Most rebuilds take longer than a year. The Astros famously tanked and lost 110 games a season for years at a time. The Phillies fell off in 2012 and have been stuck in the mud ever since. Even the Cubs, who executed a teardown as efficiently as anyone, were pitiful for years under Theo Epstein before returning to playoffs in 2015.
Not so in New York. Brian Cashman and the Yankees sold several productive players last year, and in less than 12 months, the team is a contender yet again. Not only are the Bombers a threat right now, the farm system's best prospects are still in the organization, and the club's books remain clear enough for a potential foray into the fabled 2018 free agent class.
What might be lost in the furor of the Yankees' sudden shift back to contention is just how strong this current roster is, and how that strength can remain going forward. It's not enough to say that the Yankees are buyers again, that they have quickly changed gears from retooling to contending. Let's put into concrete terms just how good this team is in comparison with the league's other top contenders.
First, to best contextualize where the team is now, it helps to remember whence they came. This was a club for which mediocrity was the expectation. FanGraphs’ projections pegged the team for 79 wins at the beginning of April. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA called for 81 wins. There was nothing shameful about such middling expectations, not with the team fresh off a selling spree. It was clear, though, that they were expected to fall towards the middle of the American League pack.
Of course, the team is now in first place in the AL East. Beyond that, the Yankees are deserving of every bit of success they've enjoyed, at least insofar as their on-field performance has justified their record. Their run differential of +118 is third best in MLB. Their BaseRuns run differential, which FanGraphs calculates to estimate how many runs a team "should" score based on their underlying numbers, is +119. That’s good for fourth in MLB.
The Yankees have a good record because they have played quality baseball. What we care about most now is how good they should be from here on out. Most important at this point is where the team ranks among the game's elite in terms of talent. There's no perfect way to gauge true talent, but projections always provide a useful baseline. Here, from FanGraphs, is where the Yankees rank in rest-of-season projected WAR:
Rest of Season WAR
By FanGraphs' projections, the Yankees aren't quite on the level of teams like the Dodgers, but instead nestle snugly in that second tier of elite teams. They’re among other legitimate contenders like the Nationals and Astros. This is excellent news. Even as the Yankees beat expectations over the season's opening months, the projections consistently called for regression. The forecasts no longer expect that, and instead estimate the Yankees' talent to be enough to compete with nearly anybody.
Turning to PECOTA, here's how the Yankees' rank in terms of forecasted winning percentage the rest of the way, based solely on PECOTA's WARP projections:
Rest of Season WP per PECOTA
Again, the Dodgers appear on top and profile as the favorites, but the Yankees slot nicely in the upper crust. PECOTA has them as solidly above the rival Red Sox, which seemed pretty unlikely just four months ago.
The most exciting part is that the Yankees appear well positioned to stay in the league’s upper tier. They do have a handful of free agents after this season, such as CC Sabathia, and newly imported Jaime Garcia and Todd Frazier. They’re more solid veterans than stars, though, and the money that's coming off the books makes it very possible to replace their outgoing production.
Moreover, even if some of this year's big surprises (Aaron Judge, Starlin Castro, Aaron Hicks) are bound to regress next season, there are plenty of places the Yankees could see positive regression. They could see better health from Greg Bird, Didi Gregorius, Gary Sanchez, as well as from Castro and Hicks. If Masahiro Tanaka stays put, he would be expected for a rebound year. Full seasons from Sonny Gray and Clint Frazier couldn't hurt, and neither would further contributions from a still deep farm system.
Of the other elite teams, only the Dodgers and Astros have the kind of prospect and financial resources to match the Yankees’ future outlook. The Nationals have a number of huge free agents that could leave the next couple years; Cleveland has to deal with playing in a small market; and the Red Sox have a talented team but an exhausted farm system. If all goes well, the Yankees could open up a window of contention similar to what the Dodgers have done in recent years.
If anything, the biggest concern going forward may be the schedule. Matt noted last week how difficult the Yankees' upcoming slate was, as it is littered with matchups against tough foes like Cleveland and Boston. The Yankees may have as talented a roster as anyone, but having to face a schedule of talented opponents does make the path to October more fraught.
Even if the Yankees have to worry about a tough schedule, though, they don’t have to fret about any lack of talent. This team has put together a strong resume so far, and they are equipped to continue that good work all year. The talent is on hand, in the here and now, and the rebuild is over. All that is left is for the Yankees to execute on the field.