Three times in the last six seasons – including the last two in a row – the Yankees have finished first and the Red Sox second. Each time, the teams went on to meet in an epic ALCS clash.
This year, there was little evidence to suggest the field was going to change. The Red Sox, fresh off their World Series victory, improved their bench and pitching depth. The Yankees, determined to avenge their ALCS loss, reloaded their rotation and bolstered their bullpen.
The top two teams in AL victories last season, they were again the top two teams in payroll this season.
Same as it ever was.
But almost exactly a month into the season, there's strong evidence that the American League postseason will not be exclusionary. Suddenly, the Red Sox and Yankees aren't guaranteed spots, and others are jockeying for positioning.
A look at what's changed – and why:
THE YANKEES ARE OLD:
Two of their starting outfielders are 36 or older. Their first base/DH combination is comprised of a 37-year-old past his prime and a 33-year-old attempting to resurrect his career – none too successfully at this point.
The Yankees might not be able to spend their way out of this mess. They have a host of contracts no one else will take and the upper levels of the farm system are picked clean.
Remember the good old days when worrying about Mariano Rivera was the extent of the Yankee worries?
THE RED SOX STARTING PITCHING IS SUSPECT:
A season ago, the Red Sox got 157 starts out of their five starters. None spent time on the disabled list.
Flash forward a year, and 40 percent of the rotation (David Wells and Curt Schilling) is sidelined and Wade Miller has yet to make a start. In the first few days of May, the Sox were forced to start Jeremi Gonzalez and John Halama (combined career records as starters: 66-67) in back-to-back games.
Already, there is revisionist thinking on not re-signing Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe since their replacements – Wells and Matt Clement – have been less than sparkling. Wells, out another month with a sprained foot, sports a 4.91 ERA, and while Clement is undefeated (3-0), his 61 baserunners in 36 innings has everyone nervous. On Sunday, a day when the bullpen could have used the rest, Clement was gone after six innings and 111 pitches.
There are also concerns about closer Keith Foulke, who has given up an alarming five homers in 13 innings.
The Sox are in better position to make deals – they have some payroll flexibility and unlike the Yankees, have players at Double-A and above that people want. But how much starting pitching will be available at the deadline now that a number of candidates have signed long-term extensions?
THE BLUE JAYS AND ORIOLES ARE TAKING ADVANTAGE:
Warns one AL executive of the scrambled AL East race: "The longer the Orioles and Blue Jays hang around, the tougher they're going to be to get rid of.''
The Orioles, in particular, are seemingly gaining momentum every day. Everyone knew they would hit, though Brian Roberts' start couldn't have been fully anticipated.
But they've pitched well – at least at times. Sidney Ponson (6.67 ERA) remains a mess and Daniel Cabrera's command issues are mystifying. But Bruce Chen's newly mastered changeup has made him a revelation and Erik Bedard has been terrific.
Add in Todd Williams as a setup man in the bullpen, and the Orioles may be more competitive than most expected.
It's the same with the Blue Jays, who have a healthy Roy Halladay. Rookie lefty Gustavo Chacin (4-1, 2.48) has been everything that the Jays had hoped when they rearranged their bullpen in spring training to accommodate him.
The Blue Jays are among the league leaders in batting average and runs scored – all without much in the way of contributions from Vernon Wells, who has started poorly.
THE AL CENTRAL IS MORE COMPETITIVE:
If the Red Sox and Yankees seemed like mortal locks for October, the Minnesota Twins – three division titles in succession – weren't far behind.
But that was before the Chicago White Sox raced out to the best record in the big leagues and the Tigers were hovering around .500.
There remains ample doubt about Chicago's decision to win with pitching, defense and speed.
"I want to see El Duque and Contreras in July and August,'' said a skeptical AL personnel man.
Says another: "I think you still have to mash to win in the American League.''
But there's no denying the White Sox' hot start has reshaped the race. Is it possible that, for the first time since the re-configured playoff format, the wild-card entrant will come from the Central?
Don't discount the unbalanced schedule as a factor. While the Blue Jays and Orioles have taken big steps forward, making the Red Sox and Yankees work harder for nearly one-quarter (38) of their games, the AL Central front-runners can still beat up on the Kansas City Royals, easily the worst team in the league.
Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.