This is not your father’s American League East

As any fan of the Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays or Tampa Bay Rays could tell you, and perhaps even say with some level of pride, the American League East is no longer a two-team race.

Once the domain of the big spending Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, the AL East has produced four different division champions the past four seasons. Over the last six seasons - since 2010 - all five AL East teams have won the division title.

If you look at the composite AL East standings since 2012, New York is second and Boston is fifth.

Total wins and average number of wins per season since 2012:
355 - Orioles (88.8)
351 - New York (87.8)
339 - Tampa Bay (84.8)
323 - Toronto (80.8)
315 - Boston (78.8).

The Yankees have just one playoff appearance the last three years. Before that, New York finished in first place 14 times in 19 seasons between 1994 and 2012.

Between 1998 and 2009, Boston finished first once and in second place 10 times with eight playoff appearances in that 12-season stretch. The Red Sox now have just one playoff appearance the last six seasons (they did win the World Series in 2013). They have finished in last place three times in the last four seasons.

Tampa Bay was the first team to take down the two big spenders followed by the Orioles and Toronto, who reached the playoffs last season for the first time since 1993.

Camden Yards daytime.jpgSome pundits see the AL East race wide open this year and feel any of the five teams could end up on top come October. We don’t have to go back too many years to remember that was just a dream then. But the big two have company now.

In fact, the Red Sox recent run of last-place finishes led them to make a change at the top of the club’s baseball operations department and perhaps other changes are coming.

Dave Dombrowski, the long-time general manager in Detroit, is now the president of baseball operations in Boston. Now comes word that the Sox may be taking another look at how they evaluate and acquire players.

John Henry, the club’s principle owner, said this week that the organization may be moving away from a reliance on analytics. There is a switch. Henry admitted this week that the club’s edge in recent years was mostly due to finances more than anything else they did.

“A lot of our advantage was purely financial,” Henry was quoted as saying in this Providence Journal story. “We were never as far toward analytics as people thought we were.”

Known for a time as moneyball with money, the Sox now may be moving away from some of that.

“We have perhaps overly relied on numbers,” Henry said Wednesday. “Over the years, we have had great success relying upon numbers. That has never been the whole story, as we’ve said over and over again, but perhaps it was a little too much of the story, too much reliance on past performance and trying to project future performance. That obviously hasn’t worked three out of the last four years.”

An excerpt from that story states: “Henry spent two months ‘under the hood’ of his Red Sox last summer, as he described it, and he came to believe that the team’s architects too often gave numbers inordinate weight. The money he has invested in his team - only the New York Yankees have exceeded the approximately $2 billion the Red Sox have spent on player payroll since 2002 - appears to have masked a detrimental imbalance in evaluative techniques.”

If you never thought you would see parity in the AL East, you were wrong. It is here now. When Buck Showalter was named the Orioles manager, he said Tampa Bay ended any excuses a team could make that it could not compete with a lower payroll. He was right.

In 2015, only three of the top nine payroll teams in the major leagues made the playoffs. Six of the biggest spenders went home. Of those three - the Dodgers, Yankees and Rangers - none won a playoff series and they combined to go 4-7 in postseason games. It was certainly not the year of the big spender.

We saw a World Series featuring Kansas City and the New York Mets. Kansas City ranked 16th in payroll and the Mets 21st last season.

The AL East is no longer mostly about payroll at the top of the division. Is this cyclical? Will the East continue to be a wide-open division over the next few years? Will anything change that?

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