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02/08/08 10:00 AM ET

Can Jays, Rays or O's break out in '08?

Competitive AL East won't be just a two-horse race

Unlike any other division in baseball, the American League East has been far too predictable for the last decade.

Always, it is about two talented and high-priced horses -- the Yankees and the Red Sox. The team that finished second has often gone to the postseason as the Wild Card. The other three teams -- the Blue Jays, Orioles and Rays -- have pretty much been non-factors.

Boston and New York love the rivalry. In Boston, they particularly loved watching the Red Sox finally wrestle the division away from the Yankees in 2007.

But the rest of the baseball-watching public has to be getting a little tired of the AL East always being about the Sox and Yanks. So therein lies the question: Can anyone else emerge in 2008?

For starters, we can pretty much scratch off the Orioles. They are in rebuilding mode, as evidenced by the trade of Miguel Tejada to the Astros earlier in the winter and the likely deal that will send lefty Erik Bedard to the Mariners.

The Blue Jays, on the other hand, are a far different matter. For the past several seasons, there has been talk of the Jays battling for the Wild Card spot or even the division. But something always seems to knock them from this goal -- be it a slow start, underachieving play, or, as was the case last year, a barrage of injuries.

Could this finally be the year the Jays break through?

General manager J.P. Ricciardi is realistic about the challenge in front of his team.

"If you look at our division, it hasn't been cyclical in the last 10 years. ... If you put the Indians and some of these other clubs in our division, they're 96-97 win clubs and they might not hit those numbers [in the AL East] -- not to take anything away from those clubs," Ricciardi said.

The Jays have added the left side of the infield -- shortstop David Eckstein and third baseman Scott Rolen -- that helped the Cardinals win a World Series in 2006.

Rolen, once an elite player who has been hindered by injuries in recent years, was acquired in a trade for Troy Glaus. The scrappy Eckstein signed as a free agent.

Of course, the Jays also have one of the top aces in Roy Halladay and two outfielders many teams would like to have in Vernon Wells and Alex Rios. And don't forget about future Hall of Fame slugger Frank Thomas.

Closer B.J. Ryan is on the mend from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery and is expected to be back by Opening Day.

The Jays are antsy to take the next step.

"You always shoot for the postseason," said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. "Back when J.P. first arrived, it was basically, 'Clean the house up and get everything in order.' Then we kind of took the turn and now the talk has been, 'Hey, we want to be a competitive club.' We're past the rebuilding."

What to make of the team that rhymes with the Jays? The Rays, it seems, have been rebuilding since their inception in 1998. This year, they hope to get past that.

Manager Joe Maddon knows all about the challenge of playing in the AL East, but he wouldn't have it any other way.

"Part of us has to stop talking about lack of experience and just play," Maddon said. "We want to start that this year. When the Red Sox beat us or the Yankees beat us or Toronto beats us, or whomever, I don't want it to be about a lack of experience. [Instead], we just got beat tonight.

"Yes, we're young. And we have lacked some experience. But now we've gained some experience over the past two years. Now is the time to start making this thing work a little bit. So I love the American League East. I wouldn't want to play anywhere else."

The Rays are truly starting to build something. Scott Kazmir and James Shields are a strong and young left-right punch at the top of the rotation. Carlos Pena is coming off a monster year. Left fielder Carl Crawford is one of the game's most underrated players. Veteran closer Troy Percival, who signed as a free agent, will add experience.

"I'm not worried about what the Yankees are doing. I'm worried about what we're doing and I'm really focused there," Maddon said. "And if we do the right things, I believe we'll be able to compete with these people over the next couple of years. ... I like what we're doing. I like how we're doing it. And I believe in what we're doing. I can see it getting better."

Of course, the Red Sox and Yankees remain immensely talented. The Red Sox have almost their entire roster back from the team that won the World Series last season. The Yankees still have that star-studded core of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, as well as added emphasis on bringing talented young players into the mix.

If the Red Sox and Yankees stay healthy, it's hard to imagine they won't again finish 1-2 in the division, in whichever order. But the Jays and Rays are hoping there will be a break from an all-too-familiar pattern.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Jordan Bastian and Bill Chastain, reporters for MLB.com, contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.