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Looking into the Yankees’ potential temporary rivals

The Grapefruit League may be the Yankees’ competition in 2020, which could lead to some unusual rivalries.

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Philadelphia Phillies v New York Yankees, Game 6 Photo by Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images

It seems crazy to suggest that there could be baseball played in 2020 where the Red Sox aren’t the Yankees’ biggest rival, but that is indeed a possibility. Major League Baseball is considering a host of ideas for how they can restructure the 2020 season to be feasibly playable, and one suggestion is that the teams will play within their Grapefruit and Cactus League structure instead of the traditional American and National League format.

While the entire American League East division is included in the Grapefruit League, they aren’t arranged in the same division under MLB’s proposed plan. Instead, the Yankees and Blue Jays would be facing off with the Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates according to a report from Bob Nightengale.

A setup like this would certainly be strange, as there’s a mix of National League and American League teams which could require some compromising on other MLB rules. The schedule would certainly need to be rearranged as the new divisional opponents would need to be prioritized among other changes, but what could the Yankees realistically expect out of their potential new rivals?

Let’s start with the one familiarity the Yankees would have in this plan: the Blue Jays. Their fellow AL East competitors have been a thorn in their side at times, but are still in the midst of a rebuild. They have some core pieces in place with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. leading the way, and they signed Hyun-jin Ryu away from the Dodgers to be anchor of their rotation. They’re rising out of the cellar and are far from an easy win on the schedule, but they aren’t a contender yet.

An interesting opponent and the likeliest to contend down the stretch with the Yankees in this division would be the Phillies. The two teams don’t have a ton of history, being in separate leagues, but the last significant matchup between them still looms large. The 2009 World Series was the last time either team made it to the Fall Classic, and the Yankees came out on top to claim their 27th World Championship.

Both sides remained true contenders for a couple of years after their postseason bout before falling off, but it’s taken the Phillies longer to put things back together. They are once again a win-now team, though, and they’re lead by the Yankees’ former skipper in Joe Girardi. They have a face of the franchise in Bryce Harper and decent pitching led by Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Throw in a pair of former Yankees as well, with Didi Gregorius and Andrew McCutchen expected to be regulars in the lineup. In terms of storylines and actual postseason threats, the Phillies are clearly the team to watch in this scenario.

The Tigers are another team with some recent history against the Yankees, and they were actually successful in their matchups. The Tigers knocked the Yankees out of the postseason in 2011 and 2012, effectively ending the Core Four’s championship window and beginning a stretch of mediocrity for the organization. If they were in contention in 2020, this would be a decent rival to have to compete against in a stretch run.

Unfortunately for that narrative, the Tigers are pretty dreadful. Detroit finished with the worst record in baseball last year — ending with an awful 47-114 record, just six losses behind the 1962 Mets for the most in the modern era. It doesn’t look like they’re going to be much better this year, as they’ve fully embraced the tank. They do have a couple of former Yankees in Cameron Maybin and Austin Romine, so maybe there’s something to look for.

The Pirates round out the division, and there really isn’t much to say about their recent history against New York. They’ve been a non-factor most of the time, briefly rising to be a postseason team during McCutchen’s prime years in Pittsburgh but only managing to get out of the Wild Card Game once. They did manage to briefly fix A.J. Burnett after acquiring him from the Yankees in 2012, so I suppose we could count that as a win in their favor.

Today’s Pirates are stuck in irrelevance, holding onto a few key pieces — but unlike the Blue Jays they still appear several years away from putting things together. Josh Bell is the offensive star of the team, slashing .277/.367/.569 with 37 home runs and 116 RBI for an offense that otherwise struggled to get in runs. Chris Archer hasn’t worked out for the Pirates as the ace of their rotation, and they’ve been looking to shop him to get something back for what turned out to be a disastrous trade with Tampa Bay. They won’t be much of a threat this year.

Altogether, the Yankees’ potential division is pretty lacking compared to the norm in the AL East. There aren’t many moments to tie them to some of their competitors and develop some of the animosity that is held for teams like the Red Sox or Rays, and the level of talent overall is a step down. That may mean for a less entertaining regular season, but for a team whose goal is the World Series, you can’t really complain.