The Phillies haven't played a baseball game in nearly 48 hours now and, if you're at all like me, there is a hole burning in your heart where baseball used to be. As much as every Phillies fan was waiting, hoping, praying, begging for this season to come to a merciful end, the absence of baseball and baseball fandom still hurts.
Fortunately, ten teams still have at least one baseball game to play, and eight of them will have baseball games, plural, to play. This offers each one of us a chance to shorten our offseason and diminish the overall baseball withdrawal we will experience this winter.
Still, none of those teams is the Phillies and it is difficult to sit down to watch three or so hours of sports with no real emotional investment in the outcome of the game. If you want to be truly drawn in by the allure of playoff baseball, you will have to pick a team to cheer for post haste. Fortunately, I have taken it upon myself to provide you, the reader, with the following guide to the teams who will be playing baseball on your televisions in the coming weeks. This guide comes in the internet-famous form of a ranked list.
By what methodology are these rankings arrived at? I tried to take into account the following factors: recognizability (presence of former Phillies in prominent roles), likability, chances of a deep playoff run, and personal whim. Rigor abounds. Further, I have divided them into tiers to improve transparency and provide greater accuracy.
June-September Aaron Harang Tier
It would be unwise for you to become one of Baseball's Greatest Fans for the next month not because this team is unlikely to succeed in the playoffs--they are likely the favorite in the National League--but because you don't want to be like them. This is a fanbase steeped in privilege. When were the Cardinals last bad at baseball? When were they last likable? Not in my, admittedly short, lifetime, that's for sure. This is a team featuring precisely zero former Phillies, which probably explains their success at baseball, but certainly factors into their lack of success in these rankings.
Jonathan Papelbon Money Can't Buy Happiness Tier
From the perspective of a Phillies fan, it is difficult to rank a team with Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley under its employ this low. And Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke are a blast to watch pitch. So why are they this low? That really has nothing to do with the way they play baseball. They had the highest opening day payroll in baseball by over $50 million. They're from Los Angeles. They have so many resources at their disposal that they figure to have myriad future chances at winning this whole playoffs thing. Money? Check. Young talent? Got that in Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, Julio Urias, etc. Superstars? Sure, Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig. It's just not fun to adopt a team at this stage of their cycle.
Like the Dodgers, this is another fun team that figures to be good for at least a couple years to come. They're the second Houston-based franchise to have a star with a meme-able beard; they have perhaps the best young player in the game. Hell, they have a Rule 5 draft pick playing a significant role on their team. As much as they check all the boxes for their on-field product, there are just too many icky stories about how their front office tends to treat players as non-human commodities. Baseball players, by virtue of being bought, sold, and traded, will are inherently commodified to some extent, but you just don't see reports from other organizations treating their players--or draft picks--as dollar values devoid of personhood. I just can't get behind hoping for this front office to feel joy when they don't care about how their players feel.
I'm tempted to rank them higher simply because I have locked myself to the Alex Rodriguez fake the haters tour with the same force a hippie attaches himself to a tree in a forest slated to be razed for a shopping center. But, at the end of the day, they're the Yankees. They've had their fun and other teams should get a chance to experience that. Plus, they might not be around to play baseball after tonight's Wild Card game against the Astros. I don't want my playoff fandom to die within 12 hours of its start.
There are really only two things working against the Mets. 1) They are the Mets and 2) their owners are the Wilpons. Those are fatal flaws from the perspective of a Phillies fan and a general person who exists in the world. Other than that, they are a fun team. They have Yoenis Cespedes, who, were it not for Bryce Harper, would be a worthy MVP candidate. They have a home-grown and incredible pitching staff with Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard. Oh yeah, they also have Bartolo Colon, who, for my money, is the most entertaining player in baseball to watch and to try to explain to non-fans. They also have spit into the face of the no-crying-in-baseball axiom and emerged victorious from the ensuing battle. But, they play in the same division as the Phillies, so their ceiling in these rankings can only go so high.
Aaron Nola Really Good, but Never Elite, Tier
5. Chicago Cubs
They enter tomorrow night's Wild Card matchup against the Pirates with the best pitcher of the second half on their side. So, their odds of advancing are about as solid as they can be in a one-game series. Even more in their favor is their decades-long World Series drought, the end of which was foretold to come this season by Back to the Future. They also provide hope for the rebuild with a strong farm system model the Phillies are currently in the middle stages of. Still, they have no former Phillies on the roster. Furthermore, their callous handling of super-prospect Kris Bryant leaves a bad taste in my mouth even 5 months after the fact. We're at the point in these rankings where I can't fault someone for jumping on the bandwagon of any of these teams, but, of those teams, the Cubs are going to be at the bottom.
The Cinderella team that snuck into the playoffs last year and then went on an absolute tear continued that run of success this year, despite sobering projections entering the season. They remain as compelling as ever, especially with former-Phillie Ryan Madson emerging from years of injury and irrelevance to become a key piece in their too-strong bullpen. Despite their year of success, they still lack the kind of household names that teams of this caliber usually employ, which, for me, is a reason to hop on the bandwagon. That they come in at four in these rankings is not a knock on them--they are a supremely compelling team--but a testament to the strength of the teams ahead of them in these rankings
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
If they weren't playing in the Wild Card game, they would easily be at the top of these rankings. Andrew McCutchen is not only one of the best players in the game, but, based on his contribution to the Players' Tribune this past winter, one of the biggest advocates for making the game of baseball accessible to kids in inner cities. They also have a bevy of former Phillies under their employ in Joe Blanton, J.A. Happy, Antonio Bastardo, A.J. Burnett, and Vance Worley. Gerritt Cole, their ace, harkens back to the traditional image of the burly, intimidating power-pitcher that you just don't see that often. Pittsburgh is also a cool city and Pennsylvania pride draws me to this team as well. But, they're playing in the Wild Card game and are more or less a coin flip away from not being around in 48 hours.
Cole Hamels Tier
We're now in the truly elite section of these rankings. The Toronto Blue Jays, by virtue of being the only baseball team that plays in Canada, demand your fandom. They evoke images of the 2008 Phillies with an unstoppable offense and a largely forgettable pitching staff after their ace, David Price. They should have the AL MVP on their side in Josh Donaldson in addition to their mid-season acquisition of Ben Revere's Most Valuable Smile. There is really no reason not to root for this team other than the fact that the next team on this list is in the playoffs as well.
Prior to writing this piece, I placed an order via internet marketplace Amazon.com for a retro Texas Rangers baseball cap. They have Cole Hamels as their ace. We all know what that means in the playoffs: good things. Getting Cole Hamels a second ring is the primary force driving their ascension to the top of these rankings. Their front office also gets major points for their commitment to the rehabilitation of Josh Hamilton. They openly took a player who had been vilified by his former team and publicly declared their belief in his character and their interest in his well-being. They overcame devastating injuries to every pitcher who has ever been under their employ as well as top prospect Jurickson Profar to make successful a late season run at the AL West crown. After a rough start to the season, 18 year veteran and future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre has looked as strong as ever. When will his run of perennial near-greatness end? At age-36, it could be any day, so I'm going to take this opportunity to go all-in on the team he plays for. You should too, but mostly because of Cole Hamels.