We’re just past the halfway point of the MLB season already, and the most interesting races in the league could be the AL and NL Wild Card battles, not so much the divisional races.
Five of the six division leaders have created some distance between themselves and the pack, and while none of them are close to wrapped up, the titles all seem to be gravitating towards one or two teams. The National League West, on the other hand, is as tight as tight can be. The surprising Giants, the always-contending Dodgers, and the upstart Padres are having a battle for the ages out west. I believe one of these three teams will be the National League’s representative in the World Series.
Despite the season being halfway over, there are still teams with value in the World Series futures market. Here are two of my favorites with just shy of three months to go in the season.
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San Diego Padres (+750)
The Padres are third in their own division – behind the Giants and Dodgers – but have the third-best odds to win the World Series. They were an extremely trendy pick preseason, but they’ve justified the hype and still hold value at the halfway mark of the year.
For starters, their pitching is dominant. Their bullpen is the best in baseball by a wide, wide margin. Padres relievers have a combined 2.91 ERA, tops in baseball, and nearly a half-run better than any other Major League team. San Diego has six relievers who’ve appeared in 30 or more games in 2021. The worst ERA belongs to Pierce Johnson at 3.25, which is still a solid mark. Four of the six have sub-three ERAs, and Austin Adams has a 1.80 ERA to lead the bunch. The way pitching is deployed in the playoffs now, a bullpen is perhaps the most integral part of a title run, and San Diego has the pieces in place.
Austin Adams since April 18:
• 24.1 Innings Pitched
• 38 Strikeouts
• 0.37 ERA
• .080 OBA
• 1 ER
• 6 Hits
— Darnay Tripp (@DarnayTripp) July 1, 2021
They’ve also got a great rotation, full of experience. Their two theoretical best pitchers – Chris Paddack and Blake Snell – have struggled, but their other three – Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish, and Ryan Weathers – have flourished and have ERAs right at or below 3.00. San Diego is deep and is in very little danger of any of their arms fatiguing come playoff time; they’ve just got too many to deploy.
And obviously, the lineup. It was the projected strength coming into the season, and while it hasn’t topped any leaderboards, it’s been good and is only getting better. Their bats are headlined by Fernando Tatis Jr. – perhaps the most exciting player in baseball – but they also have gotten contributions from unlikely sources like Jake Cronenworth and have experienced players like Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado to round out the order.
San Diego ranks third in walk rate (10.3%), fourth in strikeout rate (22.1%), seventh in OBP (.324), and fifth in plate appearances. They’ll work counts, turn the lineup over, and be a consistent thorn in the side of opposing pitching staffs. Those are qualities that really come to light in October, and not having to rely on the longball is another huge advantage for the Padres.
They may be a young team, but they’re playing like a veteran crew, and why shouldn’t they? They have the talent to make a World Series run, and if they get hot, there really aren’t many teams equipped to stand in their way.
Tampa Bay Rays (+1500)
The Rays had a bit of a stumble and have fallen out of first place, but only trail the AL East-leading Red Sox by 2.5 games. Before the year, the Rays were projected to finish around the middle of the division, as they always are, but like usual, they’ve outperformed expectations thanks to a fantastic front office, one of the best managers in baseball, and a dominant, uniquely-built pitching staff. Nobody wants to play Tampa Bay come playoff time, and the Rays know that.
Whether this team wins the division or is forced to play in the Wild Card game, it doesn’t matter. They can throw any pitcher at any time, in any inning, of any game, and be able to pivot successfully to make it work. That’s what makes them so tough in the playoffs; other teams wear down, but the Rays are deep enough where all 26 players have to and do contribute.
Last year, the Rays were a team I invested heavily in win totals, division title futures, pennant futures, and a World Series future that unfortunately fell short. I thought the 60-game season was perfectly suited to their roster, and I also believed there was incredible value on them in the postseason market. This year is obviously different, but the Rays have shown that while unconventional, their method of roster building is ahead of the curve. Tampa Bay has had 12 different pitchers start a game on the mound, and 26 pitchers have appeared in a game so far this year. Only three of their starters – Rich Hill, Tyler Glasnow, and Shane McClanahan – have yet to make a relief appearance, so they’re incredibly versatile and won’t be afraid to deploy whoever, whenever come October.
Check out Collin McHugh since he's returned from I.L. on May 6! #RaysUp #MLB pic.twitter.com/PGez1nh7AK
— Bally Sports Sun: Rays (@BallyRays) July 5, 2021
Their knack for using starters in relief and relievers at the beginning of games isn’t because of a lack of quality pitching. The Rays are actually sixth in bullpen ERA (3.56) and second in the AL. Their entire staff is best in baseball in strikeout to walk ratio (3.43) and third-best in WHIP (1.143). To boot, their defense is nearly flawless. They basically made the shift mainstream and deployed outfielders in the infield, infielders in the outfield, seven players on one side of second base, and it’s working. They’ve committed the second-fewest errors in baseball, and in the playoffs, limiting mistakes is key.
Tampa Bay may not be able to hit home runs like some of the other World Series contenders, but that’s not a concern to me. They’re reigning AL Champions, so they know what it takes to get the job done, and they don’t give away any outs. The Rays offense is fourth in baseball in plate appearances and also third in at-bats per game (34.06), second in doubles per game (1.75), fifth in walks per game (3.85), and they’ve hit into the fewest double plays in baseball (0.42 per game). They make pitchers work for every strike, every out, giving them an edge in the postseason.
The Rays have been close to the top of the mountain, but this could be the year they finally reach the summit.
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