The New York Yankees had to know entering the 2011 season that the American League East was not going to be easy to navigate. I am not sure anyone thought the division would be this tightly-bunched after nearly one-third of the season, however.
As the Yankees jet west for a nine-game road trip with stops in Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim, they do lead the division with a 27-21 record, a half-game in front of the Boston Red Sox (27-22). No surprise there, the Red Sox were nearly everyone's preseason choice to win the division.
It is the strength of the rest of the division that is making it so interesting.
Despite massive losses of key personnel (Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena and others) the Tampa Bay Rays are 26-23, just 1.5 games behind. At times, the surprisingly Rays have led the division.
The Rays have a terrific organization and do a great job bringing in useful veteran players and developing young ones through their minor-league system. They have a terrific starting rotation anchored by David Price and James Shields, and a capable lineup led by star third baseman Evan Longoria. I am not sure I am buying that the Rays can best the Yankees or Red Sox with Kyle Farnsworth closing in a pennant race. Farnsworth has nine saves and a 1.69 ERA thus far for Tampa Bay, but handling pressure has never been his strong suit. He has a 4.34 ERA and just 36 saves in a 14-year career. To me, he is Tampa Bay's biggest question mark.
The Baltimore Orioles, with Buck Showalter in his first full season as manager, are no longer divisional patsies. They have a solid lineup with young emerging starts like Nick Markakis and Adam Jones, and they have veteran hitters like Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee and second baseman Brian Roberts.
The O's have a plethora of young arms on their pitching staff, led by 23-year-old emerging ace Zach Britton (5-2) and 25-year-old Jake Arietta (6-2).
-- See SB Nation's Camden Chat for more about the Orioles.
The Yankees just saw the Toronto Blue Jays earlier this week, and if you watched those games you know the deal with Toronto. They have the amazing Jose Bautista (19 home runs, .342 batting average), but not much offense beyond that. What they do have in abundance is quality young pitching that should keep them in a lot of games all season.
-- See SB Nation's Bluebird Banter for more about the Blue Jays.
Of course, we can't forget about the Red Sox when discussing the American League East. We saved the most important for last.
The Red Sox have overcome an awful first two weeks of the season to pull themselves within a half-game of the division lead. New Boston first baseman Adrian Gozalez (.340, nine home runs, 43 RBI) is a great player. So is new left fielder Carl Crawford, even is his current .229 batting average does not show it.
The biggest problem for Boston is that the bottom of their starting rotation has been awful. Daisuke Matsuzaka has a 5.30 ERA and John Lackey recently took his 2-5 record and 8.01 ERA to the disabled list.
It looks like both the Yankees and Red Sox will be looking for starting pitching help in what is shaping up to be a pretty thin trade market for starters.
Whichever team is actually able to acquire one who gives them a boost down the stretch might be the one who emerges as the division winner.