AL East, baseball’s best division, could be even better in 2023

LAS VEGAS – Nothing personal, but with the exception of a certain team in the Bronx, everyone in the AL East is wildly rooting for Aaron Judge to go back home to California.

Then again, every team in the AL East outside the 617 area code is hoping that All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts becomes so furious with the Boston Red Sox during their negotiations that he abruptly leaves, and All-Star third baseman Rafael Devers follows him out the door a year later.   

The Toronto Blue Jays, who spent a franchise-record $200 million to produce their second-most victories since their 1993 World Series title team, have the four American teams in their division pleading with them not to reach into their wallets for more free agents.

Can’t the Tampa Bay Rays, baseball’s Little Engine that Could with eight playoff appearances (including in each of the past four seasons) and two American League pennants since 2008, have a momentary lapse of reason? 

Why can’t the Baltimore Orioles, who became baseball’s laughingstock after losing 368 games between 2018 and 2021 before winning 83 games this past season, just be satisfied with having a winning record?

Welcome to the AL East, home to the toughest and baddest cats in the game, the only division in baseball in which all five teams have legitimate postseason hopes. 

‘Our division is brutal,’ Orioles GM Mike Elias said Tuesday at Major League Baseball’s annual General Manager meetings. ‘We have three gigantic, global cities with big resources (New York, Boston and Toronto), and we have like the smartest-run organization (Tampa Bay) in the sport.

‘It’s tough to go blow-by-blow with those teams.’

Try telling that to the Rays, whose payrolls have perennially been dwarfed by the Yankees and Red Sox. They have managed to not only survive, but thrive quite nicely with their shrewd moves.

‘It’s life in the AL East,’ says Rays GM Peter Bendix. ‘Every one of these teams are very well-run, have a lot of resources, and have a desire to win. If they have a down year or a down stretch, it’s only a matter of time when they’re back up. Regardless of how much any of these teams are spending, in any given year, they’ll be a threat to win 100 games and the World Series.

‘With a balanced schedule, it’s possible you may see five 90-win teams. Wouldn’t that be something?’

Aw, yes, the balanced schedule that will be implemented in 2023 could be the AL East’s best friend. They still will spend all summer beating each other’s brains in, but now it will be only 13 times, reduced from 19, with every MLB team now playing one another.

‘I’ll make a trade to have fewer nice dinners in New York City,’ Bendix said, ‘in exchange for playing in another stadium.’

Why, with the extra wild-card berth, it’s now possible we could see four AL East teams in the playoffs. We’ve had three AL East teams in the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, and four of the last seven.

‘The less we can play those guys,’ Elias says, ‘we should get maybe a small boost in the standings from it, theoretically. I think we’re looking forward to the variety, and the three wild-card (berths) benefits the teams that are in the tougher divisions. We should benefit from the rule change.’

Perhaps no one will have a bigger advantage than the Red Sox, who were pummeled by their divisional opponents last year. The Red Sox went 26-50 against the AL East, their .340 winning percentage their worst since the AL East was established in 1969.

‘Look, I don’t expect that we will have the same experience of the AL East,’ Red Sox GM Chaim Bloom said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like that. For the entirety of my career, it’s been the best division in our sport, and it’s probably never been better than it is right now – from top to bottom.

‘And we saw that in ’22, and took the short end of the stick. We have to be better against our division even with this new scheduling format to have the success we want to have.

‘But regardless what anybody will say, if you put all of the AL East teams under truth serum, I think we’re all pretty happy that we won’t all be beating up on each other quite as often.’

Says Yankees GM Brian Cashman: ‘I know it’s going to be tougher travel-wise, but this (has) been the toughest division in baseball, I think, for 30 years. It’s very rare that anybody has been better than the American League East. So it’s been very difficult to have that many games played against that many quality opponents when maybe the other divisions aren’t playing the same level of schedule.

‘I’m curious to see how that plays out.’

Then again, if you ask everyone but the Yankees, they’ll be just fine with the old scheduling – provided they no longer have to see Judge on a regular basis.

The Yankees, who have been to the playoffs 24 of the past 28 years with five World Series titles, are willing to spend about $300 million to bring back the MVP favorite, and keep free-agent first baseman Anthony Rizzo, too.

The Judge sweepstakes has been the main attraction at these meetings, and the Yankees, of course, are making no secret how important Judge is to their future.

‘Optimally, if you could wave a magic wand, we would secure Aaron Judge and retain him,’ Cashman said, ‘and have him signed as soon as possible. But he’s a free agent. He’s earned the right to be a free agent. So, he’ll dictate the dance steps. …

‘Things usually work slow, but every circumstance is unique and different.’

It’s no different for the Red Sox, who badly want to bring back Bogaerts, with Bloom saying, ‘He was our top priority, and our immediate priority. We want him here.’

Yet, Bogaerts officially opted out of the remaining three years and $60 million in his contract, as the Red Sox are trying to lock up Rafael Devers to a contract extension, too.

‘Ultimately, success comes when both sides sincerely want it,’ Cashman says. ‘But clearly, it gets a lot of interference when other people get invited to the party, and that takes on a life of its own. Free agency was designed to create that type of outcome, so it’s hard to predict. But ultimately, if both sides’ hearts are in the right spot, they can find the sweet spot.’

The litmus test may be preventing negotiations from becoming public, with Cashman still vividly remembering the animosity created when Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter became a free agent.

‘We got sideways with our negotiations with DJ,’ Cashman said. ‘It was ugly at times, and you try to keep it under wraps, but then sometimes you get pulled into the middle of the public relations side of it.

‘There’s a lot of interest, and when you’re in a bigger market, there’s more interest. And when you’re talking about great players, there’s even more interest. Even though I’ve been though it 1,000 times, it seems like, it doesn’t make the next one any easier. …Everybody does the best they can, and then you have to live with however it plays out.’

Now, for the first time since the Orioles rebuild began in 2018 with their 115-loss season, they can actually join the big boys and participate in the free-agent fun, too.

‘We’re in a very much different strategic footing,’ Elias said. ‘I think we view this as a time to hopefully make a few major-league acquisitions that will increase our chances of making the playoffs. We think the team is ready for that.

‘We’ve got sort of a blank slate payroll-wise, and it’s a really good time to start ramping up the resources that we dedicate towards the Major League roster.

‘It doesn’t mean we’re going to go from zero to 60 in one year, but we’ll start the process of cranking it up.’

Let the hot-stove action begin, this time, with everyone pushing all their chips in, competing in baseball’s greatest and most compelling division.

This time, without a single weak link.

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

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