So now the Rays are without Evan Longoria, their most irreplaceable piece, for six to eight weeks, further altering an American League East in which the Yankees have been forced to reassess their rotation and the Red Sox have stumbled in large measure because of an abominable bullpen. None of the above issues are insurmountable. We know too well that the Yankees can bash their way to a pennant, and the Red Sox can do the same if the pitching staff stabilizes. Heck, even for the super-shifting, small-market Rays, the loss of Longoria is not necessarily a deal-breaker. A Rays club with, arguably, a more lackluster lineup went 19-12 without Longo in the midst of 2011, and this year's installment is 2-0 without him thus far.
But there's no denying that in the difficulty the division's most clear-cut contenders have endured in the early going, an opportunity arises for the others. And with all due respect to those bothersome birds from Baltimore (whose early success is, indeed, a great story), the opportunity is most present and most pertinent for the Toronto Blue Jays. After taking two of three from Texas (for my money, the best team in baseball), the Blue Jays are 14-11. It's not a scintillating start (in fact, the O's swept them last week), but it's certainly a respectable one, and it has come in spite of a decidedly substandard showing by superstar slugger Jose Bautista. Bautista has four homers in the early going, but he doesn't have much more than that. He's batting .180 with a .337 slugging percentage -- numbers that are as unexpected as they are unlikely to sustain. And that's precisely the point. Because whereas the Blue Jays clubs of 2010 or 2011 (winners of 85 and 81 games, respectively) likely would have fallen under .500 if not for the bat of Bautista, the 2012 version has demonstrated the depth in arms and bats (Edwin Encarnacion, anybody?) to survive, even as Bautista is searching for his groove. It's a storyline that stands in contrast to what's being endured in Anaheim, where Albert Pujols' first-month funk has matched that of his new club. At some point -- perhaps soon -- the real Bautista will reveal himself. And while he might not be the 54-homer machine of 2010 or the guy who led all of baseball in weighted on-base average in 2011, he's going to be just fine. These early struggles, it seems, are largely a product of a ridiculously low .162 batting average on balls in play. "I've said it before and I'm saying it again," Bautista said the other day. "Swing at strikes, that's all I have to do." And the good news on that front is that Bautista's bat speed and selectivity both seem intact. What's also intact for Toronto is a rotation that, while young and largely unproven, has received above-average performance from four of its five starting pitchers. Purported No. 3 starter Brett Cecil was demoted to the Minors at the end of spring camp, and the oft-injured Dustin McGowan is injured yet again. But Ricky Romero (4-0, 3.64), Brandon Morrow (2-1, 3.03) and Henderson Alvarez (1-2, 3.62) have all been effective, for the most part, and the strides shown by Kyle Drabek (2-2, 2.40 ERA) have been a big boost. It does, however, remain to be seen if the Blue Jays' rebuilt bullpen (an area that ravaged them last year) can become a team strength, especially with closer Sergio Santos on the shelf and Francisco Cordero shaky in his stead. Ultimately, the Jays can't compete without an adequate relief corps, and they can't compete if "Joey Bats," as Bautista is affectionately referred, isn't straightened out over the long haul. As is always the case with such clubs, a lot has to go right, and upgrades might be in order as the summer evolves. But with the addition of a second Wild Card spot, more wiggle room was afforded. And now, with these developments within the division, the East doesn't look quite as daunting as it might have before the season. The Rays find themselves scrambling to replace the production afforded by Longoria, who had a 329/.433/.561 slash line and 19 RBIs in 23 games before hurting his hamstring. Obviously, replacing him outright is not possible, but the Rays will hold out hope that the newly signed Hideki Matsui can come up quickly and at least provide some pop. The Yankees, with a sore-shouldered Michael Pineda out of the picture, find themselves scrambling to right their rotation, relying on a positive return from a soon-to-be-40-year-old Andy Pettitte to improve a unit that ranks near the bottom of the barrel in ERA (5.89), innings per outing (5.54) and OPS against (.882). And the Red Sox are just plain scrambling, period, after a 4-10 start in which their bullpen blowups and clubhouse discord were well-documented. The jury is still out on whether that club has the pitching to adequately back a still-potent lineup. The point is that none of the East's beasts are currently in a position to run away from the pack. And the environment is such that even the Orioles, for whom neither greatness nor mere mediocrity was expected by the analysts, have managed to retain their relevance. This all serves to have provided early parity of play in the AL East -- parity the Blue Jays, especially, could benefit from as the season evolves.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.