Which division is the best in baseball?
For years, it has been one of the most obvious statements in North American professional sports.
The American League East is the best division in baseball.
An AL East team has advanced to the World Series in 10 of 17 seasons since the strike, the most appearances for any division in the majors during that span.
The Yankees still maintain the highest payroll in the game. The Red Sox aren’t far behind. The Rays, with three postseason appearances in the last four years, are perhaps the best-run organization in the sport. The Blue Jays are annual recipients of the Best Fourth-Place Team in Baseball Award. The Orioles … well … they have Camden Yards.
And yet it’s becoming trendy to question the AL East. Last season, the Rangers became the first AL team other than the Yankees to make consecutive World Series appearances in the wild card era. The Angels lavished $240 million on Albert Pujols, suggesting they have designs on becoming baseball’s new superpower. At the start of spring training, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said the National League East now “rivals” the AL East in competitive depth.
But has the competition really caught up? Did the AL East’s reign over the major leagues end with the Yankees’ most recent title in 2009?
The answer: No.
Here’s my preseason ranking of the six divisions. The top one is — in the words of Bob Seger — still the same.
1. AL East
Sure, I was tempted to bump the East Coast elites from their perch. But I count three legitimate World Series contenders in this division — the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox. No other division has that.
The AL East should again have the best third- and fourth-place teams in baseball, which is one way to measure its overall strength. The Red Sox have pitching questions and injury worries. But their lineup includes an almost-MVP (Jacoby Ellsbury), a former MVP (Dustin Pedroia), an MVP candidate (Adrian Gonzalez) and the AL’s best designated hitter (David Ortiz).
The Yankees won 97 games last year and should have a much better rotation in 2012, not to mention a healthier Alex Rodriguez. The Rays possess one of the deepest pitching stables in the game; Joe Maddon’s lineup is thin, but when has that stopped him from winning?
The Blue Jays remain a No. 2 starting pitcher and big bat away from seriously challenging for a playoff spot. But they have Jose Bautista — baseball’s most prolific home-run hitter of the last two seasons — along with one of the best young players in the game, Brett Lawrie.
2. AL West
The awkwardness is almost over: This is the last year in which we must compare five-team divisions to four-team divisions.
The case can be made that baseball’s best two teams reside in the AL West. As someone who’s picking the Angels to win it all this season, I’m quite sympathetic to that argument.
But half of the teams in this division — namely the Mariners and A’s — have absolutely no chance to make the playoffs this year. The line between haves and have-nots is starker in the AL West than anywhere else in baseball.
The AL West is baseball’s most top-heavy division. As brilliant as the Angels and Rangers are, “top-heavy” doesn’t mean “best.”
3. NL East
As Alderson suggested, some in the industry believe the NL East might be the best in baseball. But to me, the buzzwords in this division are not quite.
The Phillies are not quite as good as they once were, with a lineup that already has sustained key injuries to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
The Marlins, while vastly improved, are not quite on a level with the Angels, Rangers and Yankees.
The Nationals are not quite ready for a deep playoff run, particularly if Opening Day starter Stephen Strasburg will be shut down for the season in September.
The Braves’ pitching staff is not quite on par with Philadelphia’s, and the lineup lacks the pop to overcome that gap.
It might be different by this time next year. But for now, baseball’s top two divisions are in the AL.
4. NL West
It’s quite possible the NL West will produce two playoff teams and rival the NL East in overall strength.
Of course, this being the NL West, we don’t know who those teams might be.
The NL West is known for two things: superb pitching and unexpected champions. If the second wild card rule had been enacted earlier, every team in the division would have reached the postseason during the past three seasons.
I’m picking the Diamondbacks to win the pennant, because they have All-Star position players in their prime (Justin Upton, Chris Young, Miguel Montero) along with a pitching staff that will only get better through internal midseason reinforcements.
The Giants, as usual, will pitch well enough to remain in the pennant race into September. The Dodgers could surprise, particularly if the new, cash-flush ownership adds talent at the trade deadline. The Rockies are a sleeper team, with a potential MVP in Troy Tulowitzki. The Padres aren’t a true playoff contender yet but could be in 2013, with an infusion of young talent.
There’s a lot to like about each team in this division — a statement that may be unique to the NL West this year.
5. NL Central
The defending champion Cardinals probably feel disrespected. Their division is ranked all the way down here, and I’m not picking them to win it. Sorry. But the losses of Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan and Pujols will have a profound effect on the team — and division at large.
The Brewers are dealing with a talent drain, too, with Prince Fielder signing with the Tigers for $214 million. Fortunately for them, Ryan Braun (groin strain) found his stroke in the last days of spring training and Corey Hart made a quick recovery from right knee surgery.
The Reds are my pick to win the division, but I am feeling increasingly uncertain about them. The Joey Votto extension might actually work against them this year; Brandon Phillips now is unlikely to get a new deal of his own, which could create discord in the clubhouse.
In the end, the NL Central is stuck here because I don’t see any of its teams as a serious threat to win the 2012 World Series.
6. AL Central
If the Tigers fail to win this division, it will be a shock to just about everyone in baseball.
That, as much as anything else, explains why the AL Central ranks at the bottom of the majors. The White Sox might be the strongest challenger to Detroit, if for no other reason than they seem to perform best when it’s least expected. The Indians have an unspectacular roster. The Royals suffered too many springtime injuries. The Twins have a poor starting rotation.
With an unbalanced schedule that ensures a host of games against mediocre competition, the Tigers are capable of reaching the 100-win benchmark. With Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander in their primes, the Tigers are one of the five or six best teams in baseball. In this division, they will look even better.