The most difficult thing to do in sports isn’t to win, it’s to predict the future. That’s the entire point of sports analytics in fact. We want to know how players will do in the coming seasons, whose skills will step forward in the minors, which players will make the leap, and on and on. These are unknowable questions, but we can make smarter and smarter guesses. And we have. The analytical community has been getting better and better at answering these questions, incrementally at least, over the years. If we’re good at anything, it’s making intelligent guesses about the immediate future, what will happen next season, next month, tomorrow. The further we get from right now, the more iffy things become. And yet that’s exactly what I want to do here in this article. Specifically, I want to look at the future of the American League East. But not the end of 2016 future. The end of 2020 future, five years from now.
As for 2016, our starting point, PECOTA, will tell you the Rays will win by three games over Boston, five over Toronto, six over New York, and 18 over Baltimore. FanGraphs has a different projection, featuring the Red Sox by four games over the Blue Jays, six over the Yankees, seven over the Rays, and nine over the Orioles. Look up other projections and they’ll tell you something different. That’s because there isn’t a clear consensus on who has the best team this season. Things are jumbled. I present this paragraph on the throwing spaghetti at a wall that is 2016 to indicate that, as we stand now, things are pretty equal as long as you aren’t Baltimore. If you are, well, sorry.
The most difficult thing to do in sports isn’t to win, it’s to predict the future.
Of course, team performance in 2016 won’t necessarily be indicative of team performance five years from now. Many of the players currently on AL East teams will be gone by then. Don’t believe me? Okay, who played shortstop for the Red Sox in 2011? Who was Boston’s top prospect back then? Right. This is hard. And we’ll never know for sure until the time has come and gone, but there are some ways to start to figure out how things might go in 2020 in the AL East right now. We here at BP publish a number of articles which may be of assistance, most notably the Top 10 prospects lists for each team and, within those, the 25-and-under lists. Those lists show us who the good young players are and what we might expect from them. We can combine the quality in those lists with what we know about the current state of the franchises going forward and that should give us our answer, or what will pass for it. Remember, this is guesswork. Intelligent (I hope!) guesswork, but guesswork.
Since this is BP Boston, let’s start with the Red Sox. We know the Sox have a strong farm system, but we also know it’s a very young farm system. Much of the strength of the system is in players that haven’t played above A-ball yet. That’s okay, though, as Boston also has Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart at the major league level, and some help on the pitching side of things as well. The next five years of this franchise will depend on two things. First, how well the top-tier prospects develop, like pitchers Anderson Espinoza and Michael Kopech, as well as bats like Yoan Moncada and Rafael Devers. Second, it will depend what kind of team GM Dave Dombrowski builds around the team’s already existing young core of stars and promising pre-star-level players. That, combined with the owner’s willingness to spend and Dombrowkski’s mostly smart (though kind of scary if you’re prospect-hugger like me) penchant for winning trades, bodes well for Boston in the long run.
The Blue Jays are in a far more precarious spot. They don’t have the system Boston does, though they do have some promising young players like Anthony Alford and Connor Greene. The depth of the system isn’t there though, at least not right now. That’s the bad news. The good news for Toronto is most of their good young talent is already at the major league level. Marcus Stroman shows signs of being a front-of-the-rotation stud, and Dalton Pompey, Aaron Sanchez, and Devon Travis all showed promising though varying degrees of ability. As currently constructed the Jays don’t have the Red Sox’s ability to spend, though that comes with it’s own curses for sure. The new front office also comes well regarded. The future is bright in Toronto thanks to a talented veteran roster, but unlike in Boston, the further you project out, the hazier it gets.
The Yankees are somewhat the opposite of Toronto in that the further you project out, the more promising they get. It’s right now that is hazy. That has less to do with the specifics than the fact that they are the Yankees and can bring in a Manny Machado or Bryce Harper should one of those players hit the market. As for their good young players, almost none are in the majors. The almost is Luis Severino, who throws gas and should break camp with the rotation, but after him the rest of the Yankees are grey beards, or would be if the Yankees allowed beards. The strength of the Yankees 25-and-under players is Severino and outfielder Aaron Judge, who wouldn’t look out of place on an NBA court. Those are nice players to have, but it takes more than a powerful right fielder and a single good young starter to make a franchise go. The Yankees are coming off an off-season that saw them be the only team to not sign a free agent to a major-league contract. That’s astounding. In the next few seasons older players and their contracts will fall away, and the way the younger Steinbrenner’s spend that space under the luxury tax threshold will dictate how good this team will be in five years.
In Baltimore it’s the Manny Machado show. Dude is crazy good and somehow still just 23. To put him in cotext, he’s Baltimore’s Mookie Betts, but if Betts had just put up a seven-win season instead of a five-win season. Jonathan Schoop is both good and promising, though in a step down from Machado kind of way. After that is when things start to fall apart. The Orioles’ inability to develop starting pitching, which has plagued them for over a decade now, needs to be rectified before Kevin Gausman, Hunter Harvey, and Dylan Bundy all explode like Spinal Tap drummers. The Orioles as currently constituted are a veteran-heavy team, led by Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and J.J. Hardy, 30 or older all. Machado and Schoop are a good start in the way that Severino and Judge are good starts (though they’re much better than Severino and Judge) (probably) but it’s not enough. With the Orioles lacking the desire and/or ability to bring in top of the rotation starters like David Price and Zack Greinke, they simply have to create the good pitchers themselves.
For the Rays, the challenge is to constantly reinvent themselves. This goes for the team but for the front office as well. Fortunately, they seem to have hit upon a strategy that works for them, and as long as they continue to scout well, they should have some level of success on the field. Their system now is probably the second-strongest in the division behind only Boston. Number one prospect Blake Snell could step in and help the Rays rotation this season. Beyond him, the upside might not be present but the low ceiling means lots of major league average players coming to Tampa, which means the team doesn’t have to spend money on the James Loneys of the world. Smart trading will also help and the Rays’ newish front office has bolstered the team by acquiring players like Corey Dickerson. Things look bright in Tampa, but as always, holding on to star players and continuing their good drafting will the difficulties going forward.
At the end of the day, we can’t know who will win in 2020, but the sheer tonnage of talent, from high-ceiling arms to power bats, in the Red Sox minor league system, combined with the will to win of ownership and a capable front office, give the Red Sox a powerful combination of smarts, money, and talent. That’s the total package, folks. Things aren’t perfect, but when 2020 rolls around, based on these crude data points, the Red Sox should have won more than their share of the division championships.
Now, please burn this article so there are no copies around in 2020 to throw in my face after the Orioles have run off five straight AL East Division wins. Thanks.
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