Is the AL East the most competitive division in the majors?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Given the expected ascendancy of teams like Detroit and Cincinnati in the season ahead, the questions begs, which division is the most competitive? Which could provide the most surprise and conversely, the most disappointments?

At first glance, the AL East, with potentially all five teams capable of making a post-season run, may be difficult to separate clubs. The margin of three victories separated Baltimore (with 101 wins), Tampa Bay (99, most in franchise history), and Toronto (89) in the race for 2023 playoff spots. Baltimore qualified as the division leader while Tampa Bay and Toronto gained entrance as wild card teams.

Of these clubs, the Orioles appear to have strengthened their position. Signing right-hander Corbin Burns in the off-season and waiting patiently for the development of shortstop Gunner Henderson (the reigning AL rookie-of-the-year) and top prospect Jackson Holliday, the expectation is the Orioles could truly separate themselves from the rest of the division.

Yet, participants recognize the clear competitive nature of these five teams and the reality the division could be bunched together over the coming months.

“Every game is tough in the big leagues,” asserted Toronto manager John Schneider. “Yeah, it’s a tough division. Up and down, there are some storied franchises and teams which are always around 90 wins. You can talk about us or Tampa in the last handful of years. Sure, it’s tough but this tests you as you go. We’re excited for the challenge this brings.”

Because the season is a marathon and protracted over months at time, there is a necessity to stretch out players, and make sure their efforts are not clogged and consolidated within a prescribed time barrier.

The Rays’ Randy Arozarena recognized the fatigue factor. As a direct result, he arrived in camp bulked up and told reporters he wanted to be fully energized for the September and October post-season run.

“You don’t put too much into early season games and that’s because it’s such a long season,” Schneider added. “Every one counts. We don’t think about that in the moment.”

If there is one characteristic among these division teams, this may be inclusion. In the AL East, teams appear more complete and still feature versatility.

One early example came from the Yankees’ Juan Soto, who seemed to leave his bat in the dugout, and threw out the potential tying run at the plate in the ninth inning on opening night. That preserved the Bombers 5-4 victory over Houston.

For his part, Burns allowed just a Mike Trout home run in six innings of work, fanned 11 hitters, walked none and gained an opening-day victory. Geroge Springer of the Jays homered in each of his first two games, and the Rays’ Yandy Diaz, the reigning American League batting champion, was hitting .417 after his first three games.

Given the protracted nature of the schedule, managers tend to caution and take the traditional “one game at a time.” At the same instant, pitfalls in April and May tend to snowball and lead to challenges and difficulties.

On the diamond …

The Tampa Bay Rays captured two of their opening three games of the season and defeated Toronto 6-1 Saturday before 18,905 in Tropicana Field.

Outfielder Randy Arozarena paced the attack with a 2-for-3 night, a homer to the opposite field, and a pair of stolen bases.

“That’s something I’m working on,” he said through an interpreter and referenced the home run just inside the rightfield foul pole. “Sometimes, you have to work on the difficulty of your swings. I know if I ever come out early, I can hit to left field and that’s why I was working the other way.”

Starter Zack Littell pitched six shutout innings, allowed four hits, walked two, and fanned six to gain his initial win of the season.

“I thought this was not the cleanest outing by any means,” he said afterward. “With a start like that, I pushed through and especially over the last two innings. I just wanted to find a way to get it done.”

The series finale …

The Rays and Jays conclude their opening set of the season with a matinee in Tropicana Field. Before Saturday’s game, Toronto manager John Scheider named veteran Kevin Gausman as his starter. During the early part of spring training, Gausman, with a career 88-91 in 11 seasons with Baltimore, San Francisco, Atlanta, Toronto, and Cincinnati, was shut down with shoulder fatigue. A year ago, the 33-year-old went 12-9 with, 3.16 ERA in 31 starts. Gausman will be opposed by lefty Tyler Alexander, who was picked up on waivers from Detroit last November. A reliever a year ago, he went 2-1 in 25 games and suffered from a lat sprain, which placed him on the 60-day injured list. After the season, Alexander was designed for assignment and subsequently signed by the Rays … then, the Texas Rangers follow Toronto into Tropicana Field, and conclude the initial home stand of the season. Right-hander Ryan Pepiot opens the series Monday night for Tampa Bay.

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