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Determining MLB's toughest division no easy task

Rising revenues, playoff expansion continue to change baseball landscape @castrovince

What is the toughest division in baseball?

Answering this question used to be a sort of reflex reaction -- or maybe even a gag reflex, if you grew tired of all the Yankees and Red Sox hoopla.

What is the toughest division in baseball?

Answering this question used to be a sort of reflex reaction -- or maybe even a gag reflex, if you grew tired of all the Yankees and Red Sox hoopla.

The American League East was the answer. And it wasn't about hype; it was about facts. In the first 17 years of the Wild Card era, the AL's extra entry came from the East 13 times. And in 10 of those 17 seasons, the AL pennant winner came out of the East.

But added playoff expansion in 2012 has changed the landscape, as has the television money that has helped clubs keep their core players and dilute the free-agent pool.

It's harder than ever to buy a pennant, and, in a related development, it's harder than ever to pick a pennant winner.

So, let me ask the question again: What is the toughest division in baseball?

Personally, I'd submit the NL Central.

It has filled four of the six NL Wild Card spots in the last three years. The Cardinals seem to pencil the NLCS into their season schedule, and now they've added Jason Heyward to a lineup that needed a boost near the top of the order. They'll be challenged, of course, by a Pirates team vying for its third straight postseason with possibly the game's best outfield, a Reds team still very much in win-now mode despite the trades that yanked Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon out of the rotation and a Brewers team that was one of the best teams in baseball for four months of '14 and is vying for more staying power in '15.

But the biggest reason why the NL Central belongs in this discussion is the Cubs' rise to relevance. With Joe Maddon and Jon Lester and a promising stash of young bats, that "Back to the Future 2" stuff isn't totally inconceivable (and if you don't believe me, why don't you make like a tree and get out of here).

Actually, the toughest division might be the NL Central's AL counterpart.

The Tigers have the goods to grab their fifth straight title, though there are questions about Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez coming off surgery and Justin Verlander trying to recapture his old form in a Max Scherzer-less rotation. All you need to know about the AL Central is that the club that finished in second place last year is the one that came 90 feet short of tying Game 7 of the World Series.

And now the Royals and Tigers are challenged not just by an Indians team with one of the best starting staffs in baseball but also by the White Sox, who added Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera to their Chris Sale and Jose Abreu nucleus to become an instant contender. The Twins won't make things easy on their Central peers, with an offense that scored the seventh-most runs in baseball last season and a rotation that should be improved.

But hey, I freely admit my Central focus might be misguided.

After all, the Padres' big winter, capped with this week's signing of James Shields, has added a layer of complexity to the NL West, which already supplied us with a 94-win Dodgers team and a Wild Card-winning Giants team that won the World Series last year. Furthermore, better health could work wonders for the Rockies and the D-backs, both of whom should, at the very least, be more competitive than they were when losing 96 and 98 games, respectively, last year.

An improved Astros team and a Rangers team that has to be healthier than it was last year deepen the AL West, where the Angels and A's battled last year. The A's are almost totally revamped but still considered a contender, and the division favorite might be a Mariners club that finished oh-so-close to October last year and balanced the middle of its order with Nelson Cruz.

We can probably dismiss the NL East from this discussion, if only because the Phillies and Braves are building for better days beyond '15. The Nationals are going to be the prohibitive favorites in the East, though I do think the Marlins will prove pesky and the Mets have one of the league's deepest pitching staffs.

Maybe this discussion should go right back where it started.

For as much talk of the AL East not being the powerhouse it once was, its clubs still have the most average wins per season in the dual-Wild Card era. 

Average no. of wins by division
From 2012 to 2014  
American League  
East: 84.3
Central: 79.1
West: 82
National League  
East: 80.7
Central: 80.8
West: 79.3

Opinions on the East's candidates for a crown are remarkably varied. The Orioles won the East by 12 games last year, while the Rays have, in the last eight months, traded David Price and lost Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman. Yet PECOTA has the O's winning 78 games and the Rays winning 86. The Red Sox lost 91 games last year, yet they'll probably be the East favorites. It's a wacky, wide-open division in which I, for one, am willing to entertain an argument for any of the five teams.

That, ultimately, is the beauty of baseball in 2015. None of us really knows a thing. A manager once told me, "You can expect and project, but you cannot predict." I don't know if that has ever been more true than it is now. When I compiled this early -- and I do mean early -- installment of the MLB power rankings, there were, legitimately, 15 teams who fell outside my top 10 who I felt deserved some level of "honorable mention." That's a lot of teams, folks.

So… what is the toughest division in baseball?

That might be the toughest question in baseball.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.