What's the best team in baseball?

Bruce Bennett

The best team in baseball? That's easy. It's a toss-up between the Blue Jays and Nationals. Some days I think the Jays are better, and some days I think … wait, what am I drinking? Is this milk that expired in March? Where's that music coming from? Why does this song taste like a stick of gum from a pack of 1985 Topps? Where am I?

So it turns out the Nationals and Blue Jays are not the two best teams in the land. Funny, this game of baseball.

Which means it's up to us to figure out which team is really the best in baseball. Not the team that's going to win the World Series, mind you. That team will get a Jeff Weaver or Marco Scutaro performance that you weren't expecting. Daniel Nava is going to hit six home runs. Jake Westbrook is going to throw 20 innings without allowing a run. That sort of thing. So don't get hung up on which team is going to win the World Series.

Put it like this: There's a 16,200-game season coming up. After every 162 games, wizards come in and wizard everyone back to how they were to start the season. They do this 100 times. You can pick one team. Which team do you pick?

Let's narrow it down. The following teams will be considered:

Red Sox
Rays
Tigers
Braves
Pirates
Wait, what?
Cardinals
Dodgers

Seven teams. The Rangers and A's, both by actual record and Pythagorean record, come up just a little short. Plus, they're a combined 18-3 against the Astros, which is the stuffing-your-bra of divisional records. I'd consider both if someone made a strong argument. For now, they get an honorable mention, along with the Reds.

In order …

Red Sox
Team OPS+: 113
Team ERA+: 110
Other than the Pirates, this is the most surprising team on the list, at least compared to preseason expectations. They were hoping for good health from Clay Buchholz and an improved Jon Lester. They got neither. They traded for a closer to replace an oft-injured closer. Both of them are broken. Will Middlebrooks has been a disaster. It's been another poor season for …

But look at those OPS+ and ERA+ marks again. Few teams in baseball can claim that kind of success on both sides of the ball. The Red Sox have an outstanding bullpen, and they've received 800 impressive at-bats from utility types like Jose Iglesias, Daniel Nava, and Mike Carp. That, plus everyone other than Middlebrooks is hitting, even if just a little bit. Just a few months ago, we had to make excuses for why the Red Sox would want Mike Napoli. Looks pretty clear from here.

Rays
Team OPS+: 110
Team ERA+: 101
The Rays started the season as some sort of bizarro team that could hit, but not pitch. That was the opposite of preseason expectations. But then July came, and the Rays' pitchers went 21-5 in 237 innings, with a 2.54 ERA and 197/49 strikeout-to-walk ratio. So they were basically MVP-level Justin Verlander in every single inning of every single game.

And they have a full lineup, too. It's almost like … James Loney is regressing to the mean. That's weird. He's hit .286/.322/.377 since the start of June. But the rest of the lineup -- Longoria, Zobrist, Johnson, Jennings, Joyce, Myers -- is cruising. At least by Tropicana standards. They're having good seasons in the context of the AL's secret Petco Park.

They don't quite have the sustained pitching that the Red Sox have had this year, but they were supposed to be much, much better. I'd almost guess that it's a tossup between the two.

Tigers
Team OPS+: 111
Team ERA+:118
After leveling the Indians in a four-game series in Cleveland, the Tigers were the team that prompted this article. Are they the best team in baseball? Consider that Justin Verlander hasn't been nearly as dominant as he was in the past, and that Prince Fielder has been mostly disappointing this year.

But it's been a combination of the best starting pitching in the game -- it's a rotation that can win a championship without a great offense, like the 2005 White Sox or 2010 Giants -- and the best hitter in the game. Also it turns out that the ageless Torii Hunter is better at the plate and in the field than Delmon Young.

/takes off bowler hat, wipes brow with back of wrist

Well, ain't that somethin'.

Braves
Team OPS+: 100
Team ERA+: 120
Best record in baseball, you know. Edit: Well, they had it at the start of Thursday. Now the Pirates have it. My mistake. Winners of 13 in a row.

As usual, the Braves are making relievers out of mud and sticks, and they're posting sub-2.00 ERA's. Jonny Venters isn't hurt. He was just re-assimilated into the reliever slurry the Braves are constantly tending.

The loss of Tim Hudson hurts a bit, but replacement Alex Wood is more than competent. The biggest news, though, is that Jason Heyward is starting to hit. A healthy, productive Heyward means more to the Braves than any flashy deadline acquisition possibly could have.

Pirates
Team OPS+: 99
Team ERA+:116
Wait …

It's true, it's true. The Pirates are filled with strikeout mavens and control monsters, and the Francisco Liriano signing was incredibly inspired and fortuitous. This always bears repeating: The Pirates started the season with Jonathan Sanchez in the rotation. They weren't even playing Truth or Dare. They did it on purpose. And here the Pirates are, one of the very best pitching teams in either league.

An aside: Francisco Liriano has thrown 103 innings for the Pirates. He's allowed 23 runs. Sanchez threw 14 innings for the Pirates. He allowed 18 runs.

But can they be the best team in baseball? With a hot Andrew McCutchen, a benched Clint Barmes, and a healthy A.J. Burnett, they might be. It's hard to accept, but they've made the final seven. And for good reason.

Cardinals
Team OPS+:107
Team ERA+:105
Check this out:

Split G PA BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
RISP 111 1163 121 187 .337 .410 .465 .875
Bases empty 113 2374 165 449 .239 .299 .365 .664
Men on 113 1950 165 324 .319 .382 .468 .849

Luuuuuuck. Fluuuuuuuuke. It's a good team. A really good, complete team. But their Pythagorean record is 71-42 because of all the runs they've scored, but they shouldn't have scored that many. They're splitting twos and getting nines way more than they should.

Right now, there's a Cardinals fan who is really angry. He's giving me that look. I know that look. It's the look Orioles fans gave me last year when I pointed out that their record in one-run and extra-inning games was unsustainable. It's adorable. But if the Cardinals have really figured out a way to hit .330 with runners in scoring position, they're going to make the playoffs for the next 100 years.

As is, they're still one of the very best teams in baseball, and I'm tempted to pick them. But that scoring-position business … I feel like I'm Sinatra talking to the commies. Knock it off, or it's ring-a-ding-ding for you bozos.

Dodgers
Team OPS+: 103
Team ERA+:106
The rough start still counts, and the Dodgers' Pythagorean record is just 59-54. They've been a juggernaut lately, but not for the whole season. Also I dislike them, and I'm biased. But Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game, and Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu have been excellent. Hanley Ramirez remembered how to hit, and Yasiel Puig is standing behind you right now, about to hit your head with a bat and run into a wall.

They were up there, for a lot of folks, with the Blue Jays and Nationals before the season started. And for the first two months, they were in the gutter with the other underachievers. Goodness, what a turnaround.

So pick one. Just one. Your team to finish out the year.

...

I wouldn't have written this if I knew I'd spend an hour deliberating on the answer. But gimme the Tigers. Even with Jhonny Peralta suspended for much of the year, and even with an offense that's underperforming. The top four of the rotation are a compelling-enough reason, and they also have the best hitter in baseball.

Which means nothing on October 1. But if you twist my arm right now, I'd figure the Tigers are the best team in baseball. It takes a real maverick to say that sort of thing during a 12-game winning streak. But I'm willing to take that risk.

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