The Yankees’ toughest competition in AL East might be the Blue Jays

DUNEDIN, Fla. — It’s spring training. Perhaps the most bizarre of all times, not involving substitutes.

For example, less than two weeks ago, Jordan Montgomery met teenagers at his alma mater, Sumter (SC) High School. On Tuesday, he started his strange show season for the first time, coinciding with the rescheduled deadline for him and over 100 other arbitration-eligible players to reach agreement on a 2022 contract or file number for a hearing. The left said it was distracting and his agent Scott Boras was upset he even had to serve on what was an important day of the hearing.

But even with all the elements downplaying the relevance of results, it was hard to overlook what Montgomery wasn’t missing — namely, the bats of the Blue Jays’ mostly “A” lineup. George Springer, Bo Bichette, Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Lourdes Gurriel opened the first inning with scorched hits and Matt Chapman shot a sacrificial fly. Montgomery was knocked unconscious. Since this was a bizarre spring, he was allowed back in in the second inning and was knocked out again.

Yes, Montgomery was trying to refine a fastball he wouldn’t throw in certain regular season counts. But that lineup is atrocious, a March 22 calling card for the atmosphere in which the Yankees will once again operate in the AL East. Four teams won at least 91 games last year, and those four — the Rays, Red Sox, Yankees, and Blue Jays — are considered four of the top six teams in the AL this year by pretty much every projection model or gambling site.

Yankees starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery delivers a pitch to Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette in the second inning of a spring training game on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.
Yankees pitcher Jordan Montgomery delivers a pitch to Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Po

In 2022, when the playoffs expand to six teams in each league, maybe everyone can get in (Toronto missed last year). Anyway, Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro described this gathering as follows: “The Division is a beast. They have one of the best run franchises around [Rays] in professional sports. They make outstanding decisions and get the best out of their players and how to use them and how to plan and develop games. They have two of the most robust markets [New York and Boston] who are also well managed and make good decisions. And we are happy to now have the feeling that we are at the level of these teams.”

The Blue Jays are the flavor of the month in many ways. Which is intriguing because AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray joined the Mariners via free agency, as did Marcus Semien, who converted his third MVP spot into a seven-year, $175 million pact with the Rangers. But Toronto still has the second-seeded MVP finisher at Guerrero, trading for powerful third baseman Chapman, who may be the best defensive player in the game. Kevin Gausman, sixth in last year’s NL Cy vote, was signed to replace Ray and Yusei Kikuchi was also added.

The FanGraphs sim likes the Blue Jays enough to predict them to conquer the AL East with 93 wins, followed by the Yankees (91), Red Sox (87) and Rays (86). The Blue Jays, who played home games in Dunedin, Buffalo and Toronto last year due to COVID-19 restrictions, could actually have significant home field advantage. No unvaccinated player is currently permitted to enter Canada. So that’s a total of 27 home games against the Blue Jays in which the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox may have to play shorthanded. The Yankees and Mets also currently have to play at home without unvaccinated players.

Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette gets high-fives in the dugout after hitting a double from Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in the first inning of a spring training game against the Yankees.
Bo Bichette gets high fives in the dugout after scoring in a spring practice game against the Yankees.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Po

But even at full strength, the Yankees will have to go through division hell if they just want to win their second AL East title in the last 10 seasons and secure a place in the playoffs.

As Gerrit Cole said, “It’s no fooling around, this department.”

The Rays may not be making splashy moves — though they sure tried Freddie Freeman. But they have the fourth-best record in the majors over the past four seasons, are two-time defending champions and have a burgeoning offense that will include a full season of Wander Franco.

The Red Sox improved their lineup and likely their defense with the signing of Trevor Story last weekend. In three seasons that Alex Cora has managed Boston, his record stands at 284-202.

Blue Jays left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., with his hair up, looks on during a pitching change in the dugout after doubling in a run in the first inning of a spring training game against the Yankees.
Blue Jays left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Po

The Blue Jays have that wrecking ball, especially when they get a full season out of jumpers that they didn’t have in 2021. Also, they have built a strong rotation on the fly in recent years by importing Gausman, Kikuchi and Hyun-jin Ryu and Jose Berrios and draft by Alek Manoah.

The key to the division might just be the other team. The Orioles have not had a winning record against any of the other four teams in the division in the past four seasons. And in the last three full 162-game seasons (2018, 2019, 2021), the AL East winner was a combined 51-6 against the Orioles. That’s not a typo. If you want to win the East, you better destroy the fewest.

However, Anthony Rizzo gave other advice not to look up or down the division.

“You can anticipate what you want,” Rizzo warned. “You have your own business to mind and you can’t worry about what the Blue Jays or the Red Sox or the Orioles are doing. You have to take care of yourself and take care of the housekeeping. Keep your head down and stay focused. You start looking at the other teams and how that might affect you, and then you hurt your own preparation.” The Yankees’ toughest competition in AL East might be the Blue Jays


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