3 to Watch: The It sure is tough early edition

I heard it from the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, and from the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers. From the New York Yankees in Tampa, and the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte.

"The schedule is kind of thick early," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, as only he could.

It is for the Rays, who play five of their first seven series against teams expected to contend (six of seven, if you include the Toronto Blue Jays , or seven of seven, if you include the Blue Jays and Minnesota Twins ).

But it is for just about all the other likely contenders in the American League, too.

They're all playing each other early. They can each look at the April schedule and say it's "kind of thick."

The Rays have it the toughest, but none of the AL contenders have it easy early. Even the Los Angeles Angels , whose early schedule is the easiest of any of them, have early trips to Yankee Stadium and Tropicana Field.

If you count the Rays, Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels and Texas Rangers as the best six teams in the league, the Yankees and Rays both play each of the other five before the end of April. The Tigers, Red Sox and Rangers play four of the five.

So yes, the early schedule is tough -- for everyone.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. Amazing note about the Red Sox: This is the first time since 2008 they haven't opened up against the defending American League champions (and it would have been tough in 2008, since they were the defending champs). So instead, this year the Red Sox get the team that lost in the American League Championship Series, and they get to face the defending Most Valuable Player/Cy Young. And while the Red Sox have beaten the defending league champion on opening day (as recently as two years ago against the Yankees), they've never opened a season by beating the defending Cy Young (losing to Bob Turley in 1959, and to Jim Palmer in 1976). They get another chance, against Justin Verlander , in Red Sox at Tigers, Thursday afternoon (1:05 ET) at Comerica Park.

2. I'm not sure the Milwaukee Brewers should like the way the opening week schedule turned out. They're coming off their first division title since 1982, but it would look a little funny to celebrate it on opening day, because their opponent, the team they beat out for the National League Central crown, also happens to be the team that went on to win the World Series. Whether that's the reason or not, the Brewers avoided the issue by putting up their division title banner during the winter, and don't plan any special ceremony on opening day (unlike the Tigers, who plan to raise an American League Central flag before their Thursday game against the Tigers). The Brewers opener is also strange because it will actually be the St. Louis Cardinals ' second game, which might have given them an advantage had Chris Carpenter been available to start the opener. Instead, Carpenter got hurt, the Cardinals slotted Kyle Lohse in his Wednesday night spot against the Miami Marlins , and the Brewers see Jaime Garcia , the same pitcher they were going to face, anyway. It's still the Brewers' first game without Prince Fielder , and the Cardinals' first division game without Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols . And it's a rematch of last year's National League Championship Series. It's not that unusual to have an LCS rematch on opening day. It happened as recently as 2009 in the American League (Rays-Red Sox), and as recently as 2007 in the National League ( New York Mets -Cardinals). This time, it's Cardinals at Brewers, Friday afternoon (4:10 ET) at Miller Park.

3. For the Rays, the worst thing about opening with the Yankees isn't that it's a tough opponent. It's that they'd probably draw well on opening day, anyway (they sold out last year against the Baltimore Orioles ), and they'd probably draw well against the Yankees regardless. And they need all the attendance help they can get. But that's their problem. For the rest of us, a CC Sabathia - James Shields matchup is a treat, and that's what we'll get in Yankees at Rays, Friday afternoon (3:10 ET) at Tropicana Field. In the last three Shields-Sabathia meetings, there were a total of seven runs scored -- that's seven runs in the three games combined, with the Shields winning 3-0 and 2-1, and Sabathia winning 1-0.

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