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MLB playoffs 2023: Breaking down the wild-card matchups, including X-factors, difference-makers and series predictions

What can we make of the four wild-card series before the games get underway Tuesday?

It took a while to get here, with the teams and the seeding in the wild-card bracket shifting around until the final day of the season. But when the dust settled, the Mariners and Cubs were out, the Marlins were in, and the Rangers settled for a wild card.

Now that we finally know the matchups in the postseason’s first round, how do they shake out? Here’s our breakdown of this week’s wild-card games, including the players who could be X-factors, the strengths and weaknesses that will be difference-makers and our predictions for each series.

Our team is all-in on the Phillies and Rays here. Watch the Marlins or Rangers surprise us all and reach the Championship Series.
Our team is all-in on the Phillies and Rays here. Watch the Marlins or Rangers surprise us all and reach the Championship Series.

No. 5 Texas Rangers at No. 4 Tampa Bay Rays

First game: 3:08 p.m. ET Tuesday

How they got here:

Rangers: After a speedy and expensive rebuild, the Rangers came out of the gate hot this season and led the division in much of the early going, thanks largely to an offense that looked unstoppable. Then came a late-summer swoon that allowed the Astros and Mariners to catch all the way up in the standings. The Rangers then took back the lead in the AL West heading into the final weekend … only to lose three of four to the Mariners in their last series, surrender the division to the Astros on a tiebreaker and land in the AL’s second wild-card spot.

Rays: The Rays started 2023 as hot as any team in recent memory, jumping to an early lead in the AL East with a 13-0 start. Injuries (particularly to the rotation), attrition and Wander Franco’s legal situation then took their toll. The Rays ultimately weren't able to catch the Orioles for the division title and instead settled for the American League's top wild card.

X-factors:

Rangers: Following a 102-loss season in 2021, the Rangers spent half a billion dollars on Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. Now, by fWAR, they’re the top two position players in the American League not named Shohei Ohtani. A couple of could-be-MVP candidates at the top of the lineup is certainly a strength, but they're hardly a secret. That would instead be Evan Carter, a 21-year-old who was totally untouted when Texas took him in the second round of the 2020 MLB Draft. He started this season in Double-A but was called up Sept. 8 to replace an injured Adolis García. When García got back, Carter stuck around, and after less than a month of major-league service, he has a 1.030 OPS, a chance to play in the postseason and probably some whiplash from how quickly this all unfolded.

Rays: Know who has more home runs than Freddie Freeman, Kyle Tucker or Francisco Lindor? An unassuming, 24-year-old third baseman who is among the top 20 players in home runs this season, despite ranking in the bottom-20th percentile for all of baseball in hard hit percent, average exit velocity and expected slugging.

Last year, in his first season with the Rays, Isaac Parades was tied for the team lead with 20 home runs after never hitting more than 13 in a season dating to his minor-league debut. This year, he leads the team again — with 31. In short, Parades manages to channel plate discipline into power, instead of just on-base percentage, by consistently pulling the ball in the air. Historically, the Rays have won by excelling on the margins, but this year’s club can bop. They’re fourth in runs scored, and they have six guys with at least 20 home runs, led by Parades.

Difference-makers:

Rangers: The Rangers have the dubious distinction of being the first team to ever make the postseason with more blown saves (33) than saves (30). Put that on one side of the ledger and a lineup that scored the most runs in the AL on the other, and you’ve got a pretty good sense of the possible outcomes. Either the Rangers will score so much that even their bullpen can’t blow it or, well, the bullpen will probably blow it.

Rays: Tampa has an excellent excuse for having fallen off a bit after starting the season on an unstoppable tear. Namely, all its pitchers’ arms have (basically) fallen off. If they were healthy, a rotation built in part out of Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs would rank among the top reasons the Rays could dominate in October. Instead, that trio’s absence is the biggest cause for concern. That said, in a short series, Tyler Glasnow as the No. 1 and an incredible ability to overcome pitcher injuries as an organization could be the reason the Rays prevail.

Prediction:

A great bullpen can take a team all the way to the World Series, and in October, managers aren’t afraid to make half a dozen pitching changes if it means getting the right matchup. However, the Rangers’ Bruce Bochy will be hamstrung in that respect because he just doesn’t have enough reliable options. The Rays take this one, probably in dramatic, comeback fashion. — Keyser

No. 6 Toronto Blue Jays at No. 3 Minnesota Twins

First game: 4:38 p.m. ET Tuesday

How they got here:

Blue Jays: Toronto started the season with hopes of contending for a division title, but while the season didn’t entirely go off the rails, this team never really seemed to be in the division picture. With the Rays and Orioles making the AL East a two-horse race early on, the Blue Jays instead reached the playoffs via the wild-card field after jockeying for position with three teams from the AL West.

Twins: It was division-title-or-bust for the Twins, as someone had to win the moribund AL Central. The Twins led the division for most of the season on the strength of a bolstered pitching rotation. On the offensive side, however, there’s much left to be desired, as Carlos Correa never found his stride, and Byron Buxton is injured yet again.

X-factors:

Blue Jays: Last offseason, Toronto committed to run prevention by acquiring Kevin Kiermaier and Daulton Varsho. Along with George Springer, in his third season with Toronto, they now boast one of the best outfield defenses in baseball. It’s an oft-underappreciated aspect of the game, but it could be especially key in October, when runs are difficult to come by.

Twins: Baseball’s fourth-best pitcher by fWAR this year is someone whose name hasn’t been part of any Cy Young conversations. At 33, Sonny Gray will hit the market this winter after his best season to date. But first, he’ll be Minnesota’s likely Game 2 starter in the postseason, behind Pablo Lopez. The entire Twins rotation has been something of a revelation this season. One year after the team’s starters had the 20th-best ERA in baseball and the team missed the playoffs, Gray, Lopez, Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober combined to post the third-best rotation ERA. Gray in particular has a superpower well-suited to October — when offenses tend to be even more homer-dependent than the regular season — as his eight home runs surrendered this year are the fewest in baseball by far.

Difference-makers:

Blue Jays: The Blue Jays are supposed to bop. Across 2021 and 2022, they hit the third-most home runs in baseball, and this year, they have the Home Run Derby champion. Yet all that amounted to a totally middling (16th in MLB) home run rate after Vladimir Guerrero Jr. used up all his dingers in the Derby (or something). The Blue Jays’ offense looks less formidable than it has in the recent past, but that’s offset by the AL’s best starting rotation by ERA. Of course, given that we said sort of the same thing about the Twins, the Jays’ lack of offense could prove pivotal.

Twins: As discussed, the Twins have a sneaky-great pitching staff, but we should probably assume they’re cursed to never win a postseason game until proven otherwise.

Prediction:

Just kidding — curses aren’t real. The Twins take this one. And then breathe a huge sigh of relief. — Keyser

No. 6 Arizona Diamondbacks at No. 3 Milwaukee Brewers

First game: 7:08 p.m. ET Tuesday

How they got here:

Diamondbacks: Arizona surprised many by contending ahead of schedule this season. The D-backs actually led the NL West in much of the season’s first half before a summer slump set them back of the Dodgers. Still, in a very crowded NL wild-card picture, the Diamondbacks inched their way up and ahead of the fray to make the playoffs one year after finishing fourth in the division.

Brewers: The Brewers continued to do what they do best this season, with dominant pitching from the rotation and bullpen backed up by juuuust enough offense. The three-headed monster of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta led the way as the Brewers held off the Cubs and Reds to take the NL Central.

X-factors:

Diamondbacks: Corbin Carroll. The presumptive NL Rookie of the Year is the engine of this Arizona team, and if the Diamondbacks are going to overpower the Brewers, it needs to start with Carroll. He can change the game with his home-run thump or by wreaking havoc on the bases.

Brewers: William Contreras. The young catcher the Brewers nabbed in the Sean Murphy deal has blossomed into a strong defender to go with his terrific bat. He has added precious pop to a Milwaukee lineup that doesn’t pack quite the same punch as the pitching staff. Contreras is one of several young contributors who could swing the Brewers’ fortunes with a strong October.

Difference-makers:

Diamondbacks: Arizona has limped to the finish line and will enter as underdogs against a dominant Brewers pitching staff. The main pitfall would be failing to get on base enough to use their thrilling team speed. Their best hope stems from Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly. Both pitchers are capable of shutting down a Brewers offense that isn’t terrifying and allowing the young lineup to scratch out some runs.

Brewers: Pitching, pitching, pitching. Milwaukee’s run prevention has been unmatched in the second half of the season. The rotation took a big hit Monday, with the news that Brandon Woodruff is out for the wild-card round and possibly longer due to a right shoulder capsular injury. Still, starts from Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta, combined with a dynamite, Devin Williams-led bullpen, will give the Brewers reason to feel good heading into most every game. A little offense should be plenty, but the chief worry for Craig Counsell’s club revolves around whether a merely average group of bats will stand up against postseason pitching.

Prediction:

The Brewers' arms prove to be too much, as Milwaukee holds down Arizona and advances. — Crizer

No. 5 Miami Marlins at No. 4 Philadelphia Phillies

First game: 8:08 p.m. ET Tuesday

How they got here:

Marlins: Miami was never really in contention for the NL East, but it somehow stayed in the middle of the NL pack before surging into the wild-card mix and clinching the league's No. 5 seed on the final weekend of the season.

Phillies: With the NL East long since spoken for, the Phillies comfortably led the wild-card standings for much of the season. Buoyed as usual by a strong cast of hitters, they’re following a familiar formula of prolific home-run power and just enough pitching.

X-factors:

Marlins: Jorge Soler boasts a terrific .292/.418/.692 career line in 26 career postseason games, including his memorable World Series MVP performance with the Braves in 2021. The Marlins will need his power to fuel a Cinderella run.

Phillies: Really, you could draw a name out of a hat in the Phillies' bullpen, but the unheralded Jeff Hoffman has put together one of the best, most consistent seasons among the relievers. Coming off a stretch run in which 16 of his final 17 outings were scoreless, Hoffman might be entrusted with high-leverage work alongside Craig Kimbrel and Jose Alvarado. In a bullpen that will also include nasty new call-up Orion Kerkering and regular-season starter Michael Lorenzen, pressing the right buttons will be crucial.

Difference-makers:

Marlins: Well, doubting the Marlins hasn’t proven smart yet this season, despite a lot of underlying metrics and some key injuries. GM Kim Ng’s trade-deadline additions, Jake Burger and Josh Bell, have proven to be huge boons for the Miami lineup behind batting-average wizard Luis Arraez. If manager Skip Schumaker keeps squeezing clutch performances out of young starters and especially a bullpen led by Tanner Scott, the Marlins will be a threat. But their starting rotation has taken hits of the injury variety (Sandy Alcantara and Eury Pérez are out) and the inconvenience variety (Braxton Garrett’s status for the wild-card series is going to be suboptimal because of a rainout in New York).

Phillies: Waves upon waves of offensive talent give the Phillies an obvious case to win. A rejuvenated Trea Turner adds a new dimension to the Bryce Harper-Kyle Schwarber combo atop the order, and the Phillies really never let up. Bryson Stott has leveled up as a second-year player, and a series of respected veterans such as J.T. Realmuto and Nick Castellanos populate even the lower third of this lineup. That said, the bullpen has been … unsettled, and while there are a lot of good options for manager Rob Thomson, no one should envy his task of trying to decipher the hot and cold streaks his relievers have endured this season.

Prediction:

The Phillies and their stars take the series from a punchy Marlins team. — Crizer

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