Wild Card Might Not Be In Cards For AL East

Posted on April 23, 2014 by Jim Henneman

So if we had told you on Opening Day (March 31) that after 17 games, the Orioles would be 0-4 during games started by Ubaldo Jimenez, the $50 million offseason addition to their starting rotation, would you have thought it was an early April Fool's joke? Or have just been ready to concede and toss in the towel?

Now, in addition to that, suppose we had speculated that the American League East would be more likely to have no team win 90 games, rather than three, as some of the more optimistic prognosticators were predicting?

To complete the unlikely trifecta, suppose we had suggested that the AL East, instead of providing two, would not produce a wild-card team?

Want to go for a little round ball superfecta? How about if we had said the Toronto Blue Jays, the division's last-place team in 2013, and the team conceded most likely to repeat in that spot, would rebound to win the division title? 

How do you think all those over/under investments would look?

Welcome to the AL East, sometimes known as the baseball version of NFL parity.

AL East

Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox

It's certainly doubtful that all of those possibilities will play out, but even at this early stage of the game, it's surely possible that any of those scenarios could come to pass.

If and when they do, yet another question could be raised: Is the AL East really as good as advertised?

We'll have to let the season play out to find out the answers, but early on, this much would seem certain: If you're in the AL East and plan to play during the postseason, you'd better win the division, because this isn't going to be the wild-card cakewalk it has been just about every year since 2003, when the Angels followed the Mariners and A's to cap a three-year World Series run by the AL West.

The AL East has been shut out only four times throughout the 19-year history of the wild-card competition, which began in 1995 -- and hasn't missed since 2006, when the Tigers claimed the consolation spot. But second place in the AL East is not like winning a conference championship and being an automatic qualifier. Those days have been put on hold.

About the only thing you can count on in the AL East this year is that there will be much hollering and screaming about the imbalance in the schedule, something that can only be perceived. With the Houston Astros poised to be punching bags for another year, but probably not much longer, two teams besides the eventual champion in the AL West figure to be in wild-card contention all year.

The Cleveland Indians qualified out of the AL Central in 2013, and the Kansas City Royals were in the hunt until the final week. Neither figures to fall by the wayside this time around. That adds up to four legitimate wild-card contenders -- outside of the AL East, where the reemergence of the Blue Jays, last year's preseason favorite, as a legitimate contender could make this one of the best races in history.

Can the Yankees, who are so old they should be fighting for a light heavyweight title, defy age and survive a grueling 162-game schedule? If so, they would be one of the oldest champions in history, which some might suggest would be a fitting way for Derek Jeter, the grand old captain, to exit the game. 

With the dreaded one-and-done scenario in place, winning a wild-card berth is a dicey accomplishment at best, and it wouldn't be a surprise to have a repeat of last year, with at least one playoff game necessary just to gain entry to another. Don't be surprised if the AL East gets shut out.

***

If Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen can't step up his game enough to face the opposing lineup more than once, wouldn't he be a good candidate to swap spots with reliever Zach Britton?

***

Kudos to the Red Sox for a memorable and emotional tribute on the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. I'm never surprised when Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino and his favorite promoter, Charles Steinberg, put on a good show. This one didn't disappoint -- and neither did the special ESPN ran earlier during the weekend -- testimony once again about how great television can be when it worries more about being good than it does being spectacular.

***

OK, so Orioles infielder Jonathan Schoop had a couple of brain cramps. It's not that big of a deal. He's 22. It happens. He's not third baseman Manny Machado, but some day, he's going to be playing Machado's position -- and it's going to be like replacing Brooks Robinson, impossible. At least, replacing Robinson was impossible until Machado showed up.

***

I get the shift. I really do. I don't expect Orioles first baseman Chris Davis to bunt. But when teams are using the shift against guys hitting two dollars, those guys have to learn how to beat it … or else they're going to have to beat it. You get the drift.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.

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