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MLB Preview: American League East capsules

Associated Press

Toronto Blue Jays

2015: 93-69, first place, lost to Kansas City in ALCS.

Manager: John Gibbons (fourth season).

Hot Spot: Pitching Staff. Debate raged all winter about whether the hard-throwing Aaron Sanchez, 23, should be in the rotation or the bullpen. Sanchez made 11 starts last season, beating Houston with eight strong innings on June 5 before missing the next seven weeks with a strained muscle in his side. Rather than being stretched out again when healthy, Sanchez returned in a relief role, capably setting up closer Roberto Osuna. Sanchez, who gained 25 pounds in offseason workouts this winter, has made it clear he’d prefer to start. But teaming him with Osuna, Drew Storen and Brett Cecil would give the Blue Jays a fearsome foursome to help shorten games out of the ‘pen.

Outlook: There’s no time like 2016 for the power-packed Blue Jays to build on last season’s AL East title, which marked their first playoff appearance in 22 years. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are two of 10 Toronto players eligible for free agency at season’s end. Others who can hit the open market next winter include such key cogs as Cecil, R.A. Dickey and Storen, meaning Toronto’s roster could see major turnover before next spring. With that in mind, there’s an attitude of World Series or bust around these Blue Jays, whose prolific bats could well match or exceed the MLB-high 891 runs they scored last season.

New York Yankees

2015: 87-75, second place, lost to Houston in wild-card game.

Manager: Joe Girardi (ninth season).

Hot Spot: Starting Rotation. CC Sabathia’s spot was in jeopardy following a string of poor spring training outings, and the team doesn’t know how he would respond if put in the bullpen, a role he’s never filled. After trading Adam Warren, the Yankees hope Bryan Mitchell can handle his job as a multi-inning reliever who can make spot starts or shift into the rotation if there are injuries – a concern after Masahiro Tanaka (wrist, forearm), Michael Pineda (forearm), Nathan Eovaldi (wrist) and Sabathia (knee, alcohol rehab) missed time last year. Aroldis Chapman, quickly tabbed the closer in an intimidating bullpen, will sit out the first 30 games while serving a suspension for domestic violence. But during that stretch, Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances will simply continue to fill the roles they executed so well last year.

Outlook: New York hopes Starlin Castro, a right-handed bat, will lessen its vulnerability to left-handed pitching. The Yankees also are counting on Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Alex Rodriguez and Brian McCann to rebound from their late-season slumps. After missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons, the Yankees returned last year – for nine innings. New York’s hopes for a long postseason run largely rest on health. With the contracts of Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, and possibly Sabathia, expiring after this season, New York will have more opportunity to retool next fall and winter. Still, this is a team that seems intent on getting under the luxury-tax threshold in 2018, in time to pursue that autumn’s talented free-agent class.

Baltimore Orioles

2014: 81-81, third place.

Manager: Buck Showalter (seventh season).

Hot Spot: Starting Rotation. The Orioles added Yovani Gallardo, a workhorse who will take the ball every fifth day. But they lost Wei-Yin Chen, arguably their most consistent starter, so the success of the rotation depends on everyone else stepping up. Chris Tillman won two fewer games than in 2014 and his ERA jumped by a run and a half. Miguel Gonzalez also tailed off in 2015 and has struggled this spring. Showalter can only hope Ubaldo Jimenez continues his resurgence from a dismal 2014 campaign and Kevin Gausman finally shows he’s ready to be a regular member of the starting five.

Outlook: The Orioles spent a whole lot of money to improve a team that slipped to .500 last year after reaching the ALCS in 2014. Not only did they fork over big bucks to maintain Chris Davis and Darren O’Day, but they added free agents Pedro Alvarez and Gallardo, traded for Mark Trumbo, retained Matt Wieters and took a flyer on Hyun Soo Kim. Expect the Orioles to hit plenty of homers and score quite a few runs, but they’ll need to back that up with pitching to contend in the talent-laden AL East.

Tampa Bay Rays

2015: 80-82, fourth place.

Manager: Kevin Cash (second season).

Hot Spot: Starting Rotation. For all the talk about how much better the Rays could be on offense, they are built to thrive on strong starting pitching, a dependable bullpen and superior defense. Chris Archer was a first-time All-Star a year ago. Drew Smyly and Matt Moore returned from injuries during the season and performed well enough to inspire confidence they can team with Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Erasmo Ramirez to give Tampa Bay one of the most formidable rotations in the league. With Alex Cobb on track to return from Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for all of 2015 and prospects Blake Snell, Taylor Guerrieri and Jacob Faria rising in the minors, the Rays think they have the type of pitching necessary to re-emerge as a playoff contender.

Outlook: The Rays believe they have everything it takes to return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus, including an improved lineup. Their sub-.500 finish last season left them with consecutive losing records for the first time since 2006-07, and the team’s offensive shortcomings were the main culprit. With Corey Dickerson, Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce potentially adding more pop to the middle of the lineup, the hope is the Rays will score more runs while not sacrificing anything defensively. The plan also is to fare better in close games after going 46-48 in games decided by two runs or fewer last season.

Boston Red Sox

2015: 78-84, fifth place.

Manager: John Farrell (fourth season).

Hot Spot: Pitching Upgrades. The Red Sox made their biggest free agent splash by signing David Price to a $217 million, seven-year pact. He was steady last season after being dealt from Detroit to Toronto, winning nine games for each team and posting an ERA under 3.00 for the first time since 2012. The only major injury concern in the starting rotation coming out of camp appears to be fellow lefty Eduardo Rodriguez (10-6, 3.85), who will start the season on the disabled list as he works his way back from a right knee injury sustained early in workouts. Carson Smith also will begin the season on the DL with a strained flexor muscle in his forearm. Boston is counting on Craig Kimbrel, acquired from San Diego for four young players, to help stabilize the bullpen.

Outlook: The Red Sox are coming off their third last-place finish in four years. In 2013, they won the World Series. Farrell returns to the dugout after missing the last six weeks of the 2015 season receiving treatment for cancer; the team went 28-20 under bench coach Torey Lovullo. Hanley Ramirez, one of last year’s big free agent signings, will move to first base after struggling to adapt to the outfield during his first season in Boston. Pablo Sandoval also will try to bounce back in his second season at Fenway Park. If the Red Sox start poorly, attention will turn quickly to the farewell tour for David Ortiz, who has said this will be his final season.

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