The weather is heating up. But the takes? The takes remain tepid.
As always, these rankings are completely subjective. You can disagree with me, of course, but you will be wrong. All records are as of July 1, 2018.
Panic Level 0: Life Is Good
Are the four best teams in baseball all in the American League this season? It sure seems like the top three are, at least. The AL East and AL West are representing well with four squads poised to surpass 100 wins. Is that partially because a sixth of the league is tanking? Yes. But it’s also because these squads are very, very good. The Yankees and Astros are especially well positioned, as they have strong farm systems they can use to make major acquisitions at the deadline. But there may not be a more well-rounded team than the Red Sox, and the Mariners have plenty of talent in their own right. Fans of all these teams have nits to pick—Gary Sanchez, David Price, Ken Giles, Robinson Cano, etc.—but overall, life is good.
Things are more stressful in the Senior Circuit, where no division leader has more than a two-game buffer between their next-closest rival. The Diamondbacks have allowed the Dodgers and Giants to close the gap on them in a big way, but they still have to be happy with how their season has gone. If they get healthier and add a piece at the deadline, they won’t go away. Take the sentence above and swap out “Diamondbacks” for “Brewers” and “Dodgers” for “Cubs” and you have pretty much the same story.
As for the Braves and Phillies, they’ve got to be thrilled to occupy the top two NL East spots based on expectations heading into the season. The Braves look very real, and with Ronald Acuna back and Nick Markakis enjoying the most random late-career resurgence since Mickey Rourke, they may be able to stave off the Nats all season. That being said, they probably need another arm or two, since it turns out lots of injuries pop up when you base your entire rebuild on young pitchers. The Phillies have more issues from my point of view, but may also have a higher ceiling. Both squads are perhaps better poised to make deep runs in 2019, but you can’t rule them out in the here and now.
Panic Level 1: Cautiously Optimistic
I generally try to group teams into neat themed tiers, but this trifecta has very little in common. The Cubs are a good team battling through injuries; they’ll be fine long term, but the emergence of the Brewers makes life more complicated for them. Still, if they play to their in-house talent, they’ll be there in October. After an uninspired start, the Indians have been much, much better lately. It helps that they play in what is far and away the worst division in baseball, and could waltz backward into the playoffs with, like, 80 wins. As for the A’s, well, it feels unfair to say they should just be happy to be here. But with the Mariners and Astros flexing, and with an honest glance at their roster … they should take a picture of this ranking. It will last longer.
We all thought the NL West would be hyper-competitive and we were all right; the top teams are just a little worse than we thought they were. Still, both the Giants and Dodgers now have the Dbacks firmly within their sights. The problem is that the second-place finisher in the NL West isn’t even guaranteed a playoff spot this year—there’s too much parity in the Senior Circuit. The Giants are about to get most of their rotation back, and the Dodgers still have a good enough farm system to make an impact trade *cough Manny Machado,* so there’s plenty of story left to be written here.
I didn’t want to make a level specifically just for these two teams, but “optimistic” is probably pretty kind for the fans of these clubs. The Nats were runaway favorites in the NL East but are stuck in third halfway through the season. They could still win the day because they have the most pure talent of anyone in the division (and arguably in baseball), but it’s getting late fast. The Cardinals are probably only the third-best team in the NL Central thanks to all of their pitching injuries, but this is the Cardinals we’re talking about. They’ll win 14 of their last 16 games and squeak by the Dbacks for the last Wild Card spot or something.
Panic Level 2: Already Dead Inside
Panic Level 3: Winter Is Coming
Let us observe a moment of silence for the AL’s also-rans. The Angels have the most reason to be disappointed right now; they looked legit in April, but have crashed back down to earth in the wake of pitching injuries and an overall shallow roster. Mike Trout definitely did something wrong in his past life. No one outside of Florida ever really thought the Rays would be contenders. With half the season gone and the Sox and Yanks looking like all-time great teams, we know now that the Rays are indeed not competing. Ditto the Blue Jays, though they faced greater expectations when the year began. Turns out when your best players get hurt and your best young pitchers regress, it’s bad. Please continue to follow Baseball Prospectus for cutting-edge analysis.
Honestly, don’t both of these rosters just sort of scream .500? The Rockies’ starting pitching is in such disarray that they demoted Jon Gray to Triple-A. Kyle Freeland is pretty much their unquestioned staff ace. It’s not great. As for the Pirates, they just don’t have the pitching talent (18th in starter’s ERA) to compete with the big boys. Hmm, if only they had an ace …
Panic Level 4: This Is Fine Dog
Could things be going much worse for the Twins? Their key young players like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Jorge Polanco have been some combination of bad, hurt, and suspended for pretty much the entire season. Their marquee free agent signing, Lance Lynn, has been atrocious. I guess they can take some solace in the performances of Eddie Rosario, Eduardo Escobar, and Jose Berrios, but this is a team that looks closer to rebuilding than contending again, and that was very much not the plan.
The Mets are probably trending closer to “already dead inside,” but when you have the worst month in franchise history (5-21 in June), it’s fair to say you still feel the sting of disappointment. Now they get to enjoy 10,000 “should they trade Jacob deGrom?” stories for the next month until they ultimately just move, like, Jeurys Familia for a Double-A infielder.
Panic Level 5: A Potential Historic Embarrassment
Baltimore Orioles (24-59)
See that record up there? That means the Orioles are currently on pace for 47 wins this season. Only 21 teams in the Modern Era have won fewer than 46 games (in full seasons), and only one—your 2003 Detroit Tigers—has done so in the past 50 years. The Orioles could absolutely challenge for that mark, because if anything, they’re only likely to get worse from here on out. Manny Machado is almost certainly leaving town. Adam Jones could follow him out the door. Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Mark Trumbo, Jonathan Schoop; all should be on the trading block for the O’s this month. With one or two exceptions, the O’s don’t have anyone who can replace those players. This could get very, very ugly, and you can expect to see a lot more Buck Showalter Face this summer.
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