Jul 3, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka (19) looks on before delivering a pitch in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

With Tanaka hurt, is the AL East a two-team race?

A highly-touted Japanese import, Masahiro Tanaka’s rookie season was shaping up better than even the Yankees could have expected. With a league-leading 12 wins to go with a 2.51 ERA, 9.4 K/9, and 1.3 BB/9, Tanaka appeared to be a shoe-in for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, if not the Cy Young as well. In addition, Tanaka’s success has been practically the only thing keeping the Yankees in the race for the AL East crown as they sit at just 46-45 despite a huge offseason which saw them commit nearly $500M in long-term contracts.

However, last night the Yankees announced that Tanaka had suffered a slight tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Though less severe than the typical tear, this is the same injury which prompts many pitchers to receive Tommy John Surgery. Rather than undergoing the surgery at this time, Tanaka has elected to rehab for around six weeks.

Obviously, this essentially removes Tanaka from the running for the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Awards. On a broader scale, however, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees contending without their ace.

Despite their 46-45 record, the Yankees stand just four games behind the division-leading Orioles in the AL East race. Even with many of their big-time acquisitions such as Brian McCann (.227/.284/.369) and Carlos Beltran (.216/.271/.401) flopping this season, the Yankees have still been in contention throughout the season.

However, Tanaka is just the latest of a long line of Yankees’ starting pitchers who currently reside on the disabled list, joining CC Sabathia (out for the season), Ivan Nova (out for the season), and Michael Pineda (out for at least another month). It’s hard to imagine the Yankees seriously contending this season with a starting rotation of Hiroki Kuroda, David Phelps, recently-acquired Brandon McCarthy, and rookies Chase Whitley and Shane Greene. Unless the Yankees make a pitch for a top-flight starter such as David Price or Cliff Lee, which would be difficult given their weak farm system, it appears that the Yankees will not make the playoffs this season.

Considering the Yankees’ demise and the struggles of the Red Sox and Rays so far this season, though the Rays have been playing better lately, it’s worth wondering if the AL East is a two-team race this season. No team has run away with the division so far, but if this injury does effectively eliminate the Yankees from the race, then it’s possible that the first-place Orioles and/or second-place Blue Jays (three games behind Baltimore) could gain some separation and run away with the division.

It’s still possible that the 42-52 Rays could make a run this season, as evidenced by their 7-3 record in their last ten games, but it would take an incredible stretch run for Tampa Bay. Given that the Red Sox have nearly committed to a youth movement this season, it’s hard to picture them making a splash at the trade deadline (and it would certainly be the wrong move for the franchise) and making a run either. Combined with the afore-mentioned issues around the Yankees, this all paints a picture of a two-team race in the AL East this season.

Tags: AL East Boston Red Sox

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