By DAN FLAHERTY
We head into the final week prior to the All-Star break with the Boston Red Sox holding a 4 . game lead in the AL East. The only team not in striking distance is Toronto, a distant ten games back, with three other teams to catch. It’s those middle trio that represent the challenge for the Red Sox in the second half, and the Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees are all bunched within a half-game of each other. Who’s the challenger the Red Sox should fear the most?
Let’s make the case for each team, look at what the smart money seems to think about this race and then try and draw some conclusions.
The Case For The Yankees: If you haven’t heard, the Yanks have endured a lot injuries in the first half of the season, something their fan base—which curiously overlooked all the injuries the Red Sox had in 2010—has missed no opportunity to point out. But there’s no question that the impending return of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez is going to lift a terrible offense that’s 11th in the American League in runs scored, in spite of playing a hitter-friendly park. And if you don’t think A-Rod is going to help this team a lot, just check out the numbers of current third baseman David Adams—he’s hitting a buck-90.
The Case For The Orioles: Baltimore has maintained a steady second place through most of the first half in spite of missing staff ace Wei-Yin Chen since mid-May. Chen returns this week, and the Orioles also acquired Scott Feldman. The latter isn’t a flashy acquisition, but with the Orioles starting pitching currently 12th in the American League, these are two big additions. And even allowing for Chris Davis to come back to earth a little bit, there are players like Matt Wieters who are capable of hitting more than they have been.
The Case For The Rays: If someone had told you at the start of the year, that Tampa Bay’s starting pitching would be mediocre, that David Price would miss several starts on the DL and the bullpen would be below average, you’d have reasonably assumed the Rays would be finished. Instead, the offense has found help for Evan Longoria and Tampa is right in the mix. Plus, Price is healthy and starting to pitch better.
Can I step back and again vent over the media obsession with the Yankee injuries? It’s not that New York hasn’t been genuinely hard hit with injuries to their everyday lineup that no team could overcome. My issue is that it’s also overlooked that the Yanks have enjoyed good health in their starting rotation, while every other contender in the AL East has lost its staff ace! Clay Bucholz, Price and Chen have all done well more than the minimum time on the disabled list, and given the primacy of starting pitching, that’s not exactly insignificant.
So which contender is the one to fear the most? My natural instinct is to say the Yanks. Some of it’s history, but it’s more the fear that comes with complete loathing. If the Red Sox lost out to the Rays or Orioles, I’d feel like a political candidate who lost in a primary—disappointed to be sure, but feeling like I could root for the winner in the next round of competition. Suffice it to say, I don’t feel that way about the Pinstripes.
The folks in Las Vegas who make millions on this stuff, don’t have a strong view one way or another. The Red Sox are a 5-6 favorite to win the division right now. What’s most noteworthy about the other three contender is not who the people on the Strip like, but who they apparently don’t. While Tampa and New York are both 4-1, Baltimore is a notch behind at 5-1. The skepticism of the betting markets regarding the Orioles isn’t as extreme as the start of the year, when you could have bet an Over/Under win number of 79.5 (for a team that won 93 a year ago), but it still exists.
Beyond my psychological issues with the Yanks, and betting skepticism on the Birds, I think that Tampa Bay has the strongest case for a second-half run. Price is healthy and pitching well. Jeremy Hellickson is likely to pitch better, and if there are no repercussions from Alex Cobb’s concussion, he’ll be back soon. While James Loney’s big year with the bat is likely to cool off, the Rays are just as likely to see Ben Zobrist hit much better in the second half. Tampa, in my view, is the car in the rearview mirror to keep the closest eye on.