AL East: The Rays host the Jays today in the season opener and playoff hopes could rest on their pitching

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Aranda Slam Rays Defeat Blue Jays
(Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)"

The Tampa Bay Rays have one of the most creative and productive organizations in all of baseball so they are expected each year to contend for a postseason playoff spot. But this year. in a AL East that has no weak teams, it could be a challenge that will take all the creativity the Rays front office has.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

2023: 101-61, first place, lost to Texas in Division Series.

Manager: Brandon Hyde (sixth season).

Opening Day: March 28 vs. Los Angeles Angels.

He’s Here: RHP Corbin Burnes, RHP Craig Kimbrel, SS Nick Maton, 3B Tyler Nevin.

He’s Outta Here: 2B Adam Frazier, OF Aaron Hicks, RHP Kyle Gibson, RHP Jack Flaherty, LHP DL Hall, RHP Shintaro Fujinami, RHP Austin Voth.

Top Hitters: INF Gunnar Henderson (.255, 28 HRs, 82 RBIs, 100 runs), C Adley Rutschman (.277, 20, 80, 31 doubles, 92 walks), OF Anthony Santander (.257, 28, 95, 41 doubles), 1B Ryan Mountcastle (.270, 18, 68).

Projected Rotation: RH Corbin Burnes (10-8, 3.39 ERA, 200 Ks with Milwaukee), RH Grayson Rodriguez (7-4, 4.35), RH Kyle Bradish (12-7, 2.83), RH Dean Kremer (13-5, 4.12), LH John Means (1-2, 2.66 in 4 starts).

Key Relievers: RH Craig Kimbrel (8-6, 3.26 ERA, 23 saves with Philadelphia), RH Yennier Cano (1-4, 2.11, 8 saves), LH Danny Coulombe (5-3, 2.81), LH Cionel Pérez (4-2, 3.54).

Outlook: The Orioles have arrived as contenders in the American League, and they’re still not done producing top prospects. Touted infielder Jackson Holliday should be the next to arrive after Rutschman led the team back to respectability in 2022 and Henderson won AL Rookie of the Year honors last season. Rodriguez is also a factor after looking sharp toward the end of his debut season in 2023. Baltimore used some of its surplus of young talent to acquire Burnes and give its rotation a bona fide ace, and that trade could be important with Bradish and Means dealing with health issues in the run-up to opening day. Another injury concern for the Orioles is star closer Félix Bautista, who missed the end of last season and had Tommy John surgery. Kimbrel was signed to replace him.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

2023: 99-63, second place, lost to Texas in Wild Card Series.

Manager: Kevin Cash (10th season).

Opening Day: March 28 vs. Toronto.

He’s Here: RHP Ryan Pepiot, SS Jose Caballero, OF Jonny DeLuca, RHP Phil Maton, INF Amed Rosario, C Alex Jackson, RHP Manuel Rodriguez, RHP Naoyuki Uwasawa.

He’s Outta Here: RHP Tyler Glasnow, OF Manuel Margot, OF/1B Luke Raley, LHP Jake Diekman, RHP Andrew Kittredge, C Christian Bethancourt, LHP Jalen Beeks, LHP Josh Fleming.

Top Hitters: 1B Yandy Díaz (AL-best .330, 22 HRs, 78 RBIs, .932 OPS), LF Randy Arozarena (.254, 23, 83, .789 OPS), RF Josh Lowe (.292, 20, 83, .835 OPS), 3B Isaac Paredes (.250, 31, 98, .840 OPS), DH/OF Harold Ramírez (.313, 12, 68, .813 OPS), CF José Siri (.222, 25, 56, .813 OPS).

Projected Rotation: RH Zach Eflin (16-8, 3.50 ERA), RH Aaron Civale (7-5, 3.46 in 23 starts with Cleveland and Tampa Bay), RH Zack Littell (3-6, 3.93), RH Ryan Pepiot (2-1, 2.14 in 8 appearances, 3 starts, with Dodgers), RH Taj Bradley (5-8, 5.59).

Key Relievers: RH Jason Adams (4-2, 2.98 ERA, 12 saves), RH Pete Fairbanks (2-4, 2.58, 25 saves), LH Colin Poche (12-3, 2.23), RH Kevin Kelly (5-2, 3.22), RH Phil Maton (4-3, 3.00 with Houston).

Outlook: The Rays have been both resourceful and resilient, enduring key injuries and numerous cost-saving moves to make the playoffs each of the past five seasons. With three starting pitchers — two-time All-Star lefty Shane McClanahan and right-handers Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs — expected to miss all or a significant portion of 2024 while recovering from injuries, the budget-minded club’s ability to improvise and remain competitive in one of baseball’s toughest divisions will be tested again. Glasnow is the latest elite pitcher Tampa Bay has traded for promising young players or prospects who’ve helped the Rays prosper over the past decade-plus. Eflin will lead a retooled rotation, with the 26-year-old Pepiot — acquired from the Dodgers in the Glasnow trade — filling one of the spots. There’s uncertainty, too, about the future of All-Star shortstop Wander Franco, who hasn’t played since last August, when MLB and authorities in the Dominican Republic began investigating accusations that Franco had an improper relationship with a minor. The Rays traded this winter for Caballero, who will get an opportunity to be the regular shortstop. The rest of a potent lineup remains pretty much intact, with Díaz, Arozarena and Paredes expected to be main cogs again. Díaz was the 2023 AL batting champion. Arozarena was a fellow All-Star.

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TORONTO BLUE JAYS

2023: 89-73, third place, lost to Minnesota in Wild Card Series.

Manager: John Schneider (third season).

Opening Day: March 28 at Tampa Bay.

He’s Here: DH Justin Turner, OF/INF Isiah Kiner-Falefa, 1B Joey Votto, RHP Yariel Rodríguez, LHP Brendon Little, DH Daniel Vogelbach, INF Eduardo Escobar.

He’s Outta Here: 3B Matt Chapman, LHP Hyun Jin Ryu, 2B Whit Merrifield, DH Brandon Belt, RHP Jordan Hicks, RHP Adam Cimber, RHP Jay Jackson.

Top Hitters: 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (.264, 26 HRs, 94 RBIs, .788 OPS), SS Bo Bichette (.306, 20, 73, .814 OPS), DH Justin Turner (.276, 23, 96, .800 OPS with Boston), RF George Springer (.258, 21, 72, .732 OPS), C Danny Jansen (.228, 17, 53, .786 OPS in 83 games).

Projected Rotation: RH Kevin Gausman (12-9, 3.16 ERA, AL-leading 237 Ks), RH Chris Bassitt (16-8, 3.60, career-high 200 IP, tied for AL lead in wins), RH José Berríos (11-12, 3.65), LH Yusei Kikuchi (11-6, 3.86), RH Alek Manoah (3-9, 5.87 in 19 starts).

Key Relievers: RH Jordan Romano (5-7, 2.90 ERA, 36/40 saves, 72 Ks in 59 IP), RH Chad Green (3-0, 5.25 in 12 games after returning from Tommy John surgery), RH Erik Swanson (4-2, 2.97, 4 saves), RH Yimi Garcia (3-4, 4.09, 3 saves).

Outlook: The Blue Jays earned their third wild-card berth in four seasons in 2023, only to be swept out of a third straight October. As Guerrero and Bichette edge closer to free agency, which both could reach following the 2025 World Series, the pressure mounts for the Blue Jays to capitalize on whatever remaining time they have with those two stars. Four pitchers made 30 or more starts last season for Toronto, while Manoah slumped from AL Cy Young Award finalist to minor leaguer. Manoah has battled shoulder soreness this spring, jeopardizing his chances of making the opening-day roster. Gausman has been slowed by shoulder fatigue, but said he’ll be ready for the regular season. Guerrero has endured consecutive years of decline since finishing runner-up in 2021 AL MVP voting. If he and Bichette both deliver, and the starting rotation remains healthy and effective, Toronto’s recent run of empty Octobers could come to an end.

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NEW YORK YANKEES

2023: 82-80, fourth place.

Manager: Aaron Boone (seventh season).

Opening Day: March 28 at Houston.

He’s Here: OF Juan Soto, RHP Marcus Stroman, OF Trent Grisham, OF Alex Verdugo, LHP Caleb Ferguson, RHP Cody Poteet.

He’s Outta Here: OF/INF Isiah Kiner-Falefa, RHP Luis Severino, LHP Wandy Peralta, RHP Michael King, RHP Frankie Montas, C Kyle Higashioka, RHP Jhony Brito.

Top Hitters: OF Aaron Judge (.267, 37 HRs, 75 RBIs, 1.019 OPS in 106 games), OF Juan Soto (.275, 35, 109, .930 OPS, MLB-leading 132 walks for San Diego), 3B DJ LeMahieu (career-low .243, 15, 44), 1B Anthony Rizzo (.244, 12, 41 in 99 games), 2B Gleyber Torres (.273, 25, 68), SS Anthony Volpe (.209, 21, 60).

Projected Rotation: RH Marcus Stroman (10-9, 3.95 ERA with Cubs), RH Gerrit Cole (15-4, 2.63, 222 Ks, 209 IP, AL Cy Young Award), LH Carlos Rodón (3-8, 6.85 in 14 starts), LH Nestor Cortes (5-2, 4.97 in 12 starts), RH Clarke Schmidt (9-9, 4.64).

Key Relievers: RH Clay Holmes (4-4, 2.86 ERA, 24/29 saves), RH Ron Marinaccio (4-5, 3.99), RH Luke Weaver (3-6, 6.40 for Reds, Mariners and Yankees), RH Jonathan Loáisiga (0-2, 3.06), LH Victor González (3-3, 4.01 for Dodgers), RH Ian Hamilton (3-2, 2.64).

Outlook: After failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016, the Yankees rebuilt their batting order to get more left-handed. Their chief acquisition was Soto, a three-time All-Star going into his last season before free agency. Verdugo and Grisham also add lefty bats, and Grisham brings two-time Gold Glove defense in center. Torres, like Soto, heads into his last season of club control. New York hit .229 last year, including a major league-low .220 after Judge injured his right big toe when he crashed into the right-field fence at Dodger Stadium last June 3. Rizzo batted .174 with 10 RBIs in 47 games after a May 28 concussion. LeMahieu struggled following a broken sesamoid bone in his right big toe that led to ligament damage in his second toe in 2022. He hit .220 in the first half last year but .273 in the second. Rookie center fielder Jasson Domínguez, who hit four homers in his first eight games last year, is expected back this summer after Tommy John surgery on Sept. 20. Rotation depth already was questionable before Cole was shut down in spring training with a sore elbow. He is expected to miss some time, at least early in the season. Cole said March 11 that his elbow hurt and he was going to have an MRI. He had X-rays and a CT scan the following day and then headed to Los Angeles to see specialist Dr. Neal ElAttrache, an elbow expert, for additional tests. Rodón and Cortes are coming off injury-shortened seasons, and Rodón was troubled by home runs early in spring training. The bullpen led the majors with a 3.34 ERA last year, but that was up from 2.84 in the first half. Yankees relievers pitched 619 innings, up from 557 1/3 in 2022 and their most since 2019. The bullpen lost Peralta to free agency and King to the Padres in the Soto trade, and right-handers Tommy Kahnle (shoulder inflammation) and Scott Effross (back surgery following Tommy John surgery) will miss the start of the season.

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BOSTON RED SOX

2023: 78-84, fifth place.

Manager: Alex Cora (fourth season of second stint with team, sixth season overall).

Opening Day: March 28 at Seattle.

He’s Here: SS Vaughn Grissom, LF Tyler O’Neill, RHP Lucas Giolito.

He’s Outta Here: LHP Chris Sale, OF Alex Verdugo, OF Adam Duvall, LHP James Paxton, RHP Corey Kluber, 3B Justin Turner.

Top Hitters: 3B Rafael Devers (.271, 33 HRs, 100 RBIs), OF Masataka Yoshida (.289, 15, 72), SS Trevor Story (.203, 3, 14 in 43 games), OF Jarren Duran (.295, 8, 40), 1B Triston Casas (.263, 24, 65).

Projected Rotation: RH Brayan Bello (12-11, 4.24 ERA), RH Nick Pivetta (10-9, 4.04), RH Tanner Houck (6-10, 5.01), RH Kutter Crawford (6-8, 4.04), RH Garrett Whitlock (5-5, 5.15).

Key Relievers: RH Kenley Jansen (3-6, 3.63 ERA, 29/33 saves), RH Chris Martin (4-1, 1.05, 3 saves), RH Josh Winckowski (4-4, 2.88, 3 saves).

Outlook: The Red Sox appear to be on track for their fourth last-place finish in five years. After trading Sale in the offseason, their top free-agent acquisition was Giolito. But he got hurt in spring training and is expected to miss the entire season following elbow surgery. There are few options for the rotation. The lineup is also diminished, with Duvall and Turner leaving as free agents after spending one productive year in Boston. Verdugo, the centerpiece of the trade that sent Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, was also traded away, netting little major league-ready talent. Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom was fired last year and replaced by another Yalie, ex-Red Sox pitcher Craig Breslow, but ownership has conceded the team’s payroll will likely go down after last year’s fifth-place finish.

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