What figures to be a season-long cage match in baseball's best division gets under way on Friday as the American League East's two favorites square off in the season opener at Tropicana Field. The reigning AL East champion Yankees visit the 2011 Wild Card-winning Rays in the first of 18 head-to-head meetings between the rivals.
For the Yankees, the goal is the same as it always is: World Series or bust. For the Rays, the expectations are higher than they've ever been at the start of the season, with Tampa Bay a consensus pick to finish first or second in the division.
And with a new playoff format making a division title more critical than it's been in nearly 20 years, each of these 18 matchups becomes more important this year. Never mind the fact that the AL West features two very serious playoff contenders, meaning that it's far from a guarantee that third place in the East secures the second Wild Card for any team.
These are clubs that expect to be playing in the postseason, but they've been through the battles enough to know that you get to October by grinding away starting in April.
"For us to have those expectations is a great thing," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations. "It's never a problem. It's never something that you shy away from. And I think the bigger part is, the only way it can become a problem is if you take on that mentality of 'We're that good' or 'We don't have to work.'"
Facing the Yankees on Opening Day should certainly provide a good reminder that they have to work. For New York, a 97-win 2011 season ranks as a disappointment because that season ended before the World Series.
"I'm excited for us," starter CC Sabathia said. "If we stay healthy and pitch the way we're supposed to, we're going to be right back in the position we want to be in. We have a great clubhouse and great chemistry on this team, so it's fun to be a part of it. Hopefully we can put it all together and make a good run."
The Yanks and Rays played twice in the spring, but that doesn't exactly count. The rivalry gets its true renewal Friday with one of the more compelling pitching matchups of the season's first week. Two of the top four finishers in last year's AL Cy Young Award balloting take the mound for the mid-afternoon contest. Sabathia goes up against James Shields.
That's not the only reason runs will be hard to come by, either -- though it's certainly a major one. Sabathia and Shields are among the best in the business, but they'll also get some help from the ballpark. Tropicana Field played as one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the Majors in 2011, continuing a trend that has seen it go from neutral to a hitter's graveyard over the past few years.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
So even though it's the take-and-rake Yankees against a Tampa Bay team of underrated offensive potency, the odds favor a low-scoring contest. It's hard to know exactly what either of these offenses will provide, however. There are questions facing each -- questions that may not get answered against stars like Sabathia and Shields.
Tampa Bay has turned over nearly half its lineup since last year, with new or newly prominent faces at designated hitter, first base, catcher and second base. How that new starting nine works is the biggest question for Tampa Bay, since the Rays are fully expected to feature outstanding starting pitching and defense and a solid bullpen.
"Andrew [Friedman] had himself a great offseason," manager Joe Maddon said. "Combined with all of the guys we have coming back it's really exciting."
For the Yankees, it's a different question. It's not about how new faces fare; it's about what some very familiar faces have to offer. Stars Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are in their 30s and both coming off down years. Curtis Granderson had a huge season in 2011, but it's an open question whether he can repeat that. Derek Jeter bounced back nicely from a slow start, but at 37, it's fair to wonder what he can produce this year.
It's not a matter of talent with the Yanks. It's a matter of the number of miles on the odometers. If the stars can produce as they have in the past, New York will sport an absolutely fearsome lineup. If decline continues or gets worse for some of those veteran players, the Yankees won't rampage through pitching staffs like they have in recent years.
"The thing is, you have to stay healthy," Rodriguez said. "You have to avoid the injury bug. I'd like to go out and play north of 145, 150 games and let the chips fall where they may, but at this point in my career, it's go out and avoid the injury bug, stay focused, and stay healthy. The most important stat to me is the win column."
By the end of the day Friday, either his team or Tampa Bay will have one, and the race will be on.