We’re far enough along in the 2021 season that determinations can be made about which teams should be confident they are playoff contenders. They will be looking to add at the trade deadline while others should be scouting top prospects for the 2022 draft. As of Tuesday, June 8, it appears that there are eight legitimate contenders in the American League. We will take a quick look at each and speculate on what weakness could be their downfall.
Tampa Bay Rays (38-23)
They have the best record in the AL and sit atop the ultra-competitive east division. Their weakness? Well, it’s a typical Rays team in that they don’t really have any huge stars but somehow seem to make it work. Austin Meadows has been white-hot the past couple of weeks but after him do you know who their next best RBI guy is? Manuel Margot. Joey Wendle is the only regular hitting much over .250 (and he’s just at .283) so this is a lineup that doesn’t scare you. The same criticism could be levied against the pitching staff. Tyler Glasnow is their ace but hasn’t yet taken the step to legitimate ace. Rich Hill is their number two starter. He’s 41 years old and the last time he pitched more than 135 innings in a season was 2007. Tampa Bay also mixes and matches in the bullpen. It has mostly worked out so far in 2021 but it is rare that a title contender does not have a certified closer.
Boston Red Sox (37-23)
They have won five in a row including a three-game sweep of the Yankees. Their lineup is intimidating but their deficiency may be the pitching staff. The five starters have been perfectly healthy so far, not missing a start among them. Don’t count on that continuing all season. They also give up quite a few hits, almost a hit an inning on average. The only starter who has been poor so far has been Eduardo Rodriguez (5.59 ERA) but none of the other four are lighting the world on fire. The most dependable arm has been closer Matt Barnes who has 14 saves, a microscopic 0.72 WHIP, and striking out an astounding 16 batters per nine innings. Barnes has always had control issues. This year he has reigned it in without sacrificing strikeouts. Can he keep it up all year?
Chicago White Sox (36–23)
The White Sox have gotten incredible pitching all season, and their starting staff has the best ERA in the American League. It would be easy to doubt Carlos Rodon and Dylan Cease, but their underlying numbers support their success. Looking at their lineup, it seems impossible that the White Sox are also in the top five in runs scored. They are expecting Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert to return later in the year so the offense should only get better. The Southsiders’ potential downfall? Teams are running at will against them. Chicago is giving up the second-most stolen bases in all of MLB. The pitchers don’t seem to worry much about holding runners on and catchers Yasmani Grandal and Zack Collins don’t throw particularly well. This will be a thorn in the White Sox side all year if they don’t take steps to improve in this area.
Houston Astros (33-26)
The Astros are very strong in terms of their team stats in hitting and fielding and decent in pitching. So where is their weakness? Yuli Gurriel has been an MVP candidate so far and that will not continue. Myles Straw gets a ton of empty at-bats. Their catchers are horrible hitters; regular backstop Martin Maldonado, is hitting .163 with very little power. However, Houston’s Achilles heel could be their lack of starting pitching experience. They are heavily relying on youngsters Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy, and Framber Valdez. That group has been very solid so far but it will become tougher as the league gets more looks and scouting reports on them.
Oakland Athletics (35–26)
The A’s are similar to Tampa Bay. They don’t have stars or a high payroll but consistently find a way to win games. Their overall team stats are fine but there are some flies in the ointment here. Mark Canha and Jed Lowrie gave Oakland huge contributions early in the season but as you would expect, that has subsided. They have about 550 combined at-bats from Matt Chapman, Elvis Andrus, and Sean Murphy with a batting average of about .210. Matt Olson and Ramon Laureano (when he’s healthy) can only carry the lineup so far. The A’s need Frankie Montas and Jesus Luzardo to be dangerous on the mound and both have been below average. The other issue is their closing situation. After losing Trevor Rosenthal to a season-ending injury at the end of spring training, Oakland is using Lou Trivino (8 saves) and Jake Diekman (6 saves) to finish games. They have survived with that duo so far but it is an area of concern.
Cleveland Indians (31-26)
The fact that the Indians are five games over .500 with the injuries they have accrued speaks to the brilliance of Shane Bieber and Jose Ramirez. The depth at starting pitching is dangerously thin and the bullpen – a strength of the team – may be getting overused. Overall, the team’s offense is the team’s biggest blemish. With Franmil Reyes out, Ramirez is the only hitter that scares opposing pitchers. Pitch around him and they won’t score many runs. Cleveland is 23rd overall in runs scored and 28th overall in batting average (.221 on the season). Those numbers just aren’t going to get it done if the Indians want to stay in contention.
Toronto Blue Jays (30-27)
The White Sox and the Blue Jays are the two most exciting young teams in the American League. The Toronto lineup is loaded and should be for years to come. One area that holds them back – through no fault of their own – is the strength of their division. Pitching, of course, is the other issue that may hold the Blue Jays back. The hope was Nate Pearson would step up, and that hasn’t been the case yet. If Alek Manoah is as legit as his minor league numbers suggest, it would be a huge shot in the arm for the rotation as Robbie Ray and Hyun Jin Ryu are the other hurlers that can be counted on at this point. The biggest worry is the bullpen. Similar to the A’s, Toronto lost their closer (Kirby Yates) to injury before the season started. No reliever has more than three saves and the lack of a clear closer is never a good sign for teams expecting to make the playoffs.
New York Yankees (31–29)
What is wrong with the Bronx Bombers? They swept a series from the White Sox two weeks ago but since then have dropped 10 of their last 13 games. Their stars, for the most part, have come through. The pitching staff has been solid but the bats have let them down. New York is in the bottom five in team batting average (an ugly .228 for the year) and runs scored. Brett Gardner should not be seeing any playing time at this point in his career. DJ LeMahieu hasn’t been an unmitigated disaster but he needs to provide more. And you have to wonder if Gleyber Torres’ brilliant 2019 was a fluke. He’s been as quiet as a Tesla and they need more out of him. Torres has a grand total of six home runs and about a .255 batting average in the 93 games he’s played in the last two years.
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