Barely a dozen hours after the New York Yankees went all alpha and swiped Zach Britton from an array of other contenders that coveted him and his left-handed power sinker, the Boston Red Sox finalized a trade for Nathan Eovaldi, one of the best starting pitchers available in a thin market. They were making it abundantly clear, to one another as well as the rest of the small field of American League contenders, that barreling toward a 100-win season isn’t good enough.
For the abject lack of competitiveness across the AL, the intrigue of the final two months runs deep. There is the race between the Red Sox and Yankees for supremacy in the East – and not having to face the prospect of a one-and-done wild-card game. And then the dogfight between the Seattle Mariners and Oakland A’s in the West for that second wild-card spot. They’re both chasing the Houston Astros, who would love to catch Boston for home-field advantage but need to overcome the best division in baseball. And along for the ride are the Cleveland Indians, who have quietly built a pitching staff that can compete with the Astros, Red Sox and Yankees.
With thoughts of October already percolating – and with the Yankees and Red Sox maneuvering – it felt like a proper time to ask scouts and executives to rank AL teams one through five. A dozen participated, and after tallying the votes and converting them into points – 10 for a first-place vote, eight for second, six for third, four for fourth and two for fifth – the results are below, with first-place votes in parentheses.
Houston Astros (7): 110 points
Boston Red Sox (4): 94 points
New York Yankees (1): 78 points
Cleveland Indians: 44 points
Oakland A’s: 18 points
Seattle Mariners: 16 points
Despite the Red Sox owning a better record, the Astros remain the favorites, according to the group. Houston received seven first-place votes and five in second place. The Red Sox, whose 71-32 record is four games better than Houston’s, were clearly the second choice. Despite the trade for Britton, the best reliever on the market – and a target of the Astros’ and Red Sox’s – New York was given just one first-place vote and two second-place votes.
“It’s their starting pitching,” one scout said. “They’ve got a great ‘pen, but who’s going to get them there?”
The concern is reasonable. Beyond ace Luis Severino, no Yankees starter offers a combination of excellence and consistency. Masahiro Tanaka can be great but is spotty. CC Sabathia is solid enough to go through a lineup twice and leave the final four or even five innings in the bullpen’s hands. The Yankees continue to shop aggressively for another starter, including left-hander J.A. Happ, whom the Toronto Blue Jays sent to the Bronx Thursday after deciding between a pair of strong offers, sources told Yahoo Sports.
New York’s bullpen with Britton is all kinds of adjectives – filthy, nasty, unfair, ridiculous. Each is apt for a group that includes Britton, closer Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Chad Green and Jonathan Holder. Between that and a lineup that could set the all-time team home run record – “That lineup has to beat someone up in October,” one scout said – the fact that New York remains third speaks to just how good the Astros and Red Sox are.
Houston ranking first is not surprising – though it does show something of a bias toward starting pitching after a postseason in which starters were often complete nonfactors. At +193, the Astros have the best run differential in baseball. They have allowed the fewest runs at 332 – a stunning 51 runs fewer than Boston, the second-stingiest team. They have scored the second-most runs with 525, their star-studded lineup deep and versatile. Relief pitching is their alleged weakness … and among Collin McHugh, Hector Rondon, Tony Sipp, Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski, they’ve thrown 190 2/3 innings of 2.02 ERA ball with a 238-to-51 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“I think they still want a closer,” one general manager said. “They can use [Lance] McCullers there if they really want, but Britton would’ve been perfect for them.”
It was an added bonus for the Yankees that Britton’s arrival served as a gut punch for the Astros. And similarly, while the Red Sox don’t necessarily need starters, Eovaldi would’ve looked quite nice with the Yankees. Boston grabbing him from the Rays should serve as insurance against the recovery of Eduardo Rodriguez from an ankle injury and the perpetual inconsistency of Drew Pomeranz, not to mention David Price and his 5.03 career postseason ERA.
While Boston’s bullpen is something of a question mark beyond closer Craig Kimbrel, too, its offense, with Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez playing MVP-type baseball with Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts not far behind, is scary good. Only three teams in history have won more games than the 111 the Red Sox are on pace for, and their 5½-game lead over the Yankees is almost as big as Cleveland’s MLB-best 7½-game cushion ahead of Minnesota.
The difference is the second-place Twins are six games under .500. Imagine a toxic wasteland where everybody dumps the most noxious materials possible. Then build a baseball diamond there. That’s the AL Central, home of the woebegone Kansas City Royals, the nearly-as-bad Chicago White Sox, the awful Detroit Tigers, the underachieving Twins and, yes, the Indians, who should win 130 games in this division but are only 55-46.
Cleveland finishing a distant fourth isn’t altogether surprising considering its mediocrity thus far, though it is a team that inspired faith in one scout, who had the Indians second. His rationale was similar to why he put Houston first: starting pitching. Among Corey Kluber, MLB wins above replacement leader Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber, Cleveland has five legitimately above-average-or-better starters. And so long as Andrew Miller returns healthy, supplementing him and Cody Allen with the traded-for Brad Hand and Adam Cimber takes a weakness and makes it anything but.
Cleveland, the scout admitted, could use another bat to complement Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley and Edwin Encarnacion. They’ve toyed with dealing from their major league pitching depth, including Clevinger and Bieber, in pursuit of an under-control everyday player, according to sources. While those talks haven’t gone far, sources said, they show the Indians’ willingness to get creative, as they did in the past when they discussed Carrasco and Danny Salazar in deals that never went beyond the discussion stage.
The final two teams could use a bit of everything. Oakland has surged back into the race in spite of a rotation straight out of 2010 that includes Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Edwin Jackson. The A’s do have reinforcements in Daniel Mengden and Chris Bassitt ready at Triple-A, and they could double down on their bullpen after acquiring Jeurys Familia over the weekend. Among Blake Treinen, Lou Trivino and Familia, the A’s can bust out three massive pitchers with massive stuff, and adding another could turn Oakland into Yankees Lite.
Seattle keeps fighting off the regression beast, carrying a 20-games-over-.500 record toward August in spite of a +1-run differential. Thing is, the Mariners scare the Yankees and Red Sox more than the A’s because James Paxton is the sort of pitcher who could very easily stomp into Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park and twirl a three-hit shutout. No disrespect to Sean Manaea, who along with Paxton have authored the only two complete-game no-hitters of 2018, but hitters see Paxton at a different level.
He alone isn’t enough to sustain Seattle, which is why the A’s got votes from nine officials while the Mariners received five. All of the A’s were fifth-place ballots compared to the Mariners’ three in fourth place and two in fifth. Whichever team it is will take a long flight out east with the expectation of it playing cannon fodder for the megateam that doesn’t win the East.
The Yankees’ deficit is hefty, though there’s time to make it out. Same with the Astros, though getting the second seed – and not having the possibility of facing the Yankees or Red Sox in the first round – might actually be preferable. That’s right: The way the AL playoffs are shaping up, teams might rather be the No. 2 seed than No. 1.
It’s an odd year, all right, with the power dynamics of the AL still fluid and the wolves readying to pounce. Five days of uninhibited trading remain, and another month beyond that could see high-priced players moving before the waiver deadline. One bold name did last August: Justin Verlander. Without him, the Astros don’t win the World Series. And with him this year, they’re once again the favorite to win the American League.
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