It’s the first year of the new 12-team format for the MLB postseason, which begins tonight. The first round will feature four wild card series, each of them a best of three games. The top two division winners in each league get first round byes. The Astros and the Yankees are the top two seeds in the American League, while the Dodgers and Braves secured byes in the National League. Those clubs will face the winners of the wild card round in a best of five games division series, which will be followed by the best of seven games championship series and the World Series, which begins on Oct. 28. This is a breakdown of the wild card matchups, predictions for each and some thoughts on who will win it all.
American League Wild Card: No. 3 Cleveland Guardians vs. No. 6 Tampa Bay Rays
A September surge helped the Guardians clinch the American League Central. Tampa, on the other hand, survived substantial injuries and a brutal finishing stretch to secure the final wild card spot. Both teams pitch well but struggle to score runs, so this one will be tight. Cleveland is hot, but they’re a young team. The Rays have made the playoffs four years straight and have a lot more postseason experience, which gives them an edge.
Winner: Rays in 3
American League Wild Card: No. 4 Toronto Blue Jays vs. No. 5 Seattle Mariners
Seattle is in the postseason for the first time since 2001. As amazing as their story is, it ends here. Toronto has a big advantage on offense, and although the Mariners pitch better on average, the Blue Jays have two strong starters in Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman at the top of their rotation. In a short series, that will minimize their pitching disadvantage. If Manoah and Gausman show up, the Jays will wrap this one up quickly.
Winner: Blue Jays in 2
National League Wild Card: No. 3 St. Louis Cardinals vs. No. 6 Philadelphia Phillies
Both of these teams are among the league’s better offenses, but the Cardinals have the edge in pitching, especially late in games — the Phillies have one of the worst bullpens in baseball. With star pitchers Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola likely going in games 1 and 2, the Phillies should be able to win one of those matchups, but beyond that the Cards have the edge thanks to their pen. Being at home will undoubtedly help as well.
Winner: Cardinals in 3
National League Wild Card: No. 4 New York Mets vs. No. 5 San Diego Padres
New York scores more runs and allows fewer runs than the Padres, and with star pitchers Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer likely starting for the Mets in this series, it’ll be even tougher for San Diego to push runs across. The Padres are a very talented team, but this won’t be their year. The Mets will take this series at home.
Winner: Mets in 2
Who wins it all?
The two contenders in the American League are the Astros and the Yankees. Toronto has the roster to make a deep run, but they haven’t played to that potential this year, and their starting rotation is top-heavy. The other three teams pitch well but don’t score enough runs to be threats. As for the Yankees, winning the toughest division in baseball is impressive, but they’ve struggled against the Astros in October recently, so it’s difficult to pick anyone but Houston. The Yankees definitely have a shot, but the Astros are proven winners.
The National League is harder to predict. The three heavyweights are the Dodgers, Braves and Mets. The Cardinals have an outside chance, but they’re top-heavy, and the others likewise lack depth. The Dodgers, winners of 111 games this year, tend to perform poorly in October, especially considering how dominant they’ve been in the regular season over the past ten years. The Mets have been one of the league’s best teams all season, but being swept by the Braves last weekend wasn’t a good look. Also, as a wild card team, they have more games to play and therefore will have to burn more pitchers. Atlanta, on the other hand, has been better than anyone else since June 1. Their roster is loaded, and the defending champs know how to get it done in October. The Braves are my pick to win the National League pennant, setting up a rematch of last year’s World Series.
This time around, the Astros will get the better of the Braves. Atlanta scores slightly more runs, but Houston pitches better, which will only be more true if Braves starter Spencer Strider is limited by injury. Houston’s bullpen ERA is a league-best 2.80. Besides, they’re on the easier side of the bracket and won’t have to expend as much energy to get there.
But baseball’s postseason is notoriously difficult to predict. The Braves had the worst regular season record of last year’s playoff teams last year and won it all, so anything can happen.