Obviously, every team wants to make the playoffs every year. The Orioles are reconstructing their entire organization to build a team that regularly makes the postseason down the road, but if some sort of cosmic event happened and they won every game the rest of the season and all the teams ahead of them in the Wild Card race lost every game and they were somehow handed a playoff spot, they would take it. The playoffs are great.
But there’s no question that some teams are more desperate to reach the playoffs this season than others. It was easy to tell at the Trade Deadline how much certain teams were willing to sell players who could help them years from now in order to sneak in this year. Future seasons are important, but the current one always feels like it matters more.
Today, we’re taking all the postseason contenders and ranking them in our Playoff Urgency Index. Which teams does 2021 mean the most to? Which teams would be happy to make the playoffs but won’t feel like their plans need to be adjusted if they don’t? That’s what the Playoff Urgency Index is trying to determine.
First, we’re ignoring teams that have essentially already clinched a playoff spot, according to FanGraphs playoff odds. Playoff odds tell how likely it is for an MLB team to win its division, clinch a Wild Card berth or win the World Series. FanGraphs simulates each season 10,000 times to generate these probabilities.
For our purposes, any team above 95% is considered already in. So (early) congrats to the White Sox, Dodgers and Giants.
For those keeping score at home, that only leaves seven available playoff spots. As long as a team's FanGraphs playoff odds are above 0.0 percent, we’re counting them. The teams not meeting this benchmark are the O's, Tigers, Royals, Twins, Rangers, Nationals, Marlins, Cubs, Pirates, D-backs and Rockies.
That leaves 16 teams for seven spots. Here’s how they look.
All playoff odds as of Monday at 11:09 p.m. ET.
1. Padres (70.9 percent playoff odds)
When we did these rankings two years ago, the Padres were last on this list. Now they’re first. That’s a sign of just how far they have come, how aggressive they’ve been in trying to improve the team, how willing they’ve been to challenge the seeming juggernaut that is the Dodgers. But that also means that, if the Friars have come this far, they'd better not blow it. It’d be downright disastrous, Fernando Tatis Jr. injury or not, to have invested so much financial and emotional capital in this team and not even make the National League Wild Card Game. There’s so much momentum here: The last thing they need is to see it blunted. San Diego has been wobbly lately, and all told, no team should be more nervous: No team needs to make the playoffs more than it does.
2. Phillies (56.3 percent)
Here is your periodic reminder that the Phillies have the second-longest playoff drought in the Majors (going back to 2011), behind only the Mariners ('01). Their recent run has put them in first place in the NL East, and now that they’ve come this far, losing that lead and missing the playoffs once again would be disastrous. Bryce Harper has legitimate MVP hopes, and the division is, well, not particularly imposing. Everything’s lining up for the Phils right now. They must take advantage.
3. Yankees (49 percent)
The Yankees always seem to be vibrating at this level of tension anytime they haven’t secured a playoff spot, but this year, which has featured just about every moment of every possible dramatic crescendo we can imagine, feels particularly urgent. The Yanks are either on a roll or collapsing every time you look at them, with new acquisition Anthony Rizzo’s COVID-19 diagnosis just the most recent twist. We’ve all spent the season waiting for New York to Get It Together. It would behoove the Yankees, and those who want to remain employed by them, to do so posthaste.
4. Blue Jays (47.8 percent)
Yeah, this was supposed to be the year the Blue Jays made their move. Remember, after they signed George Springer in the offseason, we all thought, “Wow, have they done enough to catch the Yankees?” And hey, they’re right there with them, one game out. Unfortunately, it’s one game out of third place in the American League East and one game behind them in the AL Wild Card race. There does seem to be a certain pep in the Jays’ step since they finally got to play in Toronto, and we can see that this team could get hot down the stretch. With the expense and expectation Toronto had heading into this season, we'd certainly hope so.
5. Mets (21 percent)
Well, that turned fast. It wasn’t long ago that Mets fans were dreaming of a Jacob deGrom/Carlos Carrasco/Noah Syndergaard rotation of domination in the playoffs. Now they’re just trying to find someone, anyone, who can get a hit. Mets fans always freak out at the first sign of trouble, though you can forgive them for thinking the pain was going to wait until September like it usually does. Then again, New York is not out of this yet, which means it could still in fact be on its way in September. The Mets need to get on a run, at this point, to even give themselves a chance. It still feels like they might have that run in them.
6. Reds (32.1 percent)
Last year was supposed to be the year for the Reds, which is why it would be so satisfying to see them surpass what they did last year and reach the NL Wild Card Game -- at least. Cincinnati may well need to win while it has a chance: The lineup is older than we realize, and that’s even accounting for how old we all know Joey Votto is. The Reds have never quite been able to get everything working at the same time, which is why it’s vital to reach the playoffs while this opportunity is presenting itself. And don’t tell me you don’t want to see Votto in October.
7. Angels (0.4 percent)
This is absurdly high for a team with almost no chance to make the playoffs to be in these rankings. But that’s what happens when the Halos have peak, healthy Shohei Ohtani, along with an eventually returning Mike Trout: People sort of expect them to make the playoffs. That they won’t is a huge disappointment … and another tick of the clock for Trout’s continued search for his first playoff win.
8. Red Sox (71.5 percent)
It doesn’t really matter that few expected the Red Sox to be this good -- to be ahead of the Yankees and Jays -- back in March: After all, they’ve been in first place most of the year before falling out recently. At this point, the Sox, particularly with the looming return of Chris Sale, are in it to win it. Remember, they haven't played a playoff game since winning the 2018 World Series. That’s a long time in Boston without any October baseball. Missing the postseason this year would be a massive opportunity missed.
9. Astros (94.3 percent)
They’re very near the 95 percent threshold, and the Astros are beginning to look like a team possessed, like one that has heard everything the world has been saying about them for the past year and would very much like to show everyone how they can stuff it. Houston is poised to be a grand October villain … and October always needs a villain or two. Missing the postseason would be a total disaster of a collapse at this point, albeit one that would make Dodger Stadium do The Wave.
10. Rays (84.7 percent)
The Rays’ second-half surge has them very much looking like they’ll be in the postseason free-for-all to defend their American League title, though it’s definitely not certain: They’d sure feel a lot better with Tyler Glasnow around. But everything Tampa Bay is doing keeps working, and who knows, maybe it’ll follow the 2014-15 Royals plan: Fall just short in the World Series one year and then go out and win the whole thing the next.
11. A’s (50.9 percent)
Oakland is running out of time on the cost-controlled prime of Matts Olson and Chapman, which would seem to make this year particularly vital, with Houston not going anywhere and Seattle well on its way. But the continued flux of the A’s organization, and their lack of postseason success, probably makes advancing in the playoffs more important than making the playoffs at this point. If they reach October, they’ll be high in World Series-winning Urgency Rankings. But at this point, it’s not enough just to sneak in.
12. Brewers (93.8 percent)
The Brewers have taken advantage of a weak division, but they’ve made it their own: They have the third-best record in the National League, after all. General manager David Stearns has been surgical and precise in his attempts to improve this team, and it’s all paying off. And who in the world wants to face those pitchers in the playoffs? It’s tough to imagine Milwaukee collapsing down the stretch. And it's about to be a very trendy World Series pick.
13. Braves (26.5 percent)
It is to the Braves’ credit that the loss of Ronald Acuña Jr. did not cause them to pack their season in: They were active at the Deadline and are still trying to win this very-winnable division. But if they end up not winning the NL East, you can’t really get mad at them: They lost Acuña! (Not to mention Mike Soroka and Marcell Ozuna.) Atlanta can regroup at fuller strength -- assuming it can bring back Freddie Freeman -- next year. It’s reasonable to consider this year a wash … and the rest of the way sort of free money.
14. Mariners (1.3 percent)
The Mariners were a super-fun story for a while, but no one really thought they were going to make the postseason, so few are particularly angry about them falling back. Seattle is building something exciting, and it'll likely be atop this list for the next couple years: The club does have a big drought to end, after all. But 2021 wasn’t supposed to be the year yet, and it isn’t.
15. Cardinals (1.4 percent)
The Cardinals are basically the opposite of urgent right now, with no offseason acquisitions other than having Nolan Arenado fall in their laps and Deadline acquisitions of two starting pitchers who are old enough to be Wander Franco’s dad. This is a listless season for a franchise that appears to have lost its way. Will it have more urgency in 2022? Does it remember what urgency is at this point?
16. Indians (0.2 percent)
They’re just barely hanging on at 0.2 percent, and that number could be down to zero very soon. That Cleveland was trading away pieces at the Deadline to the team it needs to chase gives us a pretty solid idea of how invested it is in 2021.