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Remember When the AL East was Good?

Larry Fleisher looks at what has gone wrong for the AL East as all five teams have gone from powerhouse to mediocre or worse.

Joe Girardi
Joe Girardi

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In theory the AL East should be the best division in baseball.

In Boston, there’s the defending champions. In New York, there’s the usual assortment of stars. In Baltimore, there’s a renewed offense. In Tampa Bay, there’s a team that usually finds a way no matter the payroll. In Toronto, there’s a few good hitters and a some good pitchers.

Eventually the five teams could emerge from the realm of mediocrity or underachievement but for now it’s not quite the AL Least but the AL Average as five teams are divided by five games in the standings.

For context, a year ago, the Yankees were 27-16 and up 10 games on the Blue Jays on this date. Two years ago, the Orioles were 27-14 and up by 7 1/2 games over the Red Sox. In 2011, Tampa Bay was 25-19 and led the Orioles by five games and four years ago, the difference between first and last on this date was 16 1/5 games.

In other words, five games between the five teams has never happened on this date since realignment took place in 1994 and that’s counting seasons that were 162 games. The last time the AL East was mediocre or below average from top to bottom was 1989 when the standings had the 19-19 Red Sox in front, followed by 19-20 Indians, the 19-21 Yankees, the 17-20 Orioles, the 16-23 Brewers, the 15-25 Blue Jays, and 14-24 Tigers.

So why after so many years of being a powerhouse at the top, has the division regressed? Like many things in the game, you can point to the injuries but then again that’s not the case for all the teams. While the Orioles and Red Sox have one player (Matt Wieters and Will Middlebrooks) on the DL, the Yankees have six, the Rays have five, and the Blue Jays have four.

The odd thing though is that even with six on the DL, including CC Sabathia and Carlos Beltran, the Yankees are in first place, having moved there by winning four of five from the Mets and Pirates. They might remain there this week with two games against the Cubs and four against the White Sox who put Jose Abreu on the DL.

The Orioles are next at 22-20 and have spent 14 days in first place, though they lost four of six to Detroit and Kansas City after winning eight of 11 against Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Houston.

The Blue Jays check in at 23-22 and have spent seven days in first place, though none since April 19. They have won 10 of their last 15 games after opening 13-17.

The Red Sox are next at 20-23  and have not been over .500 since April 3, which also represents the only time they’ve held first place. Last year many things seemed to go their way but so far little has gone right consistently.

The Rays bring up the rear and have spent eight days in first, but none since April 13 and, since Wil Myers hit an inside-the-park home run at Yankee Stadium on May 4, they have dropped nine of 13.

Run differential seems to play a part on this, the combined total of the five teams is a minus-43 with only Toronto having a positive differential (215-208). A year ago the combined run differential was a plus-49 with only Toronto having a negative differential.

That’s why it’s not surprising that Toronto is the only team that has totaled an above average run total, leading the league with 59 home runs. When you look at the league-wide numbers, it’s also easy to see how the Red Sox have not gotten into the flow of good baseball as their .244 average is third-worst in the league only ahead of Houston and Seattle.

Pitching is interesting in this division.

The Yankees lead the league in allowing 51 home runs but are right in the middle with a 4.07 ERA and also are tied with the Indians with 380 strikeouts.

The Blue Jays have allowed the second-most walks in the league which might account for their 4.38 ERA, the worst in the division.

However, beyond that, your search for answers lies in the 25-man rosters.

On the Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka is dominant at 6-0, meaning that the Yankees are 16-19 when he is not credited with the win. They have one .300 hitter, (Yangervis Solarte) and making do with a patchwork rotation that will be without Sabathia until July, hopes to get Michael Pineda back in June, and is dealing with a fading Hiroki Kuroda. The biggest positives for them have been in the bullpen where David Robertson has slotted in nicely as the successor to Mariano Rivera while getting good results from Adam Warren and Dellin Betances.

On the Orioles, their big hitters of Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Nelson Cruz are all hitting well but Chris Davis is not. Davis is at .231 with three home runs and 15 RBI after being at .322, 15, and 40 a year ago. Closing is the problem, though, as despite having 11 saves, Tommy Hunter has a 6.46 ERA with 23 hits in 15 1/3 innings. Hunter is taking over for Jim Johnson, who a year ago had 14 saves with a 3.98 ERA.

In Toronto, the best news seems to be that Jose Bautista is back to what he was before the 2012 wrist injury. So far Bautista is at .294 with 11 home runs and 30 RBI to go along with a .433 on-base percentage and and a .983 OPS.

In Boston, the issue is that some of the youngsters they were relying on aren’t coming through. Jackie Bradley Jr. was expected to slide into Jacoby Ellsbury‘s vacated spot but so far Bradley is hitting .205 with 43 strikeouts. Before getting hurt, Middlebrooks was hitting .197.

In Tampa Bay, the issues are that Desmond Jennings is hitting .242 while Myers is batting .243. David Price has been average at 4-4 with a 4.08 ERA.

Issues abound for all five teams and with that it seems the the only AL teams you can use the word powerhouse to describe reside in Detroit and Oakland.

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