By Michael Klopman
In 2016, the Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers all won their respective divisions. Since 2005, there have been at least three different division winners from the previous season. Will that trend continue this year?
Let's say it's safe to predict that the Chicago Cubs will repeat as National League Central champs and that the Cleveland Indians will repeat as American League Central champs. Both teams are still loaded -- Cleveland even signed Edwin Encarnacion -- while the rest of the teams look like they'll be scrambling to compete in the Wild Card races. That leaves us with the Red Sox, Dodgers, Nationals and Rangers. Could three of those teams really fall from the top?
Here are the three divisions I believe could have a new champ in 2017.
This is the obvious one. The Rangers check-raised the 2012 Baltimore Orioles when it came to one-run wins, finishing the 2016 season with a 36-11 record in such games. That's unlikely to happen again -- both their pythagorean and BaseRuns records were 82-80. And while the Rangers have a potent offense and a solid 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation with Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels, the rest of the rotation is a question mark and could lead to the team leaning more heavily on the bullpen.
Not to mention the fact that Texas will have to fight off the much-improved Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. There are plenty out there who believe it's Houston's year, not just because Sports Illustrated predicted that the Astros would win the World Series in 2017 ... back in 2014. Seattle actually finished '16 with 86 wins (two more than Houston), but fell just short of an AL Wild Card spot. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto made some significant upgrades through a crazy amount of trades and will certainly be in the running when September comes. This could be the most interesting division race in the league, and don't be surprised if the Rangers don't end up on top.
The Red Sox won the AL East by four games last year, then added lefty ace Chris Sale. No other team in the division made such a significant upgrade. But in baseball, over a 162-game season, anything can happen.
Most believe the Red Sox will run away with the division this year, and for good reason. Mookie Betts should just get better and better, as should Andrew Benitendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts. On the other hand, David Price has been experiencing discomfort in his pitching elbow, while Hanley Ramirez's shoulder isn't in the best shape either. There's no more David Ortiz on the roster and the Sox seem to be relying on Pablo Sandoval returning to form.
Don't forget that this division had four teams with records above .500. The AL East tends to be one of the more competitive divisions, so Boston might look like a juggernaut, but a lot can go wrong.
Again, if a 10-year trend is to continue, some really good teams from 2016 will take a fall. As we whittled down the list, it came down to the Dodgers and Nationals, but we're higher on Washington than L.A. The Dodgers have won four straight division titles, while the Nats have won three over the past five seasons, all of which came in even years. So either the Dodgers' streak will end, or the Nats break up their pattern and finally win it two years in a row.
It's extremely difficult to win a division for five straight years. Only four organizations have accomplished this since MLB moved to six divisions in 1994: the Indians from 1995 to '99, the Yankees from '98 to '06, the Braves from '95 to '05 and the Phillies from '07 to '11. The Dodgers have been projected by Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system as the best team in baseball in '17. But their division is a little tougher than the NL East will be for Washington.
Some teams just have to go down.
Michael Klopman is an associate producer for Sports on Earth.