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  • The Astros, Yankees and Dodgers have buried the competition, and the Braves, Twins and Cardinals currently lead their respective divisions. Which of these playoff contenders has the edge in the Fall Classic?
By Michael Shapiro
September 03, 2019

We’re now one month from postseason baseball, shifting our focus from home runs, rule changes and a simmering MVP battle to the top contenders to reach the Fall Classic. The September playoff race will leave room for some intrigue in the coming weeks—especially in the AL and NL wild-card races—though we now enter the season’s final month with just one division lead at less than five games.

So let's fix our gaze on October and consider which first-place team should be the favorite to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy. Will the Dodgers bring the title back to Chavez Ravine for the first time since 1988? Or will one of the AL powerhouses snag the crown? Check out our power ranking of the six division leaders below, ranked by their likelihood of closing out the decade with a World Series win.

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1. Houston Astros (90-49)

A case can be made for New York or Los Angeles to hold the top spot, but the Astros’ electric rotation gives them the edge. Justin Verlander may still be the best pitcher in baseball. Opponents sport a .162/.195/.302 slash line against Verlander since mid-July, and his 0.77 WHIP is absolutely historic. The Yankees could be in trouble if they draw Verlander three times in a potential ALCS. With future $200 million man Gerritt Cole and six-time All-Star Zack Greinke rounding out Houston’s playoff rotation, the Astros should orchestrate a whiff parade in October.

Houston won’t need to advance in the postseason with a slew of pitcher’s duels, either. Carlos Correa is the only impact bat with injury concerns entering October, while Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman continue to anchor the Astros' lineup. Michael Brantley has shined in year one with his new team, and Yuli Gurriel continues to mash in a career year. Houston's offense was plenty potent prior to June, but over the last three months, they’ve been downright dominant. A certain Cuban slugger can take the credit.

Yordan Alvarez could ultimately be the difference maker in October for the Astros. He's slashing .318/.416/.655 through 65 games, collecting 21 homers and 62 RBI along the way. Only Christian Yelich has a better OPS and slugging. Only three AL players (Gurriel, Nelson Cruz and Rafael Devers) have driven in more runs since Alvarez’s debut on June 9. The 22-year-old could anchor the Astros’ lineup for years to come. In 2019, he could help deliver Houston its second title since 2017.

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2. New York Yankees (90-49)

The Yankees have arguably the best lineup of any playoff team, and their bullpen stands above the competition. That’s not a bad recipe for success. They will likely pass their previous home run record (267 dingers in 2018) in September as Aaron Judge finds his groove and Gleyber Torres continues to rise. This year’s squad appears less strikeout prone than the 2018 and 2017 playoff teams—thanks, DJ LeMahieu—and the roster is stocked with journeymen-turned-heroes such as Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman. Manager Aaron Boone will have an overflow of weapons if the Yankees (namely Giancarlo Stanton) get healthy soon. Only the Dodgers match New York’s ability to mix-and-match quality bats late in games.

Will the rotation hold up enough for New York to win the title? There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. It's unclear whether Luis Severino will be relegated to a relief role, and James Paxton will make his first career playoff start in 2019. Ditto for Domingo German. General manager Brian Cashman may kick himself for not splurging on a starter at the trade deadline if New York falls short. Even with a lethal bullpen, a starting pitching shortage can burn even the best teams come October.

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3. Los Angeles Dodgers (90-50)

This Dodgers team appears to be better than the previous six that have won the NL West. Manager Dave Roberts has limitless options at his disposal on a day-to-day basis, platooning players with delight outside of MVP candidate Cody Bellinger. Former GM Farhan Zaidi built a superb squad before bolting for San Francisco.

Los Angeles’ lineup is certainly impressive, though it pales in comparison to the team’s elite rotation. Hyun-Jin Ryu is a frontrunner for the NL Cy Young, even after his recent struggles, while Clayton Kershaw is still a nightmare matchup despite some notable postseason woes. Don't forget about that Walker Buehler guy, either. The 23-year-old righty has 190 strikeouts in 159 1/3 innings, and his 15-strikeout effort against San Diego in early August was among the best performances of the season. Buehler could perhaps be Los Angeles’ top playoff arm despite his youth.

Only a sliver separates New York and Los Angeles in our rankings, and the Dodgers even have some argument over Houston. But their bullpen could be a fatal flaw. Kenley Jansen remains flammable. Pedro Baez and Yimi Garcia don't scream reliable. Perhaps Joe Kelly’s playoff experience is helpful, though he’s struggled after five years in Boston. The Dodgers could very well end October with a World Series trophy. They’re also vulnerable to some major heartbreak.

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4. Atlanta Braves (85-54)

Atlanta’s return atop the NL East in 2018 was no fluke, so can it reach its first World Series in two decades? The infrastructure is in place for a potential run through the National League. The Braves’ lineup can keep pace with the aforementioned impact attacks, and its top four hitters could be the best in baseball. Ronald Acuña Jr. is still a threat for the 40-40 club, while Freddie Freeman is making the NL MVP race much more interesting. Josh Donaldson’s one-year deal should practically merit Executive of the Year consideration for Alex Anthopoulos. Ozzie Albies remains powerful against lefties, and he’s become passable against righthanders in his second season. The Braves could very well mash their way to the World Series even with an unproven pitching staff that wields potent arms such as Mike Soroka and Max Fried.

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5. Minnesota Twins (85-52)

Will the Twins shock the baseball world and win their first title since the 1991 Fall Classic? Minnesota unfortunately looks like a long shot. You'd be hard pressed to find someone in Las Vegas willing to bet against the Yankees and Astros. 

The Twins’ difficult odds aren’t for a lack of talent, though, especially considering their pulverizing lineup. Minnesota broke the single-season home run record with a month to spare on Saturday night, and the club has eight players with over 20 homers. The contract extensions for Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco this season proved prudent in a historically good offense. But the pitching staff outside of Jose Berrios doesn’t appear ready for prime time, nor does the collection of relievers led by closer Taylor Rogers. Minnesota has broken the Indians’ grip on the AL Central in 2019, and it should be considered the division favorite in 2020. Yet the Twins remain a sizable step behind New York and Houston in the AL pecking order.

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6. St. Louis Cardinals (77-60)

Not only do the Cardinals have the worst run differential of the six division leaders entering Tuesday, the Redbirds also sport a worse run-differential than the Cubs, the current second-place team in the NL Central. St. Louis’ playoff standing remains in doubt with a month to go; and if the Cardinals do reach October, they still face an uphill battle in its quest for the World Series.

Perhaps St. Louis can take advantage of a favorable bracket with an NL Central victory. The Cardinals can avoid the dreaded Dodgers in the NLDS, and if Jack Flaherty continues to cruise, he could limit the Braves’ potent offense twice in one series. Paul Goldschmidt has returned to form after a dreadful start, and Kolten Wong is finally producing at a high level at the plate. St. Louis is deep and versatile. Manager Mike Shildt could channel Roberts with some extreme lineup tinkering in October. But the Cardinals ultimately look a few pieces short, especially with its crop of arms. Miles Mikolas hasn't been the All-Star he was last year, and it's hard to gauge if Dakota Hudson can be counted on in the playoffs despite his strong rookie year. The Cards’ bullpen is a question mark—though Shildt has done a commendable job managing his relievers without flamethrowing closer Jordan Hicks since May—and playing away from Busch Stadium in both the NLDS and NLCS is a serious challenge.

Consider St. Louis the biggest longshot of the World Series contenders.

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