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Can any of these teams win the ‘beast’-less AL East?

As June ends, so does the first half of the season. In Baseball, time flies even when you’re not having so much fun. Hereabouts, one question emerges above all. Where have the “Beasts of the American League East” gone?

We’re accustomed to being among the class acts in the high-rent district. It had become axiomatic that the East was where the real action was, and all the best entertainment, too. To dominate the AL East was to be featured weekly on the networks, fawned over lavishly by the pundits, feared the most by other teams, and favored invariably in the post-season.

But no more! Much of the East’s zest has dissipated and it’s little noted that the sitting champs still happen to reside there. No titanic five-team race is about to thrill us to our collective core this year nor are any of the five deemed “the team to beat,” once annually the case. It just ain’t the same, Pal.

Here’s how it looks as we arrive at the season’s mid-point:
Toronto: Threatened to run away with it for about five minutes. A notoriously erratic franchise the last two decades, the Jays had a splendid May but are clearly reverting to form as June gets serious. Their tailspin quickens as injuries mount. They do feature fine offense; no small consideration with offensive might in Baseball in rarely short supply.  But their lineup is green, lacking in pennant-race experience. Pitching is mediocre, unproven, not deep. So is the manager.

The Jays can survive only if the rest of the division’s rampant mediocrity  persists. It’s a hard bunch to believe in, even when they’re mashing the ball and staying healthy. But, hey, stranger things have happened.

Baltimore: Maybe the candidate with the best chance to break loose. Manager is a huge plus. Front office will take chances. Wacky owner has at long last shut up. Lineup is stacked with significant power equal to Toronto’s. Pitching has the potential to be adequate although shakiness in the once-formidable bullpen has been evident. Did Nelson Cruz make a pact with the Baseball Devil?

Maybe this is meant to be Baltimore’s year. But a pair of crushing blows may have doomed them. A brilliant prospect only a year ago, Manny Machado, at age 21, is struggling to stay in the lineup, let alone regain his form, having been seriously sidetracked nine months ago by a complex leg injury necessitating tendon transplants. Superb defensively with middle-of-the- lineup power, Matt Wieters faces Tommy John surgery, which is rather bizarre given that he’s not a pitcher but a catcher.

Can the O’s win without meaningful contributions from two of their three most complete players? Unlikely! But they’ll remain the team you don’t want to play when all the chips are on the table.

Tampa Bay: One can imagine the Rays stunningly turning it around with the highly estimable Joe Maddon – favorite skipper of the savants – working his familiar legerdemain with greater brilliance than ever.

But then you take a closer look at that lineup with those once-mighty prospects, Messrs Jennings and Longoria, swatting anemic .248 and .261 respectively, Red Sox reject James Loney as their principal source of power, erstwhile mega-rookie Wil Myers facing banishment to the minors once he gets off the disability list, and their much-touted pitching in an injury-ravaged shambles. Reluctantly, you concede the Rays are cooked.   

It’s a shame, actually. They were an attractive and popular underdog, although that schtick was getting old. Maddon, among others down there, probably deserved better. Sadly, it’s a bitter turn of events that likely   condemns the game in the Gulf Coast where it could and should have prospered, if only local government hadn’t been so backward and bush league.

On the eve of mid-season, the Rays had baseball’s lousiest record; worse than the bloody Cubs, worse than the preposterous Padres, worse than the abominable Astros.  The situation has the look of something terminal.

New York: Hardest of the bunch to figure as they, along with the Orioles, cling precariously to second place while more often looking like a candidate for the cellar. When this year’s Yankees’ edition is good, which mainly means when Maestro Tanaka is on the mound, they can be very, very good, and when they aren’t (and he isn’t) they are horrid.

These days they regularly feature up to five very expensive characters in the middle of their lineup hitting in the .220s, sans power. We are not accustomed to this from the once-upon-a-time Bronx Bombers. When you combine this calamity with the fact that three-fifths of their pitching rotation has been wiped out, it boggles the mind to consider some people actually think Joe Girardi is not a good manager.

Brian Cashman has only one trick in his GM repertoire: when in doubt, spend.  Even in their current extended mood of austerity, the Yankees will manage to out-spend the pack. One can imagine them conjuring some ludicrous caper like liberating the Phillies (should they decide to surrender) from the obscene contracts of worn-down Cliff Lee (now on the disabled list) and aging Chase Utley (just off it) at the further price of their very few decent prospects. Such nuttiness might keep them remotely in contention another three months.   

George might have done that, but Hal is a different Steinbrenner. It’s more likely they’ll choose to muddle along while continuing to fall apart physically. Whereupon they can devote themselves fully to the endless Derek Jeter victory lap soon to arrive smashingly at your local ballpark. Methinks Derek would have preferred it otherwise.

Boston: Even as his kiddies were getting their clocks cleaned in Oakland, Manager Farrell was brashly asserting confidently that his team – essentially as now constituted – will yet prevail. Give the bloke credit; he hardly lacks for moxie. And he may even be right; at least partly.

As bad as they’ve been (third worst AL mark as of the writing) these Red Sox may have fewer problems and sturdier prospects than their division foes as they veer into the second half. More to the point, there’s the thinness of the other pretenders, as noted. It says a lot about the state of the AL East that Boston is but a hot streak removed from contention, though if they have one they’d be well advised not to follow it with another meltdown, as has been their bent. Strange team, but even as they were romping a year ago they were hard to figure.

There are caveats! Have they been over-rating their allegedly vaunted farm system? You might call it the “Jackie Bradley Junior syndrome,” the inclination to nominate their child prodigies for Cooperstown enshrinement before they’ve survived their first road trip. Latest nominee is a certain Mookie Betts. Never thought they’d ever countenance a player named Mookie. Interestingly, such newbies as Brock Holt and Rubby De La Rosa, products of other systems, seem every bit the equal of the Bradleys, Bogaerts, Dubronts, Middlebrooks, et al.

Some of their precious youth needs to be peddled for veteran reinforcements in the forthcoming mid-summer trading festival. The manager is not entirely right. As essentially now constituted they don’t win, too many characters who surprisingly excelled last year having reverted to form. If Farrell’s cheeky prophecy is to be realized, they need another bat and another arm and they might further notice that Uber-Closer Uehara suddenly no longer looks invincible.

Clearly, management is reluctant to take on more salary, although they don’t appear anxious to talk about that. They may have no choice. Last year’s laurels no longer sustain. Moves like trading for a Herrera or signing a Mujica won’t suffice.

So, that’s the state of things as we see it while the teams limp into the season’s second half. Out of this morass, there emerges one question above all: Can anyone win this division?

This much is clear: Beasts no longer roam the American League East.

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