Second-Half Storylines: AL Edition by Wendy Thurm July 12, 2012 Yesterday we talked about the questions facing the National League contenders. Today, we turn our attention to the American League. Every team but the Twins, Royals and Mariners are within four-two-and-a-half games of a spot in the postseason, if you count the wild card play-in game part of the postseason. That leaves us with eleven teams still playing for something in 2012. Or does it? In the American League East, the Yankees have a comfortable seven-game lead, and seem poised to pull away with the division title. Yes, with injuries to CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, the Yankees could improve by adding a dependable starting pitcher, but so far they haven’t been linked with the starters most likely to hit the trade market. Overall, though, the Yankees are in the best shape of any team heading into the second half. The Orioles are in second place, but their perch is precarious. Baltimore is scoring only 4.1 runs on average and allowing 4.6 runs on average, giving them the largest negative run differential in the league. Nick Markakis is returning soon from surgery to remove a hamate bone. Jim Thome was added as the new DH. That will help. But J.J. Hardy, Robert Andino and the rest of the regulars need to step it up. On the pitching side, the Orioles have just two dependable starters in Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen. Baltimore’s been linked in trade rumors to Zack Greinke and Wandy Rodriguez. Both would help stabilize the rotation; Greinke more so. The Rays‘ offense also has been floundering, averaging just 4.2 runs per game. Even with better pitching than the Orioles, the Rays need to reinvigorate the offense to have any chance at the postseason. Much of the first half was spent waiting for Evan Longoria to return. But Longoria’s had a series of setbacks during his rehabilitation. His return date is uncertain, as is his ability to carry the Rays offensively once he’s back in the lineup. Matt Joyce was enjoying a career year at the plate before he sustained an oblique injury. He’s expected back soon and could be a big boost. Otherwise, the Rays will look to their regulars to steps it up in the second half, as a deadline deal is unlikely for Tampa Bay. The Red Sox are at an interesting turning point. Injuries and inconsistent play have hurt them on both sides of the ball, but they’re very much in the thick of the AL East, and more particularly, the race for one of the wild card spots. Jacoby Ellsbury returns after the break. Carl Crawford is expected to make his season debut then, as well. If both Ellsbury and Crawford are healthy and produce, the Sox outfield should improve. In the first half, the outfield ranked 12th in the league in wRC+. In the infield, a healthy Dustin Pedroia and Will Middlebrooks are also key. Both were sidelined before the All-Star break. But perhaps most importantly, the Red Sox need Adrian Gonzalez to awake from his power slumber. He seemed to be hitting the ball more consistently and with more authority before the break. That trend needs to continue. On the mound, Felix Doubront has stabilized a shaky starting rotation. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have seen their strikeout rates nosedive. Getting those two starters back on track would be a big boost for the Sox. The bullpen, after a rocky start of the season, is now a strength of the team. Collectively the relievers have the second-best K/BB in the league, at 2.80. The Blue Jays are tied with the Red Sox at 43-43, in fourth place in the AL East and tied with the Red Sox and A’s at four-two-and-a-half games out of the second wild card spot. But Toronto has suffered devastating losses to its starting rotation with Kyle Drabek out for the season, and Drew Hutchison and Brandon Morrow out through July, most likely. The non-injured starters — Henderson Alvarez and Ricky Romero — have not picked up the slack. Collectively, Toronto’s starters ranked second-to-last in the league in K/BB and FIP. The Blue Jays have been linked in trade rumors to Wandy Rodriguez and Matt Garza, who would be under team control beyond this season. If Toronto can’t upgrade its rotation, they have to start looking at 2013. In the AL Central, the White Sox lead at the halfway point, a surprising development to the many of us who thought the Tigers would run away with the division title. Chicago’s season started heading in the right direction when the team finally decided to put rookie Chris Sale in the rotation, instead of using him as a closer. In a little more than 100 innings pitched, Sale is 10-2 with a 4.04 K/BB and a 2.56 FIP. Jake Peavy’s K/BB is even better, at 4.15. He and Sale have been a terrific 1-2 punch in the Sox’ starting rotation. Trouble lurks, however, with injuries to Philip Humber and John Danks. The Sox are said to be looking for rotation help if Humber and Danks don’t return soon from injuries. They could also use a boost to the bullpen, which has been somewhat ineffective in middle relief. In trading for Kevin Youkilis, the White Sox improved significantly at third base offensively and defensively. Now, just Gordon Beckham at second and Alexei Ramirez at short are the only two position players not producing at the plate. But with A.J. Pierzynski, Paul Konerko and Alex Rios having superb seasons, the White Sox are not likely to make additional upgrades to the offense. The Indians find themselves in a familiar place. Last year at the All-Star break, Cleveland led the AL Central at 47-42 but with only a +6 in run differential. The lead was precarious and faded as expected, even after the Indians traded for Ubaldo Jimenez. This year, the Tribe is 44-41 with a -29 run differential. They’re just three games behind the White Sox, but considerably weaker once you lift up the hood. As I wrote last month, the Indians need to add a power bat, preferably at first base and right-handed. But Cleveland also needs help in the rotation, which has been fairly weak after Derek Lowe and Justin Masterson. Like the Rays, the Indians aren’t in a position to make expensive trades. A weak farm system will make possible upgrades even harder. And what about the Tigers? Detroit’s deficiencies are well known. They don’t have a major-league second baseman. They have the worst infield defense in the majors. And the starters not named Justin Verlander have been inconsistent, at best. With the Prince Fielder contract, the Tigers are in win now mode. We should expect deals before the deadline to address these weaknesses. In the AL West, what once seemed like an insurmountable lead by the Rangers over the Angels is now down to four games. Much of that is due to the Angels much-improved play after the arrival of Mike Trout, but the Rangers have had pitching woes that should be addressed. Injuries to Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, and Neftali Feliz forced manager Ron Washington to get creative with the rotation, but without much success. Roy Oswalt was added but hasn’t yielded dividends, yet. Texas is in big for Cole Hamels, should the Phillies make that trade, and have the farm system to pull it off. All other systems are go for the Rangers. The Angels need pitching help too with recent injuries to Dan Haren and Jerome Williams, and a less-than-stellar performance by Ervin Santana in the first half. Los Angeles is expected to make a big push for Zack Greinke but there will be plenty of competition in that trade market, and the Angels’ farm system is a bit thin on prospects. The Angels will also “welcome back” Vernon Wells in the second half. Manager Mike Scioscia will have to do some delicate juggling with his outfielders once Wells returns. Wells will expect some playing time, but other than giving someone a day’s rest on occasion, there isn’t much of a reason to play Wells over Mark Trumbo, Mike Trout or Torii Hunter. And finally, the A’s. The best pitching and the worst offense in the American League. 43 wins and 43 losses. A nine-game losing streak in May. Winners of eight out of nine in June. A limited budget. An owner looking for a new home. Indeterminate waiting. The story lines are set. New ones will unfold. All we need now is for the games to begin.