With the All Star festivities coming to a close last week, we are now officially entering the crunch time of the MLB season. Scoreboard watching has officially intensified and those casual fans who flip through their phone to check the scores are now locked into their TV or radio every single night. The season thus far has been incredible. We have been treated to the perfect balance of power hitting and premier pitching and the parity between the upper tier teams around the league is great. As we sit today, we could probably name nine or ten teams who could be favorites to win the World Series and this fact alone has made it a lot more fun and competitive than some past years.
The season has been full of pleasant surprises. The Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs are once again relevant around the league which is excellent for the game itself. Teams such as the Houston Astros, Miami Marlins, and Cleveland Indians have continued to grow and get better with each coming season, culminating in a fine 2016 for each squad so far. Throughout this article, we rank eight teams who we believe to be definite favorites to win this year's World Series and eight teams who although may appear ready, are just not quite there yet, but may still do damage down the road. That being said, it is no slight to any organization for being a part of the ladder list, but it is rather a compliment of their excellent growth thus far and recognition for being the next potential powerhouse of Major League Baseball.
16 On the Fringe: Miami Marlins
The Marlins have been a fun and pleasant surprise for most baseball fans, as they have finally been able to carry a strong season into July for the first time since 2009. Outside of baseball's Lou Ferrigno in Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins don’t possess much power, but have the ability to wear their opponents down with a barrage of slap singles and competent base running. The Marlins rank 27th in extra base hits, but second in the league in batting average at .270, which is a testament to their ability to put the bat on the ball and make things happen.
The return of last year’s National League batting champion Dee Gordon should help the Marlins in the second half of the season, but we are still just not sure that they have enough talent to raise their game to that next level and play in the elite tier of teams. The Marlins have no gaping weaknesses, but also no real niche strengths either. They are young, steady, and growing with each ball game, but I think it is a bit too soon to consider the Marlins as potential favorites for this season's Fall Classic.
15 Ready Now: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers have been sitting on the same fence for the past four years now and, despite their talent and experience, they never seem to be able to get over the hump. They were defeated in both 2013 and 2014 by the St. Louis Cardinals and last year, lost Game Five at home to the New York Mets in the NLDS. The Dodgers, led by ace Clayton Kershaw, have been able to get by in a relatively weak division with some steady pitching and stellar defense. It has been their bats, however, that seem to draw the most concern.
The Dodgers sit tops in the league in most pitching categories with the fourth best team ERA in baseball, have allowed the fourth fewest earned runs, and have held their opponents to a .222 batting average - good for second in baseball behind only the Chicago Cubs. On the flip side, when the Dodgers pick up a baseball bat, their numbers are quite the contrary. They sit in the bottom ten of the league in most hitting categories, including 22nd in hits, 24th in team batting average, and 19th in runs scored. Safe to say that the Dodgers will need to pull a few strings by the trade deadline on August 1st to help out their offense.
14 On the Fringe: Detroit Tigers
Since their trip to the World Series in 2012, the Tigers seem to have remained idle in terms of where they stand in the league. A skilled team with one of the greatest hitters of all time in Miguel Cabrera and one of the greatest pitchers of this era in Justin Verlander, the Tigers have had the core pieces to build around, but may find themselves on their final breath. The Tigers have enjoyed breakout years from young players such as Nick Castellanos, Cameron Maybin, and pitcher Michael Fulmer, but we are just not sure that they have the depth on the mound.
The Tigers sit 22nd in the majors with a 4.48 starting pitcher ERA and are 24th in opponents batting average at .268. We wish that we could say it gets better with the bullpen, but unfortunately the Tigers have one of the worst bullpens in baseball with a 4.46 ERA, good for 24th in the league. As the problem seems to be for many teams this season, the bats are in full force but the pitching just keeps bringing them back down to earth.
13 Ready Now: Texas Rangers
The Rangers are a good team and have built off of their playoff run from last season, jumping out of the gate to 51-29 record at the end of June. Lately, however, the Rangers have begun to come back down to earth, as they have struggled in the month of July. Rougned Odor has had the breakout season that they hoped he would have and even channeled his inner Muhammad Ali in a game against Toronto in May. The Rangers have somehow found a way to reincarnate the corpse of Ian Desmond and continue to juice the old man strength out of veteran third bagger Adrian Beltre, which has helped immensely along the way.
Like many other teams on this list, the doubts creep into our minds when reminded that the Rangers also have to pitch to their opponents for nine innings. The starters, however, have been pretty good this season. Cole Hamels has been nothing short of spectacular since they acquired him from the Phillies last Summer and the Rangers are a healthy Yu Darvish away from moving up a few spots on this list. However, unless Hamels and Darvish can alternate pitching nine innings, it will be a tall order for the Rangers bullpen to contain the power hitting in the American League. The Rangers bullpen allow a league worst opponents batting average of .278 and are 29th in ERA at 5.05.
12 On the Fringe: Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates are like that child who for years was the younger sibling in the family, looking up to their eldest sibling in the St. Louis Cardinals. They were up and coming, got everyone’s attention and affection and were hard to root against, even when we knew their older brother was going to come out on top. That was of course, until that third child came along in the Chicago Cubs last season. Now the Cubs seem to be the new-born baby of the NL Central, and the Pirates officially find themselves as the middle child - somewhat ignored, overlooked, and forgotten about.
The window was open for them, but due to some horrible playoff luck and the misfortune of playing in the most top-heavy division in baseball, it has begun to quickly shut. With All Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen having the worst year of his career, a sub-par starting rotation, and ace pitcher Gerrit Cole on and off of the disabled list, it seems as though it has been somewhat of a broken season for the Pirates and although they have the talent, we don’t feel confident that a recovery is in the immediate horizon in Pittsburgh - especially with that pesky, cooler, younger brother in the Cubs being born.
11 Ready Now: Boston Red Sox
We don't think anyone saw this coming quite just yet, but the Boston Red Sox, to this point in their campaign, have proven that they belong on this list as a team with a bonafide shot to win it all. Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Xander Bogarts have all arrived way ahead of schedule and, on the flip side, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia just won't go away. This unlikely merge between old and new generation of Red Sox has resulted in an extremely powerful lineup and a tight-nit group, with excellent leadership in Ortiz and David Price.
The Red Sox bats have been on fire since April and there has been very little sign of slowing down. The Sox lead all of baseball in runs, hits, doubles, RBI, batting average, on base percentage, slugging, OPS, and total bases - almost every single offensive category. Starting pitching, however, has been somewhat of a concern for the Red Sox, as David Price has been less than impressive and it's unclear if Rick Porcello and Steven Wright are riding hot streaks or if they will be the real deal heading into September and potentially October. It will be interesting to see how new starting pitcher Drew Pomeranz will fare in the American League, as he could be a key contributor to a deep run into the fall.
10 On the Fringe: St. Louis Cardinals
The St.Louis Cardinals, for the first time in a long time, are not considered World Series favorites. Part of this is due to the fact that their talent has slowly dwindled over the years and part of it is due to the fact that, as mentioned earlier, the Chicago Cubs have emerged as the exciting and youthful new favorite in the NL Central. It has been a while since the Cardinals have appeared as an average team in the MLB and although there is still plenty of baseball left, their longest running streak in baseball of reaching five straight post-seasons is in great jeopardy.
So what is different for the Cardinals this year? Well for one, they lost both John Lackey and Jason Hayward to their rival Chicago Cubs this off-season, so that doesn't help. The Cardinals are hitting just as well as they always have, pitching just as well as they have, and honestly are playing good baseball. However, each year is different as we know and the Cardinals have been victims of stronger competition and the one-run game. Last season, the Cardinals were held the fourth best record in the majors in one-run games at 32-23. So far this season however, the Cardinals have posted the worst record in one-run games at 7-16. It seems as though the good fortune is slowly slipping away in St. Louis.
9 Ready Now: Washington Nationals
With two of the best pitchers in the game and a top three hitter in baseball in Bryce Harper, the Nationals have the rare ability to control their own destiny. What we mean by this, is that they have the pieces, now it's up to them to get over their past demons and finally get the job done. Over the last few years, the Nats have always found themselves in a similar position at this point of the season. They are on pace to reach their potential, then for whatever reason, they plummet.
The return of Stephen Strasburg has been one of the brightest stories in baseball this season, as he became the first National League pitcher in over 100 years to start a season 12-0. Between Strasburg and Max Scherzer, few teams have a better one-two punch in baseball and, come playoff time, this will be a tough rotation to crack. Much of how this team finishes will rely on National League MVP Bryce Harper, as last season he got off to a similarly blistering hot start in correlation with his team, but then began to fade towards the end of the season and so did his team. The Nats have the best ERA in baseball and if their batters can keep on a decent pace, the Nationals should find themselves going deep into the post-season.
8 On the Fringe: Houston Astros
After an impressive playoff run last season, the Astros have followed that up with a dismal start to the 2016 campaign, leaving Astros fans unsure of what to expect in 2016. The Astros sat at 7-17 after the month of April and since then have been the team that we thought we would see, going 43-27 down the stretch up to this point. Houston is young, fun to watch, and after a few horrible seasons, are very easy to root for.
Led by a youthful cast in All-Star Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer, the Astros are well on their way to World Series Contention, but due to the strong parity throughout the league, they may have to wait a few years. They were a hitting juggernaut last season, but this production has slowed quite significantly, as the Astros sit 23rd in team batting average and 15th in run production. After leading the American League in wins last season and taking home American League Cy Young Award honors, Dallas Keuchel has not been the same in 2016, which may pose a large problem for the Astros going forward. Again, they are not far off, but it seems as though after such an excellent season in 2015, this group has hit what seems like a sophomore slump at times in 2016.
7 Ready Now: New York Mets
As we saw last season, the New York Mets are the real deal and came just four wins shy of winning their first World Series since 1986. They are loaded with power all throughout their lineup and possess arguably the best pitching staff in baseball, which starts with Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard and ends with Jeurys Familia. It has been an up and down season for the Mets thus far, as All-Star pitcher Matt Harvey has been all but shut down for the season, young pitching talent Steven Matz has been on and off of the DL, and Noah Syndergaard has also been under the media's microscope after having a few scares on the mound this season.
With all that said, if the Mets can stay healthy, even without Harvey, we believe that they are a top three or four contender in the entire league. Their largest problems, however, come at the plate. Despite the Mets being sixth in the majors with 127 home runs, they struggle more than anyone in the league to reach base. It seems as though if contact is made, the ball either leaves the park or ends up as an out. The Mets are tied with Atlanta for worst team batting average (.237) and 25th in on-base percentage at .309. All that being said, we know the Mets can most definitely find their rhythm again, as they had the same hitting struggles last year and came out just fine. If they can't however, we are not sure that this young Mets staff can carry the entire load, despite how incredible they truly are.
6 On the Fringe: Baltimore Orioles
Let’s not get fooled by the numbers here. The Orioles are near the top of the MLB for almost every major hitting category, including being number one in home runs (142), tied for fifth in team batting average (.267), and second in both slugging and OPS (on base plus slug). Unfortunately for Orioles fans, they have to also pitch to their opponents, which hasn’t exactly gone their way thus far. The Orioles starting rotation has sported the third worst ERA in baseball at 5.10 and teams have hit a screaming .278 against them this season- good for 29th in baseball.
Now, we’re not taking anything away from the extraordinary power throughout their lineup, but we have seen this song and dance before and we can’t ignore the gut feeling that the Orioles, upon making the playoffs, will be in for a tough go. Time and time again we have seen great pitching trump great hitting and in the post-season, the match ups are magnified and teams actually have a chance to compile an adequate amount of research on their opponent. This reality, unfortunately, tends to go in the favor of the pitcher. If the Orioles bats go cold for a week or two, this could make or break their entire season and for this reason, we don’t think the Orioles are a complete enough team to really stay on stride and be a serious contender come October.
5 Ready Now: Toronto Blue Jays
The Toronto Blue Jays are a perennial powerhouse in the American League and are a deadline deal or two away from being the odds-on favorite out of the American League. After coming just two games shy of the World Series last year and with All-Star sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion becoming free agents this fall, the Blue Jays know that they have to strike immediately. Their lineup is deadly and after leading the Majors in home runs by a landslide in 2015, the Jays are back at it again this season sitting in third place in this department behind only Baltimore and Seattle. They also sit fifth in runs scored and sixth in team slugging.
The story for the Blue Jays, however, has been the bullpen - and it's not a good story. The Jays bullpen has posted an MLB worst 11-21 record and have thrown away a countless number of winnable games for the Jays thus far. The starters have been excellent, posting a 3.72 ERA, which is good for sixth in all of baseball. The bullpen, outside of closer Roberto Osuna, who too has struggled at times, has been abysmal. The Jays have one of the best offenses and defenses in baseball, great leadership, and plenty of charisma, but if they cannot figure out their bullpen situation, we can't pencil them in anywhere just yet.
4 On the Fringe: Kansas City Royals
This too may be a shocker to many readers, but hear me out on this one. First off, it's DAMN HARD to reach back to back World Series, let alone three in a row, as the Royals would have to do and they'd become the first team since the Yankees did it from 1998-2000. Second, they have been plagued with injuries and simply will not have the same team that they had last year going forward. Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto were extremely key pieces in the Royals World Series run last year and. as we know, they are no longer with the team. Lorenzo Cain is still trying to recover from a hamstring tear and Mike Moustakas is out for the season.
The Royals will be faced with the task of making the playoffs with a far weaker roster than last season and a tougher division this season to compete with. Their starting rotation ranks 25th in the majors with an ERA of 4.93 and offensively they also rank 25th in run production. These two numbers alone help to tell the tale of the Royals struggles and set forth the reality that the Royals may have a taller mountain to climb this year than in years past.
3 Ready Now: Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs finally seem ready to contend for the World Series, as Cubs fans have been ready for over 100 years. They are young, exciting, and loaded with talent that, for the most part, has been all home-grown. Led by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in the field and Jake Arrieta on the mound, it is extremely hard to find a weak spot within this Cubbies roster. After being on the wrong side of a heartbreaking sweep against the Mets last spring, the Cubs returned stronger, more experienced, and with a 100 year old chip on their shoulder.
The Cubs started out at an astronomical pace, but have come back down to planet Earth over the past month and a half. The Cubs are in the top-ten across the majors in most hitting categories, including runs, home runs, doubles, RBI, slugging, and OPS. Their pitching is arguably even better, which is why they are a top two contender on our list. The Cubs lead the majors in starting pitching ERA, pitching wins, and runs against. From National league Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta to number five starter in Jason Hammel, the Cubs are as solid as anyone on the mound this season.
2 On the Fringe: Cleveland Indians
Now, many fans will probably scoff at the idea that we don't believe that the Cleveland Indians are World Series ready just yet. However, they are literally next in line. Every team needs a season to figure it out, go further than they imagined, lose, and learn from the experience only to come back stronger. The Indians may have the best starting rotation in the American League and with the emergence of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar over the last several seasons, they seem to be well on their way.
Yes, the Indians do have the best record in the American League Central Division, but we must remember that there are still roughly 60 baseball games left to be played for each team and a lot can happen. Francisco Lindor has emerged into one of the best shortstops in baseball and the Indians are still awaiting the return of Michael Brantley, who will only make them stronger. However, there still appear to be a few too many holes within their batting lineup and this is no slight to the Indians, but rather a testament to just how prevalent and important that hitting has been this season.
1 Ready Now: San Francisco Giants
When it comes down to a curse of 100 plus years without a World Series, versus the blessing of winning a World Series on every even year of the decade, we have to take the ladder. This decision came down to the Cubs and the Giants, and as great as the Cubs have been this season, one would be quite daft to bet against the Giants. The Giants don't have anything sexy about them really, other than the fact that they get the job done. Like a smaller-scale version of the San Antonio Spurs, the Giants have always done things the right way and preach sound and fundamental baseball. They don't need to hit four home runs a game to win, they don't need 13 strikeouts a night to win, they just need each individual to show up and do their bit - it's how they are wired. After winning the World Series in 2010, '12, and '14, the year is 2016 and the odds are ever in the Giants favor.
The Giants get on base and simply try to keep the line moving. Key players such as Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Matt Duffy, and Brandon Crawford provide the perfect punch to the core trio of Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, and Hunter Pence. On the mound, the additions of Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto have helped to assemble an absolutely lights out pitching staff that will only get better if Chris Heston is able to make a return this season. On the flip side, once the Giants get back Hunter Pence, Joe Panik, and Matt Duffy at the plate, they will be extremely hard to stabilize. The Giants managed to hold the best record in baseball at the All-Star break and really have yet to have their full team in full effect, which is a scary thought. With incredible talent, leadership, and by far the most playoff experience, the Giants come out on top this year as the favourites to win it all once again.