The Wild Card round is behind us, and four of the twelve playoff teams have been sent home. It’s time to see the best teams in the league in action. Last year, we saw two of the four top seeds get eliminated in the division series, with only the eventual champion Houston Astros and the New York Yankees surviving the first round.
For the Dodgers and Braves, they’ll get a chance to avenge their first-round losses. We’ll also find out if the first-round bye is actually an advantage, as last year we saw teams struggle to find their footing right away. Even the Astros, who swept Seattle, won the three games by a total of four runs, while the Yankees fell behind 2-1 to the Cleveland Guardians.
8. Arizona Diamondbacks
Even last place is a good thing here; these are the last eight teams left. The Diamondbacks took down Milwaukee in a two-game sweep, and it really wasn’t even close. The Brewers simply couldn’t score as the Arizona bullpen threw a combined 9.1 innings of shutout ball across the two games. Corbin Carroll is quickly establishing himself as a superstar, as the NL Rookie of the Year frontrunner went 4-for-7 with two XBH and accounted for five runs (3 R, 2 RBI) in Milwaukee.
The Arizona lineup is deeper than expected, as Evan Longoria and Gabriel Moreno made a huge impact in their series sweep. Ketel Marte and Christian Walker both had great years, and both had huge hits in Game 1. The Diamondbacks are fun, but they’re also dangerous. Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly finished 5th and 7th in the National League in ERA, respectively. Their bullpen entered the postseason as a question mark, but they looked sharp in the first round.
The biggest concern for Arizona is their lack of starting pitching depth. Brandon Pfaadt got the ball in Game 1, but wasn’t able to finish the 3rd inning. He’ll surely get another opportunity and he had a solid second half, but against the Dodgers’ lineup, it’s tough to expect much. Beyond those three, they’ll have to use a bullpen game, likely starting with Ryne Nelson (144 IP, 5.31 ERA). Another question mark for Arizona surrounds Gabriel Moreno’s health. He took a backswing to the head in Game 2 in Milwaukee, and was forced to leave the game. If he can’t go in the NLDS, the Diamondbacks will have to rely on two unproven catchers, Jose Herrera and Seby Zavala.
7. Minnesota Twins
The Twins made quick work of the Toronto Blue Jays, allowing just one run in a two-game sweep. Behind stellar pitching performances from Pablo Lopez and Sonny Gray, the Twins won a pair of low-scoring games to advance. Against Houston in the ALDS, they’ll need more from their offense. The Astros have postseason experience up and down the roster, and they all have great track records. Don’t expect them to get shut down like Toronto.
But the Twins offense is definitely capable of keeping up. The Twins had the 3rd best wRC+ as a team in the 2nd half, led by Royce Lewis (172), Max Kepler (154), and Ryan Jeffers (154). Jeffers got both starts behind the plate in the Wild Card, and there’s no reason to expect the Twins to pivot away from him. Their lineup is one of the deepest in baseball, as they had 12 hitters post an above-average wRC+ in the 2nd half. And although Carlos Correa had a down year, he seems to live for the postseason. Against the Blue Jays, he made a run-saving play at shortstop in Game 1 and knocked in the winning run in Game 2.
Between Lopez, Gray, Joe Ryan, and Kenta Maeda, the Twins have one of the deepest rotations in baseball as well. Rotation depth comes up huge in the playoffs, as Maeda is by far the best four-man left in the American League. And if the Twins have the lead in the 9th, good luck putting together a rally against Jhoan Duran and his 102-mph fastball and 98-mph splitter.
6. Texas Rangers
The Rangers absolutely dominated the Rays in the first round, as they allowed just one garbage-time ninth inning run in their two-game sweep. Jordan Montgomery threw 7 shutout innings in Game 1 and Nathan Eovaldi followed with 6.2 of his own in Game 2. Even without their multi-time Cy Young winners Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, their pitching staff looks dominant. Scherzer is also working his way back, and he threw an pain-free bullpen before Game 2 on Wednesday.
The Rangers offense is one of the best, and deepest, in baseball. Both Marcus Semien and Corey Seager will likely finish in the top-3 in AL MVP voting, as they finished 2nd and 3rd respectively in fWAR and 1st and 2nd in bWAR among American League position players. Semien, the team’s leadoff hitter and best defender, had a 124 wRC+ and slugged 29 home runs while appearing in all 162 games in 2023. Seager missed time early with a hamstring injury, but he slashed .327/.390/.623 (169 wRC+) on the year.
Beyond their two superstars, Adolis Garcia (124 wRC+, 4.8 fWAR), Jonah Heim (103, 4.1), Mitch Garver (138, 2.1), Nathaniel Lowe (114, 2.1), and Josh Jung (110, 2.5) are all extremely valuable. Eight of the nine starters for Texas had a wRC+ over 100 in the regular season, while Leody Taveras fell just short at 98. The biggest story of the Rangers’ postseason so far has been 20-year-old rookie Evan Carter, who had a 1.058 OPS in 75 regular season plate appearances before getting on base 7-of-8 times in the Wild Card, including a two-run homer in Game 2.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a season for the Rangers, who had all the chances in the world to lock up the AL West division title but lost 3-of-4 to the Mariners in the final weekend of the season. Without Scherzer and deGrom, the biggest question mark for this team is their starting pitching depth. Montgomery and Eovaldi were great in the Wild Card series, but Dane Dunning, Jon Gray, and Andrew Heaney will have to cover big innings, especially since Bruce Bochy only trusts a few of his relievers. In a longer series, the Rangers’ lack of pitching may become a problem, but their offense also might be good enough for it not to matter.
5. Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles remind me of the Cubs and Astros of 2015. They clearly have enough young talent to become a dynasty in the future, but they are a year or two early in their timeline of true World Series contention. Of course, they could prove me wrong and win the World Series. The Orioles are the top seed in the American League after winning 101 regular season games, but only Kyle Bradish has been truly reliable as a starter this season. Bradish made 30 starts and had a 2.83 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 168.2 IP.
After Bradish, the Orioles will probably look to Grayson Rodriguez, John Means, and Dean Kremer to round out their rotation. Rodriguez has a 2.17 ERA in his last nine starts and has incredible stuff, but he’s also a rookie with very limited professional experience. Despite his inexperience, Rodriguez threw 8 shutout innings in the biggest start of his career on 9/16 against the Rays at Camden Yards. Means has also never made a postseason start, but he has been very solid when healthy. He only made four starts in 2023, but he had a 2.66 ERA and they all came in the last few weeks of the season. A healthy Means definitely shores up their rotation, but they’re missing their superstar closer Felix Bautista.
Even without Bautista, Yennier Cano (72.2 IP, 2.11 ERA), Danny Coulombe (51.1 IP, 2.81 ERA), Cionel Perez (53.1 IP, 3.54 ERA), and Jacob Webb (22.0 IP, 3.27 ERA) are all reliable options for manager Brandon Hyde. Additionally, trade deadline acquisitions Shintaro Fujinami and Jack Flaherty could make a big impact. Fujinami has a starter’s arsenal, as he’s thrown seven different pitches in 2023, but he struggled to command his fastball and had a 7.18 ERA in 2023 (though he had a 3.88 FIP as a RP). Flaherty had the worst season of his career in 2023, but he has a very good postseason track record (23 IP, 3.52 ERA, 2.64 FIP) and could be a valuable long relief option.
On the bright side, the Orioles have a very strong offense. Led by 22-year-old rookie shortstop Gunnar Henderson and 25-year-old 2nd year catcher Adley Rutschman, the Orioles had a team wRC+ of 105. Henderson, the AL Rookie of the Year frontrunner, had a .234 ISO and hit 28 home runs. Anthony Santander added 28 of his own, while slugging .472. Rutschman, the team’s leadoff hitter, walked at a 13.4% clip and had a .374 OBP. They have subscribed to new-age ideals, hitting Rutschman and Henderson at the 1 and 2 slots in their lineup, followed by a collection of solid hitters including Santander (119 wRC+), Aaron Hicks (129), Ryan O’Hearn (118), Austin Hays (112), and Ryan Mountcastle (114).
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have dominated the NL West for the past decade. They’ve won the division title in 10 out of the past 11 seasons, although they only have one shortened-season World Series title to show for it. They won 100 games for the fourth time in a row, but they weren’t quite as dominant in 2023 as they were from 2019-22.
On offense, it’s been more of the same for LA. Future Hall of Famers Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman have both had MVP-caliber seasons atop the Dodgers lineup. Veteran catcher Will Smith and rookie outfielder James Outman both had 4-win seasons, while a slew of players have had solid, above-average years to round out the lineup. Max Muncy had another three true outcome season, slugging 36 homers with a 14.7% BB% and 26.4% K%, good for a 118 wRC+.
Veteran outfielder Jason Heyward turned back the clock for a 121 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR season while utility man Chris Taylor (104 wRC+) and designated hitter J.D. Martinez (135 wRC+) both had solid years. The Dodgers have a huge question mark at shortstop, as Miguel Rojas was a major disappointment and Amed Rosario has been only slightly above replacement level since being acquired at the deadline.
The biggest difference between the 2023 Dodgers and the Dodgers of the past is their questionable pitching staff. Although he’s 35 and has a worrisome postseason track record, Clayton Kershaw is still one of the best pitchers in baseball. But Walker Buehler, Dustin May, and Tony Gonsolin are hurt and Julio Urias can’t get out of his own way. They acquired Lance Lynn at the deadline, but he has a 6.23 ERA in his last seven starts. Kershaw will certainly get the ball in Game 1, but even he has a faulty playoff track record.
After Kershaw, the Dodgers will trot out a group of rookies. Bobby Miller is the most promising of that group, as he was the Dodgers’ top prospect entering the season and had a 3.76 ERA in 124.1 IP in 2023. Since the beginning of August, Miller has a 3.20 ERA and 3.44 FIP in 64.2 IP. There’s reason to be optimistic about Miller, but Dave Roberts will have to decide who to use as the 4th (or 5th, if necessary) starter in the later rounds, if the Dodgers make it that far.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
It’s a red October. The Phillies dominated the Marlins in their Wild Card series behind Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola’s combined 13.2 innings of 1-run ball. Bryson Stott’s 6th inning grand slam in Game 2 all but ended Miami’s season, as the Phillies rolled over their division rivals. Now, they’re set for a matchup with another, more formidable division rival.
The Phillies eliminated the Braves in the NLDS last year behind a legendary 3-run homer and bat spike from Rhys Hoskins, but Hoskins will be out this time. The defending NL pennant winners have one of the best lineups in baseball, and the pitching to keep up with the 104-win Braves. And their bats are hot at the right time.
Trea Turner had a terrible first half after signing an 11-year, $300 million deal in the offseason, but he has slashed .339/.391//677 (183 wRC+) since he received a standing ovation from the Phillies crowd on August 4th. Bryce Harper missed the first two months of the season while recovering from a torn UCL, but the Phillies’ other $300 million man also has a 185 wRC+ since August 5th.
Kyle Schwarber, a known postseason hero, has been a model of consistency out of the leadoff spot. He’s the ultimate three true outcome hitter, as he had a 29.9% K% (7th in MLB), 17.5% BB% (2nd), and 47 home runs (2nd). Despite his .197 batting average, Schwarber had a 119 wRC+. Alec Bohm (105 wRC+), Bryson Stott (101), Brandon Marsh (125), Nick Castellanos (109) and J.T. Realmuto (102) all had solid years, while Cristian Pache has been excellent defensively when healthy.
Zack Wheeler led all pitchers in fWAR in 2023, as he had another incredible workhorse season (192 IP, 3.61 ERA). Aaron Nola threw a ton of innings, but also had his worst ERA since 2016 at 4.46. Still, in his first postseason start, Nola threw seven efficient shutout innings, allowing just four baserunners. Beyond Wheeler and Nola, the Phillies will turn to Taijuan Walker and Ranger Suarez, who both had solid seasons in 2023. Walker threw 172.2 innings across 31 starts, leading the team with 15 wins. Suarez missed time with injury but had a 4.18 ERA and 3.90 FIP in his 125 IP.
At the back end of the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel (3.26 ERA, 23 SV) and Jose Alvarado (1.74 ERA, 2.41 FIP) both had great years, while Gregory Soto has a 2.82 xERA. Matt Strahm has been a swiss-army knife, making 10 starts and 46 relief appearances, finishing with a 3.29 ERA and 3.24 FIP. Jeff Hoffman has become one of Rob Thomson’s favorite leverage relievers, as he had a 2.41 ERA and 2.57 FIP in 52.1 innings. The Phillies’ achilles heel last year was their bullpen, but they’ve been one of the best, and deepest, in baseball in 2023.
2. Houston Astros
The Astros are always dangerous. Even after sleepwalking through the regular season and winning just 90 games (their worst season since 2016), they still took home the AL West title and earned an ALDS appearance for the 7th year in a row. They’ve won the AL West in the past six full seasons and are the reigning World Series champions. With another ring, they could establish themselves as one of the greatest (although tarnished) dynasties of all time.
This year’s Astros are similar to last, though they replaced Yuli Gurriel with Jose Abreu at 1st base. They just got Michael Brantley back from injury in September, strengthening an already ridiculous lineup that features Yordan Alvarez (170 wRC+), Jose Altuve (154), Kyle Tucker (140), and Alex Bregman (125). Shortstop Jeremy Peña disappointed offensively, but he’s the reigning ALCS and World Series MVP after slashing .345/.367/.638 with four home runs in the postseason as a rookie.
In addition to their high powered offense, the Astros feature a rotation headlined by three-time Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander and back-to-back All-Star Framber Valdez. Since re-joining the Astros at the deadline, the 40-year-old Verlander has a 3.31 ERA in 11 starts. Valdez made a team-high 31 starts, including two complete games and a no-hitter, with a 3.45 ERA and 3.39 xFIP. The Astros’ rotation isn’t as deep as it has been in the past, as Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia are both out to the season with arm injuries.
The Astros are certainly not as dominant as they have been for the past few seasons, but they’re still capable of beating anyone and are the betting favorite to win the American League pennant once again. They’ve made the ALCS six years in a row, winning four pennants and two World Series in that span. It’s hard to argue with that type of track record, even if they didn’t have the 100-win regular season that we’ve become accustomed to.
1. Atlanta Braves
The Braves have been historically good this year, and could go down as one of the best teams of all time by winning another World Series. Their offense, which set the all-time home run record, is one of the most dangerous in recent memory. Led by NL MVP frontrunner Ronald Acuña Jr. and MLB’s home run leader Matt Olson, the Braves put up a .276/.344/.501 (125 wRC+) slash line as a team. That 125 wRC+ is tied for the best since 1900 with the Murderer’s Row 1927 Yankees.
The most remarkable part of this Braves’ offense has been their durability. Despite being just a year removed from an ACL tear, Acuña played in 159 games. Olson appeared in all 162. Austin Riley and Ozzie Albies also played 159 and 148 games respectively.
Of the Braves regular starters, Orlando Arcia has the lowest wRC+ at 99. They have six hitters with a wRC+ above 120. They also had five hitters hit over 30 home runs. After a slow start, Michael Harris II had a 134 wRC+ in the 2nd half. Six of the 39 qualified hitters with at least a 4.0 fWAR and five of the 29 hitters with at least a 125 wRC+ are Braves.
The Braves only questions are regarding the health of their pitching staff. Max Fried and Charlie Morton both ended the season on the 15-day IL, and Morton is expected to miss the NLDS. Fried on the other hand, is expected to be ready for Game 2 of the NLDS.
Spencer Strider will almost certainly get the ball in Game 1, and rightfully so. In 32 starts, he had a 3.86 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 2.93 xFIP, and 2.86 SIERA. All of Strider’s peripherals suggest better results, but he gives up a ton of home runs and his four-seamer regressed a lot from 2022 to 2023 (+20 RV to +1). In the Braves’ NLDS exit in 2022, neither Strider nor Fried finished the 4th inning. The Braves will need more from their pair of aces if they plan on making noise in the playoffs in 2023.
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