Ranking MLB title contenders halfway through 2018 season

Justin Verlander

While a lot of baseball remains to be played in the 2018 MLB season, we’re at a point where we can start looking forward to the playoffs. Every team wants to win the World Series, of course. But obviously, some teams are much better positioned to do so than others.

The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have been battling it out for American League East supremacy all year. Both are certainly World Series favorites. Still, we can’t call either our top World Series favorite. Another team with a potentially historic rotation takes that crown.

The National League playoff race remains pretty wide open. Even still, it’s fairly easy to separate the senior circuit’s great teams from its good ones.

While we’ve seen adequate separation in some races, we’re still willing to say that any MLB team with a winning record has a chance. Some need to make a real run soon. But at this point, any team with more wins than losses can be called a contender.

This is how we rank the 18 current contenders as it relates to their chances of winning the World Series.

Standings and stats accurate through Sunday, July 8. 

18. Tampa Bay Rays 

Even if the Rays somehow find their way into the playoffs, we don’t like their chances. Tampa’s pitching could probably hold up reasonably, and All-Star or not, Blake Snell takes a backseat to nobody. The problem is the team’s offense. The Rays are the fifth-worst team in home runs per game and the second worst at extra-base hits per game. Making matters worse, Tampa hitters have MLB’s eighth-highest strikeout percentage. That’s not a recipe for success.

17. Los Angeles Angels

Ultimately, one problem is hard to get past with the Halos. This team’s bread and butter is Mike Trout. Now, as far as bread and butter goes, it doesn’t get any better. But if the Angels reached the playoffs, we’re also guessing that opponents would go into “make anyone but him beat us” mode. We just don’t trust the rest of the offense. Even with a healthy Shohei Ohtani, we also don’t trust the starting rotation. The only bullpen in the league that allows more home runs per game is the New York Mets. The Halos are a postseason longshot. But even if the playoffs happen, it’s hard to foresee a long run.

16. Colorado Rockies

To win in the playoffs, you have to pitch. The Rockies have a staff ERA of 4.77. The only teams worse are the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, Miami Marlins, and Baltimore Orioles, who have the four worst records in baseball. Colorado starters have a 4.55 ERA, the 10th worst in the game and the worst of any contending team. The Rockies’ bullpen, meanwhile, has a 5.32 ERA, MLB’s worst. We have to grade on something of a curve for Coors Field. But even with that in mind, we just don’t trust this team’s pitching.

15. St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals don’t have many glaring weaknesses. Unfortunately, they don’t have many strengths, either. In most major categories, St. Louis is just a middle-of-the-road team. That’s not all bad. But it’s hard to imagine any team without a real strength going toe-to-toe with the league’s best in October. Even if those teams have greater weaknesses than the Cardinals, St. Louis doesn’t have the strengths needed to really exploit them.

14. Oakland Athletics

In a way, Oakland is the American League’s version of Colorado. The offense is championship worthy. We just don’t trust the pitching. The A’s get a slight nod over Colorado because we like the bullpen a lot more. Additionally, Sean Manaea has shown that he at least has the potential to be an ace, even if he struggles with consistency at times. But ultimately, it’s hard to see Oakland fighting through such a top-heavy AL to even make the playoffs. Even if that happens, the road through October would be quite bumpy.

13. San Francisco Giants

Ultimately, the Giants feel a lot like the aforementioned Cardinals. The glaring weaknesses aren’t there. Unfortunately, the clear strengths aren’t, either. We give San Francisco a nod for two reasons. One, over the last 10 years, the Giants are the only team with multiple championships — and they have three. Two, when healthy, a rotation fronted by Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, and Jeff Samardzija is dangerous. That’s enough to give San Francisco some deference. But in reality, this team going on another deep run through October is quite a longshot.

12. Seattle Mariners 

Seattle is a very good team. But in the American League this year, very good isn’t good enough. This offense will have a hard time matching up with the Yankees, Red Sox, Houston Astros, or Cleveland Indians. To get to the World Series, the Mariners would need to beat at least two and probably three of those teams. In terms of pitching, as good as James Paxton is, he’s doesn’t match up favorably to Luis Severino, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, or Corey Kluber. It may seem odd to put a team on pace to win 101 games this low. But breaking things down, we just can’t go any higher.

11. Arizona Diamondbacks

Zach Greinke

Arizona’s pitching has been fantastic in 2018. The D-Backs have the third-best staff ERA in the league and the best bullpen ERA. The starting pitching isn’t always terribly deep. But that’s not always a big issue in the playoffs. What keeps us from putting Arizona any higher is the offense. Things are better now than they were in the season’s early weeks. But much like the Angels with Trout, if opponents focus on avoiding Paul Goldschmidt, we don’t have a ton of confidence in this offense. In time, that could change. But presently, the offense is too shaky for us to feel great about the current roster.

10. Cleveland Indians

The positives with the Indians are that we love the offense and the top of the starting rotation is solid. But when the game gets into the bullpen, Cleveland gets a lot shakier. In fact, only the Rockies and Royals have a higher bullpen ERA than the Indians. Cleveland relievers have struck out only 8.7 hitters per nine innings, the 18th-best total in baseball. In 2016, the Indians rode a great bullpen to within a game of a World Series Championship. In 2018, the bullpen has been mediocre to bad. Unless that changes, it’s hard to take this team too seriously as a World Series threat.

9. Philadelphia Phillies

Aaron Nola has become an ace in 2018. With him as a Game 1 starter, we’d give the Phillies a chance against anyone. The rest of the pitching staff, though, gives us some concern. The bigger concern lies with the offense. Philadelphia hitters strike out in 28.8 percent of their at-bats. That’s the highest total in the league. Baseball has changed in recent years, but this has remained consistent. To win in October, you have to put the bat on the ball. Recent champs like the Astros and Chicago Cubs didn’t become champs until they learned to do that. That’s a sizable obstacle for the Phillies to overcome.

8. Los Angeles Dodgers

The championship outlook in Los Angeles looks better than it did earlier in the year. Los Angeles weathered Clayton Kershaw’s injuries and now sits as a true contender. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we don’t trust this bullpen. Offensively, the Dodgers have the power to match anyone. The drawback there is that Los Angeles struggles to score when it doesn’t hit home runs and still strikes out a bit too much. It’s not hard to imagine the Dodgers winning a championship. But there are definitely parts of this team’s game that must be cleaned up.

7. Washington Nationals

The Washington offense is a little hit-or-miss. But as far as playoff starting rotations go, it doesn’t get much better than Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg (assuming the latter is healthy). Gio Gonzalez and Jeremy Hellickson are more than adequate in the No. 3 and No. 4 roles. We know that cruising through the regular season hasn’t helped this team much in the playoffs. Maybe a bumpy regular season is just what the doctor ordered for October success. Time will tell on that. If they qualify, the Nats should be lined up well for a good postseason.

6. Milwaukee Brewers

The combination of playing in a smaller market, sharing a division with the Chicago Cubs, and not having done anything for a while has caused Milwaukee to get overlooked. But the Brewers not only lead the NL Central, but actually have the NL’s best record. Certainly, there are some concerns with Milwaukee. The Brewers do strike out a lot and the starting rotation isn’t wonderful. But the Brewers have a very deep lineup. Additionally the Josh Hader-led bullpen is absolutely fantastic. October opponents would have to get to that starting rotation because leads given to that bullpen would not likely be lost.

5. Atlanta Braves

A potential drawback is that the Braves lack a true ace. Conversely, though, the starting rotation is quite deep. Offensively, Atlanta can hit home runs if need be. But with hitters like Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. getting on base and MVP candidate Freddie Freeman behind them, the Braves can score without putting the ball over the fence. Despite a recent rough series in Milwaukee, we like Atlanta’s World Series viability more than nearly any other NL team’s.

4. New York Yankees

It might seem like we’ve underrated the Yankees a bit here. New York hits for power and has a strong bullpen. Those ingredients tend to work in the postseason. With that in mind, we wouldn’t be surprised if the Yanks won. But they also strike out a ton. Furthermore, the discrepancy between New York’s batting average and batting average if we remove home runs is the greatest in the league. That does point to a slightly one-dimensional offense. Finally, outside of Luis Severino, we don’t completely trust this rotation. Certainly, the Yankees are good. We just like other team’s World Series chances better.

3. Chicago Cubs

While Milwaukee leads the NL Central, we’re giving we’re giving Chicago a slight edge over its division rival here. The Cubs have a good offense that doesn’t strike a lot. They also have a bullpen that can hold leads. There’s no question that the starting rotation needs some work. It’s a problem the Cubs seem well aware of. But Jon Lester gives Chicago a real battle-tested ace who’s been a part of three World Series champs in his career. We expect a spirited race in the senior circuit. But right now, the Cubs are our favorite to win the pennant.

2. Boston Red Sox 

J.D.Martinez and Mookie Betts lead one of the most explosive offenses in MLB

The 2017 Red Sox could pitch with anyone. The problem was that Boston just didn’t have the offense to hang with a team like Houston. Thanks to the addition of J.D. Martinez, fantastic play from Mookie Betts, and a lineup that’s improved nearly everywhere else, that’s different. The Red Sox lead the league in runs and extra-base hits per game, are second in home runs per game, and strike out at a lower rate than any team in baseball. This team is well built for the playoffs in the modern game.

1. Houston Astros

Offensively, the Astros can hang with anyone. This is the same group that won the most offensive World Series ever played. But it’s Houston’s pitching that sets it apart. No team comes close to the 3.05 ERA that the Astros starters have accrued. We can try to nitpick the bullpen, but Houston’s relievers have the second best ERA in the league. Also consider that, in addition to possible trades, someone like Lance McCullers (3.41 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 9.8 K/9) could get moved to the bullpen for the playoffs. The rotation is that good. To beat the Astros, opponents will need to be perfect nearly everywhere else.