State of baseball's rebuilding teams: Contenders already?

With youngsters like Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. making a big impact, the Braves are already contending. Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Last winter, with baseball's free-agent class mostly dangling in limbo, super agent Scott Boras was about all we had for hardball-related entertainment.

You probably remember many of Boras' metaphor-laden barbs. Like this one: "The team cutting payroll is treating their family where they're staying in a neighborhood that has less protection. They're not living in the gated community of Playoffville."

Leaving aside the so-so correlation between payroll and contention, Boras was right about there being a number of teams locked out of Playoffville. In fact, to pat myself on the back, my analysis on baseball's widening competitive gap has proved to be on the money, insofar as it pertains to the 2018 season.

In that piece, written just after the winter meetings, I created a "stratification score" for each big league season, which is basically the leaguewide standard deviation of the Pythagorean winning percentage, expressed as integers. The higher the stratification score is, the more disparity there is in team performance across a league. The smaller it is, the more parity exists.

Here are the stratification scores by decade, not including this season:

1910s -- 89.6
1920s -- 85.4
1930s -- 90.9
1940s -- 93.0
1950s -- 84.6
1960s -- 74.6
1970s -- 72.6
1980s -- 57.7
1990s -- 61.2
2000s -- 66.0
2010s -- 66.3

This decade has seen only a whisker of an increase in stratification, though I noted that last year's score (76.2) was the highest since 2002. With more players moving from the second division to the first, and more teams entering into the rebuilding fray, it seemed likely that the 2018 season would see another increase in stratification.

Boy has it.

Through Monday's games, there were three teams on pace to win 100 games: the Yankees (114), Red Sox (110) and Astros (101). There were three teams that won more than 100 last season as well, the first time since 2003 that had happened, and just the sixth time ever. If the Nationals had won three more games, we would have had our first season with four 100-win teams.

It could happen this season. Not only do we have three teams on a pace to hit the century mark, but the Yankees, Red Sox and Astros all have run differentials that easily project to 100-win seasons. In fact, Houston's MLB-best differential, prorated to 162 games, is that of a 120-win team. But that's not all: Over in the National League, the Cubs (107) and Braves (102) also have 100-win differentials. You might expect the young Braves to regress some, but the Cubs are built to do this.

Meanwhile, you may not want to know what's happening at the other end of the standings. I'm going to tell you, but you might want to cover your eyes if you have a delicate constitution.

There are six teams losing games at rates that, if these trends continue, would drop below the 100-loss floor: the White Sox (114), Royals (114), Orioles (110), Reds (108), Marlins (103) and Rangers (102). All six of those teams have run differentials to justify those poor marks.

As you might expect given these extreme early results, the 2018 season is in position to post a historic stratification score: 109.6. That would be the highest score of the division era (since 1969). It would be the second highest of the post-war era (since 1947), surpassed only by 1954. We haven't seen a stratification score over 100 since 1955.

Maybe this was the portrait Boras was trying to paint. If so, he should have gotten Edvard Munch to paint it. Or gotten Ernest Hemingway to write it.

It's safe to say that this level of stratification isn't a big deal if it lasts for only a year to two, though the rapidity with which it has emerged and the degree to which it has manifested are concerning. How long can we expect it to be this way?

This spring, I was at a team's training complex speaking to a front-office type and the subject of the spate of rebuilding teams came up. I had been asking anyone and everyone if there were diminishing returns from going into a rebuild when so many other teams are executing the same strategy. The responses varied, but most agreed that it was an added complication but not one that should necessarily dictate a team's decision-making process.

This exec then sprung this on me: "Really, how many teams can you really say aren't trying to win this season?"

Going through the teams with him was instructive. The delineation is not always so clear, especially during the offseason, when the inscrutable concepts of uncertainty and randomness reveal us all as pessimists or optimists. Two months into the season, the picture is a little clearer.

The lesson is that it's not always obvious when a team is rebuilding or not. No two rebuilds look alike. Still, all such projects have some common traits that can help us identify rebuilders:

1. They tend to have a low or declining payroll.
2. During the offseason, they shy away from signing free agents to multiyear deals.
3. They have a recent track record of trading veterans for prospects.

None of these traits in and of themselves marks a clearly rebuilding team. And violating one of these principles doesn't mean a team isn't in a rebuild. Taken together, they create a fairly clear picture.

With that in mind, let's list the teams that clearly are not behaving like a rebuilder: the Angels, Astros, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Giants, Indians, Mariners, Mets, Nationals, Red Sox, Rockies, Twins and Yankees. There are 16 teams on the list. I don't think including any of them in this group will ruffle any feathers.

The next group is more difficult to describe. As with all things, there is often a gray area between rebuilding and contention, especially when teams aren't contenders but behave as if they are. Other teams occupy a different kind of gray area, one in which they are never really rebuilding, but nor do they ever quite seem to be all-in for a pennant run, at least in terms of the kind of payroll expenditure Boras would appreciate. I've got five teams in these gray areas: the Blue Jays, Rangers, Orioles, Pirates and Rays.

The Blue Jays and Orioles could both be justifiably listed with the first group, especially Toronto. The Jays were a tough call. In the end, the difficulty at the top of the AL East (i.e., the Yankees and Red Sox), and the odd mix of the walk-year status of Josh Donaldson with the coming surge of Toronto's high-level prospects leads me to stick Toronto here. It's not that they can't contend with a blend of the old core and the new one, but all signs are that the window is closing quickly for the old Jays. But with prospects like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on the way, it doesn't have to be closed for very long. However you look at it, the Jays are in a gray area.

The Orioles and Rangers are lumped together here, but their situations are very different. Baltimore has not yet behaved anything like a rebuilding team. The Orioles probably should have made that pivot over the winter and likely will be forced to this summer by trading Manny Machado. Meanwhile, the Rangers seemingly have enough young positional talent to win, but it's an odd-fitting roster. The team didn't exactly break the bank making additions to the pitching staff over the winter, and probably for good reason. Texas is a likely seller this season. Yet at the moment, the Rangers don't feel like a true rebuilder -- a team that has clearly struck out in a new direction.

The Rays and Pirates are teams many would lump in with the rebuilders. However, despite their offseason dealing away of veterans, neither team's forecast slipped below the level of mediocrity. Indeed, over the first two months, both the Rays and Pirates have hung in just fine. They may not contend, but they aren't racing for the bottom, either. Both teams rank in the top five in terms of 2018 WAR from players with rookie status. This is kind of what they do.

That leaves us with nine clearly rebuilding teams. But let's be clear: That doesn't mean that we're talking about nine bad teams. Sometimes a club, like the 2015 Cubs, can signify an attempt to move from the rebuilding class to the contending class with a splashy move. For Chicago, it was signing free agents Jon Lester and Jason Heyward. Sometimes, though, a rebuilding team simply starts to win. The young talent coalesces and momentum is created. After a couple of months of this, the team turns into a trade deadline buyer, and a new era is born. That has happened with at least one rebuilding team this season.

Let's run through the nine rebuilders by sorting them into different classes, which should suggest how long this extreme stratification might last.


Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies

Atlanta and Philadelphia have turned the corner in their respective rebuilds a year earlier than most expected.

The Braves have been baseball's "it" team in the early going by getting key contributions from some of the sport's youngest elite talents like Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. A big part of the Braves' early success also has been the play of veterans Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis, which gives the roster balance. With plenty more talent in the pipeline, there is little reason to think Atlanta will collapse. Even if the Baby Braves don't play into October, they've clearly turned the page on their rebuild.

To say the Phillies have arrived early is to ignore the fact that they were late to the rebuild party, hanging on to the old core of Philadelphia's last pennant winners too long. That delay has led to a couple more seasons of losing than you want in a successful rebuild, but the losing years seem to be in the past at last. The Phillies differ from Atlanta in that they pushed the envelope during the offseason by signing high-dollar veterans Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta. Sometimes, it takes a little nudge.


Oakland Athletics, Chicago White Sox

On the field, it has been a mostly dismal campaign for the White Sox, as evidenced by the 114-loss pace mentioned before. But there are emerging signs of where this is all headed. Yoan Moncada is on a five-win pace in WAR. Reynaldo Lopez looks like a budding front-line starter. Tim Anderson has climbed to league average and is still getting better. Top prospect Eloy Jimenez is mashing the ball in Double-A, while fireballing righty Michael Kopech is knocking on the door in Triple-A. There are bumps -- Jake Burger's ruptured Achilles and Lucas Giolito's command issues, to name a couple -- but there always are. The Chicago rebuild is in just its second season, which underlines the 2021 season as the breakthrough campaign if this all stays on track. There is no reason to think it won't.

Meanwhile, if you haven't noticed, the Oakland A's have been playing terrific baseball of late. The infield has been among the best in the game and the pitching staff has hung in the middle of the pack. If the A's can get some steady production from their outfield, a wild-card run is not out of the question. This Billy Beane rebuild commenced in 2015 with the Josh Donaldson-to-Toronto trade, and if Oakland does hang in contention, it'll be a year early. Either way, the A's look like they'll be a factor in a wickedly tough American League West.


Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers

The Marlins, Royals and Tigers all are new to the rebuilding class. The Tigers made their pivot last season with the trades of Justin Verlander and Justin Upton. The Marlins jumped into the fray over the winter by unloading their All-Star outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. And the Royals joined them when longtime stalwarts Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer departed via free agency, though even before that, general manager Dayton Moore had been making noises about reducing payroll.

All three of those clubs are in the talent acquisition phase, with the Royals hoping to get a jolt from the upcoming June draft. Kansas City will have four picks in the top 40 and six in the top 100. The Tigers are messing around with their narrative to a certain extent, mostly because of the underachieving Cleveland Indians. The Tigers are on pace to lose 93 games, yet at the moment, they sit just four games behind the Indians.

The Padres have targeted 2019 as their next contending season, and it's a long way to get from here to there. San Diego has had key rookie-season contributions from Christian Villanueva, Joey Lucchesi and Adam Cimber. But the Pads are still on pace to lose 93 games, with a run differential of a 96-loss team.

The only way the narrative shifts this season for San Diego is if some more of their upper-echelon prospects start to break through, similar to what happened in Atlanta. It certainly could happen. After a slow start, shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. is putting up numbers in San Antonio. Second baseman Luis Urias has reached Triple-A and is showing an advanced approach even for that level.

Still, if 2019 is the destination, it remains tough to see the Padres as being on track to get there on time. But they should get there eventually, and I remain high on the organization. Which is more than I can say about the last rebuilder.


Cincinnati Reds

Cincinnati's rebuild kicked off in 2015 with the trade of ace Johnny Cueto, though the Reds already had commenced collecting young arms. Yet here we are in 2018, and the Reds remain a last-place team and the core of an elite pitching staff has yet to come together. If things don't change fast and we start to see some high-level production from the likes of Luis Castillo, Amir Garrett, Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed, I'm not sure there is any recourse but just try again and hope to be in position when Hunter Greene is ready in a few years.

With the 2018 season in motion, it seems as if the rebuilding class has clearly shrunk by two with the ascension of the Phillies and Braves, and the A's may not be far behind. However, the resets in Kansas City, Miami and Detroit are just getting started. The Padres and Reds may be able to get back into contention with their current pipelines, but in neither case is that certain, nor are their dates of arrival. White Sox fans should be happy eventually, but it may be a couple of years. The Orioles, Blue Jays and Rangers could drop into the rebuild class by the end of the season. The Giants, hamstrung by age and bloated future payroll, could be looking at a dire few years as well.

Meanwhile, at the top of the standings, most of the teams that are good now appear positioned to remain that way for the next season or two or three. In other words, if baseball is to return to a more level playing field, it's probably not going to happen all that quickly. For the foreseeable future, it looks like Playoffville will remain a highly exclusive community.