The American League Is Becoming the National League

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.

We hoped you liked reading The American League Is Becoming the National League by Dave Cameron!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

newest oldest most voted
FrustratedHypocrite
Member
FrustratedHypocrite

Baseball is about to get super-boring for fans of small-market teams over the next decade or so. We’re entering the era of the superteam.

DayNife
Member
DayNife

Time to trust the process.

FrustratedHypocrite
Member
FrustratedHypocrite

As a Pirates fan, I have no alternative :) Have been trusting the process and the Best Management Team in Baseball since 2007. Hurdle and Huntington just got four more years of contract after two losing seasons so rinse, wash, repeat. There are lots of torches and pitchforks out at PirateFest today.

Pirates Hurdles
Member
Pirates Hurdles

Well the process did accomplish what was unthinkable in 2007; end the streak make the playoffs 3X.

jdbolick
Member

Pirates fans and Orioles fans (I’m the latter) should know better than anyone that being a fan of a baseball team is not about expecting winning seasons or playoff appearances. Expectations are for spectators, not fans. I never stopped wearing my Orioles gear during the fourteen straight losing seasons, just as I’m sure you didn’t through the Pirates’ twenty straight losing seasons. That doesn’t mean that I’m happy about super teams becoming a thing (that’s pretty much why I stopped watching or attending NBA games), but I am a little sad that athletic fandom in the U.S. has become less about belonging to a community and more about achievements.

tramps like us
Member
tramps like us

“Expectations are for spectators, not fans.”

Awesome sentiment. Thanks for that.

Joe Don
Member
Joe Don

Cowboys fan?

ashlandateam
Member
ashlandateam

To me, the general rules about ‘bandwagoning’ need to just go away. There isn’t light at the end of the tunnel for 15-17 teams in the league; it’s hard to give people crap for saying, ‘I don’t want to stay loyal in a league whose fundamental economic structures create hopelessness for the majority of franchises.’

I know that I’ve been a Reds fan my whole life, but spent as much time on MLB.tv last year watching Houston/both LA teams/Seattle (after they traded for Leake, who was my favorite in their ‘good’ era of the early ’10s) as I did Cincinnati. That’s going to increase in 2018. In an era of the haves and have nots and MLB.tv making every game of every team available, watching the Reds (or Padres, or Phillies, or A’s, or a dozen other teams) doesn’t make a lot of sense if you want to watch good baseball (the delight that Joey Votto at bats are, excluded, of course).

Jetsy Extrano
Member
Jetsy Extrano

“Bandwagon” fans are what give ownership economic pressure to win. “Loyal” fans are enabling losing.

ANTIHEROUX
Member
ANTIHEROUX

Your comment all too well expresses the futility I feel rooting for the Mariners when I know they’re going to lose. I want a salary cap for all teams so that baseball becomes a competitive sport rather than a competition of wallets. The lack of parity is why I started watching the Red Sox back in ’04 – at least they have a chance of getting to the postseason.

Death to Flying Things
Member
Death to Flying Things

Why the false dichotomy between loyal and bandwagon fans? Do what I do and be both! I’ve been a loyal Houston fan for 50 years when times have been good, bad, and worse. And since they moved to the AL, I’ve picked a couple of bandwagon NL teams to root for simultaneously, first the Giants and more recently the Nationals. If the Astros ever play my bandwagon team, of course I root for Houston. I’m a loyal fan after all. Problem solved. ;)

tramps like us
Member
tramps like us

I can’t relate. I cannot dictate to my head what my heart loves and am incapable of simply deciding to like a team. I moved to Boise 8 years ago and “decided” I would like Boise State, and I watch the games, but at the end of the day, in my heart, I just don’t truly care. I just don’t know how you can do that.

Death to Flying Things
Member
Death to Flying Things

You can’t, of course. I grew up in Houston in the 60s. Memories of the Astrodome and of listening on my transistor radio to Don Wilson’s no-hitters, of dying when they traded Morgan and Staub and Cuellar and…. I couldn’t stop being a fan even though I’ve lived in the Midwest for nearly 40 years now. But you CAN develop a mild rooting interest for a team that isn’t a rival, especially one in another league. I’m hoping I’ve been rooting for the Nats long enough that my buddy in DC will invite me to come out for a game this year and crash at his place. ;) You can definitely follow an AL team and an NL team, even if only one of them has ever made it into your bloodstream.

Maybe your problem with Boise is the blue field. I know I’d have a hard time getting past it. ;)

Larry Faria
Member
Larry Faria

Not really. There are two wildcards, and in the NL only 3 super teams NOW. The Cardinals have slipped back, and will the Nationals keep pace after losing Harper a year from now?

The AL has four super teams, but Cleveland doesn’t have the super market to keep it together that long, and the Astros might have the same hangover the Cubs had in the early season.

Both leagues have enough middling teams to have a spirited race for the wildcards, and we’ve seen wildcards win it all in the short postseason. The prize is just getting into the postseason now.

When there were two 8-team leagues it was just a race to the top for a couple teams, but with three divisions and two wild cards, the super teams just get a bye. there’s plenty of excitement for multiple teams for the wildcard in both leagues.

ssf
Member
ssf

That sure sounds nice when you describe it in those terms but if you actually watched the boring 2017 regular season you’d know “spirited wild card races” don’t excite anyone.

Aduhey
Member
Member
Aduhey

It seems like the teams under .500 in September are out of any race and the teams over are. Shouldn’t there always be more teams winning than losing going into the last few weeks of the season regardless if they are chasing a playoff?

tramps like us
Member
tramps like us

I hear ya, but fans of those teams are plenty excited. Just gotta get in.

dl80
Member
dl80

I wouldn’t count the Indians out just yet. Obviously, they don’t have the money for a ten-year dynasty (does anyone?), but their core of Kluber, Carrasco, Ramirez, and Lindor is locked up and cheap through 2020 at least, though Lindor’s arbitration could get expensive.

jlewyckyj
Member
Member
jlewyckyj

If the Indians fold in the Pirates entire team, farm system, and payroll, they should be able to compete over the next decade. The Steelers can take the Browns. Even trade.

cowdisciple
Member
Member
cowdisciple

Don’t worry – a WC team will luck into a championship every once and awhile, allowing the league to conclude that there’s no problem.

It sure seems like both leagues are going to have 3 or 4 teams in the playoffs most every year for the next decade, and the remaining 10 or 12 hoping to get a WC play in game in one of those years.

Aduhey
Member
Member
Aduhey

I actually enjoy the NHL more than any other sport. It has a parity feel to it. MLB to me does not feel that way to me.

Wu-Bacca
Member
Wu-Bacca

There are several different ways to measure parity and unpredictability among the 4 major sports, and almost any way you slice it MLB and the NHL are extremely similar along those lines.