The Super Bowl is over, which means that baseball season is almost here. More precisely, baseball prediction season is almost here, where ostensibly smart writers trip over themselves to be aggressively dumb in public. I know I'm addicted to the rush, not sure about everyone else. There's just something about picking the Royals for third place that really gets the endorphins firing.
Before we get to the actual predictions, though, we'll start with something a little lighter. There are six divisions in baseball. All of them will have a champion in seven months. Our job today is to rank the divisional races to predict which one will be the most exciting.
I didn't do this last year, so I can't laugh at past results, but I absolutely guarantee that my prediction for the least-exciting divisional race would have been the NL East because the Nationals were going to win by 13 games. It turns out that the NL East really was a boring division toward the end, but not because the Nationals ran away with it. The same will invariably apply to this year: The best divisions in baseball will disappoint, and a random team will come out of nowhere to be this year's Astros, which will turn an unexciting race into a September thriller.
Until then, we'll go with what we think we know. Here are the best divisional races in baseball, in order from "least exciting" to "most exciting."
6. NL East
Before you yell at me too loudly, note that all of these divisional races are rare, beautiful creatures that just might steal our hearts by October. A bad divisional race is still a glorious divisional race, and this exercise is like ranking our children.
But some kids are objectively worse than other kids. That's not my fault, and I'm not going to apologize for it. And the NL East should have two good teams, one team on the cusp and two lousy teams. That's a combo to make them a clear last-place finisher. While the other five divisions might not have the raw intensity of a potential Nationals/Mets arms race, they'll mix a third team in the discussion that's more interesting than the Marlins, and they'll have more interesting fifth-place teams than the Phillies and a more interesting fourth-place team than the Braves. That applies if those two switch places, too.
In the most basic sense, a great divisional race can be defined by just two teams beating each other up. No one cares about who finished third in the 1993 NL West. No one cares who finished third in the 2012 AL West. So, why should we use the overall strength of the division in our criteria?
Because fewer contending teams means fewer chances at excitement. Last year, the NL East looked like one great team, one pretty okay team, and some also-rans, and it ended up being a pretty boring division by September. Not the way we expected, but still. If there's a glut of average-or-worse teams, the excitement potential goes way down.
5. AL West
I really want to make a contending A's team happen. Partially for selfish reasons, partially because it would really jimmy up this whole AL West race and create chaos. I'm a baseball fan second, and a chaos fan first. Which is the same thing as saying I'm a baseball fan twice.
Alas, the closer we get to the season, the less convinced I am that the A's will get to .500, much less threaten the division leaders. And if you're thinking the AL West is going to be one of the best races in baseball, you have to be thinking it's a five-way scrum. The Mariners are coated with a slick, Mariners-based substance that prevents them from getting too close to the top of the division, and the Angels might be history's most boring team if you limit the pool to "contending teams that employ the best player in the world."
But, again, if you think of Yu Darvish pitching to Mike Trout on a warm August night, with everyone checking the out-of-town scoreboard to see how that Astros/Mariners game is going, you're excited about this race. It just lacks oomph at the bottom.
4. AL Central
If you want parity, the AL Central has it. FanGraphs has the projected rosters for each team on their depth charts, and they've tallied up the projected WAR for each team. Here's where the AL Central teams rank:
12. Indians (39 projected WAR) 19. Tigers (33) 19. Royals (33) 21. White Sox (33) 23. Twins (32)
The Royals aren't getting a lot of respect, just like last year. ZiPS' gas chromatograph is probably broken, and it's telling us that the secret ingredient is love, which you would think the Royals have by this point. But I'll take the over again, if only because the burns from last year's projections are still raw.
And if you're taking the over on the Royals, why not the Tigers, too? That sure is one heck of a lineup, at least in the middle. And the White Sox rotation truly is underrated, even once you realize that John Danks has been replacement level for years now. The Twins have the kind of young talent that could go supernova at any second, which would alter the complexion of the race completely.
I'm looking for five teams with a shot at the AL Central, which vaults them ahead of the other teams. In reality, one team will probably lose 90 and another team will have a 10-game lead by the middle of August. From the cold distance, though, it looks like a superb testament to the wonders of parity.
3. NL West
They're going to have the lousy teams, just like the NL East. There's a clear top three and bottom two, just like the NL East. But there's a two-fer that elevates them above:
- The Diamondbacks and Zack Greinke, even if ZiPS and other projection systems aren't convinced.
- The Giants and Dodgers fighting it out has more of a ring to it than the Nats and Mets.
That last one could be bias, but I've seen enough Ken Burns documentaries to know what people really care about.
There's also just a touch of uncertainty with the two bottom-feeders, with the Rockies' homegrown rotation looking to surprise and the Padres cobbling together a staff filled with some angry pitchers trying to rebound from disappointing seasons. I've seen worse February rosters make it to the final month of the season in contention.
And while you might think it would be a very Padres thing to lose in an undistinguished fashion, you're wrong. As a long-time observer, I can attest that it would be much, much more Padres to contend past the trading deadline behind fantastic Andrew Cashner and James Shields seasons, spend prospects to acquire reinforcements rather than trade away their best players for prospects, and then finish the season in third place, wondering why they didn't just trade their best players for prospects at the deadline like they were planning to before the season started.
2. NL Central
This is the start of an aesthetic argument. Is it better to watch a division with three powerhouse teams, total heavyweights that might all threaten 100 wins, or is it better to watch a division with five teams that might all finish 83-79 and create 162nd-game chaos?
If you choose the former, the heavyweights with a chance to win 100, I don't blame you. The Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals really are outstanding collections of talent. Even though the Pirates had an unfortunately dull offseason, and the Cardinals lost their most valuable position player and pitcher from last season's juggernaut, it's still a three-way race that should be compelling all season.
I just can't get over the Reds and Brewers, both of whom have a chance to be unspeakably awful. We're talking 100-loss awful, even if only because of the top-heavy distribution of talent around the division. And while that shouldn't make a difference when enjoying a three-team race in September, it will. The Cubs will finish the season with a three-game set against the Reds, who will be busy seeing if 26-year-old Darnson Skinwell is the left fielder of the future, and starting a homemade Brad Penny that they made from assorted body parts that they found in Mr. Redlegs' office. Meanwhile, the Cardinals and Pirates will be slamming each others' heads against the turf.
The Brewers were 11-27 against the Cubs and Cardinals last year, and the Reds were 13-25 against those two. For some reason, both teams were a game over .500 against the Pirates, so maybe this imbalance is a feature, not a bug, and it ferrets out the team that can't take care of the weaker teams in the division.
Still, there's something about the stratification that bugs me. Give me strong teams up and down the division. Give me possibly weak teams, as long as they are five of them.
Maybe I'm just a baseball socialist, I don't know.
1. AL East
To get here, where you're excited about the American League East and the five teams within, you have to make some assumptions.
First, you have to be somewhat curious about the Orioles. I was ready to proclaim their rotation very underrated for this article, and then I looked up Ubaldo Jimenez's second-stats, and, ha ha ha, no, they're probably rated just fine. He still has that Elaine-dance delivery, which means he's going to be inconsistent for the rest of his days.
But I believe in their lineup. Or, at least, their capacity to hit 200 dingers again. I believe that Hyun-soo Kim is going to get on base, and I believe that Scott Boras whispered, "Hit better, you fool" into Matt Wieters' ear, and that he whispered, "Okay" back.
Second, you have to forget that we were all jazzed about the Red Sox at this time last year, too. They have David Price, sure, but it's still a rotation filled with young players and uncertainty. Or, to put it another way, (last year's Red Sox + David Price) ≠ a 2015 contender, so are we really so jazzed about the way they finished last year?
Third, you have to believe in the Rays' rotation to an extent that it's not hard to see them aping the 2015 Mets, where the lineup does just enough until the deadline.
Fourth, you have to forget that almost everyone on the Yankees has a well-curated VHS collection. You also have to forget that most of the ligaments in the starting rotation are held together only by the aid of George Steinbrenner's astral manipulation from beyond the grave. They've forgotten it. They're the Yankees. They don't care, and you know they'll contend. You should probably just forget all that.
Fifth, you have to ignore both the Blue Jays' rotation of underwhelming adequacy and their potential to run away with the division by July. Which is hard to do in both cases, which means they probably even out. Maybe.
Add in the potential for Red Sox/Yankees end-of-the-season chicanery -- but only if we can catch any of the games on national TV, somehow -- and you have the division I'm most looking forward to.
The NL East should also be kind of cool, you know. There really isn't a wrong answer, and this entire article is basically a long-winded way of writing, "EXCITED ABOUT BASEBALL, Y'ALL." Last year was kind of a dud when it came to September races, especially once the Cubs and Pirates had the Wild Card safety net. Hopefully this year, we have some 162nd-game chaos.