Struggling Yankees face a test against AL East ‘superteam’ Rays

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After 32 games, there is no superteam in the MLB. However, this weekend in St. Petersburg, the Yankees will face a tough opponent that has performed like a superteam through the first month of the season. Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who himself faces the ire of fans, knows the challenge ahead.

Kevin Cash’s squad has been the best in the majors by nearly every metric. So far, the road for them has been clear and they have been leading the AL East. However, the Tampa Bay Rays will surely encounter some obstacles if the Yankees will strive to rise to the occasion this weekend. Their expertise and knowledge will be put to the test now.

The Rays are ahead of the Yankees

The Rays are currently leading in the AL East, having won 26 of their first 32 games while outscoring their opponents by 114 runs. The Yankees are fifth out of five teams. They have a team OPS of .876, which is nearly identical to that of seven-time All-Star Nolan Arenado. The team has an ERA of 2.87, which is the same as Juan Marichal‘s all-time great mark.

The Yankees are nine games behind Tampa Bay.

“They’ve done everything,” admits Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “They’ve pitched as good as anyone in the league. They’ve swung the bats as well as anyone in the league.”

The Rays’ pitchers have allowed the fewest runs in MLB, and their batters have a league-best batting average (.278). Entering Friday, they have a 114-run advantage over their opponents this season. They lead the league with 67 home runs, and their pitchers have allowed the fewest (just 20). The Rays are 20 games above .500 after winning their first 13 games, the fastest team to do so since the 1984 Tigers.

Both the 1998 Yankees and the 2001 Mariners needed 38 games to reach a 20-win margin.

“They’re playing like the best team in the league right now,” said Boone. “Not surprising that they’re really good. Gotta play really well to go beat them, especially down there.”

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Mary Altaffer / AP Photo

The Yankees continue to struggle

The Yankees are struggling to play well in enemy territory despite having just won a series against the Guardians. Due to injuries, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge will not be starting in center field for them. Power hitters Willie Calhoun and Jake Bauers are anticipated to see more playing time.

To accommodate Gerrit Cole’s start at Tropicana Field on Sunday, the Yankees shifted their rotation. However, Nestor Cortes won’t be able to play due to a case of strep throat. The Yankees will deploy  Jhony Brito and Domingo German to start the remaining two games. A divisional gap of 10 or more points is possible if the Yankees totter again.

Tampa did nothing as the Yankees switched to their strongest pitcher to face the Rays. Yonny Chirinos, who has been solid but has typically followed an opener, will get the ball to start for the Rays. Drew Rasmussen (3.66 ERA) will start on Saturday, and reliever Josh Fleming will pitch Sunday.

The Rays have a reliever ERA of 2.79, second lowest only to the Yankees‘ 2.77. With 22-year-old wonder Wander Franco, international star Randy Arozarena, and inexpensive contributors who seem to do everything well and quietly, the Yankees’ staff will have their hands full.

Yandy Diaz has a high OPS (1.038) thanks to his keen vision and powerful swing. The infielder Taylor Walls is seeing a 38% success rate in reaching first base. Even though they aren’t related, both Josh and Brandon Lowe are enjoying successful years.

“They’ve done a great job of just building and transitioning their roster to be really complementary of one another,” Boone said of the Rays. “Depending on what the matchup is that day, who they’re facing, their 13 position players really complement each other well.”

Beyond the team’s size, the strength of their opponents is the only real concern for Tampa Bay. The Rays have won eight of their past nine games against the Nationals, Reds, and Pirates, and nine of their last ten games versus the AL Central.

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A sense of despair

The Yankees have a larger budget than the other teams by around $200 million, but they may instead use that money to buy smaller, less powerful weapons. Due to injuries, they have ceased their offensive for weeks.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa said on Wednesday, “The big guys are down right now, so we need to find a way to make runs.”

But the underdog Yankees were tough and gutsy enough to play small ball against the greatest club in sports history. Until April 21, the Yankees had yet to lose a series this season and were beginning to earn a reputation as a team that could get by with a small roster and still succeed. They did well and have room for improvement.

Then they grew distant, if only temporarily. The Yankees are now in last place in the American League East after losing to the Toronto Blue Jays, the Minnesota Twins, and the Texas Rangers. This happened because they were dealing with a lot of injuries.

On Wednesday afternoon, with the series against the Cleveland Guardians knotted 1-1, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman conducted his annual team-in-crisis press conference. A few hours later, Jose Trevino had recovered enough to walk it off and the Yankees had won the series.

Cashman used one of the most overused expressions in baseball when he declared “long season” on Wednesday. That doesn’t mean some unfavorable information hasn’t leaked out. Given Carlos Rodon‘s history of setbacks, it’s natural to be wary of putting money into him. The instability of Clay Holmes is cause for concern.

The bottom of the lineup likely allows more runs than it saves on defense (though it’s wonderful to see a more athletic collection of fielders than the 2020 and early 2021 Yankees). If Cashman upgraded the training staff as recently as a few years ago, it is logical to question why over $100 million is sitting on the “Injured List.”

But Cashman said the squad has processes in place to help them work through the challenges they face.

What do you think? Leave your comment below.

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