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AL East Preview: Crowded at the Top

This article appears in the April 5, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated.

On New Year's night Alex Anthopoulos was on a conference call that lasted past 2 a.m. After a few hours' sleep the new Blue Jays general manager thumbed away on his Blackberry until 11 a.m.

At 1 p.m. he got married.

There wasn't much respite on his honeymoon in Hawaii, either: Anthopoulos, 32, worked whenever his wife, Cristina, was sleeping or sunning.

Yes, the task of running a club in the AL East is all-consuming, especially for Toronto, which hasn't reached the playoffs in the wild-card era. The Red Sox and the Yankees are primarily to blame, but it's the recent emergence of the low-budget Rays that has made the division baseball's strongest and proved that large-market cash isn't the only way to win. "Look at the brains in the division," Anthopoulos says. "That's a lot more challenging to me than the dollars."

That brainpower includes the G.M.'s of the last three AL pennant winners: Brian Cashman, whose Yankees have won four World Series; Theo Epstein, whose Red Sox have won two World Series; and Andrew Friedman, who took over the moribund Rays before the 2006 season and won the pennant in '08. In addition Andy MacPhail, entering his fourth season as president of baseball operations for the Orioles, won the 1987 and '91 World Series in that role with the Twins.

So strong is the concentration of power -- since 1995 Boston and New York have made 23 of a possible 30 playoff appearances -- that major league baseball's competition committee has floated radical realignment plans. Indeed, the Blue Jays' dalliance atop the AL East at the start of 2009 (they led by 3 1/ 2 games on May 18) came to a screeching halt once divisional play heated up.

The elite never rest either. Hours before the Yankees were to play World Series Game 1 last October, Cashman began calling general managers. One of his calls was to Detroit's Dave Dombrowski, which started the conversation that led to a three-team deal that sent Curtis Granderson to New York on Dec. 9.

Two weeks later Cashman acquired starter Javier Vazquez from Atlanta, giving the Yankees a rotation at least the equal of Boston's, which had been bolstered by the signing of free-agent righthander John Lackey on Dec. 16. The Red Sox chose not to pursue free-agent sluggers Jason Bay and Matt Holliday and instead focused on run prevention, adding infielders Adrian Beltre and Marco Scutaro and center fielder Mike Cameron to improve one of the majors' worst defenses in 2009, a significant -- and daring -- shift in team construction.

In Tampa Bay all but six players who are expected to make the 25-man roster were either drafted by the club or acquired in a trade for a homegrown player. "The key to their turnaround," Epstein says, "came when they stopped trying to be competitive right now and instead tried to build something for the long haul." Now the Rays have All-Star-caliber players at six positions, one of baseball's best young rotations and a reliable closer, having traded for right-hander Rafael Soriano on Dec. 11.

Baltimore and Toronto are following the Rays' lead. While the Orioles were grooming draft picks such as starters Brad Bergesen and Brian Matusz and outfielders Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold, they traded established players such as starter Erik Bedard, shortstop Miguel Tejada (who re-signed on Jan. 26) and closer George Sherrill and netted All-Star center fielder Adam Jones, starter Chris Tillman, designated hitter Luke Scott and third baseman of the future Josh Bell. Over the past two seasons manager Dave Trembley's primary job was to nurture the young talent. "It wasn't win at all costs with those guys," Trembley says. "Now it's time to step it up and win more games."

Toronto is a couple years behind but picked up the pace on Dec. 16, when it traded ace Roy Halladay to Philadelphia and received a package of prospects, including highly touted starter Kyle Drabek, power-hitting corner infielder Brett Wallace and catcher Travis d'Arnaud. They'll soon join a strong core headlined by rising stars Aaron Hill and Adam Lind.

For now the axis of power remains in Boston, New York and Tampa Bay, arguably the favorites again for the AL pennant. After members of this division play each other 18 times, the title of AL champion will be well-earned.

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