Yankees-Orioles battle for AL East supremacy just getting started

Appropriate, then, that the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees informally tipped off a pennant race that seems to be gathering like a wave, powerful in both aesthetic pleasure and narrative punch.

Big Bucks vs. Young Bucks.

Just Win vs. Win Curves. MVPs of the past vs. their likely successors.

Sure, these four games that closed out April and welcome May – the Orioles won the first two matchups – will only mean so much come September. Yet after two seasons of circling each other in the American League East – the Orioles too green in 2022 when the Yankees won 99 games, the Yankees an 82-win mess as Baltimore won 101 last year – Baltimore and New York are both loaded, in their own ways.

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The Yankees’ payroll topped $300 million with the addition of 25-year-old slugger Juan Soto – perhaps the ultimate go-for-broke Bronx maneuver with Soto able to shuffle into free agency at season’s end.

The Orioles’ payroll lingers right around $100 million, with their two emerging superstars, catcher Adley Rutschman ($760,300) and shortstop Gunnar Henderson ($756,200) briefly frozen in that organizational sweet spot of elite contributors at minimum salaries.

While it is tempting to consider this series – this season – a prelude of years to come, this show should be savored.

Soto could be gone next year, when Rutschman will start making bigger money through arbitration; Henderson will follow the year after, with new owner David Rubenstein tasked with retaining the abundant young talent general manager Mike Elias has meticulously amassed before words like “headed to a hearing” or “Scott Boras client” are thrown around with greater frequency.

This year, though, the Orioles and Yankees are already atop the AL East and equipped to stay there, even as it remains a five-deep snakepit.

The curtain is rising on what should be a compelling show.

“Some of the game’s best talent that’s been around, and some of the game’s best upcoming talent,” says Yankees closer Clay Holmes.

“If you’re a baseball fan, these are the games you’re watching.”

As the Orioles (19-10) took the first two of 13 matchups against the Yankees (19-12) this year, they made a case for their methodical nation-building.

‘It’s like college for us’

That the Yankees have steadfastly refused a “step back” or a “reload” or let alone a “rebuild” is something to be admired, collecting superstars like high-priced museum pieces.

When Giancarlo Stanton won the 2017 NL MVP for Miami, they allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to bring him in. When Aaron Judge won the 2022 AL MVP, the Yankees coughed up $360 million to retain him.

And when Soto became available, they shipped off five players and committed $31 million to pay him – and with eight homers and a 1.019 OPS already, Soto might be their next MVP.

Though they haven’t won a World Series since 2009, the mentality has yielded a 31-year streak of winning seasons, and playoff appearances in 24 of the last 29.

The Orioles lived an opposite reality, losing more than 100 games three times from 2018-2021, reaping the benefits from top draft picks, yet augmenting that by nailing their mid-round selections and assembling a flow of young talent that’s not abating.

Sure, the Yankees can slug you into oblivion. But the clubs’ respective makeups are evident when the ball is in play.

You can see it when Stanton, 34, gets thrown out to advance to second base on a line drive to right field, Henderson elasticizing to stretch for the putout. Or when first baseman Anthony Rizzo, 34, can’t reel in a bloop down the first base line and Soto is too late to help him.

Stanton occupies the DH spot that might be best suited for Soto, so when shallow fly balls parachuted in front of Soto in right, the Orioles snagged bases on excellent reads from Henderson, 22, and rookie left fielder Colton Cowser, 24.

While Rutschman and top prospect Jackson Holliday commanded the most attention as No. 1 overall picks, available only due to the Orioles’ futility, the fact remains that Henderson (42nd overall, 2019) and burgeoning star infielder Jordan Westburg (30th overall, 2020) could’ve been had by almost any team.

Now, they’re in Baltimore, and an aggressive and extremely athletic team is blossoming.

“We put a huge emphasis on playing the game right and we talk a lot about fundamentals – defensively and offensively,” says manager Brandon Hyde. “Baserunning is a huge part of our game. We’re still young. We’re still learning at the big league level.

“But our guys are very, very athletic. They do have instincts. We will make mistakes, but our guys will adapt and learn from them.”

There’s also a cohesion, perhaps owing to the fact many of the Orioles climbed the organizational ladder together, ultimately blending with a handful of holdovers from the pre-Elias era.

“This is almost like college for us,” says starting pitcher Grayson Rodriguez, a first-round pick in 2018. “You grow up a lot and mature in college so a lot of us feel like family. Pretty close in the clubhouse, same on the field. We know each other well.

“I think that kind of gives us an advantage other teams don’t have.”

Veteran reliever Dillon Tate – a former Yankees farmhand traded to Baltimore in 2018 – has tracked the evolution. He’s seen Ryan Mountcastle go from shortstop to third base to outfield to his current post, as a first baseman surprisingly deft with the glove.

And he’s awaited the arrivals of Rutschman and Henderson and Co., knowing their time was inevitable, but floored by what they’ve become.

“It’s really not a shocker they’re here,” says Tate of the young Orioles. “The shock is, the heights they end up taking their talents. That’s been the biggest surprise to me.

“You know the ceiling’s high, but you just don’t know how high they’re willing to take it. You see an All-Star nod for Adley and know it definitely won’t be his last one. That piece is just cool to see and cool to share the field with those guys.”

Henderson will probably join Rutschman at the All-Star Game in Texas. He’s already ripped 10 home runs – tied with the injured Mike Trout for the major league lead – with an accompanying .980 OPS. His defense at shortstop has been stellar and his 2.1 WAR leads the Orioles.

“He’s 22 years old,” says Hyde. “It’s pretty scary how good this guy’s going to be.

“How good he is already.”

Stocking the cupboard

Yankees manager Aaron Boone says the Orioles are “athletic, they hit for power, they’re versatile. They’re definitely formidable.”

That’s not to say the Yankees are ready for the old folks’ home. Sure, they’ve never had a Rutschman or Holliday available to them, what with picking at the back of the draft year-after-year, but the cupboard somehow stays stocked.

With Judge struggling at .207, their most integral piece after Soto this year is second-year shortstop Anthony Volpe. Picked 12 spots ahead of Henderson in 2019, Volpe has posted a .362 OBP and ranks second in Outs Above Average among shortstops.

They don’t get Soto without the four players originally signed or drafted by the Yankees.

“It’s not an easy thing to do – building a farm system without always getting the highest talent,” says Holmes, acquired from Pittsburgh in July 2021 for two prospects signed by the Yankees as international free agents. “You have to be really good at developing – and being here and seeing how they develop pitching and hitting is what makes them really good.

“They have to maximize what they do get. It’s definitely a key part of how you sustain things. The payroll is always up there, but trades are getting made and prospects keep coming, so it’s a testament to the development.”

Arms race

And still, so much comes down to chance.

The fate of both teams could be intertwined in the health of their starting pitchers in coming months. Reigning Cy Young Award winner Gerrit Cole still has not thrown off a mound since spring training, and his Yankee debut likely won’t come before July.

The Orioles will welcome back starters John Means and Kyle Bradish from elbow injuries this week, but it’s still unknown what they might offer this season.

Baltimore made a rare go-for-it trade itself, using prospect capital to acquire former NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes to front its rotation. He and closer Craig Kimbrel are rentals and right fielder Anthony Santander is the only pending free agent.

“They’re young,” says Yankees left-hander Nestor Cortes, “so they’re going to be here for a long time.”

It’s already been a minute. Baltimore has not lost its last 16 series to AL East opponents, a streak it ensured by taking the first two games of this series, the latter played on an 86-degree evening.

“A little preview of summer,” says Boone, speaking of the unseasonable temperatures but also capturing the compelling chase ahead.

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