Battle for the AL East! Why Yanks-O's is the week's biggest series

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The battle for the American League East starts now! This week, the New York Yankees head to Baltimore to take on the Orioles in a four-game set, the two teams’ first meeting of the season. The Baltimore Orioles currently sit one game behind the Yankees in the standings, and the two teams have the second- and third-best records in the AL (only the Atlanta Braves have a better pace in the National League). Ahead of the marquee matchup, we asked four of our MLB insiders — all of whom have spent time with these teams this season — to weigh in on the series, as well as what to expect from both squads this season.

Are these the two best teams in the AL?

Jorge Castillo: Yes, for now. The Cleveland Guardians have the best record, but it’s too early to vault them to the top tier. The Texas Rangers should enter that conversation if they get as healthy as they hope. Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Josh Sborz and Josh Jung could all be valuable contributors this summer and down the stretch for the defending World Series champions. Until then, the Orioles and Yankees have the mantle.

Alden Gonzalez: I would just like to remind everybody that the Rangers won last year’s World Series, and they’re in a pretty good position despite not yet having Scherzer or deGrom, sitting at 15-14 with a plus-seven run-differential. They’re bound to get hot at any moment (as are the Houston Astros, by the way). OK, now that that’s out of the way — yes. The Orioles and Yankees are talented, but they’re also performing. No other team in the AL has that combination going like they do right now.

Buster Olney: With the Astros starting so poorly, with the Rangers anxiously awaiting the return of Scherzer and deGrom, yes, these are the two best teams in the AL. Each has a player who could be a finalist for the MVP Award, in Gunnar Henderson of the O’s and Juan Soto of the Yankees. The Guardians are off to a great start and the Royals look like the biggest surprise of 2024 — rocketing from 106 losses last season to playoff contention this year — but the O’s are loaded and the Yankees are back to being the Yankees.

Jeff Passan: Baltimore is the best — and the Yankees are the clubhouse leaders for the second spot. Their pitching, even without Gerrit Cole, has thrived. Their offense, thanks to an MLB-best 11.3% walk rate, is strong, even as Aaron Judge has scuffled. Yes, Cleveland has the best record in the league, the Seattle Mariners are outpitching everyone and Texas is biding its time. Others lurk. But strictly on present record plus future potential, yeah, this series is the goods.

What do you expect from their first matchup?

Castillo: As close to a playoff atmosphere as you’ll find at this time of the year. The Yankees, featuring two of the sport‘s biggest stars in Soto and Judge, are expected to contend again. The Orioles might have their best team since the 1990s with an exciting young core and new ownership group invigorating the fanbase. The games themselves could ultimately decide the division winner. Camden Yards should be electric.

Gonzalez: Lots of electricity, but also lots of offense. The Orioles and Yankees are top two in the AL in OPS, runs and homers. The Orioles are especially lethal at home, and Judge, coming off a three-hit game in Milwaukee, might finally be turning a corner for a Yankees lineup that surprisingly hasn’t needed him. These things are really tough to predict in this sport, but I think it’s going to be a lot of scoring and a lot of lead-changes and a lot of fun. Let’s hope.

Olney: A juiced Camden Yards filled with Orioles fans. So often over the past 25 years, the place could’ve been called Yankee Stadium South because Yankees fans would overrun the building, but it’ll go back to being a home-field advantage for the O’s. Underneath the ugly attendance figures of recent years, the Baltimore fan base remained passionate but dormant. Now they have a fun team — and a great team — to follow. The 1996-1998 Yankees-Orioles games were interesting, but this might be the best matchup of these two teams since the ’70s.

Passan: The reignition of an AL East rivalry. The Yankees and Red Sox will forever be foes. The Yankees and Rays tussled — literally and figuratively — in recent years. During the Orioles’ ascent last year, the Yankees’ mediocrity kept their matchups from feeling this big. With the Orioles not only the current division darlings but looking like a juggernaut for years to come, the Yankees would love nothing more than to go to Camden Yards and remind Baltimore that they’re pretty good, too.

What has surprised you most about each team’s start?

Castillo: That the offense hasn’t carried the Yankees. The New York offense, a bit feast-or-famine thus far, has already been shut out four times in 27 games. It has scored fewer than five runs in 12 games and is in middle of the pick in runs per game. Judge finally got his season batting average above .200 on Sunday. The pitching staff, meanwhile, is tied for the second-best ERA in the majors despite not having Cole and losing Jonathan Loáisiga for the season.

Gonzalez: The depth of the Orioles’ lineup. It sounds weird to say, given the expectations for this group heading in. But while we know plenty well what Henderson and Adley Rutschman are capable of, it’s been remarkable to see how locked in the likes of Colton Cowser, Jordan Westburg, Ryan Mountcastle and Ryan O’Hearn have been. Jackson Holliday came up, went 2-for-34, got sent back down and the Orioles didn’t miss a beat. That’s impressive.

Olney: Without Cole, the Yankees’ starting pitching has been so much better than expected. Going into Friday’s games, Aaron Boone’s rotation ranked fourth among the 30 teams in starters’ ERA, at 3.34, with all five starters averaging at least five innings per start. The progress of Carlos Rodon and the emergence of Luis Gil is buying time for the Yankees, as they continue to hope for the return of Cole sometime in the next couple of months.

Passan: How the Orioles are two different teams early and late in the game. Baltimore starting pitchers this season are flyball specialists, inducing ground balls just 40.3% of the time, the ninth most in the AL. Orioles relievers, on the other hand, are generating 51.8% grounders, by far the highest in the league. Last year, the split was nearly even — 42.9% from starters, 45% from relievers — but the work of relievers Yennier Cano, Danny Coulombe and Dillon Tate has kept the infield busy. The varying looks make Baltimore’s bullpen dangerous, even with Felix Bautista out for the season after Tommy John surgery.

What does each team most need to keep up its first month pace?

Castillo: For the Yankees, the offense to reach another level. The starting rotation is holding it down without Cole. The bullpen has pitched to a 2.70 ERA and limited opponents to .207 batting average. And yet the Yankees have already played in 11 one-run games, tied with the Athletics for the most in the majors. They’re 8-3 in those contests, suggesting luck has been on their side. But that can always flip. Giving the pitching staff more cushion with run support would alleviate the stress on the staff late in games. It starts with Judge getting on track.

Gonzalez: The Orioles will probably trade for a starting pitcher at midsummer, but eventually they’ll also need to get the back end of their bullpen solidified a bit better. Craig Kimbrel got off to a fantastic start, but he has been prone to some rough stretches in recent years, most prominently during last year’s World Series. More pressing at the moment, perhaps, is finding the bridge to him in the ninth, which has been wobbly at times. It needs to be better if the Orioles are to capitalize on the lofty expectations they now carry. The good news: Relievers are readily available as the trade deadline nears, especially if you possess the type of players Baltimore does in its system.

Olney: The Yankees need Judge to follow his 2022 script and work through his April struggles before a summer-long eruption — and we’ve seen signs of that coming, with three home runs in his past five games. Look, at some point, Soto is going to slow down a bit and the rotation performance might dip, and the Yankees will need Judge to carry them for a stretch. He’s shown that he’s fully capable of doing that.

Passan: The Orioles need to keep up their momentum, if only to give themselves some cushion in the standings. Right-hander Kyle Bradish, Baltimore’s best starter during its 101-win 2023 campaign, is expected to return soon after a UCL injury delayed the start of his season. Left-hander Cade Povich, acquired in the bountiful Jorge Lopez trade that also landed them Cano in August 2022, has been arguably the most impressive pitcher in the minor leagues not named Paul Skenes and could soon debut. And Holliday should return at some point and could eventually be joined by Connor Norby. The Orioles are on a 106-win pace. Keeping it up, even in this division, isn’t altogether unrealistic with this much talent.

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