They were back together again at the top of the standings in 2017 and they appear — on paper — to have tightened their grip on the top two spots in the division after each added one of the premier power hitters in the game to an already formidable offensive lineup.
The Yankees served notice that they plan to be back at the top of the standings for a while when they acquired 2017 major league home run champion Giancarlo Stanton to pair with sophomore superstar Aaron Judge. The Red Sox responded by signing elite slugger J.D. Martinez to help balance a club that features four of the best starting pitchers in the game.
Not that either team is ever far out of sight or mind. One or both of them have been in the playoffs in every year of the wild-card era (1995 to present) except 2014, when the Orioles won the division and were the only AL East representative in the postseason. And either the Red Sox or the Yankees have represented the AL in the World Series 10 times over that 23-year period.
It’s just that they had been a bit more vulnerable over the past decade. The economically challenged Tampa Bay Rays won at least 90 games five times from 2008 to 2013 and reached the postseason in four of those seasons. The Orioles stormed back from a 14-year losing streak to win more games than any other AL team from 2012 through 2016 and reached the playoffs three times.
That’s a lot of success for the two AL East teams that don’t generate nearly the revenue of their three big-market rivals, which proves that it is possible to overcome the huge economic disparity that exists in the division — just not forever.
During the Orioles’ revival, the Yankees pared their payroll and shored up their minor league system, which probably opened the door a bit wider for the Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays to win division titles. The Red Sox, meanwhile, continued to spend at a level well above the average major league payroll, and won the World Series in 2013, but also finished last in the AL East three times from 2012 through 2015.
The division has consistently befuddled the people who make their living trying to predict before every season what’s going to happen. The Orioles, in particular, turned almost every analytical algorithm on its ear over that five-year span. The Rays did the same thing in 2008, when they shocked the world with a 31-game turnaround on their way to reaching the World Series.
“I think part of that speaks to … one, just because you spend dollars doesn’t guarantee you win,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “We’ve seen throughout the years many examples of that. Second, those organizations have a lot of good baseball people in them who have built good clubs. The Orioles have got an outstanding manager-general manager combination. Tampa Bay is very creative. They’ve got good players in the organization. They’ve maximized it.”
Former Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie gives the Yankees and Red Sox some credit for forcing the other teams to improve. The Yankees were so dominant from 1996 to 2004 that everybody else had to figure out a way to overcome their seemingly unlimited budget and their core of homegrown stars.
“I think payrolls are important. … Obviously, they give you the resources to fill in your roster,” Beattie said. “But I think most of the good organizations are going to supply their own players. I think that the whole Yankee-Red Sox thing drove everyone to be better and find different ways to do it. I think that Tampa Bay, when they had their time being competitive every year, it just kind of showed people there are other ways to do this, too.”
The problem for small-market teams is the economics make it difficult to keep a winning club together. The Rays reeled off six straight winning seasons, but haven’t had a winning record since 2013. The Orioles now face the likelihood that they will lose a big chunk of veteran talent over the next two seasons and have to go through a rebuild.
“While you look at what other clubs are doing because that’s where the competition is, you really have to take care of your own business,” Beattie said. “You have to do the best job you can. Whether that means you’re a club that says you’re going to have the resources to be competitive every year or you’re going to be a club that’s going to build and have windows of three or four or five years and then rebuild, that’s the way you’re going to have to operate.”
The Yankees have the resources to do whatever they want, but they engineered a brief and successful rebuilding project at the end of the Derek Jeter era, and got back to the American League Championship Series last year for the first time since 2012.
That’s all relative, of course. The Yankees still had winning seasons throughout, but missed the playoffs in three of the four seasons leading up to last year’s run as an AL wild card.
“When you do have the finances and are able to do both — spend money at the major league level and spend money down below to keep the pipeline going, you’ve got a better chance,” said former Orioles and Atlanta Braves general manager Frank Wren, now an executive with the Red Sox. “But [the Orioles] made a lot of good decisions. They pitched well. Give Dan Duquette credit, because they took some reformation projects and they’ve made some really wise decisions. They do a good job, but at the same time it gets harder and harder, and I think you’ve got tip your hat to them because they’ve been able to stay very competitive.”
If it looks as if the Yankees are ascendant and the defending division champion Red Sox aren’t going away anytime soon, that appearance is probably not deceiving. The division, at the moment, looks like it has defaulted back to where it was during the decade from 1998 to 2007 when the Yankees were in the postseason every year, the Red Sox won two World Series and no one but those two teams won the AL East.
That doesn’t change the dynamic for the small-market teams. The Rays have just shed most of their top veteran talent, but apparently have more where that came from. The Orioles are facing a ton of uncertainty as Opening Day looms, but they’ve been there before and manager Buck Showalter isn’t conceding anything after the club’s big pitching infusion.
“You can make a case for every club,” he said. “Look at Tampa. Nobody’s going to run better pitching out there than they run out there, especially in that ballpark they play in. I think Toronto, they’re a sleeper. They’re pretty interesting, if they have a couple things break for them.
“There’s is such a fine line in this division. That’s the thing, the fact that somebody goes from first to last doesn’t mean they’re not good. It’s such a volatile division. Little things can tip things one way or the other.”
Dombrowski agreed. He has been in the AL East only since August 2015, but he has seen it from the inside and out during a career in which he also served as the first general manager of the Florida Marlins and spent 14 years as president and general manager of the Detroit Tigers.
“It’s probably the division that is the most highly respected in baseball, because of the powerhouse clubs that are in it,” he said. “There are a lot of good teams and year in and year out it’s like that. And, of course, you have the Yankees, who are in a position where any division that has them would be well-respected. But it is one that is, because of the competition, [subject to] a lot of ups and downs in that regard. It’s been rare that the division winner is repeated, so it’s very competitive.”