Can anyone catch the streaking Yankees for first in the AL East?
Are the Yankees running away with the American League East? New York started July in second place in the division but has since gone 12–4 on the month to take a 5 1/2-game lead over the second-place Blue Jays. The Yankees' seven-game lead in the loss column, meanwhile, matches the largest such lead by any other division leader in the majors (the Royals are also seven games up in the AL Central). Only the Angels (13–4) have played better than the Yankees this month, while no other team in the East has performed better than Toronto’s 8–10 mark.
A crucial part of New York's ability to pull away in the division this month has been the poor play of its rivals, but the Yankees’ success is built on more than that. Offensively, New York has gotten bounce-back performances from the expensive veterans in the heart of their lineup: Alex Rodriguez (144 OPS+), Mark Teixeira (149) and Brian McCann (117). Brett Gardner, the team's longest-serving home-grown player, is having a career year, hitting .296/.374/.467 (133 OPS+) with 10 home runs and 15 stolen bases, and fourth outfielder Chris Young is among the top nine hitters on the team in total plate appearances this season and sixth among that group in OPS. As for the non-Teixeira members of the infield—Stephen Drew, Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley—while they’ve all been disappointments at the plate, they’ve at least been solid defensively.
The Yankees' pitching has been strong as well, led by the dominance of their two-headed bullpen. Free-agent addition Andrew Miller and sophomore Dellin Betances are the top names there, but New York has also been buoyed by young lefties Chasen Shreve and Justin Wilson, two off-season trade additions who have combined for as many appearances as Miller and Betances. The rotation, meanwhile, has been surprisingly healthy, with both Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda avoiding serious injury (save a brief bit of forearm tendinitis for Tanaka).
With Ivan Nova, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Miller all having returned from the disabled list in the last month, the Yankees are now deeper than they have been all season. They may well make a deadline addition of two of their own, to boot, with Ben Zobrist as a particularly enticing target given Drew’s poor production at second base. The Yankees also have second base prospect Rob Refsnyder stashed at Triple A, where he has hit .296/.397/.438 with 53 stolen bases, as a potential post-deadline replacement for Drew. That could give them the freedom to pursue a rotation addition or even another shut-down reliever instead of the 34-year-old Zobrist.
Given all of those strengths, it's worth wondering if any team in the East can catch up to the Yankees at this point. Let's start from the bottom with the last-place Red Sox, who can be dismissed out of hand. Now 12 games back in the division and 13 back in the loss column with the worst record in the AL, they’ll likely be sellers between now and next Friday’s trade deadline, taking themselves out of a race they were never really in. The Rays and Orioles, meanwhile, have posted the two worst records in baseball this month, going 6–12 and 5–12, respectively, and losing series to the Yankees; each team is now 5–8 against New York this season. Those poor July showings have dropped both teams below .500 on the season, and third-order record suggests that neither team is that far away from their true level: Tampa’s .490 third-order winning percentage is a near match for its actual .495 mark, and Baltimore’s .509 third-order mark is just two games away from its actual .489 mark.
Both teams may look to make additions at the trading deadline, but the Rays, who are in desperate need of a bat, are unlikely to make a big splash given their typical budget constraints and the resulting need to hang on to their best prospects. Indeed, per the Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin, the Rays seem more likely to trade a reliever than acquire a bat. They could try to do both things in a single move, but a castoff from Tampa’s bullpen is not going to bring back a middle-of-the-order stud. The Orioles’ biggest need, meanwhile, is a front-end starting pitcher, as they currently have the third-worst rotation ERA in the AL (4.34). Their competition for such an arm is going to be stiff, however, and the team’s top two prospects, pitchers Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, have missed most of the current season with arm injuries, undermining their value as trade chips.
The one team that seems capable of making a move on the Yankees, then, is second-place Toronto. The Jays are 4–2 against New York on the season, have the second-best run differential in baseball (+97) and seemed to be making their move in June. Slipping into last place in late May, the Jays went 17–6 from June 3 to June 28 to climb within one game of first, but then lost 10 of their final 14 games before the All-Star break to fall back below .500. Toronto is 4–2 in the second half, but the team is in desperate need of pitching help, both in the rotation—which has been only marginally better than Baltimore’s, posting a 4.28 ERA—and in the bullpen. The latter has contributed to the team's dismal 10–20 record in one-run games. Had the Jays merely gone .500 in one-run games to this point, they’d be 54–43 on the season and just a half-game behind the Yankees in the division.
Aware of their bullpen problem, the Jays intend to move rookie Aaron Sanchez to the ‘pen upon his activation from the disabled list, which could happen this weekend. Sanchez had middling results and lousy peripherals in 11 starts for Toronto earlier this year before landing on the DL with a latissimus dorsi strain, but he excelled in 24 relief outings for the team last year and is able to crank his sinker up to 99 miles per hour in those shorter stints. Of course, moving Sanchez to the bullpen leaves Felix Doubront as the team’s fifth starter. The front of the rotation seems to be rounding into shape—Mark Buehrle has a 2.24 ERA in his last 14 starts, R.A. Dickey boasts a 3.32 ERA in his last 10 starts and Marco Estrada has a 2.87 ERA in his last 10 starts—but having the likes of Doubront in the starting five is problematic.
The Jays have reportedly been active in trade talks to try to fix their pitching woes. They pursued Scott Kazmir before he was traded to the Astros on Thursday, made a run at Cleveland’s Carlos Carrasco and asked about deposed Marlins closer Steve Cishek. Toronto also discussed multiple pitchers, both starters and relievers, with the Padres. The Jays reportedly balked at the Athletics' asking price for Kazmir but would be willing to pay that price for Johnny Cueto or, one presumes, for David Price, if he hits the market.
It's worth remembering here that the Jays own baseball’s longest playoff drought: They haven't been to the postseason since Joe Carter’s home run won them the 1993 World Series. That suggests that the Jays might be more willing than any other team to trade a key prospect in the pursuit of a playoff berth. Even if they don’t catch the Yankees, Toronto is just three games out of a wild-card position, and the team clearly has the lineup to make a run at October if it can only upgrade its pitching in the next week. The Jays lead all of baseball with 5.3 runs scored per game, and their 513 total runs scored are a whopping 18% more than the second-highest total in the majors—which, by the way, belongs to the Yankees.
Age and the associated threat of injury would seem to be the biggest threats to the Yankees down the stretch, but don’t count Toronto out just yet. The Blue Jays have 13 head-to-head games remaining with New York, all of which fall after next Friday’s trading deadline. With the right reinforcements to their pitching staff, the Jays will have the time, talent and opportunity to make a move on the first-place Yankees.