AL East remains one steady division

Reader Peter Rudy, a fellow Sports Night fan, points out that since the Devil Rays first blessed us with their appearance in 1998, the American League East standings haven't changed. Not even a smidge. All five seasons, it's been Yankees-Red Sox-Blue Jays-Orioles-Devil Rays.

As you might assume, that's not normal. How much not normal? To check, I came up with a simple method: for each season, a team gets one "point" for the difference between its place in the standings from the season before. So if a team finishes third one year and fourth the next, that's one point. If a team finishes third one year and second the next, that's also one point.

Do this over for every team, and you can get a pretty good idea of how stable the standings have been over a period of seasons; in this case, the five seasons since 1998.

The National League East has been quite stable. The Braves have won five straight division titles (and three more straight before those), which of course gives the division a great head start toward stability. But the division's other four teams have been all over the standings. The Mets haven't finished first or fourth, but they have finished second, third, and fifth. The Phillies haven't finished first or fourth, but they have finished second, third, and fifth. The Expos haven't finished first or third, but they have finished second, fourth, and fifth. And finally -- I know, this never gets old -- the Marlins haven't finished first or second, but they have finished third, fourth, and fifth.

And this is pretty typical. Here's how the divisions break down since 1998:

NLE 16
ALW 16
ALC 20
NLW 22
NLC 42

I'm not going to argue that these numbers are much more than trivial, but on the other hand they do generally square with our perceptions, don't they? In the American League East, you've got two teams that spend far more money than everybody else, and two teams that have been afflicted with poor management. In the National League Central, you've got six teams that, while not exactly even, do play on something like an even playing field.

The AL East isn't the only division to repeat the standings from one season to the next. The AL Central repeated from 1996 to 1997, and the NL East repeated from 1998 to 1999. But to repeat for five seasons? That's odd.

Will it happen again?

When handicapping the East, it's instructive to look at one group of five teams, but rather three small groups of one or two teams.

Red Sox

Blue Jays

Devil Rays

Sure, it's professional sports and anything thing can happen and that's why they actually play the games ... but does anybody really want to convince me that the Blue Jays will be as good as the Yankees or Red Sox, or as bad as the Orioles or Devil Rays? In 2002, the third-place Jays finished 15 games behind the second-place Sox and 11 games ahead of the fourth-place O's.

So while anything's possible, for the sake of argument let us assume that the Blue Jays will, for the sixth season in a row, finish third. So then the question is, will the Yankees and Red Sox or the Orioles and Devil Rays swap spots?

We could spend a week analyzing the Yankees and Red Sox, but today is Friday so let's just spend a paragraph or two.

The Sox finished 10.5 games behind the Yanks last season, but the teams' run differentials were essentially equivalent, so that 10.5 means something closer to 0.5 if you're looking ahead rather than behind.

The Red Sox have improved themselves at DH, at first base, at second base, and probably third base. The Yankees have improved themselves in right field, and at one slot in their pitching rotation. I think first place might boil down to which starters decline more: Boston's one-year wonders (Lowe and Wakefield), or New York's ancient armsmen (Clemens and Wells)? The difference is that if something happens to Clemens or Wells, manager Joe Torre can turn to Jeff Weaver, a No. 6 starter who'd be the No. 1 starter for most teams in the majors. If the Red Sox run into trouble, manager Grady Little can turn to Frank Castillo, a No. 6 starter who'd be a No. 4 starter for most teams.

What about the Orioles and Devil Rays? Just looking at how they finished in 2002 and what they've done since, it's hard to see a change. Thanks to their 4-32 surge to close the season, the O's lost 95 games. The Devil Rays lost 106.

Since the season ended, the Orioles haven't done much aside from adding Omar Daal to the rotation and replacing shortstop Mike Bordick with Deivi Cruz. The Devil Rays, meanwhile, have been quite active, but their offseason has included losing their best player (Randy Winn) and two of their three "best" starters (Paul Wilson and Tanyon Sturtze). Marquee offseason additions include Marlon Anderson, Lee Stevens, Blake Stein, Steve Parris, and Bullet Bob Wells. Unless youngsters Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli both develop sooner than expected, there's just no reason for this team to get much better.

So will the American League East run its streak to six years? If we have to pick Yes or No, we have to pick No. But if we have to pick a single order of finish, then we have to pick the same order that we've always seen before.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.