TAMPA — With all of the money the Yankees spent and the veterans the Red Sox added to dethrone the Rays and return the division race to its rightful order, there has been some question over which team is the beast of the AL East.
But not Thursday morning along the far wall of the Yankees clubhouse, where Derek Jeter reminds that he had been predicting for years the Rays were going to be good, and now the whole league has had to deal with it.
"You hear people say, 'Who is the team to beat?' They're the AL champs, so they are the team to beat until somebody beats them. That's what you have to say," the shortstop said. "I think everyone pays so much attention to what a team does in the offseason, and I understand that. But the bottom line is we're trying to do what they already did."
Pitching coach Dave Eiland knows as well as anyone in pinstripes how far the Rays came, having spent his last three seasons as an active pitcher, 1998-2000, in Rays colors.
"We're chasing them and Boston, so we've got two teams we've got to jump over," he said. "We feel good where we're at, who we added and what we've got here. But we're still the chaser, not the chasee."
As the Rays get their first looks of the spring at the competition, losing 5-1 to the Yankees on Thursday and hosting the Red Sox this afternoon, manager Joe Maddon maintains the mantra that he's more concerned about his team and not what the others did; that the big-ticket additions are "a way of life in this division."
He did allow Thursday that with the signings of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, "the Yankees obviously made their pitching staff a whole lot better," but quickly added, "We've countered a bit by being able to hit lefties a little bit better with Pat (Burrell) and Gabe (Kapler)."
And the Red Sox "juggled it around just a little bit. I think they are going to be as good as last year, which puts them right there."
He also says the Orioles have improved and the Jays are still tough, further demonstrating how competitive the division is. And, as a result, how the little things Maddon so covets will be even bigger.
"I know everybody's better," he said. "I think we're better also. I know we're better. It comes down to execution, playing the game right. I believe there's going to be a lot of close games this year decided by either a baserunning play or a defensive play.
"For me, let's catch it even better than we did last year. Let's pitch it better than we did last year. I believe we're going to be better offensively. I'm just preaching execution. I'm preaching the process, and I want us to believe that's how we're going to continue to be good."
Still, the reality is it's going to be harder for the Rays as they have the usual 18 games against both beasts of the East.
"The Yankees made some upgrades, so they're definitely going to be tougher to beat," Rays veteran Carl Crawford said. "Throughout our division, it's going to be a battle all year. … We've got a good team, so there's always a shot. But it's just going to be a little tougher now."
Since the 1994 realignment to six divisions, there have been only three instances (among 90) when three teams in a division had 90 or more wins.
The Yankees and Red Sox both say 2008 could be just the start of things for the Rays.
"They're going to continue to get better as they mature," Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "Obviously, they got to the World Series, being that young with their staff. They're just going to continue to get better and better. The division is definitely getting tougher and tougher every year."
"You could tell they had a lot of great young talent," Jeter said, "and it was just a matter of them getting experience. And they've got that now. I think they're going to be good for a long time."
Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org