With three loaded teams, AL East figures to stage epic race in 2009
The AL East could wind up as not only the best division in '09 but the best ever
Tampa Bay, Boston and New York should all eclipse 90 wins
All three teams spent the offseason patching the most glaring holes they have
The first salvo of what promises to be the most entertaining -- and quite possibly the best -- division race in years was fired at Fenway Park on a frozen January day in the midst of what was supposed to be a relatively friendly roundtable discussion for a charity event.
At a Q&A that is part of the annual "Hot Stove, Cool Music" weekend put on by Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein and Hall of Fame journalist Peter Gammons, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Fernando Perez was asked what it was like to beat the Red Sox in last year's ALCS. Boston's diminutive and opinionated second baseman -- and the reigning AL MVP -- Dustin Pedroia, chimed in: "Don't get used to it."
The remark may have been meant to elicit a laugh, but it nevertheless spoke to the heart of why the AL East will be so competitive and so much fun to watch in 2009. In what is by far the toughest division in baseball, there is no offseason.
For years the Yankees and Red Sox dominated the division, the league and, indeed, all of baseball. Entering 2008 the two franchises had combined to win 13 of the 14 division titles since the playoffs expanded in 1995, as well as seven wild cards, eight pennants and six World Series. One or the other has participated in every postseason since the wild card debuted, and from 1998 through 2007 they finished 1-2 in the division every year, with the exception of 2006, when Boston slipped down the stretch and finished third (one game out of second).
But in 2008 the Rays pulled off one of the most unexpected turnarounds in baseball history, exploding for 97 wins and the AL East crown. The defending world champion Red Sox had to settle for 95 wins and the wild card, while the aging and injury-prone Yankees stayed home with 89 victories.
Tampa Bay's arrival as a force to be reckoned with expanded the AL East's sphere of influence over the rest of the league -- last year marked the fifth time since '95 two AL East teams squared off for the pennant, compared to just four times where no team from the division advanced that far -- and also gave the perennial powers in Boston and New York a new foe to be wary of and, in turn, to try and intimidate.
If last season is any indication, neither words like Pedroia's nor actions like New York's and Boston's latest re-loading this winter will cause the youthful Rays to back down. Their World Series run last October may have been a 10,000-volt shock to the game's established pecking order, but a similar result this year would surprise no one. Nor are they likely to wilt in the face of something they have not had to deal with yet, and something their chief rivals confront annually: sky-high expectations. Even after another smart and productive offseason for the Red Sox and another mega-spending spree by the Yankees, the Rays remain very much a threat to repeat in the AL East.
In fact, all three teams are so loaded -- on paper at least -- it is possible the AL East could wind up as not only the best division next year but the best ever, certainly in the wild-card era. Since the advent of the six-division format in 1994, only three times has one division included three 90-win teams:
2002 NL West: Arizona (98, lost NLDS), San Francisco (95, lost World Series), Los Angeles (92, missed playoffs).
2002 AL West: Oakland (103, lost ALDS), Los Angeles (99, won World Series), Seattle (93, missed playoffs).
2006 AL Central: Minnesota (96, lost ALDS), Detroit (95, lost World Series) Chicago (90, missed playoffs).
The AL East came within one Yankees win of joining that list last season. Now, with New York having spent $423 million to sign the best pitcher (CC Sabathia) and hitter (Mark Teixeira) on the free-agent market, as well as another proven starter in A.J. Burnett, it seems a foregone conclusion the Yankees will crack the 90-win plateau.
With a month still remaining before spring training begins, it is certainly possible several teams are not yet done building their rosters for the coming year. As Epstein was recently quoted as saying, "In our division, if you're not getting better, someone is probably passing you by."
It is not yet clear which team is the class of the AL East, especially since all three teams have spent the offseason patching their most glaring (and in some cases, only obvious) holes. Consider:
Tampa Bay Rays
Problem: Underachieving offense at key spots.
Solution: Added outfielders Pat Burrell, Matt Joyce (via trade) and Gabe Kapler.
Skinny: The quality and health of their starting pitching was the biggest reason for their turnaround in 2008, and despite the fact that their pitchers' workload was extended to seven months, that should be a strength again in 2009, especially with the addition of stud rookie left-hander David Price to the rotation. Likewise, the bullpen was solid throughout, even overcoming myriad injuries to closer Troy Percival.