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Why MLB Has No Clear-Cut World Series Favorite This Season

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Why MLB Has No Clear-Cut World Series Favorite This Season
David Banks/Getty Images
As good as the Rangers are, they're just one of many teams in the hunt this season.

Raise your hand if you know who's going to win the World Series this season.

[Waits].

If you put your hand up, put it down now. You're kidding yourself.

That was a trick question, you see. Nobody has any clue who's going to win the World Series this year. Not even Nostradamus knows.

It's never easy to pick out a World Series winner in July, mind you, but it's even harder than usual this season. There are a lot of contenders to choose from, and none of them are perfect. Even stacked teams like the Texas Rangers, New York Yankees and Washington Nationals are not without flaws.

To illustrate the point, we can easily line up all of the current contenders around Major League Baseball and take a stroll through both their biggest strengths and their most glaring weaknesses, so why don't we go ahead and do that?

We'll start in the American League and work our way towards the National League. Fair warning: Many words lie below.

 

Note: All stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted

 

AL East

 

New York Yankees (1st Place)

What They Have

Al Bello/Getty Images
Curtis Granderson leads the Yankees with 23 home runs.

They certainly have plenty of power hitters. The Yankees have hit more home runs than any team in baseball this season, and they rank second to the Texas Rangers with a team slugging percentage of .454. They also have a rock-solid pitching staff that boasts a 3.70 ERA.

The starters have gotten a lot of credit, especially recently, but New York's bullpen is the true star. Despite not having Mariano Rivera for much of the season, the Yankees' bullpen has posted a 3.12 ERA. Rafael Soriano deserves to be commended for the job he's done filling in for Mo.

 

What They Don't Have

The Yankees are typically one of baseball's most dangerous teams because they're typically one of baseball's most clutch teams. That's not the case this year, as the Yankees are still struggling along with a .229 batting average with runners in scoring position. Any team that can keep them in the park in October will be able to beat them.

The Yankees' starting rotation can also be beaten. It's strong, but it's not scary. Even CC Sabathia has been human this year, and it's a tossup who the No. 2 starter behind him should be.

 

Baltimore Orioles (2nd Place)

What They Have

The Orioles' best asset is their bullpen. Jim Johnson leads the league in saves, and the bullpen as a whole has an MLB-best 2.70 ERA. If the Orioles take a lead into the late innings, odds are they're going to hold it.

Offensively, they're a team that can hit the ball out of the ballpark. Adam Jones, in particular, has shown a knack for coming through with clutch long balls this season.

 

What They Don't Have

There's a lot to like about Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, but Baltimore's starting pitching is a liability. Orioles starters have posted a 4.70 ERA this season, fourth-highest in all of baseball. And as good as Hammel and Chen are, neither of them is a true ace. In a short series, Baltimore won't win on the strength of its starting pitching.

It may not be able to win a series on the strength of its offense, either. The Orioles are powerful, but they're prone to offensive slumps that affect the whole lineup.

 

Tampa Bay Rays (3rd Place)

What They Have

J. Meric/Getty Images
David Price is tied for the AL lead with 11 wins.

When everyone is fully healthy, the Rays have one of the deepest starting rotations in Major League Baseball. David Price is the ace of the staff, and he's a legitimate Cy Young contender thus far in 2012. James Shields has been up and down this season, but you never know when he's going to put goose eggs on the board and keep putting them up there. Jeremy Hellickson is not flashy, but he's as good at confusing hitters as any young pitcher in the league. 

If the Rays can get a lead for Fernando Rodney, the game is over. He's been lights out this season.

 

What They Don't Have

Scoring runs has been a problem for the Rays this season. They rank in the middle of the pack in runs scored, and they rank in the lower third of the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. This has a lot to do with Evan Longoria's prolonged absence, which has definitely hurt the Rays.

The Rays also have issues on defense. Joe Maddon's infield shifts do make a difference, but the Rays have hurt themselves by committing 66 errors this season. Only the Orioles have committed more, and the Rays don't have the offensive firepower to make up for their mistakes like the O's do.

 

Boston Red Sox (T-4th Place)

What They Have

More than anything else, what the Red Sox have is a ton of talent on their disabled list. They've been at less than 100 percent all season long, yet they've managed to hang in there. This is largely thanks to their offense, which ranks second in baseball in runs scored and in the top 10 in batting average, OBP and slugging. Once they get Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford back, they'll be even more dangerous.

Though it was once a major problem, Boston's bullpen has been one of the best bullpens in baseball since the start of May. Bobby Valentine has a sneaky amount of depth to turn to.

 

What They Don't Have

Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz are solid pitchers, but none of them has established himself as the true ace of Boston's staff. Both Beckett and Lester have been inconsistent, and Buchholz was just starting to get hot before he got hurt. It's a good trio to have in a short series, but the Red Sox don't have a No. 1 that they can match up against other American League No. 1's.

Boston's offense is fine for the most part, but it's not perfect. Adrian Gonzalez has been a mystery all season, Dustin Pedroia hasn't been himself, and the team as a whole struggles away from Fenway Park. The Red Sox have a .816 OPS at home, and a .714 OPS on the road.

 

Toronto Blue Jays (T-4th Place)

What They Have

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
Jose Bautista leads MLB with 27 home runs.

The Blue Jays have more than enough home-run hitters. Only the Yankees have hit more bombs than the Blue Jays, but even they can't match the sheer scariness of Toronto's first four hitters. Brett Lawrie has found his power stroke recently, Colby Rasmus has been on fire since late May, Jose Bautista leads MLB in home runs, and Edwin Encarnacion is already up to 22 home runs a year after hitting just 17 all season.

If the Blue Jays make it to October, no pitcher is going to want to face them.

 

What They Don't Have

Pitching. Plain and simple. The Blue Jays have a rotation ERA of 4.53, and that's on the way up. They have a lot of quality arms on the disabled list at the moment, and supposed staff ace Ricky Romero has been a huge disappointment.

Toronto's bullpen is no prize, either. It has an ERA over 4.00 on the season.

 

AL Central

 

Chicago White Sox (1st Place)

What They Have

The White Sox don't boast great pitching numbers, but they have two legit co-aces in Jake Peavy and Chris Sale. If they get into the playoffs, having the two of them around will allow the White Sox to match up well with any team that they come across. 

Offensively, the White Sox are yet another team that specializes in hitting the long ball. They've hit 99 home runs this season, 55 of which have come at home. Virtually everyone in Robin Ventura's starting nine can hit the ball out of the park, making the 2012 White Sox a lot like the 2005 White Sox.

 

What They Don't Have

The White Sox don't have great pitching numbers because they don't have a ton of pitching depth. Peavy and Sale have been great, but the rest of Chicago's rotation has been an adventure. The scary part is that Peavy is injury-prone and Sale has already logged a career-high 102.2 innings. Whether both of them will be the same when October rolls around is anyone's guess.

The other problem with Chicago is that its offense can go missing. Adam Dunn is easily beaten, and Paul Konerko hasn't been the same since he caught fire in May. The White Sox have depth beyond Dunn and Konerko, but they're not exactly the Texas Rangers.

 

Cleveland Indians (2nd Place)

What They Have

Jeff Curry/Getty Images
Jason Kipnis is on pace to hit 20 home runs and steal 40 bases this season.

The Indians have a sneaky-good offense that ranks 11th in baseball in runs scored and fifth in on-base percentage. They don't have any big boppers, but Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo are underrated hitters who are not to be underestimated.

Cleveland's bullpen isn't deep, but Chris Perez has done a fine job of closing games out this season.

 

What They Don't Have

The Indians lack scary starting pitching. Derek Lowe has been awful since starting the season hot, Ubaldo Jimenez is a shell of the pitcher he was back in 2010, and Justin Masterson's best starts this season came against National League competition.

Even if the Indians make it to the postseason, their starting pitching is still going to be a problem area.

 

Detroit Tigers (3rd Place)

What They Have

The Tigers have the best pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander. He's been up and down this season, but his downs haven't been that bad and his ups have been very, very good. He's capable of throwing a no-hitter every time he takes the mound, and it's worth noting that he's already logged five complete games this season.

Detroit also has a lethal hitting duo in Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Negotiating the heart of the Tigers' lineup is as dangerous as it gets.

 

What They Don't Have

The Tigers should be a more prolific run-scoring team than they are. Cabrera, Fielder and Austin Jackson are awesome, but the rest of Jim Leyland's hitters have struggled to pull their weight.

There's also the question of who the No. 2 starter is on Detroit's staff. It was supposed to be Doug Fister, but he's struggled this season. Max Scherzer has great stuff, but he's highly unpredictable.

To make matters worse, the Tigers' bullpen can let things get out of control in a hurry. Jose Valverde is the main offender, as it seems like he never nails down a save without flirting with danger first.

 

AL West


Texas Rangers (1st Place)

What They Have

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images
Josh Hamilton leads the AL with a .426 wOBA.

The Rangers are the closest thing to a perfect team that Major League Baseball has to offer this season. They're first in baseball in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and their lineup features one of the game's most dangerous hitters in Josh Hamilton.

When everyone's healthy, the Rangers have more bullpen depth than any team in baseball. If they have a lead after six innings in the playoffs, the game is going to be over.

 

What They Don't Have

The Rangers have good depth in their starting rotation, but they're another team that lacks a true No. 1. They have a couple of solid No. 2s in Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish and former No. 1 in Roy Oswalt, but no true ace.

This has been the case the last two years, but the Rangers have still managed to make it to the World Series in each of them. Whether they can win it without a true No. 1 starting pitcher is the issue here.

 

Los Angeles Angels (2nd Place)

What They Have

The Angels have baseball's most unappreciated ace in Jered Weaver. He's spent some time on the disabled list this season, but he's picked up right where he left off since being activated. He leads the American League in both ERA and WHIP, and he also has a no-hitter to his name.

The top of the Angels' lineup is as good as it gets. Rookie sensation Mike Trout has entrenched himself as the most dynamic leadoff hitter in the league, Torii Hunter is a great No. 2 hitter, Albert Pujols' early-season struggles are a thing of the past, and Mark Trumbo is showing this season that he's more than just a power hitter.

In Ernesto Frieri, the Angels have stumbled upon a true gem. He's been excellent closing out games for them this season.

 

What They Don't Have

There's a slight question about who this team's No. 2 pitcher is. Dan Haren has struggled this season, in large part because of a bad back. C.J. Wilson is good, but his tendency to walk hitters will be an issue in October. And Ervin Santana...yeah, he's just not good.

While one cannot complain about the top-four hitters in the Angels' lineup, it's not the deepest lineup under the sun. If a pitcher can handle Trout, Hunter, Pujols and Trumbo, he'll be able to handle the rest of the Angels' lineup with ease.

 

NL East

 

Washington Nationals (1st Place)

What They Have

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Stephen Strasburg has already logged a career-high 93 innings.

Statistically, the Nationals have the best starting rotation in baseball. It has an ERA of 3.28 and a collective WAR of 9.6, according to FanGraphs. Their rotation is led by two co-aces in Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, both of whom boast nasty stuff that they can use to rack up strikeouts. In a short series, nobody will want to face them.

It took a while for Washington's offense to come together, but it's clicking now that Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse are both healthy. Ian Desmond has been a pleasant surprise despite his low walk rate, and Bryce Harper has had little trouble fitting in. 

Washington's bullpen is strong now, and it will be even stronger once Drew Storen gets healthy.

 

What They Don't Have

It's not so much about what they don't have now so much as it's about what they're not going to have later. Stephen Strasburg is going to be shut down, eventually, and the Nats haven't made any promises about making sure he's ready for October.

That's Washington's biggest concern. The other big one is their collective youth. The Nationals have a lot of young guys, and the track record of young teams in the postseason is at best a mixed bag.

 

New York Mets (2nd Place)

What They Have

The Mets have one of baseball's most dominant pitchers in R.A. Dickey. He's a candidate to throw a shutout every time he takes the ball, and he's already flirted with no-hitters a couple of times this season. In addition to him, the Mets have Johan Santana, a two-time Cy Young winner who has thrown a no-hitter this season.

Offensively, the Mets are better than the sum of their parts. The one hitter who stands out as being exceptional is David Wright, who is having a superb season.

 

What They Don't Have

The Mets do not have a strong bullpen. Their 5.11 bullpen ERA is the worst in the majors, and they're tied for third with 13 blown saves. Primary closer Frank Francisco has been awful and is now on the DL.

Beyond a good bullpen, what the Mets lack is simple consistency. They'll look unbeatable one week, and then they'll string together three or four straight losses the week after. These losses have tended to come against teams that are clearly better than they are, and that obviously doesn't bode well for them as far as October is concerned.

 

Atlanta Braves (3rd Place)

What They Have

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Michael Bourn is tied for fourth in MLB with a 4.3 WAR.

The Braves have had to deal with key injuries for a good portion of the season, but their lineup is pretty dangerous when everyone's healthy. Dan Uggla, Chipper Jones, Jason Heyward, Martin Prado and Michael Bourn all have offensive WARs of 1.4 or better, according to Baseball-Reference.com

Atlanta's bullpen is not as lights-out as it was in 2011, but Craig Kimbrel is just as nasty now as he was at any point last season. No closer in baseball owns filthier stuff than he does, and he's used it to put together a K/9 of 15.00 this season.

 

What They Don't Have

The Braves lack both starting-pitching depth and a true No. 1. This is something they could change at the trade deadline, but right now, their rotation is ill-equipped for postseason baseball.

Though Kimbrel has been excellent in the ninth inning, Atlanta relievers have struggled in the middle innings. The Braves have a 6.44 ERA in the sixth inning this season and a 5.67 ERA in the seventh inning. While they're out looking for another starter, they should look for another impact reliever as well.

 

NL Central

 

Pittsburgh Pirates (1st Place)

What They Have

The Pirates certainly have pitching. Only the Washington Nationals have allowed fewer runs than the Pirates have, and that's primarily thanks to their bullpen. Pittsburgh has a 2.71 bullpen ERA, as opposed to a rotation ERA that's slightly above 4.00.

The one starting pitcher who stands out as an ace is James McDonald, who has a 2.45 ERA this season. He'll be able to match up with any other No. 1 in the playoffs.

The Pirates are by no means an elite offensive team, but they managed to score more runs than any other team in June and Andrew McCutchen has been excellent all season.

 

What They Don't Have

Beyond McDonald, none of Pittsburgh's starting pitchers are all that scary, and it's even debatable who their No. 2 guy is supposed to be.

And with all respect to the month (June) that the Pirates' offense just had, no team is afraid of their bats. In the postseason, teams would really only be worried about McCutchen.

 

Cincinnati Reds (2nd Place)

What They Have

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Joey Votto leads all MLB players with a 4.8 WAR.

The Reds have baseball's best hitter in Joey Votto, who leads all hitters with a .454 wOBA, according to FanGraphs. Brandon Phillips is doing his thing once again this season. Though streaky, Jay Bruce is one of the game's top power hitters.

As a team, the Reds are a scary squad to face at the Great American Ball Park. They slug .375 on the road, but .457 at home. Of the team's 89 home runs, 56 have come at home.

Fielding-wise, the Reds are above-average, and they have pitchers who know how to use the team's defense. Johnny Cueto is particularly good at it, but he'd be good even if the Reds were a below-average defensive team. He's a No. 1 the Reds can match up against anyone.

 

What They Don't Have

Beyond Cueto, Cincinnati's rotation is mediocre. Mat Latos has shown signs of life recently, but for the most part, he's been a disappointment. Bronson Arroyo and his assortment of breaking balls don't scare anyone anymore. Mike Leake and Homer Bailey are both nothing more than back-end starters.

Away from the Great American Ball Park, the Reds are a below-average offensive team. They have an OPS of .786 at home and an OPS of .674 on the road, a pretty glaring disparity.

Cincinnati's bullpen has been a pleasant surprise this season, but Aroldis Chapman got knocked around in June. It turns out he's not a superhuman.

 

St. Louis Cardinals (3rd Place)

What They Have

The Cardinals are the National League's top offensive team, as they lead the Senior Circuit in runs scored, batting average and on-base percentage. They rank second in slugging behind the Colorado Rockies.

Though the Cardinals have had to work with an undermanned starting rotation this season, their starters have compiled a 3.79 ERA that ranks eighth among all major-league teams.

 

What They Don't Have

The Cardinals have had issues with their bullpen this season. Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs have both been good, but beyond them, St. Louis' bullpen lacks both depth and talent.

The rotation has a similar problem. Lance Lynn and Kyle Lohse have both been good, but St. Louis' other three starters have been unreliable. The team just got some bad news, too, as it was revealed this week that Chris Carpenter will not be coming to the Cardinals' rescue.

That's a big blow. The Cardinals were hoping he would return and reclaim his place as the staff ace. Now, they'll have to find somebody at the trade deadline to carry the torch.

 

NL West

 

Los Angeles Dodgers (1st Place)

What They Have

Harry How/Getty Images
Matt Kemp would lead all MLB players in wOBA if he had enough at-bats to qualify.

The Dodgers will soon be getting Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier back healthy. Once they do, they'll have the heart of their order back again. It hasn't been intact since early May, and the Dodgers have struggled to overcome its absence.

The Dodgers' key strength, however, is their pitching. Only the Nationals have a lower rotation ERA, and Dodgers relievers have been just as good; they have a 3.13 ERA this season.

And don't let his lack of wins fool you. Clayton Kershaw is still an elite pitcher.

 

What They Don't Have

Kemp and Ethier are both great, but the Dodgers don't have any other batters that qualify as being truly scary. Even with Kemp and Ethier back healthy, the Dodgers are not going to be an elite offensive team.

That will be the biggest issue for them in October. They have the pitching to match up with any team in the league, but it won't do them any good if teams neutralize Kemp and Ethier (especially Kemp).

 

San Francisco Giants (2nd Place)

What They Have

Despite the struggles of Tim Lincecum and the more recent struggles of Barry Zito, the Giants have a trio of starting pitchers that will be deadly in a short series. Matt Cain is finally getting the attention he's deserved all along, Madison Bumgarner is one of the top young pitchers in baseball, and Ryan Vogelsong is a control artist who is a lot better than he has any business being with his stuff.

The Giants' pitching depth extends beyond their rotation. Even without Brian Wilson, their bullpen has been an area of strength this season. Sergio Romo, in particular, has been as good as ever.

 

What They Don't Have

The Giants have a tendency to score just enough runs to win ballgames, but they're not a team that will light up the scoreboard on a nightly basis. They don't hit the ball out of the ballpark, and they don't clog the bases with runners, inning after inning.

Pitching-wise, not having Lincecum as a weapon to use is a problem. He was dynamite when the team won the World Series in 2010, but he's not the same pitcher anymore. The Giants have the depth to make up for his struggles now, but the 2010 version of Lincecum will be missed if they qualify for the postseason.

 

There's no real measuring stick when it comes to assessing which teams look destined to be world champions, but the best measuring stick I can think of is the 1998 New York Yankees. They had incredible depth both on offense and in their starting pitching rotation, and they had an excellent bullpen headed by a truly elite closer. They also had a good balance of veterans and youngsters.

Of the top contenders around Major League Baseball, the two teams that come close to matching the depth and overall talent of the '98 Yankees are the Rangers and the Nationals, but even they don't come close enough. The Rangers are a very good team, but their lack of an ace is a red flag. The Nationals look like the NL's best team, but they're doomed to lose their ace and they're a little short on veterans.

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The rest of the teams we discussed here don't belong in the same paragraph as the '98 Yankees, much less the same sentence. There are a lot of good teams in Major League Baseball this year, but few great ones.

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that we typically don't find out who the great teams really are until October. For all we know, the Chicago Cubs are baseball's greatest team at the moment and are just laying low for the time being. 

I'm not saying they are, of course. The point I'm trying to make can be summed up in two words: Who knows?

The fact that there is no clear-cut favorite to win the World Series this season is a good thing. That means baseball still has that one thing that makes it so special:

Unpredictability.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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