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'There’s nothing like playing in the AL East' — but wouldn't an easier path to the playoffs be nice?

As the Rays and Yankees clash this weekend, the AL East is on pace to be MLB's best division ever

NEW YORK — Aaron Boone let out a short laugh.

Life as the Yankees manager often means answering difficult questions, questions without answers, questions with answers that’ll beget more questions, questions with answers he’s not willing or able to make public. It’s sort of funny, then, to be asked — in a roundabout way — whether he would rather his last-place team currently be in first.

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

Granted, that wasn’t exactly how the question was phrased. The Yankees are in last because their intended starting rotation has been decimated by injuries, because the vaunted lineup is puckered with offensive voids, because Aaron Judge can come to the plate only once every nine at-bats, because Gerrit Cole can pitch only once every five days — and because they play in the American League East, baseball’s most difficult 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’ .550 winning percentage would put them second. If they played in the notably weak American League Central, the Yankees would be in first. Here, though, in the division that basically invented rivalries built on mutual excellence, it puts them dead last, looking up at what could end up being the best division 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, top to bottom.”

“I really like the AL East. I mean, look at the Orioles now, just from two years ago,” Yankees pitcher Ryan Weber said. “They’re in second place. 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 yourself, too,” he said of the high degree of difficulty this division provides. “If AL East teams are willing to pick me up and throw me out into the AL East fire, then I’m gonna take that and be confident.”

Ten days ago, MLB Network's Sarah Langs dove into the question of 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 current full-season record of .566 set by the 2002 AL West, back when there were only four teams in that division.

Langs explained how the newly balanced schedule has allowed AL East teams to flourish. With fewer games among themselves in which one team has to lose, they’re able to beat up on weaker divisions around the league. If anything, the heretofore unbalanced schedule was hiding just how good these five teams could be.

“I mean, the AL East is stacked,” Yankees ace Cole said. “It's been stacked for my entire 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 particular performance before Memorial Day, and recent years have shown just how much can change after the trade deadline and down the stretch. 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 every team has at least a 2% chance of winning the division. Even the team projected to finish last (Baltimore) has a greater than 30% chance of making the playoffs.

But at least one team is guaranteed to end up disappointed. The expanded postseason field with three wild cards means that as many as four teams from any one division can get in. But winning a division still secures a spot regardless of record, so if the divisional disparity lasts until 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 potentially inferior Central division winner ride off into the crapshoot of October.

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

“It's always fun for great athletes and great competitors to play against the best and know that you’ve got to play really well if you're going to have success, not just on a given day but sustainable throughout the year,” Boone said. “Probably there are days where you’d like to have an easier run at it. But in the end, as competitors, you want to play the best.”

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

“I think any player that puts on this uniform and likes playing here embraces that type of challenge,” Cole said. “It at least gives you a good barometer for where you're at because you're always facing the best, and you're always getting the best out of the other club.”

The Yankees would say that, wouldn’t they?

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

After all, it could end up determining who gets to be there, and in this division, no one is ever comfortable.

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

“Hell, yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I would. But we’re not, so we’ve got to continue to make it work.”