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Just when you thought you understood how MLB’s contenders stacked up, the trade deadline came along and reshuffled the deck in the most dramatic way possible. With dozens of stars donning new uniforms and whole teams turned in new directions, it’s time to reassess what we know about the race for October.
Records are useful pretext, as are run differentials, but with two more months of regular-season baseball to play, it’s important to understand the talent of the teams as they are currently constituted.
It could have major implications. In the American League, there are six teams battling for three spots, all within seven games of each other entering Wednesday’s action. In the National League, the balance of power in the hotly contested West could decide who wins the pennant or even the World Series.
We broke the playoff contenders into talent tiers, ranking them not by their standing or what they’ve done already, but by the horsepower with which they have to race down the stretch run.
Los Angeles Dodgers: It must be noted that this veritable All-Star team — a little hurt, a little unlucky — has not played to its full potential, or even won at the rate its MLB-best +165 run differential would suggest. The deluge of W's is likely coming, though. The team that was already getting a boost from the returns of Mookie Betts and Corey Seager added Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to its absurd collection of baseball talent.
For every Cody Bellinger who falls into a miserable slump, or every Betts who misses time, two or three “supporting cast members” rise up. Max Muncy, Chris Taylor and A.J. Pollock are all producing their best offensive seasons by the park- and era-adjusted wRC+ metric. Once Turner comes off the COVID-19 IL, the lineup will be totally out of control, likely leaving out one of those top performers every night.
FanGraphs’ rest-of-season projections following the deadline moves have the Dodgers, in a stratosphere all of their own, playing at a 101-win pace the rest of the way as they pursue the first-place San Francisco Giants.
Best bet: With the injury to Mets ace Jacob deGrom, Dodgers star Walker Buehler is now the NL Cy Young favorite, with +275 odds at BetMGM.
All systems go — probably
Houston Astros: Dusty Baker’s team has the best record and run differential in the AL and the best offense in baseball so far, thanks to resurgent stars like Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. They are cruising toward October, but actually rank second among AL teams in FanGraphs’ rest-of-season projections …
New York Yankees: That’s right. Projection systems still believe in the Yankees, viewing the new and improved rosterm including Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallom as the second-best in baseball behind the Dodgers. The beefy lineup really does have out-of-the-park power and out-of-this-world potential, but living up to the projected 96-win pace and catching the Rays, Red Sox or A’s for a playoff spot will require injured pitchers like Corey Kluber and Luis Severino to actually return as expected.
Chicago White Sox: The South Siders have the safest division lead in baseball — their closest rival flipped them their starting second baseman. They also now have a two-headed closer monster after acquiring Craig Kimbrel. The key for Tony La Russa’s squad may be conserving energy (of starters like Carlos Rodon and Dylan Cease) and health (for Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert).
San Diego Padres: Despite a disappointing deadline where Max Scherzer slipped through their fingers, the Padres are clearly one of the most talented teams on the planet. But to continue harboring real World Series dreams, they need Fernando Tatis Jr. to again recover from a chronic shoulder injury.
Best bet: The Rays are down their ace and the Red Sox are crashing back to earth. FanGraphs gives the Yankees a 13.5% chance of overtaking both of them for the AL East crown, while Baseball Prospectus puts it at 17.4%. If you believe in the Bronx Bombers awakening, there are hefty +750 odds on them to win that division at BetMGM.
The future is now?
Toronto Blue Jays: The world may not be ready for how good Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and his merry band of bashers already are. Run differential says the pre-deadline squad was playing much better than its record indicated, and now the Blue Jays have added strong No. 2 starter Jose Berrios to fortify the rotation. Look out, FanGraphs’ rest-of-season projections say they could play at a better clip than anyone except the Dodgers and Yankees.
Best bet: As noted, the Blue Jays should be able to play with anyone in the AL. They are most certainly the best team with +1400 pennant odds at BetMGM.
Long live Moneyball
San Francisco Giants: Don’t let anyone tell you they can totally explain how the Giants leaped to the top of the NL West. Just enjoy it. New addition Kris Bryant is a perfect fit to bolster their chances, but the most interesting parts of this team are the players who have unlocked new levels in San Francisco. Frequent leadoff hitter LaMonte Wade Jr. has morphed minor league on-base skills into selective major league power — blasting a homer into McCovey Cove directly over his mom last weekend.
Milwaukee Brewers: The whole mission here is to get into a playoff series so they can deploy their dynamite starting rotation of Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta. As they run away from the NL Central, that is basically sewn up.
Oakland A’s: The A’s have a tall task trying to hold off the Yankees and Blue Jays for a wild-card spot, but the Starling Marte addition at the deadline added a fun, productive dimension to the offense.
Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays muscled up with Nelson Cruz, but the decisions to trade away their most reliable healthy starter (Rich Hill) and their closer (Diego Castillo) look particularly odd now that ace Tyler Glasnow is having Tommy John surgery. They have the pole position in the furious AL postseason race at the moment, but FanGraphs projects they will have the lowest rest-of-season win percentage of the five main teams in contention.
Best bet: All the attention is on the NL West titans, but the Brewers have the only rotation in baseball that could reasonably go toe to toe with the Dodgers. Combine that with being the only NL team already guaranteed to make it to the division series, and their +500 pennant odds at BetMGM — or +1100 World Series odds — look mighty attractive.
Hang on for dear life
New York Mets: Jacob deGrom is hurt. Francisco Lindor is hurt. Taijuan Walker is clearly laboring under a heavier workload than he’s had in years. Jeff McNeil is running everywhere at 75 percent of full throttle because of a lingering leg issue. The Mets are quite literally limping to the finish, and they need at least one or two things to improve to hold on in the NL East.
Boston Red Sox: Adding Kyle Schwarber makes a lot of sense if the rehabbing slugger can learn to play first base. But even with Chris Sale’s impending return, the starting rotation does not inspire confidence against the rallying Yankees and Blue Jays. Manager Alex Cora hinted at possible changes on the horizon after Garrett Richards’ latest struggles.
Atlanta Braves: After a flurry of moves to paper over injury-inflicted weaknesses, the Braves have the best rest-of-season projection of any NL team on the outside looking in. The 85-win pace that’s expected the rest of the way would only get them to 82 wins, but that’s within striking distance with the Mets’ struggles.
Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies are still riddled with holes and question marks — they moved thriving closer Ranger Suarez to the rotation on a dime this week — but are nonetheless close enough to the Mets that Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler could carry them across the line in first.
Cincinnati Reds: Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas should soon return and lengthen a lineup currently powered mostly by rookie star Jonathan India and Joey Votto’s fifth wave of dominance, but they will need a Padres collapse to make playoff race headway.
Best bet: If current NL MVP favorite Fernando Tatis Jr. misses extended time, consider Phillies star Bryce Harper's chances of jumping into the void as a long shot (+4000 at BetMGM). He is absolutely mashing — the only qualified NL hitter with a .300/.400/.500 slash line right now — and could earn narrative points if he lifts his team into October. The same case goes for Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman at a lower value (+700 at BetMGM).
Thanks for playing
Los Angeles Angels: The Fighting Shohei Ohtanis will, at some point, get Mike Trout healthy. And maybe young outfielder Jo Adell will thrive in his second stint in the majors, but it’s entirely too little, too late for 2021.
Seattle Mariners: The Mariners are closer to the race but have less firepower on hand. FanGraphs projects them to play at a sub-.500 pace the rest of the way, worse than also-rans like the Cardinals and Twins.
Best bet: Consider renting a time machine to grab Ohtani's AL MVP odds before they dipped into subterranean mortal lock territory.
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