The MLB postseason field is set. It came down to Sunday’s Game 162, but we have our playoff bracket and can go ahead and assess the 12 teams that will spend October battling for all the marbles. With a hard reset in order, it’s worth taking a look at the teams for what they are right now, what they will be in the head-to-head matchups on the horizon.
Disclaimer: This is not based on the matchups or the ease of a team’s path through the playoff bracket. This is an attempt to gauge their brute baseball strength at this very moment, within the confines of the playoff format.
Let’s get to it.
12. Miami Marlins
The Marlins? The Marlins! Despite logging below-average numbers on both sides of the ball from August on, first-year manager Skip Schumaker’s club kept finding ways to win as their competitors (cough, Cubs, cough) kept finding ways to lose.
General manager Kim Ng’s trade-deadline additions of Jake Burger and Josh Bell were just enough to keep the lineup rolling, with Burger especially providing much-needed pop. Jorge Soler, who overcame a September injury, is batting .343 in the crucial stretch since he returned Sept. 17.
It’s a shame we won’t get to see what Miami could've done with healthy versions of Sandy Alcantara and Eury Pérez, but this is the perfect franchise to bring up the rear and point out the absurdity in this exercise. The Marlins have never won a division, but they have won the World Series in every full season in which they qualified for the postseason. Even in the supersized 2020 playoff field, they pulled off a huge upset in the first round.
So beware of the fish. They like to bite in October.
Arizona’s lineup has struggled mightily down the stretch, ranking 25th in MLB in wRC+ since the trade deadline. Youngsters Corbin Carroll and Gabriel Moreno have been the exceptions, carrying the load with their bats and their prowess on various sides of the running game.
This is a burgeoning team making a leap into the playoffs a year ahead of schedule, so there isn’t the depth of talent you’d expect from a true contender just yet. What the D-backs do have is a few starters who can go toe-to-toe with anyone, in Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, plus a dynamic unknown power. No one has leveraged the baserunning revolution ushered in by the new rules better than the D-backs. It’s not totally clear how much of an edge that could provide in a high-stakes playoff series, but Arizona would do well to test that question rigorously.
10. Texas Rangers
The Rangers’ offense is good, fun and explosive. If this ranking were taking stock of the totality of their regular-season track record or the arc of their trajectory, things would look much brighter. As it stands, though, the Rangers are almost entirely barren of healthy, reliable pitching, which is a bad place to be heading into a playoff series.
Deadline addition Jordan Montgomery has been great, but there isn’t much else positive to speak of. Max Scherzer is hurt. Nathan Eovaldi hasn’t looked like himself since returning from injury. The various starting options behind them, led by Dane Dunning, have been very hit or miss. And the bullpen has been a mess the past two months.
The Rangers could very well bash their way into a storybook October, but there aren’t enough good answers on the pitching front to expect that.
So you liked the Seattle Mariners’ whole deal, but now they’re out of the picture. May I recommend the Twins?
Laboring through a barrage of injuries in a bummer of a division, the Twins have sneakily assembled a winning formula. Since the trade deadline, they have a top-five offense by wRC+ and a top-five starting rotation by ERA-. Led by Pablo Lopez and Sonny Gray, that rotation is the strongest reason to envision Minnesota winning its first postseason game since 2004. Don’t sleep on the lineup, either. Rookies such as on-base master Edouard Julien and thumper Matt Wallner have combined with the surging Max Kepler and grand-slam specialist Royce Lewis to give the Twins some real bite.
This is a law of averages bet. Almost none of the Blue Jays’ hitters has played up to their career standards, even as the starting rotation asserted itself as one of baseball’s best behind Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt and a rejuvenated Jose Berrios. If Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Bo Bichette or George Springer — or, hold on to your hats, all three — kicks into a higher gear in the coming week or so, this team could easily transform into a poutine-powered facsimile of the 2022 Phillies.
We are a long way from those 13 straight wins to open the season, huh?
The Rays have a dazzling array of talent in the lineup, with Randy Arozarena and Yandy Diaz headlining a much deeper group than the one that played a bruising slog of a series against Cleveland last season. Unfortunately, you have to lean toward the past tense when you talk about the Rays pitching staff. They had a dazzling array of talent at the start of the season, and now the majority of their best starters — Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen — are injured. Tyler Glasnow and Zach Eflin are the best of those still standing, and that’s still a very good 1-2 punch ahead of a bullpen that runs deep and closes with Pete Fairbanks.
Even with all the injuries — and without Wander Franco — the Rays have to be considered legitimate contenders to win it all.
This Brewers team has a chance to import the Baltimore Ravens’ model for winning the Super Bowl into baseball. They don’t score all that much — certainly not in any flashy form — but they absolutely strangle the other team on defense.
Since the trade deadline, the Brewers — as a team! — have a 2.96 ERA and a 68 ERA- that translates to 32% better than league average. That’s a mile ahead of the second-best staff in baseball (the Dodgers at 3.33, 78 ERA-) and a phenomenal starting point for a playoff run. The big three of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta pitched very well this season but took a big hit Monday, with the news that Woodruff is out for the wild-card series and possibly longer due to a right shoulder capsular injury.
Still, Milwaukee's next-generation bullpen featuring Devin Williams, Joel Payamps, Hoby Milner and potential breakout star Abner Uribe could dominate in October. On top of that, the Brewers really play defense, boasting the best fielding team in baseball by Statcast’s estimation.
5. Philadelphia Phillies
Maybe baseball’s best example of a team built to thrive in October, more so than the preceding six months, Dave Dombrowski’s star delivery vehicle proved its potential in last season’s sprint to the precipice of a championship.
Bryce Harper’s move to first base has opened a lane for the Phillies to become a more well-rounded team, with more Johan Rojas and Brandon Marsh defense, less Kyle Schwarber in the field and the same amount of his power and on-base ability at the plate. Keep an eye on the combination of Trea Turner and Bryson Stott. Both the reawakened superstar and the rising second baseman have advantageous contact ability to handle the league’s toughest pitchers, and they have been wildly successful in wreaking havoc on the bases.
You know about Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and the Orioles’ rambunctious band of young hitters. What you might’ve missed — as they soared all the way to an AL East title and the league’s top seed — is a pitching staff that really began to define itself.
Since Aug. 1, Kyle Bradish (2.15 ERA) and Grayson Rodriguez (2.41 ERA) have left little doubt about who would form the tip of the Orioles’ spear in their return to October. John Means has returned from long-term injury to provide manager Brandon Hyde another good option, and Dean Kremer found his stride after the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the bullpen has been suffocating even without Felix Bautista. Overall, the Orioles’ pitching staff has managed the third-best park-adjusted ERA- in baseball since the trade deadline, despite a disappointing addition in Jack Flaherty.
It was an uneven season and a stressful stretch run for the defending champions. But after six consecutive trips to at least the ALCS, we are way, way beyond being fooled once, twice or thrice — and the AL West still runs through Houston. Sure enough, the Astros have been bashing baseballs out of sight since summer rounded toward fall. From Aug. 1 on, the Houston offense has matched that historic Braves attack with a 130 wRC+.
Postseason terrors Yordan Alvarez and Jose Altuve are peaking at the right time, and less-heralded hitters such as Yainer Diaz and Mauricio Dubon are bubbling up to lengthen the lineup. There’s no one trick to winning in October (other than being the Astros, perhaps), but Houston has once again assembled the lineup with the lowest (read: best) strikeout rate of all the playoff teams.
Pitching is a real concern, but whittling down the innings to focus more on Framber Valdez, Justin Verlander and the bullpen’s best (keep an eye out for Bryan Abreu in high-leverage moments) should help alleviate some of the pains of the regular season.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have baseball’s best record since the trade deadline, having found the right alchemy with their unproven but very talented collection of young pitchers. That (taking the whole Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman thing for granted) is the case for Dave Roberts’ club once again being the team to beat in October. The Dodgers’ barrage of bulk options behind Clayton Kershaw — Bobby Miller, Emmet Sheehan, Ryan Pepiot, Ryan Yarbrough — is significantly more comforting than the Braves’ staff backing up Spencer Strider, and the bullpen depth edge probably also goes to the Dodgers.
Will all of those fresh faces stand up to the pressures of October? It’s far from a guarantee, but the raw ability is definitely there.
1. Atlanta Braves
Believe it or not, there is a real case against the Braves here. Since the Aug. 1 trade deadline that mostly completed the teams as they stand, Atlanta’s pitching staff has been only league-average — mired in a middle ground with the likes of the Astros and Rangers, who were struggling to grasp postseason spots.
The offense, of course, has been “compare them to the 1927 Yankees” good. Ronald Acuña Jr., Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies … you know the drill. The strengths of this team were so overwhelming that they still land at No. 1.
But let’s talk about the downside risk. The Braves’ pitching issues mostly stem from health concerns. Max Fried missed most of the season and is currently dealing with a blister. Charlie Morton will miss at least the NLDS due to a finger injury. If Atlanta has to piece together multiple rounds without either of those arms, things could get very dicey for a club that doesn’t have much apparent length available in the bullpen. If they get one or both of those rotation stalwarts back on time, however, it’s hard to argue with the projections that label them one of the clearest World Series favorites in recent memory.