Fun while it lasted: Is Tampa Bay headed back to the bottom of the AL East?

Since 2008, the Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays have combined to win three American League East titles while the Yankees and Red Sox have combined to win four.

That is not bad for two franchises that spent so many seasons losing and cannot spend at the same level as those teams. Tampa Bay, and then Baltimore, took on and at times passed the big boys on their way to the top of the division.

Can’t imagine many O’s fans that didn’t enjoy that and/or preferred that Tampa Bay won if the Orioles didn’t.

But the Rays went 77-85 last year and after their latest trade over the weekend, look to be in a rebuilding mode.

MaddonArguingSidebar.jpgSince the end of the 2012 season, they’ve dealt away David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Wil Myers and now Ben Zobrist, among others. The braintrust of general manager Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon are gone now, too.

Will we even recognize the Rays in 2015?

Just when we got used to them as perennial contenders, they may have to take steps back again. Starting in 2008, Tampa Bay made the playoffs four times in six years, winning the AL East twice.

They earned everyone’s respect, including Buck Showalter’s. When he took over as O’s manager, he quickly pointed at Tampa Bay and basically said, “If they can do it there, we can do it here.” Then the Orioles went out and did just that.

On Saturday, Tampa Bay sent Zobrist and Yunel Escobar to the A’s. They are going to look very different next year on the field and in the dugout.

“We understand our constraints, and we adhere to the formula,” Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman told reporters Saturday. “In an ideal world, we don’t choose to make these kinds of trades, but we don’t have the luxury to do that.”

That statement is troubling to me. I totally understand it, but it must be frustrating for the Rays fans when they trade good talent - not because they want to, but because they have to.

With starting pitchers like Chris Archer (10-9, 3.33 ERA), Alex Cobb (10-9, 2.87 ERA), Drew Smyly (9-10, 3.24 ERA) and Jake Odorizzi (11-13, 4.13 ERA), Tampa Bay could still contend. Matt Moore (17-4, 3.29 ERA in 2013) is coming off Tommy John surgery, but could return in May.

Don’t write off Tampa Bay just yet, but the Rays offense is not good and their margin for error is slim.

The Orioles certainly hope and expect to contend this year. The Rays hope to, but can they?

It has been a nice and refreshing change in recent years to see Tampa Bay and Baltimore as relevant in this division as New York and Boston.

Are those days coming to an end?

A take from Tampa: Click here to read what a Tampa Bay Times columnist said about the Zobrist deal and this offseason. He wrote that it feels like “the end of an era.”

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