A couple of weeks into the Major League Baseball season, there are many surprises in the American League East, as only the Red Sox have distinguished themselves so far. Baseball’s early American League East results also feature some individual performances that were totally unexpected by the pundits, as well as some that were. Let’s examine which teams and players are going to continue to surprise, and which of these April stories will be forgotten by June, as the competition in the American league East heats up.
In the American League East, the first thing that is apparent is that the Boston Red Sox have had by far the best pitching at the top of the rotation in the early going. Curt Shilling seems to have regained his old form, as his 3-0 record and 1.64 ERA indicate. Josh Beckett, the former Marlins ace, has flourished from the get go; 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA. However, after these two there is trouble in Beantown, with Matt Clement, Tim Wakefield, and David Wells all suffering shellackings so far. Wells was booed off the mound after Toronto blasted three home runs off him in an 8-6 loss; his chances of finishing the year in Boston are about as good as shoe bomber Richard Reed landing a Nike endorsement. Jonathan Papelbon has emerged as the closer, going five for five in save opportunities in place of displaced Keith Foulke, who Boston fans are ready to throw under the bus after only five appearances. Sluggers David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez have started the baseball season a lot like the two trains in an SAT problem, going in opposite directions at varying speeds. There is nothing surprising about Ortiz’s 4 homers and .342 average, but Manny has come out of the blocks like toothpaste, hitting .200 with no round trippers. As a matter of fact, in 35 at bats he has but 7 singles. Things should turn around for Manny soon, but if they don’t, his trade demands of the past winter are going to make him a target of the Boston media. In baseball’s fashion statement of the year so far, Manny has taken to wearing dreadlocks that give him a strong resemblance to Whoopi Goldberg. Mike Lowell, a throw in from the Beckett acquisition, is off to a good beginning, hitting .306 and leading the team in doubles. Look for the Red Sox to hang right with the Yankees, as they will destroy mediocre pitching and depend on Schilling and Beckett to keep up their good work. If Papelbon is the answer at closer, they have their best chance in the last decade of unseating New York for the American league East crown.
As for the Yankees, it has been all or nothing for their hitters so far. They have either struggled in close games, like they did against the A’s and Angels on the West Coast, or been tripping over each other to grab a bat and run to the plate in blow out victories. If they had not run home to play the Royals for three games, they would be in real trouble. Their five wins have all been by huge margins, their five losses have been because of a total lack of clutch hitting. Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina have been good, but not as good as Boston’s pair of aces. Mariano Rivera might as well have started the season on the disabled list, as he has had a total of one save opportunity in the first ten games. The starters behind Johnson and Mussina have been suspect, with Shawn Chacon and Chien-Ming Wang not being nearly as sharp as they were throughout 2005. And ace Randy Johnson has apparently decided that Jorge Posada isn’t much of a catcher, making light hitting Kelly Stinett his personal receiver. Make a note so you do not Posada and Johnson to the same party. As the baseball season plays out, look for the Yankees to do the same as Boston; pound sub par major league hurlers and hope that the back of the rotation can keep them in games long enough to get them to Rivera.
The “new and improved” Toronto Blue Jays look a lot better than in years past, but their pitching is also spotty. Off-season free agent pickup B. J. Ryan has been perfect in three save opportunities, but the rest of the staff is pitching to a high ERA. Only Ted Lilly and Roy Halladay have provided anything resembling quality pitching, while Gustavo Chacin, 2-0 on the strength of good run support, has looked just average. Scott Downs and Josh Towers have been just plain bad, and the rest of the bullpen except for Ryan and Justin Speier has been throwing gas on whatever fires they are called on to douse. Almost everyone is hitting, with the big bats of Troy Glaus and Vernon Wells accounting for 8 homers and over 20 RBI already. If Toronto is going to stay in the hunt with Boston and New York, they are going to have to find options other than Downs and Towers for the rotation, as those two will prove to be major liabilities. That’s an easy problem to solve, right? Find two solid major league starters hanging around somewhere?
Baltimore is 6-5 and most likely feeling pretty good about where they are, but they should have some deep concerns. One is the abominable performance of Daniel Cabrera, who in two starts has given up 16 walks! He was so bad against the Red Sox that Boston announcer Jerry Remy went as far as to say that it was the worst effort he had ever seen from a starting pitcher! He walked 6 men in the first inning alone, while new Oriole pitching coach Leo Mazzone didn’t just rock in the dugout, he went off his rocker. Javy Lopez is off to a dismal start, as is every outfielder except for Jay Gibbons, who already has 3 round trippers and 9 RBI. The infield is hitting as expected, but cannot be asked to bear the whole burden of the offense. 24 year old closer Chris Ray has been exceptional, allowing but one hit in five games, but the rest of his bullpen buddies, except for LaTroy Hawkins, have been a flop. The Orioles cannot contend unless Cabrera does a quick about face and the outfielders start to find their batting groove. Don’t hold your breath waiting for either of these things to occur. Cabrera has the ability to potentially kill a batter in the on-deck circle with one of his errant offerings.
Tampa Bay is hard to figure out so far, as they have won 5 of 11 contests, but not with the help from you would expect. Their stars, Jorge Cantu and Carl Crawford, are both hitting around .200 with exactly one home run between them, while journeymen like Travis Lee and Ty Wigginton have 4 each. Up and coming Jonny Gomes may be the real deal, with a .300 average, 4 home runs, and 11 RBI in 33 at bats. He has also walked 10 times, and appears to be turning into the power threat the Rays must have in the middle of the order. Tampa’s problem though has always been pitching, and this year is no different. Young lefty Scott Kazmir bounced back from a horrible opening game and should anchor the staff, but Seth McClung may just be an anchor. In just eight innings, he has managed to give up 12 runs, 12 hits, and 10 walks, plus hit a batter for good measure. Of the rest of the staff, only Mark Hendrickson, who threw a masterful three-hitter at the Orioles in a 2-0 win, has given up fewer hits than innings pitched. And even if the starters were capable, Dan Miceli is the closer, which is baseball’s equivalent of asking a bank robber to count the money in the vault before he locks up for the day. Tampa Bay is doomed to the cellar, unless the Orioles drift past them to the bottom. They will lose a lot of high scoring games, but simply do not have the pitching it needs to even be a .500 team.
As April turns into May, look for the Orioles and Devil Rays begin to lose contact with the other three teams in the American League East. Toronto has a decent chance of making it a three team race, but must shore up their pitching. If Manny continues to struggle, Boston’s chances are markedly changed, but there is nothing in his resume to suggest he won’t turn things around. The Yankees have the bats, but could be in for a hard time if their arms don’t come through.