The reigning 2020 World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers enter the 2021 season as a favorite to repeat. In fact, the best-case scenario for this year’s L.A. squad is downright scary. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the league is just going to lie down and watch the Dodgers waltz to back-to-back titles.
With that in mind, we asked five our ESPN MLB experts to each pick one team they think is best-suited to take down the Dodgers — in October, when it counts the most. While none of our experts necessarily expect this team to be better than L.A. for the 162-game long haul, they all made their strongest cases why their selection could be the team to knock L.A. out of the postseason. Just how strong were their cases? Well, we left that for our resident judge, the honorable Jeff Passan, to decide with his ruling for each case.
The case for the White Sox: If ever a team was poised to explode, it’s this year’s White Sox. Last year, Chicago had the AL’s second-best offense even though Yoan Moncada had an off year after contracting COVID-19 and the Sox had massive holes in right field and DH. This year, they’ve filled those holes with a veteran in Adam Eaton and a Rookie of the Year front-runner in Andrew Vaughn, two upgrades whose skill sets balance the lineup. And Moncada is a full go.
There’s no question that the loss of Eloy Jimenez takes a bite out of the White Sox’s chances to reach October. But if they are able to compensate for his absence until he returns late in the season, the White Sox become the team no one — including the Dodgers — wants to face in the playoffs. At that point, the White Sox will truly go one-through-nine in the lineup with at least four players — Jose Abreu, Moncada, Jimenez and Luis Robert — capable of putting up an MVP-type season. Then when the White Sox do get into the playoffs, they have a solid veteran rotation built for October and a bullpen of flamethrowers (Codi Heuer, Michael Kopech, Garrett Crochet) who will bridge the gap to Chicago’s new elite closer, Liam Hendriks. — Bradford Doolittle
Judge Jeff says: The court will not spend too much time belaboring your decision to omit Tim Anderson from Chicago’s MVP candidates. It does, however, take issue with your unwillingness to acknowledge what could preclude a meeting with the Dodgers: a rotation that is not exactly “built for October.” Lance Lynn hasn’t started a postseason game since 2014. Lucas Giolito has made one career postseason start. In Dallas Keuchel‘s past eight playoff starts, he has lasted more than five innings once. That’s built for October like I’m built for the beach. Further, as much as the White Sox should be helped by Moncada’s health, a number of regression candidates exist, starting with Abreu and Anderson.
None of this is to say the White Sox are a bad choice. The threshold of evidence simply needs to be higher. Motion denied.
The case for the Padres: Um, A.J. Preller made the case for me this winter: Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove, Jurickson Profar, Mark Melancon, Ha-Seong Kim, Fernando Tatis Jr. OK, Tatis was already on the team, but locking him up for 14 years was just another sign this team is serious about winning big. As for Tatis’ recent shoulder injury, it definitely is a concern, but I’m not willing to jump ship considering his prognosis is decent (for now at least).
I get that sometimes teams that win the winter are ones that have a ton of holes to fill, but that wasn’t the case with the Padres. And that’s why they can challenge the Dodgers. They already had a really good team. Now they have a great one, which includes a deeper pitching staff.
The fact that the two teams are in the same division is actually a plus. To be the best, you have to beat the best. The Padres will have 19 tries at it again this year. You can’t tell me that won’t raise the Padres’ competitive spirits. If there is ever a time to take down a perennial division winner, it’s right after they’ve won a World Series. The Padres will smell blood in the water at the very moment the Dodgers show signs of a hangover. And of course, this is all contingent on San Diego’s recent update that Tatis will be back and playing like the superstar he is sooner rather than later. — Jesse Rogers
Judge Jeff says: “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man” is how the saying goes, counselor, and no good argument begins with a poor Ric Flair imitation. That said, the Padres do present a reasonable case. Their rotation depth actually is on par with the Dodgers’, especially if Darvish replicates his 2020 self, Musgrove takes his expected step forward and Dinelson Lamet stays healthy. The lineup is excellent and deep — though Kim has looked overmatched since spring training — and the bullpen is on par with Los Angeles’.
Motion granted, with a figure-four leg lock to the lawyer who disrespected the Nature Boy.
The case for the Braves: If not for the dizzying amount of plays made by L.A. to overcome a 3-1 deficit in last year’s National League Championship Series — many of them turned in by Mookie Betts — we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. The Braves could have and probably should have defeated the Dodgers and advanced to last year’s World Series. And since failing to close them out in the penultimate round, the Braves have added Charlie Morton to the top of their rotation and brought back Marcell Ozuna for the middle of their lineup. Before the end of April, Mike Soroka, who has already developed into one of the game’s best young pitchers, should return from a torn Achilles tendon.
The top of their lineup (Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and Ozuna) and the top of their rotation (Max Fried, Ian Anderson, Morton and Soroka) is as good as anybody’s in the sport, including that of the Dodgers. Their bullpen is stacked, their 40-man roster is deep, and Cristian Pache — mostly forgotten on this roster — might be the National League Rookie of the Year in 2021. If you gave Dodgers players truth serum and asked which team they’d rather avoid in a best-of-seven series, I’d bet most of them would pick these Braves over even the Padres. Their flukish slow start — the product of really close losses — will soon be a blip on the radar. — Alden Gonzalez
Judge Jeff says: That’s a damn good case. And it felt like a great case before the Braves lost their first four of the season. But don’t forget their thin bench. And it felt like a great case before the Braves lost their first four of the season. But don’t forget their thin bench, which is buttressed seemingly only by Pablo Sandoval. This is still the NL, and the Braves need to upgrade at the trade deadline so they can match up better in the late innings with the designated hitter no longer in play. That said, motion granted.
The case for the Yankees: For all of the hype surrounding many of the young, talented teams in baseball like the Padres, Braves and White Sox, the Yankees are still the Yankees. They still have Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu and Giancarlo Stanton in the middle of the lineup, barring injuries, of course. They still have Gerrit Cole at the front of their rotation and a bullpen anchored by Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green and Zack Britton. Toss in Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon and you’ve got a group that could easily keep pace with the Los Angeles Dodgers as the most talented team in the sport. Mentioning that the Yankees have a shot at winning the championship is like saying LeBron has a chance at winning an NBA Finals, but sometimes the boring pick is still the right pick. — Joon Lee
Judge Jeff says: While I appreciate Mr. Lee’s attempt to offhandedly brush away the Yankees’ predilection for injuries, there is an undeniable element of skepticism with them because they have not stayed healthy. It’s difficult to buy the idea of the Yankees without taking that leap — a leap that extends beyond Stanton and Judge to Kluber, Taillon and Luis Severino, who’s returning from Tommy John surgery. Complicating matters is an AL East that is no cakewalk. The Blue Jays were a playoff team last year and are better this season. The Rays beat the Yankees in last year’s postseason and are always a threat. Boston is better. Baltimore, as the Red Sox learned opening weekend, is no cake walk, either.
New York may be the AL East favorite, and it has the talent to dethrone the Dodgers, but this court needs to see a half-season of health from the principles before it hitches itself to a wagon that always seems to find itself missing a wheel. And Gleyber Torres needs to catch the dang ball, too. Motion denied.
The case for the Mets: I was originally going to go with the Nationals here, but how can I pick them after Max Scherzer gave up four runs on Opening Day!? So I am opting for the Mets instead. Yes, getting through the NL East will be like surviving the Hagler-Leonard-Duran-Hearns slugfests of the 1980s. But if the Mets do that, they can roll out an October rotation of Jacob deGrom … and, well, they have other good starters like Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker, and hopefully Carlos Carrasco gets healthy and Noah Syndergaard returns around midseason. But it’s all about deGrom. He’s so good he began his season throwing 24 consecutive fastballs. He’s hitting 100-plus mph with ease. He paints the corners. This is the Year of deGrom. He’s capable of a Madison Bumgarner-like run from 2014 and shutting down the Dodgers’ lineup. (The Mets can hit a little, too.) — David Schoenfield
Judge Jeff says: Well, the last team to beat the Dodgers in the postseason was the Nationals, so I see where you were going with that initial thought, but if you’re going to pick another NL East team to beat the Dodgers, the Mets may be the better candidate for this season. (Screams from Philadelphia noted.) There’s an argument to be made, in fact, that the Nationals are likelier to miss the playoffs than they are to beat the Dodgers.
They’ve got the best pitcher in the world in deGrom and that rotation potentially including Stroman, Walker and — when they return from injuries — Syndergaard and Carrasco is dangerous enough to follow what the Nats did against L.A. in 2019. But it’s a little too early to assume all of those pitchers will be on the mound in top form by October. And if manager Luis Rojas can’t turn one of them into a super-reliever and needs to stick with this bullpen? Well, that means motion denied — for now.