New York Yankees Road to Another Title Getting Much Harder as Rays Surge

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New York Yankees Road to Another Title Getting Much Harder as Rays SurgeLet's be clear: The Yankees are the most talented team in baseball. They are the defending champs and Las Vegas calls them favorites to win it all again this year.

It's hard to argue against that being true.

But they may have a problem. Not only did Tampa just tie them for the AL East lead, but signs point to the Rays winning the division.

Yankees fans can't really be worried about October. Both Tampa's and New York's PECOTA-adjusted playoff odds sit above 95 percent, but winning the division actually matters.

There are two major reasons: First, New York is a significantly better home team than road team, and if they were to face Tampa in the ALCS, they'd want to spend most of those games at Yankee stadium. Secondly, Would you rather play Cliff Lee and the Rangers in the opening round, or either a Minnesota team with no depth in their rotation or a Chi-Sox team that is significantly less talented than Texas?

The answer is pretty clear.

The case for the Rays winning the division isn't as tough to make as you'd think. Which team has a higher RPI? Tampa. Which team has a higher pythagorean win expectation thus far? Tampa again. Which team is hotter right now? For a third time, not the Yankees.

The biggest advantage for the Rays, however, lies in that their current strength of schedule has been .509 average opponent winning percentage, whereas the Yankees have faced teams winning at a .497 clip.

The flip-side of that, since the teams functionally have the same schedule over the whole season, is that the Yankees have more difficult games to come. While the Rays do travel to New York for four towards the end of the season, the rest of their schedule is very favorable. They play a lot of series against the AL West and against AL East teams other than the Yankees, all of whom they have dominated. To end the season, Tampa has Seattle, Baltimore, and four with the Royals. They couldn't have picked it better, right?

The Yankees have five left against Texas and 10 against Boston. They end the season at Fenway. Needless to say, that's a little bit tougher. 

On that note, catching New York may actually be easier for the Sox than catching the Rays would be.

Also, New York is without Andy Pettitte, and A.J. Burnett has been mediocre of late. The team can't trust Joba Chamberlain either at the present.

Then, there's another obvious reality. The Yankees are old. The Rays are young, and infinitely more likely to hold up physically down the stretch. Top prospect Jeremy "Hellboy" Hellickson was dominant in his MLB debut, meaning that the Rays can now functionally go to a six-man rotation to rest starters until the playoffs.

In terms of talent, the Yankees undoubtedly trump the Rays. Their offense is too good. They have a solid rotation, and Mariano Rivera is Mariano Rivera. The Rays, though, are no slouches. Their rotation has to be considered better than the Yankees', and even if it seems like half of their lineup hits .220, they produce a lot of runs.

It'd be hard to convince Yankees fans to be nervous right now. They know how much they have, but with Tampa playing so well, they should at least recognize that things have gotten a lot more complicated.

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