It's a three-team race in the AL East
Yankees, Orioles and Rays fighting for division title, postseason spots
The AL East race just got tighter than ever. Our analysts take a closer look at the topsy-turvy division. For a look at all the races, check out Hunt for October.
1. Which rotation is in the best shape heading down the stretch: the Yankees', the Rays' or the Orioles'?
Jon Shepherd (Camden Depot: Peripherals suggest that the Rays' staff ERA is a paper tiger due in large part to an exceptionally high percentage of runners left on base. Each of these rotations has question marks, but the Rays' high-end talent and depth still gives their rotation an edge.
Rob Abruzzese (@RobAbruzzese), Bronx Baseball Daily: The Rays are easily in the best shape rotation-wise. Jeff Niemann is a loss, but David Price and James Shields make up a one-two combo that is better than anything the Yankees and Orioles have right now. With Price and Shields up front and some decent arms behind them, the Rays are in great shape right now.
Marquis Heilig (@MHeilig), The Ray Area: The Rays. Alex Cobb has been more than serviceable as Jeff Niemann's replacement. In fact, Cobb might have been a member of this rotation all season if Matt Moore hadn't burst onto the scene. Niemann was not coming back to the rotation after his leg injury. The plan before Niemann's most recent setback was just to use him for spot starts to rest Moore, Hellickson and Cobb. Chris Archer, who pitched well during his midseason call-up, can fill that role if the Rays decide one of the regulars needs a day off.
2. Which player returning from injury will make the biggest impact in the final month: Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Evan Longoria or Jim Thome?
Shepherd: Eric Chavez has been a solid replacement for Rodriguez's offense, so the most important player for the Yankees to get back on track is Teixeira. New York's offense has been underperforming and missing the playoffs is a strong possibility. The Yankees need Teixeira to stabilize their offense.
Abruzzese: The Rays' lineup pretty much consists of Longoria and eight other guys, but they've been expected to rely on their pitching all year while the Yankees need their lineup to power them into the playoffs. The losses of Rodriguez and Teixeira have meant that Steve Pearce and Russell Martin have batted cleanup, which is not the way they drew it up.
Heilig: This one is no contest. It has to be Longo. Not because he is necessarily a better player than A-Rod, Teixeira or Thome, but because he and Jeff Keppinger are the only guys in the Rays' clubhouse who use bats for something other than scaring off home intruders. The Rays' offense is bad. And it was terrible without Longoria. His return hasn't exactly led to a consistent offensive juggernaut, but the club has shown marked improvement. The Rays also ripped off a seven-game winning streak and launched themselves back into the race within days of his return.
3. Which team wins the AL East and why? And do the runners-up get one or both wild cards?
Shepherd: The Orioles have defied every expectation I have had and every metric-based projection of their future performance. I've given up trying to make sense of it. Baltimore will win the division. The Yankees will be the only AL East team to take a wild-card slot. What hurts the Rays is that their path is a little more difficult in that both of their out-of-division opponents in September are strong contenders (White Sox and Rangers), while the Yankees and Orioles have soft series against the Twins and Mariners.
Abruzzese: The writing has been on the wall that the Rays eventually will catch up with the Yankees, and it still looks like that's going to happen. One of these teams will take home the wild card, though. And with the Yankees' easy schedule over the last week and a half of the season, I expect it will be them.
Heilig: Baltimore. The Rays and Yankees are both backing into October, and they play each other four more times. The Rays, for that matter, have three games with Texas mixed in there as well. Baltimore may be the only man standing after the Rays and Yanks stick knives in each other over the next two weeks. The wild card, in my opinion, is up to Oakland. The Rays, in particular, have a tough road. Not only do they have those seven games against New York and Texas, but they also finish the season with three against the O's. If the wild card is in the balance that weekend, I don't think both will emerge victorious unless Oakland lies down.
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