Everything about baseball is unpredictable; no one knows what is going to happen year to year, heck, even pitch to pitch. While past performance is not a strong predictor of future performance, we seem to put a lot of stock into it in baseball. That being said, nothing is more unpredictable than which division is going to have the most playoff contenders. Last year, no one could have predicted that three playoff teams would emerge from the AL East. There is no doubt that the East was the strongest division – giving us a division champ in the Boston Red Sox, and both American League Wild Card Teams in the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles. Do the teams in the East have what it takes to repeat that amazing feat? Will the West take the National League by storm? Does the Central boast the 2017 World Series Champion? Graham and I broke down our thoughts about where the divisions would end up and here are our final division rankings, from worst to first. These rankings are based on which division we think will have the most teams who are playoff contenders, not which division is most competitive within the division itself.
6. The American League Central
Sorry AL Central fans, but this division is a no-brainer for least competitive in baseball. This is absolutely the Indians division to lose and the Tribe will probably secure the only playoff berth from the Central. That isn’t to say that the Royals or Tigers couldn’t make a run at the top spot in the division, but both teams are aging out of their playoff windows. Verlander and Fulmer are strong arms in Detroit, but Miguel Cabrera is a question mark health-wise and Verly is getting old. There is no guarantee that he can maintain the return to form we saw from him last season, pitchers fall hard and suddenly in today’s game. The Twins did nothing in the offseason to show that there is a window opening for them anytime soon, and the White Sox are in baseball purgatory. Watch for Quintana to move at or before the deadline and Sox to start another long rebuild.
Possible Contenders: 1
5. The National League East
This one was a little more difficult, specifically whether the East or West would have more contenders this year. While Graham and I agree that this division will move up in a year or two, the East lands in the number five slot for 2017. This is, for now, the Washington Nationals’ division. However, a young and hungry Mets team might blow right through the ageing Nats and take that top spot. The Nats are worried about the injury to 2016 Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer, and an inconsistent Stephen Strausburg. Day one, Tanner Roark is the most promising member of that rotation, though if a Cy Young Scherzer returns from an injury that will change. The Nats picked up Adam Eaton in a huge move that brings Trea Turner back into the infield, that bolsters that front five and strengthens the outfield in a single move. The Mets may have the most dangerous rotation to deal with in the division with Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, and Jason deGrom all healthy for the first time – plus the addition of Steven Matz and a Seth Lugo who has been lighting up the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico. Yoenis Cespedes is financially stable and roaring to come back, shoring up an outfield that may see Jay Bruce moved. The Braves and Phillies are still rebuilding, and while they will almost definitely start making waves in the East in the 2018 or 2019 season, they aren’t quite deep enough to contend yet – though they may play spoiler for another team when it comes to Wild Card contention. The Marlins, with the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez, the sale of the team looming, and a never-healthy Giancarlo Stanton, won’t be competitive this season, in fact, we’d be surprised to see them break the .500 mark. But keep an eye on Christian Yelich, who is tearing up the WBC.
Possible Contenders: 2
4. The National League West
The San Francisco Giants went into the All-Star Break last season not only leading the West but as the best team in Major League Baseball. What happened in the second half was by far the most epic collapse either of us has ever witnessed. It is the equivalent of the Yankees dropping four in a row to the Sox after taking a 3-0 lead; only it lasted an entire half season. They made the playoffs based almost entirely on the strength of their first half start. The Dodgers both played solid baseball all year and took advantage of that collapse to take the division title – something they will strongly contend for this season as well. The Blue and White bring back Jansen, Turner, and Utley, all necessary pieces for them to be competitive, and will have a healthy Clayton Kershaw going into this season. The Giants made some moves to shore up that bullpen, most importantly signing Mark Melancon to close, but the backside of the rotation is a question mark. The number five slot is hotly contested by veteran Matt Cain and rookie Ty Blach, but Cain is sporting a 9.00+ ERA in five starts this spring. Of course, the Shark, Jeff Samardzija, is the wild card in that rotation – you never know which Shark you’re going to get, the 12-1 first half starter or the 1-12 second half starter. The Diamondbacks put themselves out of contention by trading away the NL hits leader Jean Segura to the Mariners and getting nothing in return. There is nothing to indicate a return to form for Shelby Miller, and Paul Goldschmidt can only carry the team so far. As for the Padres, they have finally committed to rebuilding, and they won’t be competitive for some time, and coming off their tied-for-worst in the league finish last season, don’t expect much of a rebound. That makes the wild card team, and possible playoff contender, the Colorado Rockies. The Mile-High club signed Ian Desmond, who may be hurt but will be back early according to recent reports, and have picked up Bud Black at manager who is 15th on the all-time winningest managers list. They have a strong, though very young rotation, who can be magnificent as long as they keep the ball out of that thin Denver air where home runs are as common as singles.
Possible Contenders: 3
3. The National League Central
I’m not sure I need to explain that the Cubs will likely be the best team in baseball again this year. Look for the healthy, young, World Champs to make a run at repeating. The St. Louis Cardinals, however, might be seeking to hack – er, push their way into that top spot. Picking up Dexter Fowler from the Cubs could be huge, and Yadier Molina is in All-Star form in the WBC this spring. Grichuk needs a repeat performance and possibly to improve over last year, if he can, look for the Cardinals to do what the Cardinals do – compete for a World Series berth. The Reds are entering rebuilding, having sent Brandon Phillips to Atlanta. DeSclafani will start the season on the DL with a UCL sprain and, while Billy Hamilton had a better year last year, he needs to significantly improve to give the Reds a shot at finishing third in this division. The Brew-Crew is one of those teams that have pieces, but no cohesion. They won’t compete this season and look for Ryan Braun to get dealt at the deadline this year. The Pirates are the wild card in this division; they always seem like they are just missing one piece. Now that McCutchen has been moved to right field and Marte has replaced him, maybe his bat will come back to life – if not watch for him to get traded at the deadline. If Ivan Nova can continue to throw the way he did after he came over from the Yankees last season, it could go a long way toward making the Bucs competitive.
Possible Contenders: 3 and a possible WS repeat.
2. The American League West
Last year the Texas Rangers ran away with this division, but don’t expect that to be the case this year, as the Astros look to cement themselves as the Best in the West. The Astros made huge offseason moves to win and win now. The signing of Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Nori Aoki, and Josh Reddick have injected life into the bats, and a strong rotation is taking life from opposing bats. With the pieces they already had in Correa and Altuve, this team is on track to walk away division champs. But, don’t count out the Rangers, they likely will contend, though their window is quickly slamming shut on them. Picking up Napoli and Gomez were good for Texas, who will see Lucroy return for a full season and possibly make an impact. The Rangers still need depth in the outfield and their rotation if they hope to remain competitive. The Angels have had some abysmal seasons and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon. Mike Trout may be the best player in baseball, arguably, but he is toothless in an organization that spent too heavily on ageing superstars to put anyone around him that can win. Their rotation is weak at best, and Albert Pujols and his contract are sucking the life out of that team. The A’s are among the worst teams in baseball – there is no nice way to say that. They have a lackluster owner who won’t spend money and, despite being a brilliant GM, Billy Beene has hurt them by giving away players who could help them win because they are going to want more money. Sonny Gray is hurt again, and his trade stock is plummeting, though look for him to possibly be dealt at the deadline. The Mariners are the team that makes this division interesting. They have made some huge moves during the offseason, including the one-sided trade that brought Jean Segura north, and may very well make another strong run at a WC slot this year. With the addition of Drew Smyly, Jarrod Dyson, and Carlos Ruiz, this could be a team to reckon with. However, they need to step back and take a long, hard look at Felix Hernandez. He may be King Felix, but his time on the mound is coming to a rapid close.
Possible Contenders: 3
1. The American League East
This is just as much of a no-brainer as the Central being number six. Not only did the AL East give us the division champion Red Sox, but both Wild Card Teams in the Blue Jays and the Orioles. Look for those three teams to slug it out for the top spot in the East and both wild card slots again. The order might be different, but the results could very well be the same, watch the O’s because if Adam Jones plays like he has in the WBC we just might see a new champ crowned. We also can’t discount the Yankees, who resigned Aroldis Chapman and picked up a few other pieces in signing Matt Holliday and bringing up Greg Bird from Triple-A. While the Yanks might be too young to contend this year, might being the operative word, they are building a powerhouse in the Bronx, so watch out. The Sox lost Papi, but they added a few pieces, and they still have the AL Cy Young hurler Porcello. Keeping Trumbo is huge for the O’s and so was picking up Castillo to replace Matt Weiters. The Jays sign Kendrys Morales, but lose Encarnacion to the Indians in free agency which could hurt them. As for the Rays, well the Rays will probably end up at the bottom with the Padres and A’s this year. They are one of the worst teams in baseball.
Possible Contenders: 3, maybe 4
Well, that is our look at the divisional strength of Major League Baseball, be sure to tune into the Out of Left Field Podcast to hear our justifications for these picks and listen to Graham, and I break down other parts of the game, including injury reports and the World Baseball Classic. And be sure that we will always have more stories that come straight Out of Left Field.
Check out our Out of Left Field podcast as we discuss the nest Division in Baseball.