A weekly series on where things stand in the AL East.
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Almost halfway through spring training, the one name in baseball that remains a difference-maker for any team — and particularly the Red Sox — is Cole Hamels.
The Phillies lefthander could separate the Red Sox from the AL East pack. And this has been accentuated by a week’s worth of bad starts by the Boston rotation, the best of which was Rick Porcello’s on Wednesday, when he went four innings and allowed three hits and one run vs. the Twins.
Not that one week is cause for panic or chaos, but the Red Sox aren’t just any team. They finished in last place two of the last three years.
What’s evident is that the Red Sox don’t have an ace. That hasn’t changed throughout spring training. They seem to have a group of pitchers who would slot into the Nos. 3 and 4 spots on most teams.
Through all of their transactions since last July, they basically left themselves with Porcello for Jon Lester, which is an age shaver (five years difference), but Porcello is up for free agency after this season, and if he’s not signed, then what?
They got Joe Kelly (who now has a sore arm and has never pitched 125 innings in a season) and Allen Craig for John Lackey, who is playing for the minimum salary in St. Louis. But, again, they got appreciably younger with Kelly.
If you question what the 2015 staff will bring, you’re well within your rights here in mid-March. Even the scouts who regularly cover the Red Sox in spring training aren’t feeling it on the rotation. They aren’t seeing what the Red Sox see.
Scouts can be wrong, of course. And the Red Sox have been wrong on things two of the last three years, but the one time they were right, they won it all. The all-or-nothing aspect to their talent evaluation can be problematic.
The Red Sox love their prospects, so they won’t succumb to giving up Blake Swihart in a Hamels deal; they don’t feel the desperation to do it. Not yet, but they’d better be careful that another team doesn’t swoop in and grab him.
And if they’re waiting on Reds starter Johnny Cueto, the asking price also will be high, and then he must be signed. Which is why the controllable Hamels makes the most sense.
“To get an outstanding major league starter like Hamels, I’d give Swihart in a minute,” said an evaluator from a successful American League team. “Prospects are prospects. A proven ace is a proven ace, especially if you’re a team like Boston that just finished last.”
Certainly easy for another team to say.
The critics will say Hamels is 8-13 with a 4.54 ERA in interleague play. But he has had success against the Red Sox, going 4-0 with a 1.97 ERA, and they were the best lineup he faced.
“Hamels can pitch anywhere, in any league, against any team,” said a National League West GM. “He’s one of the best. Proven. Battle-tested.
“Philadelphia is right to hold out for the moon for him. The teams who dance around and don’t pull the trigger are the ones who are going to be moaning when he’s traded.”
The Red Sox are also trying to find a trade partner for Craig. They’ve had some of their top pro scouts around the Giants, Padres, and Cubs.
NEW YORK: Until Jacoby Ellsbury was diagnosed with an oblique strain Wednesday, the Yankees had been the healthiest team in the division. CC Sabathia (knee) says nothing hurts and he was throwing 93 m.p.h. in his first start.
Alex Rodriguez has looked better than expected. Masahiro Tanaka, who pitched a strong 3⅔ innings Wednesday, hasn’t had any elbow pain and should benefit from pitching every sixth day. Mark Teixeira is driving the ball again, a year removed from wrist surgery. Carlos Beltran looks healthy.
Ellsbury will be down for at least a couple of weeks and his Opening Day status is now up in the air. He had been diagnosed with a mild abdominal strain, but after an MRI it was determined he had a bigger injury.
The Ellsbury injury aside, the Yankees don’t look so bad, with improved defense up the middle in Didi Gregorious and Stephen Drew.
The Yankees, who have come the closest to obtaining Hamels with their offer of prospects to the Phillies many weeks ago, always could get back into that hunt. A lefty at Yankee Stadium is always a good thing.
The prospect list has gotten stronger, but they likely never would deal 6-foot-7-inch slugger Aaron Judge or righty Luis Severino.
Nobody would be shocked if the Yankees went down one by one, starting with Ellsbury, but so far the injured players from a year ago have stayed out of the trainer’s room.
Their bullpen may be the best in the division, and if Andrew Bailey returns from his two-year hiatus, it adds another experienced reliever.
BALTIMORE: The big concern is Matt Wieters’s elbow soreness after having Tommy John surgery last season. The Orioles are backing off using him behind the plate for a few more days, and he’ll likely DH starting Sunday.
This is not a great development, as Wieters was always one of the better catchers at shutting down the running game. But neither manager Buck Showalter nor general manager Dan Duquette seems too concerned about long-term effects.
It’s been written here before that Everth Cabrera was a nice signing because he adds speed. He’s now being groomed as a super-utility player in the mold of Brock Holt, so he can see a lot of playing time. There’s been talk of sending him back to the minors to hone his outfield skills, but the Orioles are serious about this role for him.
Another player having a strong camp is third baseman Jimmy Paredes, who began 11 for 23 with 9 RBIs.
The Orioles are hoping Ubaldo Jimenez responds to pitching coach Dave Wallace teaching him a more simplified delivery.
TORONTO: The Jays will get outfielder Michael Saunders back soon after he had meniscus surgery early in camp (he hurt his knee tripping on a sprinkler). This should begin to get the offense back together, though Saunders likely will start the year on the disabled list.
The other “good news” is that Dominican youngster Miguel Castro has been lights out. It’s hard to imagine the big righthander making the team, but he’s been virtually perfect this spring. He shut out the Yankees’ A lineup for three innings Tuesday, topping out at 99.
Castro has not played beyond short-season A ball, but Jays coaches and manager John Gibbons have their eyes wide open as they try to replace Marcus Stroman, lost for the year with a torn ACL.
TAMPA BAY: Alex Cobb is the latest Rays pitcher to come up with an arm ailment (forearm tendinitis); he won’t make his Opening Day start.
At first these injuries are seen as minor. But some of them escalate. Cobb’s discomfort came after he threw three perfect innings in a 5-3 win over Philadelphia, necessitating an MRI.
The Rays already had lost Drew Smyly. They are waiting for Matt Moore to return from Tommy John surgery. And Alex Colome is out with pneumonia.
Their farm system isn’t popping out top talent at the frequency it once did. And they have lost top pitchers like James Shields, David Price, and Matt Garza over the last few years. Has it finally caught up to them?