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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Red Sox, Orioles, Yankees, Rays and Jays: AL East is going to be a fight to the finish

Baltimore Orioles' Ryan Flaherty is congratulated by teammates

Baltimore Orioles' Ryan Flaherty is congratulated by teammates Chris Dickerson, left, and J.J. Hardy, right, after hitting a three-run home run against the Yankees in the third inning. (June 29, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

BALTIMORE - The All-Star Game won't be played for another two weeks, but we're already at the midpoint of the season, which makes it as good a time as any to see how badly we messed up handicapping the American League East.

Back in March, when the Blue Jays were considered the unanimous offseason champions, we took the bait like most everyone else. And with Toronto as the top dog, the rest of the division was supposed to finish like this: the Orioles, at No. 2, were the wild-card pick, followed by the Rays, the Yankees and the bottom-dwelling Red Sox.

How far off were those predictions?

Well, at this juncture, it's not looking good, with one notable exception. The Orioles are right where we said they'd be, clinging to second and positioned for one of the two wild cards. Aside from that, our last-place Sox are in first, and our first-place Blue Jays are bringing up the rear.

How rare is the AL East pileup this year? When the Blue Jays finally made it back over .500 (38-37) this month, the entire division had a winning record. In the last 25 years, there have been only 11 days in which any AL division had all of its teams over .500 with at least 75 games played, according to STATS, Inc. The AL East did it for seven days last season and the AL West did it for four days in 1991.

Good thing for us there's still half a season to go, and with only eight games separating the five teams, the AL East could flip over entirely before the end of September.

Much of that could depend on what personnel moves are made before the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline. There are plenty of holes to fill, and not just on the Yankees, who have obvious needs at third base, first base and in the outfield.

With the division so tightly bunched together, a playoff spot could be decided by a trade for a difference-maker or two. Every general manager is trying to figure out how to make up some ground or put some daylight between his team and its pursuers.

The Yankees look a bit lost in the middle of the pack, but they aren't the only ones getting anxious about making significant upgrades. "I think that other teams are going to feel that way, too,'' Joe Girardi said.

With that in mind, we won't ask for a do-over on our predictions. Instead, we'll stand pat and sketch out a scenario in which the AL East will finish the way we said it would. Or at least have a closer resemblance.

1. Blue Jays. Along with tying a franchise record with 11 consecutive wins, Toronto is 18-8 in June and riding a rotation that might be sorting itself out. In spinning through 12 starters, and with bloated ERAs for April (5.27) and May (5.74), the Jays are down to 3.97 (entering Saturday) for June, and R.A. Dickey could be finding his knuckler after this past week's shutout of the Rays. Relying on Chien-Ming Wang, who was dumped by the Yankees, is a stretch, and the Jays will be looking hard for another starter as the deadline nears. As other acquisitions go, Jose Reyes is back after missing nearly 10 weeks with a bad ankle sprain, and getting him on base for the team that ranks second in the AL with 101 homers should keep the offense motoring.

2. Orioles. Just because Baltimore is camped in the spot we predicted doesn't mean it's sitting pretty by any stretch. While the O's have the ability to pound teams into submission, led by Chris Davis' supernatural start -- he hit two more home runs Saturday night to give him 30 on the season -- they're no longer the close-game kings of a year ago. The rotation also is a problem, and the news that top prospect Dylan Bundy is headed for Tommy John surgery was a big blow. Still, Buck Showalter is good at playing the cards he's dealt. "It's not like a white knight is riding to the rescue,'' Showalter said. As for trades, he added: "At what price? It's not like a team is just going to send someone over and pay his whole contract, too.''

3. Rays. Allergic to big-money acquisitions at the deadline, Tampa Bay will make a significant personnel move Tuesday when David Price returns from six weeks on the DL with a strained left triceps. But will Price regain his Cy Young form of a year ago? Before the injury, he was 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA, and the pitching-reliant Rays are in the back half of the AL (ninth) with a starters' ERA of 4.40, third best in the division. Another ominous sign: Evan Longoria left Friday's game with a plantar fascia flare-up, which is likely to be a nagging issue for the remainder of the season.

4. Yankees. They missed the playoffs only once (2008) in the previous 18 years, but that successful run will face a serious test. The magic that led them to a 30-18 record appears to be fading. Brian Cashman did a great job plugging in what he figured to be short-term replacements for Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson -- and it worked until both Teixeira and Granderson wound up on the DL again, with Teixeira lost for the season. Counting on the rehabbing duo of Alex Rodriguez and even Derek Jeter would be a mistake, but what other choices do the Yankees have? Finding a bat is going to be a challenge for Cashman, and as Showalter alluded to, what price are they willing to pay -- especially if they remain serious about a $189-million payroll next season?

5. Red Sox. What's more impressive? That Clay Buchholz has a 1.71 ERA or that John Lackey has a 2.99? We'll take the latter, but not everything is perfect. Buchholz has been bothered by bursa sac inflammation and Jon Lester has a 6.99 ERA in his last eight starts, with opponents smacking him around to a .931 OPS. Andrew Bailey also is out at closer, replaced by Koji Uehara. Boston has covered up any pitching-related glitches by scoring the most runs (424) in the majors, led again by 37-year-old David Ortiz (16 homers, 1.017 OPS). Boston's midlevel makeover during the offseason didn't impress, but depth in all areas has been the difference. If age catches up to Ortiz and Buchholz and Lester revert to 2012 form, Boston could fall off its 97-win pace. Short of that, finishing last seems unlikely, even with little space separating the bottom from the top in the AL East.


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