Amidst all the talk about great Wild Card races, as MLB enters the stretch run, it is beginning to look like three teams really have a chance to capture the 2016 World Series -- the Chicago Cubs, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Cubs have been so good for so long, and they deserve to be a big favorite to win their first World Series since becoming the first team in baseball to win back-to-back World Series in 1907 and 1908. The Cubs have appeared in seven other World Series since 1908, the last in 1945. And clearly with a plus-217 run differential, the largest in baseball, and a record that shows them 34 games above .500, they still have a psychological test in front of them.
That leaves the door slightly ajar for the other two teams. Let's take a peek at the Dodgers first. There's no question hiring manager Dave Roberts has been a huge plus. Having a manager who is going to evolve into one of the sport's best is great. But more important is the fact that the team knows he has the full-backing of the management that runs the team now. That couldn't be said about former manager Don Mattingly.
For the Dodgers to win their first Series since 1988, the club will need a near miraculous return from starter Clayton Kershaw, who has been out for nearly three months with a herniated disc in his back. One of the many arms acquired to hold down the fort while Kershaw was gone was Rich Hill. He's been one of the great stories in the sport since September a year ago, when the Red Sox gave him four starts and sat back in wonder as Hill went 2-1 with a 1.55 ERA and a 0.65 WHIP during an awe-inspiring 29 innings.
The Dodgers acquired Hill from Oakland at the trade deadline, and while making his first start after a month of touch-and-go performances while recovering from a blister issue, all Hill did was throw six shutout innings.
It's a huge "if," but
if Hill can hold up for 11-12 more starts, and Kershaw can come back down the stretch, watch out for the Dodgers.
A team with not nearly as many questions is the Toronto Blue Jays. They went on an amazing run a season ago after acquiring shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and lefty David Price at the trade deadline. They fell short by butting heads with a Kansas City Royals team that seemed destined to win the World Series.
This season it took them a good while to come together and evolve into a very dangerous team. What's all the more amazing about what the Jays have accomplished this season is much of it has been done without right fielder and brash talker Jose Bautista, who has suffered through two extended stays on the disabled list.
The Blue Jays clearly have the best overall rotation in the American League, and they have patched together an imposing bullpen and have a lineup that is tough to slow down.
But of all the reasons Toronto has a real chance, it's the fact that the Bautista they get back now is going to be highly motivated to show his current employer what a mistake it would be not to sign him. That will be one highly motivated bat in the lineup, and one that could make all the difference in the world, Series, that is.
1. Chicago Cubs (82-47 overall record, No. 1 ranking last week) -- The Cubs are so dominant that the only story coming out of the organization is that right-hander Jason Hammel is unhappy with skipper Joe Maddon over being pulled early from his most recent start. This seems like Maddon is playing the master psychologist and trying to motivate someone he may need during the postseason gauntlet his team will face.
2. Toronto Blue Jays (74-56, No. 5) -- It looks as though the Blue Jays will more than outlast the Orioles and Red Sox to take the AL East. And it seems the AL East's level of competition has proved to be a plus for character building. Third baseman Josh Donaldson is playing as if he'd like to hang onto that MVP award for a second consecutive season.
3. Texas Rangers (77-54, No. 4) -- The Rangers lead AL in wins, and general manager Jon Daniels continues to tweak his roster, which is good news and bad news. Yes, they lost Fielder for good and right fielder Shin-Soo Choo always seems to be on the DL, but does all this tinkering speak to an insecure feeling from management? If hurlers A.J. Griffin, Martin Perez and Derek Holland come to the party, the Rangers can beat anyone in the game.
4. Cleveland Indians (73-56, No. 2) -- As good as they've been all year, it now comes down to how they handle the role they haven't been used to: the hunted. A 4.5-game lead over the Tigers and a 5.5-game lead over the Royals looks like it should hold. However a 6-8 record, including losses in five of their last six games, has opened the door for two hotter and confident teams -- the Tigers and Royals. Lefty reliever Andrew Miller has been a big help, but they continue to look a bat short to me.
5. Los Angeles Dodgers (73-57, No. 7) -- The Dodger almost completed a statement sweep over MLB's best team -- the Cubs. Is the doom-and-gloom regarding left-hander Kershaw's injury over? If lefty Hill can stay healthy and Kershaw is able to pitch through his back issues, the Dodgers could be the only team around that can truly upend the Cubs' designs on world domination.
6. Boston Red Sox (72-58, No. 6) -- The Red Sox are the only AL team to score 704 runs to date and lead the AL in run differential (plus-115). But that number, combined with having scored 704 runs, speaks to the issues that remain toxic to their chances for a deep playoff run. While right-hander Rick Porcello has been solid all year, and Price is coming on -- righty Steven Wright has looked all wrong and left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez isn't scaring anyone. Add in some issues in the bullpen in getting to closer Craig Kimbrel, and the staff mitigates one of the two best offensive teams in baseball.
7. Washington Nationals (75-55, No. 3) -- Right-hander Stephen Strasburg's injury and DL stint won't affect their designs on National League East crown, but it will hurt their chances at a deep postseason run.
8. Baltimore Orioles (71-59, No. 9) -- With right-hander Chris Tillman on the DL and righty Dylan Bundy showing signs he may have very little in the reserve, right-hander Kevin Gausman has stepped up big time. But the question remains: can one member of the trio of Wade Miley, Yovani Gallardo or Ubaldo Jimenez step up and be the pitcher the club has needed all season.
9. San Francisco Giants (71-59, No. 11) -- The Giants are 15-26 since the All-Star break and have not only given up the division advantage to Dodgers, but they have backed themselves into a position in which they are no longer a lock to be in the postseason.
10. St. Louis Cardinals (68-61, No. 8) -- The Cardinals are 12-12 in their past 24 games, and it just doesn't look like they can get the starting pitching and the offense together at the same time. That's a bad mix, but they are fighting with Pirates for a quick one-game execution.
11. Kansas City Royals (68-62, No. 13)
12. Houston Astros (68-62, No. 12)
13. Detroit Tigers (69-61, No. 14)
14. Pittsburgh Pirates (67-61, No. 16)
15. Seattle Mariners (68-62, No. 10)
16. Miami Marlins (67-63, No. 15)
17. New York Yankees (67-62, No. 17)
18. New York Mets (66-64, No. 18)
19. Colorado Rockies (62-68, No. 19)
20. Chicago White Sox (63-66, No. 21)
21. Philadelphia Phillies (60-70, No. 20)
22. Tampa Bay Rays (55-74, No. 22)
23. Oakland Athletics (57-73, No. 24)
24. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (56-74, No. 25)
25. Cincinnati Reds (55-74, No. 23)
26. Milwaukee Brewers (56-74, No. 26)
27. Arizona Diamondbacks (55-76, No. 29)
28. San Diego Padres (55-75, No. 27)
29. Minnesota Twins (49-81, No. 28)
30. Atlanta Braves (48-83, No. 30)