The LA Dodgers are in serious risk of missing the playoffs. After five straight NL West titles, the team is 2.5 games back of the division at time of writing, and looking up at the same deficit in the Wild Card race. They could still make a push down the stretch, but are behind multiple teams in both races, and will need some help to keep their playoff streak going.
The Washington Nationals are going to miss the playoffs. They’re 8.5 games back in the division race, and 7.5 back in the Wild Card. This from a team that’s won three of the last four NL East titles, boasts one of the deepest rosters in the game, and at the start of the year was supposed to be in the weakest division in baseball.
So, what happened? Neither team has actually been bad in 2018. Fangraphs’ Base Runs standings projects what a team’s record should be, based on their run differential and other underlying statistics. It’s a pretty reliable way of measuring teams on their true talent, and both the Dodgers and Nationals are better than they’ve shown this season. LA should have eight more wins than they do now per Base Runs, and the Nationals should have seven. If that were reflected in reality, the Dodgers would be cruising to a sixth division title and the Nationals would be in the thick of things themselves.
The talent on the rosters hasn’t really changed either. The Dodgers lost their best player in Corey Seager, but managed to replace him with Manny Machado. Clayton Kershaw looks like one of the best pitchers in baseball, turning his season around after a rocky start and a back injury. The team’s controllable assets, like Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor, Walker Buehler and Alex Wood have held there own, and while regression has dragged down a player like Max Muncy, it’s also boosted players like Justin Turner back to their career norms. Suffice to say, the Dodgers have the most raw talent in their division.
So too do the Nationals. At the start of the season they boasted two of the three 2017 NL Cy Young finalists, controlled talent like Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy still around for at least one more year, and were on the verge of calling up a Rookie of the Year candidate in Juan Soto. On top of the talent on the roster, the division appeared to be a mess, with all four teams either staring down the barrel of a rebuild or in the middle of one. We’ll get back to this in a moment.
And then we have the 2018 New York Yankees. Arguably the second-best team in all of baseball, they’ve won seven of their last eight, and all of a sudden the deficit they face in the AL East race is identical to the number of games remaining to be played against the Red Sox. Not only will the Yankees make the playoffs, but they have a shot, if an outside one, of capturing a division title for the first time since 2012. Their roster, though battered by injuries, include an MVP candidate if his wrist wasn’t broken, the best catcher in baseball, a Cy Young contender at the top of the rotation and two certain top-three Rookie of the Year finalists. The team is good, deep, and the window is wide open.
Or so we think.
The Dodgers’ window was supposed to be wide open too. They’ve won five NL West titles and made it all the way to the World Series last year, but haven’t been able to get over the hump. As we speed towards the end of the year, that window’s closed just a bit for the gang in Chavez Ravine. Whether Kershaw leaves the Dodgers at season’s end – he can opt out of his contract – or not, he’ll be 31 before the start of the 2019 season. Kenta Maeda, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner will be a year older, all on the wrong side of 30 too.
Matt Kemp has collapsed as a player, but his contract will still be on the books next year. Seager, Yasiel Puig, Enrique Hernandez and Joc Pederson will all either need to be signed or go through an expensive and often contentious arbitration process. Taylor and Bellinger are just a year away from their first arb experience as well.
The Dodgers certainly have the financial heft to absorb these kinds of costs, but all teams do have a budget. As arbitration and toxic assets like Kemp’s contract eat away at the budget and occupy roster spots, it takes away from openings for improvement, like signing someone like Bryce Harper. As strong as the team’s front office is, it’s easy to imagine Los Angeles taking a real step back this offseason, capping off what would be a disappointing 2018 calendar year.
The Nationals’ window was open for a time as well. Three playoff appearances in four years have all ended in the first round, and while it’s become a meme for the rest of baseball, for Washington specifically this kind of playoff failure can’t be counted as anything less than an embarrassment, a black eye following so many great regular seasons. Now Daniel Murphy is gone, dealt to the Cubs ahead of his upcoming free agency. Bryce Harper will either leave the team or become incredibly expensive.
Stephen Strasburg has dealt with injuries his entire career, and despite his overwhelming on-field talent, can’t really be counted on to play a full season. Max Scherzer will be 35 next year, and Ryan Zimmerman 34. The team still has young talent in Turner, Soto and Victor Robles, but like the Dodgers, is probably going to take a step back.
That doesn’t even take into account the rise of the Phillies and Braves in the NL East. Chock-full of young, controllable assets, both teams have overtaken the Nationals as the talk of the division, and even if the Nats are as good in true talent as Philadelphia and Atlanta, it turns the division race from a one-and-a-half-horse race to a threeteam slugfest, and the odds of any one team winning decrease proportionally.
Like the Dodgers, the Yankees should have the financial acumen and administrative acuity to manage an increasingly expensive roster. The question becomes one of plugging holes, as David Robertson, Zach Britton, J.A. Happ, CC Sabathia, Lance Lynn, Neil Walker and Brett Gardner all can become free agents at season’s end. Didi Gregorius, Sonny Gray, Aaron Hicks, Austin Romine and Dellin Betances will all require an extension or face arbitration. The team’s farm system isn’t what it used to be, down to 17th after being a top-three system over the past couple of seasons. The high-ceiling prospects left in the system are almost all pitchers, far more volatile and difficult to project than position players.
Teams around the league have shied away from building around young arms. The Astros and Cubs won World Series by building bats and buying arms. The Braves and As, two likely 2018 playoff teams, were expected to compete around their young pitching, but instead its been largely-homegrown lineups that have driven their success. Building around pitching just isn’t a strategy most teams embrace anymore, and that should signal concern for a Yankee system that’s held afloat by pitching.
Apart from the very real roster holes, the Yankees will have to deal with increased competition, just like the Nationals. The Red Sox are great, of course. The Rays, a team some thought were rebuilding, would be a playoff hopeful if they weren’t in the AL East, and if they get back some of their young, injured talent in time for Opening Day next year, will be even better than they are this year, a season where they’ve posted the sixth-best Base Runs record in all of baseball.
The Baltimore Orioles are about to begin a very painful rebuilding process, but the Blue Jays’ is already well under way. Toronto won’t be competitive next year, but by 2020, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Nate Pearson, Cavan Biggio, Anthony Alford and Danny Jansen should all be establishing themselves in the league, adding another team to the pool of AL playoff hopefuls. Despite the Yankees’ best wishes, teams aren’t going to stay in neutral and just let the Yankees win. Everyone is trying to improve at all times.
All this is to say that, the Yankees can’t really afford to wait around. For all the speculation that this is the forerunner of a dynasty, a decade-long run atop baseball, they only have two years or so before the roster gets expensive, holes must be patched, free agency becomes a very real concern and the rest of baseball catches up. As great as the Red Sox are this season, the Yankees have to find a way to cash in now. The window is open, but the sport has a way of narrowing your chances to win before you know it.
The Yankees are now where the Nationals and Dodgers were circa 2014-15; a plethora of young talent and the financial means to work with it. Neither NL team now has a World Series to show for it, and other than the NL pennant the Dodgers captured last year, have even seen real deep playoff runs. Everything that’s said now about the Yankees’ window of opportunity was said about LA and Washington. The window isn’t closed on either team, but the path forward is more crooked and meandering than ever. It won’t be long before the Yankees are in that position, and it’s why 2018 is a win-now season.