The two teams that were supposed to advance to the American League Championship Series did so, though it took one of them longer to close out its division series.
Not much of that matters now after the New York Yankees and Houston Astros opened the ALCS on Saturday night.
The Yankees took Game 1, 7-0, at Minute Maid Park, but the Astros won 3-2 Sunday night in 11 innings to send the teams to Yankee Stadium tied 1-1 in the best-of-7 series.
The teams combined for 210 wins in the regular season. They had a plus-484 run differential. They had the organizational depth to deal with significant injuries, especially the Yankees.
They were the two best teams in the league, arguably in MLB.
The Astros and the Yankees are the teams many others are striving to be, including the Texas Rangers.
But the gap between the two elite clubs and the Rangers, who continue to rebuild their farm system and big-league roster, is significant. The Rangers need more homegrown stars, more savvy trades, and more money for significant acquisitions and to keep the homegrown players from leaving.
“The idea that you can build your team exclusively through the draft and development, that’s just not done,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. “You have to have production from every area. Most of the teams at this level have two or three homegrown stars and then they’ve supplemented with talent from the outside.”
The Yankees’ dynasty in the late 1990s was grown out of homegrown talent — namely Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. That’s a pretty good start.
Jeter, Williams, Posada and Rivera never left the Yankees, signing multiple contract extensions, and Cone, O’Neill and Clemens re-signed at least once apiece as free agents.
The 2019 Yankees developed Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez. Luis Severino and Brett Gardner, but Giancarlo Staton, Gleyber Torres, Didi Gregorius, James Paxton and Luke Voit were acquired in trades. DJ LeMahieu, Masahiro Tanaka and Aroldis Chapman were free-agent signings.
The Astros are built similarly.
Alex Bregman, George Springer and Carlos Correa were high draft choices. Jose Altuve was signed as an international free agent.
Houston’s three-headed starting pitching monster of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke was put together via trades. The two key pieces in the Astros’ bullpen, Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna, also came via trades, as did Rookie of the Year candidate Yordan Alvarez.
Sprinkle in free-agent pickups Michael Brantley, Robinson Chirinos and Josh Reddick, and the Astros have a World Series-caliber team.
“They have built something really unique here,” Daniels said. “If they win it all this year, I think people are going to talk about them being in contention for one of the greatest teams of all time.”
The Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs were built in similar ways en route to world championships in 2018 and 2016: Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber as homegrown stars, and Chris Sale, David Price, Craig Kimbrell, Jake Arrieta and Anthony Rizzo as players acquired from other organizations or via free agency.
The Rangers don’t have much of those, even after winning 11 more games (78) this season than in 2018.
Elvis Andrus, Willie Calhoun, Delino DeShields and Emmanuel Clase were plucked from other organizations.
Shin-Soo Choo has been a steady free-agent pickup and a part of two American League West title teams, Mike Minor and Lance Lynn were free-agent pickups who give the Rangers a solid 1-2 punch atop the rotation.
Minor and Lynn, though, would be the Astros’ fourth and fifth starters. Gallo and Choo would probably be in the Astros’ lineup, and Houston would find a place for Leclerc and Clase.
The reason Daniels fielded trade offers for Minor, and Lynn to a lesser extent, was to close the talent gap on the Astros.
The Rangers are moving closer to the Astros and Yankees in minor-league talent. Just as trades in 2015 and 2016 depleted the Rangers’ system, the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs have dealt prospects for front-line players and have seen their systems suffer.
But the Rangers are still a season or two or three away from seeing the minor-league talent make a meaningful impact. Daniels said that he will have more money to spend this off-season to fill out the roster, but one off-season splurge won’t put the Rangers on par with the Astros and Yankees.
The Rangers are watching them, and others, as they continue to build into a contender.
“This time of year is always really good for studying how clubs were built and how organizations were are, and those two clubs have done a really really good job,” Daniels said.
“There’s definitely things we can learn from them. You always want to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on with other clubs. I don’t want to chase one organization. There are a lot of things that we’re doing well that we’re really proud of, and we have to continue to get better as those things as well.”