Beast mode: AL East setting up for wild ride
With five teams separated by seven games, division meeting competitive expectations
Baseball's best division thus far is also its most competitive. The American League East has lived up to preseason expectations, with all five teams in the hunt and four of them over .500.
Over the coming weekend, the race could get a little shakeup. The division-leading Red Sox are visiting Detroit, but the real noise will come elsewhere. The other four AL East teams face each other with the chance either to muddle or clarify the chase for the division title.
No other division is as close from top to bottom, with the five teams separated by seven games. And whereas the National League West is nearly as competitive, it sports a negative run differential and an overall losing record, the AL East has been close and really, really good.
The five East teams have a combined record 32 games over .500, the best of any division in the Majors. The division's plus-107 run differential is the second-best, behind the NL Central.
They're tightly packed because they're all good ballclubs. Yes, even the Blue Jays, who struggled so mightily early in the year. Toronto is back within a game of break-even, and is getting healthy.
MLB.com decided to take stock of this intriguing division as the big weekend approaches.
Red Sox: They lead the Majors in runs, and if you're looking for one reason for success, it's that reconfigured lineup. It's deep and dangerous, with six players who have at least 100 at-bats and an 800 or better OPS.
The bullpen has been shaky at times, but there are plenty of quality arms, and in the end they should be fine. If there's a worry, it's the rotation, which has fallen to earth a bit after a hot start.
Clay Buchholz has dealt with some nagging injuries this year, and Jon Lester has slumped badly over the past month. John Lackey is doing excellent work, but he's one of only two Sox starters with an ERA under 4.00.
Prognosis: Definitely the favorite, given their lead and by far the greatest run differential. But far, far from a lock.
Orioles: Last year, there was a bit of a "how are they doing this?" vibe around Baltimore. This year it's a bit simpler: like the Red Sox, this team can rake. Baltimore ranks second in the AL in runs, first in homers, and first in slugging percentage.
They're also 14th in ERA. The bullpen is solid once again, the manager is one of the best in the business, and they're a rather good defensive team. But about that starting rotation ...
The good news is they have a lot of options to cycle through. The bad news is there's not really a star in the bunch. They need quality, and they need innings, or else that bullpen could get worn out and that offense could go to waste. Still, this team is probably stronger top to bottom than last year's O's.
Prognosis: They could really use a starting pitcher. If they get one, watch out.
Yankees: In third place and falling, New York needs to get healthy fast. The Yankees were 25-14 on May 14, and they're 14-18 since, as their makeshift offense has begun to be exposed.
The bullpen has been as good as advertised, and the rotation isn't bad. But the longer the Yankees go with a less-than-full-strength offense, the more they need their starting five to be more than "not bad." CC Sabathia needs to pitch like an ace, and Phil Hughes needs to be "good Phil" more often in order for this team to make the postseason.
The reports on Alex Rodriguez are encouraging, but many of the other wounded Yankees seem to be in a sort of limbo, with great uncertainty about when they can play again. It's a tribute to this team that it's hung in like it has, but it seems it needs reinforcements.
Prognosis: It's tough to bet against them, because many a Yankees team has been written off before. But if there's one team out of these five that seems most likely to trend down instead of up in the second half, it's New York.
Rays: In fourth place and climbing, the Rays have a plus-18 run differential and they've pulled within 1 1/2 of the Yankees. And they've done it without the reigning Cy Young winner -- who by the way will be back soon.
Tampa Bay's trajectory these days is decidedly upward. The club just added Wil Myers, one of the game's top hitting prospects, to an offense that was already better than it gets credit for being. The Rays are fourth in the AL in runs.
When they add David Price back to the pitching staff, their rotation will look a lot more like it's supposed to. And Price is making his first rehab start on Friday.
Prognosis: They have a little bit of a hill to climb, but it keeps getting smaller. And their roster is getting better. The Rays are very much a threat.
Blue Jays: Don't look now, but this is, in fact, a five-team race. The Blue Jays' eight-game winning streak has vaulted them back into the mix, and like Tampa Bay, their roster is getting better.
Jose Reyes has begun a rehabilitation assignment, and the Blue Jays miss him dearly on offense and defense. They also seem to have found the real Josh Johnson, with the big right-hander dealing in recent starts. That's two critical pieces of their offseason makeover who are becoming a part of the 2013 push to win.
Toronto has been middle of the pack in both scoring and preventing runs, but in both cases, it's likely to climb the ladder. The Blue Jays won't stay this hot, but they've made it interesting.
Prognosis: The hole is deep. They have quite a few games to make up and quite a few teams to pass. But there's a reason everyone liked them in the preseason. There's a lot of talent here. They're unlikely to stay in last, at least.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.