The updated MLB playoff format has produced some thrilling series along with some unlikely outcomes on the way to the final four teams remaining. Yes, it stinks that the Tigers aren’t playing baseball deep into October, but it’s been enjoyable seeing the high level of play across games and makes me long that much more for Detroit’s return to glory. While I realize that what I write here is going to get blown to bits once games start Tuesday evening, it’s fun to rank things and try to make sense of the unpredictable.
We’ve already seen a host of upsets, as well as an 18 inning game that tied the record for longest in major league postseason history. The mighty Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves have been summarily dismissed by the San Diego Padres and the Philadelphia Phillies. After taking out the Toronto Blue Jays and briefly taking the pole position as everyone’s favorite underdog, the Houston Astros asserted their dominance over the Seattle Mariners via the thunder of Yordan Alvarez’s bat and a brilliant pitching staff.
Finally, the surprising Cleveland Guardians have continued to spray the baseball around the field with a heavy contact approach, contrasting sharply with the power approach of the New York Yankees. We’ll still have to wait to see which of those two teams prevails after Game 5 was postponed to Tuesday night due to rain. That quick turnaround into the ALCS is going to be a difficult factor to overcome as the Astros have rested up and gotten their pitching staff in order.
1) Houston Astros
The Astros are an absolute wagon. Boasting the best record in the American League, they swept the Seattle Mariners out of the divisional series despite Justin Verlander having the worst outing of his season in game one. For the sixth straight year, the Astros find themselves in the American League Championship Series. At this point, they’re starting to feel like Thanos at the height of his Marvel Cinematic Universe powers: inevitable.
Undoubtedly the best team remaining in the playoffs, the roster balance that has gotten them this far gives them a good chance of scaling the top of the mountain again. Beyond Verlander, who is the AL Cy Young favorite, Framber Valdez and Lance McCullers Jr. are both strong starters, while Luis Garcia was arguably the hero of Saturday night’s marathon, at least, right up until rookie Jeremy Peña’s 18th inning game winning home run. The bullpen is deep too. Ryan Pressly has been a mainstay as closer for the last couple of years, but Héctor Neris, Rafael Montero, and Bryan Abreu all threw over 60 innings this year with high strikeout rates and fearsome high velocity stuff.
On offense, they’ve been led by Yordan Alvarez doing his best Barry Bonds impression, and he’s been backed by Peña and third base mainstay Alex Bregman. Jose Altuve has yet to get a hit in the playoffs this year, which is a scary thing because he is way too good to keep down for long. This is still a deep lineup, with Kyle Tucker and Yuli Gurriel capable of carrying the offense at any point as well. At this point, it’s going to be tall task for any remaining opponent to take down these Astros in a seven game series.
2) San Diego Padres
Wil Myers and his wife Maggie are out in downtown San Diego, buying shots for everyone in every bar they enter and thanking fans, high-fiving and celebrating. What a moment for the longest-tenured #Padres player. pic.twitter.com/MgwicXJ9n4
— Annie Heilbrunn (@annieheilbrunn) October 16, 2022
Beating the Los Angeles Dodgers is no small feat. Finishing 22 games behind them in the division, and then beating them in the playoffs is wild. The Padres pushed all their chips to the center of the table at the trade deadline this season and the risk is paying off. Everyone knew that the Dodgers were the class of Major League Baseball, but general manager AJ Preller simply did not give a rat’s behind. He smartly sold the farm for transcendent superstar Juan Soto, power hitting first baseman Josh Bell, and one of the best relievers of the last five years in Josh Hader. While the move didn’t help them usurp the Dodgers in the NL West, they were able to dispatch them in the divisional series making the moves well worth it. The fact that they’ve overcome the debacle of Fernando Tatis Jr.’s injuries and PED suspension is quite remarkable.
What’s crazy is that Soto hasn’t even gotten hot yet. Through seven postseason games, he’s only put together a .586 OPS. Like Altuve with the Astros, that slump should not necessarily inspire confidence in the opposition. Surprisingly, it’s been Trent Grisham of all people who has led the way for the offense with three home runs. Top NL MVP candidate Manny Machado has also been excellent, and could get even hotter if Soto can get it going ahead of him in the lineup.
Rotation wise, Yu Darvish continues to be nasty despite all the innings on his arm. Blake Snell is in the midst of a nice bounce-back year after a down 2021, and Joe Musgrove might be the best starter in baseball that doesn’t get much recognition. Cap that with a high-powered bullpen, a necessity for postseason success nowadays, and they’ve got all the pieces in place. The Padres built this team to beat the Dodgers, and now that they’ve accomplished that goal, they have their sights set on their first world championship.
3) Philadelphia Phillies
Dave Dombrowski is back to his old tricks. Built on a high octane offense and starting pitching — and who can forget the inadequate bullpen — the Fightin’ Phils knocked off their division rival Atlanta Braves in pretty dominant fashion. Big hit after big hit gave them bullpen proof leads, but that glaring weakness is why they find themselves towards/at the bottom of this list.
The offense of this team can be earth shattering. Defense? Well… as long as you’re slugging the ball, that can be forgiven. Led by former MVP Bryce Harper, his supporting cast of Rhys Hoskins, JT Realmuto, Kyle Schwarber, and old friend Nick Castellanos gives them a lineup that can pummel even the best opposing pitchers. Harper is tearing the cover off the ball in October, posting a 1.437 OPS so far. Hoskins and Schwarber have really yet to get going, but the big contributions they’ve gotten from the bottom of their lineup in Brandon Marsh and Jean Segura have helped to make up for the slumps.
Led by a lethal one-two punch in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, they’ve got starting pitching that’s going to go deep into games. The question surrounding the Phillies and their chance at capturing a World Series title is can that bullpen hold leads in close games? Jose Alvarado, Seranthony Dominguez, and Andrew Bellati all had good seasons, but they’ve been turning to Zach Eflin in close games in the postseason and he’s not getting it done. For the Phillies to win it all, they’re going to need to continue pounding the cover off the ball and find some consistency at the back end of the bullpen. One thing they do have on their side is an impending economic recession, which historically has followed the Phillies winning the World Series. I wish I were kidding.
4) or hopefully eliminated, New York Yankees
Love them or, as most tend to, hate them, the Yankees have established themselves as one of the powers of the American League again. Following a monster season by Aaron Judge where he finished 11 homers behind the single season record and almost won the Triple Crown — if you’re reading this as a sarcastic dig at how the national media has covered his season, kudos — the Yankees are World Series or bust after fourteen seasons without a title. In order for that to become reality, Judge is going to have to turn his postseason around and put the offense on his back.
The Yankees were taken to the brink by the Cleveland Guardians, but in the end they’ll live or die behind some outstanding pitching. Gerrit Cole had a down season by his standards but is still one of the premiere starters in the game. Nester Cortes was an All Star this year, and Luis Severino, despite dealing with health issues, still has a dominant arsenal. The bullpen is a bit of a question mark, but Wandy Peralta and Clay Holmes form a formidable back end duo, though they run the risk of being overused.
Aaron Judge has yet to come alive in the postseason, but the offense has gotten bailed out by Anthony Rizzo and Harrison Bader of all people, who had three home runs in the divisional series. Judge was undoubtedly the best hitter in baseball this season, and once he gets dialed in, it’s going to be scary. Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, and to an extent, Josh Donaldson, have all underperformed as well. The Yankees are a sleeping giant that has more than enough firepower to run all the way through to their 28th world championship if they get hot. We’ll see if they can get through the Guardians on Tuesday night, but if they don’t make it, a lack of depth in the lineup and the bullpen considering their payroll size will likely be their undoing.
4) or eliminated Cleveland Guardians
Finally, we get to our Central Division foes, the Cleveland Guardians. Cinderella just keeps on dancing, and as a resident of suburban Cleveland, I am admittedly having a lot of fun watching this run. Does it annoy me that the Guardians pull quality players out of their player development system every year without spending a dime to get better? Absolutely. Am I jealous because the Tigers aren’t able to develop talent like that and translate it to routine playoff trips? Also yes. But hey, I’m not going to be a hater because it’s cooler to enjoy the ride.
The Guardiac Kids are the youngest team in baseball by a year and have been winning games in the most exciting fashion possible. Rookie Oscar Gonzalez and his Spongebob walk-up song has become the star of the postseason, and his fellow rookie Steven Kwan has also had some big moments after a strong first campaign in the majors. The team’s superstar is perhaps the most under-appreciated player in baseball in José Ramírez, who routinely finishes top five in MVP voting. Amed Rosario and Andrés Giménez who were both acquired in the blockbuster Francisco Lindor deal a couple years ago have become mainstays in the middle of their infield, with Giménez starting in the All Star game at second base. And who can forget Josh Naylor, who hits the heck out of the ball and makes people mad because he gets more pumped up than anyone else in the sport?
Cleveland is the only team that made the playoffs that finished with a below average major league offense, worth only 99 wRC. Much has been made about their ability to put the ball in play and run the bases well, and that can’t be ignored, but they’re where they’re at because of their pitching. Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie both finished the season with sub-3.00 ERAs, and their bullpen is the best remaining in baseball. Emmanuel Clase and his 100 MPH cutters are as close to unhittable as you can get, and James Karinchak — despite his annoying pre-pitch routine — has regained his form after a brutal second half of 2021. On paper though, this team doesn’t match up well with the other teams on this list that feature a lot more offense than the Guardians. The thing is, the Guardians are still playing baseball while 26 other teams aren’t, so they don’t seem to care…
The problem for the final two clubs on the list is going to be turnaround time. Whatever the outcome on Tuesday, it’s going to be a worn down club that has to quickly reset to deal a deep, well-rested Astros squad. Under different circumstances, either Cleveland or New York could hold a higher spot in our completely arbitrary power rankings, but the situation a long, hard fought series fraught with weather delays has put them in makes it difficult not to view either as a distinct underdog going up against the reigning AL champs.