- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Some questions in life have always been easy to answer:
Can Adele carry a tune? (Apparently.) Has Blake Griffin ever dunked? (There's some YouTube evidence he has.) And what's the best division in baseball? (C'mon. It's the American League East, of course.)
Uhhhhh, hold on a second. Before you finish that sentence, before you finish it the same way we've all been finishing it for about a decade and a half now, one quick question: Are you sure about that?
Are you sure the AL East is still the best division out there?
Really? Well, not everyone agrees. Let's put it that way.
"The AL East isn't really the AL East anymore," said one former AL East executive, "because the Red Sox and Yankees are not the Red Sox and Yankees anymore. To be honest, to me, that division is very average now. And it hasn't been very average for a long time. Maybe never."
But you know who disagrees -- vehemently disagrees, in fact? Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, for one.
"I keep hearing the AL East is no longer the best division, but it was last year, and I don't see how it's gotten worse," Cashman said. "Toronto is significantly improved. I don't think Tampa is going away. Boston is better. Baltimore is coming on. So it's hard to say it's not the best, if it was last year and it looks to me like it's just as tough this year."
It's a fun debate, all right. It's so fun, actually, that I decided to embark on a fascinating (not to mention impossible) project -- to rank the divisions, one to six.
To do that, I surveyed one baseball executive in all six divisions, including three who formerly worked for teams in the AL East. I also had Dan Szymborski project records for every team and every division in 2013. Then I did team-by-team, division-by-division power rankings. And, finally, I factored in payrolls, Vegas odds and all sorts of other data. So what's the answer? Read on.
American League East
No, I wasn't trying to trick you. Check the hard facts:
Projected division record: 434-376, .536 (1st)
Projected record vs. non-division opponents: 244-186, .567 (1st)
Projected 90-win teams: one (Toronto)
Projected .500 or better teams: all five
Vegas rank: 1st
Payroll rank: 1st
Power ranking: 1st
Poll ranking: 1st
So the argument that the AL East is still No. 1 doesn't require a degree from MIT to comprehend. It's as basic as a 3-1 fastball: Top to bottom, it's still the best.
Szymborski is projecting that this will become the second division in the wild-card era (along with the 2005 NL East) in which every team finishes .500 or better. So if the last-place team is that good, what's the argument?
Well, here's the argument: When the AL East was at its most fearsome, allegedly, that wasn't because it had a bunch of .500-ish kind of teams. It was pretty much because of the Yankees and Red Sox. Period.
Remember, there was a 10-year stretch, from 1998-2007, when neither Baltimore nor Tampa Bay produced a single winning season. Not one. And the Blue Jays have now gone 20 straight seasons without playing a postseason game.
"So when you think of what that division was in its heyday, it was really just Boston and New York," said one AL exec. "It was Tampa that really changed that. But before that, it was about how good those two teams were at the top."
Now, though, it's completely flipped. The AL East is now bottom-heavy, not top-heavy. So if we apply the logic we used for years to argue that this was the best division in baseball, then several of the execs we surveyed say it's the AL West or NL East that should be considered the most formidable division in the game, not the AL East.
"If you have a division where all the teams are good but not great, that's not the best division," said one NL executive. "So I'd put the AL West No. 1, because, potentially, two of the three best teams in the American League are in the West -- Texas and Anaheim. And the third is in the Central -- Detroit."
"I think the NL East is the No. 1 division in baseball," said another NL exec. "I think the Nationals, Braves and Phillies are stronger than any three teams in any other division. If you want to compare them to the AL East, I think Toronto is probably the best team [in its division]. But Washington is better than any team in that division. Atlanta is better than any team in that division. And everybody talks about Toronto's pitching, but the Phillies' pitching is as good, if not better than theirs."
Those are not unanimous opinions, however. So it's a tough call. Only two of the execs surveyed ranked the AL East first. But no one ranked it lower than second. So in the end, it still computes to be No. 1. But that doesn't mean it's everything it used to be.
American League West
Not all the data supports this ranking. Take a look:
Projected division record: 392-418, .484 (5th)
Projected record vs. non-division opponents: 202-228, .470 (5th)
Projected 90-win teams: two (Angels, Rangers)
Projected .500 or better teams: three (Angels, Rangers, Athletics)
Vegas rank: 4th
Payroll rank: 6th (courtesy of the Astros)
Power ranking: 2nd
Poll ranking: 2nd
You can sum up the reason those projected records look so ugly in two words -- the Astros. According to Szymborski, if we moved the Astros back into the NL Central, the AL West's winning percentage would jump from fifth-best to second-best in baseball. That's how powerful The Astro Effect is.
Szymborski gives Houston an unheard-of 70 percent probability of losing at least 100 games. So the question is: How much should we punish the entire division because one team is in major rebuilding mode and not even trying to compete yet?
"I'd still put the AL West at No. 1," said one of the NL execs quoted earlier, "because the Angels are unbelievably talented, Texas is perennially really good, Oakland is really good, and Seattle, I think, is underrated. It drags them all down some that they could have a 115-loss team in their division. But the other teams are so good, I think it balances out."
One AL West note I found shocking: Of the top 50 players in baseball in ESPN's 2012 Player Ratings, only six are currently on the roster of an AL West team. That's the fewest of any division in baseball.
National League East
It was almost impossible to separate the NL East from the AL West. But here's what the data told us:
Projected division record: 399-411, .493 (4th)
Projected record vs. non-division opponents: 209-221, .486 (4th)
Projected 90-win teams: two (Nationals, Braves)
Projected .500 or better teams: three (Nationals, Braves, Phillies)
Vegas rank: 2nd
Payroll rank: 4th
Power ranking: 3rd
Poll ranking: 3rd
Once again, to make a case that the NL East is one of the best divisions in baseball, you have to ignore the projected-record data, because this division is split into two distinct tiers. And at the bottom, Szymborski estimates the Marlins have a 36 percent chance to lose 100 games, while the Mets have a 34 percent shot at it. So they're the gravitational force tugging the rest of the division back to the pack.
But back at the top, the Vegas odds (as supplied by Bovada Sports) peg this as the only division with three of the 11 best bets to win the World Series (Washington at No. 3, Atlanta tied at No. 6, Philadelphia at No. 11). And Szymborski projects there's a decent chance that the Nationals and Braves could each win 100 games, with the Nationals on track to win more games than any team in either league.
"If you're going by depth of the entire division, I guess you'd have to take the AL East No. 1," said one of the NL execs quoted earlier. "But if you go by quality, you should go NL East. Washington and Atlanta are better than any of those [AL East] teams."
National League West
There was more disagreement on how to rank the NL West than any other division. And the hard data shows us why:
Projected division record: 409-401, .505 (2nd)
Projected record vs. non-division opponents: 219-211, .509 (4th)
Projected 90-win teams: one (Dodgers)
Projected .500 or better teams: two (Dodgers, Giants)
Vegas rank: 3rd
Payroll rank: 2nd (thanks to the Dodgers)
Power ranking: 4th (tied with NL Central)
Poll ranking: 4th
So why was it so complicated to assess this division? Because there was so much disagreement about how good the Dodgers and Giants are, mainly.
"The Dodgers have the most talent and the best résumés," said one NL executive. "But there's also the potential for a lot of dysfunctional there. I give the Yankees credit all those years when they had a superstar roster, because they were able to function as a team. And that was because of leadership: [Derek] Jeter, [Mariano] Rivera, [Jorge] Posada, [Andy] Pettitte, Bernie [Williams].
"But whatever you think of [Josh] Beckett, [Carl] Crawford, Hanley [Ramirez], Adrian [Gonzalez] and [Zack] Greinke -- they're not Jeter, Posada, Rivera, Pettitte and Bernie. So we'll have to see if they're going to turn into the Lakers or the Dynasty Yankees. It'll be interesting."
And then there were the Giants, who attract surprisingly little love for a team that has won two of the past three World Series. While one exec praised their "combination of talent and team," two others adamantly refused to even include them on a list of teams that could win the World Series.
"They're not going to win two in a row," said one NL executive. "Those days are over."
The Padres and Diamondbacks, meanwhile, were generally portrayed as being slightly better than the masses seem to think. But as one GM put it, "it's hard to think any team in that division is going to win more than 87-88 games." So if that's the case, it was impossible to rank the NL West any higher than No. 4 on this list.
National League Central
Everyone we polled ranked this division fifth. But when you look at the projected records, it's clear there's an argument it's better than that.
Projected division record: 407-403, .502 (3rd)
Projected record vs. non-division opponents: 217-213, .505 (3rd)
Projected 90-win teams: one (Reds)
Projected .500 or better teams: two (Reds, Cardinals)
Vegas rank: 5th
Payroll rank: 5th
Power ranking: 4th (tied with NL West)
Poll ranking: 5th
Once again, the Astros have left their mark on an entire division. Only this time it's by leaving it. According to Szymborski, if the Astros were still part of this mix, they would drop the winning percentage of the whole division by an incredible 25 points -- to .477, which would be the worst of any division in baseball.
But without them, this has the potential to be one of the deepest divisions in the game. In the NL Central's best-case scenario, you'd find two excellent teams (Reds and Cardinals), two teams hovering around Mount .500 (Brewers and, if you dream the dream just right, the Pirates) and one much-improved team (the Cubs).
On the other hand, the Brewers have taken a step back. The Pirates "aren't in the same stratosphere with the Reds and Cardinals," said one exec. And the Cubs are a long way from contention. So how good is this division, really? That all hinges on how good the top two teams turn out to be.
"Here's how I look at it," said one NL executive. "The Reds are the best team in the division. The Cardinals are the best organization in the division, because they've got so much depth. You can flip a coin on who wins the division and which one gets one of the wild cards."
American League Central
The numbers tell this tale about as clearly as it can be told:
Projected division record: 389-421, .480 (6th)
Projected record vs. non-division opponents: 199-231, .463 (6th)
Projected 90-win teams: one (Tigers)
Projected .500 or better teams: one (Tigers)
Vegas rank: 6th
Payroll rank: 3rd
Power ranking: 6th
Poll ranking: 6th
Let's just say it's a good thing the Tigers are in this division.
"Boy, there's a lot of mediocrity in the Central," said one exec.
"There's only one high-quality team in that whole division," said another.
In one of about every seven Szymborski projections for the season, the Tigers win 100 games. And it's tough to find anyone in the sport who doesn't think they'll win the Central going away.
"Detroit," said one AL exec, "might be the best team in the league."
Then again, we heard that last year, too. And what happened? They won only 88 games -- and didn't pass the White Sox until the last week of the season. That's what.
But let's just assume the Tigers are what the world thinks they are. The question is: Is there even a scenario where any other team in this division lives to play in October?
Well, the White Sox won 85 games last year. But "they overachieved," said one NL executive, and added only Jeff Keppinger and Matt Lindstrom. Meanwhile, the Twins and Indians were viewed as "a little better" but not ready to win anything. So basically, it's all up to a Royals team that was willing to trade the minor league player of the year (Wil Myers) for James Shields, Wade Davis and a run at a wild-card spot.
"I think they can," said one exec. "My theory is, it always happens a year before people think it's going to happen. People think progress occurs on a linear basis, but it doesn't always work that way. So it wouldn't surprise me if this team winds up as a wild card."
If it makes the occupants of this division feel better, they should know this: Of the top 50 players in baseball in ESPN's 2012 Player Ratings, you can find more of them (11) in the 2013 AL Central than any other division. Who knew!
Of course, five of them play for -- who else? -- the Tigers.
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