The 2017 World Series is just a few short months away, and us fans now have an idea of which teams are true contenders.
Some teams that figured to challenge for the title are now out of it. That includes the Toronto Blue Jays, St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, New York Mets, Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles. But on the flip side, nobody expected the Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Milwaukee Brewers or New York Yankees to be in playoff positioning right now. So that part is exciting.
10 teams make the playoffs every year -- six division winners and four wild card teams. But really, there are only eight teams that have a realistic shot at winning the Commissioner's Trophy. But like every championship contender in any sport, these eight teams have a big obstacle that could get in the way of capturing World Series glory.
Here is a look at the eight World Series contenders, and the biggest obstacle that stands in their way.
*Stats courtesy of ESPN.com and are as of July 24th*
16 Chicago Cubs
You could make a case that the Cubs were the best World Series champion of the 21st century. Powered by baseball's best rotation that featured Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs cruised through the National League before taking down the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series.
Until a surge over the past couple of weeks, the Cubs were playing awful baseball. They struggled to play above .500, but they've turned it on as of late. Throw in the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers recent slump, and the division crown figures to go to Chicago once again.
They may not even finish with 90 wins, but so what? The Cubs are the defending champions and have that swagger to defend their championship.
15 Cubs Biggest Obstacle: Hitting
Only the Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies topped the Cubs' 808 runs scored last year. MVP Kris Bryant led the way with 39 home runs, 102 RBI and a .292 batting average. But surprisingly, the Cubs offence has been as mediocre as it gets during the 2017 season.
Bryant isn't going to reach last seasons home run or RBI totals -- not even close. He's batting a mere .280 on the season -- which isn't great for his standards. Furthermore, star first baseman Anthony Rizzo and standout shortstop Addison Russell are struggling to put the ball in play.
The Cubs have the arms to shut down opposing lineups in October. But if they can't score much in the regular season, what makes you think they'll score off the likes of Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer? Unless the offence gets going, there won't be a repeat in Chicago.
14 Colorado Rockies
It's been 10 years since the Rockies shocked the world by going all the way to the World Series -- where they were eventually swept by the Boston Red Sox. Colorado managed to reach the playoffs in 2009, but Denver hasn't experienced 'Rocktober' since then. But the Rockies are on their way to making the playoffs in 2017.
And boy, should other teams fear them. Powered by Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Mark Reynolds (along with the Mile High City air), the Rockies share by far the best offence in the National League.
The Rockies also made some upgrades in the rotation during the offseason, which has been instrumental in turning the franchise around. We're basically ensured to see Colorado meet the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL Wild Card game -- we just don't know who has home advantage yet.
13 Rockies Biggest Obstacle: Rotation
The Rockies rotation has always been a problem in the 2010s. Though it's been better in 2017, you can't say it's championship caliber. The rotation's 4.75 ERA ranks just 18th in the majors, and that's scary when you consider that the NL is traditionally owned by star pitchers.
Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela lead the way with 10 wins apiece, but the latter's ERA is a whopping 4.67. German Marquez and Tyler Chatwood own ERAs of 4.20 and 4.74, respectively. Again, that's as alarming as it gets.
Yes, the Rockies can sure as heck smash the ball. But no World Series champion in history has gotten through by winning 10-9, 9-8 and 8-7. They've had at least one or two star pitchers in the rotation. Colorado ought to add some starters at the deadline, because they aren't going far with this current rotation.
12 Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks once looked foolish for giving Zack Greinke a six-year deal worth $206.5 million, as he struggled big time in 2016 and the team didn't come close to the playoffs. But Greinke has rebounded nicely, and the D-Backs are one of the most complete teams heading into the second half of the season.
Their team's 3.51 ERA is the second-best in baseball, only trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers. Their lineup has produced 492 runs -- sixth-most in baseball. Their bullpen has also been fantastic, posting a 3.49 ERA while holding opponents to a .234 batting average.
And heck, their defence has surrendered just 59 errors all season. Boy, do they ever look ready to go on a championship run. They seem to have all the pieces for it.
11 Diamondbacks Biggest Obstacle: Rotation Depth
Though the Diamondbacks rotation ERA is the second-best in baseball, a lot of that has to do with Zack Greinke (2.97), and Robbie Ray (3.15). When you compare Arizona's rotation to that of the Cubs, Dodgers or Nationals, you can't convince yourself that the D-Backs have the advantage.
After Greinke and Ray, Arizona's rotation takes a bit of a step backwards. Taijuan Walker has a solid 3.61 ERA, but his 1.32 WHIP isn't that inspiring. Patrick Corbin and Zack Godley aren't exactly threats to win a playoff game, either.
If Arizona wins the wild card, they're probably playing the Dodgers in the NLDS. Kershaw, Alex Wood, Brandon McCarthy and Kenta Maeda easily overmatch Arizona's rotation, which could be the Diamondbacks' downfall in the playoffs.
10 Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox have overcome a lot to take control of the AL East. David Price missed the first two months of the regular season. David Ortiz retired after 14 terrific years in Beantown. Rick Porcello went from Cy Young winner to arguably the worst pitcher in the majors. Dustin Pedroia and starter Eduardo Rodriguez have also missed time.
But thanks to huge regressions from their AL East threats (including the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays), Boston has the division on cruise control. Chris Sale is having a historic season and leads the AL in virtually every meaningful pitching category. Craig Kimbrel is making his case as the best closer in baseball. Drew Pomeranz is quietly pitching quality start after quality start.
The Red Sox are a lock to make the playoffs, and they have the talent to go on a run.
9 Red Sox Biggest Obstacle: Lineup Woes
Just one year ago, the Boston Red Sox had the best offence in baseball -- scoring 878 runs en route to the AL East crown. But things have been much different in 2017, where they rank middle of the pack in runs for. Their 99 home runs also rank last in the American League.
Yes, regression was inevitable with Big Papi's retirement. But Mookie Betts isn't going to come close to the 113 RBI he had last year, and his batting average is 41 points lower than last year.
Hanley Ramirez and Jackie Bradley Jr. have been strikeout machines. Boston's bottom-four hitters don't pose much of a threat. Only Pedroia has performed as well in 2017 as he did last year. With the way this offence is hitting, Boston is sure to be eliminated by a team with an above-average pitching staff like Cleveland or Houston.
8 Cleveland Indians
After coming within one swing of the bat from winning their first World Series since 1948, the Cleveland Indians are once again in position to go on a deep run. They're leading a fairly weak AL Central, but they may not even reach 90 wins. They certainly do not look like the juggernaut that rocked the American League last year.
Cleveland was supposed to be better after signing slugger Edwin Encarnacion -- who has been posting his usual numbers. But the Indians as a whole haven't looked like an elite group all season long.
But they'll be in the playoffs, which is all that matters. Cleveland dominated Toronto and Boston in last year's postseason, and came close to polishing off the Chicago Cubs (who were heavy favorites in the series). The Indians have a great chance of finally ending their World Series drought.
7 Indians Biggest Obstacle: The Rotation
If not for Chris Sale, Corey Kluber would be on his way to another Cy Young. Kluber is pacing the Indians rotation with eight wins, a 2.74 ERA and 149 strikeouts. Behind Kluber is Carlos Carrasco, who leads Cleveland in wins (10), and owns a respectable 3.62 ERA. But after those two guys? Woah boy.
Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer each carry ERAs that are closer to 6.0 than 5.0. Danny Salazar's ERA is also 4.79 -- which is pretty darn bad. Cleveland definitely doesn't have the depth in the rotation, and that's alarming.
Consider that Kluber will be facing the opposition's ace pitcher (Chris Sale or Dallas Keuchel, for example), and you can see where Cleveland's in trouble. Now would be a good time to trade for some No. 3 or 4 starters, because Cleveland's front office is taking a big risk in expecting this rotation to take them far.
6 Washington Nationals
It was pretty evident since late April that the Nationals were going to win the National League East -- which has been a horrendous division when you take away the current leaders. Washington looks solid enough to finally win its first playoff series since relocating to D.C. in 2005.
Bryce Harper has rebounded after a horrible season, and Daniel Murphy is in position to win the batting title. In fact, only the Houston Astros have scored more runs than the Nationals thus far in 2017. Throw in Ryan Zimmerman and Trea Turner (who are both batting well over .300), and the Nationals are scary.
Did I mention they have some guys named Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez in the rotation? Is Washington dangerous or is Washington dangerous? My goodness.
5 Nationals Biggest Obstacle: Bullpen, Bullpen, Bullpen
With the best offence in the league and one of baseball's best rotations, one would think that this team is more than fine heading into October. But their bullpen is actually so bad, that it's amazing to see this team is over 20 games above .500.
Washington's bullpen has formed a 5.18 ERA -- which is far-and-away the worst in baseball. They've also lost 14 games and are letting opponents bat .275. Yep, it's really been that terrible in 2017.
Nobody can emphasize enough how important a bullpen is (see Cleveland and Andrew Miller in the 2016 playoffs). Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez aren't pitching complete games, so what will Washington do? This team's playing with fire if they don't figure out how to address the bullpen.
4 Houston Astros
The Astros totally won the offseason -- adding Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Brian McCann. Even though they were a popular pick to reach the postseason in 2017, nobody thought Houston would run away with the best record in the American League. But that's what's happened.
The Astros have scored more runs than every other team (it's not even close), and their team batting average of .291 is also the best in baseball. Nobody wants to face the likes of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Evan Gattis, Beltran or Reddick. Nobody at all.
Houston's team ERA is also 4.02 -- good for fourth-best in the majors. Assuming Dallas Keuchel is healthy for the playoffs, then you can make a case that the Astros actually own the best pitching staff in baseball.
3 Astros Biggest Obstacle: Inexperience
This Astros core only has one season of playoff experience under its belt, and we learned from the 2015 ALDS that they weren't quite ready to win big in the playoffs. Houston actually led the eventual champion Kansas City Royals 2-1 in the ALDS. With a chance to close out the series in Game 4, the Astros took a 6-2 lead to the top of the eighth.
But the Royals rallied for a five-run eighth, then added two more in the ninth to force a Game 5. Houston actually led that decisive game 2-0, only to allow seven unanswered runs in the loss.
So if Houston were to play an experienced team like Cleveland, Los Angeles or Washington in the playoffs, can you really trust them to win? They don't have much playoff experience, and we don't know how they'll react to the pressure. That's easily the main thing that stands in the way of the Astros championship dreams.
2 Los Angeles Dodgers
Find me a weakness on this Dodgers roster.
They have baseball's best pitcher in Clayton Kershaw. They also have arguably the best rotation in the majors, powered by Kershaw, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda and Brandon McCarthy. Oh, and Kenley Jansen is only the best closer in baseball (1.49 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 42.1 innings pitched).
The Dodgers also have a dangerous lineup, led by Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Turner, Corey Seager and Chris Taylor. The Dodgers can beat you with both their offence and their pitching. They were two wins away from reaching the NL pennant last year, but they're the best team in baseball right now. They're the one team that nobody will want to face in October. Not a whole lot stands in their way as of now.
1 Dodgers Biggest Obstacle: Clayton Kershaw's Health
During a recent start, Kershaw suffered a back injury and will be out for four-to-six weeks. That's not great news for the Dodgers, as the playoffs will be around the corner by the time he returns to the mound.
Back injuries are always concerning, especially for pitchers. Kershaw's suffered some injuries over the past couple of seasons (none major), so Dodgers fans are entitled to feeling nervous about his health.
If he misses any time or isn't 100 percent in the postseason, then the Dodgers championship hopes take a significant hit. Kershaw is among the biggest game-changers in baseball (see his 4.5 WAR). Yes, the Dodgers may have the most complete team in all of baseball. That's fine, but they're not going to be as scary if their best pitcher isn't on the mound.
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