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How the Rays upset The Plan

A shakeup in the AL East makes the playoff outlook even riskier

Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

If there’s been one main complaint about the Yankees over the last five years or so, it’s been their devotion to The Plan. They’re not downright cheap, as they spend money where they need to in order to assemble a roster that can win 96-99 games and go into the playoffs with the division title where everything else is considered a crapshoot. This strategy repeats every year, and if that’s your idea of success, the Yankees have been quite successful.

That was mostly the design for this season as well — the team spent big on Aaron Judge, brought in Carlos Rodón, and based on preseason projections, they were the favorites for the AL East and had the best World Series odds in the league. As the saying goes though, everyone has The Plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Well, the Tampa Bay Rays have done a whole lot of mouth punching to start the year. At 20-5 to open the campaign, they’ve banked a fifth of the wins that they’re going to need to win this division and avoid the best-of-three Wild Card round. We saw just last year how a team with a scalding-hot start can weather a .500 second half en route to a division title. Nothing is decided, by any means, but in a race to 99ish wins, Tampa’s done a really good job getting out in front of the pack.

Effectively, this hot start has flipped the odds. Preseason, the Yankees had a 43-percent chance of ending up on top of the AL East and the Rays were right around 20 percent. Entering play Thursday night, that’s mostly been reversed — indeed the Rays have shorter odds now than the Yankees did a month ago.

The problem for the Yankees is that the roster and specifically the starting rotation gets undercut by needing to burn both Cole and Rodón in an opening Wild Card round. The whole pretense of three or four aces is that by the time you get to Nestor Cortes in the postseason, you’ve already thrown your two best pitchers against your ALDS opponent.

If we look at the schedule of last year’s Wild Card series, the Yankees would have played at least two games in a row, potentially three, before getting a Monday off and playing again Tuesday. This leaves a starter like Cole unavailable until the second game of a Division Series, and of the four nominal aces the Yankees were supposed to have, the one carrying the most injury risk in Luis Severino would line up to open the ALDS if New York can’t make quick work of their Wild Card opponent — frankly, the crapshoot gets crappier.

Now, the good news is that it’s April 28th. The Yankees haven’t even played the Rays yet, with their first shot at the division leaders coming in two weeks. They get 13 games against Tampa, and if they go 9-4 or something close, The Plan carries significantly less risk. The cliché is that you can’t win the division in April, but you can lose it ... the Yankees aren’t at that point yet, not until they actually get games against the Rays.

Still, after seeing the division odds completely flipped within the season’s first month, we see the flaws in relying on the Plan — or rather, we once again see it. The Yankees have been content to be Just Good Enough for most of the Baby Bomber Era, and it might still work this year! Being Just Good Enough carries more risk than I believe the Yankees think, though, and as the core of this team gets older and older, pushing your chips in for a year starts to make more and more sense.