If you are as tired of the Yankees and Dodgers as I am, this was a tough week. Not so much because both teams are starting to look like the top dogs the prognosticators predicted, but equally because the week highlighted just how large the gap is between the haves and the have-nots.
Let’s clarify a few things first, however. Both the AL East and NL West are surprisingly good divisions. The former has four legitimate contenders (should we really be surprised by the Red Sox? More on that in a bit). The latter has three legitimate contenders, and one major surprise (although, again, given the Giants’ somewhat-recent dynasty, is this that big of a shock?). Regardless, the hope is that in order to achieve the ultimate “TV-gasm” World Series, both teams will have to really earn it.
On the flip side, of course, we have the willing and able patsies. For the Yankees, 19 games against the Orioles are the gift that keep on giving. Four games this week against the hapless Rangers (can you believe Texas won the opener? That’s so “baseball”) proved that New York will have no problem topping 90 and maybe 100 wins. An 8-1 homestand against the Mariners, Marlins, and Diamondbacks were just the cure the Dodgers needed after a 2-8 roadtrip through Milwaukee, Chicago, and Anaheim (it also didn’t hurt that they could purchase an extra bat belonging to one Albert Pujols because of their “glaring need”).
The Padres and Giants are playing great. This is terrific news. The Blue Jays and Rays appear up to the task. Unfortunately, so too do the Red Sox, but wouldn’t you still rather see them than the Yankees? The bad news is, the Yankees and Dodgers have unbelievably loaded rosters that you figure they will continue to add to. It is a tradition for high-payroll teams to keep hoarding players and overreact to injuries with a luxury that other teams simply cannot afford.
So will we end up with a dreaded Yankees-Dodgers World Series that we’ve been barely lucky enough to avoid this century? The oddsmakers would lead you to think so, with Los Angeles (3/1) the heavy favorite followed by New York (7/1).
The baseball playoffs can be unpredictable, and therein lies our cause for optimism. The Dodgers were a mere few feet from winning the World Series in 2019 if you think about it; Will Smith narrowly missed a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th before the Nationals survived Game 5 in extra innings en route to a title. I believe the Dodgers would have wiped out the Cardinals and gotten their revenge on the Astros that year. The Yankees have had some very close calls too. Three dominant wins over Houston in the Bronx in the 2017 ALCS had them on the brink of a pennant (and subsequent matchup with the Dodgers). In 2011, Derek Jeter, like Smith, just missed a home run to right field that likely would have won the Yankees the ALDS vs. Detroit.
Perhaps we will be saved. The White Sox and Padres, on paper, are very strong clubs that are hungry to break through. The longer shots would be the Rays returning to the Fall Classic, the nomadic Blue Jays finding their “inner 2020 Rays mojo,” and maybe the Mets if they ever decide to get fully healthy. Baseball is a long season and things can change quickly. Then again, here we are in 2021 talking about a possible Dodgers-Yankees World Series, so have they really changed all that much?
Underdogs: Both real and perceived
So the Jays are an underdog, I would say. (For the record, until the Canadian government gets off its high horse and lets Canada’s team back to its homeland, I will hereby refer to them as the Dunedin/Buffalo Blue Jays. Kudos to those cities for hosting the Jays during this troubling time.) The White Sox are also an underdog even if the oddsmakers have them near the top of the list. The Padres are always an underdog in my mind, as are the Rays, no matter how many AL East titles they may win. But let’s clear one thing up: some “surprise” teams can never be underdogs.
The Red Sox? The Giants? No way, no how. Look, as much as I dislike the Red Sox, I can never go against the Giants. This is, after all, a team that won three World Series in five years and yet never felt like an obnoxious, in-your-face and in-the-news-all-the-time dynasty. They have managed to rebuild while keeping key cogs from past glory like Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Brandon Belt. They are a well-run organization and I very much like the hiring of Gabe Kapler as manager. And yet, they don’t spend nearly the type of money that the Red Sox do, so should we be all that surprised by Boston’s resurgence?
Think about the Red Sox’s plight since 2018, when they were a dominant, 108-54 championship team. They did not exactly gut their roster in 2019, with their only major loss being Craig Kimbrel, whom many argued was past his prime anyway (that theory has since been at least somewhat debunked). 2020 cannot really be counted in any kind of meaningful way because of the disastrous joke that is was, but it was a season that saw the Sox deal their franchise cornerstone, Mookie Betts, to LA. On one hand, you’d say how can a team recover from losing a player that great? On the other hand, ask yourself this: do you think a team as smart as Boston would not get a major haul for him? Alex Verdugo was the headliner of that deal and while he isn’t quite Betts, he has been a major reason that Boston’s offense — which of course still possesses the likes of JD Martinez and Xander Bogaerts — is one of the best in baseball.
Oh, and what about that hated team down in Houston?
I have some tough news for baseball fans: the Astros are really, really good. No Gerrit Cole? No Justin Verlander? No George Springer? No problem, no problem, and no problem. The offense is absolutely stacked anyway: Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Kyle Tucker, and perhaps the most fearsome hitter of all, Yordan Alvarez. The rotation sans Verlander? Lance McCullers, Zack Greinke, and Christian Javier may not be Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz, but that’s a top five trio in my opinion. The bullpen is good enough, especially with Ryan Pressly as the closer.
Look at the run differentials of the Astros and their chief (and sole) competitor, the Athletics, and your heart starts to sink with the realization of how far ahead of the pack Houston really appears to be. Houston is 26-18, a half-game ahead of the 26-19 A’s. But the gap looks much wider than that. Head to head, the Astros are 7-3 vs. Oakland, including 6-1 at the Coliseum. In the teams’ 10 matchups, Houston has outscored Oakland, 67-35, and overall, Houston’s run differential is +66, good for second-best in baseball to the White Sox. Oakland’s is -18, eighth in the American League and the only negative run differential among teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today. Even the Indians, who have been no-hit twice already this year and are doing it with smoke and mirrors, have a +9 run differential to accompany a 23-18 record.
Bottom line: this is the Astros’ division to lose, and I wouldn’t be surprised that as pesky as the A’s are, Houston starts to create some major separation in August and September.
Playoff scarcity — enjoy it while you can
This will, in all likelihood, be the last year we have just 10 playoff teams. This is yet another crying shame in sports, much like the NFL’s ridiculous 17-game schedule that will be a part of our lives moving forward. The baseball playoffs have always been regarded as the most sacred due to the difficulty of the 162-game regular season grind. After all, shouldn’t 162 games be more than enough to whittle the playoff field down to a third of the league?
For a while, I did not like the wild card game at all, and for the most part still do (a best-of-three would take a lot of that sting out). However, it does put a major premium on winning your division, and since we were discussing the Yankees and Dodgers earlier, how great would it be if, say, the Rays and Padres pushed those Evil Empires into second place where they got knocked out in a one-game crapshoot?
If MLB and the Players Union — who are about as close as the U.S. and the Soviet Union were between 1947 and 1991 — do agree to expand the postseason field, I hope and pray that the number they land on is 12. They could adapt the NFL’s previous playoff format, where the top two teams receive byes and automatic berths in the LDS, while the 3-6 and 4-5 seed teams square off in a best-of-three wild card series. Some would argue that, since baseball is a game of rhythm and momentum, a long layoff for the top two seeds could cause rust, but I think being a bit rusty and avoiding a best-of-three roll of the dice is the better option of the two.
14 teams would be too many, and 16 last year was a total joke. Hence, when you hear Dodgers fans, years from now perhaps, reminding you of L.A.’s “historic” 13-win postseason of 2020, just politely nod along and do not go out of your way to remind them that those two wins against the 29-31, Lorenzo Cain-less Brewers were merely a revenue-grab by the league.
Tony LaRussa’s legacy 2.0
The last time a St. Louis coaching legend stepped away from the game after a world championship, Dick Vermeil returned two years later to coach the other Missouri team, but failed to lead the Chiefs to a playoff win in his five seasons there. Joe Gibbs came out of retirement over a decade later and won just one playoff game in Washington in his four seasons. Okay, I switched sports there for the analogy, but you get the idea. So what will Tony LaRussa’s second phase look like?
So far, well, not so good — depending on who you ask, anyway. The White Sox are rolling at 26-16 in one of baseball’s worst divisions, but their +73 run differential is tops in MLB. Does LaRussa deserve a lot of the credit? Perhaps. But unfortunately, the 76-year-old is in the news for all the wrong reasons right now. Is a mutiny on the horizon on Chicago’s South Side? I don’t know that I’d go that far.
While I disagree with LaRussa’s take on Yermin Mercedes’ 3-0 swing and certainly am not on board with him not sticking up for his player, I don’t know that this is an irreversible feeling. We don’t know exactly what the vibe inside the clubhouse is, no matter what you hear from the media. Personally I have no problem with what Mercedes did for the simple fact that the Twins had a position player on the mound — Willians Astudillo, aka Bartolo Colon 2.0, no less — making a mockery of a game way out of hand already. Mercedes added some fun to the night with his blast off a 47-mph floater, and it sounds like LaRussa was more upset than even the Twins were. I might go so far as to say that had LaRussa kept his mouth shut about it, the Twins may not have even thrown at Mercedes the next night.
Either way, the White Sox are winning, and that is usually a good cure for everything.