MLB Playoffs 2022: How every team can win the World Sequence, ranked by tiers
I can hear the chorus of voices now.
Wait. Why in the world is a football writer chiming in on baseball? And writing a playoff preview of all things? He knows nothing about baseball.
While I might prove that over the next 2,000-plus words, hear me out for a moment.
Before I picked up a football and had visions of being the next Joe Montana, there was another dream in my mind.
Of playing shortstop for the Boston Red Sox.
Baseball has been in my blood almost since birth, and actually probably even before that. I wore a Red Sox onesie home from the hospital after I was born, and would be at Fenway Park probably before I should have been. My grandfather, after serving his country in World War II, did a few things when he returned home to Massachusetts. He got married, he got a job, and he got Red Sox season tickets.
They were in our family from 1946 through the 1990s. If you can think of a big game in Red Sox history during that run, odds are someone from my family was there. Bucky Bleepin’ Dent? My grandfather was there. Game 6 in 1975? My mom and aunt. There I was at Fenway Park during Boston’s run to the 1986 World Series, or years later as they faced the Oakland A’s in the ALCS.
That led to a love of the game, of the Red Sox, and dreams of playing in the majors. While an inability to hit a curveball, coupled with a passion for football, drove me away from the baseball diamond in high school, my love of baseball remains. It is something I am trying to pass on to my son, as I am lucky enough to coach him in the sport year-round.
So while I cannot watch my Red Sox in the playoffs this year, I can tune in to watch the game I love. For now, enjoy a look at this year’s playoff teams, and how they stack up.
I’m off to the diamond myself.
Halt and catch fire: Cleveland Guardians, San Diego Padres
We start off with a pair of teams that could make a deep run … provided things break their way. The Cleveland Guardians won the AL Central this year, finishing ten games ahead of the Chicago White Sox, but they enter the postseason with 91 wins on the year, the fewest of all the division winners. Consider their record this year against other AL playoff teams. The Guardians were 3-4 against Houston, 1-5 against New York, 1-6 and against Seattle. They did win five of seven games against Toronto, and four of six games against Tampa Bay, who they see in the opening round.
Then there are the San Diego Padres, who were dealt a blow in mid-August when Fernando Tatis Jr. was suspended 80 games for using performance-enhancing drugs. The team was hoping to have Tatis Jr. back in the lineup, as he was working his way back from a wrist injury, but the suspension pushed his return to the 2023 season. Their chances in the NL East, which had started to diminish in mid-July, cratered as July pushed into August. San Diego now faces a tough route to the World Series, as they open against the New York Mets and, provided they advance, will face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. That is a very tough road.
The Cleveland Guardians win the World Series if: They can get to their closer
The Guardians might be here a bit early, as they have one of the youngest rosters in baseball but seem to have nailed their rebuild. But what could make them dangerous in the playoffs is if they can somehow get to Emmanuel Clase. Lost in the excitement over Edwin Diaz, the New York Mets closer, is what Clase has done this year. Cleveland’s closer leads the MLB with 42 saves, and has posted a WHIP of 0.729 and 9.5 SO/9 this season. If the Guardians get the game to him, the game is likely over.
The San Diego Padres win the World Series if: The roster they bought delivers
The names atop the list of MLB’s biggest payrolls contains few surprises, until you get to the fifth spot. That is where the Padres check in, thanks to players like Manny Machado and Yu Darvish. The Padres also added Juan Soto at the trade deadline, who could be MLB’s first $500-million man. While that question could be decided in San Diego, or via free agency, the Padres have spent to win. If Machado and Soto are hot, and Darvish and Blake Snell are good on the bump, then the Padres can make some noise.
Our next tier contains the teams that might have a little magic to them this season, and have more pieces in this place to justify a deep run into the playoffs. The Toronto Blue Jays have an incredible nucleus in place, a deep lineup, the starting pitching to contend in the playoffs, and seem to be entering a big window as contenders. The Philadelphia Phillies have a lineup built to change games with one swing of the bat. They have the fifth-highest team slugging percentage in all of baseball, and the eighth-highest team OPS in all of baseball. With Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, and Kyle Schwarber — who sits second in all of baseball with 46 home runs — the Phillies can rake.
Then there are the Seattle Mariners, who might be this year’s team of destiny. The Mariners are back in the playoffs for the first time since their incredible 2001 season, when they won 116 games but lost in the ALCS. You can just imagine the screenplay …
The Toronto Blue Jays win the World Series if: Their rotation can go deep into games
Toronto faces some questions about their bullpen. The Blue Jays have given up 59 home runs in the seventh inning or later this year, tied with the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays for the most among the playoff teams. That might be good enough to get out of the Wild Card Series against Cleveland, but with a potential date with the New York Yankees — and Aaron Judge — looming, that could be a problem. One that their rotation can help solve.
The Philadelphia Phillies win the World Series if: Their lineups wear down the opposition
From top-to-bottom, this is a tough lineup to face. If their big bats, such as Schwarber, Hoskins, Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Nick Castellanos, turn games every contest into a bullpen game for the opposition, the Phillies have a path to a title.
The Seattle Mariners win the World Series if: Good pitching indeed beats good hitting
The Mariners are in the playoffs for more reasons than just destiny, and it begins with their pitching staff. Seattle boasts a strong bullpen, as their relievers have allowed an opponent batting average of just .207 this season, second only to the .206 allowed by the Los Angeles Dodgers’ bullpen. That group has also allowed a WHIP of just 1.08 this season, again second only to Los Angeles. With perhaps the second-best bullpen in baseball — and perhaps the best bullpen in the American League — that could work.
The proverbial teams no one wants to face: St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays
In every postseason, regardless of sport, there are the proverbial “teams no one wants to face.” Teams that might not have won their division, or perhaps won a weak division in the case of the St. Louis Cardinals, but look built to compete in the playoffs.
That brings us to these two teams.
The St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series if: Their MVPs play like MVPs
The main story down the stretch in St. Louis has been Albert Pujols and his pursuit of baseball immortality. The slugger joined the 700-home run club recently, thanks to a scorching summer that saw him belt 18 home runs in the second half of the season, after just 6 in the first half. That, coupled with him winding down his career along with Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, has made for a great story, and great moments like this as the three exited the field together in their last home game as teammates:
But if they are going to win a world series, it will come off the bats of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Both players are MVP candidates in the NL, with Arenado posting a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 7.9 this season, followed right by Goldschmidt’s 7.8. That puts both players in the top five this year — with Arenado fourth and Goldschmidt fifth — and makes them a dangerous duo to face in the playoffs.
The Tampa Bay Rays win the World Series if: The starting pitching stays in form
While the Rays have an imposing lineup, their World Series chances rest with their starting pitching. Tampa Bay sports one of the best rotations in baseball, starting with Shane McClanahan. While the right-hander posted a 12-8 record this season, he also posted a WHIP of 0.926, third in baseball and tops in the AL. McClanahan also posted an ERA of 2.54 this season, putting him inside the MLB’s top ten.
As a rotation, the Rays starters have an ERA of just 3.43 this season, third-best in the league.
With starting pitching like that, the Rays are built for the postseason.
The sleeping giants: New York Yankees, New York Mets
Some might make the case for these two teams to be in the next tier, but with how the Mets finished down the stretch, along with the questions the Yankees face going into the playoffs, it is hard to move them into the next group of contenders.
But with the talent on both rosters — along with two of the biggest payrolls in the league this year — it is easy to classify both teams as sleeping giants.
The New York Yankees win the World Series if: The bullpen steps up.
It is easy to just point at Aaron Judge and the historic season he is having and argue that as long as he sees pitches in the zone, New York has a chance to make a run. And with Giancarlo Stanton heating up — Stanton homered in three-straight games over the past week — and some of the other bats the Yankees have in the order, Judge might see more opportunities to swing away. But for the Yankees, it comes down to pitching, particularly in the bullpen. This group lost Chad Green and Michael King to season-ending injuries, and Aaron Boone is facing questions over whether Aroldis Chapman should even be on the playoff roster. Can the Yankees count on their bullpen in high-leverage situations over the next few weeks?
The New York Mets win the World Series if: Momentum is not real
In the first draft of this piece, the Mets were firmly in the next tier. But then with a chance to close out the NL East, the Mets struggled down the stretch. Back on June 1, the Mets were 10.5 games up in the East, and the thinking was the division had already been decided. Slowly, however, the Braves started to chip away, and that lead shrank to just a single game heading into a make-or-break series in Atlanta.
Which saw the Mets swept by the Braves, setting the stage for Atlanta to clinch the East.
If momentum is real, the Mets might have a problem. Yet, there is an old saying in baseball courtesy of the legendary Earl Weaver: “Momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher.” To that point, New York has the arms at the front end and in the bullpen …
But momentum could be real.
Were it not for the season put together by the Dodgers, the Astros and Braves would likely be the clear World Series favorites. Some may still have one or both teams atop their own set of tiers, and with good reason.
The Braves showed something this year that matters: Resilience. Counted out early and often in the East, Atlanta battled down the stretch and overcame the Mets in the division, and are now set up with an easier path to the Series. Plus, they have Ronald Acuna Jr. back, who was injured during their run to the title last year.
Then there are the Astros, who have perhaps the best rotation in baseball, a lineup with few holes, and experience. Yordan Alvarez leads the way, as the designated hitter is second in the majors to Aaron Judge with an Adjusted OPS+ of 186, and is second in the AL with 118 runs created. Pitching and a tough lineup tends to lead to playoff success.
The Houston Astros win the World Series if: The starting pitching holds up
The Astros have the arms at the front end, and at the back end, to make a deep run into the playoffs. Justin Verlander is posting an incredible season, leading all of baseball with an ERA of 1.75 and a WHIP of 0.829. Beyond Verlander, the Astros can call on Framber Valdez — who set a MLB record with 25-straight quality starts this season — and his 16 wins along with Luis Garcia and his 15 wins, as a potent 1-2-3 start to the rotation. If that pitching holds up in the playoffs, the Astros can certainly make a run.
The Atlanta Braves win the World Series if: Momentum is real
Consider it the inverse to the Mets’ situation. Given how the Braves finished, it is easy to point to their recent success and make a case for them. Recent history might bolster this case. Last season the Braves had the worst record entering the playoffs, but having won 12 of their last 14 games headed into the playoffs — and sporting a 36-18 record down the stretch — they entered the postseason hot. During the shortened 2020 season the Dodgers won 10 of their last 12 and won five-straight games going into the NLCS. Then in 2019 the Nationals were at one point 19-31, and on that day in May they were 10 games back in the division, much list Atlanta this year, as the Braves were 10.5 games back at the start of June.
Recent history says how you finish matters. If that holds, Atlanta might repeat.
The team everyone is chasing: Los Angeles Dodgers
This is certainly a chalky selection, but with good reason. The Dodgers are coming off one of the more impressive regular seasons in MLB history. Los Angeles won 110 games, and finished 21 games ahead of the San Diego Padres, a team that also qualified for the playoffs. When they clinched the NL West back in mid-September, it was the earliest the franchise had clinched a division or league title since moving to Los Angeles.
The Dodgers posted a run differential of +329 this season, the biggest margin in the modern era since Seattle’s +300 back in 2001.
The Los Angeles Dodgers win the World Series if: Their lineup performs to form
There are almost no holes in the Dodgers’ lineup. You’re talking about a batting order that has Cody Bellinger often in the bottom three, he of the former post-season heroics and the .310 batting average over his last 15 games. That’s the bottom. At the top? Mookie Betts, Trae Turner and Freddie Freeman kick off a dangerous lineup. Yes, pitching will be tested, but with this lineup — and their run differential this season — the Dodgers are the team everyone is chasing.