Every team in baseball has between 71 and 65 games left in its season. (The Dodgers and Rays, strangely, have played six more games than the Tigers.) The All-Star Game gives us the illusion that we are halfway through the schedule, but we're far past that. The end of the year is going to sneak up on you.
We tell the story of seasons, ultimately, with their champions. The Boston Red Sox were the dominating narrative of 2013 even before they won the World Series, but their championship assured that "2013" and "Red Sox" will be forever linked. The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals were one of the most frustrating Cardinals teams of my lifetime, but after that insane final month-plus, none of that mattered: Their title -- and that lunatic final day of the regular season -- is all that anyone remembers.
This is all to say that with all the storylines we've seen in 2014 -- instant replay, Mike Trout, the three no-hitters -- the team that wins the World Series will likely define how the season will be known historically. That's how it works.
So it's worth looking at which particular teams' championships would be the most compelling. Now, obviously, if you're a fan of a particular team, that team winning would be the most compelling to you. But on the whole, even I, a diehard Cardinals fan, have to admit that a Cardinals championship -- their 12th, and third in the last eight years -- would leave most of the rest of the baseball world cold. In the same way a Buffalo Bills Super Bowl win would more compelling than a New England Patriots one, there are varying grades of compulsion here. Which team winning the Series would be most amazing? Which would produce an enduring memory?
As of this writing, it's fair to say that 13 teams have little to no realistic shot at going to the World Series. According to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report, all 13 of the following teams have less than a 4.9 percent of even making the playoffs (let alone the Fall Classic), allowing us to eliminate them from this discussion. (The Playoff Odds Report considers making the wild card play-in game as "making the playoffs," though you might not.)
Tampa Bay Rays (4.9%)
New York Mets (3.5%)
Boston Red Sox (3.5%)
Minnesota Twins (2.8%)
Chicago White Sox (2.1%)
Miami Marlins (0.9%)
Philadelphia Phillies (0.3%)
San Diego Padres (0.1%)
Chicago Cubs (0.1%)
Colorado Rockies (0.1%)
Arizona Diamondbacks (0.1%)
Houston Astros (0.0%)
Texas Rangers (0.0%)
That leaves us 17 teams with a semi-realistic chance of making the playoffs, and as we all know, if you have a chance to make the playoffs, you have a chance to win the World Series. Here's a ranking, from least compelling to most compelling, of just how much each one winning a championship would capture the collective imagination.
17. St. Louis Cardinals (66.2 percent playoff odds). The Cardinals' season has been up-and-down so far, thanks to an underachieving lineup, rotation injuries and a manager who, in his third season, appears to be regressing. They're still only one game out of first place and are primed to make a major move before the trade deadline. (My prediction: Cliff Lee.) But even a homer like me can't pretend that the baseball world wouldn't groan to see the Cardinals win yet another championship. I don't care, mind you, but I have no illusions that come October, if the Cardinals are in the postseason, they'll be the team people will be cheering against.
16. San Francisco Giants (70.5 percent). Even though they've won two of the last four World Series, they remain generally popular among casual fans. (Having likable characters like Tim Lincecum and Pablo Sandoval doesn't hurt.) But still: They've won two of the last four World Series. Uncle.
15. Atlanta Braves (64 percent). Braves fans will tell you that they've had more than their fair share of postseason pain, that they've made the playoffs 17 times in the last 23 years and only have one title to show for it. And this is true: October is a horror show for Braves fans. Still: The rest of baseball is a little sick of seeing them every postseason; they've had their chances.
14. New York Yankees (23.2 percent). It would actually be sort of fantastic if Joe Girardi -- somehow the most underrated manager in the game even though he manages the freaking Yankees -- could navigate this old, beaten-down team into the playoffs and win a championship. The only reason they're as far down on this list as they are is because Derek Jeter winning a title in his last season would cause every baseball writer's brain to explode. (All told, if the Yankees did somehow slip into the playoffs, this storyline would be the only one anyone would talk about.)
13. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (99.2 percent). This number shoots into the single digits if they end up playing the Cardinals in the World Series. Imagine a World Series in which Albert Pujols and David Freese are playing at Busch Stadium in October against St. Louis. Otherwise: The Rally Monkey is still a little too fresh in our minds. Still: Mike Trout.
12. Washington Nationals (80.5 percent). After their playoff collapse in 2002, with young talent like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, technically speaking, the Nationals should be higher on this list. But this is still a relatively new fan base, and you need a little more history -- a little more pain -- than these guys have to crack the top 10.
11. Toronto Blue Jays (34.2 percent). The Blue Jays have the best chance in a decade to finally crack the postseason for the first time since they won the World Series in 1993, but they're still only two games over .500 and just feel wobbly.
10. Kansas City Royals (17.9 percent). They'd be a lot higher on this list if I actually thought they had any reasonable chance. But I don't.
9. Cleveland Indians (16.9 percent). Ditto.
8. Cincinnati Reds (47.9 percent.) The Reds have a ton of injuries, and all told, this feels like a less compelling team than some recent Reds incarnations. But Aroldis Chapman in the World Series sure would be something.
7. Seattle Mariners (45 percent). Unless you count the relatively young Washington Nationals, the Mariners are the only team in baseball that has never reached the World Series. They almost don't even need to win it if they make it. (Though one suspects they'll go ahead and try.)
6. Detroit Tigers (94 percent). The Tigers are desperately trying to win that elusive title before all the bills start to come due in the next couple years … and there are a lot of bills coming. They're built to win now, so they better.
5. Milwaukee Brewers (51.5 percent). One of the most underrated fan bases in baseball has enjoyed a surprise season so far, but you have to be concerned by the implosion at the end of the first half. They had a six-game lead two weeks ago: Now it's a four-team race in that division. I'm not quite sure what the baseball world would think if it turned out that the Brewers won their first World Series in Bud Selig's last year as commissioner.
4. Baltimore Orioles (56.8 percent). There was a fear for a while that after losing to the Yankees in the ALDS a few years ago, the Orioles had missed their window. Instead, this looks like their best chance at a division title since Cal Ripken. Baseball is always better when the Orioles are relevant.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (90.5 percent). This is a highly charismatic team -- imagine Yasiel Puig in late October! -- that people love to watch and debate. It has been 25 years since the Dodgers won a championship, by the way. They also would have Vin Scully showing up on the World Series telecast.
2. Oakland A's (99.6 percent). After Brad Pitt and everything else, after the rest of baseball caught onto their methods and began using them themselves, after the A's had fallen … here they are, with perhaps the best team of the Billy Beane era. If the A's are ever going to win that championship -- the one that would at last put any lingering skeptics' carps about Beane to rest -- this is the year they need to do it.
1. Pittsburgh Pirates (23.8 percent). Of all the teams in the NL Central, this is the one this Cardinals fan is most afraid of. They're young, they're hungry and they're coming. This franchise has been a sleeping giant in baseball for two decades; my ears are still ringing from their crowds last postseason. The Pirates still have a climb to get back atop the National League Central, but if they do it, look out.
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