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.
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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).