AL 2016 preview: AL East goes back to the bank

Baseball’s longtime Fort Knox, the AL East is home to three of the game’s highest priced teams, as it was a year ago.

A team that slid out of the top paid list, the Toronto Blue Jays, is coming off the division crown and second-best record in the American League. One that found its way on to the list, the Baltimore Orioles, is poised for a run at the same designation.

Also looking for a second consecutive postseason berth will be the New York Yankees, while the Boston Red Sox look for a return to October baseball in David Ortiz’s swan song. The bargain shopping Tampa Bay Rays, with its second-lowest payroll in the league, will struggle for mere relevance in a division that will beat up on each other for six months.

The 2014 eastern division champion Orioles suffered through an endless flow of injuries a year ago, with only five players getting into more than 100 games. With their revolving door of every-day talent, Baltimore saw a dip in offensive production, scoring 713 runs (No. 7 in the AL) and collecting 483 extra-base hits (also No. 7).

A plummet in gap power (second-most 491 extra-base hits in 2014) did not affect the Orioles over-the-fence punch, though, as 217 home runs was good enough for third-most in the AL. It had more to do with a lack of speed (MLB’s fewest stolen bases – 44) to turn a single into a double.

The offense will be led once again by first baseman Chris Davis – .262 batting average (AVG), 47 home runs, 117 RBIs and 100 runs in 2015. Playing the Robin to Davis’ Batman, third baseman Manny Machado (.286-35-86-102) and center fielder Adam Jones (.269-27-82-74) make up all Orioles with a qualifying total of 503 or more at-bats.

Machado (20) also serving as the only double-digit base thief from last season.

Additions of designated hitter (DH) Pedro Alvarez (.239-24-71-56) and right fielder Mark Trumbo (.247-21-69-58) will improve the power, but not the average or speed of the 2016 lineup.

On the mound Baltimore filled the vacancy left by its only significant loss, Wei-Yin Chen (11-8 win-loss record, 3.34 ERA), with former Texas Ranger ace Yovani Gallardo (13-11, 3.42).

In order to challenge the Blue Jays, the Orioles will not only need to leap frog the Yankees but also out-comeback the Red Sox, who made two of the biggest moves this past offseason.

Starting pitcher David Price (18-5, 2.45) will replace Wade Miley (11-11, 4.46) in a rotation with Clay Buchholz (7-7, 3.26) and Joe Kelly (10-6, 4.82) looking to rebound from injury-slowed seasons.

New closer Craig Kimbrel (39 saves, 2.58 ERA) allows former closer Koji Uehara (25, 2.23) to take up the eighth-inning role significantly strengthening the relief corps.

The staff changes will go a long way in aiding Boston’s recovery from the AL’s second-worst ERA (4.31) of a year ago. An improved ERA would, in turn, go a long way in making last season’s production (No. 4 in runs scored with 748) produce more than 78 wins.

Like their bitter rivals, the Yankees assessed roster needs and added All-Star talent in filling those gaps.

Making a pair of trades New York added reliever Aroldis Chapman (33 saves, 1.63 ERA) and infielder Starlin Castro (.265 AVG, 11 home runs, 69 RBIs and 52 runs). The duo will improve both the No. 2 run-scoring offense (764) and No. 8 run-allowing pitching staff (698) – although it will have to endure a 30-game Chapman suspension.

Unlike its rivals to the north, Tampa Bay filled vacancies with lower-cost talent. Choosing to go with guys like Logan Morrison (.225-17-54-47), Brad Miller (.258-11-46-44) and Hank Conger (.229-11-33-25), the Rays did little to make a run at the postseason.

The Blue Jays also made few additions, running out the same lineup with which they ended their postseason run. They did, however, bid farewell to last season’s biggest trading deadline acquisition Price.

The AL’s most powerful (232 home runs) and highest scoring (891 runs) will have less support than the No. 5 run-allowing (670) staff in the junior circuit.

Cashing in the stellar middle relief of Liam Hendriks (5-0, 2.92 ERA) in exchange for former Oakland Athletic starter Jesse Chavez (7-15, 4.18 ERA) is an obvious downgrade. Replacing Price with J.A. Happ (11-8, 3.61 ERA) is even more so.

The changes surrounding the reigning division champs, accompanied by their own decline, make Toronto vulnerable to overtaking.

Final Standings

Orioles – 90-72

Yankees – 86-76

Red Sox – 86-76

Blue Jays – 84-78

Rays – 71-91