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In tough AL East, it's a wide-open race

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The 1993 regular season ended on Oct. 3. Four teams advanced to the playoffs. The Yankees and Red Sox were not among them, which didn't seem like a big deal at the time. Turned out that it was. Twenty years later, it's the last time a full season ended without at least one of the two mighty American League East teams making a postseason appearance.

This could well be the year it happens again. Or not. The AL East still might be baseball's best division, but for different reasons. Once upon a time, it was the Yanks and Sox slugging it out for supremacy, while the Blue Jays, Rays and Orioles competed to see who might finish third. Now, on paper at least, every team has a chance to finish above .500.

The Yankees still have the mystique. They also have an older roster that has already been weakened by injuries to Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira. And they have talked openly about getting their payroll under $189 million by next year to avoid paying the heavier luxury tax. The Red Sox retrenched last August by trading Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers.

Meanwhile, the Jays loaded up this winter by getting Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio from the Marlins and 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets. The O's are coming off a season during which they jumped up to win 93 games. And the Rays have won at least 90 games in four of the past five years despite having one of the lower payrolls in baseball.

Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick -- who first made his mark as general manager of the Blue Jays, later was GM of the Orioles and early in his career was the player development coordinator for the Yankees -- is in his 56th year in baseball and has never seen a division with such top-to-bottom parity.

"I really haven't. I don't like to say this, but it might all play out on injuries," Gillick observed. "It's who's going to stay healthy, and certainly the Yankees have the most age on their club, with [Derek] Jeter and [Andy] Pettitte and [Mariano] Rivera and different people. They have an older club. So unfortunately, I think this could play out and be determined on which club stays healthy during the season.

"So right now, if you're looking at a favorite, it has to be Toronto in that division, and you're just wondering who's going to finish last. And it could be the Yankees or the Red Sox."

One of the standard formulas for winning a division is to break even with the good teams and beat up on the lesser teams.

"But there are no lesser teams in the AL East this year," Teixeira said. "In the past, you have a couple teams where you expect to win every series against them. This year, there's definitely not that team. We just have to win every game possible, take it one game at a time. It's the old cliché, but it's the only thing you can do. It's going to be a great division. We have five quality teams, and we're going to have to play really well to win the division again."

Each team will play each division rival 19 times, a total of 76 games. That should create a playoff atmosphere for almost half the regular-season games.

"Every game we play in our division, we're going to have to play like it's the last game of the World Series. That's how this year is going to be," said Reyes, Toronto's new shortstop. "It's not an easy division. It might be the hardest division in baseball. It's not going to be easy for us. But we like the competition. As a baseball player, you like competition. You like to face good teams. It's going to be exciting for us."

Agreed Jonny Gomes, who came up through the Rays' system and signed as a free agent with the Red Sox this winter: "It's a full-on five-team race. It's a powerhouse. I'm biased AL East, because that's where I came up. And of course the Northeast, with New York and stuff, the big market, East Coast time zone, everyone is watching. It's going to be a playoff atmosphere for a whole bunch of games."

Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista has been an All-Star each of the past three seasons on a team that struggled to compete with the superpowers in the AL East. Now, he's surrounded by big names.

"We're going to have a whole lot of fun playing baseball this year," said Bautista. "With the expectations and how good we feel that we are and how confident we are as a group and how established, successful veteran leadership we have in this clubhouse, it's going to be a fun group to play with, and I can't wait to see the final product playing every day out on the field. Hopefully, we'll have a lot of health and we'll see how we stack up against the competition. It's a challenge, but we look forward to it. Honestly, it should bring the best out of each one of us."

Designated hitter David Ortiz is in the opposite situation from Bautista. He's now one of the few remaining established stars from the World Series championship teams of 2004 and '07.

"This division gets tougher and tougher every year, you know?" Ortiz said. "I would say that the most important thing in this division will be, once you get your momentum going, you have to take advantage of it. Because you're going to face good pitching every night. You're facing a good offense every night. So it seems like you have to be on your toes every night.

"As long as I've known baseball, the AL East has been the toughest division. Look at what the Blue Jays did this offseason. Look at what the Orioles did last year. Then you have Tampa, that has the best pitching in the whole league. Then you have the Yankees. They have an amazing history of winning. Then you have us. So you can't take anything for granted in this division. It will haunt you later on."

The most intriguing team just might be the Orioles, who posted a 24-game improvement last year. They were also 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra innings, making it fair to wonder if they can duplicate that success this season, especially since they made no major offseason moves.

"That's a valid point," O's executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said. "But what I would say to that is that we improved our team during the season last year. Particularly when [Nate] McLouth came up to play left field and [Manny] Machado came up to play third base. That improved our defensive capability. From the time they came up to the end of the season, we had one of the better clubs in the [division]. So we're essentially returning that club, and our run differential was much better with that crew for August, September and October.

"And our bullpen is back. Our bullpen was the primary reason we were able to win the close games and the extra-inning games. So they're back. Can they replicate the success they had last year? Well, we're going to see. If they don't, we still have the benefit of having the core of our team back. And that core group is returning with a year of pennant race and playoff experience. [Adam] Jones and [Matt] Wieters and [J.J.] Hardy are back. [Nick] Markakis will be back healthy. Chris Davis, who had a breakout year, is back. And then we have the benefit of having Machado for the whole year."

For the season, the Orioles scored just seven more runs than they allowed. But in the final two months, they were plus-58 and went 38-20.

Rays manager Joe Maddon smiled when a Toronto reporter asked if he could forecast the order of finish.

"I doubt it," Maddon said. "And I doubt anyone can and be right. It's that wide open. There are no weak teams."

Predict at your peril. Any team could win, because parity rules the AL East.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"event":["opening_day" ] }
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