2017 is an unconventional year in Major League Baseball, in that each division entered the season with a clear favorite. The Red Sox, Indians, Astros, Nationals, Cubs, and Dodgers each began the season with at least a 58% chance of winning their division per FanGraphs playoff odds. As of April 20th, the Red Sox sit at 64%, and each of the other favorites have at least an 80% chance of taking home a division title.
These teams also seem to be in the midst of—or on the verge of—a sustained run of success. While the Yankees are off to a hot start, they are still in the process of building towards a team capable of sustained playoff success, perhaps beginning this year. With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at one lesson the Yankees could learn from the construction of each successful team.
Boston Red Sox: Go all in when the time is right
Boston Vice-President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski inherited a promising roster when he took the reigns in 2015. He then proceeded to do what Dave Dombrowski does; he recognized the opportunity to strike and went all in. With a young core including Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and now Andrew Benintendi already in place, big Dave rightly felt that this team was a top flight pitching staff away from contention.
Starting with a monstrous seven-year, $217 million deal with David Price, Dombrowski embarked on a series of moves to firmly place the team’s contention window in the present. After unloading his coffers, Dombrowski turned to his farm system, dealing elite prospects Manuel Margot, Anderson Espinoza, Michael Kopech, and Yoan Moncada to acquire Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz, and finally ace Chris Sale. The lesson here is not that the Yankees should turn around and trade all their prospects, but rather that they should push their resources all in when the team is on the verge of true contention with a strong core in place.
Houston Astros: Trust the process
The Astros were the original pioneers of the process, executing a complete teardown and purging their roster of MLB talent while fielding some truly dreadful teams with minuscule payrolls. From 2011-13 the Astros won a maximum of 56 games, yet all the while they were collecting an impressive array of minor league talent that has begun to pay dividends. Carlos Correa (#1 pick in 2012), George Springer (#11 in 2011), Alex Bregman (#2 in 2015), and Lance McCullers (#41 in 2012) were all high picks and are integral parts of an imposing core, so the process actually worked.
The lesson here is not that the Yankees should trade all their competent players, but that they remain committed to their youth movement and give it every chance to succeed. Greg Bird has struggled and James Kaprielian is on the shelf, but the Yanks should continue to trust to their young talent going forward.
Cleveland Indians: Lock up the young talent
The Indians have built a contender on the back of one basic strategy: produce young talent and then lock them down with extensions. Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Jose Ramirez, Yan Gomes, Corey Kluber, and Carlos Carrasco all broke through with the Indians and were quickly offered long term deals with potentially valuable team options tacked on to buy out precious free-agent years in the process. Cleveland is certainly assuming some risk with these early extensions, but the upside is huge if the player develops as expected.
The key lesson for the Yankees is that the Indians have not waited for their players to near free agency, instead opting to take advantage of early-career players’ desire for financial certainty. With players like Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge showing great promise, the Yankees would be wise to start thinking about extensions sooner rather than later.
Washington Nationals: Pay for an ace
The Nationals were poised to enter 2015 with a strong rotation fronted by Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, yet they still felt the need to sign Max Scherzer for seven years and $210 million with lots of differed money. Why? Because they recognized the importance of front-end starting pitching in the playoffs, and Scherzer is as good as they come. He hasn’t disappointing, averaging 6 fWAR over his time in DC and is one of the key reasons to fear the Nationals.
While Masahiro Tanaka has proven to be an ace-level pitcher, he could become a free agent after this season. So whether its Tanaka or someone else, the Yankees should be prepared to pay up for the elite level starters they’ll need in the playoffs.
Chicago Cubs: Build through all avenues
Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein has done a famously masterful job masterminding the Cubs 2016 World Series winning team that looks poised to win more titles. What stands out about Epstein’s rebuild is that he was able to acquire key players through all different avenues.
Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Javier Baez were top draft picks, Jake Arrieta and Addison Russell were acquired through lopsided trades, Jon Lester, Ben Zobrist, and Jason Heyward were free agent splashes, and Willson Contreras was signed as international free agent. Epstein and his staff have clearly been extremely diligent in searching for any opportunity to improve their talent level by any means possible, and the Yankees should follow suit.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Strength in depth
While they certainly aren’t lacking stars with Clayton Kershaw and Corey Seager leading the way, what stands out most about the Dodgers’ roster is their incredible depth. The Dodgers appear to have about 10 viable starting pitchers and a quality backup or platoon at basically every position in the field. To go along with all the major league talent, LA has maintained a strong farm system, which is ranked 4th by Baseball America. This depth is nothing new and the Dodgers are built to withstand injuries like Kershaw’s back surgery and Rich Hill’s blisters and still comfortably make the playoffs.
Of course, what allows the Dodgers to maintain this level of depth is that they have boatloads of money. But so do the Yankees! In order to build a truly formidable team, the Yankees would be wise to build a roster that can ride out injuries and underperformance with strong organizational depth.