Bernie on the Scene: Looking at World Series Contenders

Bernie on the Scene: Looking at World Series Contenders

This article is part of our Bernie on the Scene series.

Today I begin the first of two or three articles on potential 2021 World Series champions.

In two articles, I'll look at teams I believe have a chance to win it all this year. Of course, I will offer my opinion on what I believe to be the potential result for each club. And of course, I wouldn't bet any of my own money on my choices.

The articles will evolve as more teams qualify for the postseason and more is known. Today's article highlights teams in the American League.

I will return to evaluating prospect players when these two articles conclude.

Chicago White Sox: Estimated Payroll: $71 million

White Sox principal owner Jerry Reinsdorf is 88-years-old. He wants another MLB championship. 

Reinsdorf hand-selected Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa to bring his managing magic to Reinsdorf's quest of winning the World Series.

The selection of La Russa was controversial at the time, and remains so today. Clearly, he gets good reviews from vocal White Sox team members for the way he has steered his club to victory in the A L Central, but there are critics as well. Like me.

With stars Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez injured for a good part of the season, the White Sox managed to remain competitive and gain traction early in the Central race. They began the season with a very fresh and competent rotation that included Carlos Rodon, Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Dylan Cease.

Today I begin the first of two or three articles on potential 2021 World Series champions.

In two articles, I'll look at teams I believe have a chance to win it all this year. Of course, I will offer my opinion on what I believe to be the potential result for each club. And of course, I wouldn't bet any of my own money on my choices.

The articles will evolve as more teams qualify for the postseason and more is known. Today's article highlights teams in the American League.

I will return to evaluating prospect players when these two articles conclude.

Chicago White Sox: Estimated Payroll: $71 million

White Sox principal owner Jerry Reinsdorf is 88-years-old. He wants another MLB championship. 

Reinsdorf hand-selected Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa to bring his managing magic to Reinsdorf's quest of winning the World Series.

The selection of La Russa was controversial at the time, and remains so today. Clearly, he gets good reviews from vocal White Sox team members for the way he has steered his club to victory in the A L Central, but there are critics as well. Like me.

With stars Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez injured for a good part of the season, the White Sox managed to remain competitive and gain traction early in the Central race. They began the season with a very fresh and competent rotation that included Carlos Rodon, Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Dylan Cease. Most of them performed well above average, with Rodon, Lynn and Giolito putting together stellar performances. Even Keuchel was in sync and chipping in quality starts. Cease was inconsistent, but he was still refining his delivery.

The White Sox offense did just enough to help out the terrific starters. The bullpen was shaky.

As if a switch had been pulled, the pitching staff began to falter as the season progressed. Keuchel went into a funk and began to get hit harder, throw few strikes and had shorter and shorter outings. Rodon began to feel the aches and pains that have haunted his pitching history. It's now a question of if he can pitch in the postseason. Lynn was steady. Giolito, while not dominating, held his own. Cease improved, but he showed both great and very mediocre outings. In a word, the White Sox rotation became ordinary. Mediocre. Average.

Robert returned and began to show why he is one of the most athletic and exciting players in the game. He is a finely tuned machine, capable of beating the opposition on offense, defense and on the bases.

Jimenez has shown why he is a dangerous, dangerous hitter. He can change a game with a majestic home run at the blink of an eye. 

Catcher Yasmani Grandal has offered clutch hitting and mostly consistent production when the club has needed his offense.

Jose Abreu has remained a clutch, RBI machine. A bit more inconsistent with his bat than in previous years, Abreu has remained dangerous with men on base. He is an inspiration to his teammates and is the consummate professional.

But the key to the White Sox, the spark of the White Sox, the heart of the White Sox is Tim Anderson. When he was hurt and on the injured list, the White Sox looked listless. He brings the excitement and charge to the club. He plays 100 percent on offense and defense every game. Without Anderson, the White Sox are a better than average club. With Anderson, the White Sox offense can contend under the brightest lights. For me, Tim Anderson is a difference maker. He makes things happen.

Can the White Sox win the World Series? Yes. If. If they can pitch, they can win.

In May, I was all in. If I were a betting man, I would have gone to a casino and put a dollar or two on the White Sox to bring home the bacon. Not now. Their pitching is far too worn down. Far too tired. Far too thin. Thank you, Tony La Russa. I don't think he handled his starting pitching, or his bullpen, well at all.

I also worry about the back-end of the White Sox pen. Michael Kopech will pitch in the rotation next year. But he could also be a set-up man or closer. He would be an improvement over Craig Kimbrel, whom I don't trust. And I worry that Liam Hendriks has pitched so much he will walk off the mound one day without a right arm.

The White Sox are good, but they have way too many flaws to overcome. And they have to play with more energy than they did prior to their clinching series with Cleveland. That's where having Anderson every day will help.

But if they pitch, they can win it all. Go figure.

Tampa Bay Rays: Estimated payroll: $71 million

I have to admit it, I don't get it. I don't get how and why the Tampa Bay Rays win with such frequency. I just don't see them having the consequential players or depth of other teams. Maybe my dislike for manager Kevin Cash is silly. Maybe he is, in fact, the great manager everyone I know believes in. Not me.

The Rays comprise players who achieve beyond their ability. That's it. That's who they are. They are a group of good, but not great, baseball players who get the most from their skills. Can I credit Kevin Cash for that? Maybe. See, I can be kind when it is required.

Austin Meadows is a very good player but he has had inconsistency in his career, for sure. Ji-Man Choi is a platoon first baseman who sits against left-handed pitching. Choi does have power. Brandon Lowe? Seriously? Why would any pitcher in his right mind throw him a fastball? He really, really struggles with breaking balls, and yet? Well, and yet, he sees and pounds plenty of fastballs. He was awful last postseason. And he may be again.

Mike Zunino? He kills rallies by striking out, but then hits homers that matter. Joey Wendle? A really good guy to have around. Contact hitter. Nice player. Kevin Kiermaier? The team has tried to trade him. Very good defensive outfielder. But like the rest of the band, he can hit some solid notes upon occasion and contribute with his bat. Randy Arozarena? Did I expect him to be the 2020 postseason Randy Arozarena? No. But I did expect far more power. He's still going to improve, though, and he could light it up in October.

The Rays front office went out and traded for Nelson Cruz. Now that's a guy who can help them go deeply into the playoffs. Why? Because he is such a great hitter. He is so dangerous with the bat that he made everyone around him better. Choi sees better pitches, and so do Meadows and Arozarena. Cruz is the reason I would fear the Rays.

Wander Franco has to get over his strained hamstring to really help make an offensive difference. He's a great young player, very capable of changing a game. If he can get healthy and play every day, the Rays offense can hang together. He's that good.

Frankly, I don't know why I say this, but I am really concerned with the Rays pitching. I just don't see it. 

Lefty Ryan Yarbrough wants to be a starter for the rest of his life. This year, he has started and pitched out of the pen. Now he's a starter. Probably the best they have.

Lefty Shane McClanahan is still only 24, and he and rookie Shane Baz (age 22) may have big roles in the postseason. That should be a bit scary for Cash. But maybe not. Luis Patino is only 21. Drew Rasmussen could be the fifth starter because the team has lost both Tyler Glasnow and Yonny Chirinos to Tommy John surgery. Not that he would help, but Chris Archer is also injured. 

But in Tampa, starters don't matter. Roles don't matter. A pitcher can pith at any time in a game.

Sorry, I just don't see an entire postseason of makeshift pitching for the Rays. But wait — they are loaded with great bullpen arms that could "open" for them in the playoffs. Guys like Collin McHugh, Pete Fairbanks, David Robertson and JT Chargois. And Nick Anderson, Michael Wacha and more. Ah ha, that's how they could survive. Use 13 pitchers. It won't matter where or when they are used. I get it. I just don't like it or agree with it. But it works for the Rays.

Can the Rays win the World Series? No.

I know they are a charmed team. I know they play the game well. I know they win. I just don't see them going all the way to wear the crown. But perhaps my answer should be…maybe.

Houston Astros: Estimated payroll: $189 million

This just in. With the exception of Astros fans, most baseball fans still hate the Astros. They have become the team to root against, all because of a little sign stealing, cheating hiccup. Most fans are more turned off by the response of the Astros players and front office for their cavalier and arrogant response to getting caught.

That aside, the Astros have a really good team.

For me, Yordan Alvarez doesn't get enough buzz for being the monster fence buster that he is. He, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Kyle Tucker and Yuli Gurriel feel really dangerous to me in a short series. Those guys can flat out hit.

Michael Brantley may be the best pure hitter on the team, but his barking knee doesn't seem to be getting better. If he can play in the postseason, they will be very tough to beat.

They may have some pitching issues if guys like Jose Urquidy, Framber Valdez and Jake Odorizzi can't pitch through injuries. For now, all are healthy. Can that sustain? Those three are important to the Astros starting pitching depth. They form a solid rotation along with the two guys I mention below.

Lance McCullers is very, very reliable. I really think he remains underrated in the big leagues, and he could team up with 37-year-old Zack Greinke and lead the starting rotation right into the World Series. But I must confess that Greinke does give me a bit of acid reflux. I have seen him so much in my life and in his pitching life that I just wait for him to walk off the mound with his right arm hanging by his side. I hope that never, ever happens. But, it could.

The reason the Astros got guys like Kendall Graveman, Yimi Garcia and Phil Maton at the trade deadline was for the postseason. The Astros bullpen, led by closer Ryan Pressly and set-up studs Ryne Stanek and Graveman is really a very, very solid part of their club.

The starters can go five and fly. They can go six and turn the baton over to the pen. I like their pitching. They have some very good starters, although they have to monitor their health and their innings. 

Can the Astros win the World Series? Yes. So, I like their offense. I like the pitching. I just like the Astros. They are a complete team. They out-pitch every American League opponent.

If they had a healthy Justin Verlander to pair with Greinke and McCullers, I think it would be easier for them. But this is a complete, balanced team that is not going to tip one way or another if a player is injured. They are surviving without Michael Brantley. They survived with an injured Alex Bregman. They are a really solid club.

Boston Red Sox: Estimated 2021 payroll: $193 million

The Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays will fight it out in this last week for Wild Card spots.

Any of the three teams can get hot and secure a space in the postseason.

I never did buy in to the Red Sox all season. Why? While they can hit, they can't pitch. And that seems to be the problem with all three of the American League Wild Card finalists.

The Red Sox have a couple of the most-under-the-radar stars in baseball in Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. Each of them has the ability to put the team on his shoulders and carry them to victory. Both have done it this year. They are a lethal combination, with the right-handed hitting Bogaerts and the lefty Devers sitting smack dab in the middle of a very potent batting order.

The Red Sox stole left-handed power hitting Kyle Schwarber and did what no manager dared to do before now — play him at first base and don't worry about his defense. Other teams may have gone there, but they worried and kind of tried to hide him and his glove. The right-handed hitting platoon version of Schwarber is Bobby Dalbec, himself a power hitter capable of hitting rockets in spurts.

I don't mean to slight J.D. Martinez. He is still a real factor hitting right after Devers. A pitcher cannot afford to take it easy on J.D. He can kill you with gap doubles, Green Monstah doubles and the long ball. 

So really, the Red Sox attack can kill a team with the long ball at any point of the game

And getting Alex Verdugo in the Mookie Betts trade is becoming more acceptable. He's really a solid hitter and a very good baseball player. He adds some spark to the club, and I think he will continue to grow and become more important to the team.

The Red Sox rotation got a huge boost with the return of lefty Chris Sale. He is capable of giving the club a huge lift if they make it to the postseason. Or if they have to play a game to settle the American League East. He's still a solid starter with good stuff — if his elbow and arm hold up.

After Sale, I have to be concerned. Nick Pivetta, Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez can each throw a shutout or get creamed on any given day. Inconsistent is the word that best describes each of them. But each has shown signs of having really good stuff, but the guy who shows up on a given day can get hammered.

I still have little faith in a team that doesn't know where the next save will come from. Will it be Hansel Robles, Garrett Richards, Adam Ottavino or Matt Barnes? Each can close out a game. Each can also have to run for shelter if they get too much of the plate.

Can the Red Sox win the World Series? No. Not with that pitching. If they didn't have to pitch and only had to hit to win a game, that would be a different story. But that isn't how it works. Unless they can start Iron Mike — the pitching machine, I think they'll be doomed.

New York Yankees: Estimated payroll: $201 million

Well, spending money doesn't guarantee a World Series win. Ask the Yankees.

This year, New York can boast a lethal trio of sluggers that include Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo. If they want to keep Gallo, they'll have to pay up. Those three can destroy any pitching they see, at any given moment.

When one adds in the bat control of a still productive (but declining) DJ LeMahieu and the gap power of newcomer Anthony Rizzo, the lineup becomes even more dangerous. Not to mention the underrated production of Gio Urshela. And what happens if the enigmatic Gary Sanchez gets really hot and starts to hit bombs? Yes, the Yankees have a lethal lineup. More lethal than the Red Sox.

But…like the Red Sox, the Yankees have pitching woes. They tried to patch the holes with veterans like Jameson Taillon (now injured with a barking ankle) and Corey Kluber (now returned from injury). Overall, there is little pitching depth, and the quality of the starters remains inconsistent.

Sure, Gerrit Cole is solid, but he too has his bad moments. He is not a lock to win a game he starts. And no, he isn't a healthy Jacob deGrom

Nestor Cortes has been good, but what happens under pressure if the team advances to the playoffs? Jordan Montgomery? And then Kluber? I wouldn't go to the bookie and bet my house on the Yankees rotation.

Aroldis Chapman has struggled. Will he get the ball in the ninth inning? Maybe Chad Green closes out games.

Can the Yankees win the World Series? Yes. My point? The Yankees have enough quality firepower to pound any team into submission. While I believe pitching and defense win postseason games, this Yankees team has so much firepower they can be behind by 3 runs late in the game and walk away with a win.

But first they have to get to the postseason.

And I said they could win the World Series. I didn't say they will win the World Series.

Toronto Blue Jays: Estimated payroll: $141 million 

How can this be? The Blue Jays have an incredibly good team and they have to fight to get into the postseason. Why? Once again — pitching.

How about being a pitcher and navigating a lineup that has George Springer, Marcus Semien, Vladimir Guerrero, Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez coming at you with the first five hitters. It could be possible you will start every game down a run or two before your team even comes to the plate.

For me, there are so many great stories about the Blue Jays offense. Who ever figured that Marcus Semien would switch his defensive position and tear the cover off the ball, day in and day out? That man will be going to the pay window and cashing in his lottery ticket.

And Vlad Jr.? If not for Shohei Ohtani, Vlad would be a lock to be the MVP. He hasn't just had a great season in this season, he's had a career season in this season. He's killing all kinds of pitching. But you know what? I think he's gaining weight again. Don't say that I noticed, but I have. Watch out, Vlad. Pull yourself away from the table.

Hernandez is another of those hitters who can change a game. 

Imagine if Springer is healthy and plays his normal game and gets on base, then the next few hitters live up to their potential and drive in runs. They are very much like the Yankees with their offensive firepower.

I have watched countless Robbie Ray starts. He has had trouble throwing strikes throughout his career. However, American League hitters have stopped waiting him out. They swing early in counts. Advantage: Robbie Ray. He could easily win the Cy Young Award. Good for him.

Getting Jose Berrios from Minnesota really helps the Blue Jays pitching staff. He gives them an additional proven starter capable of winning the game every outing.

I like Alek Manoah and even Steven Matz, to some extent. But the Blue Jays, like the Yankees and Red Sox just don't have enough pitching.

When Adam Cimber is close to being a high-leverage pitcher in the bullpen, it means the pen is weak. The depth and quality can't match other contending teams. So again, the Blue Jays have come up short in a crucial area that matters. If the starters can hang in and take the game to the sixth, can the pen close it out? I'm not sure. Oh, I think I'm pretty sure. No. Not consistently this late in the season.

Can the Blue Jays win the World Series? No. This isn't a home run derby. This will be a match between better pitching than the team has seen all year. The Dodgers, the Brewers and even the Braves may be able to quiet the Blue Jays bats.

Who represents the American League in the World Series? The Houston Astros.

Heading Home: 

I've taken up lots of space with my article this week, so I'm going to head home gently and quietly today. Here's the question:

Do you think Tony La Russa should manage the 2022 White Sox? I'm not asking if you think he did a good job. I'm asking if you think he's the guy to lead the White Sox in 2022?

Thanks for following me on twitter @BerniePleskoff and for reading my work.

Remember to stay safe out there. Stay healthy. 
 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bernie Pleskoff
Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners.
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