One of the greatest things about spring training is that it offers every team hope for the upcoming season. No matter who’s favored, every team holds at least a share of the lead in one of the six MLB divisions.
Still, we can’t escape the fact that some teams obviously have more hope than others. The strength of their divisions has a lot to do with how much hope every team has.
For example, trying to gain traction in a division that featured three playoff teams a season ago will not be easy. But where does the National League West rank on our list? The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are reminding us all of the mid-2000’s. But one of the three “other” American League East teams will tell us a lot about the strength of the division.
With the regular season a month away, these are how baseball’s divisions are ranked, worst to first, in 2018.
6. National League East
Five of MLB’s six divisions — including all three National League divisions — have a clear favorite heading into 2018. Of those five favorites, we’d be most surprised to see the Washington Nationals tripped up. Part of that is that the Nats are a very strong team and have proven themselves to be very capable of living up to the hype, at least in the regular season.
But the greater issue is that we just don’t see any real competition in the division. The Miami Marlins will be bad and could be historically awful. The Philadelphia Phillies will be better, but it still feels like a .500 season would be fantastic. There is some sleeper potential with the Atlanta Braves. But Atlanta has a mediocre pitching staff and plays in a very live yard — which is not a good combination.
That leaves the New York Mets. New York made some solid improvements and should be a better team in 2018. We could see this team contending for a Wild Card spot. The problem is that for that to happen, the Mets need to get relatively healthy seasons out of a number of injury prone players (ie: Yoenis Cespedes and Matt Harvey), something that hasn’t happened in either of the last two years for New York. In 2016, things were just good enough to earn a Wild Card Spot. In 2017, the Mets stumbled to a disappointing 70-92. We see New York finishing somewhere in the middle of those two seasons this year.
Certainly, Washington is going to be a tough opponent. But otherwise, National League teams should be looking forward to the East Coast road trips in 2018.
5. American League West
At the top, the American League West and National League East are strikingly similar. Like the Nationals, the Houston Astros are clear favorites. It would be rather stunning to see any other team come out on top.
Sticking to the parallels, the Los Angeles Angels are similar to the Mets. Los Angeles dealt with injuries in 2017 and had a busy offseason. Shohei Ohtani was the big splash but more under the radar moves figure to make a big impact. If nothing else, the Halos should compete for a wild card spot in 2018. But that’s where the comparisons start to break.
With the National League East, it would be awfully difficult to imagine the Phillies and Braves being relevant in late September, while it would be surprising if any team other than the Marlins finished with baseball’s worst record. We like the balance that the Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics, and Texas Rangers bring to the American League West. It would not be hard to imagine a scenario where any of those teams made the playoffs.
In the end, we can’t rank the American League West any higher. While we can imagine any of the five teams qualifying for the postseason, we could just as easily see any team (excluding Houston) stumbling to a losing record. But it will be an interesting division to watch.
4. American League Central
Make no mistake, the Cleveland Indians are the clear favorites in this division. But the American League Central is the first division where we could envision another team winning without a handful of completely unimaginable scenarios taking place.
The Minnesota Twins qualified reached the American League Wild Card Game in 2017. Now, we have to remember that the Twins lost 103 games in 2016. That suggests Minnesota’s 2017 was an over-achievement. But we also can’t forget that the Twins were 83-79 in 2015. Maybe what happened in 2016 was the aberration. With guys like Addison Reed and Fernando Rodney on board, the Twins are certainly trying to become a more formidable playoff opponent than they were in 2017.
The Chicago White Sox are going to be a fascinating team in 2018. We’ll start to see some of Chicago’s impressive rebuilding project show up in the majors. We concede that calling the White Sox contenders the year after a 67-95 campaign may be a touch optimistic. But these were some of baseball’s best prospects that are now going to be showing up in the majors. There’s reason to be bullish about the South Siders.
Of course, the division has two teams that will likely lag. The Detroit Tigers are finally embracing a much needed rebuilding project. A good year would have Detroit finishing somewhere around 72-90. The Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015, but stumbled to two non-contending seasons after. Now, the core that won that championship is largely gone. It would be surprising to see Kansas City really compete.
Those two teams keep this division from ranking any higher. But fans in the American League Central figure to see a good summer of baseball in 2018.
3. National League Central
MLB’s two central divisions are strikingly similar. Though it would be a sizable upset, both the Indians and Chicago Cubs could be unseated in at least somewhat realistic fashion. Also, much like the aforementioned Tigers and Royals, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates don’t figure to be especially relevant.
We give the Senior Circuit’s central division a slight nod for two reasons.
One, while Pittsburgh and Detroit are essentially a wash, the also-rans are a little better (or at least more promising) in the National League. While Kansas City is a team on the way down, Cincinnati is a team on the rise. We don’t expect to see the Reds in contention for at least a year. But if things go right, they have significantly more spoiler potential than the Royals.
Two, we’re giving an edge to the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers over the Twins and White Sox. The Cardinals can never be counted out. This certainly isn’t a classic St. Louis powerhouse, but it’s loaded with strong veteran leadership. Until the Cardinals don’t contend, we have to assume they will.
Milwaukee may not have quite the same potential as a team like Chicago, but it is far more reliable. The White Sox have the potential to contend, but young teams frequently have to go through some struggles before that happens. With new additions like Christian Yelich jumping into an already potent unit, this is one of the best top to bottom offenses in the National League. We’re not too worried about the Brewers flaming out.
If things break right, this is a division that can plausibly send three teams to the National League Playoffs.
2. American League East
This is MLB’s only division without a clear favorite entering the year. With the superstar tandem of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, the New York Yankees certainly have the buzz. That said, the Boston Red Sox have won this division in each of the last two seasons. With the signing of J.D. Martinez, Boston didn’t exactly rest on its laurels. It would be genuinely surprising the American League East did not produce at least two playoff teams. Other divisions can produce two or even three, but we wouldn’t be surprised if any other division sends only one team to the playoffs.
On the other hand, we have the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles. Tampa seems to be completely in rebuilding mode, while Baltimore Orioles just don’t have the pitching needed to contend for 162 games.
The Toronto Blue Jays will tell us if this is a good division, or just a top heavy one. Toronto doesn’t have the offense it had in 2015 and 2016. Age, injuries, and departures have done their damage. But the Blue Jays’ top to bottom pitching staff — especially starting rotation — is better than most American League teams.
Barring injuries, it’s not likely that Toronto will compete for the division crown. But it can definitely get itself in the Wild Card Game. If that happens, this division will be a force to be reckoned with, even with two non-contenders.
1. National League West
Sitting atop the National League West we have the five-time reigning champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Three MLB teams topped 100 wins in 2017, but none won more than Los Angeles. The Dodgers also won the National League Pennant and were not far from taking the whole thing. But this division is not just about one juggernaut.
The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies each made the postseason a year ago, with Arizona outslugging Colorado in the National League Wild Card Game. There’s nothing to really suggest that either team will fall off.
The San Francisco Giants will be an interesting team to watch. If they have another down year, then we’ve overrated this division. But the Giants added Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen, and bolstered the bullpen. That, along with the fact that San Francisco has won three championships since 2010, makes this team one that has to be taken seriously.
That really only leaves the San Diego Padres. Make no mistake, we don’t think that the Padres are going to contend. But with youngsters like Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe, along with veterans Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers, San Diego is moving in the right direction.
All of that combined makes the National League West MLB’s top division as we head into the 2018 season.