ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are used to the American League East race being difficult, often speaking proudly of their two division championships as their greatest accomplishments, even more so than getting to the World Series.
But this year could be a real challenge.
With the improvements made by the Blue Jays, the experience gained last year by the Orioles, the rebuilding of the Red Sox and the injuries sustained by the Yankees, the view from the Rays' clubhouse, and many other vantage points, is the race is as wide open as ever, a six-month scramble that any of the five teams could win.
"No question, I think the depth in the division is greater than it's ever been," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "There's been times when there's been two or three stronger teams, but the depth of this division and the fact that you can make a really good argument that all five teams are going to win 80 or more games, we've never been able to do that before. So I think it speaks to the depth and the strength of this division. …
"In our opinion, this is the toughest division in all of professional sports, so the fact that this year it's tougher only speaks to that."
Or, as Rays ace David Price said, "It's up for grabs. It's absolutely up for grabs."
A wide-open race can be encouraging, since it would seemingly give the Rays, who will once again have by far the smallest payroll of the five, a better chance.
But it also raises the possibility, thanks to an unbalanced scheduling format that has each team playing nearly half (76 of 162) its games against division opponents, that they spend the summer beating each other up.
And that could be an issue in trying to win a wild-card spot, which are determined league-wide, given the AL Central and West teams will have the opportunity to pad their records against the some bad, possible 100-loss teams in the Twins and Astros.
Rays manager Joe Maddon, naturally, is unfazed. He doesn't buy into the idea that the Yankees or Red Sox are down, but acknowledges the gains the Orioles and Jays made, and he sounds revved for a rugged AL East battle.
"I love it," he said. "The more competitive it is, the better it is. It's great. Every night you show up, you better bring your 'A' game. You better be ready because the other team is not going to give anything up, nobody's going to hand you anything, there's no pushovers, you're not going to get fat on one or two teams."
So does third baseman Evan Longoria.
"I think it's gotten better all the way around," he said. "I think it's exciting. At least we know what to expect. We have to go out play however many games in a division that's rough."
If the competition is truly that intense, if all five teams in the same division could — with one more win from Friedman's projections anyway — finish at .500 or better, it would be an unusual, thought not unprecedented outcome.
In 2005, that was what happened in the NL East, with only nine games separating the first-place Braves (90-72) and last-place Nationals (81-81). And also in 1991, back in the two-division, pre-wild card format, all seven teams in the AL West did so, with a 14-game spread between the first-place Twins (95-67) and last-place Angels (81-81).
The Blue Jays have gotten most of the attention, and a lot of the mention in preseason prognostications, after their extensive makeover. But such massive infusions of talent don't always work, and the Rays certainly aren't daunted.
"With the additions they made, it still doesn't matter how many players you add or many players you lose, it's what you do throughout your season, and it's something that we've been able to do a good job at, focusing on just the task at hand," Price said. "We're not worried about the players on other teams or their payrolls. We go out and play hard, and it's worked out for us."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]