There is still much to be settled in this slow-moving Hot Stove season, but it’s never too early to discuss how teams within each division stack up against each other. That is, after all, what the executives in charge of constructing the teams are doing themselves right now.
On Thursday’s Morning Lineup podcast, we discussed each division in depth. Here’s a rundown of the six divisions and an early 2018 outlook for them.
Important note: This is all based on current rosters. A lot of this could change with one signing (hello, J.D. Martinez) or trade (we see you, Manny Machado).
We’ll start with how we each rank the divisions, followed by an overview of each.
1. AL East
2. NL West
3. NL Central
4. AL West
5. AL Central
6. NL East
1. NL West
2. AL West
3. AL East
4. AL Central
5. NL Central
6. NL East
Here’s a division-by-division breakdown:
Castrovince (Rank: 1 of 6)
Overview: Toss an accusation of “East Coast bias” against this Midwesterner, but it’s hard to argue with the strength of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry right now, and that dynamic pushes the East to the top for me. I do think the Blue Jays can remain relevant here and the Orioles and Rays will be more competitive than many realize.
Sleeper: The Blue Jays are holding on to Josh Donaldson and trying to make another run. If Aaron Sanchez can overcome blister issues, they could prove pesky, at the very least.
Favorite: Though I think the Red Sox and Yankees are more closely aligned than advertised in the wake of the Giancarlo Stanton trade, it’s hard not to label the Yanks the favorite given the combined complexion of the Major League club and the upside provided by some intriguing youngsters and near-ready farmhands.
Justice (Rank: 3 of 6)
Overview: Even after acquiring the 2017 NL MVP (Stanton), the Yankees still have not established themselves as the favorite. That speaks volumes about a Red Sox team that still hopes to add an impact bat, possibly the aforementioned Martinez. The Blue Jays would like to add a bat or two as well, and they believe a nice starting rotation could get them into contention.
Sleeper: Let’s say the Blue Jays get healthy and productive seasons from Troy Tulowitzki, Donaldson, Sanchez and J.A. Happ. Let’s say they’re able to add a free-agent hitter, say, Martinez or Eric Hosmer. Suddenly, another October street party looks possible.
Favorite(s): Red Sox and Yankees. You can make a case for either team. The Red Sox need a bounce-back year from David Price and a better season from Mookie Betts. The Yankees need CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka to be healthy and productive.
Castrovince (Rank: 5 of 6)
Overview: With the Tigers and White Sox still in an outright rebuild and the Royals retooling after two subpar seasons, it’s up to the Twins to challenge the Indians, winners of two straight division crowns. The next few weeks will be interesting, as the Twins, who have been working all winter to improve their starting staff with a big-ticket acquisition, try to nail something down.
Sleeper: By default, it’s the Twins, who might not have been the strongest postseason entrant in recent memory but do have a young, talented lineup that produced more runs per game than any team in the Majors in the second half (and much of that was with slugger Miguel Sano on the disabled list).
Favorite: The Indians have the challenge of replacing the lost innings from Bryan Shaw (now with the Rockies) and Joe Smith (Astros) in the bullpen and the production of Carlos Santana (Phillies) in the lineup, but they’re still clearly the team to beat here.
Justice (Rank: 4 of 6)
Overview: The Indians have a few question marks: Michael Brantley‘s health, Jason Kipnis‘ position, how to replace Shaw in the bullpen. But compared to the other four teams in the division, this is nitpicking. In Minnesota, it’ll be interesting to watch the progression of the young talent. The same can be said of the White Sox, who also have turned things over to kids.
Sleeper: Any team besides the Indians is a sleeper, even though the Twins made the playoffs in 2017. If Byron Buxton finally has turned a corner, Minnesota could have one of baseball’s most dynamic players on display. President of baseball operations Derek Falvey confirmed the Twins are hoping to add another starting pitcher.
Favorite: In Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, the Indians have two of the most entertaining and productive players in the game. Cleveland’s patience with Trevor Bauer has been rewarded with a power arm to line up behind ace Corey Kluber.
Castrovince (Rank: 4 of 6)
Overview: The Angels appear to have improved themselves dramatically this winter with the addition of Shohei Ohtani, Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart, and the Astros will have to fend off the ol’ “World Series hangover.” But the 21-game gap between those two clubs in ’17 was a sizable one. It also will be interesting to see what impact the continued retooling Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has orchestrated in Seattle and the efforts of the Rangers to improve their pitching have on this division race.
Sleeper: Mariners. Their rotation was decimated by injury basically from the very beginning last year. With improved health, particularly from James Paxton, they could rise up the ranks.
Favorite: The defending champs remain the team to beat until proven otherwise.
Justice (Rank: 2 of 6)
Overview: The Astros finished 21 games ahead of the field in 2017, but the Angels have worked furiously to upgrade their roster. The Mariners appear to be better as well, while the Athletics have the beginning of a nice foundation in third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson.
Sleeper: If Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs can make a combined 90 starts, and if Ohtani does what he’s widely projected to do as a two-way player, the Angels have a legitimate chance to make a run at the Astros.
Favorite: The Astros should win again thanks to a lineup that might be the deepest in baseball and a rotation that can line up Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. GM Jeff Luhnow has upgraded his bullpen to add two more power arms. In short, there aren’t many questions.
Castrovince (Rank: 6 of 6)
Overview: As with the Indians in the AL Central, the Nationals benefit from an environment in which multiple division rivals are rebuilding. The Phillies are making a particular push to take the next step in their rebuilding process, and, as was the story a year ago, the Mets are a healthy rotation away from being competitive. But the Nats are the class of the East.
Sleeper: It will be interesting to see if a change in leadership to pitching-minded manager Mickey Callaway takes the Mets to another level.
Favorite: With Bryce Harper on the cusp of free agency, the Nats are going to pull out all the stops to try to advance in the postseason for the first time.
Justice (Rank: 6 of 6)
Overview: The Braves and Phillies have enough young talent to take large steps back toward respectability. The Mets will go as far as their rotation takes them, and if, say, Matt Harvey can figure things out, they’ve got a chance to contend. For the Nationals, it’s again about October.
Sleeper: If the Mets can just get full seasons from Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, this division race can be more interesting than people think. And Harvey seems to be at some kind of turning point in his career as he heads toward free agency.
Favorite: The Nationals have no weaknesses. If you want to quibble, you’d add another quality starting pitcher. One of the challenges for rookie manager Dave Martinez will be to work top prospect Victor Robles into the outfield mix. As problems go, that’s a great one to have.
Castrovince (Rank: 3 of 6)
Overview: The Cardinals’ push to improve this winter increases their odds of threatening the Cubs’ reign in the NL Central. And if the Brewers can maintain their momentum from a surprise ’17, this division might again be as strong as it was from 2011 to ’15, when it produced seven Wild Card entrants.
Sleeper: Perhaps the Brewers are not a true sleeper anymore after challenging the Cubs until the final week of 2017. That club has great young depth that might be ready to make an impact at the Major League level.
Favorite: The Cubs are still trying to improve their pitching staff, but the NL Central remains theirs to lose.
Justice (Rank: 5 of 6)
Overview: The Cardinals have closed the gap on the Cubs and Brewers, but still have work to do at third base and the back of the bullpen. The Reds continue to methodically work back toward contending, and the Pirates seem to be inching toward a rebuild.
Sleeper: The Brewers improved by 13 games last season, and some regression is to be expected. But the big-picture view of the franchise could not be brighter. The Brewers are good enough to win 86 games again and have a loaded farm system.
Favorite: The Cubs should win again, but the Cardinals aren’t that far behind. The Cubs are working to upgrade their rotation, and the Cardinals are looking to upgrade their bullpen and offense. Some have speculated the Cubs should trade Kyle Schwarber for a pitcher, but Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Javier Baez are so good that they could be cornerstone players for the next decade.
Castrovince (Rank: 2 of 6)
Overview: It’s hard to argue with the strength of a division that produced three postseason entrants (Dodgers, D-backs and Rockies) last season, but while this division might very well produce three October clubs again, I don’t know that the others have done enough to seriously challenge the Dodgers in the division race itself.
Sleeper: The Giants have major payroll and farm-system challenges as they try to bounce back, but if their regulars more closely approximate career norms and projections, they could quickly rise back above .500 and pose a more serious threat.
Favorite: The Dodgers’ overall depth is still unmatchable in this division.
Justice (Rank: 1 of 6)
Overview: This is the only division that had three playoff teams in 2017, and that could happen again. The Rockies may have upgraded their offense, but they still need at least one more hitter, preferably a corner outfielder. The Diamondbacks need those young pitchers to continue to grow and for David Peralta and A.J. Pollock to stay healthy and make up for the departure of Martinez. The Padres are closer than a lot of people think, with a ton of young pitching on the threshold. The Giants have work to do.
Sleeper: The Padres have a chance. Young players do not come with guarantees or timetables, but Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe and Austin Hedges could all be cornerstone players. If their Double-A pitcher prospects — Jacob Nix, Cal Quantrill, Eric Lauer — get to the big leagues, this could be an interesting baseball summer in San Diego.
Favorite: The Dodgers are going to win their sixth straight division championship. Their bullpen and lineup are terrific, and their rotation is led by the best pitcher of this generation in Clayton Kershaw. President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman probably will add another starter by Opening Day.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. Reporters Joe Frisaro, Maria Guardado, AJ Cassavell and Greg Johns contributed to this story.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.