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Most exciting division in '17: Is AL West best?

January 24, 2017

It occurred to me the other day that one fault of the many standings projections available before a Major League season is that they all blindly assume all 30 teams will play 162 games.Let's dig deeper, people! If you can take a stab at guessing Michael Trout's batting average on

It occurred to me the other day that one fault of the many standings projections available before a Major League season is that they all blindly assume all 30 teams will play 162 games.
Let's dig deeper, people! If you can take a stab at guessing Michael Trout's batting average on balls in play or Yu Darvish's ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio, surely you can tell us if that Sept. 30 Twins-Tigers tilt will be rained out and, if so, if it will need to be made up as part of a season-ending doubleheader.
But that's the beauty of ball, ain't it? You can't project it any better than the weather. All you can do is assess things to the best of your ability ... and guess.
With that in mind, here are my best guesses as to how the 2017 division races will stack up against each other, from least to most compelling. I've included FanGraphs' projections as a frame of reference.
6. American League Central
FanGraphs says: 1. Indians (91-71), 2. Tigers (83-79), 3. Royals (77-85), 4. Twins (74-88), 5. White Sox (71-91)
The Indians sure seem to have the clearest path to a division title of any contender, both because of what they'll be adding to their World Series roster (Edwin Encarnacion and a presumably healthy Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Michael Brantley) and what's gone on around them.

The Royals have retooled with the trades of Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson and will be under pressure to make a midseason decision on their many other players in their free-agent walk year, and the untimely death of Yordano Ventura was a huge blow, both emotionally and on the field. The Tigers look almost exactly the same as they did at year's end, thanks to a payroll with no wiggle room and a trade market that simply didn't materialize for their movable assets. While the Major League team is strong, health will be absolutely essential for Detroit, because its depth is suspect. The White Sox are in obvious rebuild mode, while the Twins are in transition with a new front office trying to figure out how to fix up the rotation for the long haul.
Never rule out the potential for shock or surprise, but for now the AL Central simply profiles as the Tribe's to lose.
5. National League Central
FanGraphs says: 1. Cubs (94-68), 2. Cardinals (84-78), 3. Pirates (82-80), 4. Reds (69-93), 5. Brewers (67-95)
For three straight seasons from 2013-15, the NL Central was decided by no more than three games, and one of those years ('15) saw three teams (the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs) all finish within three games of each other.
Then came 2016, when the 103-win Cubs steamrolled everybody en route to their first World Series title in more than a century.
None of this has compelled the Cardinals or Pirates to concede going into 2017. The Cards had lost their way defensively and on the basepaths, and we'll see if an infield realignment and the signing of William Fowler for center field improves them. The Bucs considered offers for former NL MVP Award winner Andrew McCutchen, but they ultimately look much the same as they did in '16, with the possibility that McCutchen and Gerrit Cole will bounce back, and young guys like Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell will take big steps forward.

The Cubs will once again have the opportunity to enter the all-you-can-eat buffet presented by the two rebuilding clubs that figure to be at the bottom of the standings, and what they do with that opportunity is up to them. The Cardinals and Pirates will push them every step of the way. But fronted as it is by the team with baseball's best on-paper roster (again), it's hard to consider the NL Central to be as compelling as it was a short time ago.
4. NL East
FanGraphs says: 1. Nationals (90-72), 2. Mets (83-79), 3. Marlins (79-83), 4. Braves (75-87), 5. Phillies (71-91)
This was a two-team race in 2015 and '16, and the Nationals and Mets figure to butt heads yet again. Rotation health will again be a major factor for the Mets, while the Nats need to figure out the back end of their bullpen.
The question is just how much the others have improved. The Jose Fernandez tragedy will have a lingering impact on the Marlins, though the Fish are hoping a deeper bullpen will bridge gaps and support what looks to be a strong offense. The Braves reformed their rotation with three veterans (Bartolo Colon , R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia) and surprisingly had one of the best offenses in baseball in the second half of 2016. And while nobody will be counting on the Phillies to contend, they've got a sneaky-good rotation setup that could prevent them from being a total pushover.

Ultimately, this has the feel of another two-team race, unless the Marlins show some serious resolve or the Braves' second half sustains and they prove ready to disturb the status quo.
3. NL West
FanGraphs says: 1. Dodgers (95-67), 2. Giants (88-74), 3. (tie) D-backs and Rockies (78-84), 5. Padres (66-96)
Dodgers first, Giants second. That's the way the NL West has wrapped each of the past three seasons. And as you can see, there is statistical reason to believe it could happen again.
With John Forsythe coming over in a trade Monday, there's an argument to be made that a 91-win Dodgers team has substantially improved at second base and in the rotation, assuming they get full seasons from Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urias and Rich Hill (with Hill, we know, that's not an easy assumption). The Giants' offseason revolved around the Mark Melancon addition that they hope settles their erratic bullpen, and they feel good about having a full year of midseason rotation acquisition Matt Moore.

The Padres' roster is a who's who of "Who?" However, perhaps the D-backs and Rockies can deepen this division outlook and end the static state at the top end of the standings. Don't totally discount an Arizona team that will have a healthy A.J. Pollock (his Spring Training injury set the tone for an awful 2016 season) and potentially improved its 'pen, and Colorado lengthened its lineup with Ian Desmond, and the Rox have their most optimistic rotation outlook since ... maybe ever?
The NL West, then, could be trending upward.
2. AL East
FanGraphs says: 1. Red Sox (92-70), 2. Blue Jays (84-78), 3.Yankees and Rays (82-80), 5. Orioles (79-83)
If the Red Sox are as good as everybody seems to think they are, then forget it. The AL East belongs to a Boston club with a loaded rotation now featuring Chris Sale and an improved an 'pen that added Tyler Thornburg.
Of course, we don't know the effects the retirement of David Ortiz will have on this offense. That's a big, big X-factor here. And every team in the AL East -- yes, even the "rebuilding" Yankees -- has made some effort to contend in 2017. Even the low-budget Rays didn't use a 94-loss season as excuse to totally blow it all up with a Chris Archer or Evan Longoria trade. The Orioles are always friskier than projected, the Blue Jays will miss Encarnacion but have an underrated rotation, and the Yanks have some intriguing young bats and possibly the best back-end bullpen tandem in baseball.

While the Red Sox might indeed be as good as advertised, at least they've got four teams keeping them honest.
1. AL West
FanGraphs says: 1. Astros (90-72), 2. (tie) Angels and Mariners (84-78), 4. Rangers (83-79), 5. Athletics (78-84)
The Rangers narrowly won the West in 2015, then ran away with it in '16. But deferring to the defenders, as we so often do, would in this case require minimization of Texas' losses of Desmond, Carlos Beltan and Mitch Moreland in free agency (as of this writing, we're still waiting to see when or if the Rangers will come to an agreement with Mike Napoli or one of the other remaining bats) and firm belief that the inevitable regression from a best-ever record in one-run games won't have a major impact on the standings.
And then, of course, there's all that other activity out west. The Astros -- with Beltran, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick -- seemingly improved an offense that ranked eighth in the AL in runs last year but will still face questions about their pitching staff. Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto has made 11 trades involving 33 players this offseason, so his Mariners are a particularly difficult club to project, but there's no doubt they are hungry to end the game's longest postseason drought. The A's, true to their character, aren't totally punting on 2017, having brought in Rajai Davis after a big season and taken a chance on Trevor Plouffe in a year in which they expect Sonny Gray to return to form. And then you have the Angels, who have depth issues but have done well to upgrade their roster despite a top-heavy payroll.

As you can see above, FanGraphs projects only the A's to have a losing record. The fact that a reasonable projection system could put the Rangers fourth in the standings speaks to the quality of this division, which has been no stranger to unexpected outcomes in recent years.
So until further notice, the AL West is best.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.