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AL East a beast no more: 88 victories enough for crown at current pace

A decade ago, it was nicknamed the "American League Beast," the biggest, baddest division in all of baseball. It featured the sport's two free-spending behemoths and three other talented but inferior teams that seemingly prayed for the gift of realignment to win a championship.

But something unexpected happened in the past several years. The American League East has become — gasp — anyone's race each season, with four clubs winning the division title in the past five years. Only the Toronto Blue Jays haven't worn the crown recently.

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It's a welcome change for clubs such as the Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays, who don't spend as much as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox but have found ways to compete.

Now, though, another storm is hanging over the division. Could it be that the East is just another division these days? Is the competition level down so much that it is one of the worst in baseball? Is the Beast now the Least?

"I chuckle when I hear people talk about the division being [down]," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I think the division is over .500 [collectively]. Some of these people that are saying that, I'd like to see them step on in."

The criticism is born from the numbers. The East has no dominant team — it's the only division with four clubs above .500, but barely had one comfortably above even before the Yankees strung together seven straight wins recently. The five clubs didn't all win on the same day this season until June 5 — and have accomplished that feat just twice in 2015. And only one division is stacked more tightly from top to bottom, a trend that has remained consistent since April.

"There's no weak team," Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. "A couple years ago, you could say this team or that team was a powerhouse in the division. Now you can't say that about nobody. We all beat up on each other."

Jones, who joined an Orioles team in 2008 that was a perennial doormat, said every division is more competitive now.

"It makes it better. Everybody's competitive against each other," he said. "Look at the records within our division. Our division plays well outside the division, also."

A negative parity?

A little more than a third of the way through the season, the Rays have the best head-to-head record among the five teams at 18-14. The Red Sox are last at 10-20. The Yankees are 16-15, the Orioles 20-17 and the Blue Jays 16-14. Combined, the five clubs are 78-73 against those outside the East. The teams are slightly better against outside teams than within the division but not convincingly so, lending credence to the idea that mediocrity is the new norm in the division — or at least the trend.

"There's parity in the East, but I don't think it is a positive parity. I think it's a negative parity," said Nick Cafardo, national baseball writer for The Boston Globe. "The offense of most of these teams has just gone south. I know the pitching [in baseball] may be better. There are more power pitchers now, and people are off steroids and things like that. But I think it is a negative parity, and I think a lot of it stems from the decline in offense with these East teams."

Before this weekend's series, the Blue Jays led the AL in runs scored and the Yankees were second. But the Orioles were 10th, the Red Sox 12th and the Rays 13th out of 15 teams. In contrast, the Rays had the best ERA in the league at 3.33 and the Yankees and Orioles were sixth and eighth, respectively. The Blue Jays, though, were 14th and the Red Sox were last. The bottom line is, each team has significant flaws.

"These are five teams that maybe aren't perfect if you take a look at any one of them. Maybe there's a little more parity in the division," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "But still there's very good players and very good teams that still play here."

Based on the quality of teams from top to bottom, Cafardo said he'd put the AL East as the fifth of six divisions in baseball, ahead of only the National League East. The AL Central is the toughest, Cafardo said, because it has several balanced teams.

"I think the AL East has fallen behind the others because some of these teams don't finish off their rosters. They go so far with what they are trying to do and leave themselves a little short in some area," Cafardo said. "Some of the teams in the AL Central seem to have all the parts. Kansas City has the speed, the hitting, the starting pitching, the bullpen, the whole bit."

The defending East champion Orioles allowed free agents Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller to walk away over the winter. The Blue Jays added formidable slugger Josh Donaldson, but their pitching staff remains a question. Tampa Bay didn't improve its powerless offense. And the Yankees and Red Sox splurged some but left gaping holes.

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"[The Red Sox] didn't get the ace pitcher [they needed], and could easily get that but decided not to, to save some money," Cafardo said. "The Yankees could easily get another starting pitcher or second baseman, and they just choose to act like they're not a big-market team. That's part of it."

Money can't buy everything

Another part is that both clubs have rosters with high-profile older players susceptible to injuries and age-related decline.

"If you look at the Yankees' situation, they are stocked for at least the next three years with veteran players that maybe are not going to [produce] the results that they expect," said Boston designated hitter David Ortiz, the division's longest-tenured member. "That's going to take them some time to regroup, waiting until those players' contracts expire before they go out and chase new players or younger players or whatever is available. When you're at a stocked situation like that, it all depends on what you get from those [veteran] players."

The same, of course, can be said about Boston. When Ortiz joined the Red Sox before the 2003 season, he said, the perception was the division consisted of the Yankees and four other teams. By the next season, the Red Sox had caught New York and won their first World Series in 86 years — and the two-headed monster officially was created. In time, and by spending fairly wisely, three more heads emerged.

"Everybody knows the Yankees had the best players pretty much every year. What has happened with baseball and the money is that everybody is investing and every team has good players," Ortiz said. "Once that happens, it's not going to be all flowers and roses like it used to be. Now you are going to have to go out and play, and in all the divisions the teams are pretty good."

According to a 2015 major league baseball salary study by Newsday in April, the AL East had the highest combined payroll, nearly $700 million, just edging the NL West. For individual teams, the Yankees ranked second (estimated $213 million), the Red Sox fifth ($169 million), the Orioles 13th ($119 million), the Blue Jays 16th ($116 million) and the Rays 28th out of 30 ($74 million).

"When I first came into the league [in 2003], you definitely had the haves and have-nots. The Yankees and the Rays were polar opposites of the spectrum," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "Now, teams like the Rays and the A's, so-called small-market teams, have been playing great for the past few years."

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Separating from the pack

The parity the AL East is experiencing is really throughout baseball, Teixeira said. And he thinks that helps maintain interest in the game.

"The last thing you want as a city is to have your team out of the race in June," Teixeira said. "And I think pretty much every team in baseball, except for maybe one or two right now, are conceivably in the race. And that's a good thing for baseball."

Orioles closer Zach Britton said pitching is the great separator when it comes to championship teams, but what sets the divisions apart is the everyday lineups. He'd put the AL East up against anyone.

"Tampa, they are running out a little better lineup now, but normally Toronto, New York, Boston and ourselves, you better come to the park ready to go because those lineups are going to score some runs," Britton said. "I'd be hard-pressed to find divisions, top to bottom, that have better lineups than we do. Maybe they are not performing right now, but on paper we have the best lineups top to bottom."

Showalter said he doesn't engage in the exercise of comparing one division to another. If he did, he said he'd look at the bottom teams in each group to get a sense of the competitiveness of each division.

The East's current cellar dweller, the Red Sox, has a winning percentage better than any other last-place team except those in the AL Central and NL West. But the AL East's top team, the Yankees, has the second-worst winning percentage for a division leader, ahead of only the NL East.

Will 88 wins take the East?

The Yankees are on pace to win roughly 88 games, which would be the lowest for an AL East champion since 2000, when the Yankees won 87 and ultimately the World Series. No AL East champion has won fewer than 95 games in a season dating to 2001. The consensus this year is that no team in the division will match the Orioles' 96 victories in 2014.

"If 96 wins comes out of this [race], that means somebody's going to go on some kind of run for quite a while," Farrell said.

The number of wins a team collects during the regular season is incidental, Britton said, as long as it makes the playoffs. Case in point: the 2014 Royals, who won just 89 games, earned a wild-card spot and then cruised to the World Series.

"It's all about getting hot in the playoffs," he said.

For all of the division's recent warts, an AL East team has made it to the championship series in seven of the past eight years, advanced to the World Series four times and won it three times.

It could happen again in 2015. But maybe more so than any other year in recent memory, it might be a surprise if the last team standing this season is from the division that was considered the standard-bearer for so many years.

"We are living in a different era of baseball where everybody wants to win," Ortiz said. "Before it seemed like there was just some teams out there that wanted to maintain themselves at this level. But not anymore. Now, everybody wants to win because there is a lot of money involved. It is different now."

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A look back

The AL East has not had a division winner with fewer than 95 wins since 2000, when the New York Yankees went 87-74 on their way to winning the World Series. This season, no team in the East is on pace to win more than 88 games.

Year AL East champion Record
2014 Orioles 96-66
2013 Red Sox 97-65
2012 Yankees 95-67
2011 Yankees 97-65
2010 Rays 96-66
2009 Yankees 103-59
2008 Rays 97-65
2007 Red Sox 96-66
2006 Yankees 97-65
2005 Yankees 95-67
2004 Yankees 101-61
2003 Yankees 101-61
2002 Yankees 103-58
2001 Yankees 95-65
2000 Yankees 87-74

AL East vs. the rest

The AL East's combined record outside the division entering Saturday:

• vs. AL Central: 21-17

• vs. AL West: 40-41

• vs. NL: 17-15

Total: 78-73

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