Let’s face it: the American League Central is a done deal. But outside of that, the other five divisions in Major League Baseball all have intrigue and, subsequently, figure to come down to at least late September. Best yet is that a few of said divisions feature surprise contenders who not only might hang around, but just may win the thing too. Let’s look at the five divisional races, as outside of the Indians’ 11.5-game lead, all the other second-place teams are no more than 1.5 games out:
American League East
Well, I can’t say this one is all that dramatic, since the worst part of the 2018 season is watching the Yankees and Red Sox flex their money muscles while most of the league has turned to mush. But believe it or not, even if you dislike those two teams, there is reason to be interested in how this thing shakes out. As I’ve pointed out before, should the AL East winner end up with the league’s best record, the Yanks and Sox will face off in the ALDS, not the ALCS, guaranteeing that one will be knocked out early. This is good news for the Astros and Indians, who could meet in the other division series (although the Mariners are knocking at the door). Another element is that with the Yankees and Red Sox meeting in the last weekend of the year, they could expend a lot of energy — and top starting pitchers — trying to lock down the division. The team that ends up as the wild card entrant will likely have to either burn through its ace, or save its ace but chance winning a one-game playoff with another starter. So, as much as you might hate the dominant seasons both teams are having, it could actually work to your advantage if this pace keeps up. I’ll take the Yankees by a nose, banking on them picking up a quality starting pitcher at the trade deadline. Prediction: Yankees.
American League West
Not many people saw this coming, but here we are: the Mariners are AL West contenders, even without Robinson Cano. On paper, the Astros should win this division. Their starting pitching is as good as it gets, the offense is still solid despite taking a step back from 2017, and the bullpen has quietly produced good numbers. But it just doesn’t feel like the Astros year overall, does it? The Mariners have some magic pixie dust. They took flight after Cano’s suspension, and are winning just about every close game they play in. They really fell flat against the top teams, as they compiled a poor 3-7 record during a consecutive 10-game stretch against the Yankees and Red Sox. It’s hard to envision the M’s winning the West, especially because it’s easy to fixate your eyes on Houston’s plus-173 run differential, far and away the Majors’ best (Boston is next at plus-130). The Mariners are playoff bound, but Houston should win the West. And while we’re at it, a shout out to the A’s, perhaps the only AL team that is good non-playoff team in a year in which it seems everyone is either a top dog or a doormat. Prediction: Astros.
National League East
Want to know the biggest joke in sports right now? A tip of the cap to the Vegas oddsmakers, who still have Nationals as a co-favorite to win the NL East. Let me say this right now: hell has a better chance to freeze over than the Nats do to win the NL East in 2018. This is all about the Braves and Phillies, so let’s not waste our time discussing the overrated garbage being produced in the nation’s capital. The Braves are so impressive right now, gelling with a mix of young, emerging stars and some veterans rediscovering their touch. I believe one or two key reinforcements are on their way via trade, and bullpen help should be prioritized most. Yet the Braves aren’t running away with this division, because there is another rival showing a lot of heart (Nats fans will have to look that word up in the dictionary). That would be the Phillies, in spite of all the early-April boos manager Gabe Kapler got showered with. Philadelphia also figures to be a player in the trade market for bullpen help, because it is their glaring weakness at the moment. But the lineup is shaking out nicely with some young stars like Odubel Herrera, Scott Kingery, and Nick Williams. Aaron Nola is quietly in contention for NL Cy Young, and Jake Arrieta looks like a late-March steal in free agency. This is going to be a really fun finish between two upstart teams, and it’s going to be equally fun watching the Nats limp to the finish line of the Bryce Harper with their tails between their legs. Prediction: Braves.
National League Central
Boy I’d love to see the Brewers land a top-notch starting pitcher and take the Cubs down to the finish, but it’s so hard to ignore how crazy talented Chicago’s lineup is. The Cubbies are scoring runs at will to make up for some pitching warts, which includes the absence of Yu Darvish. Javier Baez is about to become one of the best all-around players in the game, and the team already at least one of those in Kris Bryant. The lineup is so deep with young stars, and suddenly Jason Heyward is kind of, sort of earning that massive contract. Still, don’t sleep on the Brewers, because their rock-solid bullpen could get even better if the rotation adds another big arm. The real concern is the lineup, which has been shut out a league-high 10 times this year. Lorenzo Cain is on the mend, but it might behoove the Brewers to see if they can snag another bat at the deadline, too. Prediction: Cubs.
National League West
It is amazing that after an 8-2 roadtrip, the Diamondbacks have slumped during a 1-5 homestand to let the Dodgers pull within a half-game. That is in large part due to LA’s National League-leading 122 home runs, including 20 by out-of-nowhere star Max Muncy. Clayton Kershaw is healthy, and the bullpen is starting to figure it out, and the team hasn’t missed a beat since losing Corey Seager for the season. This is bad news for the D-Backs, who should be regretting every second of every day that they did not re-sign J.D. Martinez and allowed for this Boston/New York onslaught in 2018. Paul Goldschmidt has returned to form, but the lineup is still middle-of-the-pack in terms of runs scored (15th in MLB). Unless somehow Shelby Miller turns it around, or the D-Backs can pull off a Manny Machado heist, the Dodgers will win their sixth straight NL West title. Prediction: Dodgers.