Exactly one month from today, Major League Baseball’s 2021 regular season will come to a close.
When it does, which of the current contenders will be headed to the playoffs? Which teams will be on the outside looking in? Will the San Francisco Giants edge the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West, or vice versa? Who will be the favorites to reach the Fall Classic? How will the MVP and Cy Young Award races shape up? What will Shohei Ohtani’s final batting and pitching lines look like at the end of the two-way star’s historic year for the Los Angeles Angels?
And what other surprises might await us down the stretch?
To get a sense of what the final month of the regular season might bring, we convened a panel of 17 ESPN baseball experts to answer some of the game’s biggest questions, covering September and beyond. We also asked them to justify their answers — particularly those who went against the grain.
Below, you’ll find our picks for the postseason, the major awards and more, including a few out-on-a-limb answers and some bold predictions about what’s next.
Which team currently in or very close to the playoff field is most likely to miss out?
Red Sox: 5
So we’re not sold on the Reds, eh? None of the teams that would currently make the playoffs are really floundering. The Reds are probably the closest to a team playing over its head, while the Padres are the one team in striking distance that has fallen short of expectations. Cincinnati might hold on, and the field grows more crowded by the day, but San Diego has more talent than the Reds, Cardinals or Phillies. — Bradford Doolittle
Nor the Red Sox? Let me just say: I still think the Red Sox make the postseason. But if there’s anything likely at this point to completely derail a team, it’s a COVID-19 outbreak that turns over a third of the roster, and that’s exactly what the Red Sox are dealing with right now. They’ve weathered it reasonably well so far, but they’ve still got series against the Rays and White Sox over the next 10 days, and with Oakland just one game back in the loss column and Toronto ever lurking and dangerous, the Red Sox have work to do if they want to send Chris Sale to the mound in the AL wild-card game. — Jeff Passan
Who will finish the regular season with more wins: the Giants or the Dodgers — and how many W’s for each?
Dodgers: 11 (High: 105; Low: 99; Average: 102)
Giants: 6 (High: 105; Low: 98; Average: 101)
Why the Dodgers? While San Francisco is without a doubt the biggest surprise team in the majors this year, it will feel like a heartbreak when the Giants finish second — because they’re going to wind up with 102 or 103 regular-season victories and get stuck playing a one-game wild-card in the postseason. A great year of progress will all come down to those nine innings. The Dodgers, building on the momentum they have gathered since the trade for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, will finish with 105 victories. They may not be one of the best teams of all time, which seemed possible in April, but they’ve got the best shot of any team since the Yankees clubs of 1996-2000 to go back-to-back. — Buster Olney
Why the Giants? While some of the Giants’ September schedule is tough, as they’ll take on the Padres and Dodgers in the division, about half their games are against the Diamondbacks, Cubs and Rockies. The Giants aren’t one of these highly volatile teams with huge swings at home or on the road or against plus and minus .500 teams. They’re solid in all areas. There’s no reason to think they’ll slow down in the final month after playing great baseball for so long. They may get beat out by the Dodgers but it’ll be because Los Angeles is just that good. The Giants will keep proving they are as well. — Jesse Rogers
You voted for a season-ending tiebreaker. Paint us a picture. The great NL race between the surprising Giants and star-laden Dodgers goes down to the wire — and ends in a tie, both teams with 103 wins. So we get the third Giants-Dodgers tiebreaker in history, following 1951 (“The Giants win the pennant!”) and 1962 (the Giants won that one as well, with four runs in the top of the ninth in Game 3 when it was a best-of-three). The Dodgers go with Walker Buehler and he clinches the Cy Young Award with a 4-0 shutout win, relegating the Giants to the wild card. — David Schoenfield
Who will be the No. 1 seed in the AL?
White Sox 1
What makes the Rays so dominant? The Rays are the best-run organization in baseball from rookie ball through the major leagues. Their secret, among many, is that everyone plays, everyone contributes. Their 25th man is better than anyone else’s 25th man. Their 20th through 25th men are better than any other team’s 20th through 25th. The Yankees won 13 games in a row in August, and lost ground to the Rays, making the Yankees the fourth team in history to do that in any month, the first since the 1965 Giants. — Tim Kurkjian
Yet you chose the Astros. Why? It’s as simple as the schedule: The Astros’ remaining slate is a little easier than the Rays’ — those being my top two candidates — and when the two teams link up for three in the final week, with home field probably on the line, the games will be played in Houston. Plus, the Astros are a better — and healthier — team today than the one we’ve seen the past month-plus, with Alex Bregman and Jose Urquidy now back (or close to it, with the latter). — Tristan Cockcroft
And you were the one person who chose the White Sox. Why Chicago? Six of Chicago’s last nine series will come against teams that don’t have anything to play for in this final month (two against the Tigers and one each against the Royals, Angels, Rangers and Indians). The Rays, residing at the top of a fiercely competitive division, still have to play the Blue Jays (twice), Yankees, Red Sox and Astros. It’s a massive gap to make up, I know, but the White Sox have the talent to get scorching hot when they want. — Alden Gonzalez
The 2021 World Series matchup will be … ?
White Sox 7
Dodgers-White Sox was our most-picked matchup. Why will these two teams meet in October? The Dodgers are the best team in baseball. The White Sox might not be the best team in their own league, and they’re six games back of the best record, but here’s what they do have. Luis Robert, healthy and awesome. Yasmani Grandal, healthy and awesome. Perhaps the deepest lineup in the league. Carlos Rodon, Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn and Dylan Cease. And a fearsome bullpen, which has been pretty rough, truthfully, in the second half but is calibrated for playoff excellence. Explaining why the Dodgers is like explaining why cookies. Just because, OK? The White Sox, on the other hand, might ultimately not be the best, but they look the part more than any of their AL contemporaries. — Passan
Our runners-up in each league were the Astros and Giants. You picked both. What makes you think they’re the teams to beat? The Giants have been consistently excellent. Their offense remains a constant threat for the long ball, yet their pitching keeps the ball in the ballpark. They get the quick score, but make opponents work for every run. The Astros have been a run-differential machine, outscoring opponents through a high-powered offense that got healthier with the return of Alex Bregman. Their pitching has been effective with a mix of young arms coming into their own, excellent defense and strong additions in the bullpen at the trade deadline. These are undoubtedly two of the best teams in baseball, and there is no clear favorite over either of them in their respective leagues. The Astros have shown they can get smoking hot; no reason they can’t do the same in the postseason. — Doug Glanville
You cast the lone vote for the Yankees — and one of just two for the Brewers. Tell us why. When your preseason pick is still alive, despite some ups and downs, now is not the time to abandon it. The Yankees fixed their lineup at the trade deadline and have a sneaky-effective starting staff. If Aroldis Chapman has one good month in him, watch out: The men in pinstripes will pull off an upset or two and still be standing for the Fall Classic. On the other side, how can you not like the Brewers? They have everything a team needs to go all the way — a solid offense, three top starters and a good bullpen led by lefty Josh Hader. On top of everything, they have dominated the powerhouse NL West all season, compiling a 23-9 record against the division including a 12-6 mark against the Dodgers, Giants and Padres so far. Milwaukee should be one of the favorites in the NL. — Rogers
The 2021 AL and NL MVPs will be … ?
Shohei Ohtani 17
Fernando Tatis Jr. 13
Bryce Harper 2
Freddie Freeman 1
Trea Turner 1
How great has Ohtani been? The most futile task in sports is defining Shohei Ohtani’s season. Comparisons no longer work, since there are no longer any reputable comparisons. The stat-facts that begin, “Shohei Ohtani became the first player in 103 years to do something that nobody will ever do again,” have long ago lapsed into parody. Adjectives — astonishing, incredible, unprecedented — are true but unhelpful. He is not just a pitcher who hits, or a hitter who pitches; he is among the top four or five most proficient people in the world at both. He has consistently thrown the ball faster than anybody in baseball while consistently hitting the ball harder and farther than anybody in baseball. It is, in a word, indescribable. — Tim Keown
Why vote for Harper — and not Tatis? Tatis, who seems to lack his typically infectious energy since making the temporary move to the outfield, could be another shoulder subluxation away from his season coming to an abrupt end. Harper doesn’t have those concerns. And he has been scorching hot at the plate, batting .332/.448/.668 since the start of July. There’s no reason for that not to carry over into what will be a critical September for his Phillies. — Gonzalez
And the Cy Youngs will go to … ?
Gerrit Cole 12
Lance Lynn 3
Robbie Ray 2
Walker Buehler 12
Corbin Burnes 2
Zack Wheeler 2
Josh Hader 1
It’s Cole and Buehler by a mile. What gives them such a huge edge? This is really just a case of consistency meeting expectation, for both pitchers. To start the season, Cole and Jacob deGrom were the consensus best pitchers in the game. Cole started like a house on fire, fell off some after the new sticky-stuff enforcement (but not all that much, really) and has since resumed his place atop the pecking order. Buehler was probably more like the fourth- or fifth-best NL pitcher going into the season (by perception). Then deGrom got hurt, Clayton Kershaw got hurt, etc. Buehler has been the only elite NL hurler to exceed expectation over the course of the full season. Because Cole and Buehler are doing what they were supposed to do, there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to the end of the season. So they have become no-brainer Cy Young picks in their respective leagues. — Doolittle
Buehler? Buehler? Sorry, friends, but you biffed the NL Cy Young voting. What if I told you there’s a pitcher who leads all qualified starters in strikeouts per nine, ranks third in walks per nine and leads in homers per nine with a number nearly twice as good as the next guy? He is the Cy Young winner, right? Of course he is, which is why the choice of the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler over Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes is just wrong. The AL isn’t cut-and-dried, either, with Robbie Ray and Lance Lynn at least in Gerrit Cole’s neighborhood. But overlooking Burnes is silly. Buehler has been undeniable: an MLB-best 2.05 ERA, 176 innings pitched (ranking second overall), great peripherals. A vote for Buehler is understandable. It’s just not the right choice when Burnes is punching out 12.24 per nine, walking 1.68 in the same time period and allowing only five home runs in 139 innings. This much is for sure: The winner of the NL Cy Young almost certainly will have a last name that starts with B-U. — Passan
Why Josh Hader? I am getting more and more reluctant to give this award to a starter. The ability to win a game is so much more heavily dependent on the right matchups in the bullpen. Even the best starters do not complete games or even enter the seventh inning, let alone the ninth. That might not be their fault, but someone like Lance Lynn, who has had a great year, averages less than six innings per start. If Craig Kimbrel had the kind of year he is having but had been in the American League all season, he would deserve a lot of votes — just as someone like Ryan Pressly is worth considering. But as we know, there is a lot of baseball left and relievers’ numbers can implode with one bad outing. — Glanville
This has been the Year of Shohei Ohtani. What will be his final batting and pitching lines?
Average batting line: 49 HR, 107 RBIs, .262 BA
Average pitching line: 10-2, 159 SO, 3.07 ERA
As a group, we have Ohtani finishing just shy of 50 homers. You were the high vote — at 51. Why? Ohtani would need nine homers in September to get to 51, something he has done in two of the five months so far this season — in June, when he hit 13 homers, and in July, when he hit nine. August was Ohtani’s worst month at the plate — he slashed just .202/.345/.404 — but given that the Angels won’t be making the playoffs, all that’s left for September (and the first few days of October) is putting the cherry on top of his magical season. — Joon Lee
Looks like Mike Trout was right. Ohtani will finish with 50 homers, and 10 victories — which means that Trout’s preseason prediction of 30-plus homers and 10-plus wins for Ohtani will be right on. It’s been a frustrating, injury-plagued season for Trout, but he saw before anybody how extraordinary Ohtani’s season would be. — Olney
Ohtani … for Cy Young? Ohtani will get MVP votes and Cy Young votes. And I think he stays at his current pace. He has been amazingly consistent considering the many roles he is playing. That alone is amazing. My first full season as an everyday starter, I completely collapsed in September. It is hard enough to be an everyday player, let alone at this level in more than one major role. — Glanville
Make one bold prediction about the final stretch
In the American League …
The Yankees will win the AL East. — Marly Rivera
The Red Sox have appeared to be in deep trouble multiple times this year, and each time, mainly because of manager Alex Cora, they pull out of it and start winning again. The Yankees looked like they were going to run away with the first wild-card spot, then became the first team since the 1994 Royals to lose three in a row directly after winning 13 in a row. These teams are headed for a tie at the end of the regular season for the first wild-card spot. Then we will get Gerrit Cole against Chris Sale in a winner-take-all game. It can’t get much better than that. — Kurkjian
In the National League …
Atlanta has me believing. The Braves will double their lead in the division and win it by eight or more games, something that was inconceivable a month or so ago. — Rogers
The Padres will successfully navigate a tough schedule in the final month to make the playoffs. This is the first major obstacle the Tatis-era Padres face, given the expectations this season. They have the potential to be one of the defining teams of this era, but talent can take you only so far, especially in a sport with so many games. These Padres will meet the challenge down the stretch and gain some experience to establish themselves as a serious postseason force. — Lee
The Brewers will tie the Giants with 100 wins and earn the NL’s No. 1 seed. Everyone’s talking about the exciting NL West race, but the Brewers boast three legit aces, the best one-two bullpen tandem and an emerging offense, especially after Christian Yelich hit .313 in August. Perhaps his power returns soon, too. This is a dangerous team, with an appealing September schedule, and definitely a World Series contender. — Eric Karabell
The Mets discourse gets even more dismal. I sent in that prediction before the Zack Scott DWI, marking the “thumbs down” circus as the spot from where I thought things would get worse — and they already have. The Mets are down to a single-digit percentage chance of making the playoffs and now there is widespread and well-founded concern about literally every single part of the organization. The Mets have two first-round draft picks next summer, but this group just oversaw the worst draft-related disaster in recent memory. The Mets should be competitive next year, but I don’t see them taking a step forward until at least 2023, unless drastic (and successful) changes are made. The changes part is looking more likely by the day, but the successful part is still an open question. — Kiley McDaniel
In both leagues …
The Phillies rally past the Braves to win the NL East and end the longest playoff drought in the NL and, in even more improbable fashion, the Mariners rally past the A’s and Red Sox to win the second wild card and end the longest playoff drought in the majors (since 2001). Since the Reds will also make the playoffs, the new longest playoff drought will belong to the Tigers and Angels, who last made it in 2014. — Schoenfield
As for individual players …
Logan Webb will become known far and wide. Webb has allowed two or fewer runs in 14 consecutive starts. He is proof that a sinker-slider guy who doesn’t rely on spin rate and the high fastball can still dominate major league hitters. He throws a “heavy ball” — “Like catching a shot put,” Giants catcher Curt Casali says — and his wipeout slider is becoming one of the best pitches in the game. One huge reason the Giants have been able to remain the best team in baseball: Second-half Webb has been first-half Kevin Gausman. Right now, he is the guy to start a wild-card game or the first game of a series. If you don’t know him, you will soon. Hitters already do. — Keown
The Royals’ Salvador Perez will not only blow by Johnny Bench’s record for homers by a primary catcher in a season, but he’ll also break Jorge Soler’s Royals record (48) and become the first backstop to go deep 50 times. — Doolittle
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will win the American League’s Triple Crown. Maybe that isn’t such a crazy thought, because as we closed on August, Vlad Jr. led the AL in runs, hits, on-base percentage, total bases and OPS+. His biggest challenge will be leading the AL in RBIs, given Jose Abreu’s lead. But remember: Vlad Jr. has a bunch of games left against the Orioles, and White Sox manager Tony La Russa will be customizing Abreu’s workload to prepare him for October. — Olney