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

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.