- Four teams remain in the playoffs, but only one can win it all. So we've come up with cases for why each of the Astros, Cubs, Dodgers and Yankees won't be the last team left standing.
With the MLB playoffs now down to four teams, the list of teams includes one with 27 World Series titles (the Yankees), one with zero (the Astros) and last year's defending champion (the Cubs). Two teams with a combined 199 wins (the Indians and Nationals) couldn't survive the first round and are now home for the winter. So who is going to win the World Series? None of us know the answer to that, but four of our writers have compiled cases for why your favorite team—whether it's the Dodgers, Yankees, Astros or Cubs—won't end up hoisting The Commissioner's Trophy at the end of the playoffs.
I would hate to make liars of my colleague, Ben Reiter, and my employer, Sports Illustrated—recall our three-year-old guarantee of a 2017 title. Make no mistake: The Astros are a superlative club. They had the American League’s best offense, scoring-wise, and they seldom strike out. There's no hole in their lineup, which will make New York's pitchers have to work much harder than they did against Cleveland. Houston ace Dallas Kuechel owns the Yankees; just ask fans to recall the 2015 AL wild-card game.
But this is no perfect team, and these Yankees are no cupcake wild-card fluke: By Pythagorean Wins, which measures a team's performance based on runs scored and runs allowed, they were actually a better bunch than this year's Astros. (This is the first and last time I will say this in my lifetime, but, gee, the Yankees don't get enough praise.) They finished second to Houston in runs scored, and they boast a deeper pitching staff. (It was hard not to take Thursday's announcements of probable pitchers—in which the Yankees tabbed their starters for the first four games but Houston revealed only those for Games 1 and 2—as an unintentional acknowledgement of this shortcoming.) Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton, who are likely to round out the rotation unless the team unexpectedly calls on the recuperating Lance McCullers, are great 2017 stories, but they don't have strong track records beyond this season—quite the opposite—and they didn't look great in the ALDS while facing a softer lineup.
Yes, you could say the same about some of the Yankees' young hitters; Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez both struggled against Cleveland. But a bad starter makes more trouble than a bad hitter, especially given the shortcomings in Houston's bullpen. The Astros simply don't have Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Chad Green or Tommy Kahnle. Chasing an Astros starter is progress; chasing a Yankees starter is a mistake.
All of this is to say that Houston and New York project to give us a tight and lively series, and that the series-long battle between Houston's contact-happy hitters and the Yankees' strikeout-mad staff will likely be a scintillating and defining one—and that Reiter better hedge his bets.
What Might Not Be So Bad: Jose Altuve is on another planet right now—what a hitter that guy is.
It’s not 2016 anymore. The Cubs are no longer long-suffering darlings, nor are they a juggernaut that drew comparison to history’s greatest teams. And manager Joe Maddon is no longer a magician. His team barely escaped the Division Series against the Nationals, and its pitching staff is disheveled, to say the least. The well-rested Dodgers, meanwhile, made mincemeat out of a similarly gassed Diamondbacks staff thanks to their patience.
In a postseason landscape increasingly dominated by bullpens, the Cubs’ unit looks shaky, and Maddon apparently lacks trust and/or a deft touch with this particular cast. Against the Nationals, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery and Wade Davis each served up huge eighth-inning homers with men on base, and in Game 5, Maddon maneuvered himself into a corner where Davis was called upon to get the final seven outs, having burned through five relievers to get the previous eight. Davis got away with it, but it wasn’t pretty. For the series, the unit’s 6.75 ERA ranked eighth among DS teams, their 19.5% strikeout rate fifth, their 16.9% walk rate eighth, and their 50% rate of inherited runners scoring sixth.
Edwards, an excellent setup man who smothers hitters from both sides, had two bad games in the NLDS plus a third where he walked the only hitter he faced. Righty Pedro Strop is solid, but his effectiveness against righties took a step back this year. Control problems (19 walks in 17 2/3 innings—yes, you read that right) forced Maddon to bury lefty Justin Wilson, the team’s top trade deadline acquisition, limiting him to one garbage-time appearance. Maddon opted instead for fellow southpaws Brian Duensing and Montgomery, who don’t miss bats with the same frequency. And Davis isn’t the buzzsaw he was as a Royal, when he posted a 1.18 ERA and 1.86 FIP from 2014 to '16.
The team’s best relief performance in the series was Lester’s 3 2/3-inning effort in Game 4, when he held a 1–0 deficit in place, only to watch Edwards and Davis blow the game open. Between that and Maddon’s use of Jose Quintana in Game 5, the Cubs may have to start John Lackey opposite Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, and the battle-tested 38-year-old just isn’t the pitcher he used to be.
What Might Not Be So Bad: Though all of their starting options took a step back from 2016 in terms of run prevention, Kyle Hendricks, Lester and Quintana each lasted at least 5 2/3 innings in their Division Series starts, something that happened only 10 times in the other 32 playoff starts. If the starters can limit this bullpen’s exposure, they have a chance.
The biggest factor working against the Dodgers for the rest of October is luck. Anything can happen in a postseason series, even to a team that on paper should outclass its opponent. (Just ask the Indians.) For L.A., the question will be whether it helps luck along. This has been a postseason of home runs and bullpens, and while the fly-ball-hitting Dodgers are as equipped as anyone else to go deep, their relief corps remains a question mark.
Before he can get to all-world closer Kenley Jansen, manager Dave Roberts will have to construct a bridge with a collection that combined for a 6.15 ERA over the season’s final month. Starter Kenta Maeda, who did not make the postseason rotation and has slotted into long relief, has pitched well but could run into trouble in an unfamiliar role. If Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Yu Darvish and Alex Wood can pitch deep into games, the Dodgers can get around this weakness, but so far they've averaged only five frames per start. That’s a lot of innings left for non-Jansen relievers.
What Might Not Be So Bad: This was the best team in baseball for six months, perhaps the best team in history for two, and they only have to win eight more games.
Well, if Aaron Judge continues to strike out in two out of every three plate appearances (as he did in the Division Series), the Yankees’ offense is in a little bit of trouble. The biggest thing that will stand between New York and its first pennant in eight years, though, won’t be its offense; it'll be Houston’s. The Astros steamrolled the Red Sox in the Division Series and have the deepest lineup in baseball—and arguably one of the best ever. This is an Astros team that, by collective OPS+, was the equivalent of the 1927 Yankees, here and forever the benchmark of historic offense. This will be a gigantic test for New York’s hyper-talented yet inconsistent rotation, and if the starters can’t stand up to Houston’s onslaught, then the Yankees’ excellent bullpen is going to be pushed to its breaking point over what should be a grueling series.
What Might Not Be So Bad: As noted, that rotation has all the tools to silence the Astros’ bats just as it did the Indians, and the bullpen is more than capable of providing length game in and game out. Plus, New York’s lineup can stand toe to toe with Houston’s, particularly if Judge snaps out of his slump.