It might be too soon to proclaim that the Orioles have returned to respectability in the American League East, but it's not too soon to take notice of the rapidly changing landscape in baseball's toughest division.
The Orioles have held their own against the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox during the early weeks of the season — 9-5 after Saturday's victory at Fenway Park — and are off to a very encouraging start. The only team looking down on them in the standings is Tampa Bay, as the Rays continue to defy the conventional wisdom that you have to pay to play in this neighborhood.
Of course, the Yankees and Red Sox haven't gone anywhere, but there are indications everywhere that both are in a transition period that will — at the very least — create an opportunity for a real balance of power after a 17-year stretch during which those two teams combined to make 25 playoff appearances and win seven World Series titles.
The Red Sox spent the offseason in turmoil after the Orioles knocked them out of the playoffs on the dramatic final night of the regular season last year and helped manager Terry Francona get a new job with ESPN. They also have a new general manager and are trying to hold things together while key position players Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury recover from injuries and expensive free agents John Lackey and Carl Crawford languish on the 60-day disabled list.
The Sox also lost dominant closer Jonathan Papelbon to free agency and — it seems — a lot of their late-inning swagger went with him.
The Yankees appear to be very near the end of an era, especially in the immediate aftermath of the devastating knee injury that may have ended the terrific career of closer Mariano Rivera. Derek Jeter remains the face of the franchise and is playing very well in his 18th major league season, but how much longer can he last?
Don't misunderstand. Nobody is burying either the Yankees or the Red Sox. They remain the economic powerhouses of the division. It's just that they have — for different reasons — become more vulnerable over the past year, which is good news for the teams that have to spend their money a lot more wisely.
The Rays were the first to break through that green ceiling and have won two of the three AL East titles that the Yankees haven't won since 1998. They've done it with great pitching and strong player development, and they are again riding high as they head into the second full month of the 2012 season.
The Blue Jays have finished fourth the past four seasons, but that's not reflective of their overall performance. They've hung around the middle of the division for much of the past two decades, only falling down a notch because the Rays are no longer battling the Orioles for control of the bottom of the standings.
The big question now is whether the Orioles have really become a part of this new competitive equation. They are pitching well and finding ways to beat good teams on a fairly regular basis, while apparently maintaining enough depth in the minor leagues to weather a key injury to the starting rotation.
It's too soon to tell, of course, but the early returns are as promising as they've been since 2005, when they spent a couple of months in first place before that season unraveled in midsummer and sent them tumbling back to Square One. They seem to be blooming in manager Buck Showalter's second full season, which is consistent with what has happened with every major league team he has helped build or rebuild.
No doubt, the Yankees and Red Sox will get things figured out. They'll get healthy and they'll continue to flex their economic muscle and they'll be around at the end, but it's starting to look like they may have a lot of company.
The landscape is finally changing.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.
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