Never too early to predict the 2024 division winners

March 21st, 2024

With the Dodgers and Padres playing the two-game Seoul Series in South Korea on Wednesday and Thursday, the 2024 MLB regular season is officially upon us. (Full Opening Day action is set for March 28). So today, we continue our weekly series of season previews, breaking down major storylines from the perspective of all six divisions.

Last week: The likeliest major award winners
Today: The likeliest division winners

We’ve been doing a ton of predictions in this series, analyzing lots of players, teams and storylines, but in the end, only one question hangs over every division: Who’s gonna win this thing?

Flags fly forever, after all, and if you can’t get the ultimate pennant -- the one the Rangers will be waving over Globe Life Field in a couple of weeks -- a division title is still something you’re proud to have. And in many cases, it’s just the start of something bigger.

So let’s put pen to paper, pedal to metal, nose to grindstone, and actually pick some division winners. You may agree with some of these, you may disagree with others, but this is the call, heading into Opening Day, as I see it. If your team isn’t picked, don’t sweat it: There are, of course, always the Wild Card spots. Ask the two teams that made the World Series last year.

AL East: Orioles
FanGraphs projections, if you can believe it, have the Orioles finishing third in the AL East this year, behind the Yankees and Rays. Far be it for me to risk antagonizing our Artificial Intelligence overlords, but that’s crazy talk. Lest you forget, the Orioles won 101 games last year -- something they never did when Cal Ripken Jr. played for them -- and they look, to these eyes, better than the 2023 team in nearly every possible way, save for maybe the bullpen.

All those young players who carried them last year are a year older and more experienced, they brought in the ace they’ve been looking for in Corbin Burnes while trading nothing for him that they will immediately miss and, oh yeah, they’re about to add the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball (maybe the most talented guy on this immensely talented team), who may end up being their signature superstar. Also lurking: Prospects ranked 17th (Samuel Basallo), 19th (Colton Cowser), 30th (Coby Mayo) and 32nd (Heston Kjerstad) on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100. The Yankees look better, the Rays look worse, the Jays look a little better and the Red Sox look a little worse. But no one’s in the Orioles’ ballpark. Third place? Frankly, putting the Orioles first looks like one of the easiest calls on the board.

AL Central: Tigers
You’ve got to have one off-the-board, pretty wild upset pick if you’re going to make some predictions like this, and this one is mine. Honestly, I’m not sure anyone in this division should be considered any sort of major shock, as no team has firmly established itself as an obvious frontrunner. The Twins are the defending division champs -- and the favorites over the field, according to FanGraphs -- but they’re short a Sonny Gray and didn’t add much to a team that was hardly a juggernaut last year. The only other team in the division that made clear improvements is the Royals and, well, let’s say they’re a year (or two, or three) away.

So how about these Tigers? They have all you want in a trendy pick, including young hitters who have turned the corner (three of them: Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and Kerry Carpenter), a young potential No. 1 starter (Tarik Skubal was so much better than anyone realizes last year), veteran rotation reinforcements (Jack Flaherty and, especially, Kenta Maeda) and, perhaps most importantly, the vibe of an organization that senses an opportunity to strike right now. We’ll see about their bullpen, and whether Javier Báez can turn things around; there are some holes and questions, no doubt. But you can win this division with holes and questions; every team in it has them, after all. And jeez, if the Lions can do it, why can’t the Tigers?

AL West: Astros
The Rangers just won the World Series, you might have heard, and one of these years, the Mariners are finally, finally going to take charge. But this old man remembers being able to see a double feature at the Roxy with a couple of bobbysoxers for a nickel more vividly than he remembers a time when the Astros didn’t dominate this division. (They didn’t win it in the truncated 2020 season, but, well, that was 2020 and the Astros went ahead and made the ALCS that year anyway.)

Sure, they’re older, they have a new manager, and there are certainly some questions to be answered in the years ahead for this franchise. But this is still a team on a jaw-dropping seven-year ALCS streak, a team with a lineup that features a top four that’s the envy of everyone else in baseball and a rotation headed by Framber Valdez and (eventually) Justin Verlander, followed by a number of exciting pitchers still in their 20s. The Rangers have the most recent World Series ring. The Mariners have Julio Rodríguez. But the Astros are still the class of this division until someone definitively proves otherwise, and in my mind, maybe not even then.

NL East: Braves
Can you imagine how heated it might be getting in Braves Country right now if the team hadn’t won the World Series in 2021? That magical run -- remember Joc Pederson’s pearls? Remember how Ronald Acuña Jr. wasn’t even a part of it? -- was as riveting and unforgettable as it was surprising, and it set the tone for a stretch of Braves success that sure looks likely to continue this year.

But imagine if they had not won that year, and these Braves teams, so dominant, so well-rounded, so locked in, were still looking for their elusive first title since 1995? It would be all anyone would be able to talk about. Are the Braves just not built for October? Is this the ‘90s Braves all over again? Why can’t Brian Snitker win the big one? Instead, with that World Series ring in their pocket, the Braves can just go about doing what they do: Flattening the NL East and probably clinching the division not long after Labor Day.

NL Central: Cubs
It feels like it has been a long time since a team finished in last place one season and then was favored by FanGraphs -- by a full two games! -- to win the division the next year. But that’s where the Cardinals are heading into 2024. That’s putting a lot of faith in the slightly rebuilt (with very old pitchers) rotation, not to mention the injuries they’ve been dealing with in their outfield, with both Tommy Edman and Lars Nootbaar likely to miss Opening Day. That’s too much to overcome for a last-place team to make such a leap.

The Cubs, though, look like a clear favorite. They brought back Cody Bellinger, they added a sleeper Rookie of the Year candidate in Shota Imanaga, they have Michael Busch ready to break out at first base and they have one of the best defenses in baseball, led by Dansby Swanson, who may end up going down as the best free-agent shortstop pickup from last offseason. They also brought in new manager Craig Counsell, who is already changing the whole tenor of the organization and is also a lot less likely to oversee a late-season collapse like the Cubs endured last year. The Brewers haven’t vanished, the Reds are stacked with young talent and the Pirates are feistier than they are generally perceived. But the Cubs are in the best position, and I’m not sure it’s as close as many projections systems seem to be implying.

NL West: Dodgers
Contrary to popular belief, the Dodgers did not bring in every player on the market this offseason: It only felt that way. But there’s no question that the Dodgers -- after a “down” year in which they only won 100 games -- entered the Hot Stove as if they had been fired out of a cannon. The result: Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow and Teoscar Hernández and also did I mention Shohei Ohtani?

And that’s not to mention their two former MVPs in Mookie Betts (now at shortstop; at some point they’re just going to let him play every position at once) and Freddie Freeman. Plus there is loads of young talent here, and don’t forget about Max Muncy and Will Smith. They’ll also go get whoever they need to during the season, so yeah, this is not a difficult pick. The postseason is its own thing, as the Dodgers well know. But the regular season? The regular season belongs to the Dodgers. Again. As always.