AL East preview: Pitching-strong Rays will challenge Yankees for division supremacy

Baseball is back with the wackiest, shortest and potentially dangerous season of all time.

Haul out the asterisks.

A schedule has yet to be released, but games start July 23-24. A batter chasing a .400 average could define this season. A 10-game hitting streak could mean MVP candidacy.

There will be no fans in the stands - at least at the start of the 60-game schedule - and a summer version of spring training starts Wednesday when players begin reporting to home parks across the country.

There’s also a hard-hitting COVID-19 pandemic slamming the U.S. and Major League Baseball is taking every precaution, releasing a 101-page document of protocols to keep the game safe. Examples: Players that are subbed out of a game are expected to go home. On the road, players will be given rooms on lower floors so they don’t have to use elevators.

Safe to say MLB has thought of everything.

And unlike 1994, when then-commissioner Bud Selig canceled the World Series, a complete season is scheduled with a 2020 World Series.

A continued outbreak of COVID-19 could put the kibosh on the season but, at least, the summer version of spring training has arrived.

The season can be a distraction to help with the anxiety that goes with months of pandemic isolation.

The original spring training ended March 12.

The favorite in the American League East is the Yankees, a 103-win team from last season, but Tampa Bay has strong pitching and improved hitting. The Rays will contend.

Boston is without pitchers Chris Sale and David Price and outfielder Mookie Betts. Toronto has fixed its rotation. The Orioles are rebuilding, and given that they are playing teams from the AL and NL East divisions, they have a punishing schedule.

Here’s a refresher course of the story lines for AL East teams:

BALTIMORE: The best 60-game stretch in Orioles history came in 2014 was 41-19, starting in June. The Orioles won 96 games that season. The team’s best 60-game stretch last season was 24-36. ... Can the Orioles contend? That’s not likely for a team that finished 49 games out in 2019, but it’s easier to have a Cinderella team with a 60-game schedule than a 162-game schedule. Last season, the Orioles had one month (July 12-12) where they finished with double-digit wins. ... In a shortened season and no games in the minor leagues, the Orioles’ plan for development and rebuilding has taken a step back. How do the Orioles make this a production season for near-ready prospects such as Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmerman? ... The Orioles have to decide about right field. Trey Mancini, who hit 35 home runs last season, will not play because of he’s taking treatment for colon cancer, so do the Orioles use DJ Stewart (.238 in 44 games last season) or Anthony Santander (20 home runs) in that position? ... The Chris Davis issues will re-emerge: What will Davis bring? There’s no answer even though he hit .467 with three home runs in nine spring games before camps were shut down. Davis hit 12 home runs and .173 in 2019. ... The Orioles didn’t announce an opening day starter during the first round of spring training, but LHP John Means (12-11, 3.60 ERA) was on target to do so. ... The shorter season could affect the Orioles at the Aug. 31 trade deadline. The Orioles have trade chips in RHPs Alex Cobb and Mychal Givens, LHPs Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc, and possibly SS Jose Iglesias, but the market is impossible to predict. ... The Orioles will train in shifts at Camden Yards and some players will likely train at their Double-A affiliate in Bowie.

BOSTON: The Red Sox’s best 60-game start was in 1946. They went 43-17 and lost to St. Louis in the World Series. ... Their best 60-game stretch at any point in a season was 46-14, done in 1948 and again in 1949. ... The Red Sox will train in Fenway Park, the first time they’ve trained in their home state since 1943. ... On the injury front, OF Alex Verdugo, a top prospect the Red Sox got from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts trade, will be ready. Verdugo (back) was expected to miss four to six weeks in a normal season. RHP Collin McHugh (strained flexor) is healthy and has a chance at the rotation. ... LHP Eduardo Rodriguez leads the rotation. He was 19-6 with a 3.81 ERA last season. Other locks are Martín Pérez and Nathan Eovaldi, who made only 12 starts last season. ... The back of the rotation will be determined in spring training. Gone from the rotation are Price, who was traded to the Dodgers, and Sale, who will not pitch because he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery.

NEW YORK: Because of the delayed start, the Yankees are going to get key players back: OF Aaron Hicks, out with Tommy John surgery, is expected to be ready and Aaron Judge (rib) is close. It’s the same for LHP James Paxton (back), who was 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA last season. ... Paxton is in a rotation that has RHPs Gerrit Cole, who led the majors with 326 strikeouts last season for Houston, and Masahiro Tanaka (4.45 ERA) and LHPs Jordan Montgomery (6.75 ERA) and J.A. Happ (4.91 ERA). ... RHP Luis Severino is recovering from Tommy John surgery and will not pitch this season. ... Cole, 29, signed as a $324 million free agent, had 20 wins, a 2.50 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP for Houston last season. ... There aren’t any position battles brewing during the three-week spring training: The outfield will be Hicks, Brett Gardner and Judge, if he’s ready. If not Judge, then Mike Tauchman, who hit .277 last season. Giancarlo Stanton, limited to 18 games in 2019 because of injury, will get most of the DH at-bats. ... The infield, from 3B to 1B, has Gio Urshela (21 home runs), Gleyber Torres (38 home runs), D.J. LeMahieu (26 home runs) and Luke Voit (21 home runs). ... Gary Sánchez, who hit 34 home runs in 2019, will catch. ... The Yankees started 38-22 in their first 60 games last season on their way to 103 wins before losing to the Astros in the postseason. ... The Yankees will train at Yankee Stadium after originally planning to work out at their spring complex in Tampa, Fla. Florida’s outbreak of the coronavirus forced them to move.

TAMPA BAY: The Rays’ best 60-game start was 39-21 in 2010. Last season, they started 37-23. ... The Rays won 96 games last season and made the postseason. With LHP Blake Snell (4.29 ERA in 23 starts) and RHP Tyler Glasnow (1.78 in 12 starts) are expected to be at full strength at the top of the rotation. Others in the rotation include Charlie Morton (3.05 ERA), Yonny Chirinos (3.85 ERA) and Ryan Yarbrough (4.13 ERA)... The Rays added three key players in the offseason: OFs Hunter Renfro (33 home runs for San Diego) and Manuel Margot (a strong defensive player) and OF José Mártinez, who hit .269 with 10 home runs for St. Louis. ... They will join a lineup that has Austin Meadows (.291 and 33 home runs), SS Willy Adames (.254 and 20 homers), 2B Brandon Lowe (.270 and 17 homers) and 3B Yandy Di\íaz (.267 with 14 homers). ... The Rays will train at Tropicana Field, their domed ballpark in St. Petersburg, Fla.

TORONTO: Mark down the Blue Jays as the potential surprise team in the AL East. Their rotation has been overhauled with LHP Hyun-Jim Ryu, who pitched for the Dodgers last season and had the lowest ERA (2.39) in the majors. Can he do it again? The rotation also has RHP Tanner Roark (4.35 ERA combined with the Reds and A’s) and RHPs Chase Anderson and Matt Shoemaker. Anderson came from the Brewers in an offseason trade after going 8-4 with a 4.21 ERA for Milwaukee. Shoemaker had injuries but also a 1.57 ERA in five starts. RHP Trent Thornton, who made 31 starts last season, is the leader for No. 5 spot in the rotation. The Blue Jays rotation had the third-lowest percentage (25) of quality starts in the AL last season. ... The Blue Jays’ record for a 60-game start came in 1987 when the team started 39-21. Toronto’s first World Series team in 1992 started the season 38-22. ... The Blue Jays’ young core includes Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (.272 with 15 home runs last season), 2B Cavan Biggio (16 home runs) and SS Bo Bichette (.311 with 11 home runs in 46 games). ... The Blue Jays are expected to train at Rogers Centre in Toronto after asking the Canadian government for permission. The government banned non-essential travel into the country. The Blue Jays have shut down their camp in Dunedin, Fla., because of COVID-19, but they might have to reopen if the government doesn’t allow regular season games to be played in Toronto.