Nats are one of few MLB clubs actually trying to win in 2018

Everyone has his or her own theory to explain why this offseason has been so slow across baseball. Is it collusion among the owners? Is it analytical evidence that suggests it’s not wise to spend big bucks on free agents? Is it Scott Boras?

Here’s another theory I’ve seen floated from several others, and I do believe this one has some merit: There simply aren’t that many teams actually trying to win big this season.

daniel-murphy-bat-flip-blue.jpgThink about it. How many clubs right now would you say are guaranteed to be in a pennant race and then contend to reach the World Series? I count seven: the Astros, Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals, Yankees, Red Sox and Indians. I’d add the Rockies and Diamondbacks as teams that reached the postseason in 2017 and are hoping to sustain that success in 2018, but aren’t locks. And I’d add the Cardinals, Giants and Angels as teams coming off disappointing 2017 seasons and now attempting to make a real push toward returning to contention in 2018.

But that’s it. Seven guaranteed contenders, five others that hope to contend. Will one or two others surprise everyone and put themselves in the mix, like the Twins and Brewers did last year? Probably. But there won’t be more than a couple of those at most.

Which means there are something like 15 to 18 major league clubs that either have no chance of winning this season or aren’t making much attempt to win this season. Some of those (Phillies, White Sox, Reds) are several years into massive rebuilding projects and are headed on the right track; they just need a little more time. Others are perennial also-rans that simply haven’t figured out how to build anything sustainable (Mariners, Marlins, Padres). Others had some success not long ago but now are starting over (Royals, Pirates, A’s). The rest fall somewhere in the middle.

What they all have in common, though, is a lack of interest in spending significant money this winter in attempt to get better. And truth be told, it’s hard to blame them for that lack of interest when you consider the overall state of baseball right now.

Rebuilding projects, when done properly, often have fantastic end results. Who wouldn’t look at what the Nats, Cubs, Astros and Indians have done in the last five years and want to model themselves after those organizations? The problem is that today’s game disproportionately rewards two types of approaches: those who go all-in and those who tear it all down.

This is, in part, due to the change in postseason format six years ago: the addition of the second wild card in each league. The thinking behind that change was that it would result in more teams in contention later in the season, while also offering a more valuable reward to division winners.

Problem is, those wild card spots have now been devalued too much. You might win 90-something games, but finish second in your division and now your whole season comes down to a one-game crapshoot against an opponent’s ace. Is it really worth going all-in just to try to achieve that?

More and more, teams seem to be saying it’s not worth it. Five of the six division winners from last season look like heavy favorites to repeat this season. The only one that looks (on paper, in late January) like a compelling race is the American League East, with the Yankees and Red Sox ready to author a new chapter in their longstanding rivalry.

Maybe there will be a surprise. Maybe the Astros will have World Series hangover and the Angels or Rangers will dethrone them. Maybe the Cardinals will return to the top after a two-year lull while the Cubs realize how difficult it is to sustain long-term success. Maybe the 2018 Nationals will have a flashback to 2013 or 2015 and ... eh, let’s not go there. At least not today.

Point is, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of uncertainty heading into the coming season. There’s the select group of real contenders ready to duke it out again. There’s a small group of hopefuls who might sneak their way into the conversation. And then there’s a very large group of franchises that has chosen not to go for it now, recognizing that it’s more worthwhile to try to win a division title in 2019 or 2020 than it is to try to get into a one-game playoff in 2018.

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