The field is set. Now, the real work begins.
The sights and sounds of the postseason are now in the crisp fall air, as 16 MLB teams will vie for the finish line, where the Commissioner’s Trophy awaits the victor. The American League will kick off their postseason Sept. 29, while the National League will begin their game slates on Sept. 30.
The expanded playoff format will first present the best-of-three Wild Card Round. The short-series length should create potential upset galore. Within this article, I preview each series and predict who comes out ahead. Without further ado, here is my preview of the MLB Wild Card Round.
(1) Tampa Bay Rays vs. (8) Toronto Blue Jays
The Rays not only took home an American League East division title during the regular season, but the best record in the AL to boot. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, snuck back into the playoffs to pick up their first postseason berth since 2016. For the Rays, the formula to winning is simple – have superb pitching and just enough hitting to win games. They achieved this during the 60-game season, as their 3.56 team ERA ranked third in all of MLB, while their team on-base plus slugging (OPS) of .753 ranked 13th. On the flip side, Toronto’s youth movement in their lineup bore positive fruit, as the unit (led by Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and others) put together a .766 OPS (which ranked 11th in all of MLB) and slugged 88 home runs, which ranked eighth.
Toronto has a lot to look forward to in regard to their future. The youth will only continue to blossom, and their pitching (led by offseason acquisition Hyun Jin Ryu) will also develop into a more cohesive unit. Tampa Bay’s overall roster balance and depth, especially on the pitching side, will see the Rays come out victorious for this series, though.
Prediction: Tampa Bay
(2) Oakland Athletics vs. (7) Chicago White Sox
In typical Oakland fashion, the Athletics grinded their way to their third playoff berth in as many years. More importantly, they locked up their first American League West division title since 2013. The White Sox, despite going 2-8 over their last 10 regular season games, locked up a playoff bid for the first time since 2008. The Athletics, cut from the similar low-payroll cloth as the Rays, utilized steady pitching and just enough hitting to get the job done. The White Sox, on the other hand, bashed opposing pitchers with their prolific offense, which collectively had an OPS of .779 (eighth in MLB) and hit 96 home runs (third in MLB and first in the AL).
Even without star third baseman Matt Chapman, the Athletics still bring balance to the table. No one is disclaiming that. The White Sox, though, bring significant strength in their offense spearheaded by MVP candidate Jose Abreu. Then, there is Lucas Giolito, who put it all together and twirled a no-hitter during the regular season. The ceiling for the South Side is sky-high. It will show during this series.
Prediction: White Sox
(3) Minnesota Twins vs. (6) Houston Astros
Talk about a series where both teams have a lot to prove. For Minnesota, they get their wish in not facing the New York Yankees in the opening round. The catch? They still have not won a playoff series since 2002. The Astros, on the other hand, crept into the playoffs despite having a losing record. The catch? They must go up against a hot-hitting Minnesota offense with a weaker starting pitching staff than in previous seasons. Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. bring potential, but is it enough?
Sure, Houston brings Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve to the table, but all of their numbers during the regular season were significantly down when compared to other seasons (the reason? Well, I will leave that up to you). When adding everything together (including Houston’s 4-13 record during the regular season against opponents over .500), Houston is at a disadvantage. Surprises can happen, but Minnesota should be able to pick up their first playoff series victory in close to two decades.
(4) Cleveland Indians vs. (5) New York Yankees
This series might bring the most intrigue in regard to who comes out on top. The Indians, despite trading away Mike Clevinger to the San Diego Padres, were still able to put together a potent starting five in Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale and Triston McKenzie. After an initial downward spiral, the Yankees recovered and, since Sept. 1, scored 153 runs, which ranked second in MLB (the Atlanta Braves scored 173).
On one side of the ring, you have an American League Cy Young favorite and dark horse AL MVP contender in Bieber. On the other, you have a high-octane offense that includes the American League batting champion in DJ LeMahieu. While the likes of LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Luke Voit are formidable, the saying is still apparent. Pitching wins championships. Cleveland has it, Cleveland will utilize it and Cleveland will win this series with it.
(1) Los Angeles Dodgers vs. (8) Milwaukee Brewers
On paper, this matchup looks like a runaway if there ever was one. Despite inconsistencies and injuries to star players during the regular season, the Dodgers still picked up the best record in all of baseball (43-17) and were the only team to finish with a .700-plus winning percentage (.717). Their reward is a matchup against a Brewers’ team that skirted into the postseason on the final day of the regular season.
Los Angeles’ star power and roster depth does not need to be rehashed or discussed. The results speak for themselves. However, if they are not careful, Milwaukee could make things interesting. Specifically, the Brewers’ starting pitching cranked it up a notch over the past month (the unit’s 3.23 ERA ranked third in all of MLB). Additionally, the relieving duo of Devin Williams and Josh Hader are as nasty as they come. To top it all off, Milwaukee achieved their success without Christian Yelich hitting a lick. Roster depth will be key for either team. Although Milwaukee has surged, one of their key players in starting pitcher Corbin Burnes (who pitched to a 2.11 ERA during the regular season) will not participate in the series due to an oblique strain. One player might mean all the difference. Los Angeles can afford the injuries. Milwaukee cannot. This fact will show itself this series.
Prediction: Los Angeles
(2) Atlanta Braves vs. (7) Cincinnati Reds
The Braves, despite injuries to their pitching staff, were able to weather the storm behind their nine-deep offense captained by NL MVP candidate in Freddie Freeman. The Reds, despite inconsistences, went 16-9 during the month of September and were carried by their elite starting pitching. In case you need reminding, Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray are all top-of-the-rotation starters. Cincinnati has all three of them.
This matchup is the identical twin to the New York and Cleveland bout. A lethal offense led by a pitching killer in Freeman goes up against a potential Cy Young winner in Bauer. Although the Braves have the hitting prowess, their starting pitching, due to injuries, is not as deep or as experienced as Cincinnati’s rotation. The Reds will generate enough power on offense and lean on the sheer strikeout power of their three-headed monster on the mound. The end result will see the Reds strutting into the next round.
(3) Chicago Cubs vs. (6) Miami Marlins
The North Siders return to the postseason after missing out last season. The playoff berth is their fifth in their past six seasons. The Marlins, on the other hand, find themselves playing postseason baseball for only the third time in franchise history and their first since 2003. Veteran offseason and in-season signings and trades, coupled with youngsters budding into everyday players, helped Miami achieve the feat. Chicago, meanwhile, went with their main offensive core that netted them a World Series victory in 2016 and combined it with a bounce back campaign from Yu Darvish, who pitched to a 2.01 ERA in 12 starts during the regular season.
Chicago brings the experience, while Miami brings the storyline. The storyline for Miami, however, will have to move forward without starting pitcher Jose Urena for the series. The forearm injury for the righty, coupled with the inexperience and depth mismatch, will spell the end of the magical run for Miami. Everyone will think of the 2003 National League Championship Series in regard to these two teams, but the result will be much different. Chicago fans will rejoice this time around.
(4) San Diego Padres vs. (5) St. Louis Cardinals
While Miami brought a worthwhile storyline during the regular season, San Diego (or Slam Diego?) did too, and boy, oh boy did they bring it. The offense smashed 95 home runs (which ranked fourth in all of baseball) and saw the infield duo of Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. stand out. Additional players, including that of Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer, rebounded from sub-par performances from years prior to supplement the duo. Did I forget to mention San Diego’s starting staff? St. Louis, despite lacking the star power, did not lack the grit, as the team grinded ahead to a record over .500 and yet another postseason berth. You cannot talk St. Louis baseball and not bring up the postseason, after all.
St. Louis brings the intangibles, but San Diego brings the roster strength on both sides of the ball. While Friar starters in Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet are question marks for the series, the Friars still bring enough firepower to offset the starting pitching absence. This series could go three, but at the end of the day, San Diego should be able to take care of business. The team is that deep.
Prediction: San Diego