One of the prevailing questions of this offseason has been, "Where are the New York Yankees?"
In past years, the Yankees presumably would have pushed stacks of money across the table at free agents like Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez. They would have chased down R.A. Dickey, instead of watching him go to a division rival in Toronto.
The same goes for the Boston Red Sox, who were spending almost as much as the Yankees. But in an attempt to correct a payroll that had become bloated and a roster that was growing stale and entitled, the Red Sox purged $260 million in player contracts to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Yankees and Red Sox have been among the top five payrolls in MLB dating back to 2003, according to USA Today. (Of course, the Yanks are always on top.) From 2004 through 2007, the two AL East rivals ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in team salaries.
Oh, how times have changed.
The Los Angeles Angels have snatched the role of American League superpower over the past two years, shocking the baseball world by signing Albert Pujols and Hamilton in successive seasons.
Owner Arte Moreno expanded the payroll to accommodate Hamilton's five-year, $125 million contract, and according to Cot's Contracts, the Halos are already down for a $114 million payroll in 2013 with plenty of younger players and arbitration-eligibles to re-sign.
General manager Jerry Dipoto might even have one big trade left in him, as the Angels seek another starting pitcher and have a surplus of outfielders to spare.
The Detroit Tigers nabbed the other big prize last winter in Prince Fielder. This year, prompted by owner Mike Ilitch, the Tigers got the second-best starting pitcher available, re-signing Anibal Sanchez to a five-year, $80 million deal.
Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski is still on the lookout for an outfielder and reliever. As reported by CBS Sports' Danny Knobler, starting pitchers Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly are on the trade block to help get the players Detroit still needs. Detroit is committed to a $110 million payroll thus far.
But the offseason's biggest surprise has been the Toronto Blue Jays. After years of letting their AL East rivals pass them by, ownership has finally decided to go for it.
GM Alex Anthopoulos acquired three star players in a blockbuster deal with the Florida Marlins. The Blue Jays followed that up with a deal for National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, signing him to a two-year contract extension in the process.
Anthopoulos paid a dear price for his new talent, surrendering several of the organization's top minor league prospects. This is the quintessential "all-in" move, sacrificing the future for a run at championship glory in the present. The Blue Jays payroll sits at a nice, round figure of $100 million at this point.
Meanwhile, the Yankees and GM Brian Cashman have been acting like a small-market operation this offseason, under principal owner Hal Steinbrenner's mandate to get the payroll under the $189 million luxury tax threshold for 2014.
Not only have the Yanks not pursued superstars like Hamilton, but they've also lost out on lower-tier free agents such as Jeff Keppinger and Nate Schierholtz. Even Eric Chavez, who was a Yankees reserve for the past two seasons, decided to blow town and play with the Arizona Diamondbacks instead.
But the Yankees may have found their footing recently. Kevin Youkilis was signed to a one-year contract. Ichiro Suzuki was inked to a two-year deal. Pitchers Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera are all coming back for one more season.
Though all of those names have had prominent major league careers—two of them being core Yankees—they're serving as temporary stopgaps, rather than long-term solutions.
In Boston, the season had spiraled so hopelessly downward that GM Ben Cherington essentially dropped to his knees and let the Los Angeles Dodgers bail them out. Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto were jettisoned from the roster to lighten the load of a payroll that sank the Red Sox to the bottom of the AL East.
One of MLB's perennial contenders over the past decade raised the white flag and waved its flares as we've never seen before. It was the end of an era in Red Sox Nation.
With flexibility restored to the payroll, some wondered if the Red Sox might go right back to the same high-rolling approach that got the team in trouble to begin with. Would Boston pursue Hamilton or Greinke? Maybe Nick Swisher or Anibal Sanchez?
Well, not quite. But the Red Sox did have several holes to fill on the roster and plunged back into the free-agent waters. This time, however, Cherington stayed in the safer, shallow side of the pool rather than cannonball into the deep end like his predecessor, Theo Epstein, did.
Rather than a mega five- to six-year contract that could tie up the payroll once again, the Red Sox handed out nearly identical three-year, $39 million deals to Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino. Ryan Dempster was signed to a two-year contract, and reliever Koji Uehara inked a one-year agreement.
All of these players should help Boston get back to its feet in the AL East race, but the shorter, low-risk contracts demonstrate the new way of doing business at Fenway Park.
The newly conservative, cautious approaches by the two teams that have taken turns asserting themselves over the AL during the past decade have left a considerable opening for other teams in the league.
Perhaps the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays had already taken advantage. But the bold, aggressive moves by the Angels, Tigers and Blue Jays seem to indicate that there's no longer the same fear of the Yankees and Red Sox—especially from a financial standpoint—that existed in past seasons.
Rival teams know that they can outspend and outbid the AL's East Coast, formerly fearsome twosome.
The competition should enjoy the opportunity while it lasts, however, and establish a foothold atop the AL. After the Yankees get past 2014's luxury tax threshold, they're free to spend as much as they want again. The Red Sox might also get to that point once they've regained their equilibrium.
One thing is for certain: For at least the next two years, the AL is going to be extremely competitive. The balance of power could tip in any number of directions.
Follow @iancass on Twitter