Every World Series title is special. Duh.
But some do carry an even greater emotional weight than others, given what a particular franchise has gone through or where it might be headed.
Think about the monumental meaning of five of the last six World Series: In 2015, the small-market Royals won it all for the first time since 1985. In 2016, the Cubs triumphed for the first time in 108 years. In 2017, the Astros won their franchise’s first title, and same for the Nationals in 2019. And last year, the Dodgers ended a drought dating back to 1988. (Don’t worry, 2018 Red Sox, you’re special, too. But let’s not pretend Boston fans were anywhere near as anxious as they were in 2004.)
That’s why we put together the Playoff Urgency Index. When you factor in things like past postseason pains, pending free agents, payroll obligations and prospect potency, we can sort the remaining clubs on a relative scale -- 10 being the most urgent, 1 being the most relaxed.
Note: We are including all teams still mathematically alive for the postseason, which is 12 in total at the moment, even though only 10 will ultimately qualify for the playoffs.
Urgency Index: 12, or how old Craig Counsell was the last time the Brewers reached the World Series
We break our 10-point scale here both to make that Counsell observation and to make a larger point. Not only have the small-market Brewers never won it all, but they’ll face some complicating factors in future attempts to advance.
Christian Yelich’s salary nearly doubles next season (from $14 million to $26 million). Add that to the $18 million owed Lorenzo Cain and the $11 million owed Jackie Bradley Jr., and the Brewers will have a lot of money tied up into an outfield that really underperformed this year. The great Josh Hader is getting increasingly expensive in arbitration, as well. This club has been built around great pitching, and it will be interesting to see how Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta recover from a significant jump in innings this season. With news of Devin Williams’ broken hand that will keep him out until the World Series (at the earliest), the burden on Burnes, Woodruff, Peralta and Hader will be even greater.
Lastly, because this team hasn’t drafted higher than ninth overall since 2017, the farm system is ranked 25th out of 30 teams by MLB Pipeline. All of which is to say, there’s no time like the present for the Brew Crew.
Urgency Index: 10, or the consecutive number of times the Braves have won their division without winning the NL pennant
Atlanta is up there in the pantheon of pain in professional sports (I started to write out a list of other cities in that group, but I didn’t want to leave anybody out and only add to their disappointment). Sure, the Braves won it all in 1995, but that was one frustratingly fleeting moment among 14 straight division titles. (And while 1995 might not seem like long ago to some, keep in mind that Turner Field opened and closed since then.)
When last year’s club blew a 3-1 lead on the Dodgers in the NLCS, it was added torture for a fan base only a few years removed from the agony of the Falcons suffering the biggest blown lead in Super Bowl history (sorry for bringing it up again).
Thankfully, Ronald Acuña Jr., though currently absent with injury, is going to be around for a while. Same with Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley. The Braves will probably do what it takes to keep Freddie Freeman, and they have a shrewd and aggressive general manager in Alex Anthopoulos. So this fourth straight division title might not be their last. But they don’t need another heartbreak.
Urgency Index: 10, or how many times Dusty Baker has been to the playoffs without winning it all
Sure, the Astros are only four years removed from a World Series title. But they had their name thoroughly dragged through the mud for the sign-stealing scandal and, fair or not, some people are always going to call that a tainted title.
Here’s a chance to shut everybody up and, just as important, get Baker that elusive ring. The Astros already lost George Springer in free agency last winter, and Carlos Correa could be next. Zack Greinke and the injured Justin Verlander are also set to be free agents. The Houston farm system is rated by MLB Pipeline as No. 29 in the game. So while this team will retain a lot of talent, including some nice young pitching, maintaining this excellent run of four division titles, two AL pennants and four ALCS appearances over the last five years will be increasingly difficult.
4. White Sox
Urgency Index: 8, or how old Luis Robert was the last time the Sox won it all
While the AL Central champion White Sox do have a lot of young talent on their roster, they also rely greatly on a 34-year-old Lance Lynn and José Abreu and a 32-year-old Yasmani Grandal. The Sox’s farm system is ranked last in the game by MLB Pipeline, and they haven’t won a playoff series since the 2005 championship run. Heck, their manager is 77 years old, so you can bet he’s feeling some urgency.
The volume of talent here and the chances that the Sox can repeat in the AL Central next year prevent this from being a 10. But the South Siders still need to seize this moment.
Urgency Index: 8, or how many World Series games the Rays have lost in two trips to the Fall Classic (2008 and 2020)
When it comes to contracts and young talent and whatnot, the Rays are in a really good position long-term because, well, they always seem to keep themselves in a good position long-term. That’s the hard-earned benefit of constant roster churn and extrapolating value for your established talent as it gets more expensive. (The Rays have the sixth-best farm system in the game, per MLB Pipeline, and all of the clubs ahead of them have been in rebuild mode.)
But obviously, every small-market team -- even a team as well-run and consistently competitive as the Rays -- must approach an October opportunity with gusto. All the more for Tampa Bay in the wake of coming oh-so-close last year.
Urgency Index: 8, or how many times the Yanks have come up empty in October since their last World Series win
Honestly, we’re all pretty sick of hearing how tragic it is that the Yankees went an entire decade without even reaching the World Series, let alone winning one. And those of us with small-market souls will shed no tears about the team with the second-highest payroll in the sport underperforming. At least you’ve had 29 straight winning seasons!
But yes, yes. When you play in the Bronx, there’s pressure to win it all. We get it. This is, indeed, an urgent situation, as usual. Just not a 10.
Urgency Index: 6, or how many postseason series the Cards have lost since the 2011 run
Whoa, who let these guys in? Perhaps you’ve heard this one before, but the Cardinals have unexpectedly stormed their way into Wild Card positioning with a superlative September. As the 2011 club can tell you, the nice thing about an out-of-nowhere October appearance is that external expectations are kept to a minimum, making every postseason victory all the more sweet.
But remember: The Cards were a popular pick to win the NL Central this season before injuries and underperformance intervened in the first half. Some of their most important pieces are a 40-year-old ace (Adam Wainwright), a 39-year-old catcher (Yadier Molina), a 34-year-old first baseman (Paul Goldschmidt) and a 30-year-old third baseman (Nolan Arenado), and this could be Deadline acquisition Jon Lester’s last run, too. St. Louis should be in a position to spend some money this winter, and this team always seems to have magic up its sleeve. But there does need to be at least a better-than-average appreciation for the moment here.
8. Blue Jays
Urgency Index: 5, or how many years it’s been since the Jays won a playoff game
While 28 years is a long time between titles and Blue Jays fans are not far removed from the sting of losing in the ALCS in consecutive years in 2015-16, this generally feels like a team at the beginning -- not the end -- of something special.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Alek Manoah and Alejandro Kirk are all 23 or younger. Hyun Jin Ryu, George Springer, Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. are also among those under contractual control for the foreseeable future, and the Blue Jays have the budget to build around their core. So should Toronto not get a Joe Carter-esque ending in 2021, you’d still feel pretty good about this club’s ability to give it another shot next year.
Urgency Index: 4, for that fourth ring Buster Posey is chasing
The Giants have the oldest position player group in the game and the fifth-oldest pitching staff. But with this being the first postseason appearance of the Farhan Zaidi era, with the Giants widely expected to be big players in upcoming free-agent classes and, of course, with three titles in the recent rearview, it’s hard to describe this as an especially urgent situation.
This team has already drastically exceeded all reasonable expectations placed upon it at the start of the year. And anyway, as you are aware, the San Francisco Giants are contractually prohibited from winning the World Series in odd-numbered years. So nobody will look down upon them if they get beat in October.
The Dodgers aim to demonstrate that they are a dynasty and that they are every bit as capable of winning it all on the heels of a 162-game schedule as they were on the heels of a 60-game schedule last year. And for Scherzer, Pujols, Clayton Kershaw and Mookie Betts, any addition to the ring count only adds to the Cooperstown resume.
But that’s all semantical when compared to the plight or aim of other organizations. Between their still-solid farm system (it has been thinned by graduations and trades, yet still contains five of MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects), their stash of star power and their financial muscle, the Dodgers aren’t likely going away anytime soon.
11. Red Sox
Urgency Index: 2, or how many World Series the Red Sox have already won in the last decade
Much has changed for this Boston ballclub since 2018 -- most notably the uniform worn by Betts. Still, there’s enough remaining nucleus of that championship club (manager Alex Cora, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, Matt Barnes and others) that it would not be some great baseball tragedy if the Red Sox don’t get it done again.
Honestly, not that many people expected Boston to be vying for a World Series in 2021 to begin with.
Urgency Index: 0, or how many times the Mariners reached the postseason between 2002 and 2020
This might seem like an odd rating on the Urgency Index for a team trying to end the longest playoff drought in North American professional sports. But let’s get real here: Absolutely nothing was expected of these M’s both going into the season and, for that matter, going into September. They’ve done an absurdly good job of winning close games and playing loose and pressure-free, and that’s exactly how they should approach an October opportunity.
If the Mariners were to advance, it would be the best and most shocking story in baseball. And if they were to get immediately bounced, no sweat, for they are merely at the beginning of maturing into an earnest contender in the AL West. In other words, they’re playing with house money and have no need to feel any external urgency created by their franchise’s multi-decade drought.