A few years ago, I tried a thing for a month or so where I wrote up power rankings of teams using only as many words as they each had games played. I did this once a week for, I don’t know, maybe a month. It was fun the first time, but not the fifth. The point, which I thought cut cleanly and sharply through the piece in the first installment but eventually went a little dull, was that we really learn about teams very slowly.
Players’ skill levels change faster than ever before, I think, relative to the rest of the league. Guys get hurt and rookies get promoted. There’s all of this data flowing past us all the time, but often our best estimate of a team’s true talent remains the one we made before the season, when we were looking at all of those things—all the possible injuries, improvements, adjustment periods, the big picture—and the data was standing still.
I’m not going to resurrect that series, but since we have a little time right now, I’m going to bring it back as a one-time feature. In three parts, I’ll give a state-of-the-team statement on each club, using as many words as that team has games played this year. There won’t be much detail; there won’t be definitive statements. The point here is that, even by the All-Star break, we have maybe two paragraphs worth of new and actionable information. We just don’t know baseball as well as we think we do, and I think that’s truer in mid-July than at any other time of the year.
Atlanta Braves (42-45)
Freddie Freeman has found ways to keep improving, and might be the best left-handed hitter in baseball. Tyler Flowers fell into Atlanta’s lap because of another team’s incompetence (sound familiar?). He’s matured brilliantly, close to home. Beyond those two players, there’s little about which to be happy in Atlanta. They’re a year deeper into their rebuild, but not necessarily a year closer to its payoff. Dansby Swanson’s only encouraging offensive stat—his 10 percent walk rate—is a lie, as a quarter of his free passes have been intentional.
Baltimore Orioles (42-46)
It feels like Father Time is cashing some of this team’s checks. J.J. Hardy's bad, when he can get onto the field at all. Chris Davis strained his right oblique, which seems like an injury the left-handed, power-reliant Davis will struggle with even after he returns. (Matt Carpenter had the same problem last summer, and it lingered into this May.) Zach Britton's fading. The wild card is their rotation. Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, and Wade Miley haven’t been good, but they’re better than most think.
Boston Red Sox (50-39)
Chris Sale is everything they could have hoped for, and more. Craig Kimbrel is, too. It’s an unusual spot this team is in. They’ve given up huge amounts of young talent in recent deals, in the name of winning now. They’re contenders and big spenders. Yet, they’re flat-out bad at two positions, and uninspiring at another. The error bars on several of their best players (the young offensive core) remain really wide, but the ones around any projection of David Price or Rick Porcello have to be even wider.
Miami Marlins (41-46)
The whole lineup is under 30, and four of them are absolute studs. Unfortunately, of late, that doesn’t include Christian Yelich, the rare player to whom this organization has been willing to commit long term. They took heat for trading from their thin farm system to get Dan Straily, but he's been terrific. The bullpen, which seemed so deep and in which they invested plenty this winter, has been a bit worse than average. They seem just a little bit wanting everywhere, rather than having glaring holes.
New York Mets (39-47)
Within a season, injury issues can be permanent, and can derail a team more reliably than mere under-performance. When they flare up in the first half, they can easily carry into the second. In this case, they’re compounded by the aggregate age of the Mets’ roster. That said, there’s a wealth of talent here. They might be too far out to consider a playoff berth, but they could win anywhere from 70 to 85 games. Around Michael Conforto and Jacob deGrom, things feel wide open there.
New York Yankees (45-41)
There will be voices calling for Joe Girardi to spend the second half shoving Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Matt Holliday aside, in favor of Aaron Hicks, Clint Frazier, and Greg Bird. There will also be plenty of voices calling on him to trust those veterans’ track records over the budding but unsure brilliance of those breakout bats. The success or failure of the Yankees’ second half will rest on Girardi’s ability to balance those. They all still have potential, and they all still have downside.
Philadelphia Phillies (29-58)
As badly as everything has seemed to go, not much of what the ongoing rebuild is built around has changed. Aaron Altherr has added somewhat to his stock price. Maikel Franco has seen his diminish. Both guys are ongoing projects, though. It feels like one is a fixture and the other a looming bust, but they’re really in between those posts. Ditto for the rotation pairing of Jerad Eickhoff and Nick Pivetta, and for their middle infielders. However, their offseason arbitrage plays couldn’t have failed more spectacularly.
Tampa Bay Rays (47-43)
It seems as though you’re always facing the Rays’ whole 40-man roster. They platoon aggressively. They run the shuttle of fringe relievers between the majors and Triple A as well as anyone. Increasingly, they also seem to have an extra guy on the field all the time—through the blend of their shifting and their improved athleticism on defense, and through their better luck finding guys who get on base. The catch: all of that is their way of making up for having many flawed players. Their bullpen is especially uneven.
Toronto Blue Jays (41-47)
They could be saved by the fact that top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette have had such marvelous seasons. This is an old team that needed to take another run at it, and that shouldn’t give up and sell right now. Having two cornerstones of the next good Blue Jays team takes pressure off the front office to make something happen. With all the talent on the big-league roster, they should keep hoping to be in position to buy until they get closer to the deadline.
Washington Nationals (52-36)
The talent of this roster isn’t in doubt. They can be the best team in the NL, and at various points, they’ve looked like just that. Too often, though, the risk all over their roster gets glazed over. Bryce Harper tends not to sustain elite performance all season. Their other three offensive anchors are two 32-year-olds and one 27-year-old, all with significant injury histories. The supporting cast for that group is badly banged up. All of their starters not named Max Scherzer are inconsistent. Bullpen remains a mess.