Opening Day is almost here.
The starters are announced for the most part, and spring training is finally coming to a close. Real baseball will be played, and while we are all making our predictions on World Series contenders and who the next MVP could be, one question remains: who has the toughest division?
The defending World Champions may have difficulties repeating, and this year features a division Tony La Russa himself said could be filled to the brim with competition.
At a glance, it’s not going to be easy for any team to waltz to the top. But that certainly sets up an interesting season of America’s Favorite Pastime. Looking across the league, these are the toughest divisions, starting with the strongest and working our way down.
1. National League Central
The Chicago Cubs are World Series champions until this October, unless of course they repeat, which is pretty likely. That is, if the Cardinals and Pirates don’t have anything to say about it, which isn’t the case.
Joe Maddon had the mentality of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” around the offseason. But when you have a lineup with the names of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, there is not a lot you need to mess with.
Oh yeah, Kyle Schwarber is back from his injury and a dominating postseason in 2016, too. We get to witness an entire season of him.
The Cubs losing Dexter Fowler to the Cardinals may be a bigger loss than some want to highlight. The 2016 All-Star finished the season with a .276/.393/.447 line and increased his walk rate by two percent from the previous season while swiping 13 bags. The Cardinals who will only benefit from the outfielder, who has a lot of patience at the plate.
Jedd Gyroko made as much of an impact as some of the powerful players at his position, and he may have had his most powerful season in 2016. He’s an extremely valuable infielder for the team. The Cards are hoping three-time All-Star Matt Carpenter remains healthy as well. Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal and Mike Leake are key members of the pitching staff, which could be another portion of their success.
The Pirates are also going to be a team that is on a lot of radars in regards to a sleeper pick towards postseason play.
Josh Harrison is no longer a secret when it comes to being a stellar second baseman, and with outfielders like Josh Bell, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and of course Andrew McCutchen, the team has an impressive offense. Lefties do well against their starters, but when it comes to Jameson Taillon, he can keep batters off base.
Notables: Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers
2. National League West
When it comes to the National League West, the Dodgers, Rockies, and Giants are at the top, and by a lot.
Tony La Russa recently mentioned the Diamondbacks have a lot less pressure on them this season with the competition in the division being as strong as it is. And strong could be an understatement.
The Dodgers brought back Justin Turner, who dropped his walk rate while simultaneously raising his strikeout rate. He finished the 2016 season strong hitting more balls in the air. That sounds silly, but his distance increased, which is probably why the Dodgers were happy to bring him back.
That Clayton Kershaw guy will once again be the number one pitcher in the league. Even if he shows signs of regression, the three-time Cy Young Award winner will once again prove he’s the best of the best.
San Francisco is always in playoff contention, and it doesn’t matter if it’s an even or odd year.
Brandon Crawford is an underappreciated shortstop who may not hit for power, but on defense, he is one of a kind. And coming off of a World Baseball Classic win, he will want to continue that confidence. Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner will continue working well together with a hopefully healthy Matt Cain to round up the rotation. If not, Ty Blach could be the fifth starter, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. He’s a top prospect in the Giants organization and could be one of the top rookies heading into 2017.
Don’t sleep on the Rockies, either. Not only do they have Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story, who is making Troy Tulowitzki nothing but a distant memory, but I have two words for you: Coors Field. It’s the strongest ballpark for hitters in the league. But even when Arenado is on the road he was hitting .277 and hit 17 balls over the fence in 2016.
Notables: Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres
3. American League Central
Do not sleep on the Royals’ bats this season.
Even with Jorge Soler not making the Opening Day roster, the outfield should be pretty much set. Paulo Orlando, Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon make up an outfield that is full of power. Brandon Moss at the designated hitter position will drive in runs, and so will Eric Hosmer.
The Cleveland Indians were, of course, the runner-ups last season to the Cubs, but they did not go down without a fight.
Corey Kluber not only had an All-Star season but was talked about to win another Cy Young Award. The 30-year-old had a 3.14 ERA with an 18-9 record (I don’t care if you don’t like pitcher wins, that’s impressive) with 227 strikeouts in 215 innings.
Francisco Lindor is one of the best gloves in the league, and he will be calling the shots at shortstop for the Tribe. Once Jason Kipnis returns and the rest of the team (ahem—Michael Brantley) remains healthy, they will once again be a team that needs to be feared. We have to quickly mention Edwin Encarnacion, who has a bat that will very much be a positive for the team.
The Tigers are always a team that has a chance. But the loss of J.D. Martinez, out with a sprained ligament, can really be detrimental to the team. Martinez had an improvement in strikeout and walk rates and hit 22 bombs last year.
The White Sox can make some noise as well with an interesting new set of pitchers and young names that could make an impact. No pressure, Yoan Moncada.
Notables: Minnesota Twins
4. National League East
The Miami Marlins have Giancarlo Stanton. We know that.
They also have Justin Bour and Christian Yelich, who are two of our most underrated players this season. Bour struggled against lefties last season, but the team plans on exposing him more to those pitchers to prove himself worthy. He slashed .264/.348/.475 last year, including 15 bombs and 51 RBI, and his numbers will improve with more games this time around.
Mets. Mets. Mets. The most notable improvement this season is the team’s pitching staff. A healthy pitching staff. Matt Harvey and Jacob deGromm return from abbreviated seasons in 2016, and of course Noah Syndergaard returns. He had a solid spring training for those of you keeping score at home.
When it comes to the Washington National they have Stephen Strasburg taking over the Opening Day responsibilities, and he will be doing something different when it comes to his pitching. Rather than pitching from the windup, he will opt to pitch from the stretch no matter what the runner scenario is.
“I’m not trying to reinvent myself, but just trying to simplify things as much as I can and be able to repeat my mechanics,” Strasburg said to USA Today.
This should prove successful for a guy who was obviously watching Yu Darvish and Carlos Carrasco, who also had success with the scenario.
We know about Bryce Harper, who will become a free agent in 2018, and Trea Turner should be having a successful full season with the team.
Notables: Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies
5. American League East
There is everything to love about the Orioles. There’s so much power on offense with Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis, Welington Castillo, Manny Machado and even Seth Smith, who should take advantage of the right side of Camden Yards. Lefties thrive there.
Machado will be a free agent in 2018 along with teammate Zach Britton. That they want to go out with a bang should be kept in the back of your mind.
The Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees have one of the most well-known rivalries in all of sports. This season it’ll be interesting to see what they both bring to the table.
The Sox have Chris Sale as a new member of the pitching staff. Last year with the White Sox he had a 3.34 ERA and a 9.25 K/9 rate. He will start off the rotation with David Price who is due for a strong season this time around.
The defense will be solid with Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Bets and number one overall prospect Andrew Benintendi. And the best part is they can hit pretty well too. If they can make it to the postseason, they will do amazing things.
Their rivals, the Yankees, have a lot of talent on the team. A lot of young talent. The giant known as Aaron Judge will be battling Aaron Hicks for the Opening Day start at right field. At the moment, it’s looking like manager Joe Girardi is leaning towards Hicks for the start, but you never know.
Speaking of battles. Greg Bird and Chris Carter have been involved in a battle for first base responsibilities, and Bird did not make the decision easy for the situation. He was very successful during spring training.
The Blue Jays will also have a rewarding season. Not only should their offense be strong, but starting pitcher Marcus Stroman has a good chance to be one of the stellar pitchers this season, thanks to a successful second half in 2016. Especially with his sinker, which has the “most sink in all of baseball among qualified starters.”
Kendrys Morales coming to Rogers Centre has his Steamer projections set at a .295/.266/.330. That increase has a lot to do with the ballpark factor. His fly ball rate along with his power surge in 2016 just adds to his value both as a Blue Jays fan and fantasy perspective.
Notables: Tampa Bay Rays
6. American League West
Everything is bigger in Texas, and that’s exactly what we need to expect in the American League with the Pacific Northwest giving them a run for their money.
The Texas Rangers have a lot of bats on their team. Too many, really. Joey Gallo has a better mentality this season, and even though he may start in Triple-A, that’s not a bad offensive player to have on the back burner. Mike Napoli returns to the team on a one-year deal. In three seasons with the Rangers, the 2012 All-Star catcher had 59 home runs, 141 RBI and has a career .277/.381/.548 slash line. Adrian Beltre is also on his way to joining the 3,000 hit club. And he will join that club.
The Houston Astros have always had the ingredients it takes to win a championship, they just can’t seem to make it happen. George Springer, Alex Bregman, and even Josh Reddick if he can get it together, along with a fraction of the 2015 Cy Young Dallas Keuchel could do it.
Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Mitch Haniger could carry their team to victory as well. The King needs to become what he used to be, and having a bit of a boost at Safeco Field could help. A career 3.16 ERA and hopefully a raise up in velocity could be the cherry on top to make this so.
Notables: Oakland A’s, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim