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With AL East opponents struggling, Orioles may have path to win the division

The Orioles have their fair share of flaws, but so do the rest of the competitors around the AL East. Winning the division won't be easy. It's also not completely out of the equation.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The aura surrounding the early April start for the Orioles has been a strange one to say the least. Sure, they might be 11-8 and still perched atop the division, but there isn't a definitive answer yet as to if the Birds can consistently stay close to the top.

The bullpen is legitimate and the lineup is performing as expected, but what happens when the wheels fall completely off for a short stretch, as they're bound to do as the season moves along? Buck Showalter is managing a very good, but far from perfect ballclub that still contains holes within the starting rotation. Will that ultimately nip the O's playoff chances in the bud?

Luckily, the cause for concern can be somewhat muted ... at-least for now. Taking a look around the rest of the AL East, the Orioles aren't alone in their question marks surrounding a lengthy period of potential success.

Every team in the East has their issues, legitimate hurdles that should lead to parity throughout and an increased chance for the hometown team to snatch the top spot at the end of the year.

Tampa Bay Rays

Current record: 10-10

Why they have a chance to compete

Even with Chris Archer stumbling during his first four starts (and then miraculously turning into a Cy Young winner against the Orioles on Monday), the back-end rotation arms have been formidable enough to show that the unit as a whole might have a chance to be surprisingly impressive throughout the remainder of the year.

Guys like Matt Moore (25 innings, 26 Ks, 1.12 WHIP) and Drew Smyly (28.2 innings, 32 Ks, 0.73 WHIP) have fared nicely; when you tack on rookie Blake Snell to that mix, Tampa Bay may have a shot to be one of the most underrated rotations in the American league.

As for the lineup, the Rays do possess flashes of fresh firepower to lean on. Steven Souza Jr. and Corey Dickerson have provided good pop early this year, keeping the Evan Longoria's of the world comfortable and not pressing to compensate. They won't be near the top of the leaderboards, but the offense has a chance to perform well enough to hang on to postseason hopes.

What holds them back

Though there are a slivers of hope in Tampa's daily one through nine, it's hard to believe that they're going to be able to be consistent enough to win all types of games down the stretch. As of yesterday, they 28th in the MLB in average (.224) and 28th in OBP (.292), numbers that speak well to the mediocrity across the board.

Sometimes you can only stretch the "potential factor" so far. With the Rays' group of hitters, that certainly appears to be the case for 2016.

As a less worrisome but still notable factor, the Rays clearly won't be able to keep up with the unbelievable bullpens around the East. FanGraphs ranked them 26th in their relief pitching power rankings in the pre-season, an on-par projection for what we should see through the season.

Boston Red Sox

Current record: 11-9

Why they have a chance to compete

When firing on all cylinders, the Red Sox lineup can be scary. From Mookie Betts and Dustin Pedroia at the top all the way down to Brock Holt and Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston can do a little bit of everything in all aspects of their offensive approach.

They're 4th in the MLB in average (.272) and ranked 5th in OBP (.334), largely aided by unforeseen starts from Travis Shaw and David Ortiz. When everyone is on their game, Boston can be a force to be reckoned with.

In the bullpen, Boston has the chance to be as shutdown as you can get. Sure, they've had a rough start from Craig Kimbrel, but there's no reason to believe he'll continue to give up mammoth extra base hits like the shot he surrendered to Chris Davis during the first series against the O's.

When Kimbrel, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa are all hot, they might just be the best trio in the league.

What holds them back

This year's Red Sox squad is strikingly similar to the Orioles in many ways. And ultimately, they may not be more alike in any other area than the primary achilles heel: starting pitching quality and depth.

Boston's offense might eventually fall off, and when they do, they're not going to have much from their starting arms to lean on. Aside from Clay Buchholz and David Price - both of whom have started with rough numbers - what's there to be excited about, Rick Porcello and Steven Wright?

If these guys keep mashing, they'll have a shot to compete for the division crown. Otherwise, don't be surprised if the pitching as a whole burns out by the middle of June.

New York Yankees

Current record: 8-11

Why they have a chance to compete

If the Major League season boiled down to bullpen arms, the Yankees might be in a prime position for a World Series title. As much as folks love to rave over the weapons out of the Kansas City ‘pen, the pitchers in pinstripes don't receive nearly enough credit.

Dellin Betances (0.90 ERA, 6 hits, 23 Ks in 10 innings) and Andrew Miller (0.00 ERA, 3 hits, 15 Ks in 9 innings) are special talents. Throw in Aroldis Chapman when he returns from suspension? Lethal.

On offense, there is some sneaky firepower that could come in handy throughout the summer stretch. Stalin Castro (.290 avg.) and Brett Gardner (.397 OBP) have been very good to begin the year, and Carlos Beltran has mashed nicely with a .485 slugging percentage.

What holds them back

The starting rotation here, again, is really, really shaky. Aside from Masahiro Tanaka, there's not much that jumps off the page. C.C. Sabathia is just about done with his MLB starting ability, Michael Pineda is wildly inconsistent and back-end arms in Nathan Eovaldi and Luis Severino are average at best ... on a good day.

On top of those issues, it's not difficult to see how the season could slip down the mountain if the big bats in the middle of the order don't wake up, and quickly. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Tiexiera and Chase Headley have snoozed through April up until this point. If that continues, in the voice of the great Joe Angel, "You can wave those playoff hopes bye-bye!"

Toronto Blue Jays

Current record: 10-12

Why they have a chance to compete

You already know why the not-so-friendly neighbors to the north have a great chance to win the East.

The lineup is stacked with season-long run-scoring potential and the pitching is plenty good enough to keep the fireworks alive on the offensive side.

Let's get to the main point here, shall we?

What holds them back

Here, we could really name this section, "what might hold them back if everything goes wrong at one time". Make no mistake about it - this is a legitimate ballclub. But as the narrative of baseball so famously tells us, anything can happen over the course of 162.

So what if the back end of the starting rotation begins to crumble? Sure, they've been decent thus far, but consider the factors of the arms that keep the group together.

R.A. Dickey is 41 years old clawing onto his last few seasons in the MLB with a 6.10 ERA and 1.70 WHIP this season. J.A. Happ is a 33-year-old with a 4.10 career ERA. Aaron Sanchez has less that 150 MLB innings under his belt in his first season as a starter after 30 bullpen appearances in 2016.

There is a shot for Toronto to struggle in the starting pitching department during the lengthy summer months, far-fetched or not.

Combine that with extended slow starts from the bullpen and key lineup pieces in Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki and you might just have a case for projecting the Orioles to keep pace with the 2016 Blue Jays.

They pose the toughest threat. But as the great Lloyd Christmas would say: "So you're telling me there's a chance..."