With the wild-card games in the rearview mirror and the ALDS about to start, the MLB postseason is officially underway. Will the Giants be able to extend their regular-season dominance into the playoffs? Will the Rays complete their transformation into an AL powerhouse? Will the Brewers pitching staff prove to be an unstoppable force in the NL bracket? And which low-seeded teams are poised to make a run? The Ringer’s MLB staffers make their playoff picks below.
Michael Baumann: The American League playoff field is steady at the top. All three of Tampa Bay, Chicago, and Houston look fairly evenly matched, with each team having different combinations of strengths and weaknesses. The Rays have incredible lineup depth but an inexperienced starting rotation. The White Sox have the AL’s best pitching staff and a paradigm-shifting Luis Robert, but Carlos Rodón is having trouble staying healthy, José Abreu is battling illness, and the team lilted aimlessly to the division title down the stretch. The Astros have five good starting pitchers, plus Zack Greinke, but nobody is as good as Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole were two years ago. How much will that matter? I’ve got the Rays coming out on top of this game of rock-paper-scissors, but it’s anyone’s guess.
But why Milwaukee in the NL? The Brewers are a game under .500 since September 1, their offense is one of the weaker groups in the playoffs, and they just lost their second-best reliever in a wall-punching incident—which, in addition to the obvious on-field impact, is ominous. But at the risk of provoking the Braves into going full Moses Malone, the Brewers have by far the easiest path to the LCS of any division winner. And the pitching staff, even without Devin Williams, is the scariest in baseball. (You think Milwaukee’s going to miss Williams? How much more are the Dodgers going to miss Clayton Kershaw?)
This is the Brewers’ fourth straight postseason appearance, and from top to bottom this is the best roster they’ve brought to October in that span. Craig Counsell, who is for my money the best tactician of the remaining managers, took this team to within a game of the World Series three years ago. Now he can set and forget Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta for five or six innings a game. Plus, with all the attention the NL West teams have gotten this year, I felt like going with a slightly unorthodox pick. Surely Zach won’t pick the Brewers as well.
Zach Kram: A year after both no. 1 seeds reached the World Series—in a 16-team field, no less!—it feels like we’re due for more upsets in 2021. Is that impulse in any way based on data or analytics? Of course not. But in best-of-five or best-of-seven baseball series, concepts of data and analytics don’t often apply.
So in lieu of any confident predictions, give me two pitching staffs that could go an entire month throwing exclusively terrific pitchers in important moments. Both the Brewers and White Sox boast an incredible top trio in the rotation, a sneakily excellent fourth option, and the best closer in their respective leagues. Chicago has a better offense—check out Robert’s slash line this year—but a more difficult playoff path; Milwaukee should coast to the NLCS before facing whichever team survives the Giants-Dodgers slugfest.
There are glitzier, more glamorous options for a World Series matchup, but real pitching nerds would appreciate this battle for I-94. Counsell’s strategic acumen holds the tiebreak in my mind; I trust his ability to maximize matchups and manage Milwaukee to the first championship in franchise history, just months after the Bucks won the NBA trophy. If this prediction comes to pass, a new Wisconsin city will deserve the moniker of Titletown.
Bobby Wagner: I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point during the past four seasons of producing The Ringer MLB Show, my colleagues have convinced me to shed my desire to narrativize October and give in to the nihilism that is “choosing the team you think is the best, all else be damned.” Well, I think the Dodgers are the best team.
There are a number of reasons it would be really weird for the Dodgers to win the World Series this year. Despite winning 106 games, they didn’t win their division, and thus had to use their hired-gun ace in the wild card instead of Game 1 of the NLDS. They just lost one of baseball’s most underrated offensive stars in Max Muncy, who provided L.A. unrivaled lineup depth and is known for working countless good at-bats in October.
But the primary reason you’ll hear people say they don’t believe in the Dodgers is that there hasn’t been a repeat champion since the 1998-2000 Yankees. You mean the evil-empire, big-market behemoth that leveraged cutting-edge player development into a homegrown core and bolstered it with commensurate spending and splashy trades at every opportunity? Who does that remind you of in 2021? Oops, I think I just started narrativizing again.
Claire McNear: Do I believe that metropolitan areas can, suddenly and en masse, be seized by the spirit of victory? That the success of one local sporting franchise can immediately inspire another? That there is, in other words, a place such as Champa Bay(®)? Well. On the one hand, no. On the other? So much of the joy of any sport—but especially the grumbly, jinx-y, fickle, curse-laden sport of baseball—is in magical thinking, and fall is hardly the time to start being reasonable.
There are plenty of real reasons to think the Rays might make it to their second consecutive World Series this year and that—having once again found the Dodgers there, in what would be L.A.’s fourth Fall Classic in five years—things would come up Tampa Bay this time. The 100-win Rays had the best record in the American League this season, achieved with a surprisingly noisy offense, the arrival of top MLB prospect Wander Franco, and a full season of last fall’s breakout postseason star, Randy Arozarena. The Dodgers might have the better regular-season record, but they were never supposed to have to work this hard to make it into October. Sure, they’ve made off with the Nationals’ crown jewels (OK, most of them), but after a season-long battle for control of the NL West—an unsuccessful one, at that—a little fatigue is bound to creep in.