They are not going to be this yearís version of the Detroit Tigers, sneaking up on everyone all the way to late October, but thereís quite a bit to be excited about in Baltimore, where the Orioles have gotten off to a scorching start.
OK, thatís not entirely accurate. Although I suppose based on recent history, an 11-9 start could be considered something of a dramatic turn of events.
Still, for the first time in years, there is optimism in Baltimore, where the Red Sox arrive for yet another two-game set this evening at Camden Yards, sure to be filled with Red Sox fans priced out of their own progressively elite stadium. The keys have finally been handed to the kids after too many attempts of trying to patch together a pitching staff with Rodrigo Lopez as the de facto ace. Ace Erik Bedard has been up and down, but 25-year-old Daniel Cabrera (who goes for the Orioles tonight against Curt Schilling) and 23-year-old Adam Loewen are a combined 3-1 thus far on the year. The Orioles bullpen has been the second best in the league this month, just behind Boston, a feat accomplished on the power of the mustache.
For a once-proud franchise that has had to endure the lunatic spending ways of its megalomaniac owner, itís a start at least.
Not this year, in all probability, but in 2008, could it be that we might have a (dare we say it) five-team race in the East with the maturing Devil Rays also ready to make a charge?
If the season ended today -- and this is why it doesnít -- the East standings would result in complete disarray. While many imagined the first-place Red Sox would challenge for the division crown, how about the Orioles just a game-and-a-half back? How about the last-place Yankees, fresh off being swept by fourth-place Tampa? New York has lost five in a row, the same losing streak the Blue Jays were on before arriving at the Fenway doorstep and smacking the Red Sox around for a pair.
It being April 25 and all, just another day in the ďway too early to discussĒ sweepstakes, letís take a look at how the AL East standings looked on this day one year ago.
Boston 13 7 .650
New York 10 8 .556
Toronto 10 8 .556
Baltimore 11 10 .524
Tampa Bay 8 12 .400
What does this tell us? Heck if I know.
I suppose itís interesting to note that the Orioles were a whole one game off their pace of 2006, and yet I donít remember anyone crowing about how surprising that team was. Of course, by the end of 2006, the Red Sox went from the top to third, the Yankees and Blue Jays moving up in the ranks, an ever-so-slight change in the ranks, mostly thanks to an injury-decimated Boston ballclub.
But we have yet to enjoy an AL East the likes of what our Midwestern friends have got in the Central, where any one of four teams (White Sox, Tigers, Twins, and Indians) has a legitimate shot to win the division. The last time the Yankees didnít win the AL East was 1997, when the Orioles were still relevant (I think we all agree the first half of 2005 was done with smoke and mirrors). The Red Sox havenít won it since the strike-shortened season of 1995. The Blue Jays have not sniffed a title since the start of the wild card era, and the Devil Rays would just be happy enough to finish out of last place.
The Jays have done their part to give us a better brand of competition in the East for sure, putting together a solid 1-2 starting punch, and one of the gameís better lineups. The Devil Rays and Orioles seem finally committed to replenishing themselves through their own respective farm systems and building for the long-term future.
Have we seen the results? Like everyone and their hardball mother has told you, itís still too early. The Yankees' pitching problems are well-documented (Is rushing Philip Hughes an answer?), but Iíll bet you any sum that they wonít finish the year in last place. (Especially if Roger Clemens decides to answer any of Jason Giambiís text messages.) The Jays have been hit by the injury bug, but when completely healthy is Gustavo Chacin a suitable No. 3 starter? And as exciting as some of their younger players certainly are, including Rocco Baldelli, Scott Kazmir, Cabrera, and Nick Markakis, the Orioles and Devil Rays are still a year away. But things look better than they have in quite some time in Baltimore, and probably since, wellÖever in Florida.
Just donít assume because your team starts 11-9 that theyíre in for something special. Because, odds are, these Orioles may finish in the basement come the end of this campaign.
But 2008? That may be the turning point, the year that the AL East may finally be able to consider itself the best division in baseball, with all five of its teams vying for the regular season crown. Perhaps then these ridiculous 18- or 19-game slates against divisional opponents might carry at least some weight.