They’re all on even footing, now.
Welcome the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox into the main draw of Major League Baseball’s playoffs, where eight teams remain to vie for a shot at the 2021 World Series. A most anomalous regular season relegated the 106-win Dodgers to the National League wild-card game, but the most consistently dominant team the past decade survived that indignity and now can settle the score against their archrivals.
Yet their path to the Fall Classic may not be the smoothest. Location is everything this time of year, and October’s rigors can compound from round to round. With that, here are the remaining World Series contenders, ranked by the likelihood they can reach – and win – the 2021 championship:
Redemption may never come for a group that won the 2017 World Series under dubious circumstances and besides, the gang’s not all here. George Springer, most notably, is a Blue Jay, and the Astros will most certainly miss the exploits of Playoff George, one of the greatest playoff sluggers of all time, trash cans or not.
But this Astros group is built upon a solid foundation, most notably a pitching staff that holds opponents to a .229 average. Casual fans may not be aware of lefty Framber Valdez and rookie Luis Garcia, but they line up behind ace Lance McCullers to give the Astros a formidable, playoff-ideal rotation. The bullpen lines up nicely to take down the final four innings, if necessary.
And that notorious lineup is once again so deep that top free agent Carlos Correa looms in the No. 6 hole, right behind batting champ Yuli Gurriel. The team many love to hate should be here all month.
You expected one of the titans of the West? Well, as the Dodgers and Giants go at each other’s throats, Milwaukee will entertain a potent but flawed Braves team whose calling card is a punishing lineup. Yet Brewers starting pitchers give no quarter, yielding the fewest home runs in the NL – 77 – while pitching the second-most innings, and their .213 batting average against trailed only the Dodgers’ starters.
The loss of set-up man Devin Williams to a self-inflicted broken hand hurts, to be certain, but watch for Aaron Ashby’s emergence this October as a future starter who for now can absorb multiple relief innings in the postseason.
Only the Dodgers have been more dominant the past three years, and Tampa Bay earned the AL’s top seed with perhaps its most cohesive roster ever, particularly after adding the sock of DH Nelson Cruz and winning 39 of 59 to close the season. Yet Tampa Bays’ noisy playoff runs the previous two seasons came with starting pitchers Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell mowing through opponents in a most traditional fashion, belying the perception the Rays are a wacky and counterintuitive gang of contrarians.
All three are gone, now, as Glasnow mends from a torn elbow ligament. That leaves the Shane Train – rookies McClanahan and Baz, the latter debuting just one month ago – to start Games 1 and 2 and carry the ball into the later innings to set up a typically stout bullpen. McClanahan is a lefty potentially more dominant than Snell – he struck out 141 in 123 ⅓ innings and can put batters away with both fastball and slider – but failed to touch the sixth inning in 16 of 25 starts. Against particularly disciplined playoff lineups, it will be even more challenging to get deeper.
But they’ll have a significant advantage in the first round, drawing the wild-card weary Red Sox. They may get in too deep after that.
Turns out 106 wins weren’t for naught. The defending World Series champions lived to tell about the first wild card appearance in franchise history and now, a highly anticipated showdown with the 107-win Giants awaits.
Oh, this path will not be easy. A Giants-Dodgers NLDS has five games written all over it but give the Dodgers a slight edge thanks to a deep bullpen and a manager, Dave Roberts, who has learned to masterfully run it after five often harrowing postseasons.
Like the 2019 Washington Nationals – the most recent full-season champions – the Dodgers’ suffocating top three starters give them the capability to get past a wild-card game with scarcely a dent in their pitching plans. Even if the Giants take them the distance, the early-round structure makes it almost certain one of Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler or Julio Urias will be available to reset it all in Game 1 of an NLCS.
But the bigger concern will be lineup continuity. The loss of Max Muncy is like removing a left tackle from a vaunted offense – Muncy’s ability to see pitches and wear down opposing arms is the baseball equivalent of clearing holes and providing protection for his teammates. (And he also hit 36 home runs). Facing the Giants and probably the Brewers could put the entire attack into an October funk.
Yeah, we’re not at all discounting what the Giants have done. They’d probably be atop this list had the Cardinals done the dirty work of taking out the Dodgers, and Games 1-2 starters Logan Webb and Kevin Gausman could put the Dodgers in a quick hole. But a presumably lengthy NLDS would leave the Giants in a more precarious pitching position, and best-of-seven series to follow will force Nos. 3-4 starters Alex Wood and Anthony DeSclafani into more prominent roles.
Not to suggest those guys are pushovers, nor that the Giants aren’t a title threat. And the loss of first baseman Brandon Belt to a finger fracture won’t hurt the Giants as much as Muncy’s loss will the Dodgers.
But so many of the things the Giants did well in the regular season – such as slug an NL-best 241 homers and post a 31-17 record in one-run games – will be harder to replicate in October.
Playoff-tested bunch? Or survivor of a laughably bad NL East?
We’ll find out soon as the Braves embark on a fourth consecutive postseason run, having fallen a home run or two short of the 2020 World Series. With Ronald Acuña Jr. sidelined with an ACL tear, this may be their funkiest bunch yet, what with slugger Jorge Soler and his .316 OBP in the leadoff spot, Morton (who turns 38 next month) helming the rotation and a bullpen that finds more bats (9.01 strikeouts per nine) than their past two iterations.
The man on the spot? Probably rookie starter Ian Anderson, who dazzled in the shortened 2020 season but was injured and inconsistent this season. He’ll have to dominate if Atlanta has any designs on surviving any best-of-seven series.
7. White Sox
A franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since capturing the 2005 World Series has perhaps the toughest path ahead – needing to vanquish the Astros, Rays and the NL champion. Their lineage isn’t encouraging, either: AL Central teams are 0-6 in playoff series since Cleveland lost Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, including an 0-3 showing in the expanded format last season.
8. Red Sox
While there was much handwringing over the potential unfairness of the wild card set-up in the NL, these Red Sox represent the kind of club for which this system was designed. They’ve now won 93 games and are a deserving entrant, but burning Nathan Eovaldi to get past the Yankees was a significant penalty to incur for finishing eight games behind the Rays.
With J.D. Martinez hobbled by an ankle injury and lefty Chris Sale uneven (a 1.34 WHIP compared to a 1.04 career mark) in nine starts back from Tommy John surgery, the Red Sox will need to play nearly perfect baseball, something manager Alex Cora acknowledges they didn’t do often during a season with significant ups and downs.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB playoff rankings: 2021 World Series contenders most likely to win