Red Sox, Yankees in familiar spots at midway point

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(Ed. Note: Bryan O’Connor is a longtime baseball aficionado and former softball rec league slugging sensation. He lives in South Portland with his wife, Jill, and their two young children, and will be providing his take on Major League Baseball for The Forecaster this summer)

If you’re anything like me, the word “baseball” conjures wonderful images and sounds, like the crack of the bat, the smooth footwork of middle infielders turning a double play, and 35,000 fans gasping and bellowing as a Kevin Youkilis drive barely clears the Green Monster.

Baseball’s other powerful image, at least to a New England fan, is the sometimes ghastly American League East standings, whether viewed online, in the paper, or in living color on the aforementioned Monster.

With the 2011 Major League Baseball season half in the books, let’s review the first three months in baseball’s most grueling division.

Before the season, I predicted the AL East would wrap up like this:

Red Sox 94-68
Yankees 93-69
Rays 90-72
Blue Jays 80-82
Orioles 73-89

As of June 25, the division looks like this:

Red Sox 44-31
Yankees 43-31
Rays 42-34
Blue Jays 37-39
Orioles 34-39

A glance at the standings above suggests that the season has been quite predictable, the Red Sox riding offseason acquisition Adrian Gonzalez’s all-around excellence and David Ortiz’s resurgent bat to the best record in the league, half a game ahead of the Yankees, with the Rays within shouting distance and the bottom feeders fighting to stay relevant.

However, having lived through the first three months of the season, we know it has been anything but predictable.

No one could have guessed, for instance, that the Red Sox would start the season 0-6 and 2-10, then proceed to rip off 42 wins in their next 60 games. Very few expected the Yankees to roll over in their first nine meetings with Boston in 2011, losing eight, including all six played in the Bronx. And anyone who watched those nine games is probably surprised that the Yankees have won 42 of the 63 games they’ve played against the rest of the league.

An in-depth look at Boston’s first 75 games shows that, aside from Carl Crawford’s miserable April, when he batted .155 with a .204 on base percentage, and just about every at bat in which J.D. Drew hasn’t walked, the offense has performed as expected. Gonzalez is an MVP candidate, leading the league in batting average and RBIs. Ortiz has 17 home runs and gets on base nearly 40 percent of the time, a similar rate to Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, whose bats have recently started to match their patience in effectiveness.

On the other side of the ball, Jon Lester has been worse than expected, walking 36 hitters in just over 97 innings, but he has nine wins to show for that wildness. Josh Beckett has taken Lester’s place as the staff ace, posting a 1.86 ERA in his first 14 starts. Daisuke Matsuzaka begged for Tommy John surgery (though I’m not sure it will fix his unwillingness to throw strikes), and John Lackey has been bad, but with the offense rolling the way it is, the Sox should be fine with a little Tim Wakefield here and some Alfredo Aceves there.

In contrast to the streaky Red Sox, the Yankees have been consistently good, but their production has come from unexpected places. Curtis Granderson leads the team in home runs, runs scored, and slugging percentage. Russell Martin, who has cooled off lately, had nine home runs by May 24. Bartolo Colon and the stem cells in his bionic arm have struck out 72 batters and walked just 18. It’s hard to imagine these three keeping up the pace, but there are plenty of underachievers ready to pick up their slack when they regress.

C.C. Sabathia leads the American League in baserunners allowed this season, but, like Lester, has nine wins to show for his mediocrity. Sabathia will pitch better in the second half, and the ‘Stripes are bound to see better things out of Nick Swisher, who’s hitting .235 and Brett Gardner, who has been caught stealing in 10 of his 24 attempts. It’s no secret that these two teams, while they do have weaknesses, are the two best teams in the American League and they should fight for the division until the bitter end.

While we may sometimes forget it, there are three other teams in the American League East.

The Rays have been on a rocky road this season, losing eight of their first nine, winning eight of their next nine, and finally settling into the third place role they’ve been stuck in every day since May 24th.

Tampa’s pitching is top heavy, with James Shields among the league leaders in ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (108) and David Price pitching better than his league-average ERA indicates. In contrast, rookie Jeremy Hellickson is getting it done with smoke and mirrors, keeping his ERA near 3 despite walking almost as many batters as he strikes out. The Rays will not compete in the AL East without more significant contributions from Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, or Alex Cobb at the back end of the rotation.

Offensively, the Rays are not the force they were last year. With Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford gone and Evan Longoria still recovering from an early-season injury, the Rays have depended on Matt Joyce, who’s slugging .534 and Ben Zobrist, who leads the team with 24 doubles and 34 walks, to stay competitive. Longoria and B.J. Upton, who’s batting .219, will have to contribute more in the second half if the Rays expect to contend.

Toronto has been a one-man show. Jose Bautista leads the major leagues in home runs (23), on base percentage (.473) and slugging percentage (.664). Ricky Romero is a second-tier ace, capable of standing up to a Lester or Sabathia on occasion, but since promising rookie Kyle Drabek was demoted to Triple A after leading the majors in walks, it’s been clear that the Blue Jays don’t have the depth to compete for the division this year.

The Orioles signed veterans Vlad Guerrero, J.J. Hardy, Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds and Justin Duchscherer in the offseason in what looks like a successful effort to finish closer to fourth place in the AL East. Expect a fresh round of prospects in Baltimore after most of these players are traded at the deadline.

The first half of the season has been marked by streaks and lead changes. Expect the division lead to be passed back and forth throughout the dog days of summer, with the bottom of the standings shaking up as well.

But when October comes, there’s no reason to think the division won’t look exactly like it did in late June, with the two richest, best-managed, and yes, most reviled teams in baseball playing into autumn.

Read more of Bryan O’Connor’s take on baseball at replacementlevel.wordpress.com.

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