The Tampa Bay Devil*Rays staked a strong claim to the best story in baseball for 2008 by staving off the big-payroll Red Sox and Yankees to win their first-ever divisional championship.
USA Today shows the following payroll numbers for the AL East:
Yankees: $209 million
Red Sox: $133 million
Blue Jays: $98 million
Orioles: $67 million
Devil*Rays $44 million
You can buy a championship, but you don't necessarily have to spend more than anybody else. The Rays got theirs at a good price.
The division championship would have confirmed my expected matchups for the American League playoffs, except that the Chicago White Sox have stumbled into a virtual tie with the Minnesota Twins. The White Sox are a classic AL team, relying on pitching and three-run homers. The Twins more resemble the Rays, relying on pitching and defense. Tampa Bay has an edge on either opponent.
Should the Rays make the second round, they will face either the Angels or the Red Sox. The winner of that series should be the favorite to represent the AL in the World Series, but either is vulnerable to an upset by the upstart Rays.
I named Evan Longoria as series MVP more than any other player, I believe. But Longoria missed a key stretch in August while the Rays kept distance between themselves and the Red Sox. The most difficult player to replace in the lineup was shortstop Jason Bartlett, obtained in the offseason from the Twins. Bartlett was a vacuum cleaner at short and showed himself able to handle a bat, as his average crept up and up over the course of the season to .286 as of today (prior to the third game in the series against Detroit).
Though Bartlett has driven in under 40 runs, he has been the defensive glue for the club. I call him the team MVP for the regular season.
Longoria gets honorable mention, and would have taken my award if not for time lost to injury. His batting numbers were too gaudy to ignore, and his defense was spectacular. Quite a campaign for the rookie.