MLB Playoff Picture: How Each Contender Can Win the World Series
As August comes to a close and September draws near, playoff baseball is just on the horizon.
The dog days of August have separated contenders from the pack, obliterated the pretenders back to earth and created some interesting playoff races.
Anything can happen once a team makes the playoffs, so this article will be encouragement to fans as to why their team can do the distance this season. They'll have renewed and justified hope that their team can win the World Series in 2015.
Realistically, not every team near a playoff spot is a contender but merely just an average, flawed team that is hanging around with a sub-.500 record. Not to seem harsh, but that's why teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays (60-61) and Minnesota Twins (60-61) have been left off.
Of course, some teams have a better chance than others, while a few have more work to do to get in, but there are still plenty of chances for floundering franchises such as the Washington Nationals to right the ship.
Here's your guide as to how each contender can win the World Series.
Standings: 0.5 games behind second wild card, 5.0 games out of the AL East
The Baltimore Orioles seem to be peaking at the right time, which makes their decision to be trade-deadline buyers rather than sellers appear to be a wise one. The O's have won five of their last seven games and are now applying heat in both the wild card and division races.
If they make the playoffs, which is becoming an increasing possibility, they will need to ride their big three bats and dominant bullpen to the World Series.
The Orioles have their issues, but the bats of Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Adam Jones will give them a chance to win every game.
After an injury-plagued 2014 campaign, Machado has bounced back in a major way, hitting .299 with 25 home runs and reclaiming his spot among baseball's bright young stars.
Davis, on the other hand, is following up a season in which he hit just .196 with one of the best seasons of his career. He is second in baseball in home runs (34) and RBI (89) and is hitting .299 with 16 HR and 40 RBI since July 1.
Unsurprisingly, Jones just keeps having Jones seasons. He's in the midst of his sixth straight season of hitting in the .280s and has recently found his power stroke, hitting 13 homers in his last 38 games.
The Orioles offense is starting to fire on all cylinders, which is a bad sign for the rest of the league, especially when Baltimore has a lockdown bullpen that shortens the game and makes any type of run support enough.
Baltimore's 2.84 bullpen ERA ranks third in the American League and features Darren O'Day (1.15 ERA) and Zach Britton (1.80 ERA, 29 saves). Any late lead appears safe for the Orioles.
Standings: 4.0-game lead for the second wild card
An infusion of youth and some key offseason moves have the Cubs thinking of October for the first time in a long time.
The Cubs have a unique blend of top prospects and proven veterans who have come together and formed something beautiful. There's a contender on the North Side, and if Chicago aren't taken seriously, it can blow right by you.
Led by genius manager Joe Maddon, who gets more out of his players than anyone else in baseball, the Cubs have had a better season than anyone predicted. Sure, everyone knew they had top prospects waiting in the wings, but who knew they would be instant stars?
Kris Bryant is second among rookies with 17 home runs and leads first-year players with 68 RBI.
Kyle Schwarber has burst onto the scene with 10 home runs in his first 37 games while also adding the defensive versatility to play behind the plate and move to left field.
His shift to left enabled Maddon to move Chris Coghlan to second base and rookie Addison Russell to his natural position of shortstop and to bench the struggling Starlin Castro.
Besides their youth-filled offense, the Cubs also have some firepower in the starting rotation.
The success of Jake Arrieta, who now leads baseball with 15 wins, has created an interesting talking point. Will Arrieta get the ball in the Wild Card Round, or will it be $155 million starter Jon Lester and his 14 games of playoff experience?
Either way, the Cubs can't go wrong, and they have become one of the most fun stories in baseball this season.
Standings: 2.5-game lead in the AL West
After a long rebuild, the Astros have made a flurry of moves to further cement themselves as legitimate contenders. The issue, however, is that they've hit a wall.
Despite trading for Scott Kazmir and Carlos Gomez, the Astros are just 8-10 in August. Kazmir is 1-3 since joining the Astros, and Gomez is hitting .188 in 18 games.
The issue right now is that the offense is in a bit of a funk, scoring three runs or fewer in 11 games this month. The good news is that there is plenty of time to get back on track.
The most encouraging signs for the Astros are the emergence of shortstop Carlos Correa and the success of the front end of the rotation.
Correa may already be the best shortstop in baseball at age 20, which seems crazy to say. He has 15 home runs in 63 games and would be on pace for 39 HR, 105 RBI and 26 steals in a full season. Those numbers are unheard of in what has become the weakest hitting position in baseball.
As for the rotation, Kazmir has been solid, though he hasn't had much run support to back his 2.59 ERA. Dallas Keuchel has been one of the best pitchers in the American League this season, going 14-6 with a 2.37 ERA.
The highest mark in the starting rotation belongs to Scott Feldman, who has a 4.05 ERA, which is still respectable. If the Astros are going to win the World Series, they will need to back their solid starting pitching with their crooked numbers offense, which is capable of hitting a home run at any time.
Kansas City Royals
Standings: 13.5-game lead in the AL Central
Last season, the Kansas City Royals rode timely hitting, good defense and a great bullpen to the World Series. It appears as if this year will follow the same formula.
Not much has changed for Kansas City besides the fact that it's getting a surprisingly great year from Kendrys Morales, who leads the team with 83 RBI after looking like he was finished a year ago.
The Royals (73-47) have the best record in the American League and are likely favorites to emerge from the AL in the World Series.
To do that, they'll need Alex Gordon to return from his groin injury at full health and for ice-cold Mike Moustakas to turn it around. The third baseman is hitting just .186 since July 1.
The good news for the Royals is that, following their trade for ace Johnny Cueto, they're a team without a weakness. They also possess the intangible ability to win close games, which is a key component of October success.
With a balanced offense, solid defense and the best bullpen in the AL, the Royals appear ready for another deep postseason run.
Los Angeles Angels
Standings: 0.5 games ahead in the second wild card
When it comes to talking about the Los Angeles Angels, everything revolves around superstar Mike Trout.
He has put together yet another MVP-caliber season despite not having much help around him. He leads the team in batting average, hits, doubles, homers, RBI, OBP, slugging percentage and steals, and he can be a difference-maker in any playoff series.
Albert Pujols was providing great protection and was a good comeback story, but he has gotten cold of late. The 35-year-old is hitting just .235 since July 1 but will still impose fear in opposing pitchers come October. He's always a threat to go deep when he steps in the box.
Though the Angels still might need some help in the starting rotation, the emergence of Andrew Heaney has made a huge difference thus far. He is 5-1 with a 2.43 ERA in 10 starts and has provided a boost to the starters.
The Angels have the star power to make a deep run in October if they get there. They have some issues, but superhuman Trout has the ability to make them go away with a few swings of his bat.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Standings: 2.5-game lead in the NL West
After an offseason in which the Dodgers, who have won 90-plus games each of the last two seasons, completed an overhaul of their roster, two faces remained: Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.
Apparently, that's all you need to be a World Series contender, especially when they pitch as incredible as they have this season.
Greinke is the runaway Cy Young favorite and has been mostly unhittable this season, going 13-2 with a 1.58 ERA. Letting him start the All-Star Game somehow wasn't even enough to commemorate just how amazing he's been this year.
How about this for nasty? If Greinke wins 15 games and finishes the season with less than a 1.60 ERA, he will be the first pitcher to do so since Walter Johnson in 1918. 1918, that's not a typo.
Greinke has made Kershaw look human, although Kershaw has the fourth-best ERA (2.34) in the National League. In arguably the most dominant stretch of anyone's season, he has given up one run or fewer in eight of his last nine starts, amounting to a 0.91 ERA.
With Greinke and Kershaw both on fire, L.A. has the ability to put opposing bats into comas during a short series. The team's only concern would be if Kershaw faces the Cardinals, as he is 0-4 with a 7.15 ERA against them in the postseason.
Regardless, the Dodgers should feel good about their postseason chances behind their two aces.
New York Mets
Standings: 4.0-game lead in the NL East
Citi Field is buzzing about their Mets, who have become a legitimate contender following some key midseason trades.
General manager Sandy Alderson finally backed his word and went all-in, supporting the Mets' great starting rotation with Yoenis Cespedes, Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe. Now with a decent offense behind their young flamethrowers, the Mets are a threat to everyone in the league.
Ace Matt Harvey has returned from Tommy John surgery successfully, unlike so many other pitchers. He has pitched to a great 2.57 ERA upon his return, but he brings much more than statistics to a team. Harvey's demeanor and presence set the tone for everyone who follows him, and the young studs are almost competing to outduel one another each night.
2014 NL Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom has followed up with an even better sophomore season. His 1.98 ERA is second-best in baseball, and he has actually been the most dominant and consistent Mets starter. While Harvey's stature would likely get him the ball in Game 1, deGrom has actually been the better pitcher.
Then there's rookie Noah Syndergaard, who makes the R.A. Dickey trade look like the funniest thing since Chris Farley was on Saturday Night Live.
Syndergaard has been incredible at Citi Field, going 7-1 with a 1.82 ERA. His vast split stats should make the Mets consider giving him a home start in each round of the postseason, as Thor has yet to win on the road.
There's talk about trying to space out starts, toss in a spot starter and limit innings, but these three will all be ready to go in October, should the Mets hang on. If they do, no opponent wants to see 98 mph fastballs and devastating breaking pitches in the first three games of a short series.
New York Yankees
Standings: 1.5-game lead in the AL East
Most fans wanted the Yankees to pay Alex Rodriguez to go away. They couldn't stand the thought of him even making the roster. He would be a distraction. He's a waste of money. He's finished.
Oh my, how the narrative has changed.
Rodriguez is now smacking game-winning grand slams in the heat of a pennant race, hearing his name chanted at Yankee Stadium and getting curtain calls from the fans who can't get enough of him.
A-Rod has put together an incredible season at age 39, following a yearlong suspension and two hip surgeries. He wants you to know that with or without steroids, he's still one of the greatest hitters you will ever see in your lifetime.
The veteran Yankees lineup, buoyed by Rodriguez's 26 home runs, has carried a weak starting rotation into being overachievers. In fact, A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann and Chase Headley are all having bounce-back seasons for the Yankees, who suddenly look like they're built for October baseball.
With a potent lineup and few easy outs, the Yankees can outscore most opponents on any given night. After all, they have scored the second-most runs in baseball.
Additionally, the back end of the bullpen has been sensational, allowing manager Joe Girardi to frequently give starters CC Sabathia and Nathan Eovaldi a quick hook when things go awry.
The Yankees have a lot of things going right for them, and if they can fend off the Blue Jays, they have a real shot to make some noise.
Standings: First wild-card spot, 4.0-game lead
The Pittsburgh Pirates have now won seven of their last eight games and have all but locked themselves up for the postseason.
When they get to the Wild Card Round, they'll be able to put the ball in Gerrit Cole's hands. The former No. 1 overall pick is 14-7 with a 2.61 ERA this season and has been one of baseball's best starters this season. He'll be backed by lefty Francisco Liriano, who has enjoyed a career resurgence since landing in Pittsburgh.
Aside from their starting pitching, the Pirates also have one of the best outfields in baseball, led by All-Star Andrew McCutchen.
He battled through injuries in the early going and took off when he finally got healthy. Despite the slow start, he has a real chance to top his career-high 96 RBI, which he set in 2012. Additionally, his defense in center field is always among the game's best.
Starling Marte has lived up to expectations and has put together the best season of his career. The left fielder has already set career highs in home runs (14) and RBI (59) this season.
Right field was a dead spot for most of the season, as youngster Gregory Polanco dragged the entire order down. He had vastly underperformed but has been good of late, hitting .338 in August. He brings an element of speed to the lineup that can cause problems in October.
The Pirates are a well-built team that can rely on Cole and McCutchen to take the squad to the promised land.
San Francisco Giants
Standings: 2.5 games behind in the NL West, 4.0 games behind the second wild card
How can anyone count the San Francisco Giants out?
They have shown time and time again that they should never be discounted, no matter how dire the situation looks.
Any team that has won three of the last five World Series should be considered a threat to do it again, especially when it is this close to a playoff spot.
Aside from their history, the Giants also have a really good team this season.
Despite letting free agent Pablo Sandoval walk in the offseason, San Francisco has watched replacement Matt Duffy put together a far better season. The team's ability to constantly rebuild through its farm system separates it from most other organizations in baseball.
While the Giants have some injury concerns with Hunter Pence, Angel Pagan and Joe Panik currently on the DL, the trade for Marlon Byrd will help in the short term. The Giants announced the deal on Thursday.
If the Giants can hang around until their players return, they can always rely on mainstays Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey for some late-season magic. The duo has been one of the most consistent, clutch and decorated in all of baseball in recent seasons.
The only issue facing San Francisco is that it is an odd year, and everyone knows the Giants have won World Series on the last three even years.
St. Louis Cardinals
Standings: 4.5-game lead in the NL Central
The St. Louis Cardinals continue to boggle minds, as they have been consistently one of the best teams in baseball despite losing major pieces to free agency, trades and injuries.
The Cards have MLB's best record at 77-43 and continue to steamroll through their competition even though their roster doesn't have a "star" player.
Nobody is a star, but everyone from No. 1 to 25 is good.
Take the starting rotation, whose worst ERA is Lance Lynn's 2.94. Or the bullpen, which features Kevin Siegrist (1.46 ERA) and Trevor Rosenthal (1.44 ERA) to seal the ballgame.
You could look for a weakness on the Cardinals, but you won't find one. And if you did, they'd just call up a prospect or make a trade for someone who will instantly become a plus player in the big leagues. It's the Cardinals way, and you can't knock it.
They have injuries to Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday and Matt Adams, but the Cardinals know that when the postseason comes, they'll be ready to win. St. Louis is a battle-tested group that knows how to pull out games and isn't afraid of anyone standing in its way.
Standings: 1.5 games behind second wild card, 4.0 games behind in the AL West
The Texas Rangers may have just an outside chance at winning the World Series this year, but they're certainly doing all they can to enhance their chances.
The recent additions of Cole Hamels and Mike Napoli show that the Rangers are all-in, but do they have enough to make a deep run?
If they do, their offense will have to carry them.
Everyone forgot how awesome Prince Fielder was when he missed most of last season with a neck injury, but he's made sure to remind them once again. The 2015 All-Star is batting .321 with a team-high 69 RBI, and veteran thumpers Adrian Beltre and Mitch Moreland back him in the batting order.
Texas, after the additions of Napoli, Josh Hamilton and Will Venable, has a potent offense that can put crooked numbers on the board.
The offense will likely need to carry the pitching staff, which I'm iffy about.
Hamels is essentially making the transition to Philadelphia West without the pitcher's spot in the order. The addition of the designated hitter and facing the heavier hitting league have made Hamels' adjustment difficult, as he has a 5.23 ERA since joining the Rangers. Additionally, he has a 6.24 ERA against the American League this season.
He will need to turn around both numbers if the Rangers want to have a shot at the World Series. Hamels has playoff experience and has already won a championship, so they will need him to anchor their staff heading into October.
Toronto Blue Jays
Standings: 3.0-game lead as first Wild Card, 1.5 games behind in the AL East
If it all blows up in their face, at least the Blue Jays can say they went for it.
After sacrificing their future to add ace David Price and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the Blue Jays made it clear that they are all-in this season. When the best lineup in baseball gets even better and the team picks up arguably the best left-handed starter in the American League, it's hard to challenge the logic.
The Blue Jays briefly took over first place, though the Yankees would eventually steal it back. That race appears destined to go down to the wire, although the Blue Jays seem to be a safe bet for a wild card anyway.
If they do get to the one-game playoff, that's where Price needs to show up big. Nobody wants to face him in a win-or-go-home situation, giving the Blue Jays and their mashing lineup a huge advantage.
You can question the rest of their rotation and bullpen, but the Blue Jays will make up for any pitching inefficiencies with their bats. They have the most feared lineup in the game with the likes of Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.
The Blue Jays are almost a throwback American League team that wins with the lumber and terrifies anyone standing in its way. If Toronto makes the postseason, which it should, watch out for a hungry Blue Jays team with momentum.
Standings: 4.0 games behind in the NL East
Anything that could have gone wrong for the Nationals this season already has. They've lost nearly every key contributor to a long-term injury at one point or another and have failed to capitalize on what was supposed to be their greatest World Series chance yet.
Although they've been a disaster thus far, there's still over a month remaining, and the Nats are within striking distance. No matter how good the streaking Mets look right now, they're no stranger to late-season collapses.
If the Nationals want to make a run, they already have the pieces to do it. Those pieces just need to be better.
For a team as disappointing as Washington has been to still have a legitimate chance to play in October has to be encouraging on some level. At some point, the Nationals needs to stop hanging their heads and feeling sorry for themselves.
Get out there and play baseball.
They can't have veterans Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman dragging the lineup through the mud. They can't have $210 million starter Max Scherzer pitching to a 6.86 ERA in August when they're trying to catch a hot team ahead of them in the standings.
If their struggling veterans don't turn it around, hopefully the young stars can continue to carry them.
Bryce Harper is having an MVP-caliber season for the Nats and has been their only consistently great hitter all season. Even he won't be enough in the playoffs, however. Harper hit three home runs in four games last October, yet the Giants still ousted them.
Stephen Strasburg has been excellent since returning from his latest DL stint, pitching to a 1.35 ERA in three starts. If he can continue pitching to his potential, he will give a struggling group of starters a huge boost that could get the rotation back on track.
The Nationals are a mess, and their chances aren't looking too good, but there's still hope that their stars can get going. Don't count them out just yet.
Daniel Ferrara is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter to keep in touch or ask any questions.