Anything can happen in October, you always hear. Short series can narrow the gap between the juggernaut and the upstart — six wild-card teams have won the World Series since they were introduced in 1995 — but the quality of top competition has never been more pronounced than right now.
A record four teams won 100 games in 2019, a season after the record-breaking Red Sox defeated two 100-win clubs in the postseason en route to their championship. The obstacles to glory are serious.
Yahoo Sports asked active players around the game, and granted them anonymity to speak freely, which 2019 postseason teams they wouldn’t want to face on the climb toward a championship — and which clubs they saw as most vulnerable.
Unsurprisingly, a few of the groups that dominated the summer are inspiring trepidation for the fall. Like the 107-win Houston Astros, who won it all in 2017 and now boast a dynamic rotation that includes Cy Young favorites Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, plus trade deadline splash Zack Greinke.
AL pitcher: “Astros. I hate to say it, I don’t like them. They’re tough because of their starters, they got their three guys, their bullpen, and their lineup is really good.”
NL outfielder: “Houston. You got to face Cole, Verlander, Greinke, and the lineup is already great. Imagine having to face those guys throughout three or five games.”
AL infielder: “Got to kind of like Houston. They got their three big pitchers, Cole, Verlander and Greinke. In a postseason series, I feel like starting pitching is pretty big, especially having three really good ones like that. That’s got to be the team to beat right now.”
Others weren’t quite strident enough to announce their specific preference (even under the guise of anonymity) with the resilient Yankees and homer-happy Twins in the picture, but felt confident the Junior Circuit would emerge.
AL outfielder: “I believe whoever comes out of the American League is going to win the World Series. Teams over here are stronger than the teams over there.”
But, let’s be honest. You’re here for the takes. And some players were not quite so prescriptive about their picks. The young Braves have some admirers.
NL pitcher: “The Braves play together. They don’t have the best pieces, in my opinion, but the best actual team. They play the game the right way.”
NL outfielder: “The Braves to me feel like a very complete team. The rotation may be weaker than some other ones but for the National League, them going against the Dodgers will be quite a series. Their lineup is very deep.”
The Nationals, who roared back from a rough start to make the NL wild-card game, also have some opponents hoping they lose that initial coin flip.
NL outfielder: “Nationals are real sneaky, really good team. They’re definitely a team that will give you everything they got.”
NL outfielder: “The Nationals. They got the best pitching.”
Despite the luxury of sending three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer out for a one-game playoff, the Nationals also look like an easy mark to other players — receiving multiple votes on each side of this debate. The reason to want to play the Nationals? Some opportunity for late heroics against a shaky relief corps.
NL outfielder: “I’d have to say the Nationals [are vulnerable]. ... That bullpen. Seems to be, that’s incredibly important, especially in the playoffs in a seven-game series.”
NL infielder: “You think about the teams that don’t have the best bullpens. A team like Washington that has struggled at the back end. I wouldn’t say that’s a team I want to play because their offense is really good and their starters are just as good as Houston, but getting that last six, nine outs is always toughest in postseason.”
Of course, the Rays, the team with an MLB-best 3.71 bullpen ERA, also looked like a (relatively) easy World Series mark to some.
NL outfielder: “Once you face the Houston, Yankees, Oakland, every team is great, but if we say we have a better chance, I’d say the Rays.”
AL pitcher: “Maybe if the Rays make it. They’re still really good. I’ve faced the Astros and the A’s lineup, I’ve seen what the A’s can do, and they just put together at-bats.”
The final team to clinch its division is also getting side-eyed by some potential opponents.
NL pitcher: “Cardinals. I don’t know. I feel like they’re just the easier team out of all those.”
Then there’s the psychological answer. One veteran is ready to take on the mighty, two-time defending NL champion Dodgers for a very simple reason.
NL outfielder: “There’s so much pressure on them. There’s more pressure on them than anybody else.”
Chris Cwik, Matt Ehalt and Hannah Keyser contributed reporting.
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