By AJ Cassavell
Major League Baseball's regular season is nothing without colorful and intense division races, and 2015 should have those in abundance.
Even though two Wild Card teams ended up in the World Series this year, the volatility of the postseason still makes winning a division crown crucial. The sheer volume of offseason moves have changed baseball's landscape drastically, and from an enjoyment standpoint, we're all better off for it. Simply put, there is more than enough subtext to go around within the six divisions, making a few of them must-watch TV.
With that in mind, here's a ranking of baseball's divisions in terms of how much fun they're going to be in 2015:
6. NL East
Competitive? Probably not.
Fun storylines: Giancarlo Stanton's contract; Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez returning; Bryce Harper being Bryce Harper; the Phillies' potential trade pieces
Must-watch players: Stanton, Fernandez, Harvey, Harper, Anthony Rendon, Andrelton Simmons
Potentially great teams: Nationals
The Braves traded away Jason Heyward, and they're considering other deals which would make their weak offense even weaker. There's no denying that the Marlins are getting better, but they need a little more help offensively and are probably a year away. The Phillies are basically starting ffrom scratch right now, unloading the burdensome contracts they signed when they were in win-now mode a few years ago. And the Mets are trending upward, but they're still a few pieces -- probably offensively -- from being contenders.
There is some solid intra-division hate here among Philly, Atlanta and New York fans, but none of that is particularly relevant, given that none of the teams will be anything special. The only fun subplot rivalry-wise is the Braves-Nats pseudo-rivalry that has developed over the past three years and was heightened when Harper dragged his foot across Atlanta's logo in August -- very minor, yes, but some fans will get upset about anything.
5. AL Central
Fun storylines: Year 2 of the relevant Royals; the Royals' all-world bullpen; the Tigers' awful bullpen; the White Sox's potential resurgence; Miguel Cabrera's annual Triple Crown push
Must-watch players: Cabrera, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley, Victor Martinez, Jose Abreu
Potentially great teams: Tigers, Royals
Even with the Royals' World Series run last year and the possible departure of Max Scherzer from the Tigers, Detroit remains early AL Central favorites. That said, don't write off the Indians. They've got one of the game's best managers in Terry Francona, one of the game's best pitchers in Kluber and one of the game's best hitters in Brantley. Same goes for the White Sox, who may have the best 1-2 rotation punch in the AL in Sale and Jeff Samardzija.
The only team without much hope is the Twins, who have a solid storyline themselves with the introduction of Paul Molitor, their first new manager since 2002. But for all of the Tigers' flaws -- and they have several, the biggest being a complete lack of a bullpen -- they're mostly flaws that won't get truly exposed until October, and it's easy to see the Tigers cruising to their fifth straight division crown.
4. NL Central
Competitive? Yes, with one clear favorite
Fun storylines: The Cubs are back; but really, are the Cubs back?; Cubs/Cards rivalry rekindled; Heyward's move to St. Louis; baseball's full-scale revival in Pittsburgh; Joey Votto's health
Must-watch players: Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo, Johnny Cueto, Carlos Gomez, Votto
Potentially great teams: Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs
The Cardinals are going to be good this season -- and they're probably the favorites to win the division. That's about all we know in the NL Central. The Pirates lost Russell Martin, but they should contend. The Brewers were the best team in the division for four months last season. And the Reds still have plenty of decisions to make with a roster that's on the brink of being ready for a rebuilding phase.
And then there's the Cubs. Oh, the Cubs. They've stolen the show this offseason, grabbing Lester as a front-line ace and Joe Maddon as manager. But offseason victories rarely translate to in-season victories right away. The Cubs are a young team, and they're going to have to adjust to win-now mode -- mostly because Lester's peak is coming to a close. They're probably a piece away from being legitimate contenders -- but don't put it past Theo Epstein and Co. to add that piece. Throw in the fact that the Cubs aren't winning anything unless they can dethrone the hated Cardinals, and summer in the NL Central should be fun in 2015.
3. AL West
Competitive? You bet
Fun storylines: Mike Trout doing Mike Trout things; do the Mariners finally have an offense?; Seattle's young arms hit the spotlight; Billy Beane's master plan; how close is Houston?
Must-watch players: Trout, Felix Hernandez, Garrett Richards, Robinson Cano, Jose Altuve, Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Albert Pujols
Potentially great teams: Angels, Mariners
The Angels won more games than anyone else in baseball last season, and they return everyone. There's no reason to think they'll fall off, but the Mariners are going to give them what figures to be a summer-long fight. They addressed their biggest need -- adding a right-handed bat -- and their crop of good, young starters is close to being ready to thrive behind the one-two punch of Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the best in the AL West.
The Astros and A's are both fascinating case studies, for entirely different reasons. With Houston, the young pieces we've heard about for years are finally making an impact on the big league level. And with Oakland, the class of the AL West in 2012 and '13, it's been an offseason centered around drastic change. The Rangers, meanwhile, should be miles better than they were in '14 mostly because they should be healthier. Don't be surprised if the AL West emerges as baseball's best division, record-wise, next summer.
2. AL East
Competitive? Yes: totally up for grabs
Fun storylines: Boston's shiny new signings; Martin and Josh Donaldson in Toronto; life after Jeter in the Bronx; life after Maddon (and Andrew Friedman) in Tampa Bay
Must-watch players: Donaldson, Jose Bautista, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Adam Jones, Evan Longoria, Masahiro Tanaka
Potentially great teams: Probably zero
Repeat after me: the AL East is not as good as it once was. The big markets and the big names don't necessarily mean great baseball at this point. But that's precisely what makes the division so fascinating this upcoming season. There's a compelling case for all five teams to win it, and there's a compelling case for all five teams to finish in dead last.
The reigning champion Orioles lost two of their best offensive weapons in Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz, so they've fallen back to the pack a bit. The second-place Yankees haven't done a whole lot, but they haven't regressed much either. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays and Red Sox have added more offensive talent than anyone else, and the Rays -- despite their losses in the dugout and front office -- have one important thing going for them entering '15: they'll be healthy.
It's going to be a fascinating year in the AL East, and the sheer dislike among the five clubs across the board is only going to make it more exciting. The AL East would be No. 1 here, if not for its lack of a legitimate World Series favorite.
1. NL West
Competitive? Yes, but top-heavy
Fun storylines: Clayton Kershaw vs. Madison Bumgarner; the new-look Dodgers under Friedman; Matt Kemp in San Diego (if the trade finally goes through); the Giants in an odd-numbered year, looking to repeat; the health and trade prospects of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez
Must-watch players: Kershaw, Bumgarner, Paul Goldschmidt, Yasiel Puig, Zack Greinke, Buster Posey, Tulowitzki, Matt Kemp, Andrew Cashner, Hunter Pence, Wil Myers
Potentially great teams: Dodgers, Giants
The Dodgers don't like the Giants. The Giants don't like the Dodgers. In any given year, that's enough to keep this division entertaining. But factor in the recent context -- the Giants' three World Series wins all while the Dodgers have spent and spent and spent -- and things really get heated. Not to mention, it's pretty clear the players don't like each other either (see: Bumgarner vs. Puig last May and September). And there's a fun little debate developing between Kershaw (greatest pitcher alive) and Bumgarner (greatest clutch pitcher alive) to sweeten the pot.
And with all this chatter about the Giants and Dodgers -- and there is more than enough to last all summer -- the Padres have crept their way right into the discussion as a darkhorse candidate by acquiring Wil Myers in a three-team trade and Kemp (if the deal with the Dodgers goes through) to go along with one of the NL's better rotations and maybe its best bullpen.
This year has all the makings of a classic NL West slugfest that could go down to the wire. No, the D-backs and Rockies don't figure to be very competitive, but the Giants and Dodgers are among the few legitimate World Series favorites.