The Astros and the 2013 AL Playoff Race

In case you’d forgotten, where the Houston Astros used to be a National League baseball team, now they’re going to be an American League baseball team. It’s a big deal, because it’s a sort of pseudo-relocation, and it’s also been a long time coming since before the leagues were unbalanced and that didn’t make any sense. For years, we had one league with 14 teams and one league with 16 teams, and we didn’t just tolerate it — we hardly ever bothered to acknowledge it. Unbalanced leagues! Amazing!

The move has generated certain negative responses, both particular and broad. A lot of Astros fans aren’t happy, because they’ve grown to prefer NL baseball, and also because people prefer to remain unchanged, given their druthers. A lot of baseball fans aren’t happy, because now there’s going to be more regular interleague play, and people have strong feelings about that. And a lot of AL baseball fans aren’t happy, because the Astros are bad, they’re moving to the AL West, and the schedule is unbalanced. There’s a perception that the Astros will give an advantage to teams in the West, and therefore that they’ll give a disadvantage to teams in the Central and East.

Without question, this is pretty short-sighted. The last one, I mean. It’s true that the Astros are a pretty bad baseball team, right now. They’re in the process of being almost completely rebuilt from scratch. In time, though, they will not be bad, and other teams will be bad. These things are cyclical, and if you look at the biggest picture, covering many many years, all divisions should be just about balanced. I don’t think one should have a negative reaction to something like this because of something that might only matter for a year or two.

But we can still talk about the effect the Astros might have on the playoff race this coming season. Because they’re moving, and because the schedules are unbalanced, there might well be something here. What we have to do first is establish expectations, and it just so happens that some projected standings were generated the other day at Replacement Level Yankees Weblog. This is based on the CAIRO projection system, using the latest depth charts, and while the projections are early and inarguably imperfect, they do give us a sense of things. In the surprise to end all surprises, the Astros look like the worst team in baseball right now. No one else is closer than six wins away. The Angels, Rangers, and Athletics look good. The Rays and Rangers would be the Wild Card teams, were these standings to play out exactly so.

Now we have to look at the unbalanced schedules. Every other team in the AL West will play the Astros 19 times in 2013. Other teams in the AL will play the Astros six or seven times, meaning a difference of 12-13 games. There are, of course, many differences between team schedules, but for the sake of simplicity, here we’ll just focus on the Astros part.

That seems like a big advantage for a good team in the West, since the Astros are a bad team. That’s two extra weeks’ worth of games against Houston, instead of someone better. But of course, we shouldn’t expect the Astros to lose every time. Just because they project to be a bad team doesn’t mean they project to be a humiliating, helpless, nothing team. Let’s call the Astros a 60-win baseball team. Now let’s take a team — say, the Rangers — and call them a 90-win baseball team. Over 12 games against the Astros, you’d expect the Rangers to win eight times. Maybe, maybe, nine times. Now, instead of playing those 12 games against a 60-win team, let’s say a 90-win team plays against a 75-win team. You’d expect the better team to win seven times. So on that basis alone, you’re talking about an advantage of one or maybe two wins.

Which is real, but which is not real staggering. We all understand that the Astros are bad, but extra games against the Astros don’t mean as many extra wins against the Astros, because sometimes the Astros will win instead. Just for the sake of reference, last year the Astros went 5-10 against the Reds and 4-11 against the Cardinals. These are bad records, but good teams didn’t walk all over the Astros like they weren’t there. The 2012 Astros weren’t a total pushover, and now they should be a little improved.

There could be a compound effect from the Mariners also playing in the West, since the Mariners are projected to be lousy. But the Mariners aren’t finished yet with their offseason, and their depth chart is a tricky one to figure out. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Mariners were more like a .500 ballclub. One can’t ignore that, in the Central, the Twins are projected to be pretty lousy. That’s not a surprise, and that helps the other teams in the Central, just as the Astros help the other teams in the West.

Realistically, this is less about an advantage in the West, and more about a disadvantage in the East. Playoff contenders can try to beat up on the Astros in the West, and playoff contenders can try to beat up on the Twins in the Central, but the worst team in the East is…the Red Sox? The Orioles? The Orioles just last year made the playoffs. Any team in the East could conceivably win the division, meaning no team in the East looks like a pile of crap. Making the unbalanced schedule a disadvantageous one, for them.

But again, we’re talking about a very small number of wins. And if this is about the AL Wild Card, then the best team in the West might be more difficult to play against than the best team in the East, and the same might go for the best team in the Central. In short: the Astros moving to the West doesn’t cripple the Wild Card hopes of teams in the East. It just changes the math slightly.

And that ignores the rest of the differences in the schedules. Everyone in the AL will play 20 games against teams in the NL, but those’ll be against different opponents. For example, the White Sox get three games against the Marlins, while the Marlins don’t play the Rangers or Orioles. The Orioles get four games against the Padres, while the Padres don’t play the Rangers or White Sox. You can’t just isolate the presence of the Astros, because the Astros aren’t the only difference.

Odds are the AL Wild Card race will be close. Close enough that a game here and two games there could make a significant difference. Those are games at a critical point in the playoff probability win curve. Because of the current distribution of talent, teams in the AL East appear to be at something of a disadvantage, because they don’t have a Twins team or an Astros team at their disposal. But any disadvantage would be small, on the order of one or two or three wins, most likely, meaning the results won’t be determined by the schedules. The results will be determined almost entirely by performance and luck. And then in 2014, the Astros should be better. Come 2015, they should be better still. It all cycles, and given what we’ve been through in the recent past, not a whole lot of people are going to shed many tears over teams in the AL East kind of being up against it. Baseball’s unbalanced. That remains a fact of the game.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


56 Responses to “The Astros and the 2013 AL Playoff Race”

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  1. Tyler Greene says:

    I’m excited to hit some balls over the fence at Rangers Ballpark!

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  2. Eugene in Oregon says:

    Best answer is to get rid of the unbalanced schedule.

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    • Will says:

      In-division games are easier for travel, foster rivalries, and make division races more meaningful

      +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Llewdor says:

        And they make the wild card less fair.

        I instensely dislike the unbalanced schedule for exactly this reason. The existence of divisions at all is bad enough.

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        • RarefiedAir9 says:

          AND it places a premium on winning your division. The Wild Card is supposed to be at an inherent disadvantage anyway because they couldn’t win their division. Sure, you’re competing against teams who played a slightly different schedule than you did, but again that’s the price you pay for not being the best team in your division.

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      • Brian says:

        That might be true for travel if the divisions were properly aligned as best possible.

        Jays-Yanks-Mets-Phillies-Red Sox
        Pirates-Tigers-Indians-Reds-White Sox
        Cubs-Twins-Brewers-Cardinals-Royals
        Orioles-Nationals-Braves-Rays-Marlins
        Rangers-Astros-Diamondbacks-Padres-Rockies
        Angels-Dodgers-A’s-Giants-Mariners

        Now that would create some real rivalries. I would add a twist and try to make sure to fit in 6-9 non-division games annually with the Padres v Dodgers/Angels, Royals/Rockies, White Sox/Cubs and Blue Jays/Tigers.

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  3. harmony55 says:

    Let’s not forget that the mighty AL East produced two of the nine worst records in baseball last year (securing two protected first-round picks in the June 2013 draft). No AL West team accomplished that feat in 2012, although the Astros come into the division with the worst 2012 record and the resulting top pick in the draft.

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  4. Tim says:

    The Yankees look like a pile of crap. They’re probably a pretty good baseball team, but have you seen them?

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    • Baltar says:

      Harmony and Tim,

      The AL East was the best division in baseball last season, and it will be again this season. I don’t have, or know how to easily find, the inter-division records, but I would bet a huge amount at long odds that the AL East beat everybody else and will again.
      Their records don’t look as good as they should because they have to play each other.
      Having said that and being a Rays fan, I’m not crying foul. That’s just the way it is.
      Merger of the two leagues and re-distribution something along the lines that Brian suggests is so so obviously the best thing to do that I marvel daily that it has not been done.
      Actually, expanding to 32 teams and re-aligning into 4 8-team divisions would be ideal.

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      • AsDevilsRun says:

        http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/2012-standings.shtml

        West beat the East and the Central in head-to-head match-ups.

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      • West Coast Hard Baller says:

        AL West was the best. Come on man, do your research. You can’t post that nonsense on this site. This isn’t ESPN.

        It doesn’t take a math major to work through why a statement like “Their records don’t look as good as they should because they have to play each other.” is COMPLETELY idiotic. I’ll even give you hint…in every game there is a winner and loser, so all divisions have a winning % of _____ in there division games. (the answer is .500).

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  5. Eddie says:

    Anecdote time. I attended a game in Houston this past summer. Everyone I spoke to, from the beer vendor, to the usher, to the guys sitting in front of us felt like the commissioner’s office railroaded them over the switch to the American League.

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    • Scott says:

      The worst team in MLB with no history of winning. Is closest to the Rangers. It’s the perfect choice.

      -13 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Ryan says:

        The Astros won the national league in 2005 and made the playoffs several times from the 80s – 00s.

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      • Jeremy guidry says:

        @scott…do a little research Scott. No history of winning? Just a stupid take!!

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      • Josh says:

        Dude are you serious?? The Astros won many division titles in the 90’s along with other playoff appearances throughout the 90’s and early 2000s, not to mention won the NL in 2005. Their “history of winning” is much better than the Rangers who have only been relevant for the past 3-4 seasons.

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    • Pumpkin says:

      Well, considering the commissioner DID railroad them into a league switch, I’d say they got it right. Actually railroad might not be the correct word, it was more like extortion. If you want to buy that team you must be willing to agree to, and then support, a league change.

      I haven’t had a problem with most of the things Selig has done but this one was forced, especially when like a week later the Padres came up for sale, and it would have made more sense to switch them to the AL, so at least Texas gets both AL & NL baseball.

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      • Ivan Grushenko says:

        The problem with moving the Padres to the AL West is that the Rangers would then be the only one of 5 teams outside the Pacific Time Zone, and 2 hours different at that. Then somebody from the NL Central, probably the Astros, would have to move to the NL West, and be in almost the same situation. You’re moving 2 teams and inconveniencing the Rangers and the Astros.

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      • Baltar says:

        This switch was good for the Astros and good for all of baseball. Don’t criticize the Commissioner on the rare occasion that he got something right.

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  6. Tom says:

    Eugene is right, provided we did so en route to blowing up divisions. 15 teams per league, balanced schedule, top five finishes make the playoffs.

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    • GoateesOnly says:

      Am I the only one who doesn’t care about absolute fairness in baseball? In my eyes, the good coming from division rivalries far outweighs the unfairness of an excellent team getting screwed every once in a while.

      +15 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • David says:

        Teams can’t have rivalries in a balanced schedule?

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      • Jim says:

        @David, not really. Not if it doesn’t matter whether the Red Sox or Yankees (for example, although this won’t be the case this season) finish ahead of each other if both of them are going to make the playoffs anyway. You get a Michigan / Ohio State rivalry in college football because only one team can win the Big 10. If you get rid of divisions, the only way to really bring rivalries into play is to go back to the old system of no playoffs — the team with the best record in each league plays in the World Series.

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      • Ivan Grushenko says:

        I agree with this. I’d rather the A’s play the Angels, Mariners and Rangers (and I guess Astros) more and the Blue Jays and Indians less. I just don’t care about non-division games as much as I do division games — unless it’s against some great team like the 2007 Red Sox or 2009 Yankees. Even then it’s more a chance to see a great team than to really want to win more than in other games. I don’t really care if it’s slightly unfair to some Wild Card contender. Same with keeping the rivalry NL games — I want the A’s to play the Giants home and home every year. I don’t care if they never play the Marlins or Mets or Brewers.

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      • bobabaloo says:

        i wholeheartedly agree. too much obsession with fairness. its freaking baseball, sometimes bloopers fall, sometimes linedrives are caught. sometimes your star gets injured. we decide a championship by 7 game series between teams that have already played 162 games to decide whos best. lets just get over it, the best team throughout the entire season often isnt crowned the champion, and thats OK. its sports, its entertainment, and a best of 7 series is much more entertaining than watching the standings until someone has the best record after 162 games (“ie fairer”). the same goes for divisions, its much more entertaining to be fighting it out with geographically close teams you play a ton of times all year for the division and a playoff trip. sorry, rant is over. but bottom line, life aint fair and niether is baseball.

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    • Erik says:

      What’s the point of the post season then if we are letting 5th place teams play?

      What’s the point of the regular season if we are letting 5th place teams play in post season?

      If we are blowing up divisions why keep the leagues at all?

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  7. AL East Martyr says:

    Mrah

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  8. Mr. Jones says:

    So, CAIRO has the Angels giving up the fewest runs in the AL? Yeah, that’s not going to happen with the staff they have currently.

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  9. Mark West says:

    astros…..pennant race…..hahahahahahahahahahaha……I WAS an astros fan since day one…..hahahahahahahahahahaha…..they are dead to me now…..American League….designated hitter…….hahahahahahahahahahaha…….half their games on the West Coast….what a freaking joke…..there is a special place in Hell for both dear old Bud’s….hope to see them there

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    • Choo says:

      True/False Quiz: The above is an actual quote of dialogue from an episode of Speed Racer.

      T
      F

      +21 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • georgmi says:

        It’s True, but it’s dialogue from the original Japanese episode (Gang of Astros, originally aired 11/2/67), not the American edits by Trans-Lux.

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    • Brian says:

      The switch to the AL is so terrible? The DH is inevitable for the entire game in the next 10 years anyway. I’ll take not watching the worst hitter on the team hit and the worst defender on the team take the field over the opposite anyday. I used to be a bigger fan of the NL format, but then I realized I don’t like seeing automatic outs every game or an essentially forced bunting situation.

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      • Ivan Grushenko says:

        The DH is only inevitable over my dead body. Of course my death is inevitable so you could be right. But I think I’ve got more than 10 years left.

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      • Wil says:

        You must not like strategy either. No way the DH ever goes to the NL. The DH was instituted in the 1970’s. The NL has been playing with basically the same set of rules since the 1870’s. You think they are just going to dump all that history to adopt a rule that isn’t part of the original baseball rules? No.

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      • BJsWorld says:

        Wil,

        Ummm no. The NL has not been playing with the same rules since 1870. Not by a long shot.

        As for ignoring history and just adopting the DH … that’s exactly what the early teams of the AL did. I’d argue that the Yankees/Red Sox, etc had a much more storied franchise history than most teams in the NL today. Somehow the Yankees can switch but the Marlins couldn’t?

        As for strategy … give me a break. Since when did pulling off a double switch take a genius to figure out. While there might be slightly more strategy it’s all still pretty basic stuff. And yes, can we please see more batters who have just as good of a chance of hitting the ball as I do. I know millions would love to pay to watch me feebly attempt to make contact. Nothing says exciting like a pitcher in the batter box.

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  10. Marver says:

    Any projection system that believes the average result for the Padres in 2012 is 80 wins can’t possibly be decent, can it? That team is starting the season with a rotation of Richard, Volquez, Stults, Marquis, Bass/Kelly/Erlin/Garcia. And it isn’t like post-TJ Luebke, Cashner, and post-TJ Wieland are huge improvements there…

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    • Pumpkin says:

      They didn’t do much worse than that last year and they have a few guys who can improve, and a few guys in the minors who could make an impact.

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  11. glib says:

    These things are cyclical. An example at hand, the 49ers (SF football team) went from the easiest schedule in 2011 (did not make the SB) to the third toughest (did make the SB). Further, the AL West has three contending teams. My guess is that their strength of schedule will be comparable to the teams in the East, and tougher than the Central teams, where KC, MIN, and CLE currently play.

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    • I understand the purpose but that’s a bad example because last year the 49ers weren’t one of the better teams all season and the fact that the NFL season size is such a small sample that, even ignoring their true talent level, the ability to win a single game at any point is quite a bit influenced by luck. For instance the two best teams losing (Denver and New England).

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      • Ruki Motomiya says:

        Why would you use Denver and New England as an example when the Falcons lost with a better record than the Patriots, in addition to the Texans losing with the same record as the Patriots and the 49ers 11-4-1 being almost the same if a tie is worth half a win?

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  12. tylersnotes says:

    CAIRO projects some very strange occurrences for ’13. I don’t know much about his methodology but I think he treats young guys similar to Marcel. Not that the astro’s core is anywhere near elite,or even approaching interesting, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it undersold the division. Not that this impacta this article but maybe jimmy paredes’ mom reads the comments here

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    • Baltar says:

      I challenge you to pick the number of wins for each team this season right now and see how you compare to these CAIRO projections at the end of the season. I’m willing to bet that yours won’t be nearly as good.
      I’d much rather see a projection like this, which is at least objective, than all the picks we’re going to see from “experts” in the next couple of months.

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  13. MikeS says:

    There is no way to make this process completely fair in any sport. There are always trade offs. Create one league with no divisions and a balanced schedule? Sacrifice revenue by increasing travel and diluting traditional rivalries. Sure, MLB will be fine with only 6 Red Sox/Yankees games each year.

    Sometimes your team will benefit. Sometimes your team will be screwed. Sometimes the same thing will happen for 10 straight years. There is a random element to sports, no matter how large the sample size. Deal with it and move on.

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  14. Scott says:

    Another point is although Texas now plays the Astro’s 19 times, it used to play them 6 while the A’s and Angel’s were playing 6 vr. The Giants and Doders. So Texas gains 13 easy games while the other teams gain 19. This could be an extra game or two to the A’s, M’s and Angel’s over Texas taking into account rivalry games are now down to 4 per year.

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  15. Xeifrank says:

    Should be right around 2 win advantage to AL West teams. I’d call that significant. How much would the Angels, Rangers and A’s pay for those two wins – assuming they are all 80+ win teams? Quite a bit. But yeah, after many seasons it should even out, but not this season.

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  16. Jason says:

    “Lets call the Astros a 60 win team.”

    The problem with your analysis is that they are closer to a 40 win team than a 60 win team. This will be a case study in replacement level roster construction. This is a team that only won 55 games in the worst division, and now is moving to potentially the deepest division, and on paper they have a worse team then they did at the start of last season. You add in the restrictions on player mobility and the draft negotiated in the last CBA, and it adds up to the top tier of the AL West bottom feeding on the Astros for years to come.

    Also noteworthy is how the league shift hurts the playoff odds of the NL Central. The Reds and Cards have enjoyed a huge advantage in the WC race for years by playing the Pirates and ‘Stros 38 times. The NL West and East have to be cheering this development.

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    • hobbes020 says:

      You are over-estimating how ‘bad’, even bad teams will be. Despite moving to arguably a better division they will not be a 40-122 team. That’s ridiculous, might as well say they will be 1-161 while piling on the hyperbole.

      Secondly, you ignore his points about this being cyclical in nature. The Rangers were terrible for a long time, the Yanks/Red Sox were dominate for a long time, but times change. Yes the current Astros major league team will probably be among the worst this year. However, if you follow the changes that are in place there they are doing what’s needed and rebuilding their minor leagues in a big way.

      It takes time to acomplish this rebuilt, but its in process. They executed this new draft very well, and will likely do similar this year with the #1 pick and the flexibility it provides later in the draft if you save at that spot.

      And while Im not sure by what you mean ‘for years’ over the Pirates and Astros, the Astros were very relevant in the NL central for a long time. Its short-sighted to think the team on the field for the last two years has been this bad for the last twenty.

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      • BJsWorld says:

        How was the AL West just “arguably” better than the NL Central?

        The AL West had 75% of the clubs winning more than 88 games. The worst club won 75 games. As a division they had a +236 run differential.

        The NL Central had 50% of their clubs above 500 (with one team above 88 wins). The worst club won 55 games (followed closely by a 61 win team). The divisional run differential was -139. That’s a net swing of 350 or so runs.

        The NL Central, just like their counterparts in the AL, represented the worst division within their league.

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    • Terence says:

      “The Reds have enjoyed a huge advantage in the WC race for years by playing the ‘Stros 19 times.”

      Tell me another funny baseball history joke.

      Since the formation of the NL Central, the Astros have 4 divisional championships and 2 WC appearances, the Reds have 3 divisional championships and 0 WC appearances (with a 15 year gap between championships, that’s a whole lot of irrelevancy). I would bet the Astros have an 80 win advantage on the Reds since the formation of this division.

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  17. Bookbook says:

    Unbalanced schedules are okay (though at current levels, you play the same few teams too many times, and get to see other players too little). What is really unforgivable are home and home series that end up setting up repeats of the exact same pitching rivalry six days apart, when each team is still on the same hot or cold streak, with the same guys on the DL, and even the managers are visibly bored to tears by the whole thing. After which, you can go months before seeing the division rival again.

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  18. NATS Fan says:

    Houston’s offense last season was so bad they could use some solid Dhing. If only to sell more tickets!

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  19. RMD says:

    The Rangers are betting strong that rather than improving the team, they would rather just let the 18 games against the Astros artificially inflate their win total. They Deserve to get knocked out in the WC game again in 2013.

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  21. Zonis says:

    I think complaining by other AL Division fans is just whining that they no longer have an unfair advantage. In any given year, a division tends to have two good teams, a good/average team and a couple bad teams. The AL West, however, unlike the East or Central, had only 4 teams. That means that they tended to have 2 Good teams, an average team and a bad team.

    Basically, other divisions were able to beat up on 1 more bad team than the AL West. If you look at intra-division records, the AL West was actually rather strong. But the record did not reflect it because they had no free wins from within the division. Now they do.

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  22. thomas says:

    can’t anybody spell DOORMAT – that’s what the Astros will be till at least 2015. then if all the moves fall into place , they’ll get better each year. maybe then they’ll by 2020 be something to watch.

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