There's no surefire way to build a contender. Some teams watch young foundations grow over the course of several carefully plotted years. Some are aggressive on the free agent and trade markets. Others still simply wait for an even year to roll around before heading off to win the World Series.
It's impossible to look at a group of playoff teams and drill down to one common thread that links all of MLB's most successful clubs. There's no smoking gun that demonstrates exactly how to build a great baseball team. However, as the Yankees continue to rebuild and retool, there are certain things they can glean from this season's crop of World Series contenders. Specifically, it might behoove them to take an approach similar to that of the Red Sox and Cubs.
This might seem obvious and over-simplistic. Of course the Yankees should strive to emulate the success of a pair of extremely talented, big market ball clubs! Yet as the Yankees are building the core of their next great team, teams like the Cubs and Red Sox illustrate a key point: the Yankees should focus on building their position player depth.
The Cubs have built a core that is clearly the envy of the sport, and they did so with a demonstrable focus on hitters. Their lineup is dotted with excellent young players that the organization invested in early and watched grow into contributors. Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, and Jorge Soler have all had major impact at the big league level, and form an incredible group of position players that the National League will have to reckon with for years to come.
Similarly, the Red Sox have returned to the postseason after a two year absence on the strength of fantastic young position players. Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi are Boston's AL version of what the Cubs offer; a productive, terrifyingly young core that will likely keep the Red Sox in contention well into the future.
According to most projection systems, the Cubs and Red Sox are the World Series favorites. They are the best teams in their respective leagues, in part because of their homegrown core of hitters. On the other end of the spectrum, teams that focused on starting pitching, such as the Mets and Indians, are left crippled as the postseason begins.
Both Cleveland and the Mets looked like potentially formidable postseason foes early in the year. Cleveland, with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar had possibly the best top three in baseball, if it weren't for the Mets' trio of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, and Matt Harvey.
Yet, as Jason reminded us last week, there is no such thing as a pitching prospect, and likewise, there's no such thing as a major league pitcher that can't blow out. The Mets have watched helplessly as Harvey, deGrom, and even Steven Matz were felled one by one. The Indians lost Carrasco for the season, Salazar is unlikely to return, and Kluber is dealing with a strained quad in the lead-up to the ALDS.
Building through homegrown pitching is simply a riskier proposition. Conversely, clubs like Boston and Chicago have been able to supplement their great position player cores with pitching from outside the organization. The Red Sox signed ace David Price to a huge free agent contract, and No. 2 starter Rick Porcello was traded for and signed to a lucrative extension. The Cubs built their rotation by signing free agents like Jon Lester and John lackey, and trading for a reclamation project in Jake Arrieta.
The Yankees have already started building a strong foundation of position players. Gary Sanchez has wowed everyone this year, and Aaron Judge has potential as a power hitter, despite his struggles. On the farm, outfielder Clint Frazier and shortstops Jorge Mateo and Gleyber Torres provide more hope for the future.
The Yankees must continue to build that foundation. As the Cubs have shown, it's not possible to have too many talented hitters that can play up the middle. Chicago has taken players like Russell and Baez and implemented their abilities across the diamond. When catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber went down during the first week of the season, the Cubs didn’t miss a beat, slotting in players like Soler and Contreras.
Signing big ticket pitchers on the free agent market will always come with risk, but no more so than trying to cultivate young pitching prospects. New York has shown in the past that signing elite starters on the market to bolster the team can work, as imported aces like CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka have been largely successful with the Yankees.
Prospects who play a position are just inherently safer. The front office did seem to skew towards hitters during this summer’s fire sale, when they brought in Torres and Frazier. They also acquired pitchers like Justus Sheffield and Dillon Tate, which is fine, given the upside those hurlers possess. However, looking at the teams most likely to succeed this October, the Yankees should keep their focus on position players as they lay the groundwork for the future.