Fast Five: World Series Favorites After the All-Star Break

Play resumes tonight in MLB after a four day break for the league’s All-Star Game in San Diego.  Roughly 21 of the 30 teams still have a realistic chance at making the playoffs (exactly how many depends on your definition of realistic), but a few stand out at the most likely teams to make a deep run come October.  Here are my five biggest favorites to win the World Series:

5. Cleveland Indians (52-36)
Over the last few years, my biggest point of skepticism with the Indians has been whether they could score runs, because they’ve had the pitching to contend for a while.  This year, while the pitching continues to be strong (the staff leads the AL with a 3.63 ERA), the offense is beyond just a complement to the pitching, as the Indians have become a force on both sides of the ball.  The Tribe scored 5.4 runs per game during a recent 14-game winning streak, and are led by SS Francisco Lindor (.306 BA, 10 HR, 45 RBI).  While Lindor leads the club in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), however, the next five are still pitchers (Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin), showing that the pitching staff is still the foundation as the club tries to make its first World Series trip since 1997, and tries to win it for the first time.  The Indians currently have a comfortable 6.5 game lead in the AL Central over the Tigers.

4. Washington Nationals (54-36)
Last year the Nats were a team of dysfunction, but under new manager Dusty Baker they have, at least thus far, realized their potential in 2016.  Bryce Harper, the defending NL MVP, is having somewhat of a down year, at least by his lofty standards (.256 BA, 19 HR, 52 RBI), and is seventh on the team in WAR.  Like the Indians, the Nationals are built with pitching; four of the top five in WAR are pitchers (Steven Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark, and Joe Ross, with 2B Daniel Murphy being the exception), and the team leads all of baseball with a 3.29 ERA.  Offensively, it is Murphy who is putting up MVP numbers (.348 BA, 17 HR, 66 RBI), as part of an offense that is sixth in the NL in runs and first in homers.  This team, who leads the Mets and Marlins by six games in the NL East, has the talent to win it all in October, although they have never even won a playoff series, something they would have to do twice to reach the Fall Classic.

3. Texas Rangers (54-36)
Last year, the Rangers made a surprise run in the second half to reach the postseason after many pundits thought they were best positioned for a run in 2016.  Well, they have an excellent chance at another playoff opportunity this year, as they sport the best record in the AL and have a 5.5 game lead on the resurgent Houston Astros.  The scary thing for the rest of baseball is that this team, as good as they have been, has not been completely healthy at any point yet this season.  Ian Desmond (.322 BA, 15 HR, 55 RBI) is a candidate for the MLB Comeback Player of the Year Award after a very poor 2015 campaign with Washington, although Matt Bush (3-1, 2.49 ERA) also has an exceptional comeback story as a key contributor on the AL favorites just months after his release from a 39-month prison term.  This particular year, the AL field in the playoffs will likely not be as strong as the NL field, something that could play right into the Rangers’ hands as they try to win their first World Series title.

2. San Francisco Giants (57-33)
Yes, it is an even-numbered year, but that is not the main reason the Giants are on this list.  The team has a remarkable stretch of winning the World Series the last three even years (2010, ’12, ’14), and they are contenders to do it again in 2016, currently leading the Dodgers by 6.5 games in the NL West.  The Giants are fourth in the NL in runs, despite ranking next to last in homers, and are still doing well at the plate despite three offensive starters on the DL.  But like most of the teams on this list, the Giants’ strength is their pitching, with a 3.55 team ERA that is fifth in MLB, and two bona fide aces leading the staff in All-Star starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (13-1, 2.47 ERA) and Madison Bumgarner (10-4, 1.94 ERA).  10 teams do not yet have a complete game, yet Cueto has four and Bumgarner three.  The team is 40-15 (albeit against a weak schedule) since May 10, and has the best record in baseball at the All-Star break for the first time since 1993, although just six of the last 30 teams to lead baseball at the break have followed in the fall with a title (and the ’93 edition is the last team to miss the playoffs with 100+ wins).  Only time will tell if this even year plays out like the last three.

1. Chicago Cubs (53-35)
In April I picked the Cubs to end their infamous 108-year championship drought, and I am sticking with it despite their recent 6-15 midseason swoon.  This team is simply too good for this slump to continue, and while I am not explicitly saying they will definitely win the World Series, I do still believe they have the best chance of anyone in baseball.  The Cubs are built differently than the other teams on this list, as five of their top six in WAR are position players, including their leaders in 3B/OF Kris Bryant (.286 BA, 25 HR, 65 RBI) and 1B Anthony Rizzo (.299 BA, 21 HR, 63 RBI).  That being said, their pitching has (for the most part) been outstanding as well, led by defending NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta (12-4, 2.68 ERA) and Jon Lester (9-4, 3.01 ERA).  This team is much better than recent form would indicate, and this rough patch is not likely to be anything more than a blip on the radar screen and is something every team goes through at some point.  The Cubs still lead the NL Central by 6.5 games over the Cardinals, and to me are still the World Series favorites just as they have been all along in 2016, as they try to do something that very few living souls have ever seen and win their first title since 1908.




MLB Standings

AL East
1. Baltimore 51-36
2. Boston 49-38, 2 GB
2. Toronto 51-40, 2 GB
4. N.Y. Yankees 44-44, 7.5 GB
5. Tampa Bay 34-54, 17.5 GB

AL Central
1. Cleveland 52-36
2. Detroit 46-43, 6.5 GB
3. Chi. White Sox 45-43, 7 GB
3. Kansas City 45-43, 7 GB
5. Minnesota 32-56, 20 GB

AL West
1. Texas 54-36
2. Houston 48-41, 5.5 GB
3. Seattle 45-44, 8.5 GB
4. Oakland 38-51, 15.5 GB
5. L.A. Angels 37-52, 16.5 GB

NL East
1. Washington 54-36
2. N.Y. Mets 47-41, 6 GB
2. Miami 47-41, 6 GB
4. Philadelphia 42-48, 12 GB
5. Atlanta 31-58, 22.5 GB

NL Central
1. Chi. Cubs 53-35
2. St. Louis 46-42, 7 GB
3. Pittsburgh 46-43, 7.5 GB
4. Milwaukee 38-49, 14.5 GB
5. Cincinnati 32-57, 21.5 GB

NL West
1. San Francisco 57-33
2. L.A. Dodgers 51-40, 6.5 GB
3. Colorado 40-48, 16 GB
4. San Diego 38-51, 18.5 GB
5. Arizona 38-52, 19 GB


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