All odds presented are from DraftKings Sportsbook.
The AL East is a two-horse race, but DraftKings Sportsbook believes it’s a race that’s heavily in the Yankees’ favor (-305). When both teams are at full strength, that’s probably right. New York went out and got their golden goose this offseason when they signed RHP Gerrit Cole to a long-term deal, to improve an already stellar pitching staff that accompanies the best lineup in the American League. The team with the second best odds to take the division are the Rays (+350), and they were given an implied probability of 22% to win it. FanGraphs projects the Rays to have a 34% chance of winning the AL East this year, and FiveThirtyEight has them at 28%. Neither of these projections are definitive, but according to those numbers there is value in betting the Rays here.
Not only have fans never seen a 60-game season, the bookmakers haven’t either. So in some sense, this is your chance to be on an even playing field with the bookies. From an odds standpoint, not a whole lot has changed. The Yankees and Dodgers are the favorites to meet in the Fall Classic, while Mike Trout and Mookie Betts are expected to take home MVP honors.
With the Yankees you’re looking at a team that: Won the division pretty comfortably a season ago; didn’t lose any notable players; got players like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge healthy, and brought in one of the best hurlers in the American League. What could go wrong for them?
It’s not what can go wrong for the Yankees, it’s what the Rays have planned. They made a flurry of moves, bringing in Jose Martinez, Randy Arozarena, Hunter Renfroe, Manuel Margot, and Yoshi Tsutsugo. A year ago, Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell missed large chunks of the season. A full season (even a short one) from those guys will feel like new additions to an already unfair Rays pitching staff that had the best ERA and second best FIP in the AL a year ago.
And then there’s the depth. If you’ve read, watched, or listened to any sort of baseball media since the 60-game season was announced, you’ve probably heard that the Rays have depth. What does that mean?
Around the Diamond
I think first you have to look to the outfield. Last year, the Rays four main outfielders were Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier, Austin Meadows, and Avisail Garcia. Tommy Pham was traded to the Padres, and Avisail Garcia left in free agency for Milwaukee. That seems like a loss, but the Rays made a point to recoup what they lost in Pham and Garcia by adding outfield depth.
Coming right back in the Pham deal was Hunter Renfroe, a way above average glove in the corner outfield spots, and a 30+ homer bat. The career .294 OBP is concerning, but the Rays have to hope that the power and the defense makes up for it. Then there’s Randy Arozarena, who came over with 1B/DH Jose Martinez in exchange for Matthew Liberatore. Arozarena is a guy who would be a lock to break camp with most big league clubs, but with the Rays depth he may have needed the 30-man roster to be in St. Pete on Opening Day. (Arozarena has been out of camp and is unlikely to start the season with the team, but not because of his talent) Arozarena isn’t a proven big leaguer yet, but he carries a slash line of .292/.377/.477 after three minor league seasons in the Cardinals organization. Manuel Margot came over for Emilio Pagan, and his defense will fill in quite nicely if Kevin Kiermaier ever has to miss time in center.
It was snuck in at the end of the last paragraph, but the Rays bullpen lost Emilio Pagan in the deal that brought them Margot. Pagan was a revelation in 2019. He didn’t make the Opening Day roster and many speculated the innings he would pick up on the big league roster would be as an opener or low leverage reliever. He finished the season with a 2.31 ERA, 12.3 K/9, and just 1.7 BB/9. Oh yeah, and 20 saves if you’re into that kind of thing. With the bullpen, just like the outfield, there’s a case that the Rays will be better in that department despite moving on from some of their most talented players.
Jose Alvarado will look to have a bounce back season after dealing with health and personal issues throughout 2019. Alvarado was incredible in 2018, so getting him for a larger chunk of the season is an improvement to the Rays bullpen. You also have to look at Nick Anderson, who the Rays acquired at the trade deadline. After arriving in St. Pete, he was the Rays best reliever. He ended up throwing just 21.1 innings for the Rays, but only allowed 5 earned runs, struck out 41 batters, and allowed just 2 walks. Again, if you believe in the save, I expect Nick Anderson to lead the Rays in that category this year.
The Rays bullpen threw over 100 more innings than the Yankees last season (that includes pitchers coming in after openers), but still kept a 3.71 ERA compared to New York’s 4.08. Again, this is an aspect of the Rays that was already the best in the league that will be potentially stronger in 2020.
My guess is that the Yankees are betting favorites for a lot of people going into this season, and their popularity is driving the odds in a big way. And my biggest argument for going after the value in this bet is how thin the margin for error is for any team this season. If a key pitcher goes on the IL for a month, that’s almost half his starts for the season out the window. Obviously, that could go for or against the Rays, but the Yankees aren’t going to have the time to create a sizable gap in the AL East standings this year. It’s hard to imagine any division winner (except for the Dodgers) amassing a lead greater than five games.
This is going to be a strange season. That’s probably been typed more times than you can count, so here it is again to make you cringe once more before the first pitch is thrown in the 2020 season. With a strong mix of some strangeness, depth, and stellar pitching, betting the Rays at +350 to win the AL East looks pretty good.