Image credit: Justin Verlander (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
The 2023 postseason begins Tuesday, and there are storylines aplenty.
Here are five key ones to watch as the Wild Card Series get underway.
Here are seven prospects that could make an impact this October.
Revenge of the Small Markets
Dating back to 1992, 27 of the last 30 World Series champions have ranked in the top half of Opening Day payroll. The only team with a bottom-10 payroll to win a World Series in that time was the 2003 Marlins. While not all teams that spend money are successful, the World Series champion almost always emerges from the pool of teams that do spend.
There are multiple candidates to rewrite that script this postseason. The Orioles, owners of the best record in the American League, ranked 29th in Opening Day payroll this year. The Rays, winners of 99 games, ranked 28th. The Brewers, D-backs and Marlins ranked 20th, 21st and 23rd respectively. The Twins ranked 17th, meaning half of the 12-team postseason this year field ranked in the bottom half of Opening Day payroll.
There will be challenges. The Orioles are the only one of those teams who avoid playing in a Wild Card Series. Traditional favorites like the Braves, Dodgers and Astros, all of whom ranked in the top half of payroll this year, earned byes to the Division Series and will be well-rested compared to their opponents.
History says it’s unlikely one of the low-payroll upstarts will lift the Commissioner’s Trophy when all is said and done, but with how many of them are in this year’s playoff field, the odds are greater than they have been in recent seasons.
Starting Pitching, Survivor Style
The list of starting pitchers either out or questionable at the start of the postseason could make up an All-Star Game staff: Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Max Fried, Shane McClanahan, Sandy Alcantara, Charlie Morton, Julio Urias, Brandon Woodruff, Jon Gray, Tony Gonsolin and Eury Perez, for starters. That’s to say nothing of talented youngsters Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen, Luis Garcia and Dustin May, all of whom have missed most of the season.
Given how many starters will either miss series or be trying to shake rust off as they return, simply having a full, healthy rotation may be an even greater advantage than it normally is.
To that end, the Blue Jays are well-positioned with Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi giving them arguably the best rotation one through four in the playoff field. The Twins are fully healthy with Pablo Lopez, Sonny Gray, Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober, plus Kenta Maeda available if needed. The defending champion Astros are in decent shape with Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and J.P. France, although Javier has struggled this season and France is a 28-year-old rookie who has never made a postseason start. The defending NL champion Phillies are the lone NL team with a full, healthy rotation with Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Ranger Suarez and Taijuan Walker good to go, plus midseason callup Cristopher Sanchez ready in reserve.
One team to watch is the Orioles, whose rotation has quickly transformed from a liability into a strength. Kyle Bradish had the lowest ERA in the American League after the all-star break (2.34) and Grayson Rodriguez had the third-lowest (2.58). Even Dean Kremer ranked seventh among AL pitchers in ERA after the break (3.25), and John Means has a 2.44 ERA in four starts since returning from Tommy John surgery. After a rocky August that sent his ERA north of 5.00, Kyle Gibson rebounded with a 2.45 ERA in September.
The Orioles have five legitimate starting pitching options for the postseason, something few would have imagined at the start of the year. None have ever started a postseason game, and only Gibson has ever appeared in the postseason with three relief appearances spread over four seasons. But the Orioles have more healthy bodies in their rotation than any other team in the playoffs, and that alone has a chance to be a decisive advantage.
Will the Twins Finally Win?
The Twins have lost 18 straight postseason games dating back to 2004. They have not won a postseason series since 2002, a remarkable fact considering they’ve made the postseason eight times since then. The players have changed. The managers have changed. The front offices have changed. Even the stadium has changed. But the result has always been the same for the Twins in October.
Will this finally be the year that ends? The Twins have a few things going in their favor in their Wild Card Series against the Blue Jays. For one, they had the third-best record in the American League after the all-star break behind only the Orioles and Rays. Second, the entire series will be played at Target Field, where the Twins went 47-34 this year at home compared to 40-41 on the road. And third, they are getting healthy with Royce Lewis and Carlos Correa on the wild card roster after missing the end of the season with injuries.
On the flip side, the Blue Jays had more wins than the Twins this year while playing in a tougher division. They were one of the AL’s best teams on the road, going 46-35 away from Rogers Centre. And they are one of the few teams who can match the Twins top-of-the-rotation duo of Lopez and Gray with Gausman and Berrios.
One key matchup to watch: the Twins struck out 1,654 times this season, the most of any team in MLB. The Blue Jays pitching staff, meanwhile, finished second in MLB with 1,528 strikeouts.
The Astros Back-To-Back Ambitions
There has not been a repeat World Series champion since the Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000. The Astros will be the latest team to try and end that drought.
The Astros, of course, are old hats at this by now. They’ve reached four of the last six World Series and won twice, although their 2017 title is tainted by their sign-stealing scandal.
This isn’t the same dominant Astros team as in years past. Their 90 wins this season were their fewest in a full season since 2016, the last time they missed the playoffs. They didn’t win the American League West title until the final day of the regular season and only had the opportunity because the Rangers squandered it by dropping three of four to the Mariners to finish the year. Less than two weeks ago, the Astros were swept at home by the last-place Royals, which came a week after dropping four of six to the Royals and AL-worst Athletics.
That said, they’re still the Astros. Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker are healthy and mashing. Eleven different players reached double-digit home runs this season. Verlander has pitched like an ace since being acquired at the trade deadline. Valdez as good of a No. 2 starter as any in the postseason field. Overall, they ranked fifth in the majors in runs scored and eighth in ERA.
Winning the division title and getting a bye through a Wild Card Series was a big first step in their title defense. Until someone knocks them off, the road to the World Series still goes through Houston.
Bruce Bochy’s Chance At History
Bruce Bochy’s place in history is secure. He’s won three World Series titles as a manager, ranks 10th all-time with 2,093 wins and will be easily inducted into the Hall of Fame when the time comes.
However, he still has a chance to add one more accomplishment to his resume. Bochy won his three World Series with the Giants in 2010, 2012 and 2014. If he can lead the Rangers to a World Series title, he will become just the third manager to win a World Series in both leagues.
The only other managers to accomplish the feat are Sparky Anderson (1975-76 Reds, 1984 Tigers) and Tony La Russa (1989 Athletics, 2006 and 2011 Cardinals).
Bochy, who also led Padres to a World Series in 1998, and can also become just the third manager to take three different teams to a World Series. The only other managers to do it are Bill McKechnie (1925 Pirates, 1928 Cardinals, 1939-40 Reds) and Dick Williams (1967 Red Sox, 1972-73 Athletics, 1984 Padres).