2014 SEASON PREVIEW (PART 2): Best Case/Worst Case for… the AL EAST (with Getty Images)

What’s the worst that can happen? What’s the best-case scenario? In Best Case/Worst Case, we find out what those worst and best case scenarios are. Tonight… the American League East. And it’s accompanied by things from the now-free Getty Image archive.

So, here we go:

Boston Red Sox

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Best-Case Scenario: Everything clicks again, David Ortiz once again gets to use his Hall of Fame level of F-Bomb dropping as the Red Sox celebrate a repeat. Bogaerts becomes a super-star.

Worst-Case Scenario: They grow the beards again, but this time they grow…. too much. By October, they have grown so long that they trip over them.

Worst-Case Scenario that might actually happen: Injuries take a toll on the pitching staff, Xander Bogaerts doesn’t quite make his great leap into super-stardom. Third Place.

Tampa Bay Rays

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Best-Case Scenario: They finally win the World Series, possibly even getting the baseball fans of the Tampa area to come to see them and not the opposing team instead.

Worst-Case Scenario: Somebody steals Evan Longoria‘s hat again and escapes with it into the deadliest regions of the Middle East. Vowing vengeance, Longoria misses the first several months of the season as he goes to rescue it, and to make matters worse, Wil Myers gets hurt. By the time Longoria and Myers have gotten back, the Rays are far enough back where they feel like it’s safe to trade away David Price.

Worst-Case Scenario that might actually happen: Really, injuries and the possible trade of David Price are the worst case scenarios.

Baltimore Orioles
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Best-Case Scenario: The pitching overachieves, Manny Machado comes back healthy, Nelson Cruz does well in Camden Yards and the rest of the AL East falters, allowing the Orioles to- somehow- make their second playoffs in three years.

Worst-Case Scenario: A bad batch of crab-cakes causes entire team to battle food poisoning all year.

Worst-Case Scenario that could actually happen: Machado doesn’t fully recover, the pitching stinks, and the only thing the Orioles are playing for down the stretch is the ability to stay over .500.

New York Yankees

Best-Case Scenario: World Series title.

Worst-Case Scenario: Seriously, Yankee fans would probably consider anything other than the above a worst-case scenario. However, they are forgetting…

Worst-Case Scenario That Could Actually Happen: Not only do the Yankees not win the World Series, but they miss the playoffs again, leading to Yankee ownership to panic and, in a move reminiscent of the late George Steinbrenner, blow everything up, even the stuff that worked. Also, that guy falls off his motorcycle.

Toronto Blue Jays

(I don’t know why Getty would have clip art that is JUST different enough from the actual Blue Jays logo to not be a copy…)

Best-Case Scenario: Dickey’s knuckler knuckles, Jose Bautista stays healthy, and the other teams in AL East have troubles, allowing Toronto to return to the post-season for the first time since the 1990s.

Worst-Case Scenario: Rob Ford shows up, does something so disgraceful that the Blue Jays cancel the season in shame.

Worst-Case Scenario That Could Actually Happen: More-or-less what happened last year.

Later today…. BEST CASE/WORST CASE for the… AL CENTRAL.

The (AL) East is Wild

The American League East is in a interesting situation. For years, after all, there were some things that were for certain: The Yankees and Red Sox could be expected to come in first and second (sometimes flipping the order), the Blue Jays and sometimes Orioles would be a distant third, then the Orioles and Tampa would be taking the bottom two spots.
Then, suddenly, the Rays rose, becoming a factor. And so for the past few years, there were three teams in the AL East who could be expected to make a run at the playoffs.

And then came this past season, 2012, when everything went crazy. The Yankees still won, sure, but the Red Sox plummeted and the Orioles, despite the fact they were, on paper, maybe the fourth-best team in the division, ended up snagging a wild card spot. The Rays also were pretty good and made a good run at a playoff spot, and may well have gotten one if not for injuries.

But now, with the Red Sox again opening their checkbooks, and the Blue Jays having traded for basically every good player on the Marlins and now closing in on a deal for NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, the question is… where is the weakness of the AL East?

None of the teams have gotten particularly worse- although the Yankees may not have signed anybody of note (save for Kevin Youkilis) and they have Alex Rodriguez out for the first half of the season, they can hardly be considered to have suddenly plunged into irrelevance.  The Orioles haven’t really added anybody, but they’ve only lost Mark Reynolds, and most of last season’s historic bullpen will remain. The Rays have lost James Shields, but any rotation that has David Price and a lineup that has Evan Longoria is going to cause plenty of havoc in the standings.

The two teams that have added the most people- the Red Sox and Blue Jays- still have plenty of question marks. In Boston, for example, John Farrell will have to prove that his less-than-stellar performance as skipper in Toronto wasn’t just a result of the players he had available and the tough schedule he had to play. Toronto will have to avoid the injuries that devastated their pitching staff last season and integrate a bunch of new players into the team, all while also having the return of John Gibbons as manager. Gibbons had a sometimes tumultuous stint as Blue Jays’ manager from 2004 to 2008, and his hiring was something of a head-scratcher.

What does it all mean? It means that the AL East is a wild division, one with no clear favorite or clear unfavorite. It should be an interesting season in 2013.

Panic in the Bronx

Derek Jeter said on Monday that he wasn’t panicking. In fact, I seem to recall him saying that nobody was panicking, and was even asking the press if they were panicking.

Rule of thumb number one of panicking: If you have to say you aren’t panicking, you probably are panicking, and if you aren’t, you probably will be soon.

On Tuesday night, Joe Girardi was ejected after doing the full Earl Weaver routine.

Rule of thumb number two of panicking: When you have a short fuse shortly after people start wondering if you should be panicking, you are panicking.

Oh, and the Yankees lost tonight, to fall into a tie with the Baltimore Orioles- in September, and only a game and a half up on the Tampa Rays. Which leads to the third rule of thumb of panicking:

When you are panicking, your enemies will take advantage.

RETRACTION- The Orioles are not dead

On July 17, I declared that the Orioles’ playoff hopes were dead.

However, since then, the Orioles have somewhat stabilized, and are now 6.5 games out of 1st in the AL East and only 1.5 out of a Wild Card spot. Therefore, as I thought they would drop completely off the map by the end of July as they struggled heavily, I must retract my previous statement: the Orioles are alive.
At least for now. They continue to be playing far better than their run differential suggest (they’d be 46-59 if their record reflected their run differential!), and, while they didn’t make any moves at the deadline and have had Jim Thome and Brian Roberts go on the DL, it’s becoming increasingly clear that they will at least somewhat remain in it so long as they can continue defying the gravity of their run differential problem. They are winning close games but losing blowouts.

It will, in the end, all come down to how they play against their AL East rivals. And in MLB’s toughest division, I’m wary of making predictions.

The War for the (AL and NL) East

The greatest division races are already shaping up to be in the (AL and NL East). Teams that had been afterthoughts are now in the mix, perennial powers have found themselves in the cellar. Things are changing quickly, so by the time this goes up on the afternoon of June 10, it may already by obsolete: teams that were in first may have fallen to second or even third. A team who was in it could not be out of it. A team that was out of it could be in it. It is just that volatile.

(more after jump)

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What is wrong with the Orioles?

It’s too early to declare the Orioles’ season, which I wrote about awhile back, as heading down the tubes. But it is definitely not looking as good as it once did. They’ve lost six straight. They’ve fallen out of first. Nick Markakis is hurt. The AL East is becoming even more of a gigantic no-holds-barred brawl than it was.
So what happened?

What happened was that the pitching- especially the starting pitching has been having a tough week. They have been routinely falling behind early. They fell 5-0 on Friday night, for example, giving up all of those runs in the first inning. They were falling behind to the Blue Jays early in games. In other words, the Orioles are getting dragged into the same kind of shooting-gallery, pray-we-can-outhit-them-because-our-pitching-cannot-stop-them kinds of games they’ve been getting stuck in the last decade and a half or so. Spoiler alert: They usually can’t.

The Orioles are by no means out of it yet. They are only one game back. A win today would get them tied for first again. Two wins over the weekend would get them to first outright. All of the AL East teams have flaws, and the Orioles still have a very good bullpen, something that is essential in this day and age. They also have Adam Jones, who can, on some days, win a game by himself.

The question is: Can they pull themselves off the mat, or will, like so many season before, the Orioles squander a good start and fall back into the basement?

Only time will tell.

Well, that was weird.

Okay, so yesterday:

  • The Texas Rangers lost to Seattle 21-8. Normally weird stuff like that happens when the Rangers play the Orioles.
  • Matt Kemp is hurt again. I blame the SI Cover Jinx.
  • Hawk Harrelson lost his mind.
  • The Orioles and Rays have done their best to make the AL East even more insane, going 2-8 and 4-6 respectively in the last 10 games. The AL East now has first and last separated by 2.5 games, with all teams above .500. Oh, and the Blue Jays are being accused of stealing signs. Again. I could have sworn this has happened before.
  • All the teams in the NL East are above .500 as well.
  • Pittsburgh’s win brought them back to .500. Which is always notable because, well, they are the Pirates.
  • The Marlins have now won 21 games in May. Well, I’d say April showers bring May flowers, but they have a retractable roof now, so…
  • Carlos Gonzalez had three home runs. Josh Hamilton is unimpressed, I’m sure.
  • Oh, and Justin Verlander hit a home run in batting practice.

How long can the Orioles keep this up?

The Orioles won again last night. In 15 innings, they defeated the Royals, rallying in the 9th to tie the game and then taking the lead for good with a Adam Jones homer in the top of the 15th. With the victory, the Orioles kept pace with the Tampa Bay Rays (who they are tied with), and extended their lead over the Yankees, who are now 3.5 games back. So we must ask: how are they doing this, and can they keep this up?

Maybe it’s the return of the classic logo…

One thing that really is standing out with the 2012 Orioles is how well the no-name pitchers are doing. Most of the All-Stars the Orioles have had since the retirement of Cal Ripken have generally been hitters: Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora, Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, etc. The only exceptions have been B.J. Ryan in 2005 (who flamed out after a few years in Toronto in the late aughts)  and George Sherrill in 2008 (he now pitches for the Mariners), although Erik Bedard (who was slyly traded for Jones, Sherrill and others in 2009) could probably have been said to have been snubbed on at least one occasion. That likely will remain true this year: the Orioles will probably see Wieters (who should probably start) and Adam Jones make the All-Star Game this year if they keep it up. But it will be ignoring the no-name pitchers that are keeping them in the race this late in the season.

Take their bullpen. It is spectacular, and I, like most people, can’t name a single one of them without looking it up. Even I, who prides myself on trying to be at least vaguely familiar with everybody in baseball, is just that with the Orioles: vaguely familiar. I recognize the names when I see them, but if I were vacationing down in Maryland and ran into one of them in the Inner Harbor, I wouldn’t be saying “Oh, you’re Jim Johnson!” I would probably instead say: “Look where you’re going!”

And yet, Johnson is having a brilliant year. He has a 0.51 ERA and he leads the league in saves. And the rest of the bullpen has been doing great:

-Pedro Strop, who had been given to the Orioles as a player-to-be-named-later from the Rangers, has a 1.29 ERA in 21 innings.

-Veteran reliever Luis Ayala is the holder of 1.86 ERA and, along with Johnson, Strop and Darren O’Day, is one of four O’s pitchers with WHIPs (Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched) under one.

-Speaking of O’Day, he has the lowest WHIP of anybody in the Baltimore ‘pen: 0.873. Like Strop, he’s a cast-off from the Rangers: the Orioles picked him up off of waivers.

By comparison, the Baltimore rotation hasn’t been as good, especially at the top. Tommy Hunter (another Texas cast-off, arriving to Baltimore along with the immortal Chris Davis last season in exchange for Koji Uehara) is 2-2 with a 4.78 ERA. Jake Arrieta, arguably the best homegrown starter in the rotation, has also struggled, with a 5.21 ERA and a 2-4 W-L record. It leads one to wonder why Buck Showalter hasn’t promoted the two success stories in the rotation up a bit. Taiwanese import (via Japan) Wei-Yin Chen has yet to lose a game, and has a 2.45 ERA. Jason Hammel, a serviceable-but-unremarkable starter the last few years, is 4-1 with a 2.68 ERA.

In my eyes, the only chance the Orioles have of staying in the race in the long run is having the pitching hold up. This seems obvious, but it is true. No matter how well the Orioles hit, they cannot survive the apocalyptic struggle that is the AL East without pitching that can silence the Rays, Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox.

Whether they can is up for debate. Chen, for example, is still new to the majors, so it’s possible that the hitters just might not be used to facing him yet. Eventually, they will figure him out, and then, like every other pitcher, Chen will have to make more adjustments.

But if the Orioles keep this up- unlike so many of the previous years where they have teased the world with hot starts- the people who may need to adjust are the rest of the AL East, which somehow now finds itself even stronger.