When it comes to teams looking to win championships, we toss around terms like “contention cycle” and “window of contention”. It’s common knowledge that no team, even the Yankees, who haven’t had a losing campaign in my lifetime, can be a true World Series contender every season in perpetuity. Instead, it’s thought that teams can wrench open windows, periods of time when their chances are the highest, and they push their chips into the middle of the table.
We can see obvious examples of teams that progressed through the natural parts of the success cycle in recent history. Over the past decade, the Royals built up a formidable farm system, opened up a window of contention between 2013 and 2017, then slipped back into the
tanking rebuilding phase last year. Teams like the Astros and Cubs stand as extreme examples, of teams that plunged deep into the depths of rebuilding in order to open up what they surely hoped would be particularly long windows of contention.
The Yankees, of course, thankfully never tore down in an extreme way. They did go through a period in which they were less competitive, though, and ultimately appeared on the other side with the excellent team they have today. They are clearly smack in the middle of a wide-open window of contention. Yet with any championship window, obvious questions quickly emerge: How long can they keep this window open? And will the window ever open as wide as it has now?
It might seem like only yesterday that the Baby Bombers burst onto the scene in the Bronx, but even so, 2019 might actually be the Yankees’ very best chance to win the World Series with this particular core. This isn’t to say that the Yankees’ window of contention won’t stretch on for years after 2019, or that they’re doomed if they don’t cash in on this year. But given the league-wide shift towards more youthful production, and the prime age of the vast majority of the Yankees players, now might truly represent the moment when the Yankees’ window is widest.
Perhaps the strongest force that helped turn the hot stove ice cold the past two offseasons has been the league’s collective realization that youth drives success. Older players have a harder time now than ever maintaining their value as MLB has become a young man’s game. With young hitters debuting at the peak of their powers, big league teams have focused on cultivating those young players and have avoided declining veterans entirely.
Consider Jeff Zimmerman’s research at FanGraphs from a few years back, where he attempted to quantify potential changes in MLB aging curves. From that article:
[Hitters’] performance is constant until they begin to decline, which, on average, is at 26 years old. Improved training and development is probably behind the shift. If fans are hoping for a young position player’s performance to peak, they might be sorely disappointed. Chances are the player is likely producing at his career-best already.
Zimmerman found that unlike previous eras, where players would enter the league, improve, and peak later in their careers, players were at their best almost immediately, and declining soon after. In today’s MLB, young players are worth their weight in gold, in part because of front offices’ obsession with cheap service time, and in part because those players are the game’s best.
The Yankees have those players, right now. The young stars they’ve produced in recent years are on the roster at this very moment, and given what we know about shifting aging curves, they might never be better than they are at this second.
Think about it. Aaron Judge turns 27 in a month, and has posted a 160 OPS+ over the past two years. His time is now. Giancarlo Stanton is 29, a season removed from his NL MVP campaign, and coming off a year in which he showed slight signs of decline. Gary Sanchez is 26 and has a career 121 OPS+. Luis Severino is 25 and has a career 125 ERA+.
Even if it seems like these stars only just donned their pinstripes, they are already at their peaks. There is no guarantee that they will ever be better, or as good, as they are right now. Gone are the days in which players gradually improved until they hit their early-30s before declining. Players are hitting the majors at their best, and it behooves the Yankees to strike while the iron is hot.
This holds true even with the Yankees’ especially young players. Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres should have long MLB careers ahead of them, but they just respectively debuted with OPS+ figures of 126 and 118! While Torres probably has untapped potential beyond what he’s shown simply because he was injured in 2018, the pair as a whole might already be close to their peaks.
Beyond even the Yankees’ youthful core, their veterans are unlikely to be better in the future than they are right now. Recent Colorado imports, Adam Ottavino and DJ LeMahieu, are in their 30s. Ditto potential new ace James Paxton, and Dellin Betances. Aaron Hicks is 29. This isn’t to say all these players will be chopped liver in 18 months, just that they are all far more likely to decline than to improve as we hit the 2020s.
Based on the construction of their roster and league-wide aging trends, the Yankees are set up to win in 2019, but that’s not the only factor that puts added pressure on this season. We have external factors at play as well; this might be the last year the Yankees only have one true AL East monster to contend with.
The Red Sox were sensational last year, and though they’ve have done virtually nothing since winning the World Series to solidify their position, they still remain a clear threat. Boston stands to win 90-plus games this year, if not more. The rest of the division, however, should remain at bay in 2019.
The Rays had a solid 2018, winning a surprising 90 games, but they too did little this offseason to make a leap forward. Instead of amping up payroll after a strong campaign, they settled for minor maneuvers, such as signing Charlie Morton on a short-term deal and flipping Jake Bauers for Yandy Diaz. Consequently, PECOTA currently projects the Rays to win 85 games, while FanGraphs estimates 81 wins. The Rays aren’t bad, but they don’t profile as a huge threat quite yet.
Moreover, the two teams at the bottom of the division are likely as bad as they will be in the near-future. The Orioles put forth a pitiful, 47-win 2018 season, and might struggle to crack 60 wins in 2019. The Blue Jays made a series of marginal moves this winter, importing the likes of Matt Shoemaker, Clay Buchholz, and Freddy Galvis. Plus, Toronto appears likely to star in MLB’s most farcical modern-day play by holding down Vladimir Guerrero Jr., quite possibly their best player right now, in order to manipulate his service time. Both the Orioles and Blue Jays are poster-boys for the league’s spirit of anti-competitiveness in 2019.
Yet going forward, the picture stands to change. The Rays might only be a decent team right now, but they possess a terrifying farm system, maybe the best in the league outside of San Diego. Their farm probably won’t have a huge impact this year, but what will the story look like in 2020? Or 2021 and 2022? When the Rays flood the majors with elite prospects like Wander Franco, Brent Honeywell, Brendan McKay, Lucius Fox, the list goes on, they very well could re-establish themselves as one of the American League’s best teams as they did between 2008 and 2013.
Likewise, though the Blue Jays don’t possess quite the caliber of farm system that Tampa Bay does, Toronto has the aforementioned Guerrero Jr., not to mention other tantalizing talents like Bo Bichette, Nate Pearson, and Danny Jansen. Consequently, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Rays and Blue Jays second and fourth, respectively, on their MLB farm system rankings, while FanGraphs respectively had them fourth and fifth.
The Orioles, well, their prospects lag behind the rest, but the best we can say about them is that they probably can only improve from here. So, the Yankees might have one year remaining in which the Red Sox are their only real rival. As soon as 2020, the Rays and Blue Jays will look to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, propelled forth by the kinds of premier young players that we discussed earlier as the most important pieces for contention.
The early years of the next decade could very well feature three or four AL East teams duking it out every season, a bloodbath reminiscent of a decade ago, when the Yankees and Red Sox were still excellent, but when the Rays also were competitive every year, not to mention the Orioles, who came onto the scene in 2012. You may recall that in the face of a tough division, the Yankees have only won the AL East three times in the past 12 years. They look likely to face stiff challenges ahead yet again. The 2019 season might the easiest one for a long time in the AL East.
Add it all up, and what should feel like one of the earlier campaigns in a long stretch championship contention suddenly takes on added importance. The Yankees will likely be good for a long time, given their great roster, ample resources, and forward-thinking front office. But that doesn’t mean that 2019 isn’t their best shot. Given the age of their best players, and the state of the rest of their division, the Yankees’ chances might never be higher with this core.
That also means the pressure may never be higher. The 2019 campaign could stand as a flashpoint, the year the Yankees made good on their young talent and started a new dynasty, or the year they missed a huge opportunity, only to see their window gradually close over the coming years. Their talent is great, and the stakes are greater. No matter what happens, it will surely be riveting.