A.L. East could be for the birds, but not if Red Sox have their way

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As we near the middle of August, baseball standings start to reflect playoff probabilities more than young-season anomalies. It has become clear that, despite apparent disparities in talent, the Red Sox will have to contend with the Orioles and Blue Jays for the American League East title.

While the Red Sox and Blue Jays have outscored opponents by 89 and 85 runs, respectively (as of Aug. 7), the Orioles have used a smoke-and-mirrors approach, spending much of the season in first place despite scoring just 30 runs more than their opponents.

Let’s take a look at the three contenders in the division, position-by-position, to see who has the upper hand over the season’s last two months.

Catcher

While Matt Wieters and Russell Martin have received the majority of pitches from Orioles and Blue Jays hurlers, the Red Sox have used a committee approach, with four different catchers playing at least 19 games behind the plate. Wieters and Martin have had mixed results, with occasional power but below-average offensive numbers overall. Meanwhile, Boston started the season with the best backstop of the bunch- Christian Vazquez- and probably the best hitter- Blake Swihart- but both have spent much of the year on the disabled list, giving an opportunity for Sandy Leon to do his best Babe Ruth impression. Leon is batting .364/.403/.582 (batting average/on base percentage, slugging percentage) and holding his own behind the plate. He doesn’t have the track record of Martin or Wieters, but at 27, he’s the youngest of the group.

Slight Edge: Red Sox

First base

If we counted Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion here, he would clearly be the best of the bunch, but he’s only used a glove in 39 games this year. The same goes for Travis Shaw, who’s primarily played the hot corner. Baltimore’s Chris Davis has been his all-or-nothing self, crushing 22 home runs while striking out 151 times and batting just .217. That’s similar in value to what the Red Sox have gotten from Hanley Ramirez, though the defensive numbers prefer Davis. Justin Smoak shares Davis’s poor on-base skills and Hanley’s middling power.

Slight Edge: Orioles

Second base

Dustin Pedroia still owns this group, hitting slightly better than Baltimore’s Jonathan Schoop and fielding at least as well as Toronto’s keystone trio of Ryan Goins, Devon Travis, and Darwin Barney. While Schoop leads the group with 17 home runs, Pedroia’s .370 on base percentage and elite range carry the day.

Edge: Red Sox

Shortstop

Semantics come into play again here, as Manny Machado towers over his competition, but he’s played 55 percent of his innings at third base and will likely stay there now that JJ Hardy is back. Hardy still has a great glove, but doesn’t hit much, and Toronto’s Troy Tulowitzki has only been a little better, with 18 home runs, but a grisly .312 on base percentage. The easy choice here is Boston’s Xander Bogaerts, who’s batting .319/.374/.468 with 14 home runs, 13 stolen bases, and serviceable defense.

Big Edge: Red Sox

Third base

Shaw is a welterweight competing with heavyweights at this spot. Despite impressive production on offense and defense, he can’t stand up to powerful punches from Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado. Reigning MVP Donaldson is building a strong defense of that trophy, hitting .297/.409/.579 with 27 home runs and excellent defense. Machado’s defense is even better (by 4.5 runs per Fangraphs), and he’s batting .304/.364/.537 with 22 home runs of his own going into his three-dinger outburst on Sunday.

Edge: Blue Jays, with Orioles a strong second

Leftfield

Brock Holt. Rusney Castillo. Chris Young. Travis Shaw. Blake Swihart. Bryce Brentz. Ryan LaMarre. Andrew Benitendi. Leftfield has been a bit of a challenge for the Red Sox this year. The Orioles haven’t been much more stable, with Hyun Soo Kim, Joey Rickard, Nolan Reimold, Julio Borbon, and Mark Trumbo taking their hacks. Almost by default, the Blue Jays’ Michael Saunders wins this competition, with 19 home runs in 98 games played.

Edge: Blue Jays

Centerfield

Two years ago, this would have belonged to Adam Jones. Last year, Kevin Pillar would have run away with it. But 2016 is the year of Jackie Bradley, Jr. Once just a fancy glove, JBJ brought his bat to work this year, hitting .289/.370/.524 with 17 home runs and seven stolen bases. Pillar has played the best defense of the three and Jones has 21 homers, but neither has been in Bradley’s stratosphere this year.

Edge: Red Sox

Rightfield

There’s a lot of power at this position, but only Mookie Betts brings a well-rounded game. Mark Trumbo’s 31 home runs lead the league, but he’s a defensive liability who gets on base at a paltry .317 clip. Jose Bautista has 15 dingers and plenty of patience, but he’s batting .216 and playing poor defense. Betts is an MVP contender, hitting .310/.350/.546 with 23 homers, 17 steals, and defense worthy of center.

Edge: Red Sox

Designated hitter

On days when Trumbo and Encarnacion don’t play defense, these might be the three best DHs in the game. Pedro Alvarez, though, gets the bulk of the plate appearances at DH for Baltimore, and regardless of the competition, this one belongs to David Ortiz, who leads the AL with a .617 slugging percentage and 62 extra base hits. Encarnacion is an honorable challenger, with 55 extra base hits of his own, but he’s no Papi.

Edge: Red Sox

Ace starter

If this were strictly a regular season exercise, it might make sense to look at each rotation as a whole, but it’s likely that one if not two of these teams will need to win a one-game Wild Card showdown to advance to the Division Series. It’s almost certain that Chris Tillman would pitch that game for the Orioles, Marco Estrada may take the hill for the Blue Jays, and while there’s still some room for debate, David Price should be on the bump for the Red Sox. Wins and losses aside, Tillman has basically been a league-average pitcher, sporting a 3.50 ERA and a 4.07 FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching, which is scaled to ERA and reflects only strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed). Estrada has been great at run prevention, with a 2.92 ERA, but his 3.82 FIP suggests he’s just a decent pitcher getting a lot of help from his defense. Price, on the surface, has struggled this year, with a 4.30 ERA going into Sunday night’s game, but his 3.29 FIP is second in the league, boosted by 156 strikeouts (second only to Chris Archer) and a 5.03 strikeout to walk ratio (third in the AL). This may feel like a homer pick, but make no mistake- Price is still an ace.

Edge: Red Sox

Rest of rotation

Aaron Sanchez has been Toronto’s best pitcher this season, but concerns about an innings limit make me wonder how many more starts he’ll get. The Blue Jays will likely make him available in October, so his 2.85 ERA is relevant here. JA Happ and Marcus Stroman are playoff-caliber arms as well, giving Toronto by far the deepest rotation among the three. Baltimore hasn’t seen much starting pitching behind Tillman this season, but young pitchers Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy have turned in decent starts in the second half and should steal postseason innings from veterans Yovani Gallardo and Ubaldo Jimenez, each of whom has been awful this season. Boston has seen its own rotation struggle this year, but with Rick Porcello, Steven Wright, and Eduardo Rodriguez or Drew Pomeranz lining up behind Price in October, they’re certainly in better shape than Baltimore, if not quite Toronto’s equal.

Edge: Blue Jays

Bullpen

Boston built a formidable bullpen this offseason, but they’ve seen their share of injuries and inconsistency, between Koji Uehara showing his age, Craig Kimbrel showing he’s human and Carson Smith never really showing up. Still, with Kimbrel, Brad Ziegler, Junichi Tazawa, and Robbie Ross, Jr., Boston would have a serviceable pen for an October run. Toronto boasts an ace closer in Robert Osuna, but sets him up with Jason Grilli, Joseph Biagini, and a few lesser-quality arms. Neither unit can match the firepower of Baltimore’s relief crew. Zach Britton hasn’t given up a run since April 30, Brad Brach is nearly as dominant, and Mychal Givens has a better strikeout rate than either of them. Any chance Baltimore has of hanging with the better teams in the division comes from the big advantage it gains in the late innings.

Big Edge: Orioles

Summary

The Red Sox have the edge in seven of the 12 comparisons above and I think it’s true that they have the strongest roster of the three teams, but these advantages are not created equal. Leon is no lock to keep hitting the way he has, Ortiz seemed to lose his bat entirely around the All-Star break and the division’s two best players- Donaldson and Machado- play for the competition. While Boston’s pitching is much improved with the additions of Ziegler and Pomeranz, Toronto still has the better rotation and Baltimore has the better bullpen. Baltimore also has Buck Showalter, who’s squeezed more out of his middling roster than anyone could have imagined coming into the season.

It says here that the Red Sox are the most talented team in the American League East, but that if they’re going to the playoffs in 2016, they’ll need to win a Wild Card game.

Bryan O’Connor lives in Cumberland with his wife and two baseball-loving kids. For more baseball musings, follow him on Twitter @replevel.

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