The MLB regular season went down to the wire, but now the MLB Playoffs are set to begin. Predicting who will win it all even at this point in the season is still a pretty tricky endeavor, because of how teams utilize their rosters changes in the postseason.
We won’t be seeing any fifth starters out of the rotation, and teams will be attempting to hide their fourth starters and lower leverage bullpen arms as much as possible. This is common practice these days.
With that said, this year’s playoff field includes some all-too-common teams like the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays. We will also get a look at the not so familiar Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins, Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers.
With the new additions to the playoff field and the questions surrounding every team in the postseason, this year’s World Series really feels up for grabs. Sure, the Braves had the best record in baseball at 104-58. But they’re also dealing with injuries in the rotation and will have to face a familiar divisional opponent in the NLDS. On the other side of the coin, we are left to wonder how ready for the big stage some of the new teams will prove to be.
The Dodgers’ pitching staff is the second-youngest in the playoffs behind only Miami, and the Orioles have both a young staff and a young roster overall. It’s unknown how much that will play into these games.
But for now, let’s take a look at what we do know and see if we can determine which team has the easiest path to the World Series with the MLB Playoffs starting.
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A look at the wild card teams in the MLB Playoffs
The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League and the Baltimore Orioles and Houston Astros in the American League will receive byes from the wild card round by virtue of being the top two seeds in their leagues. The other eight teams are left to duke it out, with the third divisional winner (in both instances the winner of the Central in each league) and the top wild-card seed get to play each game in this round at home. There are no off days.
First up on the docket we have the Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rangers lost the AL West title on the final day of the season after losing three of four to the Seattle Mariners over the weekend, tying them with Houston at 90-72. The Astros held the head-to-head tiebreaker and got the crown.
Texas went 4-2 against the Rays during the regular season, sweeping Tampa at home in July and dropping two of three to them on the road in June. Texas is playing .500 baseball over the past month while the Rays are surging at 19-11. They’ve also been here before. Both teams have stellar offenses, ranking the top 10 in a number of categories. The Texas bullpen is the one weakness that could end up being exploited in this series, however. They also have Aroldis Chapman, who has a knack for serving up long balls that get his team eliminated from the postseason.
If Texas can score enough to make it so it doesn’t need to rely on the bullpen, as has been their formula all season, then they’ll have a shot in this series. Tampa’s pitching is just too good to expect that to happen.
Next on the docket are the Toronto Blue Jays and the Minnesota Twins. The Twins have lost 18 straight postseason games. But this year they have plenty of pitching, finishing fifth in baseball this year with a 3.87 ERA, and fifth in MLB in September at 3.58. They also had the sixth-best offense in baseball this season, just ahead of the Blue Jays. Toronto had the slight edge on the Twins in ERA, ranking fourth this season with a 3.79.
This series could come down to two key factors: The first is that Minnesota has home field-advantage. If they win the first game, that crowd could get rowdy with the losing streak finally in the rearview mirror. The other is that Twins’ pitching has a slight edge in both strikeout rate (25.9% to 25%) and walk rate (7.3% to 8%). The strikeout rate is the best in baseball while the walk rate finished fourth overall and second behind Tampa among playoff teams. That one extra walk in the wrong spot could be the difference in the series.
Toronto is a dangerous team with lots of depth, but this could end up being the Twins’ time to shine. They split the season series 3-3.
Switching over to the National League, Arizona took the season series from Milwaukee 4-2, winning series in both April and June. The Arizona Diamondbacks also had a share of first place at the All Star break, so their season hasn’t been sailing quite as smoothly of late. Arizona has a young, exciting team. However, this one feels like the Brewers should take it fairly easily even with Brandon Woodruff set to miss time. That said, Milwaukee is throwing Corbin Burnes in Game 1 while the D-Backs are countering with rookie Brandon Pfaadt, leaving ace Zac Gallen for either Game 2 on short rest or Game 3 on normal rest.
If Arizona can pull off the upset in Game 1 and hold Gallen until Game 3, that is their best chance at winning the series. Otherwise, the Milwaukee Brewers should have enough arms to get the job done.
Finally, there’s the surprise Miami Marlins and the reigning NL champion Philadelphia Phillies in primetime. Miami won the season series 7-6, including taking two of three from Philly in September. The Marlins are one of the hotter teams coming into the postseason, going 19-11 over their final 30. Miami and Arizona are the only two playoff teams with negative run differentials in the postseason field, with Miami’s -56 being worse than the Mets, Giants, Reds, Guardians, Yankees, and Red Sox final tally. Those six teams missed the MLB Playoffs.
The reason they made it to October is because Miami went 33-13 in one-run games. They also went 52-10 in games where they led after six innings. It should also be noted that the previous two times that Miami has made the postseason after a full regular season they have won the World Series.
Even then, the Phillies are probably the pick in this series after they finished the season with the better pitching staff ERA (4.02) and the better offense. They also have experience on their side, as well as the raucous home-field advantage for the first round. This could end up being an extremely entertaining series where every run feels huge. But the expectation is that the Phillies win this one.
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Divisional round and road to the World Series
If the Twins end up getting past the Blue Jays, they’ll have earned a date with the reigning champs, the Houston Astros. While this may seem like a mismatch on paper, Minnesota actually went 4-2 against Houston in the regular season back in April and May. The Astros haven’t exactly taken off since then, dropping five of six to the Kansas City Royals just a couple of weeks ago. However, the Astros have proven to be a different team in the postseason, which is why they’ve made six straight American League Championship Series. The only team standing in their way between running that streak up to seven could be Minnesota.
The Astros are led by Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez in the rotation, but then there are question marks after those two. Hunter Brown posted a 9.14 ERA in five September starts, giving up six or more runs in three of them. J.P. France had a 2.75 ERA as late as August 18, then gave up 10 runs to the Red Sox and posted a 5.75 ERA in the final month. If either of those two has to take on innings in this series, the odds could swing in favor of the Twins, who have pitching even if they’re missing some of the experience.
Tampa Bay and Baltimore is a rematch of the season we just witnessed playing out, with the Orioles taking the AL East and the season series (8-5). These two teams are fairly evenly matched, but Tampa has the experience factor. The back-end of Baltimore’s bullpen is also a big question mark for them since closer Félix Bautista is set to have Tommy John surgery soon.
While the Orioles have been the darlings of the 2023 season and looked like the best team in person this year, those question marks are real. How much their young roster meets the occasion could be the determining factor in this series.
The National League will be comprised of familiar matchups. The Los Angeles Dodgers have been responsible for knocking out Milwaukee in two of their four recent postseason runs, and they also took the season series 5-1. This Dodgers team may not have the same amount of pitching that we’re used to seeing. A lot of their postseason outlook will depend on how their young starters, Bobby Miller and Ryan Pepiot, do. They also have Lance Lynn in the rotation mix, but he allowed an MLB-high 44 home runs this season, and big flies are momentum changers in the MLB Playoffs. L.A. may try to avoid using him, which leaves their hopes to Kershaw and the young guns.
A lot of people will discount Milwaukee’s offense, but their 106 wRC+ (100 is league average) was just behind the Dodgers’ 109 in September. If this comes down to a battle of arms the Dodgers could be in trouble.
The Braves and Phillies met up last October and it was Philadelphia that took the series 3-1. Atlanta will be seeking retribution, and they have added Sean Murphy to the mix after an off-season trade, while Ronald Acuña Jr. put up MLB’s first 40 home run, 70 stolen base season. This team has been playing out of their minds all year long and are rightfully most people’s pick to win the World Series.
One factor that could help them in the NLDS is that there are scheduled off-days after games one and two, giving Atlanta time to keep their main three starters (presumably Spencer Strider, Max Fried, and Bryce Elder) on regular rest for the series. Atlanta also went 8-5 against Philadelphia this season, but the Phillies took two of three from the Braves in Atlanta just two weeks ago. If this is the series we get, the smart money would be on the Braves. But the smart money was on them last year, too.
2023 MLB Playoffs: Easiest road to the World Series belongs to…
As we can see, there isn’t exactly an “easiest road” here. No team is standing head and shoulders above the rest of the field without questions surrounding them heading into October.
If the Orioles play like they have all season and don’t wither in front of the bright lights, then they’re up there as one of the best teams in the playoff field. Atlanta is obviously up there, too. The Astros have shown they can win in the postseason year after year, but are they vulnerable this season?
On paper, given the history of recent events, Houston may have the easiest road to reaching the World Series. They have a bye in the first round and then face either the Twins or the Blue Jays. But along with losing four of six to Minnesota, the Astros also lost four of seven to Toronto. They’d then be matched up against the Rays or Orioles in the ALCS, and either of those teams can match up well with Houston.
Even though the Braves lost in the playoffs to Philadelphia last season, they had a winning record against every NL team this season aside from the San Diego Padres, who didn’t qualify for the party. It seems like they should have the easiest path to the final round due to their track record this season.
But that’s the beauty of the MLB Playoffs–the best team doesn’t always win. It’s also why the playoffs can be so frustrating. The only certainty this season is that there is uncertainty with every single team. Expect upsets.