Is MLB Headed for Dearth of Intense Division Races Next Season?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 13, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 01:  Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs reacts with Anthony Rizzo #44 after defeating the Cleveland Indians 9-3 to win Game Six of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 1, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There are things the 2017 MLB season can be counted on to deliver. Mike Trout will make highlights. Giancarlo Stanton's bat will make loud noises. Bartolo Colon will make assorted GIFs.

But if you're counting on some intense division races, we need to talk.

It's a little early to be looking that far ahead, but not too early. With spring training now just a month away, we basically know what teams look like on paper. And that's what matters for projections.

And right now, they paint a picture of a lopsided power structure.

According to FanGraphs, there's a clear favorite in all six divisions. And by "clear favorite," I mean a team projected to win the title by six or more games. Like so:

Projections for 2017 MLB Division Races
DivisionTop Team (Record)Next Team (Record)Difference
AL EastRed Sox (93-69)Yankees (83-79)10 Games
AL CentralIndians (91-71)Tigers (83-79)8 Games
AL WestAstros (90-72)Angels/Mariners (84-78)6 Games
NL EastNationals (90-72)Mets (84-78)6 Games
NL CentralCubs (95-67)Cardinals (85-77)10 Games
NL WestDodgers (95-67)Giants (88-74)7 Games

This would be unusual. Last season, two of the six divisions were decided by five games or less. There were two such division races in 2015, 2014 and 2013 as well. In 2012, four divisions were decided by five games or less. And so on.

Even in the weird world of projections, never mind just unusual, this is unheard of. FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan traced the history of division projections back to 2006 and found that this is the first time that not even one race has been projected to be close.

This isn't so much a matter of there being too many bad teams in the league. There certainly are objectively terrible teams out there, but the early division favorites account for just six of 16 teams projected to finish over .500. That's a solid amount of contenders.

Rather, this is a case of these six teams looking really good, while those other teams only look regular good. And that's not just apparent through the eyes of computer projections.

It's hard not to be impressed with Mookie Betts and the Red Sox.
It's hard not to be impressed with Mookie Betts and the Red Sox.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Start in the AL East. The Boston Red Sox may have lost David Ortiz, but that's just one missing piece from last season's 93-win roster. More to the point, it's only one missing piece from an MLB-best offense that still has MVP runner-up Mookie Betts and a handful of other stars.

Plus, the additions of Chris Sale, Tyler Thornburg and Mitch Moreland could make up in run prevention what the Red Sox lost in run production when Big Papi retired. Sounds like a potential superteam.

In the AL Central, the Cleveland Indians handily won the division last year with 94 wins before going on to win the American League pennant. Now they have Edwin Encarnacion and should also have healthy versions of Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar.

After winning only 84 games and finishing third in the AL West last year, the Houston Astros have padded their lineup with Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Brian McCann. Throw in an elite bullpen and a rotation in which 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel is just one of several rebound candidates, and all the pieces for a juggernaut are there.

Adam Eaton has averaged 5.1 WAR per year since 2014.
Adam Eaton has averaged 5.1 WAR per year since 2014.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In the NL East, the Washington Nationals entered the winter off a largely trouble-free year highlighted by 95 wins and an easy division win. All they needed was a center fielder. By trading for Adam Eaton, they filled that need with one of the most underrated stars in the league.

In the NL Central, there are the Chicago Cubs. They won 103 games and the World Series last year. And while some pieces (namely Dexter Fowler, Aroldis Chapman and Jason Hammel) are gone now, on the whole, the band hasn't been broken up.

Which brings us to the Los Angeles Dodgers and their place in the NL West. It could be argued that they haven't done enough by only bringing back Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen and Rich Hill and adding nothing new to a team that won only 91 games in 2016.

However, that relatively unimpressive figure was less a talent problem and more of a health problem. Per Baseball Heat Maps, the Dodgers racked up 2,418 disabled list days last year. If their notion is that a similar roster will produce more wins as long as the injury bug stays away, well, they're not necessarily wrong.

So, there. Just in case anyone needed to hear it from an actual human: The teams that are supposed to be great actually look great.

Underneath them, there's a shortage of candidates that could join the club. The San Francisco Giants are the only other team projected to win more than 85 games. And with Mark Melancon in to stabilize their bullpen, they have a real shot at improving on last year's 87 wins. The projections may be underrating them.

Otherwise, questions abound.

The AL East is the Red Sox and then a bunch of teams stuck in a weird purgatorial realm. The AL Central is the Indians and then everyone else. The Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners are relevant in the AL West but lack Houston's upside. The New York Mets will push the Nationals in the NL East but face health and defense pitfalls. In the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates have the distinction of simply not being on the Cubs' level.

The other NL Central flags should have flown a lot lower at Wrigley Field in 2016.
The other NL Central flags should have flown a lot lower at Wrigley Field in 2016.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Certainly, the projections reflect all of this. But now also seems like a good time to acknowledge the obvious caveat with projections.

These things were not written down by Nostradamus several hundred years ago. They're calculated by computers based on the likely production of each team's players. Them being human beings and all, they're prone to being swayed by other forces.

Like, for example, the World Series hangover effect.

Yeah, yeah. It's a cliche. But one that Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost came face-to-face with last season.

"It’s a little bit different," the skipper said in May, via Fox Sports. "They still have that desire, because they want to do it again. But it’s more work this year."

It's not just you, Ned. Ever since 2006—the year MLB got serious about performance-enhancing drugs—only one of 11 World Series winners has matched or beat its regular-season winning percentage the following year. Only four World Series losers stayed the same or got better the following year.

Down has generally been the way to go for each league's reigning champs. That could spell trouble for the Cubs and Indians.

Meanwhile, the other favorites have more specific pitfalls.

The Dodgers have so far done nothing to solve their crippling weakness against left-handed pitching. The Nationals' overall strength could be undermined by a bullpen that's short on shutdown arms. The Astros will be in trouble if their starting pitchers don't rebound. And as good as the Red Sox lineup could be, WEEI's John Tomase isn't wrong in writing it contains "four giant mysteries."

The disconnect between what's on paper and what could happen on the field raises the question of the projections' track record with alleged superteams. Sullivan looked into that too in a piece for ESPN.com. And though he didn't find a pattern of the projections being way off, he did find: "Overall, there has been a slight amount of underperformance among the superteams."

The superteams failing to live up to their projections in 2017 is all it would take to open the door for upsets. And while there are good reasons why they don't project as well now, the various teams referenced above could very well see an opportunity.

The projections make it look like six teams will be holding all the cards in 2017. If that ends up being played out in reality, 2017 will be very much out of the ordinary. And not in a good way.

Or, it'll be just another baseball season. A bunch of weird stuff will happen, and at the end, even the experts will be muttering to themselves, "Hell, I just can't predict this game."

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.