TAMPA -- The division that set the standard for sameness is virtually unrecognizable these days.
Just a decade ago, the American League East race was the most predictable competition in sports. From 1998 through 2003, the five East teams finished in exactly the same order, every single year. Six straight seasons with the Yankees on top, the (Devil) Rays on the bottom, and the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles in order in between. It was baseball's version of a caste system.
Even over the past decade, there wasn't a lot of upward (or downward) mobility. Last year marked the first time since 1998 realignment that Boston and New York weren't both in the Top 3 at the end of the year. From 1998-2011, the Orioles finished in fourth or fifth every year but one. The Blue Jays finished in third or fourth in all but two of those seasons.
As the 2013 campaign approaches, though, that predictability is gone. Last year offered a taste, but this year might bring full-on chaos. And that's great news -- unless you're a Yankees fan.
All five teams could finish in different positions than they did a year ago. Every club in the division has reason to think it can finish first. Every team in the division has reason to fear a flop. You want wide-open? You've got it.
The defending champion Yankees have big worries in their lineup and smaller ones in their pitching staff. The Orioles, last year's second-place finishers, made no major upgrades in a division where nearly every other team was active. The Red Sox and Blue Jays, at the bottom last year, have heavily reworked rosters. The third-place Rays' biggest move was to trade a front-of-the-rotation starter in a package for a hitter who has yet to take a Major League at-bat.
The Blue Jays are the darlings of the division, but they know that nothing is guaranteed.
"People say, 'Oh there's this window, all these teams are down,'" said Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos. "And I do believe this, you could have said it about us last year, that we're down. And now all of a sudden we make all of these trades and people think we're not down."
If Toronto is the buzz team, New York is the anti-buzz team. The Yanks lost Nick Swisher and Russell Martin over the winter. They'll do without Alex Rodriguez for much of the season. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are returning from major injuries, and Curtis Granderson just suffered one to boot. Andy Pettitte is 40, Hiroki Kuroda is 38 and Phil Hughes has a bad back.
The Yankees always seem to be written off, and they just about always win. They still have Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, and Jeter, and they should have Granderson back before the season is a third over. They have CC Sabathia and a deep bullpen. And they won 95 games last year.
"We've got guys who can step in," said outfielder Brett Gardner. "We've got some good depth. We've got veterans that have been there, done that before. We'll be fine. We've got a good pitching staff, and we'll play good defense, and [Granderson] will come back in May and probably still hit 40 [home runs]."
As for the Red Sox, who became a punch line last year, they won 90 games two years ago. They added an army of hitters to bolster a lineup that cratered last year. Their bullpen is improved and their rotation has questions, but also promise. It might not work. But you don't have to squint too hard to see how it could go very well.
Tampa Bay? The Rays keep chugging along. Trade acquisition Wil Myers could boost their offense, but he also probably won't start the season with the big club. They'll miss James Shields, who fetched them Myers, but no team is better suited to withstand the loss of a starting pitcher. They don't have to get a lot better after winning 90 games, but then again, it's unclear whether they did get better in the short term.
And there are those perplexing O's, who rode an almost impossible record in one-run games to their first playoff berth in 15 years. They had perhaps the least active winter of any team in baseball, and as such are hearing a lot of skepticism. For the record, they're fine with that.
"People that play the game know that 'they say' is the biggest liar," said manager Buck Showalter. "I know what they say about us. We're supposed to be in last place. That's all right. Our guys, they're used to that environment."
Maybe "they say" will be right, and the O's will falter. Maybe their manager will be right, and they'll soar again. The fun of it is, they're both possible. The old predictable AL East is nowhere to be found in 2013.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less