. Full seasons of Wil Myers and David DeJesus should boost an offense — DeJesus isn’t great, but remember, he’s replacing Sam Fuld — that ranked third in baseball with a 108 wRC+ last summer. Going from Rodney and Wright to Balfour and Bell is probably an upgrade, especially in terms in 2014 performance. Rodney and Wright are 37 and 39, after all. Tampa improved this winter after winning 92 games a wildcard spot a year ago, so of course they’ll be right back in the thick of the race this year.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Notable Additions: C Dioner Navarro
Notable Losses: C J.P. Arencibia, OF Rajai Davis, RHP Josh Johnson

It’s unbelievable the Blue Jays did nothing this winter, isn’t it? They made all those moves last offseason and were such a colossal disappointment in 2013, yet nothing. They signed Navarro, who was nearly out of baseball three years ago. GM Alex Anthopoulos appeared to be playing the board a bit with the pitching market, presumably hoping to grab Jimenez or Ervin Santana on a cheap contract, but instead came up empty. The rotation includes the reliable Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey, the unpredictable Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ, and righty Drew Hutchison fresh off Tommy John surgery.

I guess the good news for Toronto is that their offense is dynamite, at least when healthy. Edwin Encarnacion might be the most unheralded great hitter in the game (82 BB, 66 XBH, 62 K in 2013) and Jose Bautista is still a force, so the middle of the order is set. Colby Rasmus has a ton of power and others like Melky Cabrera, Adam Lind, and Brett Lawrie will contribute from time to time. Jose Reyes is dynamic but also prone to injury, and sure enough an MRI revealed a minor hamstring strain just yesterday. He might not be ready for the start of the season. Ryan Goins, who is slated to be the regular second baseman, will move over to replace Reyes to short if need be. He might be the worst everyday player in baseball. In the conversation, at least. The Blue Jays are banking on health and steps forward from guys like Hutchison and Rasmus to improve the team, and even if they get that, they still might only be the fourth or fifth best team in the division.

* * *

On paper, I think you can argue the Yankees are anywhere from the best to fourth best team in the division. They’ve obviously upgraded but so have the Rays and Orioles, all while the Red Sox lost some key pieces. The top four teams in the division are more scrunched together this season, which means the race will be more tougher and more exciting deep into the season. Injuries and unexpected performances, both good and bad, will play an even bigger role in determining the AL East this summer. The division is again very good and there are four teams to be reckoned with. (Sorry, Blue Jays.)

9/13-9/15 Series Preview: Boston Red Sox

(Winslow Townson/Getty)
(Winslow Townson/Getty)

The Red Sox demolished the Yankees in Yankee Stadium last weekend, or at least they demolished their pitching staff. The Bombers had no answer for Boston’s lineup in the first three games. The rivalry moves to Fenway Park this weekend for three huge games. Huge for New York, that is.

What Have They Done Lately?
The Red Sox lost to the Rays yesterday but otherwise took two of three in Tampa. They’ve won eleven of their last 14 games and own the league’s best record and run differential at 89-59 and +167, respectively. Boston leads the AL East by seven games in the loss column and has the division all but wrapped up with a little more than two weeks to play.

Offense
At 5.2 runs per game with a team 113 wRC+, Boston is one of the very best hitting teams in all the land. They have a 136 wRC+ as a team over the last two weeks. That’s an entire lineup hitting almost like Robinson Cano (140 wRC+) for a two week period. Insane. The Red Sox are without their catalyst CF Jacoby Ellsbury (111 wRC+), who has a broken bone in his foot and hopes to return in time for the postseason. Here’s their only injured position player.

Napoli. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty)
Napoli. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty)

It seems like manager John Farrell has nothing but good hitters in his lineup, and that’s because he usually does. 2B Dustin Pedroia (112 wRC+), OF Shane Victorino (118 wRC+), DH David Ortiz (149 wRC+), 1B Mike Napoli (124 wRC+), OF Daniel Nava (128 wRC+), and SS Stephen Drew (103 wRC+) play pretty much everyday. C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (106 wRC+) catches regularly while OF Jonny Gomes (101 wRC+) subs in against left-handers. 3B Will Middlebrooks (91 wRC+) has been excellent for a few weeks now. That’s pretty much the regular lineup right there.

1B Mike Carp (152 wRC+ in limited time) has been a force off the bench and headlines the group of reserves. Backup C David Ross (82 wRC+ in limited time) usually plays against lefties and OF Jackie Bradley Jr. (58 wRC+) has seen more playing time with Ellsbury hurt. Top prospect IF Xander Bogaerts (106 wRC+ in very limited time) hasn’t played all that much since coming up last month. September call-ups C Ryan Lavarnway, IF John McDonald, UTIL Brandon Snyder, and pinch-runner OF Quintin Berry fill out the rest of the position player crop.

Starting Pitching Matchups

Friday: RHP Hiroki Kuroda vs. RHP John Lackey
Lackey, 34, is having his best season as a Red Sox (Sock?) thanks to his new elbow. He has a 3.48 ERA (3.72 FIP) in 26 starts with very good walk (1.98 BB/9 and 5.3 BB%) and ground ball (47.4%) rates. His strikeout (7.70 K/9 and 20.9 K%) and homer (1.13 HR/9 and 12.5% HR/FB) totals are just okay though. Lackey has thrown six different pitches this year but he leans heavily on three: his low-90s four-seamer, mid-80s cutter, and upper-70s curve. He’s thrown those pitches roughly 90% of the time combined. A low-90s two-seamer, mid-80s changeup, and mid-80s slider are rarely used fourth, fifth, and sixth offerings. Lackey has a big reverse split this year — lefties have a .290 wOBA against him while righties are at .341 — for whatever reason. That’s an outlier compared to the rest of his career. The Yankees scored seven runs against Lackey in 5.2 innings last weekend and still managed to lose.

Lester. (Winslow Townson/Getty)
Lester. (Winslow Townson/Getty)

Saturday: LHP CC Sabathia vs. LHP Jon Lester
The 29-year-old Lester has had a very up and down (and up again) season. He’s sitting on a 3.86 ERA (3.66 FIP) with strikeout (7.45 K/9 and 19.5 K%) and walk (2.84 BB/9 and 7.4 BB%) rates that are damn near identical his disaster season a year ago. His ground ball rate (43.9%) has dropped and yet he’s giving up significantly fewer homers (0.84 HR/9 and 8.4% HR/FB), which doesn’t really make sense considering his home ballpark. Lester’s four-seam fastball recently jumped back into the mid-90s and he’s shelved his upper-80s cutter. That was the pitch he fell in love with and got him into trouble. A low-90s sinker, mid-80s changeup, and mid-70s curveball round out his repertoire. Lester held New York to three runs in eight innings — the rare complete-game loss — last weekend. These two have seen each other plenty of times over the years. No surprises.

Sunday: RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Clay Buchholz
Buchholz, 28, just came off the DL after missing more than three months with a neck problem. He held the Rays scoreless for five innings in his first start back and has a stellar 1.61 ERA (2.40 FIP) in 13 games this season. His strikeout (8.76 K/9 and 25.4 K%) and ground ball (48.4%) rates are very good, his walk rate (3.02 BB/9 and 8.8 BB%) is pretty good, and his homer rate (0.20 HR/9 and 3.0% HR/FB) is off the charts. Unsustainably off the charts. Buchholz will rarely throw his low-90s two-seamer, instead preferring his low-to-mid-90s four-seamer and upper-80s cutter when setting up his knockout low-80s changeup. He’ll also throw upper-70s curveballs. The Yankees have seen Buchholz a bunch of times over the years including twice this year: one run in seven innings in April and five scoreless innings in June.

Workman. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)
Workman. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Bullpen Status
Farrell’s bullpen is in decent shape, though both closer RHP Koji Uehara (1.68 FIP) and RHP Junichi Tazawa (3.13 FIP) have pitched twice in the last three days. That could impact their availability at some point this weekend. Uehara has retired 34 straight batters and it would be neat if that streak ended this weekend. Actually, I’d rather not see him at all. RHP Brandon Workman (3.48 FIP) has become a trusted late-inning reliever but threw two innings on Wednesday. LHP Craig Breslow (3.74 FIP) is Farrell’s top southpaw. LHP Drake Britton (3.15 FIP in limited time), LHP Franklin Morales (4.93 FIP in limited time) and LHP Matt Thornton (4.07 FIP) make up the rest of the bullpen alongside September call-ups RHP Rubby De La Rosa and RHP Allen Webster.

Joe Girardi, on the other hand, has a tired and worn out bullpen. Mariano Rivera has pitched each of the last three days and four of the last five, throwing 84 total pitches since Sunday. Hard to believe he’ll be available tonight, but I said the same thing yesterday. David Robertson has appeared in back-to-back games after missing about a week with shoulder fatigue. Boone Logan is still unavailable because his elbow is barking. Shawn Kelley might be the closer and a bunch of call-ups might be the setup men tonight. Check out our Bullpen Workload page for a breakdown of the carnage, then check out Over The Monster for the latest and greatest on the Red Sox.

The Red Sox, Ivan Nova, and low fastballs

2012 is on the left, 2013 on the right.
Nova’s fastball location in 2012 (left) vs. 2013 (right).

Ivan Nova was a punching bag last season. I think that’s a fair way to put it. He allowed an MLB-high 87 extra-base hits despite only throwing the 83rd most innings (170.1) in baseball, and opponents tagged him for a .288/.349/.511 batting line. Nova turned every hitter he faced last summer into someone resembling 2010 Nick Swisher (.288/.359/.511). He was terrible.

Things have been much different this year, particularly of late. Nova was just named the AL Pitcher of the Month for August and has a 2.06 ERA in 74.1 innings and ten starts since officially rejoining the rotation in July. Opponents have hit .224/.297/.294 against him during those ten starts, which is slightly better than 2013 Chris Stewart (.215/.288/.280). He’s been a rotation godsend.

As David Golebiewski at Baseball Analytics showed today, Nova’s success this year stems from his ability to keep his fastball down. Scrapping his slider in favor of a curveball helped as well, but keeping the fastball down — the heat maps above show how much his location has improved — has been crucial in limiting extra-base hits. Opponents slugged .597 (!) off his heater in 2012, but this year that sits at just .397. The league average for starting pitchers is .443, according to Golebiewski.

The Red Sox are one of the better low fastball hitting teams in the baseball — slugging an MLB-best .505 against low heaters according to Golebiewski — so the key for Nova in tonight’s start is going to be that curveball. Breaking out his rarely used changeup and possibly showing some sliders as a change of pace pitch could be in order as well. Nova is excelling because he’s keeping his fastball down and the Red Sox are mashing because they hit those low fastballs. The Yankees will have to adjust accordingly in tonight’s opener.

9/5-9/8 Series Preview: Boston Red Sox

Things got a little out of hand in Boston last night. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)
Things got a little out of hand in Boston last night. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)

Even though the Yankees don’t have much of a chance of catching the Red Sox for the top spot in the AL East, this is a hugely important series for New York’s playoff chances. They’re no longer in direct competition with Boston for a postseason berth, but they are in desperate need of every win possible. Once again, this is the biggest series of the year. At least until the next one.

What Have They Done Lately?
The Red Sox absolutely clobbered the Tigers yesterday. Like 20-4 with a franchise record-tying eight homeruns clobbered. Boston took two of three from the defending AL champs and have won nine of their last eleven games overall. They sit atop the division at 84-57 with a +154 run differential, both the best marks in the league. The Yankees are seven games back of the Sawx in the loss column.

Offense
At 5.1 runs per game with a team 112 wRC+, the Red Sox have the best offensive team in baseball. That’s kinda scary considering how shaky the non-Ivan Nova/first 85 pitches of Andy Pettitte part of the rotation has been recently. OF Jacoby Ellsbury (110 wRC+) and C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (108 wRC+) are both dealing with nagging injuries and are listed as day-to-day, but they’ll play tonight. Don’t worry.

Ellsbury. (Jim Rogash/Getty)
Ellsbury. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Behind Ellsbury, manager John Farrell has the highly productive trio of OF Shane Victorino (116 wRC+), 2B Dustin Pedroia (114 wRC+), and DH David Ortiz (153 wRC+). Victorino recently abandoned switch-hitting and bats from the right side exclusively now. OF Jonny Gomes (102 wRC+) has been very productive of late as well. 1B Mike Napoli (115 wRC+) has been hot and cold, ditto SS Stephen Drew (108 wRC+) and OF Daniel Nava (129 wRC+). 3B Will Middlebrooks (84 wRC+) has been pretty good since returning from the minors a few weeks ago.

1B/OF Mike Carp (141 wRC+in part-time duty) has been a force off the bench for Farrell. The team is also carrying top prospect IF Xander Bogaerts (85 wRC+ in very limited time) and they recently welcomed back backup C David Ross (84 wRC+ in limited time) from a concussion. Their crop of call-ups and extra bodies includes OF Quintin Berry, C Ryan Lavarnway, IF John McDonald, and UTIL Brandon Snyder. I wouldn’t worry about those guys too much. Expect the Red Sox to rely on their regulars heavily this weekend in an effort to clinch the division and bury their oldest historic rival.

Starting Pitching Matchups

Thursday: RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Jake Peavy
The Red Sox went out and upgraded their rotation at the trade deadline by acquiring the 33-year-old Peavy in a three-team deal. He’s pitched to a 3.91 ERA (3.92 FIP) in 19 starts this year while missing more than a month with a fracture in his ribcage. His strikeout (7.52 K/9 and 20.9 K%) and walk (1.73 BB/9 and 4.8 BB%) rates are in line with the last few years but his homer (1.35 HR/9 and 11.0% HR/FB) and ground ball (34.0%) numbers are career worsts by a decent margin. Peavy is a fastball-heavy six-pitch pitcher, using his low-90s four-seamer, low-90s two-seamer, and upper-80s cutter about 75% of the time. A low-80s changeup is his top offspeed pitch, and he’ll also throw upper-70s curveballs and low-80s sliders. His platoon split is relatively small thanks to the changeup. Peavy actually made his big league debut against the Yankees back in 2002, but otherwise he hasn’t faced them very much by virtue of being in the NL and/or injured.

Doubront. (Jim Rogash/Getty)
Doubront. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Friday: LHP Andy Pettitte vs. LHP Felix Doubront
Doubront, 25, has taken some steps forward this year and owns a 3.89 ERA (3.52 FIP) in 25 starts (and one relief appearance). Almost all of his improvement stems from cutting his homerun rate in half — he went from a 1.34 HR/9 (15.9% HR/FB) last year to a 0.66 HR/9 (7.4% HR/FB) this year. His true talent level is probably somewhere in between given his home ballpark and the other hitter friendly parks in the division. Doubront’s walk (3.59 BB/9 and 9.3 BB%) and ground ball (46.5%) rates have improved slightly but his strikeout rate (7.96 K/9 and 20.5 K%) has dropped off big time from 2012. He uses four pitches regularly, including a mid-80s changeup that seems to give the Yankees fits. He sets that and his mid-70s curveball up with low-90s two and four-seamers. A mid-80s cutter is an infrequently used fifth offering. His platoon split is small. Doubront has pitched very well against the Yankees these last few years, but they did rough him up for seven runs in four innings last month.

Saturday: LHP David Huff vs. RHP John Lackey
Thanks to his brand new elbow, Lackey is having his best season since before signing with Boston. The 34-year-old has a 3.22 ERA (3.73 FIP) in 25 starts with very good walk (1.89 BB/9 and 5.1 BB%) and ground ball (47.1%) rates. His strikeout (7.71 K/9 and 20.9 K%) and homer (1.16 HR/9 and 12.7% HR/FB) totals are worse than what you’d like to see. Lackey has thrown six different pitches this year but he leans heavily on three: his low-90s four-seamer, mid-80s cutter, and upper-70s curve. He’s thrown those pitches more than 90% of the time combined. A low-90s two-seamer, mid-80s changeup, and mid-80s slider are rarely used fourth through sixth offerings. For whatever reason, Lackey has a big reverse split this year — lefties have a .282 wOBA against him while righties are at .344 — that doesn’t jibe with the rest of his career. The Yankees have faced the big right-hander a bunch of times over the years and have one good game (four runs in 6.1 innings) and one bad game (one run in 6.2 innings) against him in two meetings this year.

Sunday: RHP Hiroki Kuroda vs. LHP Jon Lester
I’m not sure what to make of the 29-year-old Lester anymore. He started this season very well, was terrible for a good portion of the summer, but has been awesome of late. He’s sitting on a 3.88 ERA (3.70 FIP) with strikeout (7.48 K/9 and 19.6 K%) and walk (2.91 BB/9 and 7.6 BB%) rates that are damn near identical his disaster season a year ago. His ground ball rate (44.2%) has dropped and yet he’s giving up significantly fewer homers (0.87 HR/9 and 8.9% HR/FB). Furthermore, Lester’s four-seam fastball recently jumped back into the mid-90s and he’s begun to shelve his upper-80s cutter. A low-90s sinker, mid-80s changeup, and mid-70s curveball round out his repertoire. The Yankees have seen Lester plenty of times over the years and know everything there is to know about him. No surprises here.

Koji. (Winslow Townson/Getty)
Koji. (Winslow Townson/Getty)

Bullpen Status
Thanks to yesterday’s laugher, the Red Sox were able to rest all of their important late-game relievers and come into this series in good bullpen shape. Closer RHP Koji Uehara (1.83 FIP) has been untouchable for about two months now, but he doesn’t really have a set setup man. RHP Junichi Tazawa (3.15 FIP), LHP Craig Breslow (3.69 FIP), RHP Brandon Workman (3.38 FIP), and LHP Matt Thornton (4.00 FIP) all rotate in and out of the role depending on who’s pitching well at the time. LHP Drake Britton (2.80 FIP in limited time), RHP Rubby De La Rosa (7.54 FIP in very limited time), and LHP Franklin Morales (4.65 FIP in limited time) round out the eight-man bullpen.

Even though the Yankees had to use both Mariano Rivera and David Robertson yesterday, their bullpen is still in very good shape heading into tonight’s series opener. Those two have actually had a surprising amount of time off recently. Thanks to the expanded rosters, Joe Girardi has a whopping eleven relievers at his disposal. I’m guess we’ll see all eleven at some point this weekend. Check out our Bullpen Workload page for details and Over The Monster for the latest and greatest on the Red Sox.