They say all games are created equally, and that each outing in a long season is just one of 162 games. That’s certainly true, from a mathematical perspective – 90 wins is 90 wins, regardless of how a team gets there.
From a practical perspective, however, not all games are equal. While the primacy effect may make it seem like it’s the games late in the season, within a tight race, that “matter more,” the argument can be made that it’s the games earlier in the year that can shape a team’s endpoint the most. In particular, success in the games ahead of the July 31 trade deadline, when looked at together, is paramount.
The American League East is a great example of this. With five teams projected to perform similarly before the season, the spread in the division so far is perhaps wider than most anticipated, with 9.5 games separating first and last. The team quality evaluation hasn’t changed all that much, however, with each team projected to win between 35 and 37 games (.480-.521) the rest of the way. The teams who have performed well early are in the driver’s seat for a playoff push, even though they don’t necessarily project as better than the others the rest of the way.
This is important not just for building an edge within the division – it’s made three teams buyers and two teams sellers ahead of the deadline.
When saying that early-season games matter more, this is what we mean – even if the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox could conceivably go on a run with their current rosters (and rest of season projections actually suggest those two teams will perform the best from today forward), they’re in a position now where their record could lead them to be sellers at the deadline. The Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees, meanwhile, have won enough that they could see themselves as buyers.
So even though early-season games don’t count as more than one of 162, early struggles have put the Sox and Rays in a position to take themselves out of the race entirely.
Meanwhile, the other three teams have every incentive to try and add pieces, especially given how close the division still projects to be. Based on our standings projections, all three teams project to finish with between 81 and 85 wins, with the Jays and Orioles separated by just a game atop the division. The second-place team in the division also projects to finish just a game back of the second wild card berth.
Here are the standings to date and the projected standings in table form:
|Team||W TD||L TD||W% TD||GB TD||W Proj||L Proj||W% Proj||GB Proj|
With margins that narrow projected, each of these teams has the incentive to add a piece (or pieces) ahead of the deadline. If a win is made up of 10 runs and the division could be decided by as little as one win, then every run – every base, really – counts. The AL East may currently look like a war of attirition, but it’s going to be one that’s won on the margins.
Each team has obvious holes to try and fill, too, plug-ins that may seem small but could make all the difference.
Weaknesses: 10th in AL in starter ERA, 12th in AL in IP per start, 15th in AL in starter FIP, 3rd in reliever wOBA vs. LHH
Even though the O’s have been solid in allowing a division-best 4.11 runs per game, their rotation could use reinforcements. A Baltimore team that plays its home games at Camden can’t necessarily expect to shut opponents down entirely, but adding another arm to eat innings above replacement level would have value. Jorge de la Rosa is a name the O’s have reportedly been linked to, if the Colorado Rockies decide to move him, and while he’s not a great fit for the ballpark and can’t be relied on for six innings an outing, he’d at least help.
There are a handful of other names that could be on the market, and Brandon McCarthy would have been a nice fit given his groundball ways, but perhaps A.J. Burnett or Kyle Kendrick could be pried from the Phillies at a reasonable price. Kendrick showed a nice batted ball profile last season that’s regressed some, and he’s also averaged 6.19 innings per start the past two seasons.
Elsewhere, the Caleb Joseph–Nick Hundley catching duo has hung in well with Matt Wieters out but would be an area to solidify, and a LOOGY could help out in the bullpen now that southpaw Zach Britton has the closer’s chair (T.J. McFarland has decent numbers overall but has been hammered by lefties). The catching market is somewhat thin, but Wesley Wright might be available from the Cubs for a PTBNL or low-level prospect.
Weaknesses: 14th in AL in catcher WAR, 13th in AL in OBP vs. LHP, 13th in AL in starter FIP, 14th in reliever wOBA vs. LHH
The weaknesses listed above miss a couple key points for the Jays: Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie are all hurt. You can’t exactly replace that kind of production in an instant (Nolan Reimold is trying, though), but Lawrie’s injury in particular highlights how thin the team’s infield depth was, with Juan Francisco, Munenori Kawasaki and Steve Tolleson combining for 197 plate appearances in the past month (as the Jays collapsed) for a combined 0.2 WAR. Help at the hot corner or keystone, which wouldn’t be redundant when Lawrie returns since he can play either spot, would be huge.
But there are other holes, too, like behind the plate where Josh Thole has inexplicably been the team’s best backstop with the bat in his hands, and at most spots against lefties, evident when Brad Glenn hit fifth. Catcher, second, third, wherever the Jays add punch, it needs to be with someone who can hit lefties. The team has long been enamored with Gordon Beckham and Chase Headley, who fit that description some.
There’s also the elephant in the rotation, where Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman could either face late-season innings caps or simply run out of gas. With J.A. Happ already holding down a rotation spot and Liam Hendriks as the first man up if a spot-start is needed, there’s obviously a great need in the rotation. Burnett is someone the team tried to nab in the offseason and is a solid fit, if Rogers is alright adding that kind of salary for a late push.
That’s a lot of holes for a would-be contender, but the bright side is that patching a couple of them for marginal gains would really add up, and the bar to improving the outlook is pretty low.
Weaknesses: 14th in AL in shortstop WAR, 14th in AL in designated hitter wOBA, 3rd in AL in reliever wOBA vs. RHH
How does this work, can we suggest they just cut into Derek Jeter’s playing time? Yes, the batting average is hanging in there and the defensive metrics don’t show him as having embarrassed himself, but between Jeter, Brian Roberts, a struggling Kelly Johnson and a back-down-to-earth Yangervis Solarte, the Yankees need infield help. Daniel Murphy from the cross-town Mets would fit the bill at second, which might be the better play considering they at least have an excellent defensive backup at short already.
The Yankees could also use a bat of any kind to help add punch, as they rank in the bottom-third of the league in isolated slugging despite a lefty-heavy lineup in that ballpark. Adam Dunn’s a great ballpark fit if they think Carlos Beltran can man a bit more outfield, while Alex Rios seems a pretty terrific spiritual fit for some reason.
Of course, if anyone is going to be fitted for pinstripes, the search probably begins in the rotation, where Masahiro Tanaka is no longer an anchor and Brandon McCarthy can’t exactly go it alone. Would the Rays trade David Price within the division for a Godfather offer? Could Bartolo Colon hop on the subway? Does Edwin Jackson and his perennial ERA-FIP gap move the needle in that park? There’s no obvious upgrade, except for any upgrade, because Shane Greene isn’t someone you want to trust meaningful starts to.
Does it feel like three division contenders were just discussed? Not really, right? The Jays’ lineup is decimated and their rotation is just skating by, while the Yankees are down to a single starter who was in their opening day rotation in Hiroki Kuroda. The Orioles might win this thing by employing the most gauze alone.
But the fact that all three teams, warts and all, remain in the race and project to stay in it, speaks to how big a difference small upgrades could make. No edge is too tiny in a tight race.
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