The road to the World Series consists of heated division battles, intense rivalries and several short series in which anything can happen. Any major league team is capable of beating another on a given day, or even in a given series. These are the 10 teams—loosely listed in order—that I think have the greatest chance of standing in the Yankees' way this year. Consider this a ranking of how strongly I feel each teams is capable of stopping the Yankees.
Before I begin, some honorable mentions: Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels, Milwaukee Brewers, Toronto Blue Jays and [your favorite team]. Sorry I didn’t mention them. This is entirely subjective based partly on how the teams have performed so far, but mostly on what I think the teams are capable of and what I know about the players.
If there is one hitter in baseball who can carry his team for a week at a time, it’s Albert Pujols. Add Lance Berkman, Colby Rasmus and Matt Holliday to the picture and this is a team that can do some damage. Let’s not forget that Ryan Theriot and David Fresse can regress some—which they will— and still be good contact hitters.
The Cardinals have the pitching to dominate a good lineup. Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia can put a good-hitting team in an 0-2 hole real quick.
There may be some concerns about the back of this rotation. I wouldn’t want my season resting on the back of Kyle Lohse or Jake Westbrook and it’ll take Kyle McClellan another month to make a believer out of me. The bullpen is not stellar, but pitching is a strength and its upside is only enhanced by Dave Duncan and his bag of tricks.
The Athletics have a legitimate chance of winning their division. If the chinks in the Rangers’ armor (injury threats to most of their best hitters, a pitching staff made up of overachievers) become holes, don’t be surprised if this Oakland team sneaks its way into the playoffs.
The Athletics can pitch their way to a winning record. Their staff is that good—even with one of the worst offenses in baseball in recent years. Still, they can expect between three and four runs per game (on average).
Brett Anderson is a stud. Trevor Cahill is going to be a reliable pitcher for years to come. Gio Gonzalez has the stuff to go out and dominate any lineup on a given day. Dallas Braden has the makings of a quality big-league starter.
They have a bullpen that can get the job done as well, with the additions of Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes to a group that already included one of the top closers in the game in Andrew Bailey. By no stretch of the imagination do the Yankees have Oakland beat from the mound.
Right now, the A’s aren’t hitting. Even with their pitching, they have to pick it up if they want their season to extend past September. They brought in two solid on-base guys this offseason, one with pop (Josh Willingham) and one with superb contact hitting abilities (David DeJesus). They also added Hideki Matsui, who is still an above-average hitter. Right now, none of the three are hitting above .250 or getting on base at a clip above .316. They have five home runs between them. This will all change.
By no means is it a given that this team soars past Anaheim and Texas in their division, but I’m still a believer. If they make it to October, their pitching can carry them far.
I think the Cardinals have the slight edge when it comes to pitching. Still, there’s something about the Reds that still has me putting my money on them. I don’t think we have completely seen what some components of their lineup can do.
Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs and Joey Votto make a dangerous trio. With Brandon Phillips, Jonny Gomes and a bound-to-improve Scott Rolen, this lineup could score more runs than last year, when they drove in a league-leading 790. The Reds score with the longball but can still get on base and run, which makes them dangerous.
Yankee starters would have their work cut out for them against this squad, but the Yankees can hit Reds’ pitching. No Reds start has an ERA under 4.15 so far this season, but the group will be competent once Johnny Cueto comes back. Travis Wood and Bronson Arroyo are both fly-ball pitchers and Edinson Volquez struggles with command.
This team looked overmatched last October. The bullpen walks a lot of hitters, which plays into the Yankees’ strength, but the Yankees could find themselves outhit by these guys.
Yankee fans, I’m sure, would love to see their hitters take some swings against the fly-ball arms in Cincinnati or the volatile back end of the St. Louis rotation.
Both of these rotations have ample talent to at least get them to October. Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia make for a great one-two and Kyle McLellen has been hard to ignore so far.
I’m rooting for this matchup though, simply because I’d love to see Aroldis Chapman throw against the Yankees.
Put last year's team firmly in the rear-view mirror. The Dodgers are an excellent team. Their 11-11 record is unimpressive but, right now, only 11 teams have winning records in all of baseball. The Dodgers rank second in the NL West behind the Rockies, but I’m expecting a playoff run in Don Mattingly’s first year at the helm.
Dodgers starters’ unspectacular 3.98 ERA belies solid strikeout and walk rates. Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda combine to give them three potentially dominant starters. Jon Garland and Ted Lilly are unheralded but also have the potential to give this team five starters with ERAs under 4.00 and close to 200 innings pitched.
Their rotation will go a long way to getting these guys to October, but the offense will score runs as well. Matt Kemp could be on his way to a career year and Andre Ethier is a great contact/power guy. Despite recent success for Casey Blake, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Jamey Carroll, this is still not the deepest of lineups.
The Dodgers run and field well, and have a talented bullpen that needs to stop underachieving. They aren't at the top of anybody's list of teams most likely to win the World Series, but they aren’t at the top of my list of teams I’d most like to meet in the playoffs either.
This team won last year’s Fall Classic on the strength of arguably the best pitching staff in the game that year, and an offense that got the job done. The Giants are pretty much the same team this year, with a few notable changes.
What has not changed is the crew of starters who make the best offenses look like little leaguers. The Giants, whose hitting last year was more timely than reliable, could wind up with a below-average ranking in most offensive categories.
Right now they are firmly situated at .500, and the biggest challenge for them will be getting to October. If they do that, then they can fall back on the trio of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez—who now all have playoff experience. The Giants would be better off if Madison Bumgarner figures things out, but I think he will.
So far, the Giants are getting production out of Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Freddy Sanchez, Mark DeRosa, Pat Burrell, Andres Torress and Aaron Rowand. Cody Ross and Aubrey Huff should come around and be better than they have been, while a few of the guys who have been hitting might regress some.
The best possible performance from these bats probably isn’t enough to get the Giants past the Dodgers and Rockies. They need to shut down opposing offenses on a day-by-day basis. Three-fifths of the staff has been doing that; Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner have not.
Zito should be good for an ERA about two runs under his current 6.23 mark and Bumgarner isn’t going to finish the season with his 7.79, so look for the Giants to make another run at the playoffs.
In a meeting with the Yankees, this is another group of starters who could make the New York lineup look silly four times in seven days. The Yankees would need to score some runs off Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez at least three times in six potential meetings. Their pitching would also need to silence a Giants batting lineup that can score runs although they aren't terrifying on paper. The Giants also bring a bullpen with the second-best K/BB rate and WHIP in the majors.
All is not lost in Tampa. After their horrible start, the Rays have won two-thirds of their games. They are still under .500, and they still have to play the Yankees and Red Sox about thirty-five more times in total, but the Rays can pitch and that’s always something to worry about.
Unlike many of the other teams on this list, the Rays can ruin the Yankees’ hopes not just by stopping them in October but by preventing them from even getting there. The Rays could soar past the Yankees in the standings, replacing them in a playoff spot, or they could be spoilers and help someone from another division take the wildcard.
I’m not betting on the Rays contending, although I haven’t ruled out that outcome entirely. Sam Fuld and Johnny Damon may not have the sheer talent of Carl Crawford, but both could wind up with better seasons. Evan Longoria will be off the DL soon and John Jaso will pick things up. B.J. Upton has been patient at the plate and taking walks, which is a nice change. The Rays lineup is full of guys who are currently underachieving but are by no means a lock to continue to do so. Let’s not forget the nice job Matt Joyce has been doing.
Tampa Bay will have a tough time getting to October, but this is a talented group that hasn’t buried themselves too far in the standings. If they get there, David Price, James Shields, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson could do what the Rays failed to do last year. The odds seem against them, but they have a good pitching staff and an offense that has yet to come alive.
Meet my pick to win the National League West. They were my pick last year, but this year they are not just a sneaky NL-west team but one of the three best all-around teams in the NL. It’s this balance that makes them a solid candidate for October success.
Their 103 runs scored ties them with the Yankees for No. 5 in the majors. They lead the league in walks, despite playing in a good pitching division. They strike out a lot and haven’t been hitting for average, but they still get on base a lot. They have above-average power and speed and play excellent defense.
Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez anchor the middle of this batting order. Dexter Fowler is a very good leadoff man. Jonathan Herrera has been excellent in the No. 2 hole. I doubt either of them are going to regress that much.
Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge de la Rosa are both showing that they have good seasons in their arms. Jason Hammel is pitching well as I always thought he could. Ubaldo Jimenez is a good manicurist away from squeezing some more electricity out of his arm. With a quality bullpen, the Rockies have the pitching a World Series team needs, but it’s the offense that stands out.
This offense has beaten such names as Kershaw, Cain, Billingsley and Garza. This team could score runs off a rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, Hughes and Nova. The Yankees can score runs off the Rockies' pitching too, but this team can be competitive against the Yankees in a short series. This is a team I would be worried about if I had to face them in October.
And, boy, wouldn’t Boston love to see the Rockies—a team they bulldozed over four Octobers ago—trump the Yankees for their first championship?
Why are the Red Sox not ranked higher? There are two teams I would be more scared of in a short series in October. But the Red Sox still meet the Yankees more than 15 times, which means ample opportunity for one team to bury the other in the standings. Let’s not talk any more about the Sox’s terrible start. They have gone 8-4 since and are now within striking distance of the Yankees.
Boston had the talent all along. We know what their lineup can do. Even an aging David Ortiz can still hit 30 home runs. Even a brittle J.D. Drew can still be an elite on-base threat with pop. Jed Lowrie could steal Marco Scutaro’s job sooner rather than later and the Sox would be better off for it. But I haven’t even mentioned the guys I’m excited about.
Last year this Red Sox team was hit harder by injuries than any team I can remember and they still won 89 games in this division. This year, they could still win 95 as far as I’m concerned. I do believe that they can still win the division.
Three big questions plague this offense and I’ll answer them all right here.
Q: Where’s Adrian Gonzalez’ power?
A: Who cares. He’s hitting fine. The home runs will come but be happy they aren’t being replaced with strikeouts. Remember, Gonzalez is a guy who hits to all fields. In Fenway, I expect somewhere between five and 10 potential homers to go for doubles.
Q: Wasn’t Kevin Youkilis supposed to be one of the best hitters in the game?
A: Again, he fell victim to the small sample size. He’s second on the team in OBP (.390) and could lead the team in that category by season’s end.
Q: Is Carl Crawford Boston’s Barry Zito?
A: No, the hits will come. Unlike Zito, Crawford has the peripherals that suggest continued success. He’s only striking out a little more often than he has in years past, he’s only walking a little less often. The hits just aren’t falling in for him (BABIP=.188) but his line-drive rate will rise in time, leading to at least a .270 average by season’s end.
Boston’s pitching has been poor, to say the least, but I still think it will wind up being better than the Yankees’. Jon Lester has pitched like an ace a month before he usually starts to do so. Josh Beckett has rediscovered his dominance. I still don’t know whether I would rather have Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes as opposed to John Lackey and Clay Buchholz in the short term. Jonathan Papelbon has been his old self and Daniel Bard has looked alright. By all accounts, the Red Sox are not a severely inferior team to the Yankees if they are, in fact, actually worse. Expect a long, hard-fought division race and expect Boston to be the Yankees’ biggest obstacle to the division title.
The Rangers have one of the best lineups in baseball. In fact, they have one that can go toe-to-toe with the Yankees. The Rangers are No. 4 in baseball in runs scored at present, and have struck out less often than any other team.
They are, arguably, the best combination of raw hitting talent and power in a lineup in the league. These contact skills could do the Yankees in for a second consecutive year.
There is no team with a lineup that would tax their arms as much as the Rangers.
The Yankees would be praying for injuries because Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler are three 30 HR, .300-average threats. We know what Michael Young, Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus are capable of as well. Mitch Moreland has stepped up and could hit 25 home runs from the bottom of the Rangers’ order. Mike Napoli represents an upgrade over Bengie Molina, and he can also play first base.
In a short series, there is no doubt the Rangers can outhit the Yankees but they may also be able to outpitch them. Lacking an ace, the Rangers have dragged continued success out of C.J. Wilson and now have Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando firing on all cylinders.
A meeting between these two teams would come down to a matter of who brings the lumber. And who can get that timely, shutdown start.
At this point, if I’m looking for any team from the AL that can beat the Yankees, I’m turning to Texas.
Phillie starters are totally underachieving with an ERA of 3.47 (good for No. 8 in the majors). Roy Oswalt leads the pack with his 1.88 mark. Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels are both perched beneath the 3.00 mark, at 2.83 and 2.92 respectively. Cliff Lee is at 3.91 though he has been downright dominant at least half the time.
Joe Blanton’s ERA is the highest at 5.92, but his FIP (fielder-independent pitching ERA) is also the highest at 3.58. This means that in spite of his high ERA, even he has the peripherals to turn in a quality season. Joe Blanton has the lowest strikeout rate of the five at 6.29—a respectable figure—and he also has the highest walk rate of the bunch at 2.22.
The Phillies have five guys with good control and four with exceptional stuff. I’m still banking on this staff leading MLB in ERA when all is said and done, and they will be near to top in K/BB rate, BB rate, complete games, wins and innings pitched.
It is going to take catastrophic injuries to derail this staff. Their bullpen is getting it done as well (2.25 ERA so far but they walk too many), although this staff could render their bullpen irrelevant in the playoffs. This might allow the Phillies to stock their October roster with an extra bat or two, especially considering Blanton would be throwing from the pen.
In most offensive categories the Phillies rank about average to below average. But this is still a team that can score runs. Everyone is hitting and getting on base with the exception of Raul Ibanez, who should come around. The power will come, especially when Chase Utley gets back. This is a weaker lineup that last year’s, and injuries remain a concern, but the pitching staff more than makes up for it.
The Phillies have gotten off to a 14-6 start and there is no reason to believe they will be slowing down anytime soon. Is anyone still doubting this team will be playing in October?