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The Yankees and Rays are poised to fight for the AL East

Both teams leaned into their brands to become the top two teams in the division.

MLB: SEP 25 Yankees at Rays Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ah, Tampa Bay. Known for white sand beaches, an annual influx of pirate cosplayers —happening today! — and consistent rumors among the population there is a professional baseball team somewhere within the city. Of course, actual baseball fans know a whole lot about the Tampa Bay Rays: they’re one of the most successful teams in the game over the past decade, and the Yankees’ primary challenger for the AL East division title in 2020.

The Rays finished 2019 as a Wild Card winner, with 96 wins and a BaseRuns record actually better than the Yankees posted, meaning the two teams were much closer on true talent than you might expect. In a lot of ways, last year the teams were opposites - the Yankees boasting a powerful offense and middling pitching, while the Rays dominated from the mound and were far more pedestrian at the plate.

Over the winter, the teams addressed their own internal weaknesses, but they did so in ways that were pretty consistent with their images across baseball. The Yankees gave the richest contract to a pitcher in baseball history, landing Gerrit Cole on a 9 year, $324 million deal. The Rays boosted their offense by adding Jose Martinez, the talented but positionless former Cardinal, and will probably augment it by promoting some 5 foot 9 middle infielder who will somehow walk more than he strikes out, but only against the Yankees.

The AL East, like last year, is probably going to end up a two-horse race. The Blue Jays are still a little ways off from being competitive, and the Red Sox still boast a good degree of talent, but questions around their pitching depth probably relegate them to third in the division barring acts of God. That leaves the Yankees and Rays, who project to be pretty similar:

Tampa’s pitching looks to be just slightly better in terms of raw run suppression, mostly due to the Yankees’ higher projected home run allowance. Overall, the Yankees have closed the gap well when it comes to work on the mound, strengthening what was their biggest weakness.

Offensively, we see a lot of the same story we saw last year, where the Yankees are clearly projected to be a better lineup. The addition of Jose Martinez is certainly helpful — Steamer pegs him for a 106 wRC+, fifth best on the team — but probably isn’t enough to make the Rays a top to bottom impact lineup like the Yankees can roll out.

The Rays build their team in a pretty trademark way. You can believe their inability to pay free agents, or not — and I don’t. Spotrac has their total Opening Day payroll at just over $57 million, less than the $71 million mark at the start of last season. The team could have signed Josh Donaldson, projected for a 137 wRC+ (!) and only added 12% to their 2019 payroll. In fact, the Rays plus Donaldson would put the team at $80 mil, exactly what their 2018 Opening Day payroll was, and it would have boosted the team’s projections significantly.

Instead the Rays did what they always do - cry poverty, engineer a Byzantine trade for a player with a good deal of potential, and hope for the 90th percentile outcome from every guy on their roster. It might work, too. The team is among the smartest and most creative in baseball, but the reason the Yankees closed the gap on the pitching side is because they signed the best player available. The reason the Yankees continue to hold an edge offensively is because they saw the value in acquiring Giancarlo Stanton and paying for DJ LeMahieu.

The AL East is a two horse race, but one of those horses has to be the odds-on favorite. With a better lineup and a similar pitching staff, the Yankees will probably have the best chance at winning the division. If the Rays want to change that, it’ll require a complete overhaul in the way the organization believes baseball teams can be built.