When I went to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I saw a life-changing trailer for a film called Mortal Engines. This is a movie about a post-apocalyptic Europe in which steampunk cities on wheels roll around the world eating each other. (The cities that eat other cities are called “urbivores.” This is too ridiculous not to be true.) I think about this trailer four times a week because it’s the wildest-ass shit I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen Pacific Rim and two of the Expendables movies.
There is a near 100 percent chance that Mortal Engines turns out to be an incomprehensible flop that makes Chappie look like Jurassic Park. But there’s something moving about the image of a woman on a gigantic, menacing contraption turning around and finding that there’s an even bigger, more menacing contraption in pursuit. (As compelling as the mystery of why screenwriter/producer Peter Jackson chose to spend his Lord of the Rings capital on this project? Perhaps not.)
There’s a compelling, relatable sense of fear to that image. It’s probably not too different from what the Boston Red Sox are feeling.
No matter how sick you are of it, Yankees–Red Sox is baseball’s big-ticket rivalry, and after a decade of incursions from the Rays, Blue Jays, and Orioles, the AL East once again looks like it’s going to be a race between its two marquee teams.
We’re at a curious point in that rivalry right now because the Red Sox have had the upper hand over the past five years: three division titles and a World Series, while the Yankees ended a four-year division-series drought just last year. Boston hadn’t been on top like that since the late 1980s.
And yet it doesn’t feel like that anymore because while the Yankees were floating around third place, they were also evolving from the George Steinbrenner model of team-building—poaching their competitors’ best players with huge free-agent contracts—to a more modern approach based on developing young players. The Yankees could still call on the implacable might of capital to crush their opponents like a clove of garlic under the flat edge of a knife, but money became a tool with which deficiencies in the foundation could be addressed rather than the foundation itself.
The Red Sox have been doing this for years—in fact, seven of their nine projected starting position players have never played for any other club. Since its last title in 2013, Boston’s dipped into its prospect surplus to trade for Chris Sale, Drew Pomeranz, and Craig Kimbrel. And when that isn’t enough, the Red Sox’s capacity to run a $200 million payroll allows them to go get the best free-agent pitcher (David Price in 2015-16) or hitter (J.D. Martinez in 2017-18) just to be safe.
However, Boston has managed to win just one postseason game in the past two years because it’s encountered red-hot buzz saws: the Cleveland Indians in 2016, who dropped just one game in the AL playoffs; and the 101-win, World Series champion Houston Astros in 2017. That doesn’t mean the Red Sox, who won 93 games both years, weren’t very good themselves, but sometimes you run into a better or hotter team. “Shit happens in the playoffs” isn’t particularly illuminating or easy to turn into call-to-action sports-talk fodder, but it’s closer to the truth than the overwhelming majority of post-hoc playoff analysis.
The problem is that the Red Sox might find an implacable opponent this regular season.
Last year’s Yankees won 91 games and finished with a plus-198 run differential: better than the Astros and Dodgers—and better than the Red Sox by 81 runs. They finished second to the Astros in runs scored and wRC+ and tied for second in OBP. They hit 241 home runs, most in baseball, one more than the 1961 Yankees, and the 16th-highest total of all time. Even though they won fewer games, you could argue that the Yankees were better than the Red Sox last year.
Since then, Boston’s added Martinez, and will get a full season of Rafael Devers, who debuted in late July at age 20, and presumably Price, who threw just 74 2/3 innings last year after suffering from elbow soreness. Left fielder Andrew Benintendi stands to improve on his .271/.352/.424 rookie line in his second full season. And they didn’t lose that much from the rest of the roster—just Doug Fister, who was an emergency acquisition last year, anyway, and a couple of middle-relief arms. The Red Sox ought to win 90-odd games for a third straight year.
The Yankees, however, are a lot better. First baseman Greg Bird will almost certainly play more than 48 games this year. Pitchers Jaime García and Michael Pineda walked in free agency, but Pineda will miss most of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery and the Yankees are well-positioned to fill out their rotation internally. Infielders Todd Frazier, Starlin Castro, and Chase Headley are gone, replaced by free-agent second baseman Neil Walker and former Diamondbacks infielder Brandon Drury, both league-average players.
Walker, whom the Yankees picked up for a pittance of one year and a $4 million base salary, gets far less attention than his track record warrants. He’s an average-looking white guy named Neil who played most of his career in Pittsburgh. He doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, and if he’s ever spoken to a reporter in his life, I can’t remember him saying anything controversial or interesting, so he might as well be a patch of wallpaper with spikes and a glove. But Walker has played at least 110 games, registered at least 400 plate appearances, hit at least 12 home runs, and posted a wRC+ of 106 or better in each of his eight full big league seasons. He’s never been more than a four-win player but he’s also never dipped below even in wins above average. That’s incredible consistency. He’s a steal.
But not the biggest steal of the offseason. The Yankees got The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton, just off an MVP season, on a straight-up salary dump from Miami. Last year’s second-best offense added another top-five bat, pretty much for nothing.
Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projection system has the Yankees penciled in for 97 wins this year. Projection systems simulate a season over and over, reporting a distribution of outcomes. What gets published in the projected standings and depth charts is a 50th-percentile outcome, which makes those projections usually look conservative. Playoff-bound teams or MVP-caliber players usually perform at least a little better than the median prediction, which is why there are more teams that actually win 97 games than are projected to do so. To spit out a 97-win median projection seems like an outrageous statement from PECOTA, but it’s not out of line with ZiPS and Steamer, published at FanGraphs, which put the Yankees at 94-68.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox are at 89 wins by PECOTA and 92 at FanGraphs. That’s not that bad from Boston’s perspective—projection systems aren’t anywhere near close to accurate within two games, and even PECOTA has Boston six games better than its nearest wild-card competitor. What ought to scare Red Sox fans is what the future looks like.
Boston is probably headed for its third straight 93-win season because the team was built very well. Former GMs Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington dove into the amateur market. Sometimes—Devers, Yoan Moncada, Anderson Espinoza—they bet big and hit big. Other times—Rusney Castillo, 2013 first-rounder Trey Ball—they bet big and lost.
But they also hit huge by taking smart, calculated risks. Headed into 2011, Jackie Bradley Jr. was a potential top-10 pick but missed a big chunk of his junior year with a wrist injury. The Red Sox snapped him up at no. 40 overall and he turned into the player everyone thought he was going to be beforehand. Xander Bogaerts made good on a $510,000 signing bonus. Texas high school righty Michael Kopech, the 33rd pick in 2014, blew up radar guns after he hit the pros. Even Benintendi, the no. 7 overall pick in 2015, was something of a risk because his sophomore season at Arkansas—in which he was the best player in college baseball—was the only time he’d even hinted at having big league potential. Most of all, Mookie Betts was a huge scouting and player-development victory. A 2011 fifth-rounder out of a suburban Nashville high school, Betts damn near put up a 10-win season in 2016 and is one of the 10 best position players in baseball. Nobody expects a player like that to come out of the fifth round.
Betts, Bradley, Bogaerts, Benintendi, and Devers are now five of Boston’s six or seven best position players. Espinoza, a Dominican right-hander who earned a $1.8 million bonus in 2014, brought back Pomeranz in a trade. Moncada and Kopech brought back Sale. The Sox signed Dominican outfielder Manuel Margot to an $800,000 bonus in 2011, and by the 2015-16 offseason he was a top-100 prospect and the centerpiece of the Craig Kimbrel trade. Even with failures like Ball and Castillo on the books, that’s still a great run of scouting and development.
By either filling out the lineup themselves or bringing back All-Stars in trades, prospects were the key to Boston’s success the past two years. So, too, the Yankees: Their best two position players last year (Aaron Judge and Gary Sánchez) and best pitcher (Luis Severino) were all homegrown. Their prospect surplus allowed them to trade for Sonny Gray, García, Frazier, and relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle. It’s almost exactly the same process that built the Red Sox.
The difference is that the Sox are just about out of ammo while the Yankees are just getting started. Heading into this season, BP ranked the Red Sox farm system 23rd in baseball and put just one player, left-hander Jay Groome, in the top 101. Groome and first baseman Michael Chavis were the only Sox players in the FanGraphs top 100, and neither ranked higher than 95th.
The Yankees, however, have a genetic engineering facility that adds four miles an hour to college pitchers’ fastballs. One of those guys, 2014 fourth-round pick Jordan Montgomery, had a 116 ERA+ in 155 1/3 IP as a rookie last year and was second on the team to Severino in pitcher WAR. Another, 2016 12th-rounder Taylor Widener, was a nothing middle reliever in college but brought back Drury in a trade after his velocity spiked in the pros. James Kaprielian, the no. 16 pick in 2015, also had a velocity spike and was a main piece in the trade that landed Sonny Gray. And they’ve got more arms coming: starters, relievers, first-rounders, third-day picks, reclamation projects, fat ones, skinny ones, short ones, tall ones.
It’s not just pitchers, either. If Walker or Drury falters, consensus top-10 prospect Gleyber Torres will be there to step into the void. If this is the year Brett Gardner gets old or Aaron Hicks forgets how to hit again, former no. 5 overall pick Clint Frazier is waiting. BP rates the Yankees’ farm system as fourth-best in baseball, and five Yankee farmhands made both the BP top 101 and the FanGraphs top 100. The cavalry is only in the process of arriving.
Plus, they’re still the Yankees and can spend like it. The Yankees have been either first or second in payroll every year since 2000, the first year for which Cot’s Contracts has data. They were able to add Stanton for next to nothing because they were willing to absorb his salary—i.e., pay the MVP like an MVP. For the same reason, they were able to fill out the bullpen by taking on Robertson’s salary and giving Aroldis Chapman a five-year, $86 million deal.
If both teams roll out their Opening Day lineups and rotations consistently throughout the season, the AL East race is going to be pretty close—both teams ought to win somewhere in the low to mid-90s and clearly belong among the top four in the American League. But once things start to go wrong—injuries, slumps, janky player-development arcs—the Yankees have a huge advantage in their ability to reinforce, either internally or via trade. Once you factor that in, the Red Sox should be just as concerned about staying ahead of their wild-card rivals—distant though they may be—as they are with keeping up with the Yankees.
Even if you do everything right, sometimes you can’t do anything to stop the bigger city driving up behind you.