With Opening Day a day away, almost everyone in the prediction and preview business has made their picks for 2018. While there are some unique variations, the majority of experts have the same division winners: the Yankees, Indians and Astros in the American League and the Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers in the NL. There are a non-trivial number of people picking the Red Sox in the AL East, though not even close to a majority from what I’ve seen.
It’s worth nothing that, with the exception of the AL East, these teams all won their division last year and, of course, the Yankees made the playoffs and almost made it to the World Series. Which is to say that we have a group of seven Super Teams in baseball right now. A clear consensus of serious contenders — contenders who seem to stand head and shoulders above their divisional rivals — that I can’t recall in recent memory.
Indeed, as a reader noted yesterday, since the six division format began in 1994, there has never been a season when all six division winners repeated as division champs. The closest we’ve come is 1998-1999, when the Yankees, Indians, Rangers, Braves and Astros (then in the NL Central) all won back-to-back division titles. That year the NL West turned over from the Padres in 1998 to the Diamondbacks in 1999.
All of that felt different, though, in that the margins between first and second place teams we saw last year and which we can reasonably expect to see this year are far greater. Two of the 2017 division winners won by 20 games or more. Four won by ten games or more. Only the AL East was relatively close for most of the year. It’ll likely be the only close division this year too. It looks like, once again, it will be a season of runaway champions.
There are seven teams truly worth a dang this year. Because there has to be ten playoff teams, three more have a chance to write a Cinderella story via an improbable, Wild Card-fueled playoff run, but from Opening Day on Thursday to the end of September, baseball is The Big Seven and the Little Twenty-Three.
It’s not hard to see how we got here. Free agency, which was once used by teams to quickly change their fortunes, is less in favor for a host of reasons. In its place is an ethos where clubs, run by executives with increasingly homogenous backgrounds and philosophies, have been built with a homegrown core of cost-controlled players who give the club a multi-year window of contention.
The Cubs and Astros are the best example of this, but the once free agency-drunk Yankees returned to prominence by developing players in-house. The Red Sox position players are mostly homegrown. The Dodgers have a high payroll due to some free agent signings, but most of that is dead money to players long gone. They’re winning these days because of Clayton Kershaw, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig and Kenley Jansen. The Indians stars are almost exclusively homegrown. Among the Super Teams, the Nationals have the best mix of homegrown and acquired stars, but even their roster isn’t as filled with mercenaries as some of those Yankees teams of 10 or 15 years ago. Bully to those clubs for building strong teams.
The necessary byproduct of this philosophy, however, is a league full of teams trying to get to that contention window like the Cubs and Astros did. Rather than try to cobble together a team that may contend in a given year, teams are increasingly embarking on full-scale rebuilds, punting at the major league level for years at a time in an effort to build a strong farm system that produces cost-controlled superstars. In the past, clubs could do both things at one time, acquiring prospects while at least attempting to field a competitive squad at the big league level in a league characterized by parity. Due to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, however, signing free agents and, perversely, winning baseball games directly impacts the number and quality of a club’s draft picks and reduces the money they have to spend on amateur talent. As such, building and winning is increasingly a zero sum proposition. Which leaves us in a situation where, in 2018, it’s fair to say that a third of the league has no intention whatsoever of trying to win games.
I believe that the dynamic of clubs not signing free agents and not trying to win unless and until they have a mature core of homegrown players is a bad thing, both aesthetically and philosophically, for Major League Baseball. No one wants to invest their attention or their dollars in a club that is not just ticketed for 98 losses but which is content to be so ticketed. Baseball is consumed by fans in the form of games first, seasons second and the club’s long-term competitive arc a very distant third, and even then it’s only consumed in such a way by front office types and true hardcore, obsessive fans. That clubs are increasingly asking fans to adopt that third perspective over the first and second — “patience, fans, we’re building here!” — is a big ask. That may appeal to the sorts of people who follow every transaction and who understand team building due to heavy immersion in sabermetrics and keeper fantasy leagues, but casual fans are not going to readily agree to come along for that ride.
I will say, though, if you are either a generalist baseball fan who takes in the league as a whole, or if you happen to be a fan of one of the seven Super Teams, this era is not without its appeal. There’s something to be said for seeing a massive collection of talent on one club. To watch the Astros or Yankees lineup do its considerable damage. To watch the Indians pitching staff carve up the opposition. And, of course, to see these Super Teams face off in October, pitting strength against strength. Or, possibly, to see one of those three Cinderella Wild Card teams knock off one of the Super Teams. There’s a lot of drama there.
In the meantime, though, between Thursday afternoon and the end of September, there’s going to be a lot of bad baseball teams playing bad baseball. That so many of them are doing it by choice is a shame, and I’m not sure why Major League Baseball or its clubs feel like anyone should care about them.