For years, the AL East was a two-team race. The Baltimore Orioles made things interesting for a couple years in the mid-1990s, but the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox enjoyed nearly two decades of one-two finishes while the other three clubs were left picking at scraps.
That is no longer the case.
Since 2010, all five AL East teams have won the division crown at least one time. The small market Tampa Bay Rays have two division titles since 2008, while the Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays snapped long playoff droughts in 2012 and 2015, respectively. The Yankees and Red Sox, struggling to adapt to the new statistical age, have only captured three of the past six crowns, with only one of those championships (the 2013 Red Sox) culminating in a World Series title.
Once again, the East should be a free-for-all. The Blue Jays will be viewed as heavy favorites thanks to their high-powered offense, but all five teams have at least one major wart that could sink them if things don't break right.
Toronto Blue Jays (93-69 in 2015)
The Blue Jays didn't move into first place until mid-August last year, but there were plenty of signs that this was the best team in the AL East. They finished the season with a +221 run differential, by far the best in baseball. Their 891 runs scored were the most in a single season since the 2009 Yankees topped the 900-run plateau, and that's with only two months of Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop.
Assuming Tulo and others can stay healthy, the Jays should once again lead the majors in runs scored by a fair margin. The only potential issue is their pitching staff, which looks a bit thin after David Price skipped town last winter. Marcus Stroman is a talented ace, but he will be hard pressed to shoulder an ace's workload after missing most of the 2015 season. Mark Buehrle is gone, and Marco Estrada isn't the safest bet to repeat his 2015 season. Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ are also major question marks.
Still, that may not matter. The Jays offense made Drew Hutchison and his 5.57 ERA into a 13-game winner last year, and they could easily do so with the other starters on staff.
New York Yankees (87-75 in 2015)
Maybe it's because their roster was a shell of some of the juggernauts of yesteryear, but the Yankees entered the 2015 season with fairly low expectations for a club that hasn't finished under .500 since 1992. Thanks to a few rebound seasons from aging veterans and one of the best bullpens in the major leagues, they led the division for most of the season before the Blue Jays behemoth blew past them in August.
Still, a one-and-done Wild Card appearance isn't what Yankees fans hope for, and neither is one of the quietest offseasons in recent memory. The Bronx Bombers picked up closer Aroldis Chapman via trade, but will rely on the same aging core of hitters in 2016, including 40-year-old designated hitter Alex Rodriguez. The starting staff is a bit of a question mark, especially when Masahiro Tanaka makes his annual trip to the disabled list, but they're a deeper unit than anyone beside the Rays. If the pitching stays healthy, they could offset some regression from what was the second-best offense in the league last season.
Baltimore Orioles (81-81 in 2015)
Does anyone know what the Orioles are doing? They played the offseason like usual, waiting until the last minute to sign a free agent that no one else wanted in Yovani Gallardo. However, paying Chris Davis $161 million will come back to hurt them one day, and missing out on Dexter Fowler was a big blow for a club that will now pencil Mark Trumbo into a corner outfield slot most days.
Even without Fowler or another legitimate corner outfielder, the O's should hit plenty of home runs. They had seven players with double-digit home runs last year, and eight of their nine of their everyday players seem like safe bets to fly past that plateau in 2016.
They might need 20-homer seasons from everyone, though. The pitching staff is a mess, and their most talented arm (Kevin Gausman) will begin the season on the disabled list. Ubaldo Jimenez was in the conversation to be their Opening Day starter, for crying out loud. Losing Wei-Yin Chen is going to hurt in a way that most other clubs can't even imagine.
And somehow they're still going to finish within a game of .500 in 2016.
Tampa Bay Rays (80-82 in 2015)
The Rays' 5-3 Opening Day loss to the Blue Jays illustrates just how delicate their 2016 season can be. Ace Chris Archer flashed his electric stuff, striking out 12, but made a few early mistakes that his offense could not bail out. The Rays have the best starting rotation in the division by a wide margin, but their offense is so brutal that the pitching staff has to be near-perfect for them to sneak into the playoffs.
There are a few hitters here -- Evan Longoria should bounce back from a subpar (for him) 110 wRC+ season -- but several others are coming off career years and probably won't repeat their 2015 numbers. I mean, does anyone think Logan Forsythe is going to put up a .350 wOBA again? Not likely.
Still, good pitching can be deadly, and the Rays have plenty of it. Archer is joined by Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, and Matt Moore, with the injured Alex Cobb a potential mid-season addition. Their bullpen always seems to be excellent, even without bazooka-armed Jake McGee in the ninth inning. If they score a little bit, look out.
Boston Red Sox (78-84 in 2015)
How do you fix one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball? Add an ace and an elite closer, then leave the rest alone, apparently. Dave Dombrowski has already made his presence felt in Boston, but any 2016 success should still be credited to his predecessor. Outside of adding David Price, Craig Kimbrel, and the now-injured Carson Smith, the Red Sox had a relatively quiet offseason, instead deciding to bank this season's chances on their stable of young talent and a stellar swan song performance from David Ortiz.
Can they do it? This team sure seems more talented on paper than last year's record suggests, but relying heavily on Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, and Joe Kely in the rotation seems very risky. Then you look at Hanley Ramirez debuting at first base, Pablo Sandoval sitting on the bench, and Rusney Castillo flailing away in right field, and you begin to see how they finished in last place for the third time in four years in 2015. It may seem odd to say that the Sox are a year or two away from competing as their young talent develops, but ridding themselves of some of the bad contracts on their payroll may be the best way for them to return to contention.
Either that, or their stars outshine the scrubs and they make another run to the World Series. This division is crazy enough to pan out that way.