Like some of us in baseball expected (save for Yankees’ fans), the AL East is extremely close (within 2 games as of this writing) through 2 months of play, and at this point, it doesn’t seem like either team is a good bet to run away with it. The Red Sox and Yankees have the best records in baseball, and don’t seem to be slowing down. What’s going to separate them?
What may determine who comes out of the ALE and who is relegated to a Wild Card game is who/what each team decides to acquire at the deadline. Now that we are officially now closer to the MLB trade deadline than we are to the beginning of the season, it’s probably a safe time to start speculating what every team may be trying to do. Most importantly, how will these two teams, two dominant teams that also must play in the same division, handle the trade deadline?
When was the last time two teams, both extremely strong and in the same division, were neck and neck at the trade deadline, and how did each team react to it? Well let’s start with the “dominance” part of the equation. A close division isn’t enough; the ultimate goal is a World Series, and if a team doesn’t genuinely believe it can make a World Series run, well, the spending won’t be as great as it may otherwise be. Instead, a team may elect to make some small additions here and there, similar to what the Royals did in 2017.
Here are all the teams over the last 2 years that have had a winning% of 0.580 or better through July 31st (the MLB trade deadline):
Of these teams, not many are in similar situation as the situation that the Red Sox and Yankees could find themselves in July. These were the best teams in baseball at the time of the deadline, but all held somewhat comfortable leads in their respective divisions, emphasized by our 2017 trio, which all led their divisions by 14+ games. In 2016, there was a 3-way race atop the AL East between Boston, Baltimore, and Toronto; all teams had a .550+ win% and were within 2 games of one another, but that isn’t quite the level of dominance we’re looking at so far with BOS/NYY. The Dodgers were within 2 games of the Giants in 2016 and had a .550+ win% as well, but again, they still weren’t as elite of a division rival as we’re looking for. The Cardinals and Pirates were pretty close in 2015, bu there is probably a difference in mindset when up 5.5 games vs up 0-2 games, and it turns out, the 5.5 game lead the Cardinals had at the deadline was enough of a cushion to hold off Pittsburgh. In order to find two dominant teams who were also in the same division and within 2 games of each other, we need to rewind to 2014, where we find the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels:
At the time of the trade deadline in 2014, the story around baseball was the AL West. Not only was the division very close, but the 2 teams competing were the best 2 teams in baseball, just as the AL East is now. This division race gives us the closest representation of what we could see come July 31st between the Red Sox and Yankees, not only because both teams could hold two of the better records in baseball or because they could do so in the same division, but because their respective farm systems also draw similarities to the two 2014 AL West rivals.
One team had trade deadline ammunition while the other did not.
Going into 2014, the Angels’ farm system was perhaps the worst in baseball – similar to what the Red Sox are working with now. Their top prospect was a 2B named Taylor Lindsey, followed by a LHP named Hunter Green (not that one). Lindsey never made it out of the minors and hasn’t played since 2016 and Green never made it out of rookie ball in 2013. Beyond that, they had a few names that would later make some MLB impact (Cam Bedrosian, Matt Shoemaker, Mike Clevinger), but at the time, these were not well regarded players, certainly not ones they could use to sway a big deadline deal. The result? Taylor Lindsey along with 3 other minor leaguers were traded to the San Diego Padres for Huston Street and Trevor Gott, a decent deadline pickup for a quantity-over-quality package, but nothing world-breaking.
The Athletics, on the other hand, were well loaded with young assets to trade – similar to what the Yankees are working with now. Addision Russell was a top ~10 prospect in baseball, highly desirable, and now holds down a MLB position for the Cubs which he has for some time. OF Billy McKinney was a very good prospect at the time and made most top prospect lists the following year. Now-1B Matt Olson experienced a massive breakout in 2014, hitting 37 HR and walking 117 times as a 20 year old in High-A. Now top prospect Franklin Barreto broke out as well that year, putting all his tools on display in rookie and short-season ball. Daniel Robertson was having a fantastic year at High-A at 20 years old. All 5 were top 100 prospects entering 2015, and the Athletics had depth in the farm to boot. The result?
On July 5th, 2014, Billy Beane and the Athletics traded Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, Dan Straily and cash to the Chicago Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Then, not 4 weeks later at the trade deadline, they traded Yoenis Cespedes and 2015 competitive balance round B pick to the Boston Red Sox for Jon Lester, Jonny Gomes, and cash.
Big difference in acquisitions between the two teams.
Simply because they were 2 of the bigger deadline trades that have happened in the past 5 years, there’s a lot to unpack with those 2 Oakland trades. Jeff Samardzija pitched maybe the best baseball he ever has (and will) with his 16 starts with the Athletics, with a 3.14 ERA and nearly 2 WAR in his 111.2 IP. The same can be said for Lester, who after being acquired at the deadline, pitched even better than Samardzija in his 11 starts, with a 2.35 ERA and nearly 2 WAR himself. Between these two pitchers, the Athletics acquired 25 starts (188 IP) at a 2.82 ERA and nearly 4 WAR. That’s an extremely good season’s worth of a pitcher that Oakland not only scooped up at the deadline, but managed to get out of them in just 2-3 months. Jason Hammel was mediocre, at best, providing 12 starts (13 appearances) of below average results, but nonetheless ate innings for a team that needed the depth at the time. Johnny Gomes was a depth piece as well. Cash Considerations was optioned to AAA.
What happened down the road after these trades – with the exception of those players involved – does not matter. After hitting being a top 10 offensive team for the first 4 months of the season, Oakland’s offense stalled hard down the stretch, hitting just .225 with 34 HR from August 1st through September 30th, which was last and 3rd-to-last in baseball, respectively, over that time frame. Yoenis Cespedes’ departure most likely had something to do with this, but he wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire through July with a .303 OBP. All-Stars Derek Norris and Brandon Moss had just a .596 and a .575 OPS, respectively, in the last 2 months of the season. Coco Crisp had a .557 OPS in that time period after OPSing nearly .800 through July. John Jaso, who had a .824 OPS through July, had a horrific August (perhaps due to a concussion) and then missed all of September with said concussion. As a result, the Athletics, who were up by 2 games at the time of the Jon Lester acquisition, would lose the AL West by 10 games and later would fall to the Royals in the Wild Card game.
However, as I’ve said, the season outcome for the 2014 Athletics nor the 2014 Angels does not matter; it isn’t the point. The Athletics’ failure was seemingly out of the hands of the FO. They made the moves they had to. The 2018 Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are much different teams and their seasons, however they play out, will without a doubt be much different. What does matter is what the Oakland Athletics were able to do with their assets at the trade deadline and what the Angels, who had a horrendous farm system at the time, were able to do with theirs. The Angels got a great, rental closer, who was no doubt helpful as they cruised to the league’s best record. The Athletics, on the other hand, piled on 2 phenomenal arms that tacked on nearly 4 wins, the only reason they were even playing in the Wild Card game that year after an atrocious offensive collapse. When comparing the two, the Athletics got nearly 4 times what the Angels did at the deadline with their trade chips.
These deadline moves from the Athletics in 2014 coupled with the Angels’ general inability to make many deadline acquisitions could offer some glimpse as to what the Red Sox and Yankees are capable of this July, and for the Red Sox, that doesn’t look good. As of today, the top of the Sox farm looks a little something like this:
- Jason Groome, LHP
- Michael Chavis, 3B
- Bryan Mata, RHP
- Tanner Houck, RHP
- Jalen Beeks, RHP
- Dawinzon Hernandez, RHP
- Sam Travis, 1B
- Mike Shawaryn, RHP
- Alex Scherff, RHP
- Lorenzo Cedrola, OF
As if the farm system wasn’t thin enough – I can’t imagine the average baseball fan recognizes 30% of those names – their top prospect, Jay Groome, had Tommy John surgery not long ago, and after a 2017 season highlighted by zero changeup improvement, he most likely comfortably displaces himself from any sort of top prospect list now that he will miss a good amount of much needed development time. Michael Chavis was showing signs that a move to 1B could be in his future, lowering his value, and that was even before he was suspended 80 games for PEDs. Mata, Houck, and Hernandez all have a BB/9 above 6.50, though each has somewhat explainable reasons for the spikes. The Red Sox are unable to trade their 2018 draftees until the offseason. To say the least, there isn’t much there for the front office to work with.
The Yankees on the other hand, even with the recent graduations of Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar, still have a ton to work with, similar in magnitude to that 2014 Athletics squad. Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, Estevan Florial, Albert Abreu, Luis Medina, Chance Adams, Freicer Perez, Jon Loaisiga, and more. If you recognize just as few names there as you did the Red Sox list, take my word for it – it’s a much better collection of names.
Actually finding and bringing in 4 WAR worth of player(s) is not an easy task. Samardzija and Lester were not only extremely good players, but both performed at an extremely high level, and any acquired played performing that well will need a bit of luck as well. Plus, if the 2014 Angels are any indication, the Red Sox may not necessarily need acquisitions of that level in order to stay close or pull away. It’s baseball; anything could happen over any period of time. The Yankees are also no guarantee to shell out like the Athletics did. However, the they’ve put themselves in a very advantageous situation, and if they decide to make 1-2 blockbusters and if they can somehow squeeze 2-3 wins out of all of their deadline acquisitions, the Red Sox, who are almost certain to obtain nothing of that caliber, are going to have to play some seriously good baseball to overcome that gap. There’s quite a few ifs in that scenario, as there are with most baseball predictions, but it isn’t hard to envision a series of events in which the Yankees pull off a blockbuster and pull away with the division. They have the assets to do it.
Photo credit: Greg M. Cooper (USA TODAY Sports)