Not all is perfect atop AL East

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It was supposed to be an epic series: Yankees vs. Rays. The two best teams in baseball locking horns in a four-game series with the AL East lead at stake.

And after four games, we’re back where we started, with Tampa Bay’s blowout victory on Thursday preserving a split of the series and keeping the Rays a 1/2-game behind the Yankees in the AL East race.

Both teams are going to the playoffs (sorry Red Sox, but you’re not going to catch ’em), and the only thing left to be decided is which team gets to have home-field advantage against the Texas Rangers in the first round, and which team has to face the Minnesota Twins as the AL wild card team.

If we learned anything from this series, it’s that both the Rays and Yankees are flawed, and it’s time to rethink the idea that the AL East powers are indeed the two best teams in the AL. They still might be, but the argument to include the Twins in the discussion is getting stronger, as Minnesota (16-4 in September) suddenly possesses the best record in the league.

You want reasons for concern? Let’s take a look:

On the Yankees side, pitching appears to be an issue. CC Sabathia, so brilliant last week in a duel with David Price, labored terribly on Thursday, walking three and allowing 10 hits and seven runs in 5 1/3 innings. Price wasn’t much better, as both aces seemed intent on bolstering the unusual Cy Young case of Felix Hernandez, but at least Price was able to wiggle out of danger, allowing just three runs in six innings despite putting 12 runners on base.

While I wouldn’t worry too horribly about Sabathia – or Andy Pettitte for that matter – it is legitimate to be concerned about the rest of the staff, a mix that includes the inexperienced Ivan Nova, recently struggling Phillip Hughes and the enigma that is A.J. Burnett.

And despite having Mariano Rivera anchoring the bullpen, what about the rest of the crew? Aside from Kerry Wood, none of them got through this series unscathed, and Javier Vazquez – who tied a record by hitting three straight batters on Thursday – is hardly reliable. Luckily for the Yankees they have a dangerous collection of bats, because they are probably going to need them.

On the Rays side of things, the concerns are more varied. There is certainly some problems with the starting pitching. James Shields and Wade Davis have compiled mediocre seasons, and the occasionally brilliant Matt Garza, who no-hit Detroit on July 27, has also been frequently horrible. In his last four starts, he has managed to go no further than 5 2/3 innings, and has allowed at least six runs in each of his last three outings.

On the offensive side of things, the Rays face another dilemma, as their feast-or-famine offense has to be driving their small but loyal fan base nuts.

The Rays rank 12th in the AL in batting average and eighth in slugging percentage, lead the league in strikeouts and have been no-hit twice this season. Yet they also lead the AL in walks and are second only to the Yankees in runs per game.

Rays blogger Jason Collette breaks down the situation nicely here. The whole post is worth a read, but the bottom line is that the Rays make up for a lot of deficiencies with their speed, not only stealing bases but also taking the extra base at a higher rate than other AL teams. They also have hit into fewer double plays than anyone, and it’s not even close.

That being said, little slumps are magnified in a short playoff series, and if the hot-and-cold Rays hit a chilly stretch, a playoff stay could be brief.

Both the Yankees and Rays are dangerous without a doubt, but as this week’s series showed, both teams are also flawed. And when you consider that the Twins are 50-18 since the All-Star break (.735), and the Rangers will feature not only a powerful lineup, but Cliff Lee at the top of their rotation, assuming an all-AL East ALCS is a risky proposition.

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Video: Andrew Toles hammers grand slam in Cactus League win

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Dodgers’ left fielder Andrew Toles crushed his first spring training home run on Saturday afternoon. With the bases loaded and a two-run deficit hanging over their heads in the fourth inning, Toles stepped up to the plate against Oakland right-hander Jesse Hahn and unloaded a grand slam on the second pitch he saw.

Third baseman Justin Turner was quick to follow up with a solo jack of his own, bringing the score to a comfortable 7-4 lead by the end of the fourth. Another three-run outburst in the fifth and an eighth-inning RBI single by Austin Barnes raised the final score to 11-6… which, coincidentally, was the same score the Reds used to defeat the Athletics’ second split-squad lineup on Saturday (albeit with a few more RBI walks than grand slams).

Toles, 24, is approaching his sophomore season with the Dodgers in 2017. He slashed .314/.365/.505 with three home runs and an .870 OPS in his first major league season in 2016 and is expected to platoon with the right-handed Franklin Gutierrez in left field this year.

David Price’s season debut could be pushed back to May

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David Price showed “strength improvements” in his elbow on Saturday, but Red Sox’ manager John Farrell still doesn’t think the left-hander will be ready to throw by the start of the season — or for a few weeks afterward. According to ESPN’s Scott Lauber, the 31-year-old might not be ready to debut until May at the earliest.

Price hasn’t thrown off of a mound this spring after experiencing soreness in his left elbow on March 1. Surgery doesn’t appear to be necessary, but the Red Sox are playing it extra safe with their No. 3 starter in hopes that rest and rehabilitation will return him to full health sometime during the 2017 season. For now, Price has been restricted to short games of catch until he’s cleared to resume a more rigorous throwing program. Via MLB.com’s Ian Browne:

[There were] strength improvements to the point of putting the ball back in his hand a little more consistently,” said manager John Farrell. “Today’s the first step for that. A short game of catch. That’s what he’s going through. Not off a mound but just to get the arm moving with a ball in flight, and he will continue in this phase for a period of time. There’s no set distance and volume yet to the throws.

The lefty is coming off of a lackluster 2016 season, during which he delivered a 3.99 ERA, 2.0 BB/9 and 8.9 SO/9 over 230 innings for the Red Sox.