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baseball '09

THE BIG EAST

In the game's strongest division, three is a crowd

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By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / April 5, 2009
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The grounder went to second, with Jason Tyner easily thrown out at first. Derek Lowe's fist shot in the air. The no-hitter was complete. Though it didn't dim the moment, Lowe hadn't exactly no-hit the 1927 Yankees.

Back in April 2002, Tampa Bay's lineup was a few hops from a Triple A crew. The lineup that day? Tyner, Randy Winn, Steve Cox, Toby Hall, Ben Grieve, Greg Vaughn, Brent Abernathy, Russ Johnson, and Felix Escalona. As Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein put it, a "pretty mediocre" group.

Those Devil Rays were the joke of the American League. In the intervening seven years, the organization has changed its name, its leadership, and its standing in baseball circles, a transformation that culminated with a trip to the World Series last season.

The Rays' victory in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series over the Red Sox put a new name at the top of the AL East. The Rays might be nouveau riche, but they can't be ignored.

"You know how we talk about trying to make our lineup longer, thicker?" Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Our division seems like it's getting like that. For the longest time before I got here, the Yankees had their way, and Boston was always kind of fighting them. And then we finally were fortunate enough to make a move. Now Tampa has made their move. It's hard. It's a tough division. No getting around [that]."

No getting around the math, either. With perhaps the three best teams in baseball, there's a problem. At least one will not make the playoffs - that's a guarantee.

When the 2008 Rays finally made good on the promise of their farm system, of the talent that blossomed in southwest Florida, they left the Yankees out of the postseason for the first time since 1995. The team with the largest payroll in baseball was left to pack its bags at the beginning of October instead of the end.

"I think we're biased," Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "We see this division, we play in this division, and I think if you talk to Theo and [Brian] Cashman and Andrew [Friedman] and Andy [MacPhail], they'll tell you the same thing: It's just a monster division."

It used to be easy, or at least easier. It was just the Yankees and Red Sox, the Red Sox and Yankees, for a decade.

"You could say there were two or three teams in our division that we should dominate, if we play well," Epstein said of the thought process when he came to the Sox in 2002. "That's a quick way to get yourself 20 games over .500. Then all you do is play 10 games over .500 against everyone else, you have 96 wins.

"It goes without saying that dynamic doesn't exist anymore."

Two for the show
For the last 10 years, either the Red Sox or Yankees had won the AL East. And only once in those 10 years were they not 1-2 in the division, with Toronto breaking the streak with a second-place finish in 2006.

The Yankees predicated their success on a farm system that produced players such as Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Bernie Williams, then later with an ownership that outspent everyone for some of the game's best talent. The Red Sox kept competitive with a mix of free agent signings (J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka), trades (Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett), and homegrown talent (Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester).

The Rays? They had their own method.

"The blueprint for the Rays was 10 years of almost 100-loss seasons," said Cashman, the Yankees GM. "That wouldn't fly in New York. That doesn't mean we can't build from within and put a focus on a development system and amateur acquisitions. We never want to be in the position that we get the sixth pick in the draft, where we got Derek Jeter [in 1992].

"The blueprint of the Rays, with the expectations, there's no way New York would stand for it."

Echoed Ricciardi, "I don't think we want to have 10 losing years in a row in Toronto. I don't think baseball would survive in Toronto if you put out a team there that had 10 losing years in a row, a lot of those 100 losses. I think it's worked for them, and it's great for them, because there were no expectations when the Rays came around.

"The Red Sox couldn't lose 10 years in a row. The Yankees couldn't lose 10 years in a row. Their ownership group would not allow it. The fans wouldn't allow it. So I think Tampa's model is probably good for Tampa."

Over the past 10 years, the Rays have selected in the top 10 of the draft every year. That includes four No. 1 overall picks (Tim Beckham, David Price, Delmon Young, and Josh Hamilton). In eight of those years, the Rays had top-five picks.

That won't happen if the Rays stay in the upper tier of baseball. Those picks will slide to the 20s, where the Sox and Yankees have picked the last decade. Several general managers said the Rays can sustain their success, even without the infusion of top picks, and even without the payrolls that others in the division can afford. But others don't agree.

"Toronto and Tampa can't sustain it," said an AL general manager. "They won't be able to keep their players when they hit arbitration-eligibility and free agency.

"Boston and New York [are] something different. New York is going to regret what they did down the road [with large contracts this offseason]. The rest of us are going to regret it in the short term, but they're going to regret it in the long term."

The pressure is on
The Rays, most acknowledge, have a savvy front office, led by Friedman, their executive vice president of baseball operations. They have up-and-coming talent in addition to the group already at the major league level. And they won last season in the most difficult division under a spotlight that never weakened them.

"Ninety-seven wins in our division is no fluke," manager Joe Maddon said. "You just can't fluke 97 wins."

But there are some unanswered questions, such as how the Rays will handle the pressure of being one of the favorites.

As Cashman said, "They have what everyone in the league wants, the AL championship. They've got to play with the pressure of expectation. They didn't have that this year, which the Red Sox and Yankees have every year. It's something added. That can slow you down if you let it. It can be a burden at times."

How will their pitchers come back from an extra month of baseball? How will their young players perform?

"You never know how those guys are going to be," Sox DH David Ortiz said. "They were very talented last year, they did really good, but remember they're still young. Young players you roll the dice with.

"You never know how it's going to be the following year. You can tell experienced guys, how they're going to be, more often than young guys. Young players, as a group, it's a roller coaster. You never know."

Deep and getting deeper
But it's not only the Rays whom the Yankees and Sox must contend with. The Orioles, too, have revamped their farm system the last two years, going through a "complete metamorphosis," according to Epstein, with "some good young players under their control on their big league roster and some superstars in waiting in the farm system."

And Toronto is coming off a great second half last season.

Could the division become even more difficult?

"Sure," Epstein said. "It could be better next year."

That just makes Epstein's job more exciting in some ways. While other general managers can be content with a middling club in a less competitive division, that's certainly not going to be the case in the AL East.

"Do the National League West teams make the playoffs in the American League East?" Ricciardi asked. "I don't know. I think the division you play in allows you to keep your payroll at a certain level and do certain things. I think a lot of it is the division you play in.

"We like playing in this division because they force you to be the best. Listen, would we love to be in another division and make the playoffs? Of course we would. If we were in another division, we would have a little bit of a clearer shot."

Not here. Not in the foreseeable future. But there is some cachet to playing in the AL East. As Maddon pointed out, it's not so intimidating walking into Fenway Park in October if it's a place you've played in over and over in the regular season. Yankee Stadium loses a bit of its mystique when you've been there in April, July, and August.

"We respect how good our division is, and we know we have our hands full," said Francona. "Saying that, we like our team, too. That's part of the fun of it."

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