In a way, the American League East looks exactly how it has historically looked, but it definitely feels weird after a pretty exciting few years. It wasn’t too long ago where every single AL East team was competitive; to begin 2016, for example, every team was projected to win between 77 and 87 games. Today, only the Yankees and Red Sox have playoff odds above one (1) percent.
Yet if you look at it from just from the perspective of the trade deadline, there are actually two races going on, which I will summarize.
Competition number one, for the obvious: win the AL East. As of July 9th the Red Sox have a 52.2% chance to win the division, so let’s call it a coin flip. That’s assuming no changes, though, so for every win you add versus your opponent probably adds 5-10% to your divisional odds, which are about twice as valuable as wild card odds.
For the Yankees, their needs are on the mound. Even though it’s not awful—Luis Severino combined with a staff mark of 92 FIP-/93 ERA- is comfortable, but ninth in baseball. And when you watch Sonny Gray pitch, for example, you know that Severino, CC Sabathia, and Masahiro Tanaka are not enough, as it wasn’t last year, to go all the way. There have also been rumors of Mike Moustakas or Manny Machado, but if they’re going after the best starter they can, the other options are in the bullpen, for someone like Zack Britton or Brad Hand.
The Red Sox have the need for a catcher and a reliever, but that’s probably all they have room for. Wilson Ramos and JT Realmuto would be the best possible options, and I would imagine they court the Padres for Hand pretty heavily. All in all, each team would need to add at least one player to stay even (and Boston has already added Steve Pearce), and an over-the-top trade like for Machado is the only thing that would really tip the tide in either direction.
Then there’s the other competition: the rebuilding game. The biggest one is the Orioles with Machado and possibly Britton, and the former in particular necessitates a big deal. They claim that they have yet to see that offer, and they will have to wait until the last possible moment for a blue chip prospect, which I have talked about.
For the Rays and Blue Jays, there is actually a lot of trade depth to speak of as they try to retool. The Rays have the newly revamped Nathan Eovaldi and All Star Wilson Ramos. The Blue Jays have JA Happ, who the Yankees are currently eyeing, and while Josh Donaldson is a possibility, his injury and last-arbitration-year salary could make him a waiver deadline deal.
Even though the division can be grouped into two blocks of different contention windows, the goal is the same: eventually (either this year, or in the future) win a World Series. For the Yankees and Red Sox that means acquiring one or two more pieces for a coin flip (the division) or a coin flip (a wild card game), or for the other teams, a good prospect haul for an impending free agent can very literally change a franchise.