By Steve Silverman
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This time, it’s not just the Red Sox and the Rays. At least through the first two months of the season.
The American League East has become one crowded and overpowering field, and if the Yankees are going to survive, they will have to battle the Orioles and the Blue Jays in addition to their traditional rivals and those ‘Johnny-Come-Latelys’ from central Florida.
Three games separate the division from top to bottom, but it’s quite likely that the Red Sox and the Yankees will be back to their familiar positions at the top of the division by the time September rolls around.
As another page goes off the calendar, there’s a lot of gloom and doom about both teams. However, the Yankee lineup is still the most power-laden offense in the American League. If the starting pitching will have time to come around.
There’s been a lot of fears about Alex Rodriguez and the aging process and Mark Teixiera’s difficulties, but those are nothing but the mindless worries of pessimists. Ask the Red Sox pitching staff about A-Rod or find out what the Blue Jays think about Tex. They know that both will still destroy anything less than stellar pitching.
The Yankees’ offense appears to be preparing to go on an all-out assault this summer. They are already first in the American League in home runs and third in batting average. In addition to Rodriguez and Teixiera, Robinson Cano is about to start dominating again.
His slow start is over and when you have the best swing of anyone in the game, it’s always just a matter of time before the numbers start to reach the heights. Cano is on his way to becoming one of the greatest offensive middle infielders of the last 50 years and his swing is once again picture perfect. It might seem like he has a long way to go to reach last year’s home run total of 28 since he has 8 right now, but don’t bet against it.
Derek Jeter has clearly turned back the clock with his .336 average and Curtis Granderson has 16 homers and a .549 slugging percentage. Yankee fans might be worried about catcher Russell Martin’s productivity (.187 average, 4 HRs), but it really doesn’t matter when the rest of the lineup is poised to attack.
The starting pitching is obviously the issue that manager Joe Girardi is going to have to contend with this summer. After CC Sabathia, there are questions. Andy Pettitte has looked fairly effective since returning from his retirement, but will he throw consistently through the end of the season? Ivan Nova can throw the ball much better than he has shown thus far – 5.60 earned run average – but Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes are not where they should be.
It seemed like the bullpen would be a serious issue after Mariano Rivera’s year-ending injury and David Robertson’s health woes, but the relief pitchers have performed for Girardi. That’s nothing new. Handling a bullpen has always been one of Girardi’s best attributes.
The Red Sox seem to have overcome a miserable start and are back to playing competitive baseball. Obviously, Bobby Valentine had a difficult adjustment in the early going when he criticized Kevin Youkilis on local TV, but he may have been rescued by Adrian Gonzalez who has volunteered to play right field.
This has allowed Valentine to play Youkilis at first base while rookie Will Middlebrooks plays third. That’s the kind of unselfishness that is rare for a player who has made four consecutive All-Star appearances and it’s the kind of support that Valentine desperately needed.
However, the Red Sox have gotten awful starting pitching (a combined ERA over 5.00 from that group) and that could prove to be their undoing. Jon Lester, Josh (Fried Chicken and Beer) Beckett and Clay Buchholz have all shown signs of coming around, but have lacked consistency.
The biggest issue for the Red Sox is overall healthy. Jacoby Ellsbury has been out since early April with a shoulder injury and while he may be back in June, Dustin Pedroia is going to attempt to play through a thumb injury. If he can’t, the Red Sox will not make it through the summer.
The Rays have the best manager in the game in Joe Maddon and the best starting pitching in the division. However, the lineup is sketchy at best. When Evan Longoria (hamstring) is out of the lineup, it’s all-but-impossible for Maddon to put a credible batting order.
The Orioles are starting to fade and while they are much improved, you have to wonder if they have the depth to overcome the highs and lows of the season. The Blue Jays are in a similar position to the O’s, but they have a bit more depth and their sign-stealing ways (ahem) may help them at home.
It looks muddled right now and the Yankees appear to be in some jeopardy. But the lineup is simply too deep and just a bit of improvement from the starting pitcher will allow them to solidify their position during the summer.
Can the Yankees turn things around and capture the AL East?
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).