Mar 18, 2014; Tampa, FL, USANew York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda (35) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

American League East Comparison: Tampa Bay Rays

Mar 15, 2014; Port Charlotte, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (3) walks off the field at the end of the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Charlotte Sports Park. Tampa Bay Rays defeated Toronto Blue Jays 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our ongoing series of comparisons between the New York Yankees and the rest of the American League East, arguably the toughest division in baseball. While the Yankees missed the playoffs for only the second time in 20 years, the Tampa Bay Rays won a Game 163 in Texas, and qualified for the ALDS after disposing of Cleveland in the Wild Card game. They ended up losing in four games to the eventual world champions.

While the Yankees made the big moves during the off-season, the Rays mostly stayed put. Despite rumors they would trade ace David Price, they ended up keeping the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner. They also brought back Grant Balfour after his deal with the Orioles fell through. Overall, they have arguably the best pitching staff in the American League, but their offense is mostly suspect with the exception of a few bright spots.

STARTING LINEUP:

Catcher

TB- Ryan Hanigan: .252/.352/.321/.673, 3 HR, 29 RBI, 27 R

NYY- Brian McCann: .259/.338/.449/.787, 24 HR, 77 RBI, 61 R

Advantage, Yankees. McCann has been one of the three or four best catchers in baseball for the last seven years and is probably the Yankees biggest upgrade this season. Hanigan had some decent years with the Reds but lost his job to Devin Mesoraco. The Rays have not been able to find an answer at catcher under Joe Maddon, but Hanigan could be a good guy for them.

First Base:

TB- James Loney: .278/.332/.400/.732, 9 HR, 52 RBI, 40 R

NYY- Mark Teixeira: .245/.337/.461/.798, 26 HR, 86 RBI, 70 R

Mar 21, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira (25) reacts during the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Advantage, Yankees. Every year, Joe Maddon has one or two guys who has a career year for the Rays after underachieving for most of their time in the majors. Guys like Casey Kotchman, Jeff Keppinger, and Matt Joyce have been those type of guys. Loney had a career year for the Rays, hitting .299 with a 118 OPS+. As a first baseman, he’s always been around average in his career. Teixeira, of course, played just 15 games last year due to the wrist injury, and his numbers were already declining every year. If healthy, he should easily top what Loney provides annually.

Second Base:

TB- Ben Zobrist: .257/.348/.404/.752, 13 HR, 62 RBI, 81 R, 12 SB

NYY- Brian Roberts: .247/.310/.364/.674, 5 HR, 28 RBI

Advantage, Rays. Zobrist has been one of the more underrated players in the game, averaging a 6.6 WAR since 2009. He plays both second and right a lot, and very well. With Wil Myers locking the latter position up, Zobrist moves back to second. Roberts is a reclamation project likely doomed to fail, especially since he’s replacing one of the best players in the game.

Third Base:

TB- Evan Longoria: .271/.354/.494/.848, 29 HR, 95 RBI, 88 R

NYY- Kelly Johnson: .232/.311/.395/.706, 14 HR, 46 RBI, 8 SB

Advantage, Rays. What else can be said about Evan Longoria? When healthy, he’s one of the five best players in all of baseball, both offensively and defensively. He’s been worth over six wins a year in his career, and that includes his injury-plagued 2012 season (74 games). Former Rays’ infielder Kelly Johnson isn’t a great or bad player, as he’s provided league average offense (although he could hit 20 homers in Yankee Stadium), and is average with the glove. A second baseman by trade, however, he’s played just 16 games in his career at third, all of which came with the Rays last year.

Shortstop:

TB- Yunel Escobar: .258/.334/.363/.697, 9 HR, 58 RBI, 64 R

NYY- Derek Jeter: .275/.334/.369/.703, 6 HR, 36 RBI, 6 SB, 53 R

Advantage, Yankees. Escobar has been pretty much up and down in his big league career. A couple of really good years, along with a couple of years when he was just bad. Jeter may be 40-years-old, but he’s looked fine physically during spring training. RotoChamp likes him a little more than Escobar, and Jeter might hit higher than .275. It’s close, only because both are limited in talent at this point.

Left Field:

TB- David DeJesus: .265/.344/.405/.749, 8 HR, 39 RBI, 57 R

NYY- Brett Gardner: .263/.340/.388/.728, 8 HR, 55 RBI, 29 SB, 82 R

Advantage, Yankees. Gardner has been one of the more undervalued players in the majors since 2010, averaging well over four wins in three full seasons. DeJesus has been a replacement level player over the last few seasons.

Center Field:

TB-Desmond Jennings: .259/.343/.423/.766, 15 HR, 66 RBI, 81 R, 24 SB

NYY- Jacoby Ellsbury: .285/.340/.433/.773, 14 HR, 60 RBI, 89 R, 38 SB

Advantage, Yankees. Jennings is just 27, so he’s entering the typical baseball career prime. It’s hard to say where his peak will be though. Ellsbury is in the heart of his prime, and is the Yankees’ best player when healthy. Both players have a ton of speed and a good amount of power for the position, but Ellsbury is definitely a much more proven player.

Right Field:

TB- Wil Myers: .273/.345/.477/.832, 24 HR, 95 RBI, 81 R

NYY- Carlos Beltran: .276/.339/.474/.813, 23 HR, 80 RBI, 72 R

Advantage, Rays. Myers is a budding superstar with a ceiling higher than just about anyone except for Mike Trout. Beltran is an aging superstar who can still get it done, and the move to Yankee Stadium with the DH option should help him beat the age curve. Myers beats Beltran barely because he has youth and a healthier body on his side, but both are stellar.

Mar 18, 2014; Fort Myers, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Wil Myers (9) is congratulated after scoring against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning at Hammond Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Designated Hitter:

TB- Matt Joyce: .243/.342/.432/.774, 12 HR, 41 RBI, 40 R

NYY- Alfonso Soriano: .247/.297/.462/.759, 26 HR, 82 RBI, 10 SB, 64 R

Advantage, Yankees. Other than a hot first half of 2011, Joyce has been a slightly above average player at best. He’s a classic low average/OBP, good power guy. Soriano is too, but he still has a ton of power, hitting over 30 homers and slugging over .480 in each of the last two seasons.

BENCH: 

TB- Jose Molina/Logan Forsythe/Brandon Guyer/Sean Rodriguez/Jayson Nix

NYY- Francisco Cervelli/Eduardo Nunez/Brendan Ryan/Dean Anna/Ichiro Suzuki

Advantage, Rays. The Yankees’ bench is a serious weakness, especially with the amount of age and concern in the infield. The Rays’ is better by default, especially with the versatility the reserves have.

STARTING ROTATION

Ace:

TB- David Price: 205 IP, 3.20 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 4.40 K/BB

NYY- CC Sabathia: 196 IP, 3.90 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 3.11 K/BB

Advantage, Rays. Price allowed just 37 runs in his last 131.2 innings after coming off of the DL in July last year, including a complete game win in Arlington, TX in Game 163. Sabathia is coming off of a season when he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball, but he looks like he’s reinvented himself so far in spring training. It’s not a given, but maybe Sabathia will be great again. But Price is younger, and more of a guarantee at this point.

Number Two: 

TB- Matt Moore: 200 IP, 3.78 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 1.95 K/BB

NYY- Hiroki Kuroda: 184 IP, 3.77 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 3.14 K/BB

Advantage, Yankees. Moore has front-line potential, and his stuff is downright nasty. However, he has walked 160 batters in 337 big league innings (4.27 per nine). He needs to have better control to fulfill his ace-potential. Kuroda is 39, but he still is a reliable veteran for the Yankees. He has not been fazed whatsoever by playing in the AL East, at Yankee Stadium, and in New York.

Number Three

TB- Alex Cobb: 190 IP, 3.27 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 2.85 K/BB

NYY- Masahiro Tanaka: 196 IP, 3.63 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 4.23 K/BB

Advantage, Yankees. The 26-year-old Cobb enjoyed a break-out season (that was limited after being hit by a comebacker in June), pitching to a 138 ERA+ in 143.1 innings. Tanaka has so far been impressive this spring. It will likely take him time to adjust to pitching here, but he could end up being the Yankees’ best pitcher at the end of the season.

Number Four

TB- Chris Archer: 185 IP, 3.94 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 2.68 K/BB

NYY- Ivan Nova: 184 IP, 3.96 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 2.42 K/BB

Advantage, Rays. Both have something to prove this year, as both have been up and down the past few seasons (especially Nova). Both are projected to be well above average, and both could break out as reliable middle of the rotation guys.

Back-end:

TB- Erik Bedard/Jake Odorizzi/Jeremy Hellickson

NYY- Michael Pineda/David Phelps/Adam Warren

Advantage, Yankees. Pineda has looked absolutely fantastic so far, and he isn’t even 100%. If healthy, he could be an X-Factor for the Bombers. Phelps has looked good too. Hellickson, Bedard, and Odorizzi, not so much, but Odorizzi has potential and Hellickson is a bounce-back candidate.

BULLPEN

Closer:

TB- Grant Balfour: 60 IP, 3.45 ERA, 30 SV, 1.10 WHIP, 2.75 K/BB

NYY- David Robertson: 62 IP, 2.76 ERA, 30 SV, 1.13 WHIP, 3.62 K/BB

Advantage, Rays. Robertson is a better reliever than Balfour, but the Australian madman has two stellar seasons as Oakland’s closer under his belt. Robertson is taking the reigns from the greatest reliever who ever lived, and it may be at least somewhat of an adjustment  for him.

Set-up:

TB- Joel Peralta: 60 IP, 3.45 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 2.52 K/BB

NYY- Shawn Kelley: 62 IP, 3.77 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 2.84 K/BB

Advantage, Rays. Peralta has been a workhorse out of the Rays’ bullpen, pitching 206 innings to a 115 ERA+ over the last three seasons. Kelley struck out 71 batters in just 53.1 innings but sandwiched a great May thru August with a horrible April and September. He gives up too many fly balls and home runs (1.4 per nine last season).

LOOGY:

TB- Jake McGee: 60 IP, 3.45 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 3.65 K/BB

NYY- Matt Thornton: 58 IP, 3.57 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 2.63 K/BB

Advantage, Rays. McGee has been effective against both left-handed batters and right-handed batters. Thornton has been destroyed by RHB and his peripherals have declined, but he still gets the job done vs. LHB.

Others:

TB- Heath Bell/Cesar Ramos/Brandon Gomes

NYY- Cesar Cabral/Preston Claiborne/Dellin Betances

Advantage, Yankees. Claiborne and Betances have a very high ceiling for the Yanks. Heath Bell? Really?

VERDICT: The Yankees and Rays are arguably the two most formidable teams in the American League East. They do have their weaknesses, but both have strong rotations (assuming TB doesn’t trade Price) and lineups that should be able to score enough runs thanks to their stars. Both teams will win over 90 games and finish 1-2 in the division, in whatever order. It’s very close to tell which will finish higher, because they’re almost even on paper.

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