BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
The 2021 World Series Champion Atlanta Braves have staged another second half rally, overtaking the New York Mets in the final week of the season to win the National League East after trailing the Mets by 10.5 games on June 1st, and by 6.5 games as recently as August 7th. By clinching the division for the fifth straight season (and winning 100 games for the first time since 2003), Atlanta earned a first round bye, while the Mets will host the San Diego Padres for the right to play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series. The Philadelphia Phillies earned the sixth seed in the National League, and will face off against the Cardinals in St. Louis, with the winner advancing to play the Braves in the other NLDS.
The Philadelphia Phillies have a $255 million payroll for 2022, fourth highest in baseball. When a franchise invests such a significant sum in a roster, expectations run high, and Manager Joe Girardi suffered the consequences of those expectations when he was fired after a 22-29 start to the season. Girardi had managed the Yankees to their last World Series win in 2009, but he was relieved of his duties on June 3rd, replaced by Rob Thomson, who had not been a manager at the major league level. Thomson skippered the Phillies to a 65-46 record, good enough to squeak into the playoffs as the last wild card entry. The club was fifth in the NL in runs scored, and middle-of-the-pack in ERA, outscoring their opponents by 70 runs. The offense was led by lefty sluggers Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber, who combined for 64 HR’s, 46 from Schwarber to lead the National League. The push to make the playoffs was centered around J.T. Realmuto, who hit .307/.368/.590 with 14 homers and 46 RBI’s in the second half, when the Phillies were battling to earn their first postseason berth since the 2011 season. Given the presence of bat-first players such as Schwarber, Nick Castellanos and Bryce Harper, Philadelphia figured to struggle on defense. They were 10th in the league in defensive efficiency this season, and will hope to rely upon their sluggers to keep them in games.
The pitching staff put up a 3.97 ERA, just above the NL average, but is led by pitchers capable of shutting down any opponent: Right-handers Aaron Nola (11-13, 3.25 ERA) and Zack Wheeler (12-7, 2.82). With lefty Ranger Suarez and/or trade import Noah Syndergaard available, Thomson should have options to round out his rotation should the team advance beyond the Wild Card round. The bullpen is an area of concern for the club, with closer Corey Knebel out for the season with a shoulder injury. The relief corps was next to last in the NL in walk rate, leading to a 4.26 ERA, 11th in the league. The team used trade acquisition David Robertson as the closer down the stretch, and hopes to have lefty Brad Hand available to support Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado, who combined for 11 saves over 100+ innings in 2022. The Phillies primary weakness is their bullpen, and that vulnerability may well be exploited in the playoffs, making a return to the World Series a very long shot indeed.
The St. Louis Cardinals have a team filled with familiar veterans, none more recognizable than Albert Pujols, who returned to St. Louis for the final year of his career in 2022. After several seasons of declining performance, the 42-year-old Pujols has turned back the clock, hitting .270/.345/.550 with 24 homers and 68 RBI’s in his farewell campaign. Those home runs pushed him past Alex Rodriguez into fourth place all-time on the HR leader board, behind only Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth. He also passed Ruth for second place all time in lifetime RBI’s. Despite achieving those milestones, Pujols and his teammates have their sights set on another World Series title. The offense is centered around NL MVP candidates Paul Goldschmidt (.317/.404/.578 with 35 HR’s and 115 RBI’s) and Nolan Arenado (.292/.358/.533 with 30 HR’s and 102 RBI’s), who also provide Gold Glove defense at first and third. In addition to the veteran core of the team (Yadier Molina still catches Adam Wainwright), St. Louis has assimilated young prospects Lars Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donavan into the lineup, with Donavan posting a .394 OB% while starting games at seven different positions. The Cardinal offense was third in the NL in runs scored and figures to be competitive against any opponent.
Their pitching staff lacks a true ace, but the 40-year-old Wainwright is still effective, going 11-12 with a 3.71 ERA this season, joining veteran Miles Mikolas (12-13, 3.30) to provide nearly 400 innings of dependable performance for manager Oliver Marmol. Two trade acquisitions, left-handers Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery combined to go 9-5 for the Cardinals with an ERA under 3.00 in 23 total starts, and figure to be considerations for playoff starts depending on the matchups. Marmol knows he has two fire-breathing dragons in his bullpen, where Ryan Helsley (9-1, 1.25, 19 saves) and Giovanny Gallegos (3-6, 3.05, 14 saves) help shut down potential rallies. Helsley was clocked throwing 104 MPH heat during the last week of September, and he’ll likely have the ball in his hands to end games for St. Louis. Cardinal fans have already enjoyed a truly historic season thanks to Pujols, Goldschmidt and the ageless battery of Wainwright and Molina. The Redbird faithful surely believe that the only fitting ending for their great careers would find them drenched in champagne holding another World Series trophy.
The Atlanta Braves will be well rested given the luxury of their first round bye, and ready for the winner of the Philadelphia-St. Louis series in the NLDS. The defending champions, who rode savvy trade acquisitions to their title in 2021, relied primarily on their own reinforcements to win the NL East. With franchise icon Freddie Freeman departing to Los Angeles, the Braves traded several prospects to acquire Matt Olson from the rebuilding A’s before the season began, and signed the slugger to an eight-year, $168 million deal to take over at first base. During the season, Atlanta promoted Michael Harris II (.297/.339/.514 with 19 HR’s and 20 steals) to play center field, Vaughn Grissom (.291/.353/.440 to replace injured Ozzie Albies at second, and Spencer Strider (11-5, 2.67 ERA, with 202 K’s) to join the rotation. Each of the rookies contributed mightily to the Braves second half push, and Harris and Strider will likely finish in the top two for NL Rookie of the Year voting. With Austin Riley having a breakout season at the hot corner (878 OPS, 38 HR’s, 93 RBI’s) and Ronald Acuna Jr. and Dansby Swanson providing both power and defense up the middle, the Braves were second in the NL in runs scored, and led the senior circuit in home runs.
Their pitching was plenty good as well, with Strider joining returning stars Max Fried (14-7, 2.48 ERA) and Kyle Wright (21-5, 3.19) to form a triumvirate atop the rotation that combined to go 46-17 with an ERA under 3.00 for manager Brian Snitker. With 38-year-old warhorse Charlie Morton on hand to provide postseason experience (he’s gone 7-4 with a 3.35 ERA during 13 career playoff series), the Braves are formidable from every perspective. Their stellar rotation was complimented by a deep and accomplished bullpen, which helped Atlanta finish second in the NL in ERA. The closer, Kenley Jansen, might be the weakest link, though his 41 saves and 3.38 ERA are certainly respectable. Righties Jesse Chavez and Collin McHugh and lefties A.J. Minter and Dylan Lee combined to throw 242 innings with an ERA of 2.40 and 287 strikeouts. Deadline trade acquisition Raisel Iglesias added another weapon to the pen, contributing 26.1 innings of 0.34 ERA relief after being imported from the Angels. Snitker rests comfortably knowing that he has multiple options late in games to get key outs. GM Alex Anthopoulos may have gone about building this year’s version of the Braves differently than last year’s, but this edition is very capable of repeating.
The San Diego Padres have had a peculiar season to say the least. GM A.J. Preller started the 2022 campaign by learning that his franchise shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. injured his wrist in a motorcycle accident this winter. Because of the lockout, the team’s medical personnel could not communicate with Tatis Jr., and the resultant injury (which turned out to be a scaphoid fracture) healed incompletely, requiring a surgical fix that would keep Tatis Jr. from joining the club until June at the earliest. The Padres played admirably without him, and were only 2½ games back of the Dodgers in the NL West on July 1st. As the trade deadline approached, Preller went supernova, trading his top farm system assets to bring in arguably the best young hitter in baseball, Juan Soto (as well as his teammate Josh Bell) in a deal with the Nationals. In addition, Preller reeled in slugger Brandon Drury from the Reds, adding significant punch to a lineup that struggled to score runs. Preller wasn’t done, acquiring lefty closer Josh Hader, arguably the best reliever in baseball over the past five seasons in an attempt to solidify a bullpen that failed to protect leads during the first half of the season. With Tatis Jr. expected back by mid-August, the trade deadline bonanza had Friar faithful giddy with anticipation of a lineup that would feature 23-year-old superstars Soto and Tatis Jr. hitting in front of NL MVP candidate Manny Machado (.298/.366/.531 with 32 HR’s and 102 RBI’s). Their dreams would quickly be dashed, as Tatis Jr. was suspended for 80 games on August 12th for PED usage, ruling him out into early next season.
Despite that crushing blow, and the subsequent slumps endured by Soto, Bell and especially Hader (1-1, 7.31 ERA over 16 IP in San Diego), the Pads are in the postseason for only the second time in sixteen seasons. New manager Bob Melvin leaned heavily upon his excellent starting pitching staff, securing a playoff berth during the season’s final few games. The Padres finished fourth in the NL in ERA, led by excellent seasons by righties Yu Darvish (16-8, 3.10), Blake Snell (8-10, 3.38) and San Diego native Joe Musgrove (10-7, 2.93). Those three figure to get the ball for the Wild Card Series in New York, but the Padres will not be favored in either of the first two matchups given the likely presence of Max Scherzer and Jacob DeGrom atop the Mets rotation. If Hader can rediscover the form that made him an elite reliever in Milwaukee over the past five seasons, San Diego has stars like Machado and Soto, either of whom can carry a club when they are hot, to provide a measure of hope against the stacked Mets roster. A San Diego victory will likely require big moments from the other Padre hitters-Wil Myers, Drury and Jake Cronenworth come to mind- as well as stellar work from the other Padre relievers next to Hader (Luis Garcia, Robert Suarez, Nick Martinez). Anything is possible in the postseason, and three-time Manager of the Year Award winner Melvin has a reputation for getting the most out of his players, though he has never reached the World Series. The Padres will have to maximize their considerable talent base for Melvin (and Preller) to finally bring a championship to San Diego, a town that has yet to achieve a title in any sport.
The New York Mets spent most of the 2022 season leading the NL East, a lead they relinquished after being swept by the Braves the final weekend of the season. Instead of a first round bye to rest, the Mets will host the Padres in the NL Wild Card round. Manager Buck Showalter, in his first season with the Mets, is a three-time Manager of the Year Award winner, but, like his counterpart Bob Melvin, has never reached the World Series. Showalter holds the reigns of the most expensive team in baseball, a $281 collection of superstars that Mets owner Steve Cohen built with a championship in mind. Cohen splurged on free agent outfielders Mark Canha and Starling Marte, and pilfered ace Max Scherzer from the Dodgers, making him the highest paid player in the game with at $43 million per year. The lineup around Marte and Canha has largely produced, and the Mets were fourth in the NL in runs scored, led primarily by Pete Alonso, whose 40 HR’s led the team, with his 131 RBI’s setting a franchise record. Switch-hitting shortstop Francisco Lindor bounced back from a miserable first year in New York to hit .270/.339/.449 with 26 HR’s and 107 RBI’s. Jeff McNeil, the NL batting champ at .326, Brandon Nimmo and trade acquisition Dan Vogelbach each got on base at a .360 clip or better for the Mets, extending the lineup and helping to sustain rallies.
The pitching staff is fronted by the two aces, 37-year-old Scherzer (11-5, 2.29) and 34-year old DeGrom (5-4, 3.08), who figure to get the ball for the first two games of the Wild Card round against San Diego. Their contributions were limited by injury in 2022, and rotation mates Chris Bassitt (15-9, 3.42), Taijuan Walker (12-5, 3.49) and Carlos Carrasco (15-7, 3.97) all stepped up to keep the Mets in the race. The bullpen is backstopped by arguably the most dominant reliever in the playoffs, Edwin Diaz, who went 3-1 with a 1.31 ERA and 32 saves, striking out 118 in just 62 innings, proving to be all but unhittable. Diaz is set up by Seth Lugo (3-2, 3.60) and Adam Ottavino (6-3, 2.06), but Showalter will depend upon Diaz to get the most crucial outs in the playoffs.
The winner of the New York-San Diego series will have the pleasure of facing the best team in baseball: the Los Angeles Dodgers. Los Angeles set a franchise record by winning 111 games in 2022, and enter the playoffs with home field throughout the postseason, making them the odds-on favorite to win the title. They led the league in most runs scored and least runs allowed for an astounding fifth consecutive season, and their run differential of +334 is almost 100 runs better than the runner up Yankees. They have the best ERA in the league, allowing nearly 100 fewer runs than the Braves. They’ve drawn the most walks, and have the highest team OB% in the league. Their defense converts balls in play into outs at the best rate in the majors at 72.9%. Manager Dave Roberts has been blessed with a lineup full of durable, productive stars in their primes: Mookie Betts (.269/.340/.533 with 35 HR’s), Trea Turner (.298/.343/.466 with 21 HR’s and 100 RBI’s), Freddie Freeman (.325/.407/.511 with 21 HR’s and 100 RBI’s) and catcher Will Smith (24 HR’s and 87 RBI’s). They’ve survived sub-par seasons from Max Muncy and Clay Bellinger, and watched Trayce Thompson, who was released earlier this year by San Diego, develop into a slugging outfield option (.268/.364/.537 with 13 HR’s in 205 AB’s for the Dodgers).
The Dodgers also continue to get stellar pitching from their rotation, led by the ageless Clayton Kershaw (12-3, 2.28), along with by fellow lefties Julio Urias (17-7, 2.16)-who led the NL in ERA, and Tyler Anderson (15-5, 2.57). Anderson had not featured an ERA under 4.35 in any of his previous five seasons, but blossomed under the player development system in Los Angeles. Almost lost in the embarrassment of riches after missing five weeks before returning in the next to last game of the season, all Tony Gonsolin did was go 16-1 with a 2.14 ERA. If there’s an Achilles heel for the team, it might be their closer. Craig Kimbrel was removed from that role in late September, and his team leading 22 saves and 3.75 ERA would be the least dominant figures of any postseason relief ace. Fortunately, the Dodgers have options that include Evan Phillips (7-3, 1.16) and Alex Vesia (5-0, 2.19) as well as flame-throwing Brusdar Graterol (2-3, 3.14) to help hold leads their starters hand over. The Dodgers will be in the playoffs for the tenth straight year, winning the NL West in all but one of those seasons (2021, when they came up a game short of the Giants), but claiming a World Series title only in the truncated 2020 season. On paper, they have the most talented roster in the playoffs, and have exhibited a level of dominance unseen in decades with their performance this season. That won’t assure them of a championship, but they are certainly well positioned to bring another trophy to Los Angeles this fall.
Before the season, this writer forecast that the Blue Jays would beat the Dodgers in the 2022 World Series, and that outcome remains viable. Toronto’s road through the American League playoffs is thornier than the Dodgers path, but October baseball is typically fraught with unlikely heroes and dramatic upsets, so I’ll stand by that prediction.
NL Wild Card Round: New York over San Diego, St. Louis over Philadelphia
NL Division Series: Los Angeles over New York, Atlanta over St. Louis
NL Championship Series: Los Angeles over Atlanta
World Series: Toronto over Los Angeles