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MLB playoff danger index: Who might get knocked out early and who might find October magic

Mike Oz
·8-min read

The baseball postseason is here — which means it’s out with the power rankings and in with the danger index.

This postseason is a whole new ballgame, with its expanded field of 16 and full three-game wild card rounds in which every team plays. It’s a gambit and not even the No. 1 seeds get a moment to breathe. Being good in the regular season was one thing, winning a short series in the postseason is entirely different.

To add to the drama this year, we haven’t seen the teams play outside of their divisions and regions. MLB’s 60-game season limited travel and thus limited exposure. So we don’t know exactly how AL East teams compare to AL Central teams.

As the playoffs begin Tuesday, I’m here to parse up the field into four categories: The five-alarm danger level teams, the teams that should be approached with the appropriate level of caution, the teams susceptible to upset and the teams that aren’t dangerous at all.

Find your favorites and get ready for a big week of postseason baseball.

Gerrit Cole and the Yankees had a so-so regular season, but could be very dangerous in October. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Gerrit Cole and the Yankees had a so-so regular season, but could be very dangerous in October. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

DANGER LEVEL: FIVE-ALARM, USE EXTREME CAUTION

New York Yankees (33-27) — The Yankees were not the Death Star this year. Hindered by injuries, they looked for a while like a team that could — gasp! — miss the postseason. They figured it out in mid-September and finished in second place. But the postseason is a new game, and these Yankees are built to thrive in October.

• Cleveland Indians (35-25) — The good news for the rest of the AL is that the Yankees and Indians, two of the most potentially dangerous teams, meet in the first round. That will leave only one dangerous team standing. The Indians offense leaves a bit to be desired (they hit the third-fewest homers this year) but the pitching is fantastic. With Cy Young lock Shane Bieber leading the way, they stand positioned to play everyone tough.

Cincinnati Reds (31-29) — Am I talking myself into the Reds again? Why yes, I am. While they don’t enter the postseason with as much hype as the Padres and White Sox, they had a lot of people convinced in the preseason that they could be good. The reasons? They have a strong lineup and solid starters. That’s what will make them a dangerous team in the postseason. Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray are a strong top three to bring into October, and the Reds hit 70 homers this year. Facing the pitching-depleted Braves in the first round has upset written all over it.

Chicago White Sox (35-25) — As recently as two weeks ago, the White Sox were the top team in the AL. That fell apart quickly, as they even dropped down to a wild-card spot and the No. 7 seed on the season’s final day. But you know what? Their road to the World Series is easier. The A’s are a better first-round matchup than the Yankees.

St. Louis Cardinals (30-28) — This is less about the 2020 Cardinals and more about all those dang Cardinals teams that have wreaked havoc in postseasons past. Baseball is a sport where you can believe in “Cardinals Devil Magic” and not seem crazy. These Cardinals, sidelined by COVID-19 for a few weeks, rebounded to make the postseason. So there might be some extra magic at play this year.

DANGER LEVEL: APPROACH WITH APPROPRIATE CAUTION

• Los Angeles Dodgers (43-17) — The Dodgers were the best team in the regular season, the World Series favorite and a team no one should want to face in October. But when we talk about the Dodgers in October, you already know the narrative. It’s Clayton Kershaw and postseason disappointments. While that history is all true, there wasn’t a Mookie Betts in the old lineups. So the Dodgers don’t make our extremely dangerous list, but you should know they’re the team to beat.

San Diego Padres (37-23) — The Padres are young and exciting, entering the postseason as the team you’d probably root for if your favorite team isn’t in it. Their October prospects seem solid, but they’ll have to earn it by beating the Cardinals and Dodgers. Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet, two of their best pitchers, left their most recent starts with injuries, so that’s the biggest concern in Padres land right now. Not enough to drop them down a tier, but enough to raise a little extra caution.

Minnesota Twins (36-24) — The Twins are more well-rounded than they have been in the past, a solid mix of pitching and power. As a No. 2 seed, they sit in upset position, but have a pretty clear path to the ALCS, since they start off with the Astros and then would face the A’s/White Sox winner. What I mean, really, is that the Yankees aren’t waiting in the second round.

The Rays enter October as the No. 1 seed in the AL, but it's a tough road ahead. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
The Rays enter October as the No. 1 seed in the AL, but it's a tough road ahead. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

DANGER LEVEL: SUSCEPTIBLE TO UPSET

• Tampa Bay Rays (40-20) — The Rays won the most games in the AL this season, so it’s with the right amount of reverence that I ask you: Can you name a single player on the Rays? No disrespect intended. And this isn’t the type of anonymity bred by having a bunch of great players who aren’t household names yet. Their highest-ranked pitcher by fWAR (Tyler Glasnow) ranks No. 46 in MLB. Their highest-ranked position player is Brandon Lowe at No. 16. It’s more of an everybody-contributes approach in Tampa Bay. Can’t knock that. But it could mean when the Rays run into the winner of the Indians/Yankees series in the second round, things get tough.

Oakland A’s (36-24) — The A’s are sort of like the Rays in that they’re somewhat anonymous but still quite good. Their big problem? They lost their best player (Matt Chapman) to injury. They’ll go as far as their young pitchers will take them, which could be quite far. But the White Sox in the first round aren’t an easy draw.

Atlanta Braves (35-25) — An Atlanta team blowing it in the postseason? When have we heard about that before? The Braves enter October with a great offense and a very questionable pitching staff. Max Fried has been very good atop the rotation, but after that? They’re really depending on Ian Anderson, a 22-year-old who has been impressive in six starts, and who really knows after that. If they can score eight runs every game, I like the Braves’ chances. But when they run into better pitching (like in their first-round matchup with the Reds) things could go downhill fast.

Chicago Cubs (34-26) — You’ll probably get your fill of Steve Bartman references during this series, so I’ll just quickly remind you that the last time the Cubs and Marlins met in the postseason, the world was introduced to Bartman. This isn’t some the-Cubs-are-cursed diagnosis. Fact is, they’re not particularly great at anything. Their offense ranks 20th in runs scored. Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks have been good this season, but it’s not a huge leap to see them get hit well in the postseason either.

DANGER LEVEL: NOT DANGEROUS

Houston Astros (29-31) — These aren’t the garbage-can banging, Justin Verlander-can-swoop-in-and-save-the-day Astros that you’re used to. They’re not even a .500 team. While there’s talent in the lineup, it hasn’t been particularly effective all year long. Their pitching is decimated. Verlander is out. So are a bunch of relievers. Quite frankly, they’re the team you want to face in the AL.

Toronto Blue Jays (32-28) — The Jays have the makings of a good team, but it seems like we’re still a year or two away. They can hit, but they’ve been dealt a long list of pitching injuries this season. They’d really need something special to happen to go on a World Series run.

Milwaukee Brewers (29-31) — The Brewers enter the postseason despite a sub-.500 record, never having been in a playoff spot until the last day of the season and Christian Yelich being less productive than his MVP self. If the Brewers still had Corbin Burnes, their best pitcher, you could make the case for them being dangerous. Without him and matched up with the Dodgers, it ain’t looking good.

Miami Marlins (31-29) — Sincere kudos to the Marlins for making it to the postseason when nobody thought they would and after being MLB’s first team sidelined by COVID-19. It’s amazing they’re in the playoffs. They have some sneaky good pitching with Sixto Sanchez, Pablo Lopez and Sandy Alcantara. But they will be playing as underdogs the whole time.

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