This exercise used to be a lot more fun before the advent of the wild card.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m still in favor of the current postseason system. It’s essentially an eight-team postseason wrapped in the cloak of a 10-team postseason, with an extra cruel surprise waiting for two of the teams that spent a couple dozen hours thinking they were a real postseason team. It has nice balance, giving hope to a third of baseball before ripping it away quickly and meticulously at the same time, like a Band-Aid that spirals up your entire torso.
But danged if it’s not harder to give a rip about divisional races these days. I can’t pick a winner in the AL West, but it doesn’t matter because the loser just might have a safety net. Or two.
One of these divisions will spit out a compelling race, though. Those are just the odds. And if I had to place odds on which divisions would be the most interesting, the order of likelihood would go something like ...
6. NL Central
Enigmas in the middle
You can feel free to move the Pirates up a rung — I know I’m bullish — just as you can feel free to move the Cardinals down after the Alex Reyes injury. It’s all fluid.
Except for the Cubs at the top. They’re going to win the division. We can all agree on that. This is the dullest division in baseball in that respect.
Concoct an apocalyptic injury scenario for the Cubs and they still look like the favorites. Even if something unspeakable happens to the rotation, they still have the lineup to overcome it, along with 38 games against the Reds and Brewers to act as a buffer. If something unspeakable happens to the rotation and lineup, they still have depth at every level, every position, and they wouldn’t be automatically eliminated.
Again, that’s in the event of a roster apocalypse. Assuming that they have a normal baseball season, with ups and downs, surprises and disappointments, they’ll win the division by a comfortable margin. The Cardinals and Pirates should be interesting, but they won’t be beat-the-Cubs interesting.
5. AL Central
Enigmas in the middle
Come on, middle America. You’re killing us.
The Indians aren’t exactly a juggernaut who are guaranteed to win the division by 15 games. They’ll still have some of the injury concerns that plagued them last season. A forearm strain for Danny Salazar is kind of a big deal, even if he recovered quickly enough to appear in the postseason. It’s impossible to know how much they can expect from Michael Brantley, and the lineup seems surprisingly thin without him, even with Edwin Encarnacion.
Not only are the Indians the clear favorites, though, but the closest team to them (Tigers) spent the offseason signing minor-league free agents and nothing else. The Royals have a lot of familiar names and a rotation filled with competent-to-solid known quantities, but the projection systems absolutely hate them. We’ve heard that before, and Royals fans are right to wear these dour projections as badges of pride, but, well, we heard them last year, too. And they were kind of right.
At the bottom, we have the Twins and White Sox. They will play 19 games against each other this year. That reads like a missing verse from “Eleanor Rigby.”
4. NL East
Enigmas in the middle
This might have the best 1-2 race at the top, which means I might be underrating this division, but the Marlins are also the sketchiest of enigmas. While they might have the best outfield in baseball, give or take, they also have one of the most uninspiring rotations. That’s not fair to them for obvious, painful reasons, but it’s hard to concoct a lot of scenarios where they pitch enough to contend with the Mets, much less the Nationals. It’s possible that the two teams combine to feature nine starting pitchers better than Wei-Yin Chen, and if Zack Wheeler comes back at full strength, it might be a clean sweep.
The Phillies and Braves are both better than you think, with rotations that are surprisingly deep and effective, but they’re in the rebuilding category because they haven’t been shy about rebuilding recently. Move them up if you need to, but it’s not going to change that this is a division with clear, unambiguous tiers.
3. NL West
The NL West just squeaks ahead of the NL East because a) Giants/Dodgers has a ring to it, even if the Dodgers have dominated the division since 2013, and b) I’m just curious enough about the Diamondbacks in a post-Stewart and La Russa world. We expected Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller, and A.J. Pollock to be huge contributors at this time last season. So let’s pretend it never happened and, wham, instant contenders again.
The Rockies are everyone’s underrated team, to the point where they’re probably rated just fine. They have some flaws. They spent their money in a curious fashion this winter. They also might have the best lineup in baseball, so they’re worth getting excited over, especially considering how hard they’ve worked to build a young rotation that might not have their souls flayed by Coors Field.
The Padres signed Jered Weaver, and I’ll be honest, I missed that news entirely. He also might start Opening Day. That combination is a perfect way to describe the 2017 Padres. But the Diamondbacks and Rockies are likely to bug the Giants and Dodgers just enough, if not surprise the heck out of everyone.
2. AL West
Enigmas in the middle
Some housekeeping, first. A team with Mike Trout is not an enigma. It’s a team with an eight-game head start on the rest of the league, and the Angels spent the offseason making sensible, rational moves. FanGraphs’ projected standings has them finishing with the same record as the Mets, you know. They’re one of my sneaky almost-contenders, too, so don’t stuff them in the rebuilding category.
Don’t stuff them in the contending category, either. That’s filled with three teams that are hard to separate. The Astros have the division’s lineup, with five starting pitchers who can help a team. The Rangers are the defending champs, with just enough youth to balance out their aging players. The Mariners are the Mariners are the Mariners, but they were busy this offseason, and they probably got better. I’ve picked three different winners at different points this winter, and I’ll probably cycle through them again before I settle on one.
It’s not like the A’s will be boring, either, with enough young starting pitching to avoid last place, so the AL West should have one of the most evenly distributed collections of talent in baseball. That’s usually what it takes to have the most interesting division in baseball.
But I’ll get a little contrarian.
1. AL East
On one hand, the problem here is the same problem with the least interesting division. There’s a clear favorite. It’s not a controversial favorite, either. The Red Sox have Chris Sale, and last year’s Cy Young winner is probably their No. 3 starter. The lineup is loaded with youth and veterans alike, and the bullpen could be one of the best in the AL. They’re probably going to win the AL East.
They’re not guaranteed to win the division, of course. And the reason the AL East is baseball’s most interesting division is that any of the four teams below them might rise up and chew through the Red Sox’ sense of entitlement. It’s a stretch with the Rays, and the projection systems sure hate the Orioles, but any of the non-Sox could win 95 games without us demanding a congressional inquiry to figure out how it happened.
It’s a matter of preference, then. Do you prefer your divisional races to have a couple of heavyweights at the top, exchanging body blows all summer? If so, the NL West might be for you. Do you prefer a mess of teams at the top, each with a roughly equal chance of winning? The AL West might be your spirit division.
I’m a parity junkie, I guess. When I look at the AL East, I see a bunch of teams with a chance, and they’re all going to be playing each other in the last two months of the season, with the teams out of contention still talented and prideful enough to play spoiler.
It’s the AL East for me, with the other two teams close behind. There’s also a chance that none of these stupid divisions will be worth watching by the end of the season, and that we’ll have to focus on a hilarious three-way Rays/Tigers/Mariners battle for a wild card spot. I’m cautiously optimistic about some of them, though. It will never be 1993 again, but there’s still a chance that at least a couple of these divisions will be worth watching for the entire season.