Ranking MLB's six divisions
Jayson Stark [ARCHIVE]
ESPN.com
February 7, 2013
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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. …

1 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.

2 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...
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