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Inside Baseball

After a wild first month, AL East remains a tough division to figure

Usually you can draw a few conclusions from the first month of the season, but it's impossible to figure out what to make of April when you look at the American League East.

(OK, the Orioles were supposed to be terrible and they have been. The Blue Jays were supposed to range from mediocre to terrible and have been. Toss them out of this discussion).

The Yankees can't possibly survive this many injuries, unless Luke Voit (Luke Voit?) continues on a 40-homer pace. The Red Sox can't possibly be this bad, unless their starters continue to win only five games a month.

And the Rays can't possibly be this good, unless Tyler Glasnow (6-0) wants to continue his Blake Snell circa 2018 impression and Rookie of the Month Brandon Lowe (.304-7-19) just keeps hitting.

The Yankees, of course, are the fascinating study when you consider all that they're missing. They were 17-11 until dropping consecutive games in Arizona last week with a lineup at times missing Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Miguel Andujar, Didi Gregorius, Greg Bird, Aaron Hicks, Gary Sanchez and Troy Tulowitzki. Not to mention a pitching staff minus Luis Severino and Dellin Betances.

The fill-ins have been remarkable. Infielder Giovanny Urshela, a longtime Cleveland prospect who stopped in Buffalo last year during a quick tour with the Blue Jays, entered the weekend batting .339. How is outfielder Clint Frazier going back to Scranton after going .324-6-17 in 18 games with a .975 OPS? And veteran D.J. LeMahieu looks like a great utility pickup at .310 with just two errors.

Domingo German has taken over Severino's ace role by going 5-1, 2.56 and ageless CC Sabathia has a 2.66 ERA in four starts that included his 3,000th career strikeout Tuesday night in Arizona.

What's the negative? The Yanks hit the weekend 2 1/2 games behind the Rays and only four ahead of the Red Sox while playing a wildly easy schedule. With all the injuries, perhaps that's all they could have stayed afloat against, but there's a sense they left some wins out there, and May opens with 11 games against teams with winning records.

It's a concern because it's hard to fathom the Red Sox can struggle like this all year. The Sox have injuries too (Brock Holt, Dustin Pedroia and Eduardo Nunez) and some struggling bats (Nunez, Jackie Bradley Jr. and World Series MVP Steve Pearce are all batting less than .160). They're inconsistent in the field as well, with Rafael Devers already committing nine errors at third base.

The bullpen is already overworked as the Sox have to fix their rotation. Look at these numbers heading into the weekend: Chris Sale 0-5, 6.30 before finally winning his first of the year Friday in Chicago; Rick Porcello 2-3, 5.52; David Price 1-2, 3.75; Nathan Eovaldi 0-0, 6.00 in four starts before going on the injured list; Eduardo Rodriguez 2-2, 6.16.

The rotation had an 8.78 ERA in the first 12 games of the season as Boston buried itself by going 3-9. The Sox got five quality starts in a seven-game stretch recently, so they're hoping a rebound is starting. Porcello's last start was eight shutout innings against Oakland, but Sale remains an enigma.

Don't think games early in the season matter as much as those later on? Guess again.

The first team to win 20 games the last three years has gone on to win the World Series, that list being the 2016 Cubs, 2017 Astros and the 2018 Red Sox. First to 20 this year? It was the Dodgers, who got to 20-12 with Tuesday's 10-3 win against the Giants.

Nine of last year's 10 playoff teams were determined by May 1. The only outlier was the Dodgers, and they were carrying a positive run differential.

The playoff teams on May 1 this year were the Rays, Twins, Astros, Yankees and Indians in the AL, and the Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Cubs in the NL. The only team over .500 with a positive run differential not in postseason position was Seattle at 18-15 and plus-2.

Mike Harrington's MLB Power Rankings

Cubs shrouded by Russell situation

Things are quiet on the field now in Chicago, where the panic and fire Joe Maddon talk that started to take hold during a 2-7 start have disappeared as the Cubs have gone 15-5 since. The Cubs began 1-6 but have already passed the Brewers, who were 7-1.

But things remain sticky off the field. Shortstop Addison Russell was sent to Triple-A Iowa Thursday to rehab following the end of his 40-game suspension under MLB's domestic violence policy after his ex-wife came forward with abuse allegations in 2017 and published ugly details of years of abuse on her personal blog last year. MLB then investigated and issued the suspension for the final 29 games of last season and the first 11 this year.

The Cubs have spent the last few days denying a tweet later picked up by NBC Sports' "Hardball Talk" blog that said the club promised trouble for any media members who wrote stories critical of the team's handling of Russell.

Cubs president Theo Epstein addressed the issue unprompted when talking to the team's beat reporters Tuesday in Seattle.

Said Epstein: "We believe in the freedom of the press. This is certainly an issue where we expect there to be strong opinions, and people have the right to have those opinions and express them however they want. We support that. We would never try to stifle freedom of the press or that type of free expression.

"I saw that story out there. ... I’d be really surprised if that happened at the Cubs, and if it did I’d want to know who it was because they wouldn’t work for the Cubs much longer. That’s a fireable offense to try to threaten a media member because of unfavorable coverage, especially on a topic of this nature.”

Vladdy Jr. at 10

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was Texas' hitting coach in 2010 when Vladimir Guerrero Sr. played for the Rangers. Of course, that meant that Vladimir Guerrero Jr., then a 10-year-old, was running around what is now known as Globe Life Park. Hurdle said he never worked with the older Guerrero much because he preferred simply to look at still photos of at-bats, and was surprised when Guerrero seemed to indicate he wanted to do some pregame work one day late that summer.

"He says, 'Tomorrow. Cage. Two o'clock.'" Hurdle recalled last week when the Bucs visited Arlington. "I'm thinking, 'Cha-ching. Got him. I get to work with Vladimir. I get there about 1:30. I've got a machine in case he wants that. I've got a tee. I've got the cage. I've got balls.

"He walks in with Junior and he says, 'My son here. Please work with my son.' So for 30 minutes, I work with Junior ... and then he walked out. It wasn't like working with a normal 10-year-old though, I'll tell you that. He was very advanced for 10. He hit the ball really hard. He hit the ball way too hard for a 10-year-old."

Mike Harrington: Vladdy Jr. creates a buzz in Toronto debut

FS1 to show Triple-A title game

Minor League Baseball has announced that the Triple-A National Championship Game will be moving to Fox Sports 1 and the FOX Sports app when it is held Sept. 17 in Memphis.

The annual contest pitting the champions of the International League and Pacific Coast League will be held at AutoZone Park, home of the defending Triple-A champion Memphis Redbirds. Memphis and Durham have split the last two games.

The game had been broadcast for several years by either MLB Network or NBC Sports Network. Veteran MLB broadcasters George Grande and Jim Kaat will call the game.

The title game made its debut in 2006 and the Bisons have not played in it. Durham, Columbus, Sacramento and Omaha have all won the championship twice. Durham leads in appearances with four.

Diamond dust

• According to MLB.com's Sarah Langs, when Guerrero batted cleanup in his second game with the Blue Jays last Saturday against Oakland, the 20-year-old became the youngest player to hit in the 4-hole since Rusty Staub did it as a 19-year-old for the Houston Colt 45s in 1963.

• Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard took a 6.35 ERA into Thursday's start against the Reds and clearly decided it was time to hit another gear. Syndergaard became the first pitcher since Bob Welch of the 1983 Dodgers to pitch a 1-0 shutout in a game in which his home run was the game's only run. The day before, reigning NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom dropped his ERA from 4.84 to 3.82 with seven shutout innings against the Reds.

• Maybe it's no surprise the Mets' pitching studs cleaned up on the Reds, who entered the weekend batting an NL-low .207. Cincinnati made a quick pivot from those games, calling up No. 1 prospect Nick Senzel from Louisville to man center field Friday night. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft, Senzel has been a .300 hitter the last three years in the minors.

Herd grapevine

• Tweet on Guerrero from Mike Buczkowski, the Bisons' vice president/general manager at @BuffaloBisonsGM: "Although we only got to watch Vlad Jr. for a short time with the #Bisons last year and again this year, it was special. In my 30+ years in minor league baseball, I have never seen a more talented young hitter and we have had some great ones. Way to go and best of luck @vladdyjr27"

• Paid attendance at Bisons' games was virtually identical through nine home dates (51,935) as it was last year (51,590). The figure is fourth in the International League and that's tickets sold, the same figure every other major- and minor-league club uses. The Bisons sold nearly a quarter of their tickets this year on Opening Day, racking up a total of 12,898 that was their second-highest for the opener over the last seven years.

• Louisville second baseman Josh VanMeter leads the International League with 13 homers in his first 27 games, with three coming in Monday's 15-4 win at Toledo. VanMeter, 24, has never hit more than 14 longballs in any season and had 11 last year for Louisville in 98 games.

He's going for more launch angle and getting results that have to be raising eyebrows with the parent Reds. And it's not causing an excess of strikeouts, as VanMeter has 23 in his first 107 at-bats while drawing 15 walks. The Bats are here May 17-19.

• Infielder Nick Lovullo, the son of Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer and current Arizona manager Torey Lovullo, was not with the Pawtucket Red Sox last week at Sahlen Field as he was returned to Double-A Portland.

Nick Lovullo, 25, was around the Buffalo clubhouse as a toddler during the 1997 and '98 championship seasons. He hit .250 in five games for the Pawsox. Included was his first Triple-A hit and RBI, which came in a 3-for-4 night against the Bisons here on April 9.

A 20th-round pick out of Holy Cross in 2016, Lovullo is 2 for 11 in four games so far this year at Portland.

Bisons manager Bobby Meacham reflects on Vlad Guerrero's time in minors

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