Friday, February 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays seek to keep pace in AL East

The celebration was joyous, the parade memorable and there's still a few free drinks to be had around town. But for the most part, Red Sox manager John Farrell said, winning the World Series was fun while it lasted.

"The euphoria," Farrell said, "has definitely worn off."

That's how life is in baseball these days, and especially in the ultracompetitive American League East. The latest reminder came Friday morning, when centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, a key part of Boston's championship run, was officially introduced in Yankees pinstripes, making his departure doubly troubling.

The level of competition among the AL East teams forces the action, making it so none of the clubs can afford — figuratively and literally — to stand pat.

As well as the Rays have done — making four playoff appearances over the past six seasons, matching the Yankees — in competing with four better-financed foes, it's only getting more challenging. The East teams tend to be among the more advanced-thinking and aggressive in making moves, creating essentially a year-round competition.

"I expect the East to be incredibly competitive, as it has been in recent years. The other four teams in this division are extremely well run, and when that happens, it fosters more competition. I think we're all in our way trying to one-up each other and trying to figure out how to put the best team together," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

"When you have four well-run teams that keep kind of raising the bar, it creates a really competitive environment, both in terms of the offseason and in terms of the season. … Obviously there are a lot of moves left to make for all five teams, but I would be very surprised if, when the dust settles and opening day rolls around, there isn't a scenario where all five teams have a chance to be really, really good."

That looked to be the case last winter, when Toronto and Boston, after finishing fourth and fifth, respectively, the previous season, both engaged in extensive makeovers.

While 2013 couldn't have worked out better for the Red Sox, who won 28 more games and their third World Series championship in the past 10 years, it couldn't have gone much worse for the Blue Jays, who improved by only one game and dropped to last place.

So when the Jays assemble in Dunedin in February, the challenge will be clear: "We've got to make sure our focus is, 'Hey, you know, we didn't answer the bell last year, but now it's time to do it,' " manager John Gibbons said.

After finishing fourth last season, the Yankees have been among the most active this offseason, adding Ellsbury, catcher Brian McCann and outfielder Carlos Beltran to what they expect to be a healthy Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira. But they've lost second baseman Robinson Cano, who has yet to be replaced, they don't know if Alex Rodriguez will be playing, and still have significant holes in their rotation.

"I think we've made moves definitely to improve our ballclub," manager Joe Girardi said. "The offseason is not over. … I think we'll look different come Jan. 31 than we do right now."

The Rays may, too, of course, as they wrestle with whether to trade ace David Price and, after bringing back first baseman James Loney, seek to add a few other pieces. The Orioles are even more of an unknown at this point, having made several subtractions without additions.

All seem to know what they're in for.

"It's always a given with the other teams in our division," O's manager Buck Showalter said, "that they're going to be better."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

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