Cubs

Ranking the MLB playoff teams from least likely to most likely to win the World Series

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USA TODAY

Ranking the MLB playoff teams from least likely to most likely to win the World Series

The playoffs are here.

October has arrived, and one of 10 teams will win the World Series in about a month.

Of course, certain teams are more likely to do that than others. So here are the 10 playoff teams, ranked from least likely to win the World Series to most likely to win the World Series.

Oh, and there are predictions at the bottom. They'll probably end up being wrong. But check 'em out anyway.

10. Minnesota Twins

Congratulations to the Twins for emerging from the swamp of AL wild-card contenders. They did the unthinkable this season, seriously, going from a 100-loss team in 2016 to a playoff team in 2017. That’s not easy. But their chances of advancing from Tuesday night’s AL wild-card game seem slim if for no other reason than the long ball. Chicks dig it, but they don’t necessarily dig those who give up a whole bunch of them and no playoff team has given up more homers than the Twins. In fact, only five teams in baseball gave up more homers than the Twins did this season. Twins pitchers saw 224 big flies leave the yard, with Tuesday’s starter Ervin Santana leading the staff with 31 of those, one of the 10 highest totals in the league this season. Considering the Yankees, Tuesday’s opponent, have Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius — all members of the 25-dingers club — it could be a short postseason stay for the Twins.

9. Colorado Rockies

One of the best teams in baseball before the All-Star break (52-39), the Rox slid into the playoffs despite a sub-.500 second half (35-36). What they’ve got going for them is offense, unsurprising for the team that calls Coors Field its home ballpark. Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon have been MVP candidates this season, and while it’s unlikely either will win the award (though I’d argue Blackmon should come very, very close), it’s worth taking a look at their numbers. Arenado is slashing .309/.373/.586 with 37 homers and 130 RBIs. Blackmon is slashing a ridiculous .331/.399/.601 with 37 homers and 104 RBIs. Plus the Rox have some other very good hitters like DJ LeMahieu and Mark Reynolds. But, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, the Rox pitching ain’t great. Only Jon Gray has an ERA under 4.10, and the team’s starters ERA of 4.59 ranked ninth in the NL during the regular season. Plus the Rox allowed 101 runs to the D-backs — Wednesday’s foe in the wild-card game — in 19 games this season. Not a great sign.

8. Los Angeles Dodgers

Now I know what you’re thinking: “How can the 104-win Dodgers, the team with the best record in baseball, be all the way down here in these rankings? You’re insane. Give me my money back.” Well, first, hopefully you didn’t pay to read this. Secondly, the Dodgers have been real bad since late August. That’s right, not just not as good as they were during an electrifying first four and a half months, when they looked like they’d never lose again. Bad. Real bad. In their final 35 games of the season, the Dodgers went 13-22. That includes separate stretches of losing 16 of 17 and five of seven. Yes, they picked things up right there at the end, winning eight of their last 10, but those wins came against the Phillies, Giants, Padres and Rockies, three of those four teams being three of the five worst teams in the NL. Anyway, my point is that this is not close to being the same Dodgers team that had 91 wins by Aug. 25. Still, of course, this team does have Clayton Kershaw, who, as you know, is amazing. They still have Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager and Justin Turner. They still have Alex Wood and Yu Darvish and Rich Hill and their sub-.3.50 ERAs. But excuse me if I’m down on the Dodgers’ chances considering this team sleepwalked through the last month-plus of the regular season.

7. New York Yankees

You’re going to be hearing a lot about Aaron Judge in the next few days (or just Tuesday night if the Yanks lose the AL wild-card game). You’re going to hear so much about Aaron Judge that you’ll probably get sick of hearing about Aaron Judge. But here’s the thing, the guy deserves to be talked about this much. He’s been unreal in his rookie season, blasting an ungodly 52 home runs, driving in 114 runs, scoring 128 runs, getting on base at a .422 clip and slugging .627 for a superhuman 1.049 OPS. And did I mention that he’s a rookie? Prediction: Ervin Santana’s not going to be able to keep the ball in the yard against this guy. How do I know that? Because he couldn’t just 16 days ago. But if the Yanks get by the Twins, things will get trickier because the pitching gets better. The Indians, Astros and Red Sox all have much, much stronger rotations than the Twins. And while Judge is fantastic, can the Bombers match those pitching staffs? Tuesday-night starter Luis Severino has been very good in 2017, but look at some of the other guys. There’s Sonny Gray (4.58 ERA in September), Masahiro Tanaka (35 homers allowed, third-most in the AL) and CC Sabathia (actually having his best season in half a decade but still 36 years old). Is that a World Series staff? The Yanks also have Aroldis Chapman, who was removed from closing duties in the middle of the season because he wasn’t getting the job done. He’s since returned to the role, though, and didn’t allow a run in September.

6. Boston Red Sox

The BoSox never really shook the Yankees in the AL East, ending up winning the division by only two games despite having a five-game lead with seven games to play. They lost five of their last seven, though they had to play the Astros to close out the regular season. Chris Sale is one of two main contenders to win the AL Cy Young after a spectacular season in which he logged 308 strikeouts. But while he got off to an immortal start to his first season in Boston, he kind of stumbled to the finish. That’s relative, of course, the guy’s ERA is still under 3.00, but it reached a season-high 2.90 after he gave up five runs in five innings in his last start and jumped up more than 0.50 points over the season’s final two months. David Price was injured for a large portion of the regular season, and he was pitching out of the bullpen the last two weeks, not a bad strategy, though, to be honest. He threw 8.2 shutout innings in five relief appearances. Drew Pomeranz has been good for the BoSox, with a 3.32 ERA and 17 wins (if you care about that sort of thing) in 32 starts. Guys like Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts and the awesome Rafael Devers should inspire plenty of confidence, but it’s important to remember that this team hit the fewest homers in the AL this season and has the lowest team batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage of the five AL playoff teams. So it’s on the pitching to shut down a potent Astros lineup — and that’s one tall task. Sale and Pomeranz have turned in the numbers this season, and Price can eat up multiple innings over multiple games in his new bullpen role. The key could be Rick Porcello. The reigning AL Cy Young winner has a 4.65 ERA this season and gave up seven runs in his only start against Houston.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks

Do not for one second sleep on the D-backs, who with the way the Rockies and Dodgers played in the second half could be well on their way to the NLCS. The bats are terrific, led by perennial should-be MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, who this season turned in a .966 OPS, 34 doubles, 26 homers and 120 RBIs. But while Goldschmidt is the headliner, this is a stacked lineup, with five regular players boasting an OPS north of .800: Goldschmidt, Chris Ianetta, Jake Lamb, A.J. Pollock and J.D. Martinez. Let’s talk about Martinez, who’s been one of the best baseball players on Earth since joining the D-backs, with a .302/.366/.741 slash line, 29 homers and 65 RBIs in 62 games. On the pitching side, Zack Greinke, who will start Wednesday’s wild-card game, has somewhat returned to form, boasting a 3.20 ERA. Robbie Ray’s been even better, with a 2.89 ERA and 218 strikeouts, both team highs. Patrick Corbin’s had a few clunkers this season, but he’s got a 2.69 ERA in his last 11 games, including a few great outings against playoff teams: In four starts against the Cubs, Astros and Rockies during that stretch, he went 4-0 with two earned runs allowed in 27.1 innings. In other words, the Snakes are good so look out.

4. Chicago Cubs

After a frustratingly up-and-down season, the Cubs really turned it on at the end of the campaign and suddenly look like “that” team again. They went 19-9 in September and closed the season on a 15-4 stretch. They can score with anyone, that’s plainly obvious, with Kris Bryant again leading the charge with a phenomenal season, his on-base percentage nearly .025 points higher (an insane .409) than it was last year when he won NL MVP. He’s also got 20 more walks than he did last year. Anthony Rizzo’s on-base percentage was also almost .400 during the regular season, and Willson Contreras got on base at a .460 clip in 15 September games after returning from the DL. But the Cubs’ lineup won’t be the question mark in the postseason. It’s expected to be a struggle to replicate their run production against a crazy good Nationals starting staff. So the focus will be on the starting pitching, which while good has been nowhere near as dominant as it was last year. Jon Lester has a 4.33 ERA, and Jake Arrieta is still battling a hamstring injury that prevented him from making his final start of the regular season. Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana were the team’s most impressive pitchers down the stretch, Hendricks so good after a somewhat shaky start and early injury woes that he finished with a 3.03 ERA. While these guys, save Quintana, have recent postseason experience and should inspire confidence in anyone that watched this team’s run last season, the Nats’ starters are so good that there’s very little room for error.

3. Washington Nationals

Guys, the Nats are really good. Let us ogle at the starting pitchers that Dusty Baker will likely send out against his former team in the first three games of the NLDS. Max Scherzer is dealing with a hamstring “tweak,” whatever that means, so his status is a little bit of an unknown. But he’s been typically Scherzer-esque this season, turning in a fantastic 2.51 ERA and 268 strikeouts. Gio Gonzalez posted a 2.96 ERA in his 32 starts and was particularly awesome in July and August before a rough September. And then there’s Stephen Strasburg, who finished the regular season with a 2.52 ERA and 204 strikeouts. Dusty’s famous in these parts for overworking his starting pitchers and who knows, maybe he will again and it will benefit the Cubs. But this trio is pretty fantastic and should give the Cubs everything they can handle. Then there’s the Nats’ lineup, which is finally healthy and stacked with its own cadre of powerful hitters. Bryce Harper’s the headliner, obviously, and he’s back from a long stay on the DL. Before getting hurt, all he did was slash .326/.419/.614 with 29 homers and 87 RBIs in 106 games. Then there’s another MVP candidate in Anthony Rendon, he of the .937 OPS (and a .403 on-base percentage). And there's Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner, Michael Taylor. This lineup is loaded. The Cubs are playing great right now, but the Nats look like a championship kind of team.

2. Houston Astros

Until the Tribe blasted into the stratosphere, the Stros were the runaway best team in the AL. And for good reason. They were the best offensive team in the league this season, the leaders in runs, hits, average, on-base and slugging and just barely the No. 2 team in homers. The up-the-middle duo of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa is mind-bogglingly good. Altuve should probably win the AL MVP after another sensational season in which he slashed .346/.410/.547, picked up 204 hits and stole 32 bases. Correa wasn’t far behind with a .315/.391/.550 slash line. The two combined for 48 homers and 165 RBIs. George Springer’s OPS is also nearing the .900 mark with his team-high 34 homers helping. And Marwin Gonzalez has been awesome, too, with a .303/.377/.530 slash line and a team-high 90 RBIs. The lineup’s a menace, and now their starting pitching is pretty well ironed-out, too, thanks to the acquisition of Justin Verlander (again?!?) who has been great since coming over from the Tigers. In an Astros uniform, Verlander has a pencil-thin 1.06 ERA and 43 strikeouts in five starts. Add that to Dallas Kuechel’s bounce-back season and the impressive campaign of Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh’s 2.61 ERA in his last eight starts and you’ve got a rotation that can go the distance. It’s hard imagining a better team, to be honest, until … 

1. Cleveland Indians

The WWWWWWWWWWWWWIndians. I didn’t count the number of Ws there, but it’s a lot and that’s the point. The Tribe went 55-20 in the second half and have lost just 12 times since Aug. 2. That includes an absolutely unbelievable 25-4 September that featured that record-breaking winning streak. So why, you ask, have the Indians been the planet’s best baseball team? Well, look to the pitching. No squad in the game had a better ERA this season than the Indians’ 3.30 mark. No team gave up fewer home runs. No team issued fewer walks. Corey Kluber is the ace of this staff, and he had himself another remarkable season, entering the playoffs with a 2.25 ERA, baseball’s lowest. Only Chris Sale and Max Scherzer struck out more guys than Kluber did (265). He’s a true ace that should shut down any and all playoff lineups coming his way. That fearsome staff also features Carlos Carrasco, who was injured during last year’s postseason run. This time around, he’s not injured. He won 18 games during the regular season, the most in baseball. He’s also got a 3.29 ERA, his career best as a full-time starter. The Indians’ third-best starter has been Mike Clevinger, who has a 3.11 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 121.2 innings. Trevor Bauer’s ERA might be north of 4.00, but he was just four whiffs away from making it three Indians starters with 200 strikeouts this season. Oh, and then there’s one of baseball’s best offenses, a menacing lineup that features uber-productive stars Francisco Lindor (33 homers and a .505 slugging percentage), Jose Ramirez (29 homers and a eye-popping .318/.374/.583 slash line), Edwin Encarnacion (38 homers, 107 RBIs and a .881 OPS) and Carlos Santana (23 homers and a .818 OPS). And, oh yeah, that bullpen. Cody Allen? Still there with 30 saves. Andrew Miller? Still there with a 1.44 ERA. The Indians have been dominant the past few months. They’ve got seeming edges in almost all aspects of the game. The Tribe enter as World Series favorites. And there are a bunch of very good reasons for that.

Prediction time!

AL wild-card game: Yankees over Twins
NL wild-card game: D-backs over Rockies

ALDS: Indians over Yankees
ALDS: Astros over Red Sox
NLDS: D-backs over Dodgers
NLDS: Nationals over Cubs

ALCS: Indians over Astros
NLCS: Nationals over D-backs

World Series: Indians over Nationals

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

The armchair psychology went like this: Force the Los Angeles Dodgers onto the plane, let them think about it during the long flight to the West Coast, get in their heads during Friday’s day off and feel all the momentum and pressure shift in this National League Championship Series.

At least that’s what the Cubs told themselves and the media, whether or not they actually believed it, playing the kind of mind games designed for lesser teams. From Theo Epstein and the top of baseball operations down, the Cubs had enough connections to the 2004 Boston Red Sox to hope they could become only the second team to overcome an 0-3 LCS deficit.

That dream officially ended at 10:15 p.m. on Thursday when Willson Contreras lined Kenley Jansen’s 93.3-mph cutter at backup shortstop Charlie Culberson, another symbol of Dodger Way game-planning and the overall depth to withstand the loss of All-Star Corey Seager as he recovered from a back injury. The mosh pit formed in the middle of Wrigley Field, where it got very quiet except for a few sections of Dodger fans cheering and Gary Pressy playing the organ.

The Cubs are no longer the defending World Series champs after an 11-1 loss that had no drama or suspense and felt more like a getaway day. There will be no Game 6 or Game 7 this weekend at Dodger Stadium.

“I only experienced winning,” said Albert Almora Jr., a rookie outfielder on last year’s forever team. “Jon Jay told me: ‘Look at the expressions on their face when they’re celebrating on your field and let that sink in and learn from that and build from that.’”

You believed Almora, a baseball gym rat, when he stood at his locker and said: “It hurts.” But when the clubhouse doors opened to the media roughly 30 minutes after the final out, you didn’t really feel any tension in the room, more like a collective exhale, a time to sit around and drink a few Presidente beers and realize that the Dodgers deserved to go to the World Series for the first time since 1988.

“They just flat-out beat us,” said Kris Bryant, who got the first hit off Clayton Kershaw, a garbage-time homer in the fourth inning when the Cubs were already down 9-0.

Bryant is everything you could ever want in a franchise player – diligent on the field, polished off the field, even more productive in many ways after his MVP campaign, someone who doesn’t even drink during clinch celebrations – but even he admitted he still felt the World Series hangover that bugged the Cubs.

“I was just looking back at last year,” Bryant said. “I didn’t get home until like November 10 last year with all the festivities after winning and stuff. I think that really caught up to some of us this year. So I don’t know, maybe the extra time to recoup, maybe train a little harder. I am getting older, so I got to watch that.”

The reporters chuckled along with Bryant in a room where the sound system played classic rock like Dire Straits and Tom Petty. The Cubs know they should be good again in 2018 – and for years after that – and didn’t exactly sound devastated.

To be honest, Wednesday’s thrilling Game 4 win felt like the Super Bowl for this team, Jake Arrieta getting a standing ovation and tipping his cap before signing his free-agent megadeal somewhere else, Wade Davis having the guts to finish off a 48-pitch, two-inning save and the Cubs feeling the adrenaline rush of staving off elimination for another night.

When Jon Lester saw the media gathering by his locker, he joked: “What? I didn’t do s---. Why the f--- do you want to talk to me?”

“Obviously, nobody likes to lose, but we’ve been in the NLCS for three years in a row,” said Lester, who raised the bar for expectations when he signed a $155 million contract with a last-place team after the 2014 season. “You know how special that is. I know everybody kind of goes back to the first half of the season and they like to nitpick. But we won the division, made the playoffs and made it to the NLCS.

“Sometimes, you’re not always going to be in the World Series. The Dodgers are a really good team. They’re playing really good baseball right now. This series showed it. Sometimes, it is what it is, and you just kind of move on.”

The Cubs had Lester, a three-time World Series champion, lined up for a Game 6 that is no longer necessary. Jose Quintana – who shined against the Washington Nationals in the last round and battled Kershaw to a draw in Game 1 – didn’t give his team a chance this time.

Quintana, a signature trade-deadline move made with multiple playoff runs in mind, allowed runs in the first and second innings and left the bases loaded in the third for Hector Rondon, who watched Kike Hernandez drive the second of his three home runs into the right-center field basket for a grand slam.

The Cubs were desperate enough that John Lackey, five days before his 39th birthday, pitched two innings in what was likely his last game in a big-league uniform. Lackey kept walking out of the clubhouse and declined to speak with reporters: “No, I’m good, man.”

“It’s not easy to be the best,” outfielder Jason Heyward said, “but that’s what you want. You don’t want easy. You don’t want to expect to be going home every year. You want to be in October. You want to have a chance to win the World Series. And you want to be one of the teams that expects to be there.”

That’s what the Cubs will be next year, when the last day of the season won’t have the same big-picture perspective. It will be either a stinging loss or spraying champagne.

“Seems like a hundred years ago, right?” Lester said about his decision to sign with the Cubs. “It’s one of those Catch-22s. You look at it as it’s a disappointing season for the simple fact that we didn’t make it to the World Series. But you got to look at the positives, too, in that moment whenever you get on a plane to go home.

“We gave ourselves a chance. It just didn’t happen this year. We got beat by a better team. We beat them last year (in the NLCS), and they beat us this year, so you got to tip your hat sometimes, and you move on. We’ll be ready to go in spring training.”

Sluggish offense plus Dodger pitching equaled disaster for Cubs in NLCS

Sluggish offense plus Dodger pitching equaled disaster for Cubs in NLCS

Your National League Championship Series final: Cubs 8, Enrique Hernandez 7.

When the Cubs look back at why they struggled in the NLCS and what they’ll need moving forward, many questions are likely to involve fixing an offense that was dormant for almost all of the postseason.

Thursday night’s 11-1 loss in Game 5 of the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers put an exclamation point on a lopsided series, one in which the Cubs were outscored 28-8. Hernandez nearly matched the Cubs’ entire output in the clincher with three home runs and seven RBIs. While the pitching shares much of the blame, a Cubs offense that produced a .168/.240/.289 slash line and scored 25 runs this postseason is perhaps an even bigger culprit.

“(The Dodgers) pitched very, very well from start to finish,” said utility man Ben Zobrist. “It was tough to overcome that. We are going to get our homers. But as a whole, I felt like they kept us off-balance and they kept us from having good quality at-bats consistently. When we did get something going it wasn’t much. It was one run here or there or a couple runs here or there. But they pitched a great series, kept us from really exploding like they can as an offense.”

The Cubs’ bats have been ice cold for the entire postseason. Aside from a nine-run showing in their Oct. 12 NLDS-clincher over the Washington Nationals, the Cubs never appeared to be as formidable a bunch as they were in 2016.

Their scores by game entering Thursday’s loss were: 3, 3, 2, 0, 9, 2, 1, 1 and 3.

By the time the Dodgers plated two early runs off Jose Quintana, the Cubs looked to be in for an uphill battle against three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. That condition was upgraded to next-to-impossible by the time Hernandez blasted a grand slam off Hector Rodon in the third inning to put the Dodgers up 7-0.

As it were, the Cubs finished with four hits and didn’t score until Kris Bryant homered to make it 9-1 in the fourth inning. It was Bryant’s first round-tripper of the postseason.

The struggles of Bryant and teammate Anthony Rizzo were well-documented. The pair produced a combined .169/.210/.206 slash line with two home runs, nine RBIs, three walks and 28 strikeouts in 81 plate appearances. Bryant thought it had to do with a team that was worn down running into outstanding pitching.

“It’s a little of both,” Bryant said. “It took a lot out of us that first series, some really good pitching with the Nationals. Obviously with the Dodgers, too. I think they had a group of players that really turned it on at the right time and were clicking whereas we didn’t. That was the difference. But a ton of credit to them, they just flat out beat us.”

Bryant and Rizzo weren’t alone in their struggles.

The leadoff position alone went from a force of life in 2016 with Dexter Fowler to virtually no production this postseason. Jon Jay, Albert Almora and Zobrist went a combined 4-for-36 with three hit by pitches from the leadoff spot.

Catcher Willson Contreras (.748) was the only Cubs regular to finish with an OPS above .700. Javier Baez produced a .451 OPS, Zobrist registered a .416 and Jason Heyward finished at .403.

By comparison, the Dodgers have six players with at least 20 plate appearances this postseason with an .800 or better OPS. That doesn’t of course count Hernandez, who made only his fourth start of the postseason and went nuts. He homered off Jose Quintana in the second inning to give Los Angeles a 2-0 lead. His grand slam in the third after Quintana exited put the game out of reach. And Hernandez’s ninth-inning blast off Mike Montgomery to center was icing on the Dodgers’ cake.

Figuring out how to remedy their offensive issues figures to be one of the Cubs’ top priorities this offseason. One way the team could help jumpstart Bryant and Rizzo is by acquiring a better leadoff hitter, something they lost when Fowler departed via free agency last winter. The team saw its production from the leadoff spot drop from an .815 OPS in 2016 to .745 in 2017.

“We did enough to beat Washington and that’s all you need in the postseason,” Rizzo said. “We didn’t do enough to beat the Dodgers. They pitched better than we hit. End of story.

“They’re good. There’s no excuses. You’ve got to play better. But at the end of the day, it is what it is. It’s baseball. You hit the ball at the guy or you don’t.”