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Top of the Order: Yankees-Orioles Race Heats up as Deadline Looms

Tommy Gilligan and John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Tuesday and Friday I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

No division race is tighter than the AL East, with the Yankees leading the Orioles by just 1.5 games ahead of their three-game matchup that begins tonight in the Bronx. Both teams are virtual locks to make the playoffs, but securing the division title is crucial because of the almost-certain bye that would come with it. This is a fierce race that looks like it’ll go down to the wire, but these head-to-head games might not be as important for their divisional hopes as their off-the-field showdown leading up to the trade deadline.

While the Orioles and Yankees won’t have much overlap in terms of trade needs — and as such won’t be competing for many of the same players — they’re obviously competing to get better and build more complete rosters so they can outlast the other and make a deep October run. The thing is, considering there are only five teams right now that are out of the playoff picture — the White Sox, Marlins, Athletics, Rockies, and Angels — actual upgrades available on the trading block might be in short supply. That means the Yankees and Orioles will need to capitalize on whatever improvements they can make. This environment could set the stage for New York and Baltimore to be among the most active teams over the next month and a half.

The Yankees have arguably the two best hitters in the entire league in Aaron Judge and Juan Soto, and though the rest of the lineup is good, it doesn’t inspire nearly as much confidence. Anthony Volpe’s flattened swing path has helped him cut down on his strikeout rate and spray more hits to the opposite field, but this month his strikeout rate is back up to 27% and he hasn’t walked since May 30. Alex Verdugo has been solidly above average and stabilized left field, which had a cavalcade of players come through last year, and Giancarlo Stanton’s streakiness has worked itself out to a 121 wRC+ and 17 homers, even though his on-base percentage is below .300. The catching duo of Jose Trevino and Austin Wells has come around too, though Trevino’s throwing issues were firmly on display on Sunday, when the Red Sox stole nine (!) bases against him.

And then there’s the triumvirate of underperforming infielders: Anthony Rizzo, Gleyber Torres, and DJ LeMahieu. I’d be shocked if Torres didn’t keep his job; after an anemic start, his bat has started to come around (112 wRC+ since May 12). But LeMahieu hasn’t hit much at all since signing his six-year deal before the 2021 season, and Rizzo has struggled for a full calendar year now, though at least some of his 2023 woes can be attributed to the post-concussion syndrome that caused him to miss the final two months of last season. Further complicating matters is Rizzo’s latest injury, a fractured right arm that won’t require surgery but will keep him out for an estimated four to six weeks, according to The Athletic. In the short-term, the Yankees are expected to play Oswaldo Cabrera at third and LeMahieu at first, with catcher/first baseman Ben Rice likely to replace Rizzo on the roster. A bat like Rockies third baseman Ryan McMahon would go a long way toward lengthening the lineup while also improving the defense.

The Orioles, on the other hand, have gotten strong production up and down the lineup, with the exception of Cedric Mullins, who has made up for his offensive struggles with excellent defense. But their pitching — widely viewed as a strength coming into the offseason — has been hammered by injuries.

The Yankees weathered the loss of Gerrit Cole with aplomb — so much so that I’m not sure they’ll need to be in the market for starting pitching, even as Clarke Schmidt is expected to be out for a while with a lat strain. Cole is slated to be activated and make his season debut tomorrow night. Meanwhile, the sheer quantity of Orioles starters on the IL all but necessitates making an acquisition on that front. Dean Kremer will be back soon from triceps tightness, but Tyler Wells and John Means are out for the year, and Kyle Bradish could be destined for the same fate. He recently landed on the IL for a second time this year with a sprained UCL in his elbow. That leaves AL Cy Young frontrunner Corbin Burnes, Grayson Rodriguez, and Kremer as the top three starters of a playoff rotation, with the revelatory Albert Suárez and Cole Irvin right behind and rookie Cade Povich potentially pushing for a spot as well.

There would certainly be worse playoff rotations around the league, but the O’s would be doing a disservice to their deep offense if they neglected to improve their starting pitching, especially after they failed to address last year’s rotation before the deadline and then were pounded by the Rangers and swept out of the ALDS. Their wealth of position player depth in the minor leagues should allow them to add at least one or two of the top available starters: Garrett Crochet, Erick Fedde, Tyler Anderson, Cal Quantrill, and Jesús Luzardo.

The one mutual need for the Yankees and Orioles is where all teams overlap at the deadline: the bullpen. Both teams have excellent back-end duos — Baltimore has Craig Kimbrel and Yennier Cano, while New York boasts Clay Holmes and Luke Weaver — but there’s a steep dropoff after that. The shallow seller’s market ought to create a lesser supply of available relief arms, which would likely inflate the cost that teams would ask for in return. This is where the strength of the New York and Baltimore farm systems (both of which are excellent) really come into play. These two organizations can afford to overpay for a third high-octane reliever — such as Carlos Estévez, Tanner Scott, Michael Kopech, and perhaps even Mason Miller — without sacrificing their long-term outlook.

The final distinction is the two teams’ disparate payroll situations. While it doesn’t appear as if the Yankees have any restrictions for this season — and the pursuit of keeping Soto surely will be unaffected — owner Hal Steinbrenner certainly sounds like a man who wants to decrease payroll from the $302 million it’s at this season. Next year’s payroll is already at $182 million, and that’s before factoring in arbitration raises to key players like Trevino, Schmidt, and Nestor Cortes — not to mention the exorbitant price that’ll be required to re-sign Soto. Torres and Verdugo are also set to hit free agency this offseason, and the current payroll figure for 2025 doesn’t include what it will cost either to bring them back or backfill their positions. That could make them less interested in trading for players on guaranteed contracts beyond this season, even those who would fit well, like McMahon.

On the flip side, the Orioles have an extraordinary amount of flexibility under new owner David Rubenstein, who hasn’t publicly commented on specific payroll plans but essentially can’t do anything but spend more than the Angelos family did in the last several years of its ownership. Huge raises are coming for Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Ryan Mountcastle, Bradish, and others, but Baltimore has a paltry $2 million committed to next season. That should give GM Mike Elias carte blanche to acquire anyone he wants at the deadline no matter how many years of club control the player has remaining, provided he’s willing to give up the necessary prospects.

All of this will play out over the next six weeks before the deadline. In the meantime, the battle for the AL East begins in earnest tonight.


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