Yankees Orioles A TCB illustration of New York Yankees stars Juan Soto and Gerrit Cole, and Baltimore Orioles stars Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson

Heading into the 2024 Major League Baseball season, experts figured that the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees would fight for the American League East division crown. The young and hungry Orioles came in on the heels of surprising the league and winning the AL East last year. Meanwhile, the Yankees want the crown back, and they swung for the fences with a significant offseason acquisition this past Winter.

Through the season’s first month, the O’s and Yankees are where you’d expect them to be. Baltimore holds the top spot in the AL East heading into the day. The Yankees are just a 1/2 game out, and what’s more, Baltimore and New York own the AL’s best records. The Orioles are 26-13; the Yankees are 27-15.

Both teams have a plethora of stars between them, including 2022 AL MVP Aaron Judge and heralded former AL Rookie of the Year Adley Rutschman. Here are four reasons to expect these trends to continue and why the Yankees and the Orioles will contend for the AL East all season long:

Juan Soto

One month into the season, it’s hard to argue that any other acquisition has made a more significant impact than Juan Soto has on the Yankees. Yes, not even Shohei Ohtani — whose Dodgers are at the same pace as the second-place Yankees — hasn’t done what Soto has done. Soto’s impact at the plate has been ridiculous. He’s second on the team in home runs (9), leads the AL in on-base percentage (.414), and is seventh in the AL in slugging percentage (.541). His at-bats are as advertised; he constantly works counts and makes pitchers sweat. He’s also provided a tangible boost in intensity and excitement on the team. It’s contagious, and the energy the team has this year appears much different than Yankee teams of the recent past. There’s one denominator there, and his last name is Soto.

Gunnar Henderson

From one star to another. Soto’s power the Yankees, and Gunnar Henderson has led the charge this year for the Orioles. In his second season in the bigs, the 2023 AL Rookie of the Year is off to a blistering start. Henderson already has belted 12 homers this season, the second-most in the AL behind Houston Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker. He more than makes up for what he lacks in OBP (.347) in SLG (.568). He’s shown a tremendous ability to hit for power early on in his career, and the Orioles benefit from it. Henderson might soon hit a valley; he’s been relatively upright since he got to the bigs. But, for now, what you see is what you get, and the O’s benefit greatly from their star infielder’s bat.

Strong starting pitching

Chief among the reasons for the Yankees and Orioles’ success this season has been their starting pitching. Baltimore acquired former National League Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes this offseason. Burnes has delivered thus far, posting a 2.83 ERA through his first 47 2/3 innings pitched with the Orioles. Cole Irvin has been hard to hit, and particularly hard to hit home runs against; he’s posted a team-best 0.67 HR/9, so he’s done his part to keep the ball in the yard. Dean Kremer has also been more than serviceable with a 3.72 ERA in 46.0 innings.

The Yankees have been without Gerrit Cole this entire season. Despite that massive loss, the Yankees have held up firmly. New York owns the fourth-best starters’ ERA in the AL, with a mark of just 3.36. Nestor Cortes is back in solid form after a down season following his 2022 AL All-Star campaign. Marcus Stroman has given the Yankees innings, inducing ground balls at an accelerated clip. Carlos Rodon has been an incredible surprise after last year’s disappointing effort. Clarke Schmidt has given the team length in the back end, and Luis Gil has been a tremendous surprise, with a team-high K/9 of 10.05 and a team-leading ERA of 2.51 in 43 innings.

And that’s without the 2023 AL Cy Young winner. The Yankees hope Cole rejoins the team later this season, but they’ve been tough to beat anyway. So have the O’s; if you want to get to these teams, you’ll have to try to get to their starters, and teams have struggled to do so thus far.

Gerrit Cole

The Yankees still hold the ‘Gerrit Cole card’ until they don’t. He’s one of the best pitchers in MLB and proved that last season in his Cy Young campaign. During Spring Training, Cole dealt with elbow inflammation, keeping the veteran starter off the mound. When he does return, he’s going to return to a Yankee team that right now is one of the best in baseball. It’s possible he could come back after the All-Star break, which at that point would liken to a big trade-deadline acquisition. Cole packs a serious punch, and everyone knows it. He’ll continue to be a reason to expect the Yankees to hang around this year. Whenever that might be.

About Chris Novak

Chris Novak has been talking and writing about sports ever since he can remember. Previously, Novak wrote for and managed sites in the SB Nation network for nearly a decade from 2013-2022