AL East preview: Rays challenging Yankees for divisional supremacy

Projected finish: Rays, Yankees, Orioles, Blue Jays, Red Sox.

The Yankees and Rays couldn’t be more distant financially or historically.

The Yankees’ 2020 season will be considered a bust if they don’t win their franchise’s 28th World Series come October. The Rays have been to the World Series once, losing to Philadelphia in 2008. Just getting there again would be a dream.

The Rays play in a domed stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla., that is usually more empty than full, even with a winning team. The Bronx Bombers play in the $1.4 billion Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees set a salary record for pitchers when they signed starter Gerrit Cole to a $324 million contract. The Rays need several seasons to spend that kind of cash.

But, when it comes to the American League East, the Rays, with 96 wins last season, have the best chance to knock off the defending champion 103-win Yankees.

The Yankees haven’t won a World Series since beating the Phillies in 2009. The Yankees lost in the postseason to the Astros in 2017 and again last season. In 2018, Boston eliminated the Yankees.

Expectations are extra high in New York, especially after signing Cole, 29, a right-hander who was 35-10 with a 2.68 ERA in 65 games for the Astros. Cole also made two All-Star teams and led the AL in 2019 with 326 strikeouts.

Cole leads a rotation that has James Paxton (3.82 ERA), J.A. Happ (4.91 ERA) and Jordan Montgomery (6.75 ERA), but no Luis Severino, who is out because of Tommy John surgery, and possibly no Masahiro Tanaka (4.45), who is coming back from a mild concussion after getting hit with a line drive on July 4.

The Yankees hit 306 home runs last season, even with injuries to their power hitters. This year, those bats are back and healthy: Giancarlo Stanton played in 18 games last season. Aaron Judge (ribs) hit 27 home runs in 102 games last season, Gary Sánchez 34 in 106 games.

The low-budget Rays won 68 games in 2016. They’ve improved every season since, getting 80, 90 and 96 wins in each of the last three seasons. They draft well and build through their farm system. They make excellent trades, such as when they dealt pitcher Chris Archer to the Pirates for prospects Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow.

Those two guys are reasons the Rays are competitive. Both Meadows and Glasnow have been limited by COVID-19 during the second round of training.

Glasnow returned to camp last week. He’s a front-of-the-rotation pitcher who had a 1.78 ERA in 12 starts last season.

Meadows may or may not on the roster when the season begins. But he’s the Rays’ best hitter. He hit 33 home runs last season and made the AL All-Star team. When he returns, the lefty can bat leadoff or in the middle of the order.

Glasnow will be in a rotation that has lefty Blake Snell, the AL Cy Young winner in 2018, and Charlie Morton (3.05 ERA).

Hunter Renfro, who hit 33 home runs for the Padres last season, is new to the Rays lineup, as well as José Martínez, who hit .269 with 10 home runs for St. Louis last season. They also added Manuel Margot, a strong defensive outfielder.

It is much easier to find a Cinderella team in a two-month span than it is during 162 games.

That’s why the Toronto Blue Jays are intriguing. They lost the AL Championship Series in 2015 and 2016, and now they have three players that are sons of former big league players that are forming the nucleus of future Blue Jays rosters.

Cavan Biggio, son of Astros star Craig Biggio, had a .364 on-base percentage last year. Bo Bichette, son of Dante Bichette, hit .311 with a .358 on-base and 11 home runs in 46 games. And Vladimir Guerrero Jr. slammed 15 home runs with a .277 average and a .399 on-base percentage.

Those three, plus addition of starters Hyun-Jin Ryu, former National Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson could spark the Blue Jays into contention.

The Blue Jays, though, began the week not knowing where they were going to play their 30 home games. The Canadian government, worried about travel from the U.S., banned the team from playing in Toronto. The Blue Jays’ options could come down to either Buffalo, N.Y., home of a Triple-A team, or their spring home in Dunedin, Fla.

Neither ballpark has lighting that fits Major League Baseball standards, so does that mean the Blue Jays will play their home schedule as afternoon games? Or perhaps they could share a stadium with another major league club.

The Red Sox don’t have the same swagger.

They took their biggest hit in the rotation when they traded starter David Price, along with Mookie Betts, to the Dodgers. Lefty Chris Sale is out with Tommy John and Eduardo Rodriguez has the coronavirus, so he misses a chance at making his first start on opening day.

Nathan Eovaldi is the most established pitcher in the rotation, which also has Ryan Weber, Chris Johnson and Martín Pérez.

The Red Sox lineup has Rafael Devers (.361 on-base with 32 home runs), Xander Bogaerts (.384 on-base with 33 home runs) and J.D. Martinez. Martinez has hit 124 home runs in the last three seasons and the team has gotten its money’s worth since it signed Martinez to a five-year contract in 2018.

The Orioles, under second-year manager Brandon Hyde, are building, although it hurts that Trey Mancini (colon cancer) will be out for the season.

But there’s plenty to give the Orioles hope.

Can Austin Hays in center field build on his impressive showing from last September, when he hit .309? Will DJ Stewart stay healthy and be consistent? Will Anthony Santander continue to grow?

Will Hanser Alberto be a .300 hitter again? He hit .305 with 12 home runs last season. Chris Davis will play first base and the Orioles hope that his apparent resurgence during the original spring training is a positive sign.

John Means, who went from almost not making the team to an AL All-Star and this year’s opening day starter, and Alex Cobb lead the rotation. But Means is dealing with a dead arm, so the Orioles may have to adjust on the fly.

If Means pitches as he did last season, when he was 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA, and Cobb, 31, returns to pitch as he did in Tampa Bay (2.76 and 2.87 ERAs), the Orioles will have taken a huge step forward. Or if Cobb pitches to the 3.66 ERA he had in 2017, the Orioles will feel a positive difference.

Kohl Stewart, who fizzled in Minnesota, could be a surprise find as a pitcher. The bullpen is potentially deep.

Hyde says he wants to see Orioles pitchers find the strike zone more this season. He said it seemed that last year, Orioles pitchers were always behind in the count.

The Orioles have a difficult schedule, playing the AL and National League East. They are about rebuilding the nucleus, but can they contend?

In a wacky 60-game season, anything is possible.