By Michael Klopman
Ever since 2005, there have been at least three different division champions from the previous season. In 2016, the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers, Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers each won its respective division. If the trend continues, at least three of them will not repeat in '17.
With that in mind, we took a look at each division and picked a dark horse contender.
AL East: New York Yankees
In three of the past four seasons, the Yanks' pythagorean win-loss percentage was under .500, even though they finished with a winning record each time. And in 2016, a year in which they decided to be sellers for the first time in what felt like a century and traded away their best players, it took them until Sept. 29 to get eliminated from postseason contention. They have now had 24 straight seasons of winning more than losing.
As for 2017, Fangraphs' Nicolas Stellini wrote a great piece about how the Bronx Bombers are still not there yet in terms of an elite team. But what if the good Luis Severino shows up? New York's lineup doesn't look special, but what if Didi Gregorius' bat keeps improving like it did last year? What if Gary Sanchez is no fluke while Aaron Judge and Greg Bird have solid rookie campaigns? They also have Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman powering the 'pen.
Many won't predict a first-place finish for the Yanks this year, but here's thinking that might look foolish.
AL Central: Detroit Tigers
Miguel Cabrera is still one of the best hitters in baseball. In 2016, Justin Verlander led the AL in strikeouts (254) and WHIP (1.001) along with being the only AL Cy Young Award candidate to have a strikeouts per nine innings rate in double digits. And the Tigers still have J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Victor Martinez, last year's AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, Ian Kinsler and Nick Castellanos.
If the Tigers stay in the hunt by the halfway mark and don't end up selling, they could be a tough out. The AL Central is the Cleveland Indians' to lose. But Detroit is the one team in the division that could give them trouble.
AL West: Seattle Mariners
At this point, the Mariners are pretty much an annual dark horse contender. The Houston Astros are the popular pick to win the division, while the Texas Rangers have won it in each of the past two seasons.
But this year, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto worked his trade magic to bring in shortstop Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger and Jarrod Dyson to improve the outfield defense, while acquiring starting pitcher Drew Smyly. They brought in bullpen reinforcements Marc Rzepczynski and Casey Fien. All of that combined with a potential bounce-back season from Felix Hernandez, along with another solid campaign from their core stars of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager, spells a potentially very fun AL West race.
NL East: Atlanta Braves
This division will most likely be a two-team race between the Washington Nationals and the New York Mets. But as Cliff Corcoran noted earlier in the offseason, the Braves went 40-36 from July 6 through the end of last season. They may be rebuilding, and they may have brought in some older veterans to ease that process, but they have pieces to at least win more than they lose -- no matter how unlikely it seems.
Top shorstop prospect Dansby Swanson, first baseman Freddie Freeman, center fielder Ender Inciarte and ace pitcher Julio Teheran provide a solid core. And if their vets can just be slightly above average for the most part, the Braves could be one of the surprises of 2017.
NL Central: Pittsburgh Pirates
Since the defending World Series champions Chicago Cubs look like a powerhouse and potential dynasty, all teams in the NL Central are considered underdogs. But in 2016, the Pirates didn't really have anything go their way. Andrew McCutchen's production seemingly fell off a cliff. Ace Gerrit Cole battled injuries all year and the rest of the rotation was mediocre at best.
But, in 2015, the Pirates won 98 games with a fairly similar team. If they can get bounce-back seasons from McCutchen and Cole, while Gregory Polanco and Starlin Marte continue to grow -- not to mention Ivan Nova and a trio of young righties Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow being taught by phenomenal pitching coach Ray Searage -- then perhaps the Buccos will give the Cubs some problems.
NL West: Arizona Diamondbacks
While most pick the Colorado Rockies as a surprise playoff candidate this season, don't forget about the D-backs. Mike Petriello of MLB.com recently wrote about how Zack Greinke was the victim of poor pitch framing due to Arizona's 2016 catcher Welington Castillo. But the D-backs upgraded that position by signing Jeff Mathis, one of the better pitch-framers in the league. Travis Sawchik of Fangraphs noted that the rest of the rotation could see a boost due to Mathis' presence as well.
Arizona is also getting A.J. Pollock and David Peralta back after they played a combined 60 games in 2016. They already have one of the best hitters in the game with Paul Goldschmidt. Outfielder Yasmany Tomas and second baseman Brandon Drury should improve as well. Basically, if most of the things that went wrong for the D-backs last year go right in 2017, they could look like a very different team.
Michael Klopman is an associate producer for Sports on Earth.