Aaron Judge and the Yankees ready for Stacked AL East

TAMPA, Fla. — The strongest split in baseball history — one through four, anyway — looks daunting again. Four American League East team...


TAMPA, Fla. — The strongest split in baseball history — one through four, anyway — looks daunting again. Four American League East teams had more than 90 wins last season, a first for divisional play, dating back to 1969. Now the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays are back for more.

“Whoa – pack some lunch, baby,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said in his office at Steinbrenner Field the other day. Then Boone got mischievous: “Well,” he added, “looks like we’re all fighting for second place. Looks like the Blue Jays are just…”

He passed out, but the point was clear: The Yankees noticed that Toronto — anecdotally, at least — was prematurely crowned favorite. But didn’t the Blue Jays, who missed the playoffs by one game last season at 91-71, lose a Cy Young Award winner and record infielder to free agency? ?

“Apparently not,” Boone said, with a smile. “But they are good. I mean, this division is always good, but it shows really good.”

The Blue Jays played the Yankees here on Saturday, and the game went to plan, with seven combined homers and 19 total runs. Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton smoked a laser at 117 miles per hour over the left field wall. Josh Palacios, a reserve outfielder for the Brooklyn Blue Jays, cleared the clubhouse with a flare right. Toronto won, 10-9.

“Late last year, nobody really wanted to play against us,” said Blue Jays infielder Cavan Biggio, who also homered on Saturday. “The form of our team was finally taken into account, and people noticed that, ‘Hey, this is a pretty dangerous team.’ I think this year it’s kind of like, ‘OK, now it’s time, we have to watch out for the Blue Jays.’ And our mindset has been there, we feel we are the best and we are going to play with a lot of fun and a lot of energy.

Robbie Ray won his Cy Young award in Seattle. Marcus Semien – who set a record for home runs by a second baseman, with 45 – landed with Texas. Starter Steven Matz turned a career year into a deal with St. Louis.

But the Blue Jays pivoted to solid replacements: Kevin Gausman and Yusei Kikuchi for the rotation, Matt Chapman for the infield. With the likes of Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernández and George Springer, Toronto has earned the hype.

“The young guys they have there, especially Vlad and Bichette, those guys are going to keep improving,” Aaron Judge said of the Yankees. “They have a great outfield, a great inside core. They’re going to be a tough opponent all year, so we’re looking forward to playing them a bit.

How often will the judge be allowed to confront them? He avoided direct questions about his vaccination status, but the Canadian government will not allow players to enter the country unless they are vaccinated against the coronavirus. The Yankees play nine games in Toronto this season, three in May, June and September.

Every win was precious to the Yankees last season, when they edged the Blue Jays for a wildcard berth by one game. As they prepare to offer Judge a contract extension before Opening Day on April 7, the Yankees would be wise to make the vaccine a condition of his signing. The Red Sox did it with infielder Trevor Story, according to ESPN, a logical request for a $140 million player in a team sport.

The judge should order a lot more from the Yankees than Story got from the Red Sox. He has few peers as a slugger: As of 2017, only Mike Trout and Juan Soto have a slugging percentage higher than the .954 judge (minimum 2,000 plate appearances). To waive free agency, will the judge need a record average annual salary for a position player? The standard is Trout, at just over $35.5 million a year with the Los Angeles Angels.

“I want to be here,” said Judge, who turns 30 next month. “That we can lock that down and have the chance to play here for a few more years, that would be great. But if it happens, it happens. If it’s not, it’s not. I’m not too worried.

The judge and the Yankees have still not agreed on a salary for 2022: the judge asked for $21 million in arbitration, and the Yankees countered at $17 million. That dispute will end if the sides agree on a long-term deal, and general manager Brian Cashman told reporters on Saturday that extension talks would end before the opener.

The judge was a bit hesitant about that timeline — “We haven’t decided yet, but at the moment that’s what we have,” he said on Saturday — but either way he will have at least minus one more chance of meeting the Yankees. dream of December 2017. That’s when they traded for Stanton, hoping a modern Mantle-and-Maris tandem would get them back to the World Series.

Could it finally happen in 2022? For now, anyway, a healthy, well-stocked lineup isn’t the issue. The pitch is Boone’s immediate concern, with the shortened show schedule keeping newbies out of their usual workload. An expanded first roster, with 28 active players, will help.

“I think they’re beginners and where they need to be built – how do you fill those first two weeks?” Boon said. “Our five starters will probably be built up to 65, 75 pitches at this point, so having those extra few arms will help.”

The rotation isn’t particularly big after Gerrit Cole, yet every AL East team has pitching questions. This is the deep, densely populated Timber Division, where a factor like a vaccine mandate could make a big difference.

The Blue Jays said they weren’t worried about the impact of Canada’s rule on their own roster. As for a competitive edge over unvaccinated rivals, they might not even need it.

“I feel like our fans are the best in baseball, especially when we’re good and packing the house,” Biggio said. “So looking at it from that perspective, we will have an advantage. But from a vaccine perspective, we don’t think we need that advantage just because we know how good we are as a team.

Pack some lunch, baby. It should be fun.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Aaron Judge and the Yankees ready for Stacked AL East
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