Over the last few years, the difference in parity between MLB’s two leagues was remarkably striking.
Nearly every team in the AL — the White Sox and A’s being the notable exceptions — entered 2017 thinking they had some kind of shot at the Wild Card spot, and the Twins ended up securing a position in the play-in game with an 85-77 record. 9 AL teams won between 75 and 85 games last year, and while there were a few really good teams at the top of the pile, the AL was mostly known for its fairly even distribution of talent.
The NL, on the other hand, was a league of stars and scrubs. The Dodgers, Cubs, and Nationals won their divisions by a combined 37 games, and the most of the teams that weren’t trying to win last year — Braves, Phillies, Padres, and Reds — were in the NL giving free wins to their opponents. The NL’s stratification brought about calls to fix “tanking”, because the league had almost nothing in the way of a middle class.
This winter, it looks like the AL might be heading towards the NL model. While he hasn’t officially waived his no-trade clause yet, it sounds like Giancarlo Stanton is going to end up in New York for some combination of Starlin Castro and lower level minor leaguers. With the Yankees taking on just $260 million of Stanton’s deal without giving up anything of huge value, this is a pretty clear win for New York.
And the Yankees were already on the verge of being a powerhouse. We had them projected for 89 wins before acquiring Stanton, and that was with Jordan Montgomery and Bryan Mitchell penciled in as their 4th and 5th starters. They are certainly going to upgrade the back of their rotation, and with Stanton in the fold, the team now has plenty of options for reconfiguring their roster in order to push themselves into the mid-90s.
If they decide to keep Brett Gardner and use him and Stanton as an LF/DH tandem, Gardner loses a bit of value, as his defensive ability would be lost when not playing the field. And Stanton might be DH-sized, but he’s actually a very good defensive corner outfielder, and playing him at DH full-time would also be a bit of a waste.
But Gardner would also be an appealing player to a number of clubs, coming off a +4 WAR season and due just $23.5 million over the next two years. And Clint Frazier now has no real future in NYY, so the Yankees have two appealing OF trade chips that could be used to acquire a rotation upgrade, a 1B/DH type to give the team depth behind Greg Bird, or a 2B/3B type to allow the team to be patient with Gleyber Torres if he proves not quite ready for the big leagues.
While there’s still plenty of moving pieces, acquiring Stanton for a non-dramatic cost probably means the Yankees will end up closer to a 93-95 win projection than their current 89-win forecast. This move likely signals that the 2018 Yankees will join the Indians and Astros as potential dominant forces in the AL. And that’s before the Red Sox even respond in kind, as Dave Dombrowski isn’t going to just fold up his tent and surrender the AL East. Expect the Red Sox — already projected for 91 wins — to make more win-now moves, and they’ll probably end up with a forecast in the mid-90s as well.
In other words, the AL is about to have four “super teams”, and not included in that mix will be the team with Mike Trout, the one that also just added Shohei Otani. We have the Angels projected for 84 wins without Ohtani, and he probably pushes them up into the high-80s. And now that they added Ohtani, they’ll almost certainly push in harder on win-now moves, likely getting better options at 2B and maybe 3B. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Angels headed into next year projected as a 90-win team either.
And these moves mean that if the other AL contenders are rational, they’ll start pivoting in the not-too-distant future.
The Orioles, in particular, should realize that their path to the postseason just became even more of longshot, and Manny Machado and Zach Britton should be traded sooner than later. The Blue Jays should now be willing to listen to offers for Josh Donaldson, especially with the Cardinals looking to overpay for an impact player. The Rangers should probably listen to offers for Adrian Beltre and Cole Hamels, given that they are projected as an 80-win team and their best players are a 39-year-old third baseman and a 34-year-old pitcher. The Rays were already thinking about selling, and this probably only secures the decision to trade guys like Chris Archer, Alex Colome, and maybe Evan Longoria this winter.
Not every one of those teams is going to hold a fire sale, but the incentive to hang around and try to win 86 games just got less enticing. There’s a good chance that, by spring training, there will be five clear-cut favorites in the AL for the postseason spots. A few teams will almost certainly keep pushing in on the short-term, but the days of the AL Wild Card contest being a race to 88 wins are probably over.
The Yankees’ run of mediocrity is over. The years of rebuilding their farm system set them up for another run as a behemoth, and instead of waiting until next winter to add Bryce Harper to the mix, the Yankees just sped up their timeline, becoming a dominant force in 2018 instead. And with the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and Astros as the clear powers in the AL, and an Angels team that looks significantly scarier now, the league is now stratifying like the NL already has.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.