Within the next week or so, we will officially hit the halfway point of the 2014 season. There is more parity and, as MLB likes to say, competitive balance than ever before, but we've already seen some clubs completely fall out of contention. The Rays, Padres, Cubs, Phillies and Astros jump to mind.
The remaining races are pretty wide open, with the Brewers currently owning the largest division lead in baseball at 5½ games. The AL East race is a long way from being settled, partly because it does not house a great or even comfortably above-average team. The division is the weakest it has been in about two decades. Here are the standings as of Monday morning:
I'm totally cool with writing off the Rays completely at this point. They haven't played well enough to make me think they can get back into the race -- they're not only 11 games back of the AL East lead, but they're also 9½ games back of a wild-card spot with 10 teams ahead of them -- and the hole is simply too big. The only role they will play in the division race going forward is spoiler.
Otherwise the AL East is very much up for grabs. The Red Sox have some more ground to make up than the Orioles and Yankees, but 6½ games is still doable at this time of year. The Yankees play the Blue Jays this week and could sit in first place within 48 hours -- they swept Toronto just last week to climb to within 1½ games. The Orioles took two of three in New York this weekend to move into a tie for second place.
Those top four teams in the division are all very flawed, which is why none of them are on pace to win more than 88 games. (The last time the AL East was won by a team with less than 90 wins was 2000, when the eventual World Series champion Yankees' 87 wins did the trick.) The Blue Jays could use some bullpen help and another starter. The Orioles need another quality starter. The Yankees need a starter and an infielder. And the Red Sox need a whole new outfield, basically.
Because so many teams are still in contention -- across the entire league, not necessarily only the AL East -- the trade market has yet to really pick up. "Usually when everybody's bunched together, it constrains the ability [to complete trades]," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said to Ken Davidoff of the New York Post last week. Few teams are truly ready to throw in the towel and sell.
And yet, because the AL East race is so tight, the club that is most decisive and acts the quickest to address needs will have an advantage over the rest of the competition. It's a seller's market and acting quickly probably requires overpaying to get a player, but teams have to weigh that against improving their ability to contend. How much better off would the Yankees be if they acquired, say, Jeff Samardzija to replace Vidal Nuno (5.88 ERA) this week rather than wait until July 31? A lot. The answer is a lot better off.
Those 5-6 extra starts of Samardzija (just to use him as an example) would have enormous value in the current AL East environment. The Blue Jays, Yankees and Orioles are so tightly bunched together that any addition who could bump the team's outlook from 88 wins to 90-91 wins is hugely valuable. It's potentially the difference between going to the postseason and playing golf in October. Overpaying to get that extra player now rather than later has to be a serious consideration for the four non-Rays clubs.
Remember, there are very real financial benefits to making the postseason. We're talking about millions and millions of dollars in extra revenue. Owners love money and happy owners keep their front offices in place and give them more resources in the future. Trading that one extra prospect to land a difference-maker like Samardzija (again, using him as an example) now rather than six weeks down the line will sting, but the sooner you get him on the team, the more he helps your postseason odds, potentially both in 2014 and beyond.
The AL East club that acts the quickest and is most willing to bite the bullet and overpay for a player will improve its chances to win the division the most. There isn't much room for patience this summer.