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New balanced schedule impacting Blue Jays’ race to the top

Bo Bichette Toronto Blue Jays Bo Bichette - The Canadian Press

Major League Baseball has implemented a balanced schedule this season. This means the Toronto Blue Jays, just like the other 29 teams, will play every other team at least once a year. 

Instead of playing 19 division games, the Blue Jays will play the other four American League East teams 13 times each. This revised format allows them to play six other AL teams six times and the four remaining teams seven times each. They will also play 46 interleague games, facing all of the National League clubs, every season. 

The AL East is the toughest division in baseball. All five teams are powerful and talented this season. Currently, every team in the East is above .500. In part, this is due to the balanced schedule. Playing fewer divisional games means the behemoths in the East – the Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees – are playing the weaker teams in the other American League divisions more frequently. This is a much fairer structure as all clubs play much more similar schedules than they have in the past. The teams in the East won’t have their records compressed because they are beating up on each other. 

The negative impact of the balanced schedule is that it will be much more difficult for teams to gain significant ground in their own division because they play fewer games against one another. 

After Thursday’s games, the Jays are 21-16, which puts them on a pace to win 92 games this season. That sounds like a very successful season and should be good enough for a team to earn a playoff spot. Unfortunately, at that pace the Jays wouldn’t win the division. The Rays are currently in first place and, at 29-9, are on a pace to win a major league-record 123 games. 

The Orioles, who won two of three games in their series against the Rays this week, are 24-13 and on pace for 105 wins. The Red Sox are currently in third place at 22-16 and project just ahead of the Jays with 93 wins. The Yankees are in last place in the division with a 21-17 record and would win 89 games at that pace. 

All five AL East teams have better records than the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins (20-17). In the AL West, the Texas Rangers lead the division at 22-14, but would be in third place if they played in the AL East. 

What does this all mean?  Remember, six teams make the playoffs – three division winners and three wild-card teams. It is highly likely that the AL East will end up having four of its teams among the six playoff teams qualifying in the American League. If the season were to end today, the Rangers, Twins, and Rays would be division winners while the Orioles, Jays and Red Sox would be the wild-card teams. 

Certainly, the Jays would like to win the division. I picked them to do so before the season started. But the Rays have gotten off to such an extraordinary start, it will likely be difficult for anyone in the East, let alone anyone in baseball, to finish the 162-game season with a better record than them. It can happen, but at this stage the Rays would have to suffer a significant collapse for that to be the case. 

There will be no shame in a 92-win season, if the current pace is maintained for the Jays. It will result in a playoff berth and would qualify as a successful season.  But that is not the sole goal. The Jays appropriately have their sights set on the Commissioner’s Trophy. It would be a tougher hill to climb as a wild-card team, but the Philadelphia Phillies made it to the World Series as a third wild-card team last season, so it is doable. 

Certainly, it is too early for the Blue Jays to count their eggs before they hatch. There is plenty of baseball left to be played. 

The Yankees are counting on that. They would not make the playoffs if the season were to end today based on their record nearly a quarter of the way into the season. But it doesn’t. 

The Yankees have been besieged by injuries in 2023. At one point, they had more than $150 million of payroll on the injured list. In New York the fans are raging when they should really be cheering and celebrating. Talk radio listeners, hosts and pundits in New York are screaming for manager Aaron Boone and general manager Brian Cashman to be fired. The fans don’t care about the fact that at one point the Yankees had their two most powerful bats in Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton on the bench injured. 

Former Blue Jay Josh Donaldson has been unable to play for over a month due to a hamstring strain. The Yankees gave lefty pitcher Carlos Rodon a six-year, $162 million deal as a free agent and he has yet to pitch for them. Luis Severino has the stuff of an ace, but he has been on the injured list since spring training with a lat strain. Frankie Montas, acquired at the trade deadline last season, had shoulder surgery earlier this spring and hasn’t thrown at all this season. New York has also had multiple relievers who have undergone surgery. 

The fact that the Yankees are four games over .500 at this point in the season is remarkable considering their devastating injury dilemma. Boone and Cashman aren’t going anywhere. 

The AL East race isn’t over yet. I believe the Jays and Yankees will both make a run at the Rays and put a scare in them. I don’t think either team will likely catch Tampa Bay, but the chase will certainly sharpen their teeth for October baseball. 

You may have noticed I didn’t mention the Orioles (5.08 ERA by starting pitchers) or Red Sox (6.10 ERA by starting pitchers) pushing the Rays for top spot. Neither team has the type of starting pitching that will allow them to keep pace with the top of the division. 

At some point they will fall behind the Rays, Yankees and Jays. The AL East WILL have four teams that reach the postseason. I predict the Red Sox will be the odd team out. 

Spitting Seeds

-The Rays (29-9) and Atlanta Braves (25-12) have the best records in the American League and National League, respectively, nearing the quarter mark of the regular season. They are also the best at scoring first in games. The Rays have scored 34 first-inning runs and are 23-2 (.920) when scoring first, while the Braves have 32 first-inning runs and are 23-4 (.852) when scoring first. Teams that score first in games on average win 67 per cent of the time. It makes you wonder why teams don’t try to do more to manufacture a run early in the game. 

-The Red Sox signed Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida this past off-season in a six-year, $90 million deal. Many scoffed at the signing, believing it was an overpay, especially after Yoshida struggled early. However, the 29-year-old has really heated up now: .298/.377/.496. He has a great eye at the plate and rarely swings and misses. In fact, Yoshida did not swing and miss at a pitch this month until May 9. He had swung 30 times without missing until he faced Braves starter Charlie Morton on Tuesday. In one at-bat, Morton got Yoshida to swing and miss at three straight curve balls to strike him out. Yoshida had a 16-game hitting streak come to an end in that game. 

-Detroit Tigers left-handed starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez is having an amazing season so far. He is 4-2 with a 1.57 ERA. The 30-year-old Venezuelan has made eight starts having thrown 51.2 innings and only allowing 31 hits and 10 walks while striking out 47 batters. He had a lost season in 2022 as he was away from the team most of the year dealing with personal issues. His bounce back is good news for the Tigers as he has three years and $49 million left on his contract after this year. The bad news is that he has an opt out after this season and the way he is performing almost assures us he will head to free agency. This means he will be a trade chip that teams will be fighting over at the Aug. 1 trade deadline. 

-The best pitcher this season you have never heard of is Yennier Cano of the Baltimore Orioles. The 29-year-old Cuban is a right-handed reliever with a tremendous change-up. He has thrown 18.2 innings and has allowed only three hits while striking out 22 batters and walking NONE. Cano and closer Felix Bautista (17 IP and 30 K) give the O’s a dynamic duo of dominance at the end of the game. They are overpowering and a big reason for Baltimore’s success in 2023.