Reigning 2020 World Series champions Los Angeles Dodgers enter the 2021 season as repeat favorites. In fact, the best scenario for the Los Angeles team this year is downright terrifying. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the league will just lie down and watch the Dodgers waltz to back-to-back titles.
With that in mind, we asked five of our ESPN MLB experts to pick a team they consider best suited to defeat the Dodgers, in October, when it counts the most. While none of our experts necessarily expect this team to be better than Los Angeles over 162 long-term games, they all made their strongest arguments why their pick could be the team that knocks Los Angeles out of the postseason. How strong were your cases? Well, we leave that up to our Resident Judge, the Honorable Jeff Passan, to decide with his ruling for each case.
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Chicago White Sox
Arguments in favor of the White Sox: If ever a team was about to explode, it is this year’s White Sox. Last year, Chicago had the second-best offense in the American League even though Yoan Moncada had a bad year after contracting COVID-19 and the Sox had huge holes in right field and designated hitter. This year, they’ve filled in those gaps with a veteran in Adam Eaton and Rookie of the Year favorite in Andrew Vaughn, two upgrades whose skill sets balance the lineup. And Moncada is a complete test.
There is no question that the loss of Eloy Jiménez deals a blow to the White Sox’s chances of reaching October. But if they can make up for his absence until he returns at the end of the season, the White Sox will become the team that no one, including the Dodgers, wants to face in the playoffs. At that point, the White Sox will really have a solid one-to-nine lineup with at least four players (José Abreu, Moncada, Jiménez and Luis Robert) being able to have an MVP-like season. Then when the White Sox make the playoffs, they’ll have a strong veteran rotation built for October and a flamethrower bullpen (Codi Heuer, Michael Kopech, Garrett Crochet) that will pave the way for Chicago’s new elite closer, Liam Hendriks. – Bradford Doolittle
Judge Jeff says: The court won’t spend too much time criticizing his decision to drop Tim Anderson from the Chicago MVP roster. However, he disagrees with his unwillingness to acknowledge what could prevent a game against the Dodgers: a rotation that isn’t exactly “built for October.” Lance Lynn hasn’t started a postseason game since 2014. Lucas Giolito has made one start in his entire postseason career. In Dallas Keuchel’s past eight postseason starts, he has lasted more than five innings just once. That is built for October as I am for the beach. Also, as much as Moncada’s health should help the White Sox, there are several candidates for throwback, starting with Abreu and Anderson.
None of this is to say that the White Sox are a bad choice. The threshold of evidence simply needs to be higher. Motion denied.
San Diego Padres
Arguments for Parents: Um, AJ Preller built this case for me this winter: Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove, Jurickson Profar, Mark Melancon, Ha-Seong Kim, Fernando Tatis Jr. 14 years was just another sign that this team is serious about winning big. As for Tatis’s recent shoulder injury, it’s definitely a concern, but I’m not about to jump ship considering her prognosis is decent (for now at least).
I understand that sometimes the teams that win the winter are the ones with a lot of holes to fill, but that was not 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 team.
The fact that the two teams are in the same division is actually an advantage. To be the best, you must beat the best. The Padres will again have 19 attempts this year. You can’t tell me that that won’t lift the competitive mood of the Padres. If there is ever a time to defeat an eternal division winner, it is right after they have won a World Series. The Padres will smell blood in the water the moment the Dodgers show signs of a hangover. And of course all of this hinges on the recent San Diego update that Tatis will return and play as the superstar that is sooner rather than later. – Jesse Rogers
Judge Jeff says: Lawyer, “to be the man, you have to beat the man” is as the saying goes, and no good argument begins with a poor imitation of the saying popularized by wrestler Ric Flair. That said, the Padres present a reasonable case. His rotation depth is actually on par with that of the Dodgers, especially if Darvish replicates his 2020 version, Musgrove makes his long-awaited step forward and Dinelson Lamet remains healthy. The lineup is excellent and deep, although Kim has been outmatched since spring training, and the bullpen is on par with Los Angeles.
Motion granted, with a figure four to the legs of the lawyer who disrespected Nature Boy.
Arguments in favor of the Braves: If it weren’t for the dizzying number of plays made by LA to overcome a 3-1 deficit in last year’s NL Championship Series, many of them delivered by Mookie Betts, we wouldn’t even have this discussion. The Braves could and probably should have beaten the Dodgers and advanced to the World Series last year. And since failing to beat them in the penultimate round, the Braves added Charlie Morton to the top of their rotation and brought back Marcell Ozuna for half their lineup. Before the end of April, Mike Soroka, who has already become one of the best young pitchers in the game, should return from a torn Achilles tendon.
The top of his lineup (Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, and Ozuna) and the top of his rotation (Max Fried, Ian Anderson, Morton, and Soroka) is as good as anyone else in the sport, including that of the Dodgers. His bullpen is packed, his 40-man roster is deep and Cristian Paché, largely forgotten on this roster, could be the NL Rookie of the Year in 2021. If you gave the Dodgers players truth serum and If you ask which team they’d rather avoid in a best-of-seven series, I’d bet most of them would pick these Braves even over the Padres. His slow and flawed start, the product of very close losses, will soon be a distant spot on the radar. – Alden González
Judge Jeff says: It’s a very good case. And it felt like a great case before the Braves lost their first four games of the season. But let’s not forget his thin bench, which is apparently only reinforced by Pablo Sandoval. This is still the National League, and the Braves need to update on the trade deadline so they can better equalize in the later innings with the designated hitter no longer in play. That said, motion granted.
New York Yankees
Arguments in favor of the Yankees: Despite all the excitement surrounding many of baseball’s young and talented teams 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 leading their rotation and a bullpen led by Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green and Zack Britton. Put Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon into the equation and you’ve got a group that could easily keep up with the Los Angeles Dodgers as the most talented team in sport. To mention that the Yankees have a shot at winning the championship is like saying that LeBron has a shot at winning an NBA Finals, but sometimes the boring choice is still the right one. – Joon Lee
Judge Jeff says: While I appreciate Mr. Lee’s attempt to nonchalantly ignore the Yankees’ predilection for injuries, there is an undeniable element of skepticism in them that they have not remained healthy. It’s hard to buy into the Yankees’ idea without taking that leap, a leap that extends beyond Stanton and Judge to Kluber, Taillon and Luis Severino, who is returning from Tommy John surgery. What complicates things is an East of the Americana that is not a piece of cake. The Blue Jays were a playoff team last year and they’re better this season. The Rays beat the Yankees in the postseason last year and they are always a threat. Boston is better. Baltimore, as the Red Sox learned on opening weekend, is not an easy ride, either.
New York may be the AL East favorite and has the talent to dethrone the Dodgers, but this court needs to see a healthy midseason from the start before snagging on a wagon that always seems to find itself lacking. a wheel. And Gleyber Torres needs to catch the damn ball too. Motion denied.
New York Mets
Arguments in favor of the Mets: I was originally going to go with the Nationals here, but how do I pick them after Max Scherzer allowed four runs on Opening Day? So instead, I’m opting for the Mets. Yes, going through the NL East will be like surviving the Hagler-Leonard-Duran-Hearns fights of the 1980s. But if the Mets do that, they may have an October rotation of Jacob deGrom … and, well, they have other good starters like Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker and hopefully Carlos Carrasco will bounce back and Noah Syndergaard will return midseason. But it’s about deGrom. He’s so good that he started his season pitching 24 straight fastballs. You are hitting over 100 mph with ease. Paint the corners. This is the Year of deGrom. He’s capable of putting on a Madison Bumgarner-style run in 2014 and overriding 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 can be the best candidate for this season. (The screams of Philadelphia are recorded). In fact, it can be argued that the Nationals are more likely to miss the playoffs than to beat the Dodgers.
They have the best pitcher in the world in deGrom and that rotation that potentially includes Stroman, Walker and, when they return from injuries, Syndergaard and Carrasco is dangerous enough to follow what the Nats did against Los Angeles in 2019. But it’s too much Soon to assume all those pitchers will be on the mound in top form in October. What if manager Luis Rojas can’t turn one of them into a super reliever and needs to keep this bullpen? Well, that means motion denied, for now.