When it's OK to start thinking about next year

Thanks to the wild-card playoff spots, it's easy for almost every team to think they've still got a shot at postseason glory. But looking at the standings with some realism, we can identify a number of clubs that should be thinking about 2015.

Should Chase Utley and the Phillies be throwing in the towel on the 2014 season already?

Len Redkoles, / Getty Images North America

So here’s a question: When should a team stop trying to win?

In one sense, never. A manager never gathers his players around him before a game and says, “OK, boys, now let’s get out there and LOSE.”

But franchises give up on seasons all the time. When winning looks almost impossible this season, the people who run the franchises start thinking about next season, and the season after the next season. Which often means fewer wins this season.

This season’s barely two months old, and so it might seem too early for a franchise to give up.

It’s not. But before we make a list of those teams, let’s come up with reasons to not give up ...

You’re in first place!
Hey, congratulations to the Blue Jays, Tigers, Athletics, Brewers and Giants ... plus the Braves, Nationals and Marlins, all of whom are virtually tied for first place in the National League East.

You’ve got a winning record!
Winning’s better than losing, and every winning team can’t help having designs on a berth in the championship tournament. Also, winning teams can’t reasonably explain to their fans why they’re giving up on a season. So they don’t, at least not publicly. So we can add the Orioles, Indians, Angels, Mariners, Cardinals and Dodgers.

You’re the Yankees!
The Yankees aren’t winning, but at 31-31 they’re not losing, either. Also they’re the Yankees, and the Yankees haven’t given up on a season since ... well, it’s been more than 20 years, right?

You’re losing, but you can smell winning.
Should anybody in the American League Central give up? Yes, the Tigers still look like the class of the division. But the Tigers have outscored their opponents by only nine runs all season, and the Royals and White Sox remain within striking distance. Even the last-place Twins are only five games behind the Tigers, and so they just signed Kendrys Morales.

You’re the Red Sox!
Yes, they’re nine games out first place. But you don’t win a World Series one October, then give up on a season the very next June. Especially with a $156 million payroll.

You can dream about a wild card!
No, this one doesn’t actually count. Or shouldn’t. Because at this point, almost every team can dream about a wild card. The Phillies have the worst record in the National League ... and they’re only seven games out in the wild-card standings. The wild cards do permit a great deal of false hope, but they also provide opportunities for those clubs that evaluate their chances with some objectivity.

Which is difficult, I know. Especially for fans, but also for baseball executives and the men who own the teams. But as I wrote last week, it’s time for the Rays to give up on 2014. After another rough few days, they’re now 10 games out. That’s just too many games, especially considering the long-term absences of Wil Myers and Matt Moore.

And that’s the real point here. You should be able to do more than just dream about a playoff spot; you should be able to dream with some realism. The Rays are dead because they’re well behind and they don’t have the players to mount a big comeback.

Same for the Phillies. They have the worst record in their league and the second-worst run differential, and there’s just no good reason for optimism. Domonic Brown, an All-Star just a year ago, has been one of the worst everyday players in the majors this year. Which is strange and probably not permanent, but hardly explains the Phillies’ overall performance. And even if he improves significantly, it’s not likely that veterans Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins both will continue to hit better than they’ve hit in some years.

And there’s the pitching, which just isn’t good enough without Cliff Lee. And apparently there’s no timetable for Lee’s return.

But the Rays and the Phillies are the easy ones, because they have the two worst records in the majors, two of the three worst run differentials, and injury issues. Here are the teams I haven’t mentioned yet: Rangers, Astros, Reds, Pirates, Rockies, Mets, Padres, Diamondbacks, Cubs.

I believe the Rangers should start thinking about next season because they’ve just suffered too many injuries. I believe the Astros, Rockies, Mets, Padres, Diamondbacks and Cubs should start thinking about next year because they just don’t have enough talent to win 90 games this season.

Which leaves the two most interesting-this-season also-rans-so-far: the Reds and the Pirates. Both teams were expected to compete for second place in the National League Central. Both have nearly identical losing records and nearly identical run differentials. But doesn’t it seem likely that one of them will go on a nice run at some point this summer?

The trick, if you’re a betting man, is figuring out which team it will be. The Reds have room for improvement with a healthy Joey Votto and a productive Jay Bruce. But they’ll still have two holes in their lineup with Billy Hamilton and Zack Cozart. And I checked; there’s nobody in the minors ready to come up and help. Meanwhile, the Pirates just don’t have the star in their pitching rotation that most playoff teams need. So I’m going to throw up my hands, but the takeaway is that it’s too early for either club to give up on this season.

Which leaves nine teams — the Rays, Phillies, Rangers, Astros, Rockies, Mets, Padres, Diamondbacks and Cubs — that should stop fighting for every possible win this summer. Remember, the Chinese character for losing also means winning next year.

Rob Neyer’s Twitter feed contains many other misconceptions.

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