5 Unlikely World Series Threats Bettors Need to Respect
Published on August 10, 2017
The Dodgers may look unstoppable now, but everything can quickly change in the playoffs.
In fact, since the wild card was introduced in 1995, more wild-card teams (6) have won the World Series than teams that posted the best record during the regular season (5).
As if the random nature of baseball wasn’t enough to make things unpredictable, anything can happen over a short series, especially in the best-of-5 divisional round. All it takes for an average team to take down a heavyweight is a couple of great pitchers, a hot hitter or even a dominant bullpen.
With that in mind, here are 5 teams that may not get the same attention as the division leaders, but still deserve plenty of respect from bettors for their World Series potential.
Just 3 years ago, the Royals seemingly came out of nowhere, getting all the way to the World Series with a rare combination of speed, excellent defense, and a lights-out bullpen. The following year, Kansas City used pretty much the same formula to not only get back to the Fall Classic but also win its first World Series since 1985.
Fast forward to 2017, and not that many things have changed. That includes the Royals lineup, where Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar still remain from the teams that reached back-to-back World Series.
KC plays the type of baseball that wins in the playoffs. The Royals’ 46 errors through 112 games are the third-lowest total in MLB, and they still rely more on speed (10th in the majors in steals) than the long ball (Moustakas, Perez, and Hosmer are their only hitters with more than 15 home runs.)
Their starting pitching is admittedly underwhelming, although Jason Vargas (13-6, 3.40 ERA) and Danny Duffy (7-7, 3.48) are having solid seasons. KC can compensate for the rest of its mediocre rotation with an abundance of proven arms in its bullpen, where it features veteran performers like Joakim Soria, Neftali Feliz, and Kelvin Herrera.
Don’t be fooled by the Royals’ mediocre 57-55 record as we go into the final third of the season. After struggling through a woeful 7-16 April, KC was one of the best teams in baseball over the next 3 months, going 48-33. Even if they don’t catch Cleveland in the AL Central, the Royals can do some serious damage as a wild card – just like they did in 2014.
Arizona has a pretty big advantage on the rest of the teams in this list because it already has the inside track to a postseason spot.
The Dodgers’ sizzling play over the past 3 months has overshadowed a stellar season by the Diamondbacks. Arizona may be 15 games out of first place in the NL West, but its 64-48 record and .571 winning percentage through 112 games would be good enough to lead 3 of baseball’s other 5 divisions. The D-Backs would also be 2 games behind the highly-touted Nationals in the NL East, and their +117 run differential this season is the third-best in baseball behind only the Dodgers and Astros.
Still, the Diamondbacks go into the final 7 weeks of the season enjoying a 6-game lead on the Brewers and 7-game bulge on the Cardinals for 1 of the 2 wild card spots in the NL. Earning the first wild card spot would be huge for Arizona, which has won 37 of its first 55 home games this year. Regardless of who they’d face in the single-elimination wild card contest, the D-Backs would have to be a pretty solid favorite at home with Zack Greinke on the mound.
Beyond Greinke and their dominance at home, the Diamondbacks are pretty solid overall. Their pitching staff boasts the second-best ERA in all of baseball, while their rotation is fifth in quality starts. Offensively, they rank sixth in runs scored per game, their team OPS is seventh and they are fifth in stolen bases.
Those full-season numbers don’t even reflect the deadline acquisition of J.D. Martinez. With Jake Lamb and Martinez now surrounding cleanup hitter Paul Goldschmidt, the Arizona offense won’t be easy to shut down once fall baseball rolls around.
It’s been a while since they’ve seen playoff baseball in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle currently owns the longest post-season drought in the majors, failing to make the playoffs since 2001 – the year the M’s won 116 regular-season games, then fell flat on their face in October.
But if the Mariners can find a way to the postseason dance, they’ve got a lot of the ingredients that you look for in World Series contenders, especially in a short series. That begins with an ace on the mound, where James Paxton (12-3, 2.70 ERA) is a dark horse AL Cy Young contender going into the third of the season.
Behind Paxton, Seattle also has a wild card in Felix Hernandez. The King isn’t nearly the pitcher he used to be, but postseason play has a way of coaxing the best out of veteran hurlers. With Paxton and a rejuvenated Hernandez at the top of the rotation, Seattle would be a pretty scary foe in a 1-game wild card contest or even a best-of-5 division series.
The Mariners can also rake. Despite playing half of their games in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, the M’s still rank 10th in baseball in runs per game and 11th in team batting average. Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano are having down years, but they’re still 2 of the most dangerous hitters in the AL over the past decade. Seattle also added some depth at first base with the recent trade for All-Star Yonder Alonso, who can platoon with Danny Valencia to give the Mariners strong production from either side of the plate.
Seattle won’t catch the Astros for first place in the AL West, but a soft schedule down the stretch could give the Mariners a great shot at hosting the wild-card game. 34 of Seattle’s final 51 games are against teams currently under .500, while other wild card contenders Baltimore and Tampa Bay have to slug it out against rivals from the tough AL East.
Baltimore took a lot of heat at the non-waiver trade deadline by choosing not to deal free agent-to-be Manny Machado to a contender and also holding onto valuable bullpen pieces Zach Britton and Brad Brach.
That’s because less than a month ago, the Orioles looked like they weren’t going anywhere. An 8-0 skunking by the Cubs July 16 dropped Baltimore to a season-high 7 games under .500, 8.5 games out of first place in the AL East.
But that was then, and this is now. After being swept at home by the Cubs in a 3-game set in Baltimore, the O’s won 14 of their next 21 games to get back to the .500 mark. More importantly, they once became a factor in the AL wild card race, lurking 1.5 games out of first place going into Wednesday’s action.
The scary thing about Baltimore is that it has managed to tread water to this point despite starting pitching that can only be described as horrific, even by the Orioles’ low standards. Baltimore starters have a combined ERA of 5.56 this season, a full run higher than the American League average and the second-worst total in baseball. Of the 8 worst starting rotations in baseball this year by ERA, only the Orioles and Twins (55-56) are within 5 games of the .500 mark.
If Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman or deadline acquisition Jeremy Hellickson can provide the O’s with any kind of quality starting pitching down the stretch, Baltimore has more than enough offense to scare teams in the postseason (seventh in MLB in both team batting average and home runs). They just need to get into the seventh inning with a lead, then turn the ball over to stud relievers Brach and Britton (assuming Buck Showalter doesn’t ) to nail things down.
When it comes to World Series contention, the Cardinals are harder to kill than a vampire.
Even though fans and media continue to and management has hinted at the possibility of rebuilding, St. Louis moved over the .500 mark this week for the first time since June 1 with back-to-back routs of the Royals in Kansas City.
The Cards are still within reasonable striking distance of the Diamondbacks and Rockies in the NL wild card hunt. But their best chance at the playoffs looks like it could come in the NL Central, where St. Louis is just 2.5 games behind the defending World Series champion Cubs.
The starting rotation of Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, Mike Leake and Adam Wainwright always seems to keep the Cardinals in games, ranking third in baseball in quality starts. And though guys like Wainwright and Yadier Molina are well beyond their best-before date, they bring plenty of post-season experience to the table.
St. Louis won’t be intimidated by playoff pressure, having reached the post-season in 5 of the last 6 years, including a World Series win in 2011 and another trip to the Fall Classic 2 years later. We’ve seen the Cards make magical runs down the stretch before, and shouldn’t be surprised if they do it one more time.
Since the adoption of the wild card, and even before that, the baseball playoffs have proven over and over again that getting smaller prices with the best regular-season performers really isn’t worthwhile.
Instead, I’d rather have my money on a good-hitting team with a couple of dominant starting pitchers capable of shutting down an elite lineup on any given day. And I think that’s exactly what we’ve got with the Diamondbacks.
Behind Greinke, they’ve also got a really good young arm in Zack Godley (2.94 ERA in 16 starts). Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray are other starters with ERAs well under 4, and the Diamondbacks bullpen has the sixth-best ERA in baseball.
Offensively, you don’t find much better than the 3-4-5 combination of Lamb, Goldschmidt, and Martinez. And though being the wild card means having to face the Dodgers in the next series, I’d rather take on Los Angeles in a short 5-game series than have to meet them in a 7-game NLCS.