Sports have changed in recent years. In the past, franchises were often content with simply being “in the mix” every year. Going above-.500 was always considered a successful season, and players, coaches, and owners took pride in just winning more than losing.
These days, the only thing that matters (besides making money, of course) in professional sports is winning championships. Teams would (rightfully, I’d argue) rather finish dead last in their sport than somewhere hovering around .500 with no clear room to move up another tier.
In that sense, congratulations Orioles fans!
Organizations like the 76ers in basketball and the Astros and Cubs in baseball have shown a willingness to, ahem, trust the process. A few years with terrible records brings highly touted draft picks which turn into highly affordable young stars.
Baseball has been a little late to the party in embracing this philosophy, but the aforementioned Cubs and Astros did just win World Series titles in 2016 and 2017, respectively. It works. And because it works, teams are more cognizant than ever of just where they stand in relation to the proverbial “contention window.”
With that in mind, let’s take a look at where every National League team stands. The American League is a bit more regimented (the Astros, Indians, Red Sox, and Yankees are going to dominate the AL for at least the next few years), plus the Nats obviously reside in the Senior Circuit, so that’s where we’ll focus. We’ll split the 15 teams into four categories: Window Closed, Window Closing, Window Opening, and Window Open.
This one couldn’t have been easier. The Marlins are not only completely bereft of talent, but they aren’t even chock full of prospects on the horizon. Outside of catcher J.T. Realmuto, who almost certainly will get traded at some point, there’s not a single player on this roster who looks like a current or future contributor on a World Series contender.
That’s, uh, not good.
The Reds are pretty interesting, and I actually considered putting them in “Window Opening.” The talent level isn’t there, but the 67-95 record looks worse thanks to a 3-15 start. Once the team switched to former National manager Jim Riggleman, the offense picked up and became an actual plus for the team.
Additionally, there are a few top prospects coming soon. Nick Senzel is going to be a reliable hitter at the Major League level as soon as next season, and the team has other talented young guys down the line. Taylor Trammell, Hunter Greene, and Jonathan India all look like potential regulars, if not stars.
They’re probably still a year or two away from really feeling like they have a chance of competing, but this is a team on the cusp of competing.
I honestly expected the Pirates to finish with one of the five worst records in baseball last season, and I have no problem admitting I was wrong. Their hot start certainly didn’t last, as they finished fourth in the NL Central and were just three games over .500, but their team held up better over the course of the season than I expected.
Looking at the roster, there are literally just three guys around for a while who are worth getting excited about: Starling Marte, Chris Archer, and Felipe Vazquez. An outfielder, a decent-but-overrated starter, and a relief pitcher.
I don’t see enough reinforcements on the way to get excited about the future of the team. If they commit to a rebuild, they could turn things around, but for now, the window is closed shut.
The Diamondbacks had their chance to go for it this year and couldn’t quite make it work. They were in on Manny Machado, but after depleting their farm system last season had nothing to offer. Instead, Machado went to the Dodgers, and now Los Angeles is in the World Series and the Diamondbacks ended with 82 wins.
What made it especially tough for their fans is knowing this era of contention was about to end. A.J. Pollock’s contract is up, and Paul Goldschmidt will be gone after next season, if not sooner thanks to a trade. Breakout ace Patrick Corbin is also a free agent, but the team does have some pitching depth. Unfortunately, their ace is the just-turned-35 Zack Greinke, and Zack Godley and Robbie Ray took steps back last season.
There’s just enough there that they probably won’t completely fall off the cliff yet, but this is a team that has expected to compete in each of the last few springs, and that won’t be the case in 2019.
San Francisco Giants
I was really tempted to place the Giants into the “Window Closed” category. I said it many times all season long, it was a mistake for them to go all in and acquire Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria.
Their 73-89 record speaks for itself. Unfortunately for fans in the Bay area, there aren’t any real actions they can take. For some reason, they are considered one of the eight favorites to land Bryce Harper, but I just don’t see it happening. Thanks to some ill-fated contract extensions, they’re locked into multiple years with guys like Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Longoria, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija.
Now, that’s a core that’s won a few championships in its day, and it doesn’t include the maybe-healthy Madison Bumgarner, so for that reason they don’t get the fully shut window yet. But it’s coming, and might be here sooner than fans realize.
This one is pretty obvious. The Braves’ best players are guys like Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, who spent last season as 21 and 20 years old, respectively. Freddie Freeman is older, but still young enough to help the team win now.
My only hesitation keeping them out of the “Window Open” category is the general narrative of young teams arriving a year earlier than anticipated. We saw it with the Twins last season. A team is competitive a season or two earlier than everyone expected, and then the following season regression kicks in.
The Braves are clearly on the way up, but let’s wait one more year before declaring their window open.
The Phillies, in almost every way, are a less extreme version of the Braves. They also embraced a rebuild, but less emphatically. They also have a slew of top prospects, but none on the level of Acuna. They also competed earlier than expected in 2018, but not as successfully as the Braves.
In that vein, they also are clearly deserving of this category, though maybe not quite as much on the cusp of true contention as Atlanta. This is a team whose window would bust open several more levels if they sign Manny Machado or Bryce Harper.
The Rockies were somewhat difficult to place. On the one hand, they have several talented young position players, led by the undeniable Nolan Arenado. Trevor Story had his post-hype breakout last season, and they maybe kind of sort of finally found some decent pitching? Kyle Freeland was one of the stories of the season, and Jon Gray looks like he could be embarking on a nice career.
On the other hand, D.J. LeMahieu is a free agent, and Arenado is up after next year. Can they re-sign their superstar? That will determine if this placement is foolhardy or optimistic. I believe in their other young talent, and Arenado seems like the type of star to stick in one city for his whole career. Most millenials are headed to Denver, not headed out.
New York Mets
The Mets are a good example of why the category you fall into here is not necessarily representative of the talent level of the roster. To wit, the Mets are clearly not one of the best teams in the National League, but the bulk of their core is still built with young players on the upswing, and enough of those guys have already hit to the point that they can’t really consider themselves rebuilding anymore.
Michael Conforto, Amed Rosario, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard are really talented players, the kind of guys who can lead franchises to the World Series if things break the right way.
I’m definitely not saying this is a dark horse contender in 2019 or anything like that. Just that they are (slowly) moving toward their next competitive window.
San Diego Padres
The Padres desperately want to have their window open. They signed Eric Hosmer to a huge deal in the offseason, and they clearly view themselves as closer to contention than not. I’ll give them that they’re on the way, but it appears to be in the distant future.
I considered them for every category other than Window Open, because they have been really bad in recent years, but they also have one of the best farm systems in recent memory. Give it two years, and they may very well be the next Astros/Cubs.
I was torn on whether or not the Brewers should consider themselves as the window open or just in the process of opening. They, of course, were just one win away from the World Series this past season, and certainly don’t look like they’re going anywhere anytime soon.
They earned their NLCS shot, but it had more of a Cinderella-type feel than an actual true contender. Similarly to the Braves, this is a young team on the upswing who might have reached their potential earlier than even they thought.
That said, they did add Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich last season, so they clearly believe they are in their window right now. With the likely NL MVP returning and the determination to get to the promised land, who am I to say they’re wrong? This is the pick I’m least sure of.
Another easy choice. The Cubs have plenty of talented players on the roster, and just about all of them are either smack dab in the middle of their primes, or at the very least on the cusp. Maybe in a few years they’ll start having to worry about contracts and stability, but for now, this a team whose window is wide open.
In fact, they may actually be trying to force the window even more open in the form of a blockbuster Bryce Harper signing.
Los Angeles Dodgers
As I’m writing this, the Dodgers are getting set to face the Red Sox in the 2018 World Series. So, yeah, they are obviously somewhere in contention range. The only question is what will they lose in free agency? And are any players aging out of their primes?
The answer to both hinges on Clayton Kershaw. The southpaw who is the best pitcher since prime Roger Clemens has been jaw-droppingly good his entire career, but has recently started to suffer from regular back injuries, a scary proposition for a position notorious for durability issues. Not to mention the fact that he can opt out of his contract this year should he choose to do so.
Looking at the rest of the roster, Machado will likely leave, but Corey Seager will be returning to health to replace him. They may need a new catcher if they can’t re-sign Yasmani Grandal, but everywhere else either has a young talent on the horizon, a star locked up, or a slew of flexible guys ready to chip in. Plus, this is the richest team in baseball. Like the Yankees, it would take some extreme scenarios for a franchise like this to ever NOT be in contention.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are yet another team whose category doesn’t accurately reflect the talent on their roster. St. Louis isn’t quite on the level of the Cubs and Dodgers, but they don’t really have anywhere to go from here. Their young pitching is uber-talented and will keep them in most playoff races in the near future, not to mention hitters like Matt Carpenter and Marcell Ozuna.
The steadiness of this roster, and lack of options to really change things up, is why they’re here. They are competing right now, even if they aren’t completely set up to do so in the era of the superteam.
Ahh, the Nationals. I didn’t save them for last because they’re the local team, or for alphabetical reasons. Quite honestly, they were the most difficult franchise for me to place on this list.
It looks like a new era is upon us, especially if Bryce Harper leaves. Even if he sticks around, many of the names and faces fans have become familiar with in recent seasons are headed out the door. So, in that sense, it might seem like the window is closing.
At the same time, Juan Soto’s magnificent career is only just beginning, and Victor Robles looks like a ready-made Harper replacement. The outfield will be good-to-great next season no matter what, and Anthony Rendon is still starring in the infield, with Carter Kieboom coming soon. So that seems like the window is opening.
Also, Max Scherzer still pitches for the Nats last I checked. Any team with Rendon, Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg will at the very least have designs on competing.
So, considering how ready top MLB prospects are to impact playoff races as rookies these days, and how many big name stars the team will employ no matter if a certain number 34 leaves town, it feels like the Nats will still very much be competing in 2019 and beyond. For the sake of fans in the nation’s capital, let’s hope so.
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