SARASOTA, Fla. — For most of the past two decades, the American League East has been considered the toughest division in baseball, primarily because it contained the sport's two financial behemoths, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.
Each year since the wild-card spot was created in 1995, one of those two has made the playoffs. Eight times in those 17 years they've done it together.
Ever so slightly, though, things have been shifting in the AL East.
In 2008, the low-budget Tampa Bay Rays emerged from a franchise-spanning slumber to win the division while the Yankees failed to make the playoffs for the first time since the strike-shortened 1994 season.
The Rays are now at the forefront of any AL East discussion, considering they have won 90 or more games in four of the past five seasons; the Red Sox, in contrast, haven't reached the playoffs since 2009.
Last year, life in the AL East got really nutty, with the Orioles making the postseason for the first time since 1997. This winter, the Toronto Blue Jays ramped up their efforts, bringing in National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, supreme talent Jose Reyes and a host of other established veterans. Meanwhile, the Red Sox had a fire sale in 2012 and the Yankees became much more cost conscious this offseason.
Suddenly, the annual match race between thoroughbreds in Boston and New York has the potential to turn into an all-out free-for-all.
"It's a five-horse race, 100 percent. And they're not even different styles of horses. They are all Clydesdales, they are all race horses," said Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes. "It's not like there is a long distance horse and a sprinter horse. These are all big, strong horses. It's going to be interesting."
With the Yankees hampered by high-profile injuries, the Red Sox swimming in mediocrity and the rest of the teams lacking universal appeal, the perception is that the division isn't as powerful at the top. And, financially, other clubs are catching up.
According to early 2013 payroll estimates projected by yahoo.com, the Yankees have fallen to second overall behind the free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Red Sox have dropped from third to fifth. The Blue Jays have surged into the Top 10, but the Orioles (16th) and Rays (27th) remain in the bottom half of big league spending.
Regardless, a case can be made that this is the strongest the East has been under the current divisional system.
"All five teams have a chance. And that's unusual when you look at all of baseball's divisions," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. "Do you really feel all five teams have a chance in another division? In any sport, I think that is unusual. … So I think it is a better division now."
Strangely, if there is a favorite to win the AL East crown, it's probably the Blue Jays, who haven't made the postseason since winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.
"I think everything on paper says Toronto is that team," said Boston manager John Farrell, who left the Blue Jays to take the Red Sox job this offseason. "But I think people share a similar view that it's going to be highly competitive from start to finish."
Toronto won the winter by siphoning stars off two rebuilders: Dickey from the New York Mets and Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson from the Miami Marlins. Now they have to prove they can be victorious on the field.
"I think the sky is the limit here, really," said Blue Jays designated hitter Adam Lind. "Time will tell. Health will tell. And some luck."
While the Blue Jays attempt to go from 73 wins in 2012 to 90-plus and a playoff berth this year, the club that had the largest win increase last season isn't getting as much respect.
The Orioles, who went from 69 to 93 wins in one season and only have two newcomers on their 2013 roster, are being picked by many to regress. Of ESPN's 43 baseball experts, only two — former Baltimore Sun writer Buster Olney and former Orioles pitcher Rick Sutcliffe — picked the Orioles to win the East. Only four others had the Orioles making the playoffs again (20 each predicted the Rays or Blue Jays to win the East; one had the Yankees).
The common rationale for an Orioles decline is that they were a statistical anomaly in 2012 based on unsustainable records in extra-inning (16-2) and one-run games (29-9).
"That's all you hear and that's fine. The only way to change people's minds is to prove differently. We did that last year," Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth said. "It takes more than one season to change people's perceptions. But I don't think anybody in here really cares about that being said. Matter of fact, I think people kind of like it."
Orioles players believe they'll exceed 2012's win total because they hope to have full seasons from McLouth, Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, Manny Machado and Miguel Gonzalez, among others.
"There is no reason we can't be [better]. But I think we also realize that just because you made the playoffs last year doesn't automatically qualify us this year," McLouth said. "I don't think anybody will fall into that trap. It is hard to make the playoffs. But we definitely, absolutely have the potential to be better."
The Rays could be improved, too, especially given their dominant young pitching. But they may feel the absence of innings-eater James Shields, who was dealt to the Kansas City Royals. The Yankees' Achilles' heel could be injuries, with a core of veterans starting on the DL: Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez and Phil Hughes.
"We've been through [injuries] ever since I have been here and our guys have done a really good job of taking advantage of opportunities and making the best of it," Girardi said. "The division could really come down to that. Whose players step up when someone does go down that they are counting on, and who handles the injuries the best."
It's become trendy to drop the Yankees from the top to the bottom of the East given their MASH unit. History, though, says that's a dicey prediction. The Yankees last finished below third place in 1992, when current Orioles manager Buck Showalter was in his first year as a big league skipper. They haven't finished in last since 1990.
Showalter, for one, isn't buying the imminent demise of the Bronx Bombers.
"A lot of those injuries are [going to last only] two weeks into the season. They're going to be right there. It's 162 games," Showalter said. "A lot of those guys are going to be back just around the corner. To me, it's a given that they're going to be good."
The Yankees aren't the only ones dealing with injuries and/or advancing age. The Red Sox dumped several of their expensive stars in an in-season purge last year, which resulted in their first last-place finish since 1992. They haven't finished at the bottom of the standings in consecutive seasons since 1929-1930.
Boston reloaded in the offseason, acquiring Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Joel Hanrahan and others. But whether the Red Sox climb out of the basement depends on the health of stars such as David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia.
"I've been fortunate to play against some of the best players of this generation," said the Blue Jays' Lind, who is in his eighth big league season. "And to try and take down the Yankees and the Red Sox is special. I don't know what that tastes like yet. But hopefully this will be it."
Will the Yankees and Red Sox be the bottom two teams in the standings for the first time since 1966? Is it worth considering that potentially shocking developing in 2013?
"Not really," said 37-year-old Rays setup man Joel Peralta. "You can't count out those guys, People say, 'Well, they've gotten older.' Well sometimes when you get older you get better. Look at me. I got older and I got better the last couple years with experience. So you cannot count those guys out. Definitely not.'"
The bottom line is that the American League East is wide open.
It's possible that the division sends just one team to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Or that all five clubs finish .500 or better, something that has occurred just once in the current divisional format — by the 2005 National League East.
"I think you can make a case for every team in the division," McLouth said. "It is going to be an exciting summer."
twitter.com/danconnollysunCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun