More of the Same: The Rich Got Richer This Offseason
Often during the offseason, a middling team decides that the time is ripe to go all-in. We saw this last season with the Diamondbacks, and two seasons ago with the Padres and the White Sox. Teams that were no better than 3rd place in their division the year prior thought they saw an opportunity to vault themselves among the league’s elite and pounced at the chance.
Those teams failed to do anything but delay their own rebuilds. This offseason, we have yet to see such a team with a lackluster pedigree make aggressive maneuvers like Arizona signing Zack Greinke, or the Padres trading for Craig Kimbrel and Matt Kemp. Instead, the league’s less-heralded teams have ceded the spotlight entirely to the upper class.
With two Wild Cards per league to go around, the majority of MLB’s teams can at least fool themselves into thinking they are just a move or two away from playoff contention. However, despite this, the bulk of the activity this offseason has centered not on teams trying to push their way up, but rather on teams that were already at the top. If we scan the landscape of both the AL and NL, we see the teams that already had strong rosters continuing to load up, creating the possibility of the least wide-open set of division races in recent history.
In the American League, the defending pennant winners just made their move, as the Cleveland Indians took advantage of Edwin Encarnacion’s depressed market and signed the slugger to a 3 year deal worth $65 million guaranteed. Encarnacion showed signs of decline last year as his wRC+ fell from 150 to 134, and at age-34 his best days are probably behind him, but this signing is still a layup for Cleveland. With Mike Napoli a free agent, the Indians were in need of a bat, and they just got the best one remaining on the market at a palatable cost.
Adding Encarnacion widens the gap between Cleveland and the Tigers and Royals, both of whom have made small rebuilding moves this winter. At this moment, FanGraphs’ projections have the Indians as eight-game favorites in the AL Central. But Cleveland wasn’t the only top team in the AL to reload, as the league’s best offensive team in 2016, the Red Sox, moved to shore up their pitching when they traded a hefty prospect package for an ace, Chris Sale.
Likewise, FanGraphs has Boston currently nine games better than the second place Yankees. With Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello headlining what now looks like an excellent rotation, the Red Sox have solidified themselves as one of the two best teams in the AL.
The other most active AL team has been the Astros, who, despite their lack of playoff appearance in 2016, probably entered the winter as slight favorites to claim the AL West crown in 2017. That didn’t stop Houston from acquiring Brian McCann to take over at catcher, Josh Reddick and Nori Aoki to solidify the outfield, and the ageless Carlos Beltran to handle the bulk of DH-duties. FanGraphs has Houston as easily within the AL’s top-3 teams with Boston and Cleveland after the Astros’ flurry of activity.
None of the American League’s middle class has made an effort to compete with the big dogs, with the exception of perhaps the Yankees, who hardly have surprised anyone by making some sort of financial commitment this winter. Teams like the Blue Jays, Angels, Orioles, and Rangers, decent teams with holes that need to be addressed, have largely sat on their hands while the gap between them and the league’s elite widens.
A similar story is unfolding in the Senior Circuit. The Nationals, fresh off a great 95-win campaign, were in on Sale and eventually pulled down Adam Eaton. Eaton projects as a merely pretty good player, but that is a huge upgrade on the production Washington got last year from center fielders Michael Taylor and Ben Revere. The Mets were able to counter by holding on to Yoenis Cespedes, but have been unable to solve their corner outfield logjam, and thus haven’t really improved their bottom line in any way compared to last year.
The Cubs and Dodgers haven’t made huge additions, but have instead simply done what was necessary to maintain their status as elite teams. The Cubs saw Dexter Fowler walk, but were content to replace his production with a snug platoon of Albert Almora and Jon Jay. Chicago also replaced Aroldis Chapman by flipping Jorge Soler for ace-reliever Wade Davis. The Dodgers, similarly, were able to hold on to the core of their already excellent team by re-signing stars Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner, while also holding to the ever-exciting Rich Hill. Neither LA nor Chicago have made massive upgrades, but they re-solidified themselves as the NL’s elite teams nonetheless.
Just like the AL, the NL’s middling teams are left looking upwards at the upper class. The Pirates have only been able to re-sign Ivan Nova (to a somewhat shockingly reasonable $26 million deal), while the Marlins have resigned themselves to amassing useful relievers. The Cardinals and Giants have tried to keep pace with the signings of Fowler and Mark Melancon, respectively, but neither profiles as anything other than a strong Wild Card contender at the moment.
This leaves us with a situation where all the division races seem pretty straightforward heading into 2017. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs noted last week, this is the only time in the past 12 years that not a single division race is projected to finish within five games. Of course, there is still plenty of offseason to play out, and surely many of the projections will be off. It’s highly unlikely that all six of the currently slated division winners will avoid injury and underperformance to actually secure a 2017 division title.
Even so, most of the team’s that have been the most aggressive on the free agent and trade markets this winter have been the teams that already looked formidable looking ahead. The teams wishing to catch up to the favorites have largely been quiet. It’s no sure thing that the favorites will make good on the promise currently reflected in their respective projections, but one thing is for certain: the league’s upper class has continued to separate itself this winter.