Five MLB teams who can take down the Dodgers, Braves in 2024

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Entering the 2024 MLB season, two superteams have stood out from the crowd. In fact, the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers were in a tier of their own at the top of our initial MLB Power Rankings and are the clear projected favorites to win it all when the postseason rolls around. But that doesn't mean the rest of the league is going to lie down and watch the Dodgers and Braves battle it out for supremacy this season.

We asked five of our ESPN MLB experts to each pick one team they think is best suited to take down the Dodgers and Braves in October, when it counts the most. While none of our experts necessarily expects this team to be better than L.A. and Atlanta for the 162-game long haul, they all made their strongest cases why their selection could be the team to knock L.A. and Atlanta out of the postseason. Just how strong were their cases? We left that for our resident judge -- the honorable Jeff Passan -- to decide with his ruling for each case.

Texas Rangers

The case for the Rangers: I already hear Judge Jeff: "No team has gone back-to-back since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000. It's impossible." That just means we're due for a repeat champion -- and this lineup can carry the Rangers to another title. You know this is true, Judge. After all, you wrote the story in spring training heralding the coming of Wyatt Langford. The Rangers are adding him plus a full season of Evan Carter to a lineup that already led the American League in runs scored a year ago. Yes, Josh Jung's broken wrist stinks, but that means the Rangers will have only eight good hitters instead of nine while he's out.

I'm less worried about Texas' pitching than most. Nathan Eovaldi, Jon Gray and Dane Dunning are good enough to keep the rotation afloat until Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Tyler Mahle return later in the season. You want to bet against Eovaldi, who merely went 5-0 with a 2.95 ERA last postseason, plus a healthy deGrom and Scherzer in October? The bullpen is also deeper with the additions of David Robertson and Kirby Yates, which is nice but doesn't even matter because Bruce Bochy could manage a bullpen with three High-A pitchers, two college relievers, Jesse Orosco and Judge Jeff himself to a World Series title. -- David Schoenfield

Judge Jeff says: I've been working on a splitter, but that's neither here nor there. Your case is sound. It also depends on the health of guys who haven't been able to stay healthy. What version of deGrom returns in August? How much more is left in the tank for Scherzer, who turns 40 in July? The lineup, even without Jung, will be just fine, and general manager Chris Young's aggressiveness almost ensures the Rangers will get better at the trade deadline. For now, the lack of pitching certainty leaves them a touch light compared to the Braves and Dodgers.

Baltimore Orioles

The case for the Orioles: The Orioles won 101 games last season and still haven't come close to reaching their ceiling. Baltimore has so much young talent that its Triple-A team is more interesting right now than at least four big league clubs. The ascension of these players is collectively steep, inevitable and organic. A lineup that within a few weeks will feature Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Jackson Holliday and Jordan Westburg has balance, speed, power and athleticism to match up with anyone, and there is more on the way as the outfield gets younger.

Yes, the talent is tilted toward the position player side -- but that means Baltimore can make targeted additions to the pitching staff over the course of the season. The depth in young hitters will allow the O's to fill in gaps in the rotation and bullpen alike with top-of-the-market reinforcements. And it's not like those acquisitions would be counted on to turn around a faltering staff. Baltimore, as is, has a playoff-caliber pitching staff. Everything that's put into the roster from here is gravy. -- Bradford Doolittle

Judge Jeff says: "Will allow" is not the same as "will," and that's the flaw in the pro-Orioles argument. Everything you say about Baltimore's lineup is correct. It's the Orioles' willingness to move controllable players that I doubt, even with David Rubenstein's recent purchase of the team. Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal run the Orioles' baseball operations department with a high degree of judiciousness, and because their window to win is as big as any American League team's, adding the necessary pitching might come down to value over urgency. And it is indeed necessary. With Kyle Bradish's return from an elbow injury uncertain and John Means getting hammered in his first rehab start at Triple-A, the questions about Baltimore's pitching linger.

Philadelphia Phillies

The case for the Phillies: There were times watching the Phillies last October when it felt as if they'd never lose. The electricity at Citizens Bank Park was unmatched, the confidence with which this team carried itself palpable. The Phillies seemed destined for the World Series. And if not for Craig Kimbrel -- tagged with the loss in Games 3 and 4 of the National League Championship Series, helping the Arizona Diamondbacks get back into a series they ultimately won -- they probably would have reached it. Kimbrel is now gone. What remains is a loaded lineup headlined by Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber and J.T. Realmuto; a devastating rotation duo in Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola; and a bullpen that, early hiccups aside, began the season with the highest WAR projections by FanGraphs.

Even if the Phillies don't win the NL East, they've more than proved they can take down the Braves when it matters most, having eliminated them from each of the past two postseasons. As for the Dodgers? These Phillies seem to possess what the Dodgers have lacked in recent years: an October swagger that radiates through your television screen. -- Alden Gonzalez

Judge Jeff says: When it comes to star-level talent, the Phillies have as much as any team, Dodgers and Braves included. Their ability to take the leap might depend on the secondary characters, though. Is Cristopher Sanchez-- with his 2 mph velo leap and filthy changeup -- a viable rotation piece for a full season? Can a healthy Spencer Turnbull be the guy whose first start includes five scoreless innings? Does the best version of Nick Castellanos show up? If the answer to all three is yes, I'm a lot more bullish on the Phillies' prospects, particularly considering the team's October pedigree.

New York Yankees

The case for the Yankees: Brian Cashman's multiyear obsession with attempting to balance his lineup finally came to fruition when the Yankees acquired Juan Soto in the offseason. It was essential to their October goals. The postseason is littered with good teams who bowed out early because they were too right handed. See the White Sox in 2021 and the Blue Jays, basically every year, for evidence. New York was in that category, relying on Anthony Rizzo and a cast of characters (Matt Carpenter, Joey Galloet al), to provide slug from that side of the plate. It never worked. Now we're already seeing what having a premier left-handed hitter can do to stretch the lineup while taking some pressure off Rizzo. This group, when healthy, plays in the fall.

But let's not bury the lead here. Pitching is still the name of the game, andGerrit Coleneeds to get healthy while Carlos Rodon, Marcus Stroman and Nestor Cortes must be the best versions of themselves. I don't believe that's asking too much. And there was chatter last July that the Yankees would have moved a top prospect for Cody Bellinger, so don't discount a big trade for a pitcher this time around. I'm sure they don't want to give up a recovering Jasson Dominguez or the highly touted Spencer Jones, but there was a time when championships were all that mattered in New York. With potentially having Soto for only one year, Cashman needs to go for it. The Yankees can topple the giants if he does. -- Jesse Rogers

Judge Jeff says: Sweeping the Houston Astros over four games to begin the season -- all in come-from-behind fashion no less -- validated the these-Yankees-are-different buzz that accompanied them entering the season. The validity of their case boils down to one thing, however: Do they or don't they have Gerrit Cole come October? If he is healthy and himself, the threat for championship No. 28, and their first since 2009, is very real. Without Cole, the Yankees' rotation is fine, just not the sort that screams World Series winner.

Houston Astros

The case for the Astros: For the Astros to take down the Dodgers or Braves themselves, they would have to reach the World Series. And if recent history is any indication, they will at least give themselves a shot to do so. The Astros have advanced to the ALCS a record seven straight seasons. They went to the World Series four out of those seven years and were one win away from a fifth appearance last fall. They've won it all twice. October baseball is different, and there hasn't been a better team in October than Houston over the past decade.

Two managers, a few stars and some valued complementary veterans have come and gone, but an elite core remains intact in 2024. Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tuckerand Alex Bregman highlight a deep lineup that also featuresJose Abreu, Yainer Diazand Chas McCormick as part of the supporting cast. The back end of the bullpen, bolstered by Josh Hader's arrival, is the best in the majors on paper.

The starting rotation has question marks to start the season -- enough for Houston to have strongly considered signing Blake Snell in mid-March -- but the talent is there. Justin Verlander is expected to come off the injured list by the end of the month. Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia should follow. Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier were elite in 2022. Ronel Blanco, a rotation fill-in, tossed a no-hitter Monday. If need be, the Astros could address the rotation at the trade deadline. An 0-4 start was less than ideal, but the Astros are consistent winners when it matters most. The Dodgers and Braves, who have both been knocked out in the NL division series the past two years, can't say the same. -- Jorge Castillo

Judge Jeff says: What, no one wants the Pirates? Tigers? Brewers? And you're going to go with a team that has played six games, led all of them at one point and won just one? This is also a team with similar-to-Texas concerns about starting pitching health, a payroll already at an all-time high without much deadline wiggle room and a weak farm system. Then again, these are the Astros. In addition to Alvarez, Tucker and Altuve, Diaz is mashing. A low-strikeout offense with few holes, a still-strong defensive unit and a nasty back end of the bullpen, Hader's early hiccups notwithstanding? There's a reason the Astros are one good run shy of an all-time LCS streak, and as the Yankees and Phillies learned in 2022, only a fool sleeps on Houston in October.