DUNEDIN, Fla. — Yankees ace Gerrit Cole had just faced off against a collection of A-list teammates, in a mock setting, when he was asked about talent across the AL East.
“It’s not a mess, this split,” Cole said Tuesday in Tampa.
About an hour later, across Tampa Bay, a Toronto Blue Jays lineup packed with regulars showed up against Yankees starter Jordan Montgomery.
And they didn’t let go for a moment.
“My stuff was pretty bad today,” the southpaw said, and the Blue Jays popped him for three on six hits in one inning en route to a 9-2 standout win at TD Ballpark.
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“(They’re) confident and they can hit,” Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo said of a Toronto club that lost Marcus Semien but added Matt Chapman.
“They have good sticks, and it’s going to be a year-round battle in this whole division.”
About the division
Trevor Story just landed with the Boston Red Sox, who won 92 games last season and beat the Yanks in the AL Wild Card game.
Toronto missed last year’s playoffs despite having 91 wins and they have “as great a roster as you’re going to see,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.
Of course, defending AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays won 100 games on another shoestring budget, while Yanks general manager Brian Cashman said Monday that the payroll of more than $240 million from his club was the highest ever.
“I picked this place because the window to win a World Series, in my mind, is tied to the length of the contract,” said Cole, who signed the Yankees’ last gargantuan contract (nine years, $324 million). dollars) before the 2020 season.
Speaking of a winter strategy where the Yanks passed on the elite free agent class of shortstops but struck a five-man deal to land Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Ben Rortvedt, Cole said that he was “not really” surprised.
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“We’ve definitely upgraded, and Brian sometimes has to get creative rather than simpler,” Cole said. “But that’s what makes it good.
“In baseball, you want to be able to win in different ways. You probably want to build a championship-caliber team in more than one way.”
A difficult start
Cashman’s current duties include a dozen potential arbitration cases, led by Aaron Judge – seeking a major overtime before Opening Day – and navigating trade marking for pitching, with Oakland starters Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea for the offers.
Montgomery made tremendous progress as a starter last year, but his first exhibition debut of 2022 was one to forget.
“Honestly, I was just a little nervous and tense,” said Montgomery, who was mostly trying to work out the fastball location.
“I played high school kids for a month, I have to get used to playing the big leaguers again,” the southpaw said after Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (singles RBI), Lourdes Gurriel (double RBI), George Springer and Bo Bichette made it a rough afternoon.
Montgomery struck out only one batter (Chapman’s sack fly) in the first inning, but came back to work more in the second inning under liberal spring substitution rules.
“I got a little wild trying to flip it all over,” Montgomery said.
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Preparing for opening day
Back in Tampa, Cole had no such problems in a controlled environment at empty Steinbrenner Field.
Throwing 43 pitches over two mock innings, Cole faced Judge, Donaldson, Kiner-Falefa and Giancarlo Stanton.
Pitching in that setting as opposed to a Grapefruit League game “just allows you to get a little bit more (battering) feedback afterwards,” Cole said of prioritizing delivery and quality. ground.
Cole’s next outing is expected to be Sunday’s exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, giving him one more start — with an extra day of rest built in — ahead of the April 7 opener against Boston.
The right-handed ace thinks he’ll be good for 80 shots on Opening Day, and he expects rosters to grow by two players (to 28) throughout April.
“We don’t talk about it”
Versatile infielder Marwin Gonzalez expects to play his first exhibition game for the Yankees on Thursday, barring rain.
As a free agent, “I received a few offers” before signing with the Yanks. “I wanted to be part of a winning team, it made it easier for me.”
Despite his non-roster status, Gonzalez, 33, believes there’s “a big opportunity here” to earn a job outside of camp. “I’m open to playing wherever they need to.”
As for a member of the notorious 2017 Houston Astros joining the Yankees, “that’s in the past. We actually don’t talk about it,” Gonzalez said of interacting with his new teammates.
Judge was among the Yankees who called the Astros cheaters and felt their 2017 world championship was tarnished due to an electronic sign theft scheme.
Gonzalez batted .303 with a .907 OPS in 134 games on the 2017 Astros. Since then, Gonzalez has posted a .686 OPS in 403 games.
“I have a good relationship with a few of them,” Gonzalez said of the current Yankees. “We just talk about baseball and how the game is going. We never talk about that.”
Pete Caldera is the author of Yankees beats for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to all Yankees analysis, news, transactions and more, please subscribe today and download our app.