The Yankees have hit another spring training milestone, holding their first full squad workout on Monday. Later this week, they will play their first exhibition game of the spring, tangling with the Phillies in a split-squad game on Saturday.
The real thing will be here sooner than you know it — March 30 to be exact — and the Yankees have grand aspirations once again. While the American League is much more top heavy than its more wholly impressive cousin in the National League, there are still a handful of fearsome teams in the AL that could crush the Yankees’ dreams in the postseason.
With all due respect to the Rays (who always give the Yankees trouble), Angels (make the playoffs first, then we’ll talk), and Rangers (still very much in the experiment phase), these are the teams that represent the biggest obstacle between the Yankees and their first World Series since 2009.
It always begins and ends with Houston.
The team that has thwarted three of the Yankees’ last six playoff runs stands to be very annoying once again. Even with some familiar faces now out the door — Justin Verlander, you may have heard, is a New York Met, and Yuli Gurriel, one of the other holdovers from the 2017 championship team, was not retained — the Astros should still be regarded as the favorite to win the American League.
They replaced Gurriel, who was atrocious last year, with three-time All-Star Jose Abreu. A metronome in the White Sox’s lineup for the last nine years, Abreu hit .304 with 40 doubles last year. All he’s ever done is hit, and even though this will be his age-36 season, there’s nothing that points to him slowing down.
The rotation certainly takes a hit by losing Verlander, but Framber Valdez has anointed himself as one of the ten or so best pitchers in the AL. Cristian Javier faced 39 hitters in the ALCS and World Series and only let one of them get a hit. Luis Garcia, Lance McCullers Jr. and Jose Urquidy is a back end of the rotation that other teams would kill for. On the position player side, October god Jeremy Pena showed up to camp looking noticeably jacked, sluggers Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker are still young enough to theoretically get even better, and perennial MVP candidate Alex Bregman remains at third base.
None of that even mentions Jose Altuve, or their terrifying bullpen. The Astros are going to keep dominating until somebody stops them, and the Yankees haven’t had enough to do that for the last six years.
Toronto Blue Jays
Is this the year the youth movement in Toronto delivers the division crown?
As always, the AL East will be a bloodbath, but the Blue Jays have every reason to believe they can win it. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are the definition of a dynamic duo, one half of which consistently appears at the top of the exit velocity leaderboard, the other has led the AL in hits for each of the last two seasons.
Hitting is not the Blue Jays’ problem. They were eliminated from the playoffs last year in a game in which they scored nine runs. Toronto will go as far as their pitching takes them, and a bounceback year from Jose Berrios (who spent the first season of his seven-year, $130 million contract being one of the most erratic pitchers in the league) could be the difference between the Jays grabbing a Wild Card spot again or hanging an AL East banner.
With Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman, the top of the pitching staff is in good shape. Chris Bassitt, perhaps the most consummate third starter in Major League Baseball, was brought in to provide much-needed depth and stability. It’s the back end of the rotation and the bullpen — which ranked tenth out of 15 AL teams in Wins Above Replacement last year — that will determine the Blue Jays’ ultimate fate.
The team that knocked Toronto out of the playoffs in autumn also added one of their better hitters.
Teoscar Hernandez, he of the 57 homers and .840 OPS since 2021, gives the Mariners some thump to support shining star Julio Rodriguez. If Rodriguez plays up to his potential, he could absolutely challenge for the MVP. Same goes for pitcher Luis Castillo and the Cy Young award. Smaller pickups like Kolten Wong, AJ Pollock and Tommy La Stella inject some veteran presence to a team that made the playoffs with an extremely young roster in 2022.
A big question for the M’s is if their bullpen can maintain the standard that’s helped the team win 90 games in consecutive years for the first time since the first George W. Bush administration.
Does keeping Carlos Correa, signing Joey Gallo and trading for Pablo Lopez, the underrated ex-Marlin who’s been shrouded in obscurity for his entire career, make the Twins the class of the AL Central?
Only time will tell, and realistically speaking, Minnesota is not on the same level as the first three teams on this list. Their division is incredibly winnable though, and like everyone else here, they can make in-season moves at the deadline geared toward ensuring postseason success.
But the Twins have also famously lost their last 18 playoff games, 13 of which have come against the Yankees. The Twins look formidable enough to participate in the playoffs, but as far as the Bombers are concerned, they don’t pose much of a threat.
This AL Central squad, on the other hand, gave the Yankees everything they could handle in the Division Series four months ago. Cleveland addressed their infirm offense by inserting Josh Bell into the middle of the order, but this iteration of the Guardians is all about pitching.
Had a few more breaks gone Cleveland’s way, namely not having to start Aaron Civale in a winner-take-all game, they would have advanced to play the Astros in the ALCS. The series proved that the Guardians and Yankees were not as far apart as many prognosticators (and the team’s payrolls) would have suggested.
As far as AL contenders go, the Astros are the team that uses their might to instill fear, but these Guardians play a brand of old school ball that can be just as infuriating to deal with.
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