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MLB Opening Day 2016: AL East preview

The typical powerhouses are gearing up to be powerhouses again. This division, however, is up for grabs.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Opening Day is just around the corner. In the interest of preparing you for it, the writers here have come up with a short preview of each team. For each team, we chose either the make-or-break story of that team, the thing that other teams would try to copy should ultimate victory occur, or the most important thing for that team to have a successful season. It could be some or all of the above. We then selected a single statistic that represented that story.

The Blue Jays ran away with this division after acquiring Troy Tulowitzki and David Price, but they kept only Tulo. Toronto's core is still in place, but their rotation after Marcus Stroman is a little iffy. The Red Sox seem committed to playing the best player for each position regardless of contract and look ready to rebound. The Yankees made the playoffs last year and have assembled a nasty bullpen. The Orioles spent a lot of money to remain in a similar place, but they have power in spades. The Rays, despite their pretty good offense, worked to acquire even more offense. Each team is poised to contend.

Blue Jays

Make or break stat: Team home runs

2015 value: 232

Last season the Blue Jays slugged their way to 92 wins and their first division title in two decades. Much of the offensive firepower came via the long ball, as the Jays led the league in home runs. Toronto did little to add depth to their rotation, and although they have a number of young flame-throwing pitchers, the issues they have in their starting rotation remain; they’ll have to slug their way into the playoffs again.

In the current run-scoring environment with less offense, the Jays' power is the envy of the league. Toronto currently employs a trio of dominant sluggers in Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Josh Donaldson, but they are guaranteed to be playing together in Toronto only until the end of this year, when both Bautista and EE’s contracts expire. Now is the time for the Jays to take the ultimate step and win the pennant. Are their bats up to the challenge?

-Steven Martano

Yankees

Make or break stat: Stolen bases

2015 value: 65 (25th)

Last season, two of the fastest guys on the Yankees, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, had issues staying healthy, and when they were healthy and playing, they weren’t running. The biggest culprit was Gardner, who stole only 20 bases in 151 games. Since swiping a career high of 49 in 2011, Gardner has been on a steady downward trend. Sure, he’s on the wrong side of 30, but it seems that his biggest issue is not stealing when he should. Ellsbury, who played in 40 fewer games, stole one more base than Gardner.

If the Yankees want to get their offense going (they scored 764 runs in 2015, which was good for second behind Toronto), the two guys at the top of the lineup need to stay healthy, they need to hit, and they need to run the bases.

-Stacey Gotsulias

Orioles

Make or break stat: HR/PA

2015 value: 3.6% (3rd)

Regardless of what happens to the Orioles in 2016 — if they win 100 or lose 100, if they return to the postseason or net a top draft pick — we can say one thing for sure: This team will hit a ton of home runs. In each of the past five years, the Orioles have ranked fourth or better in long balls. This offseason, they brought in Pedro Alvarez and Mark Trumbo (27 and 22 dingers in 2015, respectively), who should make things even better in this regard. Jeff Sullivan argued a few weeks ago that the Orioles could set the single-season home run record, and with this many sluggers, that's certainly a possibility.

Of course, this is a risky strategy by which to construct an offense. When your hitters all focus on hitting the ball out of the yard, they'll put the ball in the air pretty often, which can detract from the team's BABIP — and sink the offense overall. Look at the Orioles in 2015: In the first half of the season, they hit home runs in 3.4 percent of their plate appearances, which helped them to the ninth-best wRC+ in baseball. In the second half, they increased their home run rate to 3.8 percent, but their wRC+ fell to 22nd in the league, because their BABIP deflated from .300 to .280. The swing-for-the-fences approach can lead to some pretty ugly results when it falls short.

That isn't to say that the Orioles will struggle in 2016. FanGraphs expects them to score the sixth-most runs in the majors, and Baseball Prospectus predicts an eighth-place finish. Hitters such as Chris Davis and Manny Machado bring a relatively disciplined mindset to the plate, which should keep the team's offense respectable. But nothing is guaranteed in baseball — after all, Baltimore has consistently defied the projections in recent years. The four-baggers will come by the bunches this season, and the Orioles can only hope they score runs along with them.

-Ryan Romano

Rays

Make or break stat: ISO

2015 value: .154 (11th)

The Rays' offense overall was pretty good last year - they had an exactly average wRC+ at 100, which was good to be tied for 7th in MLB. However, that really all came in the second half of the season. Heading into the All-Star break, the Rays had a 90 wRC+. They had a 113 wRC+ the rest of the way. The Rays doubled down on that strategy this offseason with their acquisitions - Corey Dickerson, Steve Pearce, and Logan Morrison are all power hitter types. They also got Brad Miller, who hits well for a shortstop, and Hank Conger, who can hit a little bit for a catcher.

For their gamble to work, though, the Rays need health. A huge portion of the Rays roster is looking for a bounceback season in some fashion. Alex Cobb, Curt Casali, Desmond Jennings, Drew Smyly, James Loney, Steven Souza, and Matt Moore were just a few of the names on the DL for the Rays last year. It's pretty hard to get any offense going when the offense is injured.

Further reading: Multi-inning reliever usage

-Kevin Ruprecht

Red Sox

Make or break stat: Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez's WAR

2015 value: -4.0 (fWAR)

Last offseason the Red Sox won the narrative as one of the most improved teams going into 2015. Unfortunately, their two priciest free agent additions did nothing to help them get out of the AL East basement. In fact, both Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval firmly entrenched them in the cellar. The two players cost the team a combined four wins (per FanGraphs), single-handedly moving the needle from around .500 to only 78 wins.

The common theme going into the 2016 season was that Boston needed starting pitching, and it certainly was an area of need. Boston added David Price, who will help a rotation that primarily relied on an incredibly inconsistent Clay Buchholz last year, but at the end of the year, without production from two key former All-Stars, Boston will be mired at the bottom of the division. Flip that -4.0 to a mere 2.0, and suddenly this is a team competing for the playoffs. Add David Price and it’s easy to project a division winner.

-Steven Martano

Ed's Note: An earlier version left out that Jose Bautista's contract is also up after the 2016 season.