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Sports The Sweet 16: MLB playoff power rankings

17:34  28 september  2020
17:34  28 september  2020 Source:   thescore.com

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a group of baseball players standing on top of each other © Photo illustration by Nick Roy / theScore

The weirdest regular season in modern baseball history is officially behind us. Get ready for the most unusual postseason you've ever seen.

For the first time ever, Major League Baseball's playoff pool will comprise 16 teams, eight from each league, with the march to the World Series unfolding primarily at neutral sites. After the best-of-three wild-card round, another new wrinkle for 2020, the surviving teams will move into bubble environments to play out the division series, league championships, and World Series, which will take place at Globe Life Field in Arlington.

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There will be no home-field advantage after the first round. There may or may not be fans present. And, perhaps most significantly, there will be no off days once each round begins until the World Series. Just like the 60-game regular season that preceded it, the 2020 postseason will be a slog - and a weird one, at that.

This is how the contenders measure up.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers aren't just the best team on paper. They're one of the best teams ever on paper. Their ungodly +136 run differential would be impressive over a 162-game season - only six teams topped that mark in 2019 - and evinces a club with no weaknesses. Even without two of their ostensible offensive linchpins, Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy, producing at high levels, the Dodgers still led the majors in runs scored, home runs and wRC+. Meanwhile, amid breakouts from young starters Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin (and a notable bounce-back from Clayton Kershaw), coupled with top-to-bottom excellence from a reinforced bullpen, the Dodgers led the majors in ERA, as well.

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a baseball player getting ready to pitch the ball: Christian Petersen / Getty Images © Provided by theScore Christian Petersen / Getty Images

Their depth on both sides of the ball is incomparable, and their wealth of quality arms, in particular, makes them well-suited to thrive in this year's no-days-off postseason, which will test the depth of each club's pitching staff. Many teams will have to hold their noses, so to speak, as they hand the ball to their Game 3 starter (or, in some cases, opener); the Dodgers, however, can confidently entrust the assignment to either Gonsolin, who crafted a 1.94 ERA across eight regular-season starts, or Julio Urias, the gifted 24-year-old left-hander who allowed two runs or fewer in nine of his 11 starts this season. As their series drag on, meanwhile, many teams will have to entrust high-leverage spots to low-leverage relievers due to fatigue; the Dodgers, however, will avoid such predicaments on account of their remarkable depth in relief. Not only will the bullpen get a boost in October from one of the club's displaced starters, but Kenley Jansen, their longtime closer who fashioned a 3.33 ERA and converted all but two of his 13 save opportunities this season, finished in a three-way tie for third in WAR among Los Angeles' relievers this year. The Dodgers are as close as any team can get to perfection, and there's a significant gap between them and the next-best contender in this year's playoffs.

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2. Chicago White Sox

Coming into the season, the long-rebuilding White Sox were a popular pick to secure an American League wild-card spot - and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 - for a couple reasons. For one, their offense, a delicious blend of up-and-coming youngsters and veteran boppers acquired in free agency, looked quite promising. Secondly, the addition of Dallas Keuchel gave the White Sox a legitimate No. 2 to pair with emergent ace Lucas Giolito. And with a few breaks, it seemed, the White Sox could be there come October.

a close up of a man in a baseball uniform holding a ball: Michael Hickey / Getty Images © Provided by theScore Michael Hickey / Getty Images

Instead, everything broke right for the White Sox, who transformed midway through the truncated 2020 season from promising upstart to legitimate World Series contender and ultimately finished tied with Tampa Bay for the best run differential in the AL. Not only did their offense emerge as one of the league's best (with Jose Abreu and Tim Anderson notably putting up MVP-caliber seasons), and not only did both Giolito and Keuchel continue to dominate, but the White Sox also watched their depth starters and bullpen - ostensibly their two biggest weaknesses - dazzle, as well. Dylan Cease, the former top prospect who stumbled to a 5.79 ERA as a rookie in 2019, trimmed his ERA by nearly two runs; Dane Dunning, a less-heralded youngster who had made fewer than a dozen starts at Double-A prior to this season, impressed in his first few major-league outings, too, crafting a 3.97 ERA with a 1.12 WHIP in seven starts. Meanwhile, their bullpen, as low as it is on brand-name relievers, finished inside the top eight in the majors in ERA, FIP, and win probability added. Suddenly, the White Sox look like a team without any vulnerabilities, one capable of both bullying teams over a short series but also outlasting them in an extended one thanks to its unexpected pitching depth.

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3. Minnesota Twins

As expected, regression zapped Minnesota of some of its offensive firepower following a ridiculously homer-happy 2019 campaign, but the Twins head into the postseason far more balanced than they were a year ago. Their pitching staff was quietly among the league's best this season, finishing third in the majors in WAR and fourth in ERA, and the Twins now have both the top-end talent (Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios) and depth (Rich Hill, Michael Pineda) in their rotation to thrive in the postseason, not to mention a lights-out bullpen. They won't have to turn to Randy Dobnak in the league division series like they did last year (assuming they make it that far).

Kenta Maeda in a baseball uniform throwing a ball: Hannah Foslien / Getty Images © Provided by theScore Hannah Foslien / Getty Images

And their offense, for the record, is still solid, even if it isn't historically potent. They still finished sixth in the majors in homers this year, and their lineup features both one of the game's best hitters and one of the hottest: Nelson Cruz, their ageless DH, was tied for seventh in the majors in wRC+ (164) this year, while Byron Buxton (who's expected to be ready for Game 1 of the wild-card round after missing the season's final few games) heads into October with eight homers and a 1.108 OPS over his previous 13 contests. Given their futility in October of late, it's tempting to underestimate the Twins, who have gone 0-13 in their last five trips to the postseason and have won just one playoff series since defeating the Atlanta Braves in the 1991 World Series, but they're not pushovers this year. They're a real threat.

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4. Tampa Bay Rays

As per usual, the Rays are better than the sum of their individual parts. There isn't a household name to be found in their lineup, yet Tampa Bay fielded a top-10 offense replete with patience and power, with little-known superstar Brandon Lowe leading the charge. Meanwhile, even with none of their top-three starters (Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Charlie Morton) dominating this season, the Rays still allowed the fourth-fewest runs in the majors, a testament to both the depth of their bullpen - which finished third in innings pitched - and their ability to optimize their staff using unconventional methods.

a baseball player holding a racket: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images © Provided by theScore Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images

And, as always, they excel at doing the little things, at gaining the marginal advantages. Their batters have a platoon advantage more often than all but five other clubs. They take extra bases more regularly than all but two other teams. They control their opponents' running game at a high level. They never sacrifice bunt. Ultimately, they're well-built and well-run, and while their league-leading win total feels incompatible with the fact that Mike Brosseau may be their best hitter, they're a powerhouse.

5. New York Yankees

Rumors of the Yankees' demise were greatly exaggerated. Despite staggering through a dismal, injury-laden 5-15 stretch around the trade deadline, the Yankees - World Series co-favorites coming into the season - are mostly healthy heading into October, and that's bad news for the rest of the American League. With both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton back in the lineup, New York's offense is an unrelenting nightmare for opposing pitchers, while the Yankees' once underperforming, star-studded bullpen has finally rounded into form, too: the three pillars of the relief corps, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, and Chad Green, combined for a 1.82 ERA while allowing just two runs and fanning 35 over 29 2/3 innings in September.

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a baseball player throwing a ball: Patrick Smith / Getty Images © Provided by theScore Patrick Smith / Getty Images

As such, it's hard to be too concerned about their relative lack of starting pitching depth in the absence of James Paxton. The Yankees still have a ridiculously potent offense, Gerrit Cole and Masahiro Tanaka, and a deep stable of bat-missing relievers. Even without an obvious Game 3 starter (which would probably be rookie Deivi Garcia), and despite heading into the wild-card round on the heels of a 2-6 slide, they're still terrifying.

6. Oakland Athletics

The Athletics aren't the sexiest team in the mix, and the loss of star third baseman Matt Chapman looms large heading into October. Still, they're arguably better suited for a deep run now than they were in either of the last two seasons, both of which ended with losses in the wild-card game. Though their offense has taken a step backward, their rotation is no longer a liability to be worked around thanks to the emergence of rookie left-hander Jesus Luzardo and another step forward from Chris Bassitt, who, along with nominal ace Sean Manaea, give the A's a quietly formidable trio of starters. Meanwhile, their bullpen remains a behemoth, a veritable parade of hard-throwing relievers - anchored by Liam Hendriks, who put up as many wins above replacement in 2020 as Clayton Kershaw - that collectively managed the lowest ERA in the majors. All told, Oakland allowed fewer runs per game than all but five other teams, and few clubs vying for the World Series have such a preponderance of quality arms. If the Athletics' lineup heats up even a little bit - and, it's worth noting, they were a top-10 offensive team through the first month of the season - they'll be difficult to stop.

7. Atlanta Braves

Thanks to their elite offense propelled by National League MVP favorite Freddie Freeman, 22-year-old phenom Ronald Acuna Jr., and two incredibly shrewd offseason pickups in Marcell Ozuna and Travis d'Arnaud, the Braves' lack of rotation depth was but a piddling concern during the regular season. And if they continue mashing as they have - they led the majors in OPS, and ranked second and third, respectively, in homers and isolated power - perhaps it won't be an issue during the postseason, either.

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a baseball player holding a bat on a field: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images © Provided by theScore Todd Kirkland / Getty Images

Still, it's hard to reconcile the state of the Braves' rotation - which, after Max Fried and rookie Ian Anderson, is essentially a collection of rusty pitching machines - with the particular demands of this year's postseason format. A deep run is overdue, as the Braves flamed out in the division series in each of the last two seasons, but it's also contingent on Anderson, a 22-year-old rookie with six big-league starts under his belt, continuing to shove, and the likes of Kyle Wright and Huascar Ynoa giving them at least some competitive innings. Put another way, in order to snap their 25-year World Series drought, they're going to need to hit. A lot.

8. Cleveland Indians

The Indians are a team of contrasts. Their offense is decidedly inept and finished in the bottom five in the majors in runs per game and wRC+ despite a mammoth year from Jose Ramirez, who may well be the American League MVP. On the other hand, the Indians also have the league's stingiest pitching staff, with four legitimate studs in their rotation - including Shane Bieber, the presumptive AL Cy Young - and two of the majors' five most valuable relievers, Brad Hand and rookie James Karinchak, anchoring an elite bullpen.

a baseball player throwing a pitch: Justin K. Aller / Getty Images © Provided by theScore Justin K. Aller / Getty Images

No team came close to matching the Indians' 37 quality starts. They were so rich with high-end starters that they felt comfortable dealing away Mike Clevinger at the trade deadline, while only a half-dozen clubs witnessed fewer meltdowns from their relievers. It's really, really hard to score against Cleveland, and the starting pitching depth should provide a considerable advantage deeper into a series. However, you can't win a game 0-0, and if opposing clubs can neutralize Ramirez, who managed a 1.294 OPS over the final month of the regular season, the Indians are going to have an exceedingly difficult time generating enough offense to force a Game 5, 6, or 7.

9. San Diego Padres

If the playoffs had started two weeks ago, the Padres would've definitely cracked the top five on this list. Now, however, with their newly acquired ace, Mike Clevinger, a question mark heading into the playoffs due to an elbow strain and Cy Young contender Dinelson Lamet dealing with arm problem himself, their outlook is decidedly less bright. Losing one of those guys would be a significant blow. Losing both would be catastrophic.

a baseball player holding a bat on a field: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images © Provided by theScore Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images

Lamet, for his part, is tentatively slated to start Game 1 of the wild-card round, which is encouraging news. So long as he's healthy, the Padres are still better than almost every other National League contender thanks to a potent offense (their recent slide notwithstanding), a strong bullpen, and an enviable one-two punch atop their rotation in Lamet and Zach Davies, who blossomed into a legit No. 2 this year in his first season in San Diego. If Lamet can't go, however, and Clevinger is out of the picture, the Padres are in serious trouble, especially considering their path to the pennant goes through the Dodgers, who were going to be tough to beat even at full strength. And for now, at least, it's not nearly as easy to envision October glory for the Padres as it was back at the trade deadline.

10. Chicago Cubs

If the Cubs' lineup had produced this season at the level we're accustomed to, it would be much easier to overlook the fact the pitching staff comprises a pair of stud starters - the resurgent Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks - and a dozen-plus question marks. As it stands, though, the Cubs' offense looks strangely lifeless, having finished 21st in the majors in wRC+ thanks to miserable seasons from Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber - Jason Heyward was improbably the club' second-best hitter in 2020 - which doesn't bode well for a team with only two good starters and a mediocre bullpen.

Yu Darvish wearing a baseball uniform throwing a ball: Nuccio DiNuzzo / Getty Images © Provided by theScore Nuccio DiNuzzo / Getty Images

Maybe it's just a series of coinciding small-sample blips, and all of those hitters will snap their funks in October, turning the Cubs back into an offensive juggernaut capable of compensating for a top-heavy pitching staff that doesn't look particularly well-built to withstand the unique rigors of this year's playoff format. Heading into the first round, however, it's difficult to have confidence in the Cubs, who played sub-.500 baseball after starting their season 13-3 and had the lowest run differential by far (+25) of any division winner.

11. Cincinnati Reds

A month ago, the Reds looked like possible sellers at the trade deadline. Now, following a September surge, they're a legitimate World Series threat. Few teams are better suited for this year's postseason than the Reds, who have three legitimate No. 1s in their rotation in National League Cy Young favorite Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, and Sonny Gray, and a fourth starter, Tyler Mahle, who managed a lower FIP than Gerrit Cole in 2020.

a baseball player throwing a ball: Dylan Buell / Getty Images © Provided by theScore Dylan Buell / Getty Images

Late leads aren't nearly as precarious anymore, either. Since acquiring Archie Bradley from Arizona at the trade deadline, the Reds' bullpen - as leaky a unit as there was through the first half of the season - has dominated, managing the fewest meltdowns and third-most win probability added in the majors over the season's final month. They're essentially the NL version of the Indians, except with a slightly worse rotation and slightly better offense. Or, as Joey Votto put it following Friday's postseason-clinching victory: "We're a f------ nightmare, and I think everybody knows that."

12. Houston Astros

It's downright mystifying what happened to the Astros' offense this year. Despite bringing back almost every key member of last year's lineup, which led the majors in OPS and wRC+, the Astros mustered a worse offense than the lowly Baltimore Orioles, after adjusting park effects, amid massive drop-offs from Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Yuli Gurriel, among others.

Jose Altuve holding a baseball bat on a field: Richard Rodriguez / Getty Images © Provided by theScore Richard Rodriguez / Getty Images

No doubt, there are plenty of theories as to why. Did the psychological toll of their sign-stealing fallout wear them down? Is this evidence that they were, in fact, illegally stealing signs in 2019, as well? Or was it simply a small-sample blip? It's impossible to say. It's also irrelevant. Ultimately, given the state of their pitching staff, which took a significant step backward absent Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Roberto Osuna, the Astros are going to have to mash their way back to the World Series. If their hitters can turn it around in October, they have a chance. Otherwise, they're in trouble.

13. Toronto Blue Jays

If each round in the 2020 postseason was a best-of-one, the Blue Jays would actually have a decent shot of snapping their 26-year World Series drought. Their lineup is solid. Their bullpen is, too, somehow. And they have Hyun Jin Ryu, who authored a 2.69 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP in his first season with Toronto and gives the ascendant Blue Jays a legitimate ace to anchor their rotation for the foreseeable future. At the moment, however, the Blue Jays, who weren't expected to return to contention until 2021 at the earliest, have no other trustworthy starters.

a close up of a pitcher throwing a pitch on the baseball field: Mark Brown / Getty Images © Provided by theScore Mark Brown / Getty Images

That would be problematic in a normal postseason. This year, absent the in-series off days that would enable the Blue Jays to lean disproportionately on Ryu, it's disqualifying. Crazy things happen in October, of course, and Alejandro Kirk's emergence along with Nate Pearson's timely return should give Toronto more firepower in the lineup and the bullpen moving forward, but the club's playoff hopes ultimately hinge on a collection of uninspired starters, including Taijuan Walker, Matt Shoemaker, and Robbie Ray, stringing together a solid month. Frankly, it seems unlikely.

14. Milwaukee Brewers

Remember how the Reds are essentially the NL version of the Indians? Well, the Brewers, who needed every inch of the regular season to grab the eighth NL seed, are essentially a discount version of the Reds. In other words, the Brewers are pretty punchless offensively - Christian Yelich took a massive step backward after consecutive sensational seasons, and a sophomore slump befell Keston Hiura - but their pitching staff should give them at least a puncher's chance in October.

a baseball player throwing a ball: Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty © Provided by theScore Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty

They have only two studs atop their rotation in dark-horse NL Cy Young candidate Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, not three like the Reds, but their bullpen is a true difference-maker - headed by Josh Hader and breakout stars Devin Williams and Freddy Peralta - that will mitigate their lack of starting depth as well as any relief corps can this postseason. Owing to the outsized contributions of their relievers, in fact, Milwaukee’s staff quietly racked up the second-most WAR in the majors while also posting the second-lowest expected weighted on-base average. Still, the Brewers lost more games than they won in spite of their elite run-prevention ability, and it's ultimately difficult to fear a team who's best hitter at the moment is Dan Vogelbach.

15. St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals won a World Series with a mediocre roster in 2006. Maybe, thanks to the expanded postseason, they can do it again this year. Nothing about the Cardinals is particularly noteworthy beyond the fact that they spent more than two weeks during this season not playing baseball due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Their offense is below average, dragged down by Matt Carpenter's shocking ineptitude and Tyler O'Neill's continued growing pains. Their rotation isn't a strength, either - Jack Flaherty regressed hard following his first career All-Star appearance - and looks particularly thin in the wake of a season-ending elbow injury to Dakota Hudson, who managed a 2.77 ERA in eight starts before hitting the injury list earlier this month. They're simply not very good, and their World Series chances hinge entirely on them being able to pull off some more Cardinals Devil Magic.

16. Miami Marlins

The Marlins aren't going to win the World Series. They're a rebuilding club whose plans were derailed by the randomness of a 60-game season. Their record notwithstanding, the Marlins posted the third-worst run differential in the National League, and their success was largely fueled by their record in seven-inning games and capricious one-run affairs. If the Marlins do somehow win it all with three promising-but-unproven starters and only a couple decent hitters, the 16-team postseason better be scrapped by the following morning. Anyway, in lieu of a more fleshed-out analysis, here are the lyrics to "Marlins Will Soar," the club's de facto fight song courtesy of Creed frontman Scott Stapp.

Let's play ball, it's game day

We want strikeouts, base hits, double plays

Take the field, hear the roar of the crowd

Come on Marlins, make us proud

Come on Marlins, make us proud

Keep hoping and dreaming and you will soar

With a little faith and luck, you will soar

One strike, two strikes, swing away

A diving catch, a stolen base

A perfect game, a triple play

Another playoff race

World Series champs, we'll be

Keep hoping and dreaming and you will soar

With a little faith and luck, you will soar

Keep hoping and dreaming and you will soar

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

Copyright © 2020 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.


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'Can't fault the pitching': Reds waste ace Trevor Bauer's amazing start .
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