The best division in baseball? Here's our list

January 31st, 2021

The vast majority of this Hot Stove season’s biggest, boldest moves have come from non-division winners from 2020 who are taking their shot at the title. We’ve seen that from a Padres team that has acquired [checks notes] every starting pitcher, a White Sox team capitalizing on a freshly opened window, a Blue Jays team beginning to flex its market muscle and a Mets team with a new owner and new momentum.

So the projected division races have been altered dramatically these last couple months (and in particular, these last couple weeks). How do the divisions stack up now? And what might still transpire to shake them up?

Let’s rank ‘em, from most to least compelling right now.

1. National League East
Baseball has a way of upending our expectations. But on paper, this is the deepest division in the game, and it’s not particularly close.

FanGraphs’ forecast says the Mets have not only closed the gap on the three-time division champion Braves, but exceeded them. After the additions of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, James McCann and others, the Mets are projected for 92 wins, comfortably ahead of the Braves at 86. But neither team is done adding, and they appear destined to duel.

Both, however, will be challenged by what figures to be a rigorous division schedule. The Nationals have shown no signs of conceding their window, having lengthened their lineup with Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber. The Phillies made their third big splurge in as many winters in bringing back J.T. Realmuto. And while the Marlins, unsurprisingly, have not added any -- ahem -- big fish (other than reliever Anthony Bass, of course), the growth of their young rotation after a fun playoff run in 2020 has their arrow pointed upward. Maybe one of those underdogs rises to the top. But they all have at least a legit shot at a Wild Card slot.

How it might change: The Mets could still sign Trevor Bauer or make some other splash. But the onus is on the Braves, who really need a midde-of-the-order bat, whether that’s re-signing Marcell Ozuna or going a different direction, perhaps in a seismic swap of their own.

2. American League East
The Yankees are the perennial power, the Rays the perennial pests (and, yes, the defending AL champs, thank you very much). Those two teams can’t stand each other. And they played a terrific five-game Division Series with an indelible finish.

But all anybody is talking about now is how the Yankees and Blue Jays stack up against each other. It could very well be that we’re all getting deked by a Rays team that, even when retooling, finds ways to compete. But with the Blue Jays acting -- and spending -- like the behemoth we’ve long known they could be, this division race is taking on a different dimension.

It might be asking too much of a Red Sox team with a top-heavy roster to realistically contend here. But the Adam Ottavino acquisition is another reminder that they’re trying, so they could keep the others honest. The Orioles aren’t going anywhere yet but did prove peskier than advertised in the shortened season.

How it might change: It’s possible that the Yankees’ and Blue Jays’ heavy lifting is complete, but either team could still conceivably add pitching or bench depth. Probably the biggest opportunity is with the Rays, who aren’t going to break the bank for a free agent but who could still raise their floor and increase the odds of a legit three-team race with the acquisition of a starting arm like James Paxton or Taijuan Walker.

3. National League West
Only four times in the divisional era -- most recently in 2018 (Red Sox and Yankees) -- has a division featured two 100-win teams. That feels possible here, doesn’t it? Not just because of the quality of the Dodgers and Padres (they are projected by FanGraphs to have the second- and third-best records in baseball, respectively, with the Yankees at No. 1), but also because of the questions surrounding the Giants (projected for 78 wins), D-backs (74) and Rockies (69).

If you think this division race should rank higher simply because of the Dodgers-Padres dynamic, it’s understandable. But they won’t be playing each other every night (unfortunately).

How it might change: The Padres have built themselves into a viable World Series contender with depth upon depth in the rotation and lineup. You could make an argument that, at the moment, they’ve surpassed L.A. But it sure feels like the Dodgers are just lurking there, waiting to make our jaws drop. Bauer does have Southern California blood, you know …

4. American League Central
The White Sox are becoming the darlings of this division. The additions of Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks to a South Side squad that surged in 2020 and still has so much untapped upside in its lineup and pitching staff will probably make them the consensus favorites.

This is happening as the two-time defending division champion Twins figure out how to patch multiple holes in their pitching staff and lineup. They’ve signed starter J.A. Happ and shortstop Andrelton Simmons and could/should still bring back Nelson Cruz. The Twins know this is a legit championship opportunity, so they’re not done.

People might punt on Cleveland after the Lindor/Carrasco trade, but the Tribe’s pitching staff will remain a thorn in the side of the more clear contenders and the addition of Eddie Rosario will help, too. And the floor of the Central is rising. While their additions are more on the low-key side (Carlos Santana, Mike Minor and others), the Royals have been one of the winter’s more active teams, and the Tigers’ burgeoning young pitching staff has the wheels beginning to turn in the Motor City.

How it might change: As mentioned above, it’s up to the Twins to change opinions on the pecking order up top. Bringing back Cruz and Jake Odorizzi might be enough.

5. American League West
This division is evolving rapidly and is pretty difficult to forecast. Both the A’s and Astros are currently compromised by major free-agent departures but have enough young pitching to stay competitive. Where there is youth, though, there is uncertainty, and their attempts to patch holes between now and Opening Day will go a long way toward determining how strong their outlook is.

The Angels are probably in the best position to seize the moment, and time is ticking for a star-laden squad that simply hasn’t assembled enough quality pitching and depth in recent years. The Halos have kept busy with the additions of José Iglesias, Raisel Iglesias, Kurt Suzuki and José Quintana, but a move for an ace (i.e. Bauer) appears increasingly unlikely. Speaking of unlikely, I’ve written here about why the Mariners should accelerate their rebuild this winter, but they’re not inclined to push their chips in just yet. The Rangers are projected to bring up the rear here.

How it might change: The Halos have gone the cost-effective route to repairing their pitching, but do they still have some sort of splash in them? Even a bet on Paxton would make you feel better about their ability to accelerate ahead of the A’s and Astros (who, of course, still have needs of their own).

6. National League Central
In a sense, the reported Nolan Arenado trade makes this division race less compelling, because it gives the Central what it did not necessarily have before: A clear favorite. Barring other major shakeups, the Cardinals will enjoy that status now that they’ve addressed their glaring need for an impact bat.

Prior to the last few days, the prevailing storyline in the NL Central was that every team was paring back payroll and -- on paper, at least -- reducing its championship chances. The tone changed a bit with the Cubs’ addition of Joc Pederson and then substantially with the Cards’ trade for Arenado. We’ll see how the Reds and Brewers -- two teams that underperformed offensively in 2020 -- respond. But for now, the Central has one clear favorite, one clear, um, non-favorite (sorry, Pirates fans) and a lot of question marks in between.

How it might change: The Cubs will keep looking for cost-effective rotation help, the Reds for a shortstop. But the move that could really shake up the Central would be if the Brewers were able to land Justin Turner. Pair him with a return to form for Christian Yelich and an underrated Milwaukee pitching staff, and the Central race could get a lot more interesting.