The long wait is finally over, the MLB Playoffs are back! Over the course of the next month, ten teams will battle it out in order to see who will walk away with the coveted Commissioner's Trophy. Expect to see plenty of home runs, strikeouts, and Joe Buck on your tv screen this October. You know what else? The fans are back in full force and the atmosphere is going to be electric. While my Minnesota Twins may have been nowhere near a playoff berth this year, I still am stoked to see the expected dogfights out on the field each game. Without further adieu, let's delve deeper into the playoff-bound teams.
The American League
Tampa Bay Rays +550
The kings of analytics are back in the big dance and this year they’ve got a chip on their shoulders. Last year’s World Series defeat at the hands of the Dodgers still leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
The Rays have always been famous for doing more with less and this year is no different. Tampa’s payroll ranks 26th in the entire league, but make no mistake this is a squad that is loaded with talent. The hitting corp is spearheaded by Brandon Lowe, 2020 playoff phenom Randy Arozerana, Austin Meadows, and future all-star Wander Franco. However, by far the best asset the Rays have is 41-year-old Nelson Cruz (and no I’m not biased because Cruz was acquired from the Twins) who continues to defy father time and punish the baseball with impunity. While Tampa’s line-up is solid from one through nine, the real strength of the team has come from pitching this year. The Rays boast a team ERA of 3.70, the best in the American League and they are doing it without Blake Snell (traded to Padres over offseason), Charlie Morton (signed with Braves), or Tyler Glasnow (Tommy John surgery). The Rays will go as far as their reconstructed starting rotation can carry them. In fact, the only thing that may stand in the way of another world series run is over management, looking at you Kevin Cash. Not to knock the man too much, but Cash has a history of depending too much on analytics and not putting stock in-game flow or momentum (pulling Blake Snell in game 6 last year is a prime example). Despite these minor concerns, the Rays are primed to finish at the top of the podium this year.
Houston Astros +500
The redemption tour is on, the Astros are back in the playoffs and are looking to show the world they can win without cheating. There were serious doubts that the Astros could bounce back after a sub .500 record in 2020 plus the loss of staff ace, Justin Verlander (Tommy John surgery) and franchise face center outfielder, George Springer. Houston squashed all concerns and comfortably controlled a competitive AL West all season. The usual suspects on offense (Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Michael Brantly, and Alex Bregman among others) have propelled the Astros to an MLB best overall batting average and strikeout rate. Even more impressive, the Astros have rarely played a game this year with their full complement of position players, but now the squad is back together and ready to roll in the playoffs.
Much like the Rays, Houston is depending on a young corp of starting pitchers to carry them, headlined by Lance McCullers. The main weakness of this team? The bullpen. The Astros bullpen owns a 4.03 ERA, the worst out of all the playoff-bound teams. Kendall Graveman (1.64 ERA) and Ryan Pressly (2.29 ERA) are the only true trustworthy options in the pen. If the starters can eat up enough innings and keep games away from the bullpen, then not much can stand in the way of the Astro war machine.
Chicago White Sox +700
Oh congratulations Chicago, you won the AL Central. That was quite the accomplishment, beating up on garbage teams. What? You only thing you had to do was not trip over yourself and the division would be yours. The White Sox would be wise to check their enthusiasm though as they have struggled mightily against the other AL playoff-bound teams this year, compiling a 9-17 record. Recent history tells us that the AL central champs are due for early exits in October, the last AL Central champion to advance out of the ALDS was Cleveland back in 2016.
The starting rotation that carried Chicago over the first half of the season has slowly been ground down in the second half, that is what happens when you depend on a bunch of old men. The only starter that can be trusted is Carlos Rodon and you can’t trot him out every night. The bullpen has been rather leaky at times and the trade deadline acquirement of Craig Kimbrel has not been the game-changer many expected. Still, the South Side boasts a powerful young hitting group composed of 2020 AL MVP Jose Abreu, 2019 batting title champion Tim Anderson, and former top prospects Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez. Perhaps I would feel better about the White Sox chances if they didn’t have to go through Houston AND Tampa in order to reach the World Series.
Boston Red Sox +1600
Much to the chagrin of the world, Beantown is once again in the playoffs. After a two-year “retooling” period, the Red Sox looked ready to compete for a championship during the first half of the season. At the all-star break, Boston was tied for the best record in the American League, since then the Sox have compiled a .500 record. The second-half slump has fallen mostly on the pitching staff as the starting rotation and bullpen have both been...for lack of better words, not good. The team ERA is 4.19, since the all-star break, good for 20th in MLB. Chris Sale returned in August and has provided some desperately needed elite performances that were key in propelling the Red Sox to the playoff berth (3.16 ERA and a 5-1 record since returning).
The offense is quite potent, lead by Xander Bogarts, Rafael Dever, JD Martinez, Hunter Renfroe, and deadline acquisition Kyle Schwarber. The team is top five in most offensive metrics and is more than capable of bringing the thunder each night. The future looks bright for the Red Sox, but unless they can magically fix the pitching staff for October baseball, it will be an early exit.
New York Yankees +1200
No! No God! No please! Nooooo! The Yankees are in the playoffs and I weep in sorrow. I despise the Yankees, even more so when you look at what they have done to my Twins in the playoffs over the last two decades. However, that is irrelevant this year as the Twins were not even close to the playoffs and the Yankees are in the AL Wild Card game. A few weeks ago it did not look like New York would secure a spot though, that was until Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge put the team in their backs and willed the Yankees to a postseason berth. Offensively, the Yankees lead the league in walks but are very middling in many other categories.
The starting rotation is by no means elite and Gerrit Cole has wavered badly over the month of September with an ERA over five. The bullpen is the only redeeming factor for this team as the group has given up the third-fewest runs and struck out the sixth most batters this year. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how good your bullpen is if your starters are getting shelled. I would feel good about New York winning a wild card game in Boston, but after that a trip to the Tampa house of horrors awaits.
The National League
San Francisco Giants +550
San Francisco apparently has a fountain of youth stashed away in the depths of Oracle Park, that is the only plausible reason for the dramatic rejuvenation nearly every player on the team has experienced this season. Following the retirement of long-time manager Bruce Bochy in 2019, the Giants were not expected to compete for a championship for a long time to come. The core was aging (3rd oldest team in MLB with avg. age being 30.3 years) with Evan Longoria, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Buster Posey all seemingly entering the swan songs of their careers (They all bounced back with big years). Franchise face Madison Bumgarner moved on and signed with the Diamondbacks back in 2020, by all accounts the Giants looked dead in the water. Boy was I wrong, not only have the Giants been competitive in 2021, but the team is also a favorite to win the World Series. This dramatic turnaround has come on the back of ace caliber pitching from across the rotation and a slew of home runs. The Giants bashed their opponents repeatedly with long balls over the campaign, as they ended up with the third-most home runs in the National League. Oh yeah, and San Fran only added to their potent lineup when they acquired long-time Cub Kirs Bryant at the deadline.
Free-agent signings like Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani have helped the Giants build a deadly efficient starting rotation, one that can compete with the Dodgers or Brewers on a given night. The Giants have a great blend of power bats and pitching to carry them deep in October and perhaps give their core one last shot at reaching the top of the mountain.
Milwaukee Brewers +750
This team has the starting pitching rotation to win a World Series, plain and simple. Milwaukee has a three-headed monster that they can trot out to start any series. The rest of the league trembles in terror at the might of Corbin Burnes (2.43 ERA), Brandon Woodruff (2.56 ERA), and Freddy Peralta (2.81 ERA). These three guys can shut out opposing lineups night after night. However, the Brewers lack any true depth behind these guys, as the other starters raise the collective ERA of the team by an entire run. Looking at the bullpen, the Brewers have arguably the best closer in all of baseball, Josh Hader. Hader has been absolutely filthy this year striking out 99 batters in 57 innings pitched. Unfortunately, Hader’s set-up man Devin Williams, who was also having a fantastic year, will miss nearly all of the playoffs, leaving the Brewers short of depth in the bullpen as well.
The main problem Milwaukee faces is that the bats are horribly inconsistent. Indeed, there is no good reason why these starters should have a combined 30-20 record (Woodruff skews this a bit with a personal 9-10 record). Christian Yelich has not found his form this season, while the other bats' go-between being adequate and being black holes in the lineup. If the Brew Crew desire to make a deep run this season then the offense will have to wake up.
Atlanta Braves +1300
July 10th, 2021 - The day that ended the Braves season. The lightning rod of the Atlanta lineup, Ronald Acuna went down with a season-ending injury. The loss was too much for the Braves to bear as they began to fade from the playoff pict- wait… Atlanta is in the playoffs? How? I saw their postseason hopes die on that July afternoon. Oh, that’s right, the NL East is terrible and the teams try their best to not win the division. So by virtue of being the last man standing, Atlanta is back in the playoffs.
There is stuff to like about this team though. Austin Riley had an MVP caliber second half, batting .333 with 19 home runs. The lineup also consists of 2020 NL MVP, Freddie Freeman and extra-base hit machine, Ozzie Albies. The pitching staff performance hangs on an aging Charlie Morton and a solid Max Fried. It is hard to get excited about this team given the vastly superior opponents that stand between them and the World Series. I do not expect the Braves to avenge their collapse in the NCLS to the Dodgers from last year this postseason.
Los Angeles Dodgers +350
To the surprise of no one, the Dodgers easily secured a playoff berth this year. I guess when you outspend the next closest team by 70 million, it is not hard to build a competitive roster. There is really not much to say about the Dodger menace, their roster is as loaded as it has been for many years now and they are the favorite to win the Commissioner’s Trophy. Mookie Betts, Max Muncy, Justin Turner, and Trea Turner make up the best of the lineup, although the others are no slouches. Los Angeles has its own variation of the Brewers’ three-headed monster, comprised of Walker Buehler (16-4, 2.49 ERA), Julio Urias (20-3, 2.96 ERA), and Max Scherzer (15-4, 2.46 ERA). These three men are just as good if not better than Milwaukees’ rotation. The bullpen has the second most saves and the second-lowest ERA in the majors. There is no true weakness on this team. If you are lining up against this squad in October, you better pray the Dodgers to have a few “off” nights in a row because that may be the only way you can beat them.
Saint Louis Cardinals +1600
Finally, we come to the last team in the 2021 MLB playoffs, the Saint Louis Cardinals. Back on September 10th, the Cardinals had a five percent chance of making the playoffs. After that, Saint Louis went on a historic 17 game winning streak to secure a playoff spot. Those who have watched baseball for a while should be quite familiar with a phenomenon known as the Red Bird BullSh*t, which is when the very average Cardinals pull some magic out of their as*es in order to make the playoffs at the end of the season.
The primary reason for the turnaround this season? The old man Adam Wainwright turning the clock back 10 years and pitching gems every night. In addition, other aging pitchers like JA Happ and Jon Lester have turned their seasons around since joining Saint Louis. Depending on a bunch of pitchers past their primes is not ideal, but it seems to be working so far. Offensively, the Cardinals have some potency with the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and franchise icon Yadier Molina leading the charge. The bullpen is not great but has two very solid players in Alex Reyes and Giovanni Gallegos. Once again, Saint Louis will have a chance to make some noise in the postseason and maybe pull off a few upsets.
This is the field for the 2021 MLB Playoffs. Let's play ball!