Imagine an ecosystem where there are no dominant predators on the food chain. Instead, it's a hectic place where there's a fighting chance at survival for all.
I'm not sure where you can find a place like that in nature, but I'll tell you where to find it in baseball this year: the American League.
As B/R's Jason Catania noted a couple of weeks ago, this offseason was a wild one. And while it's difficult to sort it all out, one thing that's clear is that it completely rearranged the AL's power structure. In the end, the result should be the league's most wide-open playoff race in recent memory.
Here, dig this: Per Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections, no AL team is expected to win its division by more than four games, and nine teams are projected to finish within six games of first place.
For perspective, consider the last 10 years of American League competition. In every year except 2012, there's been at least one division won by 5.5 games or more. And even in 2012, only eight teams finished within six games of first.
It's not just Baseball Prospectus. FanGraphs' projections have the largest year-end division lead in the AL at five games, with 10 teams finishing within six games of first place.
If you're getting the message that the distribution of talent in the American League is remarkably even, that's precisely what's going on.
One way we can tell is by comparing it to the National League using FanGraphs' projections for Wins Above Replacement:
Focus on the red bars, and you see a clear downward trajectory from the top to the bottom. That's a food chain with dominant predators at one end and helpless things scurrying underfoot at the other.
Focus on the blue bars, however, and what you see is more like a straight line. There's not much difference between the team at the top and the teams in the middle, and even the teams at the bottom measure up pretty well.
Granted, projected WAR isn't gospel. But FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan did a study that found it's pretty good at predicting what kind of talent teams are going to have. If that pattern holds, the talent distribution in the AL will be as even during the season as it appears right now.
And knowing how things unfolded this offseason, is that really that surprising to hear?
What you sometimes see happen in the offseason is talent-rich teams become even more so, making it harder for talent-poor teams to close the gap.
This is more or less what happened in the Senior Circuit. The San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and Miami Marlins made some flashy moves, but the Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals responded in kind. The Dodgers improved their bullpen and defense. The Cardinals landed Jason Heyward. The Nationals landed Max Scherzer.
But in the American League? Nah. It was an offseason that consisted largely of the dominant teams of 2014 either staying stuck or going backward while their pursuers made their moves.
In the AL East, the 96-win Baltimore Orioles lost Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller to free agency, while the 71-win Boston Red Sox and 83-win Toronto Blue Jays both loaded up. With Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez next to a renovated rotation, the Red Sox look dangerous. With Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin added to a lineup that was already loaded, same goes for the Blue Jays.
Meanwhile in the AL West, the 98-win Los Angeles Angels and 88-win Oakland A's failed to upgrade, albeit in different ways.
The Angels got younger when they traded for Andrew Heaney, but it came at the expense of losing a major puzzle piece in Howie Kendrick. And though the A's got some intriguing pieces (namely Brett Lawrie and Ben Zobrist) back for Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija, Derek Norris and John Jaso, the new A's aren't much, if any, of an improvement over the old A's.
This is welcome news for the 87-win Seattle Mariners and 70-win Houston Astros. Cruz could be all the Mariners need to make the leap to October. ESPN.com's David Schoenfield is right to think the Astros could be a surprise contender after upgrading their lineup with Jed Lowrie, Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis, and their bullpen with Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek.
This brings us to the AL Central, where neither the 90-win Detroit Tigers nor the 89-win Kansas City Royals had encouraging offseasons. The Tigers lost Scherzer and Rick Porcello, and the Royals lost James Shields, Billy Butler and Nori Aoki. In both towns, their replacements leave much to be desired.
The two teams that clearly mean to take advantage of that are the 85-win Cleveland Indians and 73-win Chicago White Sox.
Brandon Moss could be for the Indians what Cruz could be for the Mariners, and it's easy to forget about the White Sox's flaws when you look at how they upgraded their rotation with Samardzija, their lineup with Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche, and their bullpen with David Robertson and Zach Duke.
In all, that's a lot of upward and downward movement happening simultaneously in one offseason. On its own, that's enough to heighten the parity bar.
But though there are some teams we haven't mentioned yet, don't think it's because they're not worth mentioning. Though none of them got that involved in the American League's winter parity party, they're not to be overlooked.
The 95-loss Texas Rangers could benefit from a teamwide return to health and the addition of Yovani Gallardo to their rotation. As for the 92-loss Minnesota Twins, an offense that quietly finished third in runs scored in the second half of 2014 could get some needed support from Ervin Santana joining Phil Hughes, with top prospect Alex Meyer knocking on the door.
And in the AL East, there are the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees.
The Rays appear headed for some lean years after losing 85 games in 2014 and then losing general manager Andrew Friedman, manager Joe Maddon, Will Myers and Zobrist over the winter, but they still have a strong rotation and a versatile roster. And while it's easier than ever to downplay the Yankees after two straight October-less seasons, they can't be counted out.
“We have a lot of talent,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe. “Like other teams, we have some ifs. If we get good comebacks and our rotation stays healthy, if our team stays healthy, we’re a good team.”
All told, yes, you can make a case for any of the American League's 15 teams as a contender for 2015. Some cases are certainly stronger than others—I wouldn't bet the house on the Astros or Twins—but there aren't any teams that are very clearly out of it like there are in the National League.
Maybe that sounds like a proclamation that every club in the AL is capable of achieving the 90-plus victories it typically takes to make the postseason. But it's not. With the talent distributed so evenly, merely getting in the neighborhood of 85 wins could be good enough.
With that, something FanGraphs' Dave Cameron wrote for FoxSports.com in December rings true: The 2015 AL playoff chase looks like a race to the middle. It also rings true that this is not some random occurrence:
The days of a few perennial powerhouses and a bunch of teams working on five year plans appear to be behind us. Now, whether it's because of the second wild card making mediocrity a more rewarding goal or the rising influence of television rights deals on a team's revenue base...most everyone seems to be on a one year plan. And that reality is creating some strategies that we haven't seen before.
The idea of the second wild card effectively promoting mediocrity would seem to be looming especially large. The two-wild-card system just put a pair of wild-card teams in a World Series that went to seven games, resulting in a dynasty cap for one franchise and a long-awaited return to glory for the other.
That's a signal that a little mediocrity can go a long way, and that helps explain the picture in the American League.
It's hard to build a team that can win year after year after year. It takes many winters and summers to do that. But going for broke to try to win in one season? That's not as tough. Heck, that can be done in one winter.
That's how the board was set. All the American League has to do now is play the game, which could indeed get messy if things end up being as even in reality as they are on paper.
That could make things hard to predict, to be sure. But on the bright side, they'll be a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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