With three weeks left in the regular season, 24 teams are within five games of a playoff spot. The additional September contenders undoubtedly are benefiting from an expanded postseason field and the truncated 60-game season.
Still, not even in this bizarre season do two-thirds of the teams have a legitimate chance survive the October gantlet and win the World Series. So let's highlight the 10 clubs that appear to be bona fide contenders to raise the Commissioner's Trophy next month, ranked from least to most likely to win it all as of now.
10. Oakland Athletics
The A’s have dethroned the Astros as the best team in the AL West. They have a deep lineup and the best bullpen in baseball—their relievers rank first in the majors in ERA (2.17) and their 1.08 WHIP ranks third. Oakland’s one weakness, if you can call it that, this year has been its rotation: A’s starters have a 4.67 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP.
9. Chicago Cubs
Yu Darvish and Ian Happ have been revelations for the Cubs this season, making good on the faith the organization has had in them while they struggled over the past few seasons. Darvish is the best starting pitcher in the National League right now, and second to only Cleveland’s Shane Bieber. In eight starts, Darvish is 7–1 with a 1.44 ERA and a 7.88 strikeout/walk ratio, both of which are the best in the NL.
Happ, meanwhile, is in the midst of a breakout season. The 26-year-old center fielder boasts a 2.3 WAR, according to FanGraphs’ version (fWAR)—good for fourth most in the majors. (His 1.5 bWAR—Baseball-Reference’s version—ranks 20th in the majors, with the main difference coming from the defensive metrics the sites use to calculate their formula.) Indisputable are his offensive stats: He’s slashing .304/.420/.659 with 12 home runs and a 185 OPS+. In a year when Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are underperforming, Happ’s bat has helped keep the Cubs atop the NL Central.
So, why rank the Cubs only ninth? Well, behind Darvish and Kyle Hendricks (3.41 ERA), the Cubs’ rotation falls flat. Same thing holds true for their offense, except for Happ, Jason Heyward (156 OPS+) and a surprisingly resurgent Jason Kipnis (138 OPS+). This is a good team, but one likely too flawed to repeat 2016.
8. Cleveland Indians
Cleveland is perhaps the most daunting of the AL teams to play in the best-of-three first-round postseason series. The Indians’ rotation has the best ERA (2.77), FIP (3.36) and WHIP (1.06) in the majors. Shane Bieber has been the best pitcher in baseball this year and might win the AL MVP in addition to Cy Young. In nine starts, he’s 7–0 with a 1.25 ERA and 94 strikeouts over 57 2/3 innings. Behind Bieber, they have Aaron Civale, Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac and rookie Triston McKenzie. If that’s not enough, their top five relievers all have an ERA below 3.00.
Cleveland’s offense is not on the same level as its pitching, though. If the club's bats get hot at the right time, it will be difficult to beat in the postseason. Still, there are other World Series contenders with similarly strong pitching staffs and far better lineups.
7. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals seem to have overcome the scheduling challenges that resulted from missing 16 days due to their COVID-19 outbreak. They have one of the best and deepest pitching staffs in baseball—their 3.51 ERA ranks third in the majors—and boast a lineup that's been more productive than expected. That’s a recipe for success in the postseason.
Paul Goldschmidt’s second year in St. Louis has been far better than his first. He leads the majors with a .463 on-base percentage, and he’s batting .324 with a 164 OPS+. DH Brad Miller is raking (166 OPS+), and Harrison Bader is finally putting together the offensive production (141 OPS+) to match his elite defense in center field. We all know about Jack Flaherty atop the rotation, but let’s not overlook what 39-year-old Adam Wainwright is doing this season, his 15th in the big leagues. Waino is 4–0 with a 2.68 ERA and a 0.917 WHIP. Starting against Cleveland in St. Louis on his birthday, Wainwright threw a complete game, allowed two runs and struck out nine.
If the Cardinals can keep pace in these final three hectic weeks, they can surely make a run at their 12th World Series title.
6. New York Yankees
I have no idea what to make of the Yankees. At full strength we know what this team can do; we saw it when they got off to a 16–6 start. Then the injuries started mounting, with Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, Gio Urshela, James Paxton, Jonathan Loaisga, Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton all spending time on the IL. (Seriously, read that list again.)
Now, even as some of these players have returned to the field, the mighty Yankees seem lost, dropping 14 of their last 19. New York's typically powerful offense has gone cold; their lockdown bullpen has become unreliable. Gerrit Cole has lost each of his last three starts after winning 20 consecutive regular-season decisions.
Nothing exemplifies how far New York has fallen more than Monday night’s 12–6 loss to the Blue Jays, when in the bullpen allowed 10 runs in a brutal sixth inning.
As bad as this stretch has been for the Yankees, they still have the most fearsome lineup in the American League when healthy. Judge, Stanton and Urshela—the three hitters currently injured—are expected to be back in time for the playoffs. They are certainly a World Series contender—as long as they make the postseason.
5. Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are going to win the AL East. They have the best record in the American League, and they’ve completely owned the Yankees, winning eight of their 10 matchups against New York this year.
Tampa Bay has a deep pitching staff and a solid though unexceptional lineup. That’s enough for the Rays to be one of the best teams in the league, but great pitching alone won’t give them a title. Assuming their pitching remains as strong as it’s been all season, the Rays’ hopes to win their first World Series championship in franchise history will depend on how well they hit in October.
4. San Diego Padres
The Padres are not only going to make the postseason for the first time since 2006, but they are also contending to make it to the World Series for the first time since 1998. A San Diego team this talented has been a long time coming.
We all know about Fernando Tatís Jr., Manny Machado and the rest of the Slam Diego bats, but what separates the Padres from the other good teams is their pitching. At the trade deadline, they got for Mike Clevinger (the No. 2 pitcher on the Indians) to join a rotation with Dinelson Lamet, Chris Paddack and Zach Davies. Their bullpen added closer Trevor Rosenthal from the Royals.
The Padres still might be a year or two away from winning the NL pennant, but it shouldn’t be surprising if they do it this year.
3. Chicago White Sox
The White Sox are the team to beat in Chicago. They lead all teams with 10.1 fWAR from their position players, thanks to strong contributions from both their young guns and veteran sluggers. First baseman José Abreu is riding a 20-game hitting streak and slashing .386/.433/.831 with 10 home runs in that span. Hyped as the second coming of Mike Trout, rookie center fielder Luis Robert has been as good as advertised. Shortstop Tim Anderson (.351 average) is vying for his second consecutive batting title.
But we assumed this team was going to rake. What’s turned the Pale Hose into true contenders ahead of schedule is their pitching staff. Anchored by right-hander Lucas Giolito, who no-hit the Pirates on Aug. 25, Chicago’s rotation has the fourth-best ERA in the majors.
2. Atlanta Braves
The last time the MLB season did not start on time, Atlanta won the World Series. Of course, the 1995 Braves played 144 games upon returning from the players’ strike instead of the 60-game season this year. But no matter the length of the season, these Braves are legitimate contenders.
Max Fried is one of three Cy Young front-runners; the 26-year-old left-hander is 6–0 with a 1.98 ERA in nine starts. Freddie Freeman (165 OPS+), Marcell Ozuna (167 OPS+) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (171 OPS+) should all receive MVP votes, and Atlanta’s bullpen has four pitchers—Shane Greene, A.J. Winter, Darren O’Day and Chris Martin—with ERAs below 1.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers are the best team in baseball. They had the deepest lineup in the National League before adding Mookie Betts this offseason. Clayton Kershaw (5–1, 1.50 ERA) is once again a Cy Young candidate, and the Los Angeles rotation hardly lets up after that: Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin.
Betts, who is slashing .316/.393/.625 with 13 home runs and 3.0 bWAR, could join Hall of Famer Frank Robinson as the only player to win the MVP award in both leagues. Corey Seager, now healthy, is hitting .331 with 11 homers and a 168 OPS+. Reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger is starting to hit again after a cold start to the season.
This is far from the first time the Dodgers have been the best team in baseball. They’ve gone to two of the last three World Series, yet still have not won a title since 1988. This year, finally, is the one when the Dodgers will win it all.