Today marks the start of the last full month of the major league season, which means the end of the season, and more importantly, the playoffs are coming into focus. There’s a lot left to decide, including compelling races in both league’s wild card battle. While things are still trying to shake out before October 2, the contenders for the World Series are starting to become clearer. We’ll highlight five teams that have the greatest probability to make it to the World Series and then win; we’ll also overview what they need to do to get there, and what (and who) might stand in their way.
5. San Francisco Giants (72-60)
The Giants might not even win their division, but that didn’t stop the Giants in 2014 when they beat Pittsburgh and ultimately won the World Series. San Francisco has been locked in a tight race with the Dodgers for most of the year, and it’s no different at the beginning of September. The Giants trail the Dodgers by 1.5 games going into action, and the stats between the two teams tell the same story; that is, they’re virtually indistinguishable from one another, most notably runs scored and ERA. No matter how well one team is performing and how poorly the other is performing, no team can shake the other, and it should be suspected that will be the case until October 2 when both teams play their final game, and as luck would have it, against each other. While the Giants do play a few more games on the road than they do at home in the month of September, it’s mainly against cellar dwellers, like Arizona and San Diego. They will meet the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine in the middle of the month, but the potentially all-important series against Los Angeles will occur in San Francisco to close the season, with possible division implications on the line.
As far as offense is concerned, the Giants have struggled in the home run department, but that isn’t exactly a surprise playing by the bay in San Francisco. They can, however, boast the 4th most hits in the National League (1,187), 4th best average (.261), and the 3rd best OBP (.333). The Giants maintain a lot of players that quietly, and efficiently, go about their business, including All-Stars Buster Posey (.296/.373/.453) and Brandon Belt (.273/.386/.469). There are other key contributors, like Denard Span, who is currently day-to-day, Angel Pagan, and of course, the eccentric (in the best way) Hunter Pence, who all routinely do very solid work. Although the top half of the lineup seems to provide, the bottom half is lacking, leading the Giants to a lackluster offensive performance overall this season.
As with pitching, a name that has become synonymous with Giants baseball, Madison Bumgarner, is having another very productive year, posting a 2.49 ERA and 3.25 FIP, with a 13-8 record through 28 starts. Bumgarner was brilliant in the 2014 postseason; will he be able to put that kind of magic on display again? His 1.03 ERA in the postseason is one of the best ever (3rd to be exact). If he does, then the Giants have a very good shot at progressing, especially if they happen to be forced into a one game playoff to advance. Johnny Cueto, who was also an All-Star, had been good most of the season, but has hit a rough patch in his last seven starts, posting a 4.50 ERA, which could be a problem if he isn’t able to figure it out in the next few starts. Matt Moore, who was picked up in a trade with Tampa Bay, has been serviceable, but nothing stellar. The bullpen is a piece that’s been pretty solid throughout the season, but could use a little bit of a boost heading into the postseason, but there is certainly no cause for concern in the innings after the starter has been pulled.
The Giants expect Denard Span, Jake Peavy, Gregor Blanco, and Matt Cain to all be activated sometime in September. How often they’ll be used moving through the end of the season and into the playoffs is yet to be determined.
The Giants chances of winning don’t seem as high as some of the other clubs listed, but they’ve got some strange even year magic dating back to 2010, continuing into 2012, and then in 2014, winning titles in all three years. Will the luck run out, or will the Giants continue their even year success? That would mean moving their streak to nearly a decade in time, which would be very impressive. To conclude, while it may seem initially counterintuitive to pick the Giants over the Dodgers, the lack of Clayton Kershaw could prove to be the tipping point for the Giants to a) win the division, b) advance farther than the Dodgers, or c) both. While the Dodgers have succeeded without Kershaw to this point, how long will it last? I, and the people of San Francisco, are willing to bet not long. While they aren’t flashy, the Giants embody baseball. They’re mechanically sound, and play the game efficiently and without much attention, picking up three titles in six years along the way. Maybe I’m just being optimistic because I believe in baseball voodoo, but I think the Giants have a shot to make a little run in the playoffs, even if it is on the back of their even year magic of ’10, ’12, and ’14.
4. Toronto Blue Jays (76-57)
The Blue Jays have been an offensive juggernaut this whole season. As a team they are 2nd in MLB in home runs (196), 4th in RBI (624), 6th in OBP (.329), 5th in SLG (.440), and 6th in OPS (.768). As it were, teams that fall behind in those categories half the time are two of Toronto’s division rivals, the Orioles and Red Sox, but because those two teams have found themselves involved in pitching woes, the O’s and Sox are both behind the Jays in the standings. The Blue Jays still find themselves in a divisional race, but it seems they’ll be the team that ultimately pulls away to win the division, and their schedule seems to be in their favor, if only barely. They conclude their season with about a 50:50 ratio of home to away games, playing most of their tougher games against the O’s and Sox at home, where they’re 40-28, and will likely have the upper hand.
The team’s MVP is looking a lot like the league MVP, Josh Donaldson. Donaldson enters the month of September hitting .296, ranks 3rd with an OBP of .407, and 2nd with a SLG of .579 in the American League. Donaldson is ranked 3rd in home runs with 34, 1st in runs with 106, and 3rd in OPS at .986 in the American League. Donaldson also ranks 5th in MLB for WAR at 7.0. Edwin Encarnacion has provided ample power, as he has for the last four years, tied for second in MLB with 36.
The starting rotation for the Jays has been pretty impressive itself, with Aaron Sanchez and JA Happ fighting to be considered the ace of the club this season. Sanchez has posted a 2.88 ERA with a 3.35 FIP, going 13-2 over 25 starts. While Happ has posted an ERA of 3.23 and a FIP of 3.94, going 17-4 in 27 starts. Marco Estrada has held his own, as well. Jason Grilli and Joe Biagini have been solid out of the pen, with Grilli posting a 3.08 ERA over 55 games, and Biagini with a 2.25 over 49 appearances. Roberto Osuna has been solid in the closing role, acquiring 29 saves and a 2.28 ERA.
In order for the Jays to succeed this postseason, it’ll partially rely on a little bit of everything, from hitting to starting pitching and to relief pitching. The Jays will field a well-rounded team, with their only achilles heel being in the batting average department, falling to 20th in the league. What this means is that if the power isn’t there, then the Blue Jays will likely be unsuccessful in their postseason endeavors. The front end of the rotation will likely be strong for the Blue Jays, which will be a necessity to setup a pretty strong back end of the bullpen. Another high point for the Blue Jays is that, barring any late season September injuries, they’ll go into the postseason essentially unscathed by the injury bug, as so many teams have fallen victim to in the past, and this year is no different.
3. Texas Rangers (80-54)
Under the supervision of Jeff Bannister, the Rangers got back to their winning ways of 2010 and 2011. Texas comes in to their home games with a record of 45-21, which is second to only the Cubs. Apart from the Rougned Odor and Jose Bautista mishap, Texas has been going about its business fairly quietly. Ranking in the top 7 of every major offensive statistic in the American League, Texas enters play with a team BA of .263, OBP .321, SLG .432, and OPS .753. A solid team made itself even more solid with some key additions, most notably Jonathon Lucroy in a deal involving Milwaukee. Lucroy, a .298 hitter with respectable pop in the form of 20 home runs, which is certainly an upgrade from, say, Robinson Chirinos. All the main role players have been very solid for the Rangers, including Ian Desmond (.290/.338/.466), who has been a pleasant surprise to the organization, considerably raising his average, on-base, and slugging from his final season in Washington. Not to mention his seemingly flawless transition from shortstop to centerfield. Adrian Beltre, the 18-year veteran who’s likely in the last few years of his career, is still putting together a season as good as anyone out there. Beltre comes into play sporting a .291 average with 25 home runs and the 8th best total in RBI with 89.
In terms of pitching, Cole Hamels in the indisputable ace of the staff this time around, posting a 2.91 ERA, with an FIP of 3.86, going 14-4 in 27 starts, and 171 strikeouts, which is good for 6th in the American League. Yu Darvish has been fairly good in his 12 starts, posting a 3.01 ERA with an FIP of 3.23, going 5-3 in those 12 starts. Derek Holland has been unproductive and underperforming still with an ERA at 4.68. AJ Griffin and Martin Perez haven’t been performing much better with ERA’s of 4.39 and 4.30, respectively. Texas also has some guys coming off the disabled list soon, including Colby Lewis, but it’s hard to tell if he would be ready to go by the time the season reaches its conclusion, and it’s even harder to tell if he’d be able to perform very much even if he is ready, although he was pretty good in 15 starts before the injury, posting a 3.21 ERA. On the other end, the bullpen has been pretty solid for the Rangers, which is always important when trying to make a postseason run. Barnette, Diekman, Claudio, Bush, and Dyson have all posted ERA’s under 3.00, with Dyson recording 30 saves.
The Rangers face some obstacles in the form of a close run differential. They’ve allowed 613 total runs, while only scoring 635 runs themselves, meaning they’ve been trapped in a lot of close games, and often times, that has a tendency to come back and bite teams. Courtesy of FiveThirtyEight, the Rangers find themselves winning at a 30-8 clip in one run games, which, by most accounts, isn’t sustainable. Arguably the most important thing a team needs is good pitching, but they struggle in that department. The Rangers post a team ERA of 4.28, which ranks 11th in the American League and 20th in all of baseball, placing them in the latter half of the pack of all 30 teams. This could become a problem should they run into a team with a heavy offensive artillery, such as the Blue Jays. The Rangers have also had to face personal issues; for example, when the well-liked Prince Fielder was told he’d have to retire from the game due to a neck injury. It seems as though that this occurrence hasn’t adversely effected the Rangers too much; they’re 12-6 since Fielder announced his retirement.
Besides the hitting, the Rangers calling card has seemed to be the atmosphere surrounding them in Arlington. It all starts with Jeff Bannister, who’s been a good manager and a guy that will protect his team against anyone. Then it extends to the fans who have been superb in supporting the team, which is now two years removed from their less-than-stellar, well under .500 performance in 2014. The Rangers have a good setup to make a run at the World Series, but they’ll have to straighten out the starting rotation and get more support and productivity from the guys on the bump, regardless of whether or not Lewis will be back to claim a spot, who is currently in Double-A Frisco.
2. Washington Nationals (78-55)
The Nationals are a team that’s been in contention since 2012, when their major draft picks began to emerge (think Bryce Harper, at the age of 19, and Stephen Strasburg, both of whom were All-Stars that year). Even with all the hype surrounding Washington year in and year out, they keep falling short, no matter the expectation. Since 2012, the Nationals have missed the playoffs twice and bowed out in the National League Division Series. Even with the missteps of the last four years, the Nationals remain to be favorites among analysts and fans alike. But as it sits right now, the Nats are 9.0 games up in the National League East, and there’s very little chance of either the Mets of Marlins catching them. Moreover, they’ll likely be the 2nd seed in the playoffs, facing either the Dodgers or the Giants, depending on who wins that race.
The Nats are a pretty solid offensive team, finding themselves in the top 8 in the National League in BA (.255), OBP (.326), SLG (.431), and OPS (.758). A lot of that hitting can be attributed to the stellar season of second baseman Daniel Murphy, who signed with the club in the offseason, opting to leave the Mets. Opinions seemed mixed on how well Murphy would do this season, but he’s silenced the naysayers, hitting at a .341 clip, with 25 home runs and 98 RBI for the 2016 campaign. He’s been the MVP for the club, with his batting average and RBI total both ranking second in the National League. Murphy’s also playing pretty well in the field, having only eight errors to his name this season.
In a season where Bryce Harper’s production has faltered some (he’s only hitting .249, but still has 23 home runs), others have had to pick up the slack. Most notably, Trea Turner, who, since getting called up from AAA Syracuse, has hit .344 in 44 games, with an OPS 0f .902. While Turner does take some questionable routes when patrolling the outfield, the potential is clearly there, and it’s undeniable that he’s been an asset to this club. Wilson Ramos is also having a good season at the plate (and behind the plate), going (.312/.360/.508), with 20 home runs and 70 RBI.
Washington is also performing well in the pithing department. The team staff posts an impressive 3.44 ERA this season, second in baseball to only the Cubs. They also rank second in BAA at .232, which is also good for second in baseball. The rotation has been good; yielding a 3.59 ERA and a FIP of 2.97 from Stephen Strasburg over 23 games. Strasburg is currently on the disabled list with a minor elbow injury, but is expected to be ready to go sometime this month before the playoffs begin. Tanner Roark and Max Scherzer have been the two best starters for the Nationals, though, posting a 2.87 ERA and a 3.74 FIP for Roark, and a 2.89 ERA and 3.19 FIP for Scherzer. The bullpen has also been good for the Nationals, including Belisle, Solis, and Treinen. Perhaps most importantly, the Nationals made the trade for Mark Melancon, who has been one of the best closers in baseball the last three years, with the Pirates, and he has continued to impress in Washington, picking up seven saves with and 0.66 ERA over 13.2 innings
Besides Joe Ross and Stephen Drew being placed on the disabled list (both of them will come off sometime in September), everything looks to be in good order for the Nationals to make a deep run in the playoffs, finally surpassing that first round exit, and ultimately making the World Series. There’s one thing lurking in the way of the team of the nation’s capital: the Chicago Cubs. It looks like the Nationals have a team that finally won’t stand in the way of itself, like could be argued in seasons past, but arguably the best team the city of Chicago has ever seen will likely be waiting for them in the National League Championship Series. Even with that fact, it is undeniable that the Nationals are one of the best teams in baseball.
1. Chicago Cubs (85-47)
The very obvious first choice are the boys from the north side of Chicago. The Cubs have been the team to beat from the beginning of the season, starting off hot out of the gate and virtually never slowing down. They hit a very small slump before the All-Star Break, but then they returned to normal form as soon as the regular season games started again. At nearly 40 games over .500, the Cubs seem unstoppable anywhere, but especially at the friendly confines, where they hold an astonishing 48-19 record. Kris Bryant has been playing at the All-Star (and arguably MVP) caliber level that everyone expected him to for the entire season (.307/.402/.591), which places him at 11th in BA, 4th in OBP, and 2nd in SLG in the National League; moreover, Bryant flaunts a daunting .994 OPS, which is third in all of baseball behind only David Ortiz and Mike Trout, and a WAR of 7.8, which is fourth in all of baseball. Bryant also finds himself tied for second in baseball in home runs with 36. There’s no mistaking that the Cubs have one of the better hitting teams in all of baseball, and especially in the National League, finding themselves in the top 10 in major hitting categories such as OBP (.345, 1 NL, 2 MLB), SLG (.433, 3 NL, 8 MLB), and OPS (.778, 2 NL, 3 MLB).
While Chicago’s hitting has been undeniably strong, it should be argued that their pitching has been their biggest strength this season. On a staff that was supposed to be led by Jake Arrieta, he eventually found himself overshadowed by the likes of Jon Lester, John Lackey (before being placed on the 15-day disabled list on August 15), and especially Kyle Hendricks. With a 2.09 ERA, Hendricks ranks first in all of baseball in terms of ERA, and it’s not even close. Hendricks also boasts a 13-7 record, and a 3.33 FIP, which ranks ninth in all of baseball. The Cubs only have one starter, Jason Hammel, with an ERA over 3, and it’s only 3.14. The Cubs also hold the title of best team ERA at 3.13, and perhaps most impressively, a BAA of only .213, and a WHIP of 0.98. Then when talking about the pitching staff, it’s only fitting to mention one of the hardest throwers in baseball history. Aroldis Chapman is an undeniably frightening adversary on the mound. With 32 saves and an ERA of 1.88, teams don’t often find a way to score runs off Chapman. The disclaimer with his heat (as high as 105 MPH) is if a hitter is able to square one up, then the ball is going to fly.
It’s hard to find a negative in a team that is so stacked, whether it be in the batter’s box or on the mound. The questions will become: can a fairly young team keep its composure to make a run in the playoffs in search of the Cubs first World Series in 108 years? The main concern with that will be the position guys. There is some veteran depth, including Ben Zobrist and David Ross. Ross, if nothing else, can be the guy to keep all the younger guys calm. The pitching rotation, however, is, on average, one of the oldest in the league, meaning a lot of the guys taking the bump to start the game, and then to finish it, will have ample experience, and even playoff experience, like Jon Lester.
Perhaps most importantly, barring any more injuries, the Cubs look like they’ll be a pretty healthy club heading into the postseason. They currently have a healthy lead in the National League Central, so once the rosters expand, Joe Maddon, if he chooses to, can reset the pitching rotation in the most effective order, as well as rest the bullpen and any position players that might need it. All things considered, the Cubs look poised to make a deep postseason run, probably finishing in some capacity in the World Series, whether or not it’s with a title is yet to be revealed.
As usual, it will probably come down to which teams have better bullpens, which teams get guys on and drive them in, and who can avoid injury. Most importantly, it will come down to who can get hot at the right time. Will the Giants play consistent baseball, predicated on good defense and fundamental hitting? Will the Blue Jays capitalize on their power and slugfest their way into a World Series title? Will Texas ride their momentum from the regular season on the back of their veteran third baseman and ace pitcher with World Series experience? Will the Nationals finally get off the schneid and use their highly touted draft picks that budded into superstars, and get the help of an offseason signing? Or will the Cubs finally break that long curse with the goat, or will they falter like so many of their predecessors?
While this is all speculation now, we’ll certainly find ourselves in the midst of a very fun October filled with exciting baseball.
(Photo: Denis Poroy, Getty Images, The Chicago Tribune)