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The Red Sox are still the team to beat, and it’s the Yankees’ fault

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Merely making the playoffs isn’t good enough.

Boston Red Sox Victory Parade
Boston Red Sox Victory Parade
Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

In 2018, the rival Red Sox became just the 12th team in baseball history to win at least 108 games in a season. They clinched the AL East title on the hallowed grounds of Yankee Stadium, and three weeks later ended the Bombers’ season by winning the final two games of the Division Series there.

In years past, this would have set off a chain of events with one goal in mind: Making sure the Yankees are the last team standing next season. The Yankees front office would have done everything in its power to effect that outcome. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened this winter.

The Yankees roster at the moment is not as good as the one that finished second behind Boston last season. Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson signed with the Phillies, and 4.2 WAR player Didi Gregorius is expected to miss at least half of the 2019 season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow, while his return at all this year is far from certain.

Sure, the Yankees added James Paxton to boost an underwhelming rotation. They also signed Troy Tulowitzki and DJ LeMahieu to shore up the infield, but it would be a real surprise if either performs to the level that Didi did. LeMahieu’s OPS away from Coors Field is only .673, and Tulowitzki hasn’t played at all since 2017, when he played in just 66 games. He’s produced a total of 6.3 WAR since 2015.

The Red Sox meanwhile, will return mostly the same juggernaut that won the championship in October. They did lose reliever Joe Kelly to free agency and closer Craig Kimbrel remains unsigned, but the bullpen was their biggest weakness last season and it didn’t seem to matter. Plus, they won without former MVP Dustin Pedroia, who is expected to be healthy by spring training. Boston could actually be better in 2019 than they were last year.

Even if they aren’t, counting on the Red Sox to regress or stumble isn’t a very sound plan of action by the Yankees. Fans expect the Yankees to be the team to beat on paper heading into each season. Hoping to “compete” or “make the playoffs” simply has never been the Bronx Bombers’ modus operandi. And why should it be? The organization has always been the gold standard which all other teams aspired to match.

Since the Wild Card debuted in 1995, the team with the best record in the league has reached the World Series 17 of 48 times (35.4%). Wild Card teams have won the pennant just 12 times (25%). Setting the playoffs as a goal is great when you’re mired in last place and want a stepping stone to aim for on the rise upwards. It’s also fine when you are hovering a few games over .500 at mid-season and want to add a piece or two to try to make a playoff push. But when you’re the Yankees, a team which came within one win of the World Series only two years ago, setting the bar at simply “making the playoffs” isn’t good enough.

I can’t accuse this front office of punting completely, because they have made moves. But these moves on balance appear designed to put the Yankees in a position to win a Wild Card berth, not the AL East. If the front office wanted to set sights on winning the division and finishing with the league’s best record, I think the moves would have been much different.

Prime targets Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Adam Ottavino are still free agents. I’m not going to abandon hope that the Yankees sign one (or more) of them unless and until each player signs elsewhere. Right now, though, I don’t like where the Yankees are roster-wise. I also don’t like the apparent lack of interest the front office has shown and continues to show the top free agents. If spring training were to begin tomorrow, I would not feel confident predicting them to win the division or the World Series. And that’s how Yankees fans should feel, that the their team is the one to beat.