The most exciting division in Major League Baseball is competitive once again in 2021, so every week we will take a look at how the division race is shaping up. The five teams in the AL East are split between winning and losing streaks at the moment, which has led to an increasing lead for the Rays with the Red Sox holding steady, while the Yankees and Blue Jays are falling behind.
First Place: Tampa Bay Rays (35-20)
The Rays have shot up to the best record in the Major Leagues by winning 16 of their last 17 games. The only loss was a tight 2-1 contest to the Kansas City Royals last Tuesday, but since then they have won five in a row. Their 22 wins in May is a team record for wins in a month.
What has changed recently for the ragtag team is that they are scoring a lot of runs. The Rays are known for their pitching, but they are averaging seven runs over their last 17 games. C Mike Zunino and OF Austin Meadows have both rebounded somewhat from down 2020 seasons with each hitting 12 home runs up to this point. Meadows has three home runs and seven hits in the last week. INF Joey Wendle has been their a breakout star with an OPS of .884, well above his career OPS of .755. Playoff folk hero Brett Phillips has picked it up, as well, in limited playing time, with three home runs while his career season high is only four.
The pitching in Tampa has not been overshadowed, though, as their team ERA of 3.38 is seventh-best in the Majors, and in the last seven days their ERA is down to a sparkling 1.80. CY Young candidate Tyler Glasnow is pitching better than ever right now with a 2.57 ERA and 0.93 WHIP. His last start might have been the best of his career, striking out 11 batters over eight shutout innings in a walk-off win over the Royals. After four awful starts to begin the 2021 season, Rich Hill has greatly rebounded with five strong outings in his last starts. He threw five scoreless on Memorial Day to beat the Yankees. The bullpen is still the key for the Rays, with a collective ERA of 3.46 and 22 relief wins, tied for the most in the Majors. The supporting cast of Andrew Kittredge, Diego Castillo, Ryan Thompson, and Pete Fairbanks have picked up the slack for an injured Nick Anderson. Even with a large group, trade acquisition J.P. Feyereisen has paid early dividends by recording three saves since arriving form Milwaukee.
Second Place: Boston Red Sox (32-21, 2 games back)
One of the pleasant surprises in baseball so far, the Red Sox have dropped out of first place but are still playing well overall. Their blowout loss to the Houston Astros on Monday does not negate a 5-2 stretch against NL East teams, capping off with two rainy wins over the Miami Marlins.
The main concern at the moment for the Red Sox is Eduardo Rodriguez after he gave up six earned runs at Minute Maid Park. After starting off strong coming back from a serious heart condition called myocarditis, he has lost his last four starts and his ERA has ballooned over five. Thankfully their ace does not have to carry the team on his back as other have stepped up. SS Xander Bogaerts has turned into a superstar, although he is currently in a slump, and DH J.D. Martinez is back to his old self with the return of in-game video. Nathan Eovaldi has been reliable and only given up one home run, while Nick Pivetta has solidified his spot in the rotation with a 3.86 ERA. Plus, Matt Barnes is suddenly the best closer in the league with 12 saves and a miniscule 0.67 WHIP.
Beyond holdover improvements, the main reason the Red Sox are succeeding is because their offseason additions have stepped up. Hirokazu Sawamura and Adam Ottavino are providing much-needed help to the bullpen, and #0 put up a big zero Saturday by escaping the bases loaded against the Marlins. In the field, RF Hunter Renfroe is playing Gold Glove-caliber defense with five assists, and his offensive line is up to average recently, a great improvement from 2020. Marwin Gonzalez and Enrique Hernandez have been below-average at the plate, but their super-utility roles have given Manager Alex Cora some breathing room to rest players more often. 1B Bobby Dalbec and OF Franchy Cordero are not living up to their potential, but INF’s Christian Arroyo and Michael Chavis have hit much more than expected, both with OPS’s over .700. If the Red Sox start to slip further in the standings, look for them to upgrade the lineup with more proven hitters.
Third Place: New York Yankees (29-25, 5.5 games back)
The Yankees finally started to play like the team everyone expected to see, but now they have the fanbase up in arms again. After Monday’s loss, the Bronx Bombers have lost four straight games and six of their last seven, including an inexcusable sweep at the hands of the last-place Detroit Tigers.
The losing streak follows the bad news that SP Corey Kluber is out for at least 6-8 weeks with an arm injury, an unsurprising but still sad development following his no-hitter. The Yankees are healthier overall with DH Giancarlo Stanton and 1B Luke Voit back in the lineup, but they have to produce for their health to matter. Except for Stanton and RF Aaron Judge, the stars are not putting up big numbers. C Gary Sanchez and SS Gleyber Torres have plateaued offensively, and they plateaued on defense two years ago. What is more suprising is that 3B Gio Urshela and INF D.J. LeMahieu have been merely average instead of well above it.
Unlike the lineup, the rotation has performed as expected. Gerrit Cole is still one of the best pitchers around with a 1.78 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 70 innings. Beyond him, though, is tough to look at. Kluber was great before the injury, but Jameson Taillon, their other offseason acquisition, is not working out. Domingo German has pitched well coming back from his domestic violence suspension, but Jordan Montgomery has been very inconsistent. The bullpen is back to the top of the league with an ERA of 2.82 (third-best) led by a resurgent Aroldis Chapman, but the unit will burn out soon enough if the rotation does not stabilize. The Yankees badly need help from rookies Nick Nelson, Michael King, and Deivi Garcia.
Fourth Place: Toronto Blue Jays (27-25, 6.5 games back)
The Blue Jays are getting set to move from Dunedin to Buffalo, and they should be happy about that. They went a mediocre 10-11 at their Spring Training site, but last season they were an outstanding 17-9 at their AAA park. Balls fly out in Dunedin, but that has hurt the Blue Jays as much as it has helped them. The more neutral Sahlen Field will benefit their flyball pitchers and powerful lineup.
The Jays are a talented team, but their low-ceiling pitching staff is preventing them from making a surge. They are 4-2 over their last six games because they are pitching better, but a middle-of-the-pack rotation ERA is not going to cut it in such a tough division. Hyun Jin Ryu is a Cy Young candidate once again, but no one else on the team can match him. Robbie Ray is having a bounce back season, but Ross Stripling, Steven Matz, and Anthony Kay round out the group along with a number of other spot starters. A rotation composed of swingmen is not an effective strategy over a full season. The good news is that they called up top prospect Alek Manoah, and he pitched a gem against the Yankees in his debut.
The lineup, of course, is what keeps the Blue Jays in games. 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has finally become the superstar we wanted to see as a prospect, and he is making the highlights every night and chasing a home run title. 2B Marcus Semien is turning his contract into a bargain for Toronto by returning to his 2019 form and earning a bigger payday this coming offseason. The disappointment for the Jays, though, is that CF George Springer has barely played due to an injury, so they will get a boost soon enough. SS Bo Bichette and OF Lourdes Gurriel Jr. could use one. OF Randal Grichuk has taken advantage of the opportunity to play every day, and his OPS is over 1.200 in the past week. If INF Joe Panik can keep hitting, then they do not need 3B Cavan Biggio to contribute with his bat. The Blue Jays have a ways to go, but they will stay in the race the whole season.
Fifth Place: Baltimore Orioles (17-37, 17.5 games back)
What happened to the Orioles? The Birds improved to 15-16 after John Means’ near-perfect no-hitter, but they have collapsed since then. They are in the midst of a 2-21 stretch, including an active 14-game losing streak. Everything that was better than expected in April has been way worse than expected in May.
The offense has a combined OPS of just .678, but the real issue is their lack of hitting with runners in scoring position. In those situations, the team batting average is just .215 and the OPS is .615, second-worst in the Majors. They are not coming up with hits in the clutch and it is costing them some games, such as an extra-inning loss to the Minnesota Twins on Monday. At least OF’s Cedric Mullins and Trey Mancini are a joy to watch.
Beyond a breakout season from Means, the pitching staff is hard to look out. Fans did not expect much from the rotation, but four out of five starts are tough to sit through. Matt Harvey started off well enough after making the team, but his last five outings have all been clunkers, and he has destroyed his trade value in the process. What is more frustrating is that the rookies have been hit around. Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann are providing only rare glimpses of a better future, and the pitching prospects in Norfolk are not doing any better. The good news is that the long-term vision for the franchise has not dimmed beyond the other three affiliates are loaded with prospects, and they are blowing through the competition. That does not chance how poorly the major league team is playing. The bullpen was the strong suit in April, but Cesar Valdez, Adam Plutko, and Travis Lakins Sr. have all fallen apart. No help is coming any time soon, but the losing streak must end at some point.
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