The American League East shapes up to be the most interesting divisional race in baseball in August and September. As the calendar turns to August, the Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays, and Boston Red Sox are separated by a mere game in the standings. While the Orioles have spent 100 days in first place this season, their lead and hold on the top of the division has looked tenuous over the past two weeks. All three teams have obvious flaws. All three teams have big question marks in their rotation, and the Red Sox and Blue Jays have holes in their bullpen.
With the trade deadline come and gone, these tightly-bunched contenders had a mostly quiet day. Most of Boston’s work was done in the prior weeks, trading for Drew Pomeranz and Brad Ziegler. Pomeranz has struggled in his first three starts with the Red Sox, while Ziegler has helped to stabilize a bullpen that is currently missing Carson Smith and Koji Uehara. All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel is back from the DL, but has not been his dominant self this season. Middle relief remained an area of need heading into the deadline, and the Red Sox made a minor move to acquire Fernando Abad, a lefty specialist who has held same-side hitters to a .163/.192/.265 line this year. Right-handers hit Abad fairly well when he pitched for the Minnesota Twins, but with the Red Sox, he should be cemented in the LOOGY role, never facing a right-handed batter.
Overall, the Red Sox attempted to address their team’s biggest weakness, the starting rotation, with Pomeranz, but he has not looked like himself so far since leaving San Diego. The left-hander has now far surpassed his career high in innings, and could face a dicey last two months of the season if fatigue sets in. The bullpen additions should help, with Ziegler being the more impactful pickup. The Red Sox made a run at Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox, but did not pull the trigger on a deal that probably would have cost them a handful of top-10 prospects. With Pomeranz underwhelming so far, one more addition to the rotation must have been tempting.
The second-place Blue Jays, who appear to be the biggest threat to the Orioles’ hold on first place, had a blockbuster deadline last summer, acquiring David Price and Troy Tulowitzki, were much quieter this year. Their lineup is mostly complete, but Melvin Upton was acquired to help take some pressure off Jose Bautista in the field. Upton could also platoon with Michael Saunders, but Saunders has far outplayed a platoon role this year. The biggest question for the Blue Jays is their bullpen, and they targeted Scott Feldman to shore it up. He promptly took the loss in his first game with Toronto. Aaron Sanchez will make only a few more starts before moving to the ‘pen, so he should provide a dominant eighth-inning arm ahead of Roberto Osuna. That should answer the bullpen questions (assuming the young pitcher can handle the different stresses relief pitching places on his arm), but creates another hole in the rotation. The answer for that question, for now, is Francisco Liriano. The left-hander is having his worst season since 2012, and has a sky-high walk rate. It’s going to be a stretch for the Jays to turn him back into an effective pitcher in a very tough division. Overall, moving Sanchez to the bullpen and slotting Liriano in his spot in the rotation is more of a negative than anything else for Toronto. The health of Marco Estrada and the loss of Aaron Sanchez’s league-leading ERA from the rotation could spell trouble for the Blue Jays.
The team atop the division, the Orioles, had a big to-do list entering the trade deadline. The rotation has been awful all year long, and the offense has struggled of late. The bullpen also lacks a left-handed specialist. Of the three areas of need, the bullpen can be most easily overlooked as the core of Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, and Zach Britton effectively shut down hitters from both sides of the plate. The big answer for the rotation is Wade Miley, whose best quality (in the eyes of the Orioles) is his ability to throw a baseball with his left hand for close to six innings each time he takes the ball. Miley has actually been good in July, but his ERA for the season is still 4.98. Miley and Liriano are about the same in terms of value added to their respective new teams. Fan favorite Steve Pearce was brought back to the club, and should be used in conjunction with Hyun Soo Kim in left field and will see innings in right field when Mark Trumbo slides to DH. Pearce has crushed left-handed pitching this year, something the Orioles have struggled to do as a whole. If, God forbid, Chris Davis continues to strike out at an alarming clip, Pearce could even see some time at first base. These two moves were very low cost trades for an organization with very little to offer in terms of prospects.
On paper, the Red Sox appear to have gotten the biggest upgrade at the trade deadline in Drew Pomeranz, but he has not lived up to his billing so far. He has the potential to decide this division race. Same could be said of Miley and Liriano. If both are able to rise above their season-long struggles, the Orioles and Jays could come out on top. For a division race this close, and with rich ballclubs, the 2016 trade deadline was a snoozer (with the exception of the perfectly-executed fire sale in the Bronx). For the most part, the Orioles, Blue Jays, and Red Sox will have to continue dancing with the same teams they opened the season with back in April. That’s made for a very entertaining race so far, and the trend should hold for another two months.