MLB offseason report: Everyone wants to win now
By ALEX PUTTERMAN
College Contributor Network
The chief takeaway from the Major League Baseball offseason thus far: Everyone is going for it.
With the second wild card (now entering its third year) making the playoffs more attainable than ever, seemingly every team appears devoted to a win-now course.
At the Winter Meetings last week, the Cubs announced the end of their rebuilding plan with a splashy signing of Jon Lester; the White Sox made a series of short-term-motivated moves; the Marlins traded prospects for Mat Latos, Dee Gordon and Dan Haren; the Padres took on Matt Kemp and on and on.
As Dave Cameron points out, nearly every team in the American League looks to be shooting for the 2015 playoffs. In fact, shortly after Cameron identified the Twins as one of only two AL teams (along with the Astros) not on the win-now track, Minnesota went and signed 32-year-old Ervin Santana for four years and $55 million.
The Twins will almost certainly not contend this season, but given how accessible the playoff race has become there's sense in always putting forth some effort in the short term. Maybe everything goes right and you accidentally end up in the hunt with 85 wins.
The 2014 World Series serves as a sort of guiding principle. The Royals outscored opponents by only 27 runs but stumbled to 89 wins and a spot in the wild-card game, then shot through the playoffs to the World Series. The Giants won only 88 games but also snuck into the wild card game and ended up World Series champions.
With the playoff field deeper than ever, 80-something win counts offer more than a prayer of playing in October. And once the postseason's randomly variant short series roll around, anyone can advance. Only one of last year's top four regular-season teams reached their League Championship Series. To give themselves a shot in the playoffs, teams need not earn the best record in the league, only one good enough to qualify them. There's limited incentive to build a great team and overwhelming incentive to assemble a pretty good one.
The result of this calculus is a lot of teams straddling the fence between rebuilding and winning now. The Athletics and Reds have both traded useful veterans this winter in acknowledgment of their need to prepare for the future, but as of now neither has entirely torn down its foundation. The A's sought major-league talent in their offseason trades, and the Reds got rid of only disposable parts while maintaining their core. With some good fortune, Oakland and Cincinnati could contend in 2015. Without the second wild card, maybe total teardowns would make sense, but given the current system, both franchises have preserved a chance at contention, even while rebuilding.
On the other end of the pennant-window spectrum are the two Chicago teams. Both the Cubs and White Sox entered the offseason with intriguing pieces offering the potential for future playoff contention, but neither was quite expected to make its push this year. But despite each winning only 73 games last season, both franchises aggressively pursued veterans on the trade market and in free agency and now find themselves positioned to enter spring training with at least faint postseason dreams.
Before playoff expansion, Oakland and Cincinnati might have traded themselves down to sure sub-.500 finishes, and the two Chicago clubs would have likely held off another year or two before investing in big-league talent.
The non-capitulating courses of action pursued by these teams -- along with the Rays, Marlins, Indians, Braves, Padres and others -- will make for a crowded playoff picture in 2015.
Not only does almost every AL team maintain some chance to make the postseason, but not a single one looks like a lock for October. The best teams from last year, the Angels, Orioles and Tigers, have all gotten worse this offseason while numerous of their competitors have improved. Some teams will presumably separate themselves as the season progresses, but for now all five playoff spots are up for grabs with something like 13 teams chasing them.
The NL's playoff race won't be quite as chaotic as the AL's, but between 10 and 12 of the 15 teams appear to harbor some playoff hopes. The Nationals and Dodgers are currently heavy favorites in their respective divisions, and the Cardinals expect to win another Central crown, but the wild card spots could hardly be more difficult to project.
There's still plenty of offseason to go, and maybe more teams will more openly commit to either rebuilding or pushing their chips all-in, but at the moment baseball's middle class is heavily populated.
Reaching the playoffs isn't as hard as it used to be, and now everyone wants to be at least within reach. With a third of the league qualifying for October, teams might as well give themselves a shot.
Alex Putterman is a junior Journalism major at Northwestern University and sports editor of the Daily Northwestern student newspaper. He has fairly eclectic interests but loves baseball above all. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexPutt02