We’re creeping closer to the playoffs, which means it’s time to reexamine the top title contenders around baseball.
We’re exactly one week from the start of the postseason, and seven teams have clinched a playoff berth. That means, in the year of the truncated regular season and the expanded postseason, nine spots are still up for grabs. As the great Samuel L. Jackson famously said, “Hold onto your butts.”
So much has happened in the two weeks since we last ranked the World Series contenders. The Yankees started raking again. The White Sox and Padres both clinched a postseason berth for the first time in more than a decade. Matt Chapman underwent season-ending hip surgery.
Here is an updated list of the 10 teams with (the most) legitimate World Series aspirations, ranked from least to most likely to win the title.
10. Oakland Athletics
The A’s are going to the postseason for the third straight season, and they became the first team to clinch their division Monday night. But of the first-place teams, they are the least likely to win the World Series. They have by far the best bullpen in the American League, if not in all of baseball (2.42 ERA), but they will not be at full strength—Chapman, their third baseman and best position player, is out for the rest of the season. The A’s have a track record of getting the most out of the least, and this team certainly is more talented than previous playoff-bound Oakland clubs. However, the other AL postseason teams are better.
The one question I have for the A’s moving forward is this: Are they as good as their record says, or is the AL West just not that good? Oakland is 24-12 against its division and 9-8 against the NL West—and that’s without yet playing its three-game series against the Dodgers, which begins Tuesday.
9. St. Louis Cardinals
It’s tough to know what to make of the Cardinals. Their pitching staff is among the best in the game, and they somehow have not yet faltered while “binge-playing” the final six weeks of the season.
To get to and win the World Series, the Cardinals will need to get the most of their offense. Of the contending teams, only Cleveland and Cincinnati are scoring fewer runs per game than St. Louis.
8. Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are a good team, with two of the National League’s best pitchers—Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks—atop their rotation. The bullpen still lacks depth, but it’s far less shaky than it was when the season began. In Craig Kimbrel’s 12 appearances since Aug. 14, he has allowed just two runs with 24 strikeouts over 11 1/3 innings. Jeremy Jeffress has been among the best relievers in baseball this season (1.61 ERA).
What worries me about the Cubs is the lack of offensive production they’re getting from core players, such as Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. For a change, Ian Happ and Jason Heyward have been by far the club’s best position players. They’ll need Báez and Bryzzo to turn it around if Chicago’s going to win another World Series title.
7. Minnesota Twins
The Bomba Squad is back, baby. Over the last 14 days, only the Yankees (30) have hit more homers than the Twins’ 27. This comes after they hit 37 in all of August. Ageless wonder Nelson Cruz is their best hitter, but the difference-maker is center fielder Byron Buxton. Since returning from injury at the beginning of this month, Buxton is slashing .340/.353/.800 with seven homers in 51 plate appearances.
Minnesota has the third-best ERA in baseball (3.51), behind only the Dodgers and Cleveland. Veteran starter Kenta Maeda would be a Cy Young contender this season if not for Shane Bieber.
The biggest problem for the Twins, as has been the case since 2003, is their inability to beat the Yankees in the postseason. The last time they won a postseason series came in 2002—the last time they didn’t play the Yankees in the opening round of the playoffs. So, of course, as it stands, the Twins are slated to play the Yankees in the best-of-three wild-card round. At least this time, if the season ended today, Minnesota would have home-field advantage.
6. Tampa Bay Rays
One thing has changed the Rays’ World Series prospects more than anything else—the Yankees got healthy and remembered how to hit. Still, the Rays have won eight of their 10 matchups against New York this season and, leading the Yankees by 4 1/2 games in the AL East, likely will finish in first place. As it’s been all year, Tampa’s season will live and die with its pitching staff.
5. Atlanta Braves
The lack of starting pitching should be really concerning for Atlanta. Behind Max Fried, who has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this year, many of the Braves’ starters have been frighteningly bad. And because of the poor rotation, the once-stabilizing Atlanta bullpen since has started to crack.
But, man, oh man, can this team hit. Freddie Freeman is having an MVP-caliber season—slashing .340/.460/.624 with 11 homers and a 182 OPS+. Right-handed sluggers Ronald Acuña Jr., Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall have all been among the NL’s best hitters this year. No team is scoring more runs per game than Atlanta (5.83).
If they get half-decent pitching from rookies Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson, they’ll be one of the toughest playoff teams.
4. San Diego Padres
The Padres are going to the postseason for the first time since 2006, ending the longest postseason drought in the National League. But can they get to their first World Series since 1998? Can they win their first title in franchise history? The short answer is yes. But, there’s a caveat. They (probably will) need to get through the Dodgers, who are looking to win their first World Series in more than 30 years.
San Diego is a complete team, with the third-best offense (5.56 runs per game), the third-best rotation ERA (3.38) and two elite relievers to close out games (Drew Pomeranz and Trevor Rosenthal). That’s all great, except the Dodgers are the only team that scores more runs per game than Slam Diego (5.78) and also has a better rotation ERA (3.24). L.A.’s bullpen ERA (2.86) is more than a run better than the Padres’ (4.00).
If the Padres can beat the Dodgers and win the pennant, they’ll be the favorite to win the World Series.
3. Chicago White Sox
The White Sox weren’t supposed to be as good as they are this year. Maybe there was a shot, we thought, for them to sneak into the postseason. More likely they were going to be in prime position to make a run in 2021. Well, here we are.
The White Sox are baseball’s version of Parasite—the perfect team for our time. They do everything well, with one of baseball’s best lineups, a solid rotation and a strong bullpen. Their cast of characters, from veteran MVP candidate José Abreu to reigning batting champ Tim Anderson to Rookie of the Year contender Luis Robert, is the perfect blend of youth and experience. Whereas the Yankees and Dodgers are awards fodder with great legacies, the White Sox are new and exciting. And they just might snatch a title from two of baseball’s powerhouses.
2. New York Yankees
In the first installment of this ranking, the Yankees were in the throes of a 5–15 skid. Their beleaguered bullpen had just allowed 10 runs in an inning against the Blue Jays, and Gerrit Cole lost three consecutive starts after winning 20 straight decisions. We started to doubt whether they’d even make the playoffs. Ha.
Since then they’ve won 10 straight for the first time since 2012. They set a MLB record for most runs scored (43) in a three-game span. Giancarlo Stanton, Gio Urshela and Aaron Judge returned from the injured list. Gleyber Torres started rocking glasses. Gary Sánchez finally recorded a multi-hit game—then followed it up with another. Their MVP candidates, DJ LeMahieu and Luke Voit, kept mashing and now had the support behind them to make it count.
Perhaps most impressive has been their starting pitching. Cole has returned to form and wields a 0.64 ERA over 14 innings in his last two starts. Masahiro Tanaka has been solid all season (3.27 ERA), and J.A. Happ—the ire of so many WFAN callers—is pitching as well as he did when the Yankees first traded for him in 2018. Over his last six starts, he has a 1.93 ERA in 37 1/3 innings. Rookie sensation Deivi García has solidified the back end of the rotation.
I wrote two weeks ago: “They are certainly a World Series contender—as long as they make the postseason.” Well, they are going to the playoffs, and they are the most likely AL team to get to, and win, the World Series.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Who else would it be? The Dodgers are the best team in baseball, as they have been all season long. Mookie Betts appears to be in a two-man race with Atlanta’s Freeman for the NL MVP award. If Betts wins it, he’ll join Hall of Famer Frank Robinson as the second player to ever win the MVP in both leagues.
Behind Betts (161 OPS+), the Dodgers have a loaded lineup, with shortstop Corey Seager (155), catcher Will Smith (171), outfielder AJ Pollock (125), utility man Chris Taylor (136) and, of course, reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger (102).
And, even with Walker Buehler under-performing and now on the injured list, the Dodgers’ rotation is the best in the NL (3.24 ERA). Old Man Clayton Kershaw leads the way (2.15 ERA), and the median age of the other four members of the starting staff (counting Buehler) is 24, with none of them older than the 26-year-old Tony Gonsolin (1.77 ERA).
We’ve seen this film before: Hollywood’s team is the best in the game, on the verge of winning its first championship since 1988, before it disappoints in the postseason. The tagline of this year’s installment is “This Time Will Be Different.” And that’s why we keep watching. There’s only one way to find out.