PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- During his first stint as Blue Jays manager, from mid-2004-09, John Gibbons took the team to Spring Training four times. And he will now admit that, back then, there wasn't much question about who would win the American League East, and that it wasn't his club.
"My first go-round here, Boston and New York were really heads above everybody else. Everybody was optimistic and hopeful, but most teams were out of it by June. That's just the way it worked," he said before Wednesday's Grapefruit League game against the Rays at Charlotte Sports Park.
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By the time Gibbons returned in 2013, partly as a result of Major League Baseball's efforts to level the playing field between the large and small market teams, that had changed. For the last couple years it would have been plausible to pick any team in the division to finish first -- or last. And this year appears to be more of the same.
For proof, look no further than the Blue Jays, who are the defending AL East champions. It was Toronto's first postseason appearance since 1993.
"Now there's a lot more parity," Gibbons continued. "Tampa caught fire [in 2008] and has really been doing some nice things. Baltimore has been to the playoffs twice [2012, 2014]. They do things right. They picked up Yovani Gallardo, who's been a nemesis for us. We never like seeing him. We were kind of the lone wolf who couldn't get in. Finally we did. "So it's like the last two years, everything is really up for grabs."
And the traditional powerhouses still have to be reckoned with.
"New York made some changes. [Aroldis] Chapman is a key one for them. [Craig] Kimbrel in Boston. We're talking about two closers who make each team better. One thing you can count on in this division is teams, specifically Boston and New York, they don't sit around. The fan bases don't allow that. So you can always count on them doing something," Gibbons noted.
The Jays will have Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop for the entire season and have added former Nationals closer Drew Storen to the bullpen.
"We've got a good team. We've made some key adjustments that did wonders for us," the manager said. "We've made some key additions, so we're definitely a better team now. But our division is so good. I don't think there's one team that stands above anybody.
"It's always very competitive. We play each other so much. You beat each other up. Everybody knows everybody. There are no secrets. That makes it tough, too. But I will say that it's nice going in having won the division last year because it had been so damn long."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.