The NL Central figures to be the most competitive division in over a decade. The AL Central, not so much.
With all of the changes that have been discussed and implemented this offseason, something that hasn’t been brought up is realigning the division structure. Why would it? The current system is working just fine. Having three divisions in each league with five teams each can create six separate divisional races. Usually, there’s at least two teams in each division that have a reasonable shot of winning the division. In extreme situations, every team could have a shot at the crown.
On the other hand, splitting the teams into such small groups can create incredibly boring divisions where there’s one good team feasting on other teams. Even worse, none of the teams might be good.
What we’ll see this season is the best and worst this league structure has to offer. In one year, we’ll see the league structure working exactly as intended while also being a completely broken mess.
The division structure is working fine
The NL Central could very well be the most competitive division we’ve ever seen. FanGraphs projects the last place Pirates to finish with only 10 fewer wins than the first place Cubs. PECOTA, on the other hand, projects the last place Cubs to finish with nine fewer wins than the first place Brewers.
In general, the two projections might not agree on win totals, but they usually agree on the order of the standings with maybe one or two teams transposed. The only thing the two projection systems agree on is that they both have the Cardinals finishing second.
Regardless of which projection you go by, that’s the closest gap between a first and last place team not only this year, but the closest since the 2005 NL East when the Washington Nationals finished in last place with 81 wins, nine games behind the Atlanta Braves.
Every game between two NL Central teams is going to have playoff implications. In less than a week, the Pirates and Reds will begin their seasons playing against each, and that series will be appointment viewing not just because Opening Day in Cincinnati is a tradition, but because those games might impact what happens in October. The Reds might need those wins to eke out a Wild Card spot or even the division title. Heck, the same could be said about the Pirates. Who knows what could happen in the Central?
This division really highlights the best of the current league structure. Having five teams in a division feels like the perfect amount because it allows for battle royales like this. When there’s concern over teams tanking, it’s good to see a team like the Reds coming off a 67-win season and completely revamping their roster without selling out their future.
They might not have done that if the league were still split in two divisions like they were prior to 1994. Just one or two more teams on top of them and they may have been dissuaded from making a push this early.
It’s not just the NL Central either. The NL East has four teams with at least a one-in-three chance of making the postseason according to PECOTA. In the AL East, there should be a close divisional race between the Red Sox and Yankees, and the Rays are a coin-flip for the playoffs.
The current three, five-team division structure has created several competitive races, and I see no reason to change it.
The division structure is broken
Except, the Cleveland Indians have the highest odds of winning their division according to PECOTA. They just barely edged out the Houston Astros. That doesn’t mean that Cleveland is better than Houston, obviously. It might not even mean that Cleveland is good. What it really shows is just how bad the AL Central is.
Last season, the AL Central was the second-worst division in history. No team in the AL Central had a winning record against teams outside the division, even Cleveland. Cleveland had a .487 winning percentage against teams outside the AL Central.
After getting swept by the Astros in the ALDS, Cleveland did nothing to bolster their roster aside from trade Yandy Díaz for Jake Bauers and sign Carlos Gonzalez. Yes, they have Francisco Lindor and José Ramirez, and their roster is among the best in baseball, but this is a flawed team. ZiPS projects their outfield to be just over four wins above replacement.
Most of their activity this winter appeared to be trying to trade Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer because they don’t need both on the roster to win the division. The playoffs are a crapshoot anyway. Cleveland could coast into the playoffs and hope to get lucky.
Regardless of whether it’s a wise baseball and/or financial move, it’s not good to see a team with such a talented core stand pat when they have an opportunity to end the longest World Series drought.
Maybe if the league were still split in two division like they were prior to 1994, Cleveland would have been more proactive this offseason.
As for the other four teams, they’re basically just playing to see what their young players can do and for draft position. Maybe the Twins can sneak into a Wild Card spot if the A’s, Rays, and Angels all tank. The Royals might try to break stolen base records just for the hell of it.
When one team can stand pat and get a free ticket to the postseason while other teams go for it and wind up with nothing by virtue of who they’re up against, it almost seems like MLB should go back to having two larger divisions or doing away with divisions entirely.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.