By Steve Silverman
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Who are those players masquerading as the New York Yankees?
With the midway point of the season just around the corner, the Yankees are right there in the tepid AL East. They are 3½ games behind the Toronto Blue Jays, sitting in the garden spot as they get set to mount a charge that could very well catapult them to the top of the division by the time the season reaches the All-Star break or shortly thereafter.
Here’s what the Yankees have going for them: They are three games above .500 even though they have been outscored by 25 runs this season. They have played winning baseball on the road (22-17), even though they have struggled at home (14-16).
They have not played the kind of baseball they are capable of playing, yet they will almost certainly be in a position to breathe down the Blue Jays’ necks in a matter of days.
The Blue Jays are a decent team, but they are far from formidable. There’s really nothing to fear, because they have never shown the kind of consistency to make anyone think that they can play good, solid baseball for a full season.
The Blue Jays are certainly better than they were last year, when they wowed the baseball world in May but quickly fell apart. This year’s team seems to have a bit more determination and gumption, as it has shown that it can handle some degree of adversity and come back and win key games.
But here are the key issues for the Blue Jays: Is Mark Buehrle really going to give them a dominant year from start to finish? Is Jose Reyes going to stay in the lineup from this point forward and give them dependable play at shortstop? Can Edwin Encarnacion regain the form he had in May when he was one of the hottest hitters in the game, or is he destined to be an up-and-down player (He’s been awful in June).
We haven’t even gotten into the rest of the pitching staff, Melky Cabrera or their weakness in center field, but this does not look like a team that’s going to show well down the stretch. Sorry, Canada.
There is no doubt that Buehrle has been sensational to this point with is 10-3 record, his 2.28 earned run average and his solid control. But Buehrle’s soft tossings are not likely to confound American League hitters for much longer. He has not won more than 13 games in a season since 2008, and that’s because his pitches tend to look like meatballs to hitters during the second half of the season. It’s all been letter-perfect to this point in the season, but that won’t last much longer. The Blue Jays’ ace is about to get creamed.
When Toronto starts to fade, the only team the Yankees are going to have to contend with in the division is Baltimore. Buck Showalter’s Orioles are a lot like the Yankees in that they haven’t yet found their stride, but they are right there, just four games behind.
The Orioles have had similar problems to the Yankees when it comes to offense. The Orioles and Yankees both have an on-base percentage of .316, which leaves them tied for 11th (along with Kansas City). Not surprisingly, the Orioles are 10th in runs scored with 294. With Nelson Cruz mashing the ball and Manny Machado and Chris Davis likely to join him before long, the Orioles could be in a position to put together a formidable second half.
The Yankees, Orioles and Jays may not have to give the Red Sox or Rays much consideration the rest of the way. The Red Sox are a shell of the team that won the World Series last year because they simply can’t hit and that’s not likely to change. The Rays are even worse and it appears this is the one year that Joe Maddon will be unable to find the magic formula to make this team contend.
Masahiro Tanaka has given the Yankees a brilliant ace, perhaps the best starting pitcher in the American League. Jacoby Ellsbury has flashed his talent, but he can be a lot better than a .277 hitter with a .398 slugging percentage. His 28 stolen bases, along with Brett Gardner’s 22, are a very good thing.
The Yankees need to step up their offense and take advantage of the short porch. Hitting the long ball has been their signature, and they need to rediscover that part of their game. Mark Teixeira’s 11 home runs lead the team, but that’s simply not enough.
That said, Joe Girardi does not have to be fearful with the halfway point of the season in sight. This is a division that his team can easily command with just a few improvements.
That’s the best going-away present that Derek Jeter could ever receive.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy
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