What Teams Are Stuck In Between?

To preview MLB spring training, Tyler Kepner examined the competitive “window” status — that is, the realistic possibility for contention — of all 30 major-league clubs earlier this month for the New York Times. Kepner employed four logical window designations: closed, open, closing and opening.

I think reasonable people can mostly agree that the Cubs’ window of contention is open, and the White Sox’ window is closed. The Royals’ is perhaps closing, and the Braves’ is opening (if not in 2017, then soon). While we will not agree on every status, it’s an interesting exercise.

Windows of contention are an interesting concept, particularly in an era of two Wild Cards in each league. How do teams balance the future and present? How do clubs play a so-so hand knowing the unpredictability of the game? Few teams are able to sustain long windows of contention. The Braves of the 1990s and early 2000s and the Cardinals of the 21st century have done it as well as any team in the in the Wild Card era.

It’s also easier to operate if you suspect your window is either completely open or closed. If you’re the Cubs and Indians last deadline, you’re willing to trade significant young assets for impact relief help. If you suspect your window is closed, like the White Sox, you’re willing to deal assets like Chris Sale and Adam Eaton. There’s a clarity in decision-making, in creating a strategy and plan to implement.

Said Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels to FanGraphs’ David Laurila on charting a course:

“Something our management team has talked about a lot is the mistake we made our first year here, in 2006. We were caught in the middle. We convinced ourselves that if A, B, and C went right, we had a chance to win, and I think you can make the case that, for any team, it’s not a sustainable strategy.”

Being caught in the middle is the most difficult position for a club. Consider, for instance, a team with some relatively young stars at the major-league level. The front office thought this core of players would form the foundation of a contending team, but it’s not surrounded with the requisite depth, prospects or resources to realistically contend and sustain. The White Sox entered the season in that position. In the meantime, they’ve chosen a course. The Angels, Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Twins could all face difficult decisions in choosing paths in the not-too-distant future.

A few years ago, Sports Illustrated imagined a scenario in which the Twins possessed the equivalent of both Bryce Harper and Mike Trout in their farm system in Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. That scenario hasn’t come to fruition. Not yet, at least.

I still believe Sano is going to be a quality major-league slugger. The power is very real, as his Statcast data verifies. He understands the strike zone. Buxton seemingly has too many gifts not to become a quality player, and maybe the close of last season and the stance adjustment will allow for that to happen in 2017. But they haven’t entrenched themselves as stars, yet. Each has burned a year-plus of service time. In the five years of club control remaining what can the Twins hope to add around them? Beyond Buxton and Sano, only Dozier projects to produce better than a three-win season this year, according to ZiPS. Dozier is a quality player but moving Dozier to the Dodgers for Jose De Leon seemed to be a logical position, as Dave Cameron recently argued, particularly since the Twins produced an AL-worst 5.08 ERA last season. Wrote Cameron:

But the Twins are in a position where they should probably take some risks, because they’re going to need some of these high-risk, high-reward bets to pay off in order to get them back in contention. And De Leon looks like a pretty high reward guy to land in a trade for a player who probably won’t still be in Minnesota the next time the Twins are contenders.

The Twins have just two prospects in Baseball America’s most recent top-100 list, and one arm, Stephen Gonsalves, ranked 99th. Where’s the pitching going to come from? FanGraphs projects the Twins as a 74-win club for the coming season.

The Marlins are in a similar position. The tragic passing of Jose Fernandez dramatically complicates their outlook. The Marlins have one of the better young outfields in the game. No player slugs like Giancarlo Stanton. Christian Yelich is an outstanding young hitter. But there aren’t many impact arms on the roster and the farm system is one of the weakest in the game. Miami has also generally been on the lower end of payroll spending, though it’s unclear how an ownership change could affect that. FanGraphs projects the Marlins as a 78-win club. While the Nationals’ window might be closing, the Braves and Phillies appear poised to emerge as threats in the coming seasons.

The Diamondbacks are another team with stars in their primes, in Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. Pollock is under control for just two more seasons, Goldschmidt for three. But the Shelby Miller trade negatively effected the club’s long-term outlook. Keith Law rated the farm system as the game’s worst and notes there is no shortcut in quickly adding young talent unless the club wants to part ways with Goldschmidt. Only Anthony Banda — ranked 88th — is listed among BA’s top-100 prospect for 2017. While Zack Greinke and the starting rotation as a group should be in store for a better year, and should benefit from improved receiving skills behind the plate and a healthier outfield, Greinke’s contract complicates the club’s ability to import talent. While previous Diamondbacks leadership thought their window was open last season, while Kepner cited the Diamondbacks’ window as remaining open, FanGraphs projects the Diamondback as a 77-win team, 18 games worse than the Dodgers and 10 behind the Giants in the NL West. A path to contention while Goldschmidt and Pollock are under control seems uncertain.

The Angels are a team whose window is open in 2017, particularly in a wide-open AL Wild Card field and perhaps in an interesting AL West. But it’s a window that’s open in a precarious manner. No hopeful contender is as dependent on production from one player as the Angels: Mike Trout is forecast to account for 22% of the club’s WAR production. And the Angels, while blessed with a lucrative TV deal and large-market home, also have one of the game’s weaker farm systems. The Angels don’t have a single top-100 prospect, and to sustain success markets of all sizes need to constantly roll in fresh, productive, pre-arbitration talent. (Or maybe the Angels will just go on a crazy spending spree in the 2018-19 offseason.)

There are other clubs, too, like the Orioles, which might soon have to plan for life after Manny Machado in the AL East. How long can the Tigers and Royals compete before considering a rebuild? Finding shortcuts is difficult, especially in a new era of caps and pools on amateur and international spending. The White Sox entered the offseason in a sort of no man’s land and chose a course: closing their window now in hopes of opening another one in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps other clubs would be wise to soon follow their lead.

Said White Sox GM Rick Hahn to Laurila:

“We won 78 games last year, and based upon where we were as an organization, and what was likely available to us through free agency and trade, and the resources we had, we couldn’t envision going from 78 to 90. You can envision going from 78 to 81, or 83 if things go well, but that isn’t what we’re about building. You ultimately want to build a 90-plus-win team that’s sustainable, so we chose to go the other direction.

“Staying the course is essential once you pick a direction.”

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

I consider the Angels to be a tragedy. Not because I care about the Angels, but because Mike Trout has compiled all of 1 career post season hit.

OddBall Herrera
5 years ago
Reply to  NoHayBanda

Agreed that it’s sad, clearly Trout doesn’t have what it takes to carry the team in the post-season. Only one hit!

Pirates Hurdlesmember
5 years ago

thumbs up for the name and the comment, well done!

5 years ago
Reply to  NoHayBanda

Just imagine what we’d say about him if he was drafted by the Rangers, Jays, or Nationals. Or Tigers, since he probably would have been traded to the Astros for a closer.

5 years ago
Reply to  NoHayBanda

I’m willing to bet Ernie Banks would have traded almost anything for one post-season plate appearance.