Entering this season, the American League East division had a pretty clear hierarchy. Through the first month of the year, that seems to have been flipped on itself. The Red Sox in first place? The Yankees in last? Of course, the season is still young, but this division has made itself interesting early on.
Boston Red Sox, 16-10 record, 1st place
The Whitlock pick may be controversial, but the Rule-5 draft pick from the rival Yankees has been sensational. In a long-relief role, Whitlock is yet to allow a run with a nine K: BB ratio. He edges out Nick Pivetta and Matt Barnes, who are also having great starts, based on the surprise factor. The Sox should not be the only team in the division over .500, but alas, they are, and Alex Cora looks like he has this team under the wraps again.
The offense has produced, and that is all thanks to Martinez. After a lowly .680 OPS in 2020, Martinez is currently at 1.095, while matching his home run total of seven from last year, in 30 fewer games. Also on a roll are infield mainstays Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, each with an OPS over .900. Where the team can improve is outfield hitting. Alex Verdugo has been strong, with a .314 average and .894 OPS, but Hunter Renfroe has a .518 OPS, and Franchy Cordero is at .489. Enrique Hernandez is not much better, currently under .700.
The rotation was a major weak point for the Red Sox last year, but their top-three have performed. Nathan Eovaldi has a 3.77 ERA and looks a lot like the pitcher who led the team last year. Eduardo Rodriguez has a 3.52 ERA in his return after missing all of 2020 with COVID. He has 26 strikeouts in 23 innings. Pivetta has been the best of them all, with a 2.81 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 25.2 innings. His control could definitely improve, as he has walked 17 batters on the season.
Team MVP: J.D. Martinez, .333/.417/678 slash line, seven HR, 21 RBIs
Tampa Bay Rays, 13-13 record, 2nd place
These Rays can not be underestimated, even when they seem like an average team early on. Their lineup was their closest thing to a weakness last year, and it is proving to be one now. Randy Arozarena and Austin Meadows have been good, but not great. Willy Adames and Brandon Lowe have looked terrible, leaving Wendle as the team’s best hitter. He is not known for his power, but Wendle can hit, and his .877 OPS shows that.
The best offensive position for Tampa Bay has been catcher, which was a huge weakness for them in 2020. Mike Zunino has just 15 strikeouts in 15 games while hitting five home runs. Former top prospect on Cleveland and San Diego Francisco Mejia has a .306 average with a .817 OPS. If Lowe, Adames, Arozarena, and Meadows can get going, this team can go places.
Aside from Glasnow’s dominance, the rotation has been spotty. Michael Wacha seems like a different man again, but Ryan Yarbrough has pitched worse than his career norm. Rich Hill looks completely washed, with a 7.25 ERA in five starts. The bullpen is missing Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, and Chaz Roe, but Diego Castillo, Ryan Thompson, and Andrew Kittredge have started strong.
Team MVP: Joey Wendle, .316/.345/.532 with three home runs and 16 RBIs
Team Cy Young: Tyler Glasnow, 1.67 ERA with 56 strikeouts and 19 hits allowed in 37.2 innings
Toronto Blue Jays, 11-12 record, 3rd place
The Blue Jays have some performances that do not belong on an 11-12 team. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has finally arrived, with a 1.141 OPS. Is it sustainable? Nothing in April seems to be. As always, he is mashing the ball, with a 94.4 mph average exit velocity. Still, the team has its fair share of underperformers. Teoscar Hernandez was team MVP in 2020, and he has battled injury while going six-for-29. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has been healthy, and he has just a .487 OPS. Catcher Danny Jansen may be the worst hitter in baseball right now, going two-for-44.
A glute strain has Ryu on the injured list and the rotation may not be able to handle life without him. Robbie Ray has a 2.81 ERA in three starts, but he has walked nine. Steven Matz has won four games, but his 4.00 ERA is nothing spectacular. The rest looks really, really bad. Ross Stripling, Tanner Roark, and T.J. Zeuch have been either injured, terrible, or both.
The bullpen has been a nice surprise, with Tyler Chatwood, Anthony Castro, and Tim Mayza throwing scoreless Aprils. Rafael Dolis, David Phelps, Ryan Borucki, Trent Thornton, and Jordan Romano have been good as well. Julian Merryweather started the season by striking out seven in 4.1 innings and looked to be a dominant closer. Unfortunately, an injury will sidetrack that.
Team MVP: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., .346/.474/.667 with seven home runs, 17 walks with just 15 strikeouts.
Team Cy Young: Hyun Jin Ryu, 2.60 ERA with 26 strikeouts and three walks in 27.2 innings.
Baltimore Orioles, 11-14 record, tied for 4th place
Ah, the Orioles we know and love are back. Mullins is off to a great start, but the next best OPS on the team after his .918 is Freddy Galvis at .779. Trey Mancini is providing a strong Comeback Player of the Year award case, with a team-leading five home runs. The rest is not good. Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Mountcastle has a sub-.500 OPS, and Anthony Santander, a stand-out from last year, was at .551 before getting injured.
The rotation after Means has been flat-out awful. Matt Harvey has a 4.26 ERA in five starts, as he vies for redemption. Jorge Lopez (7.48 ERA) and Dean Kremer (8.40) may be in danger of losing their rotation spots.
Aside from Shawn Armstrong and his 9.00 ERA, the bullpen has been sneaky-good. Dillon Tate, Cole Sulser, Adam Plutko, Paul Fry, and Tanner Scott are each off to great starts, while Cesar Valdez has locked down the closer role, with five saves.
Team MVP: Cedric Mullins, .340/.393/.526 with three home runs and two stolen bases
Team Cy Young: John Means, 1.50 ERA with 29 strikeouts and 18 hits in 30 innings
New York Yankees, 11-14, tied for 4th place
Like with Whitlock earlier, Higashioka wins based on the surprise factor. He has taken significant playing time from Gary Sanchez, who is struggling once again. Aaron Judge has battled soreness, but he still has a .874 OPS. Giancarlo Stanton was slumping to start the year off but has been the team’s hottest hitter as of late. A 113 mph single seems like a disappointment, which says something.
The bigger story has been who is struggling. Aaron Hicks looks hopeless, as his OPS just dipped under .500. Former rookie standouts Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres have also drawn the ire of New York fans, although the latter has recently shown positive signs. Also heating up is DJ LeMahieu, and if LeMahieu can get hot with Luke Voit coming off the IL, the dynamic duo from 2020 will continue to dominate.
The pitching staff behind Cole has been a question all offseason. In the past week, Domingo German, Corey Kluber, and Jordan Montgomery have completed successful starts. Next is Jameson Taillon‘s turn.
The bullpen has been the positive story of the Yankees’ season so far. Aroldis Chapman has 20 strikeouts with no runs allowed in eight innings pitched, as his new splitter looks disgusting. Jonathan Loaisiga is developing into a late-inning arm, while Chad Green, Justin Wilson, and Darren O’Day have shown their skills from years past. Multi-inning options Luis Cessa and Michael King have been pleasant surprises.
Team MVP: Kyle Higashioka, .276/.364/759 with four home runs in 12 games
Team Cy Young: Gerrit Cole, 1.71 ERA with 50 strikeouts and 20 hits in 31.2 innings
A Look Ahead
The AL East division is still pretty close right now, with the Yankees and Orioles just 4.5 games out of first place. Given the history of the 2020 Yankees and Red Sox, that gap can close quickly. The same goes for the Rays and Blue Jays, playoff teams from a year ago. In May, anticipate the closing of the gap between Rays and Yankees and the Red Sox, as the Orioles drift away into space. Like they were entering the season, the Blue Jays remain a crazy wild card. The return of George Springer can only help.