The AL East in 2023 is a gauntlet. It has proven itself to be the best division in baseball, with teams boasting MVPs, All-Stars, and top-flight young talent. Unfortunately for the Yankees, and fortunately for baseball fans, it appears that this division projects to be good for the foreseeable future. The talent alone makes these divisional games must-watch, but animosity on and off the field has created added drama. As the Yankees wrapped up entertaining series against the Rays and the Blue Jays, it got me thinking about the Yankees’ biggest division rivals right now.
The re-emergence of the Rays over the past few seasons has turned this rivalry into one of the best in baseball. These matchups have everything that makes a rivalry great: drama, star players, and a recent postseason matchup. Growing up I always wanted the Yankees players to dislike the opposing team as much as I did, and while that is rarely the case, there is some bad blood between these two teams. The catalyst may have been a faithful day late in the 2018 season when CC Sabathia intentionally hit Jesus Sucre of the Rays, subsequently pointing to the Rays dugout and stating “That ones for you.” Since then, multiple dust-ups have ensued, including a bench-clearing incident in 2020 when Aroldis Chapman threw a fastball behind Mike Brosseau’s head, prompting Rays’ Manager Kevin Cash to say, “I have a whole damn stable of pitchers that throw 98 miles per hour.’’
The Rays are flashy, athletic, and have one of the league’s lowest payrolls. Meanwhile the Yankees have the second-highest payroll in baseball, tend to be a little more buttoned up, and are one of the most historic franchises in baseball. Those facts may not have a direct impact on the field, but it certainly plays into the narrative of these two franchises being very different. As long as these two teams stay competitive, I think the personalities on both sides will continue to fuel this rivalry.
Something was always simmering between the Yankees and Blue Jays, but it certainly is boiling now. A little side-eye and one poignant pudgy comment from Blue Jays manager John Schneider have turned this matchup on its head. There is little doubt that having two competitive teams plays a major role in how these rivalries play out from season to season, and certain events or moments can spark hostility that was never expected. Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. have infused new life and certainly some youthful exuberance into these games as well. It adds to the drama when the managers don’t get along, and the AL East seems to be a hotbed for that type of behavior.
Amazingly, I’ve gotten this far into the article without mentioning the Red Sox. The historic rivalry is currently sitting in the weeds, waiting for the moment that ignites it again. Maybe there is some recency bias with the Blue Jays and Rays, coming off two dramatic series, and not having faced the Red Sox yet this season. Maybe the rivalry isn’t in its early 2000s heyday or even 2018 when Joe Kelly and Tyler Austin decided to have fight night at Fenway, but as we have seen, all it takes is a single moment to rekindle an old flame. Those games at Fenway in the summer are always a slugfest, and with the Red Sox off to a solid start to the season, it could mean more meaningful games between these two teams as the season progresses. The Yankees/Red Sox rivalry will always have staying power, even if one team falters for a season or two. It is historic for a reason and will continue to be, as the rivalries with the Rays and Blue Jays continue to ebb and flow.
The Baltimore Orioles do not factor much into this conversation, but the emergence of their young team will only add to the competitiveness within the AL East. Projecting out, I can see those games in Baltimore becoming entertaining as the years move forward.
The bottom line is that this division is loaded with quality players and teams. There are no easy games within AL East, and the competitiveness naturally leads to animosity amongst the teams. It makes for entertaining baseball and a fun time to be a fan. The divisional race will be fascinating to watch this whole season. Expect some fireworks.