With the Yankees and Cardinals — the two franchise with the most World Series titles — now out of the October picture, let’s take a look at the eight teams still standing.
Why’d we wait? Honestly, even though the one-game wild-card contests are dramatic and make for good television, they’re a silly (OK, dumb) way to decide which teams advance toward the World Series. Baseball is a sport that rewards team depth and talent and the ability to wear down an opponent over a series of games. Determining who advances based on just one game spits in the face of the 162-game schedule. Aargh.
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But we’re not here to rant about that today. We just brought it up to say it’s silly to do a power ranking of teams before the coin-flip wild-card games. Now that we’re heading into the Division Series contests, with a best-of-five leading to best-of-seven LCS and World Series matchup, it’s time to look at which teams stand the best chance of winning it all.
8. Red Sox
Why they’re here: I know, I know. They sure looked good in that wild-card win against the Yankees. No arguments here. But Nathan Eovaldi is by far their best starting pitcher, and he’s only going to start once in the ALDS (Game 3, on full rest because there’s zero chance he starts Game 2 on two days rest), with a possible relief inning or two in Game 5, if the series gets there. If the Sox had five Eovaldis, they’d be higher in this ranking. But after Eovaldi, the starters are a bit more suspect, and yes, that included Chris Sale, who didn’t make it out of the third inning in a must-win Game 162 against the Nationals. It’s hard to see them outlasting the Rays and their lineup of at-bat grinders.
Why they’re here: Don’t be deceived by the W/L record, the 88 wins that are the fewest of any team in the postseason (fewer than the Blue Jays or Mariners, who didn’t qualify in the AL). The Braves made several significant additions leading up to the July 31 trade deadline and they played like a legitimate contender the rest of the way, not like an also-ran in a bad division. Atlanta went 36-19 in the last two months of the season and finished with a 12-2 mark in the last 14 games to clinch the East. There’s power up and down the lineup — new leadoff hitter Jorge Soler hit 27 homers this year and Dansby Swanson, who also hit 27 homers, batted seventh or eighth most of the last month. If the starters can churn out quality innings — and closer Will Smith pitched like he did in September (1.38 ERA) and not August (5.84 ERA) — this is a Braves squad that could surprise people.
6. White Sox
Why they’re here: The White Sox are a very talented team, and absolutely could run through the AL side of the playoffs and even win a World Series. That would be enjoyable; the Sox are a fun team to watch. But the Astros are a tough matchup for them, as shown by Houston’s 5-2 record against the Sox this year. In fact, the Sox haven’t played particularly well against the best teams in baseball this year. They were just 13-19 against the teams that qualified for the postseason, and that’s not a harbinger of good things to come.
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Why they’re here: The Brewers’ pitching is just so very good. Corbin Burnes (2.43 ERA), Brandon Woodruff (2.56) and Freddy Peralta (2.81) all had seasons worthy of a spot on the Cy Young ballot. Josh Hader is arguably the best closer in baseball, with his 1.23 ERA, 34 saves in 35 chances and 15.6 K/9. And, sure, losing star setup man Devin Williams is a blow, but Milwaukee’s bullpen wasn’t just a two-man show. There are plenty of good arms in the bullpen, led by Brad Boxberger and his closing experience. Plus, Adrian Hauser (3.22 ERA), Eric Lauer (3.19 ERA) and Brett Anderson (4.24 ERA) all made at least 20 starts this season, and two of the three will slide into the bullpen to help make up for Williams’ absence. The offense isn’t nearly as good as the pitching, but it’s still a solid group and the Brewers are more likely to play a series of 3-2 type games than any other team this month.
Why they’re here: Though regular-season results have no tangible impact on the postseason, it still feels telling that the Astros were at their best against the best the AL had to offer this season. Check this out: Houston went 5-2 against the White Sox, 5-2 against the Red Sox and 4-2 against the Rays. The Astros have a deep lineup, with four players who hit at least 26 homers this year, a list that doesn’t include Alex Bregman, who hit 12 in 91 games but is healthy now. And not that batting average is a perfect stat, but only three AL players hit at least .310 this year and two are in the Houston linuep: Yuli Gurriel (AL-best .319) and Michael Brantley (.311). It’s a lineup that grinds down opposing pitchers. And the rotation? Let’s put it this way: Veteran Zack Greinke, who will one day wind up in Cooperstown, is the weakest link, at least statistically. This is a team built for October success.
Why they’re here: They won 106 games in the regular season and have most of the players back from their 2020 World Series championship team. But they’re without Max Muncy and Clayton Kershaw, two huge pieces of last October’s puzzle. And that lineup, while powerful and potent, can be pitched to, as the Cardinals showed in the NL wild-card game. If St. Louis had come up with any sort of clutch hits in that drama-filled classic — the Cardinals were 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position — the Dodgers would be at home. There’s still plenty of talent on the roster to win another World Series, but their next series is against the team with 107 wins in the regular season, and that’s a tough assignment.
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Why they’re here: At this point in 2021, if you still doubt the Giants as an elite team, you’re just being stubborn. Even Dodgers fans have begrudgingly come to accept that San Francisco is a powerhouse club and worthy World Series contender. The Giants have 10 hitters who popped at least 12 home runs this season. And, yes, they’re without Brandon Belt and his 29, but Lamont Wade Jr., and Darin Ruf combined to hit 18 homers in their 239 PAs at the position. That’s the thing about these Giants — there’s always someone ready to step in and step up and help the team win. The rotation is solid and the bullpen is borderline outstanding — the team bullpen ERA of 2.99 was the best in the bigs this year.
Why they’re here: At this point in the 2000s, if you still doubt the Rays as an elite team, you’re just being stubborn. They have power, they have speed, they have defense and they have pitching. That’s the combo you want in October (obviously). They’re going to use guys you’ve probably never heard of (such as the Shanes, Baz and McClanahan) — the general baseball public did not know Randy Arozarena last October — to beat the teams and players who have grabbed headlines for years. It’s the Rays’ way of operating.