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Will this be the last great AL East race?

Rays Tales | Expansion of the playoff field this year, major change in scheduling format next year will make a big difference.
The Rays and Yankees exchange words after Tampa Bay's 5-3 loss on Sept. 1, 2020, at Yankee Stadium in New York. Things can get heated when these rivals face off, but they'll soon see a little less of each other in the regular season.
The Rays and Yankees exchange words after Tampa Bay's 5-3 loss on Sept. 1, 2020, at Yankee Stadium in New York. Things can get heated when these rivals face off, but they'll soon see a little less of each other in the regular season. [ KATHY WILLENS | Associated Press (2020) ]
Published Apr. 2

PORT CHARLOTTE — The competition in the American League East again looks brutally stout, with the potential for the Rays, Jays, Yankees and Red Sox to push 90-plus wins and compete for playoff spots.

“It should be another challenging American League East,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

But here’s a question: Will it be the last great AL East race?

Expansion of the playoff field to include a third wild-card team this year already creates an additional lifeline. But a bigger change starting in 2023 could have more of an impact, as MLB shifts to a more balanced scheduling format.

In short, every team will play every other team in the majors at least once. Which means each team will play the teams in their division less.

For the Rays, that is a good thing, as they will go from 19 games against each of the AL East heavyweights — 57 total vs. the Jays, Yankees and Red Sox — to 14 against each, plus the Orioles.

Under the new format, the Rays will play six games (over two home and home series) against each of the other 10 AL teams, and three games (one series home or road) against each of the 14 NL teams (rather than rotating by division), with four games (two and two) against their natural rival Marlins.

So 56 vs. AL East teams, 60 vs. other AL teams, 46 vs. NL teams.

Yandy Diaz (2) celebrates after hitting a double in the first inning while Blue Jays second baseman Marcus Semien (10) looks on last season.
Yandy Diaz (2) celebrates after hitting a double in the first inning while Blue Jays second baseman Marcus Semien (10) looks on last season. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

And Wander Franco vs. Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. every year.

There is a downside for the Rays in this, a debate that goes back to the days of original owner Vince Naimoli. Hosting more games against the Yankees and Red Sox usually means larger crowds and additional revenue. But the team likes the more balanced format, which they have been pushing for.

“Certainly, it’s helpful,” principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. “But that’s for a team that’s in fourth or fifth place. It’s more important now to try to win an extra game or two.

“Playing those guys and the Blue Jays and the Orioles, because they were the best team for four or five years, too, any of them have the capability to go on an extended run. Playing 19 games against each of them just takes too much — not just the record, but it just takes too much out of the team. So I’m looking forward to playing fewer games (against the AL East teams).”

The new formats should make it easier for the Rays to get in the playoffs. But they are still at somewhat of a disadvantage in the wild-card race as the Central and West contenders have easier intra-divisional schedules.

Sternberg is pretty sure the AL East rivalries will remain intense.

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“At the end of the day, 14 games against a team is still a lot of baseball games to play against them,” he said. “Ideally you won’t have those times when you play them and then 10 days later you’re playing them again, and five days later you’re playing them again. It’s just silly. It’s silly for the fans, in a sense. It’s silly for the players. It’s not really in the best interest of the game.

“But I don’t think it changes anything in the East because it’s just going to be a knock ‘em out, drag ‘em out to win every game we can.”

News you can use

The team is changing the light blue jerseys worn primarily for Sunday home games, dropping the word Rays from the front in place of the sunburst logo, similar to what is used for spring training. … Among improvements to Tropicana Field this season is a new fully digital sound system. … The concessions and merchandise discount for season members, with both the flexible and traditional plans, is being increased from 15 to 20 percent. …. For Friday’s 3:10 p.m. season opener, parking lots will open at 11:10, the Ballpark & Rec bar/restaurant at 12:10, stadium gates at 1:10. ... New concession items include foot-long tater tots, ice cream nachos and a Korean-spiced chicken sandwich.

Rays rumblings

After hitting 39 homers, Brandon Lowe dropped from No. 53 to 56 in MLB Network’s ranking of the top 100 players. Wander Franco was (only) No. 40, Randy Arozarena No. 71. … Best wishes to senior broadcast director Larry McCabe, who is retiring after 25 years with the team. Given that McCabe was instrumental in launching the Kane’s Furniture promotion, wouldn’t it be fitting that to claim his parting gifts he has to go to one of the stores to get a coupon? … Jillian Hawkins, with the title of “applied biomechanist, performance science,” will be with the team full time this year, providing feedback on body movement, swing adjustments, injury prevention. … The Rays’ farm system was ranked No. 3 by mlbpipeline.com, behind the Orioles and Mariners. … Bally Sports Sun’s season preview, hosted by Tricia Whitaker, airs Monday, Wednesday, Friday. … The Athletic’s Jim Bowden graded the Rays’ offseason a C+. … Forbes estimated the Rays’ franchise value at $1.1 billion, which is 29th overall, ahead of just the Marlins. … MLB.com pegged the Rays lineup as ninth most potent. … TV talkers Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson are slated for their spring TV debuts in Wednesday’s finale at the Trop.

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