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Top 20 players who will shape AL East race

MLB.com @williamfleitch

If you can believe it, Opening Day is only five weeks away, and we're previewing each division every Wednesday. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport, so we'll be previewing each division by counting down the 20 most pivotal players in the division. These aren't necessarily the best players. They're just the ones whose 2018 performance will be most vital to their teams' success this season, and in seasons moving forward. To keep it fair, we can only pick four players from each team.

Today: The American League East. Tell me what you think -- not just about what you think of this list, but also whom I should not miss when I do the National League West next week -- at will.leitch@mlb.com.

If you can believe it, Opening Day is only five weeks away, and we're previewing each division every Wednesday. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport, so we'll be previewing each division by counting down the 20 most pivotal players in the division. These aren't necessarily the best players. They're just the ones whose 2018 performance will be most vital to their teams' success this season, and in seasons moving forward. To keep it fair, we can only pick four players from each team.

Today: The American League East. Tell me what you think -- not just about what you think of this list, but also whom I should not miss when I do the National League West next week -- at will.leitch@mlb.com.

Previously: NL Central

20. Christian Arroyo, Tampa Bay Rays
Arroyo is an extremely promising third-base prospect who already has 135 at-bats in the Majors and is ranked No. 81 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects. I hope Arroyo can remember all those things when Rays fans look over at third base and, for the first time in a decade, see someone other than Evan Longoria there. Not just that, but Longoria is saying that he "feels bad for the Rays' fanbase." So, you know, good luck, kid.

19. Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles
He's not going to be back for a few months, but by the time he gets back, the Orioles will have a pretty solid idea of whether they're coming or going. Either they're going to need Britton to come back and work himself back into Britton-shape because they're fighting for an American League Wild Card spot, or they'll need him to come back because they're selling hard at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Video: Must C Combo: Kiermaier flashes leather, power bat

18. Kevin Kiermaier, Tampa Bay Rays
You can tell pretty well what kind of baseball fan you're talking to when you discuss Kiermaier. Your FanGraphs obsessive thinks he's one of the best, and certainly one of the most underrated, players in the game. Your usual baseball-card-stat fan is totally baffled at what all the fuss is about.

17. Randal Grichuk, Toronto Blue Jays
Did the Blue Jays just get themselves a cost-controlled power bat, one who can play center field, on the cheap? After trading for Marcell Ozuna, the Cardinals didn't have a place for Grichuk, so they sent him to Toronto for reliever Dominic Leone, and Grichuk might be exactly the right fielder the Blue Jays were searching for. He strikes out way too much, and he's probably never going to be a consistent on-base threat, but he's under club control through 2020, plays the outfield like a dream, and if you make a mistake pitch to him, he will pulverize it.

16. Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles are making a last-ditch, all-in mad dash in the AL East this year, and while some might question the wisdom of such a maneuver, heck, the world was never made worse by people doing everything they can to win. (Note: The world is in fact always made worse this way.) If the O's are going to hang in, they're going to need all the offensive firepower they can muster, so it might be handy if the guy they still owe $127 million to could start launching bombs again.

15. Willy Adames, Tampa Bay Rays
You can forgive Rays fans for growing a bit exhausted with the "when our stud prospects get here, it's gonna be a different story, you'll see!" game, but the waiting game for Adames, the No. 22 prospect in the game according to MLB Pipeline, may still be worth it. Not only does Adames have all the tools, he's one of those makeup machines, the instant team leader everyone is always looking for, particularly out of the shortstop position.

14. Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles
Gausman is the next in a long line of talented Orioles starters to never quite put it together in Baltimore, and there is always the fear he will leave town and immediately turn into Jake Arrieta. Gausman was healthy all of last season, which means he's ostensibly Baltimore's ace, but his skills have never quite translated into top-tier success. Which means the rest of baseball is ready to buy low.

13. Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox
When the Red Sox signed Porcello to a four-year contract extension before the 2015 season, they didn't think they were getting an AL Cy Young Award winner, any more than they thought they were signing a bust. The first two years of the deal, they've gotten both. Porcello led the Majors in wins in 2016, and losses in '17; that's pretty difficult to do. Somewhere in the middle would be just fine for Boston, particularly now that he's just a fourth starter.

Video: Stroman, Gibbons on Stroman losing arbitration

12. Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
For all the talk of Stroman's unpleasant arbitration experience, there isn't much evidence that contentious arbitrations cause any sort of damage, short or long term. Good thing, because despite whatever they said in that room to Stroman, the Blue Jays desperately need Stroman to keep pitching like the ace he nearly was in 2017. It's almost impossible to see a way for the Blue Jays to contend without Stroman at least duplicating his '17 season.

Tweet from @MStrooo6: Just being real. Not mad at all. I???????????????????????????m aware of the business. Just opens your eyes going through the arbitration process. Second time going through it. Still love my team and the entire country of Canada. More upset that I had to fly to AZ and miss my Monday workout. Lol

11. Greg Bird, New York Yankees
It's funny to think that the young Yankees player everyone was excited about heading into 2017 wasn't Judge: It was Bird. After his horrendous start, he came on late, and the Yanks felt comfortable enough with him that they avoided any first-base free agent temptations. If Bird is fully locked and loaded, this lineup is even more terrifying that it already is. And if not: The Yankees will not lack for options.

* * * * *

Halftime break! AL East mascots, ranked!

1. The Oriole Bird
The name could use some work, but otherwise, the perfect Oriole color scheme makes for a perfect baseball bird mascot. He's such a pretty bird that we'll ignore that he's naked. (The other bird in the division is far more modest.)

2. Raymond Ray
Discovered by fishermen who noticed he was drawn to the boat by the smell of hot dogs, Raymond Ray looks a little like a character in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou."

3. Ace
Blue Jays are actually quite aggressive birds, but Ace is pretty chill, all told. He does get points for being an improvement on the old BJ Birdy, who looked insane and had a redundant name.

4. Wally the Green Monster
All mascots are for kids, but I might humbly submit that Wally is maybe a little too scary for kids.

5. Unknown Yankees mascot
The Yankees famously do not have a mascot, though in a pinch, Justice Sonia Sotomayor would make a pretty great one.

Gif: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in Judge's Chambers

* * * * *

10. Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees
Tanaka's peripheral numbers suggest that if he's not an ace, he's No. 2-starter material at least. He has a terrific K/BB ratio (the best on the team), and his season ERA was inflated by a dreadful May (8.42 ERA). Tanaka at his worst is still a rotation mainstay, and he is the one guy in the rotation who should be better but, in 2017, just wasn't.

9. Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox
In the 2013 World Series, when most of us were first seeing Bogaerts, it appeared we were looking at the next great superstar. It hasn't worked out that way, with Bogaerts never becoming that superstar -- and even taking a big step back in 2017, dropping to only 10 homers and losing 21 points in batting average. He's still only 25 years old, though, and the talent is still all there. If this is Bogaerts' breakout season, the Red Sox's lineup could be scarier than you think.

8. Roberto Osuna, Toronto Blue Jays
What was up with Osuna last year? He struck out 11.7 batters per nine innings. Osuna dropped his walk rate for the third straight year. He gave up only three homers in 64 innings pitched. Osuna had a 0.859 WHIP. Those numbers look totally dominant, right? So how in the world did Osuna blow 10 saves? If the results match the skills, the Blue Jays will have the ninth inning on lockdown.

7. Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
Essentially the last man standing at this point, right? Now that the Rays' rebuild seems imminent, there's not much reason to keep Archer around, particularly when there isn't a team in baseball (save for Tampa Bay, apparently!) who couldn't use a cost-controlled ace who's also charismatic and fun. If the Rays want to fully restock their farm system, Archer and closer Alex Colome are surely the next (and maybe last) to go.

6. Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
One of the many enticing aspects of trading for Machado in the offseason -- as many, many teams tried to do -- was the sense that he's going to erupt in this, his contract year. Machado had an unfortunate 2017, but he still had his moments, and he clearly has talent to burn everywhere. He'll be at shortstop this year and eager to impress potential free-agent suitors. How long Machado is in Baltimore may depend on how long the Orioles can hang around the race; the minute those leaks trickle out about "the O's are listening to offers on Machado," this is instantly the biggest story in the sport.

5. J.D. Martinez, Boston Red Sox
All right, so now that he's finally here, now what? The long, slow, pained offseason seduction between the Red Sox and Martinez finally consummated this week, at a reasonable price for Boston and, of course, a fortune for Martinez. But there is an extended, sordid history of expensive free agents coming into Fenway Park and being eaten alive almost immediately; remember, the Red Sox will still be paying Pablo Sandoval $18.5 million next season. Martinez is no Sandoval, but Red Sox fans have a way of eyeing a new guy warily for a while when he shows up in town. The upside is obviously huge, but remember: They were mocking poor Jack Clark in The Town 20 years after he signed.

Video: Ian Browne discusses J.D. Martinez signing

4. David Price, Boston Red Sox
Speaking of big, expensive Red Sox free agents whom the town quickly turned on. Price is only two years into his $217 million deal, and he spent most of his 2017 either in the bullpen, hurt, feuding with Dennis Eckersley or being hissed at by Beantown faithful. Just five years to go! Price apparently isn't too sore about his time in Boston so far; he was one of the main ambassadors selling Martinez on the place. But he has an opt-out clause after this season if he wants to use it, but that would require exactly the sort of year the Red Sox were paying him for in the first place.

3. Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays
A little like Archer and Machado, but Donaldson's far more fascinating than those two. Unlike them, he:

A: Is beloved by the fan base and actively interested in signing an extension;
B: Has nevertheless been unable to come to terms on one;
C: Is on a team that has a chance to contend for an AL Wild Card this year;
D: Could still be dealt, even through gritted teeth, at the non-waiver Trade Deadline;

What are the Blue Jays going to do with Donaldson? Merely the whole next decade of the franchise might rely on the answer.

1 and 1a, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
It is a big story that one of these massive humans exist. It's a bigger story that they both exist. It's an even bigger story that they're on the same team. Now add to the mix that their team is the Yankees -- a club that seemed to have lost its swagger but now has it back a thousandfold. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that these two wooly mammoths are in the same lineup, in the Bronx, secured now to spend their most formidable years together. They're the primary reasons to hate the Yanks again, which, of course, means the Yankees are, once again and at last, completely unmissable. They're the biggest story in baseball this year, and one of the biggest stories in sports. Who doesn't want to see what happens here? I cannot wait.

Video: Judge, Stanton could lead Yanks to back-to-back mark

* * * * *

We finish this preview, as we will with all of them, with predictions. I apologize in advance because these predictions are guaranteed to be correct and thus I'm a little worried I'm spoiling the season for you.

New York Yankees: 92-70
Boston Red Sox: 90-72
Toronto Blue Jays: 82-80
Baltimore Orioles: 74-88
Tampa Bay Rays: 69-93

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.