Handicapping MLB's Race to Deny the Dodgers Another World Series Title

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 30, 2021

The Los Angeles Dodgers have few threats, but they do exist.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have few threats, but they do exist.Eric Gay/Associated Press

In 2020, the Los Angeles Dodgers were an unstoppable force as they went 43-17 in the regular season and then won their first World Series since 1988.

Now that Opening Day of the 2021 season is nearly upon Major League Baseball, the big question is if an immovable object will find its way into the Dodgers' path.

For now, the odds this will happen aren't great. According to DraftKings, the over/under for the Dodgers' win total is a whopping 102.5 games. That's seven more than the next-best team.

Led by Mookie Betts and Corey Seager, the Dodgers still have much of a lineup that led the majors in runs last season. They also added reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer to a Clayton Kershaw-led pitching staff that finished second in runs allowed.

In a typical year, working against the Dodgers would be the reality that no team has repeated as World Series champions since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees. The difference this year, though, is that the Dodgers might be spared from a hangover since they played only 78 games throughout last year's coronavirus pandemic-shortened season.

Even still, it's time to sort their threats in the National League and American League from the not so real to the oh so real.

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Meet the National League Also-Rans

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

We have to at least mention the Pittsburgh Pirates (O/U 58.5) and Colorado Rockies (63.5), but...well, that's really all that either rebuilding club deserves.

Somewhere above the Rockies in the West are the Arizona Diamondbacks (74.5) and San Francisco Giants (75.5), yet neither is anywhere even close to the Dodgers.

The Giants don't have the arms to balance a collection of bats who achieved the franchise's highest OPS+ in 2020. The D-backs, meanwhile, are coming off a last-place finish and are now the "meh" version of a baseball team.

Then there's the Central, wherein the St. Louis Cardinals (86.5), Milwaukee Brewers (82.5), Cincinnati Reds (82.5) and Chicago Cubs (78.5) will be trying to get back to October after all four made it last season. Yet it's not so easy to determine which of them is the favorite, much less if any of them is actually a match for the Dodgers.

Maybe the Cardinals if Jack Flaherty pitches like it's the latter half of 2019 and Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt carry the lineup. Maybe the Brewers if they clone Christian Yelich and Brandon Woodruff. Maybe the Cubs if Kris Bryant and Javier Baez remember how to hit and the 2015 version of Jake Arrieta shows up. Maybe the Reds if they actually re-signed Bauer and just forgot to tell everyone.

Which brings us to the East, where the Miami Marlins (71.5) are looking at a long road back to the playoffs after the rest of the division loaded up this offseason. So long, in fact, that it's here where this conversation can shift gears.

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Meet the National League Threats

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Are the Washington Nationals (84.5) and Philadelphia Phillies (80.5) the teams to beat in the East? Not exactly, which naturally narrows their paths to the postseason.

Nevertheless, either club could cause trouble for the Dodgers in a postseason series.

Only two years ago, Washington dispatched Los Angeles in a division series. Anthony Rendon has since departed, but still around are two aces (Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg) and one slugger (Juan Soto) who gave the Dodgers fits in '19.

The Phillies could throw two aces (Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler) at the Dodgers in a National League Division Series setting. And with J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius back alongside Bryce Harper in what looks like a deep lineup, Philadelphia likewise could have the bats to overpower Los Angeles' arms.

But if there are two teams in the East that the Dodgers should fear, they're Atlanta (91.5) and the New York Mets (90.5).

Atlanta darn near beat L.A. in last year's National League Championship Series, taking a 3-1 lead only to let it slip away. Yet to its credit, Atlanta re-signed Marcell Ozuna for a lineup that scored only one fewer run than the Dodgers in 2020. And with Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly in and Mike Soroka on the comeback trail, Atlanta won't need Max Fried and Ian Anderson to carry so much weight for the rotation.

Speaking of pitching, the Mets shouldn't be much worse off in their rotation once Carlos Carrasco (hamstring) and Noah Syndergaard (Tommy John surgery) return alongside two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman. Their bullpen also features three of last year's nine best strikeout artists: Edwin Diaz, Trevor May and Miguel Castro.

Further, New York actually finished ahead of Atlanta in OPS+ last season. Now it has James McCann and Francisco Lindor, the latter of whom has joined Pete Alonso in angling for a comeback season with a red-hot spring training.

The NL therefore features two clubs with an outside chance at dethroning the Dodgers, plus two more with a more realistic chance. There's also one team that poses a legitimate threat, and it's called the San Diego Padres (94.5).

By going 37-23, the Padres came closer to the Dodgers than any other NL team last season. That effort was paced by a Manny Machado- and Fernando Tatis Jr.-led lineup that ranked third in runs and fourth in home runs. What's more, the San Diego defense also easily led the majors in outs above average.

Those bands are still together, and now the Padres have the arms to match. In incumbent ace Dinelson Lamet and newcomers Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove, San Diego boasts a foursome of starters who whiffed a combined 11.7 batters per nine innings with a 2.61 ERA last year.

The Padres are so good they might even deny the Dodgers what would be their ninth straight division title. Failing that, their all-around firepower would give them more than a fighting chance in a playoff showdown.

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Meet the American League Last Hopes

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

If nobody in the NL proves capable of stopping the Dodgers, it will, of course, be up to the AL champion to do the job.

The Houston Astros (87.5) and Tampa Bay Rays (85.5) have represented the league in the last two Fall Classics and are still in the championship hunt. However, whether either is World Series material is debatable.

With Gerrit Cole and George Springer gone via free agency and Justin Verlander recovering from Tommy John surgery, three of the defining stars of Houston's recent dynasty have exited the picture. And without Snell, Morton and possibly Nick Anderson (elbow tear), the Rays aren't likely to be the same run-prevention juggernaut they were in 2020.

The Oakland Athletics (86.5) also had an offseason of departures, including shortstop Marcus Semien and closer Liam Hendriks. The Los Angeles Angels (83.5) were more active in adding Alex Cobb, Jose Quintana and Jose Iglesias, but they might have erred in targeting depth in lieu of stars to help support Rendon and Mike Trout.

More interesting are the Minnesota Twins (88.5) and Toronto Blue Jays (86.5), yet much will need to go right for either club to rise as a favorite for the pennant.

Above all, the Twins need their offense to return to the form that led it to a record 307 home runs in 2019. To that end, the club's regression in 2020 and ice-cold performance in spring training are bad omens.

With Springer and Semien now on their side and with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio on the up and up, things are looking better for the Toronto lineup. But without a proper co-ace for Hyun Jin Ryu and with closer Kirby Yates (Tommy John surgery) done for the year, the roster is lopsided.

This brings us, at last, to the two AL teams with the fewest nits to pick: the New York Yankees (95.5) and Chicago White Sox (91.5).

Even with slugger Eloy Jimenez out for as many as six months with a pectoral injury, the White Sox still have much of a lineup that led the AL in home runs last season. And if Yoan Moncada bounces back and Luis Robert breaks out, Jimenez's power won't even be missed that much.

Arguably even scarier is who the White Sox have on the mound. Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Lance Lynn comprise perhaps the AL's best trio of starters. In the bullpen are Hendriks, baseball's top reliever since 2019, and two flame-throwing firemen: Garrett Crochet and Michael Kopech.

Despite their lofty expectations, there's plenty that could derail the Yankees. For instance, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton might be bitten by the injury bug again. And after throwing a total of 18 combined pitches in 2020, Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon might not be up to the task of supporting Cole.

But in the event that Judge and Stanton stay healthy while Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez bounce back, New York will have a silly amount of power underneath table-setter DJ LeMahieu.

The Yankees will also have three aces if Kluber and Taillon pan out, plus a potential fourth upon Luis Severino's return from Tommy John surgery. Assuming Zack Britton heals well from his own elbow surgery, he and Aroldis Chapman will form a devastating duo in the late innings.

On paper, neither the White Sox nor Yankees are as strong as the Dodgers. But if either meets Los Angeles in the Fall Classic, their slugging bats or power arms could help them deny the Dodgers a second straight championship.

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Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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