June 3, 2023

NEW YORK — Aaron Boone gave a short laugh.

Life as a Yankees manager often means answering tough questions, questions with no answers, questions with answers that will raise more questions, questions with answers he won’t or can’t make public. It’s kind of funny, then, to be asked – in a roundabout way – if he’d prefer his team to be last in first place.

“I don’t think so,” he said Friday. “There’s nothing like playing in the AL East, especially right now.”

Admittedly, that’s not exactly how the question was asked. The Yankees are in last as their target starting rotation has been decimated by injuries, as the vaunted lineup is creased with offensive voids, as Aaron Judge can only come to the plate once every nine at bats, as Gerrit Cole only hits once in five days — and because they play in the American League East, baseball’s toughest division.

Wouldn’t an easier path to the top be preferable?

In the National League East, National League Central, National League West, or American League West, the Yankees would come in second with a .550 winning percentage. If they played in the particularly weak American League Central, the Yankees would finish first. But here, in the league that basically invented rivalries based on mutual excellence, they’re placed last in what could end up being the best league in MLB history.

“I mean, it’s good every year,” Boone said, “but I definitely feel like this has a chance to be the best, head to toe.”

“I really like the AL East. I mean, look at the Orioles now, just from two years ago,” said Yankees pitcher Ryan Weber. “They are second. We’re in last place – it doesn’t feel like it.”

Weber, a veteran reliever who bounces between Triple-A and the majors, was called up for his second stint with New York just before this weekend’s series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“It also says something about you,” he said of the high level of difficulty this format offers. “If AL East teams are willing to pick me up and throw me into the AL East fire, then I’ll take it and have faith.”

Ten days ago, MLB Network’s Sarah Langs dove into whether this current iteration of the AL East is, in fact, the best division ever. At the time, the five teams had a combined winning percentage of .623; now it’s .620, still significantly higher than the AL West’s current season record of .566 set in 2002 when there were only four teams in that division.

Langs explained how AL East teams were able to thrive thanks to the newly balanced schedule. With fewer head-to-head matches in which one team has to lose, they can beat the weaker divisions in the league. If anything, the for this AnThe balanced schedule hid how good these five teams could be.

“I mean, the AL East is stacked,” Yankees ace Cole said. “It’s been stacked up all my career and even more so in the last five or six years.”

Granted, the season is still young. Conventional wisdom advises against reading too much into any performance before Memorial Day, and recent years have shown how much can change after the trade deadline and beyond. But the success so far is no fluke. FanGraphs projects all five teams – Yankees, Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox – to finish above .500. The AL East is the only division in which each team has a minimum 2% chance of winning the division. Even the team expected to finish last (Baltimore) has a greater than 30% chance of making the playoffs.

But at least one team is guaranteed to be disappointed. The expanded postseason field with three wild cards means that as many as four teams from each division can participate. But winning a division still secures a spot regardless of record, so if the division disparity persists through the end of the regular season – with the worst team in the AL East better than the best team in the AL Central – someone from the East would be stuck at home watching the possibly inferior Central Division winner ride into October’s mess.

And so you have to wonder if Boone and the Yankees would rather play in an easier division?

“It’s always nice for great athletes and great competitors to play against the best and know that you have to play really well if you want to be successful, not just on any given day, but all year long,” Boone said. . “There are probably days when you want to take it easy. But ultimately, as a competitor, you want to play the best.”

“We like the competition,” said Oswaldo Cabrera. “We are the New York Yankees.”

“I think any player who puts on this kit and likes to play here embraces that kind of challenge,” said Cole. “At least it gives you a good barometer of where you stand because you’re always up against the best and you always get the best out of the other club.”

That’s what the Yankees would say, right?

This week they’ve had ample opportunity to measure themselves against the best of the best, with seven games in a 10-game span against the Rays, who started the season 13-0 and still look almost unstoppable. Four of the first five games were decided by one point. To meet fan demand, the Tampa team opened the upper deck in the regular season for the first time since 2018. In the Bronx, a sold-out game in mid-May had all the excitement of October.

After all, it could dictate who gets to be there, and nobody ever feels comfortable in this division.

Not even Rays manager Kevin Cash. His team has topped every leaderboard for the first quarter of the season. But faced with the prospect of another 4.5 months in AL East, he didn’t hesitate to say they would rather be in an easier division.

“Damn, yes,” he said. ‘Yes, I would. But we are not, so we have to keep making sure it works.”