As the playoffs quickly move into the divisional round, the spotlight gets brighter for the eight remaining teams. In this article, we will look at some key issues facing each playoff team. Which teams will overcome these barriers and which teams will falter on baseball’s biggest stage?
We will start with a look at the American League.
- How will the Orioles adjust to the loss of Felix Bautista?
- How will the Orioles young stars perform in their playoff debuts?
The Orioles received some bad news last weekend as it was announced that Felix Bautista would miss the rest of the 2023 season and possibly next season as he undergoes Tommy John surgery.
Bautista had been out since late August but had been trying to work his way back to play again this season. Before being injured, Bautista had been the most dominant closer in baseball, compiling an 8-2 record with a 1.48 ERA, and 0.92 WHIP. He locked down 33 saves and had 110 strikeouts in 61 innings pitched, good for a rate of 16.2 SO/9 innings.
Without Bautista, the Orioles have been relying on Yennier Cano, who had an excellent season in his own right while serving as the main setup arm in Baltimore’s bullpen. He tied for the league lead in holds with 31, and also complied eight saves. However, Cano was shakier in September than he had been during the rest of the season, posting a 6.00 ERA for the month.
The Orioles will also need to rely more on the steady play of Danny Coulombe with Bautista out. Coulombe hit a rough patch toward the end of September when he registered three straight appearances allowing an earned run, but finished the regular season with 22 holds. The Orioles also deployed Tyler Wells out of the bullpen at the end of the season. Wells had a great first half as a starting pitcher but then was sent down to the minors after the All-Star break. It will be interesting to see how the Orioles use him in the playoffs.
A big reason for Baltimore’s success in 2023 was the blossoming of their young trio of stars Grayson Rodriguez, Adley Ruschman, and Gunnar Henderson, but the question remains — how will they fare with the increased pressure of the playoffs?
Well, if Rodriguez continues pitching as he did during the second half of the season, he will be an asset. After being recalled from the minors, he seemed to figure things out and adjusted his stuff to big-league hitting. Rodriguez had six quality starts and went 7-6 with a 2.58 ERA from July 17th to the end of the season.
Adley Ruschman finished his second MLB season with a .277 average, 20 home runs, 80 RBI, and a .374 OBP and looks like he will be a star for the next decade, while Henderson is the leading candidate for the AL Rookie of the Year after he hit .255 with 28 home runs, 82 RBI, and 10 steals during his debut season.
- Can the Astros once again drown out the noise from opposing fans during the playoffs?
- How will Houston’s fans react to facing former long-time Astro Carlos Correa?
The Astros have served as America’s favorite heel since allegations of their sign-stealing scheme broke in late 2019.
Major League Baseball released a report in early 2020 that confirmed the Astros stole signs from opposing catchers during both the 2017 season and postseason when they won their first World Series title.
They successfully played through outside noise and distractions during last season’s postseason and went on to win the franchise’s second World Series title.
Can Houston’s players continue to block out outside distractions in the 2023 playoffs? The Astros will be led by Yordan Alvarez, who was the American League Player of the Month in September.
He hit .293 with 97 RBI and eclipsed the 30-home run mark for the third time in his career this season. Alvarez finished with the second-best OBP of his career with a mark of .407. Astros ace Justin Verlander is leading the Houston rotation into another playoff march. The 40-year-old compiled a 7-3 record after coming over from New York.
The Astros also face the prospect of squaring off against former fan favorite Carlos Correa. Correa spent seven years in Houston, winning the AL Rookie of the Year in 2015 and twice being named an All-Star during his time as an Astro.
Will he be welcomed back with open arms of face boos from the Houston faithful?
- Will Royce Lewis continue to carry the Twins?
- Can the Twins’ starting pitching shut down the Astros?
Royce Lewis had a nice rookie season for Minnesota and hit .309 with 15 home runs, 52 RBI, and six steals in 58 games. Lewis really turned it on in September, nearly single-handedly leading the Twins to the AL Central Division title. He slashed .313/.410/.612 and hit six home runs with 23 RBI in only 18 games in September before being slowed down by a hamstring strain. Prior to the injury, Lewis became well-known for hitting four grand slams (tying the rookie record) in just 18 games.
He was activated for the playoffs and continued the power binge promptly hitting two home runs in his playoff debut. With the continued absence of Byron Buxton, who was left off of the Twins’ playoff roster, Lewis has been the main power producer for the team. The Twins will need Lewis, as well as Carlos Correa and Max Kepler, to continue manufacturing runs.
The Twins beat the Astros in four of their six meetings during the regular season, limiting Houston to only two runs in two of those victories. Sonny Gray and Louie Varland were the starting pitchers in those games.
Gray was particularly dominant in his start, going seven innings and allowing one earned run off of four hits and striking out 13. Time will tell if Gray can repeat this performance in the ALDS, but what gives the Twins hope as compared to prior seasons, is that in this postseason they have a formidable attack at the top of their rotation in Gray and Pablo Lopez. Both are talented pitchers and AL Cy Young candidates who are capable of slowing the Astros down.
- Can the Rangers closers avoid struggles?
- Who will be the designated hitter for Texas in the ALDS?
The Rangers are another team with a powerful offense, finishing the regular season second to the Braves in team batting average (.263) and total hits (1,470) and tied for third in the league in home runs with 233.
Texas had four offensive starters selected to start the All-Star game third baseman Josh Jung, catcher Jonah Heim, shortstop Corey Seager, and second baseman Marcus Semien. The Rangers may need to put up the runs to offset any potential bullpen blowups.
The Rangers traded for Aroldis Chapman during the season to bolster their bullpen, but the hard-throwing lefty was inconsistent as the season came to a close. He posted a 1-2 record and a 6.75 ERA in his final nine appearances during the month of September. Will Smith was handling the majority of closing duties before Chapman’s arrival and he was even shakier, with a 7.45 ERA during the months of August and September. The Rangers also have the option to deploy Jose Leclerc. Leclerc is more accustomed to a setup role but pitched the ninth inning more often toward the end of the regular season. The Rangers will need to iron out these issues if they hope to advance in the playoffs.
The emergence of Jonah Heim gave the Rangers the option to plug Mitch Garver into the lineup at designated hitter once he returned from injury. Garver had a nice year swinging the bat and finished with a .270 average, 19 home runs, and 50 RBI. However, in the Wild Card series against the Rays, Garver was on the bench for both games as Robbie Grossman got the start at DH. Grossman didn’t produce, going 1-9 with four strikeouts in the two games.
This leads to the obvious question — will Garver get the nod at DH in the ALDS?
We next move to the National League and begin with a look at the World Series favorites.
- Will a blister derail the Braves World Series hopes?
- Can a historic offense keep churning in the playoffs?
Max Fried is currently on track to start game two of the NLDS and Braves fans hope this remains the case. Fried missed a majority of the season with injuries before returning in August and sliding back in at the top of Atlanta’s rotation next to Spencer Strider to form a powerful duo. Fried went 8-1 with a 2.55 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 77.2 innings pitched.
Unfortunately, he was put on the 15-day IL and missed the end of the regular season with a blister on his left index finger. For what seems like such a minuscule injury, blisters can be an annoying and reoccurring problem for a pitcher, and losing Fried would be a huge blow to the rotation.
The other question facing the Braves is whether or not the offensive juggernaut of the regular season can keep rolling. Behind a historically dominant offensive season by Ronald Acuna, the Braves set a new major league record with a team slugging percentage above .500. Acuna was second in slugging percentage to Matt Olson, who slugged .604 and crushed 54 home runs with 139 RBI. The Braves also had a total of seven players eclipse the 20-home run mark.
Even if one or two of the Braves hitters slow down, they have enough firepower throughout their lineup to overcome it and they remain the World Series favorites.
- Can the Diamondbacks continue to overcome slow starts?
- Will the Arizona bullpen remain this consistent the rest of the way?
In winning the National League Wild Card Series against the Brewers, the Diamondbacks overcame a three-run deficit in game one and a two-run deficit in game two to sweep Milwaukee.
This turned out to be a historic effort as it had only happened three times previously, and the three previous teams to pull it off were all at home.
The @Dbacks are the 4th team to overcome a multi-run deficit in each of their first 2 postseason games, joining:
Each of those other 3 teams did so at home. pic.twitter.com/75Cre5yZc0
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 5, 2023
In game two, Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen allowed two runs in the first inning and labored through the beginning of the game, burning up his pitch count. Eventually, Gallen settled down, throwing a quality start and getting the win after pitching a total of six innings and allowing two runs. The Diamondbacks’ pitching rotation gets shaky after Gallen and Merrill Kelly so they will need their ace to settle in from the start. On the offensive side, Arizona will once again be the underdogs in their NLDS matchup against the Dodgers, so they come out of the games with hot bats if they hope to advance.
The other surprise that led to Arizona’s victories over the Brewers was the stellar play of their bullpen. Relief pitching has long been a thorn in the side of the Diamondbacks franchise, but it was the bullpen that delivered shutoff performances in both games.
In game one, Arizona starter Brandon Pfaadt departed quickly, allowing seven hits and three runs in only 2.2 innings of work. The Diamondbacks then trotted out a total of six bullpen arms to complete the rest of the game and they held the Brewers scoreless. In game two, Arizona’s bullpen finished the last three innings of the game, allowing a total of four hits, but no runs.
The midseason addition of Paul Sewald as closer has given the bullpen more stability and an anchor in the ninth inning. Setup arms Kevin Ginkel and Joe Mantiply will also play a major role in the NLDS. Ginkel compiled a 9-1 record with a 2.48 ERA during the regular season and then in game one against the Brewers, Ginkel struck out four across two scoreless innings. He followed that up by allowing three hits in a third of an inning but escaped without any damage. Mantiply pitched 0.2 innings in game one and walked one without allowing runs or hits.
Due to the Snakes’ lack of starting pitching depth, the bullpen will need to continue their strong play to give the Diamondbacks a chance to advance.
- How will the injury-riddled Dodgers pitching staff fare in the playoffs?
- Is this Clayton Kershaw’s last ride?
The Dodgers finished the regular season with a record of 100-62 (the third straight year over 100 wins) and found themselves in a familiar position — at the top of the NL West as they won the division for the 10th time in 11 years.
This team is stacked with veterans who have succeeded in big moments and their lineup is led by the potent bat of NL MVP hopeful Mookie Betts and the always-reliable Freddy Freeman.
However, if the playoff series they play is stretched to seven games, their pitching depth could spell doom for the Dodgers.
Here is a list of impact pitchers who are currently injured for the Dodgers:
- Walker Buehler (Tommy John surgery) 46
- Tony Gonsolin ( Tommy John surgery) 34
- Dustin May (flexor tendon surgery) 12
- Daniel Hudson (sprained knee) 59
- Blake Treinen (shoulder surgery) 36
That is a combined 187 career wins on the injured list. The Dodgers are also without Julio Urias, who is facing legal issues stemming from a domestic violence incident and is currently ineligible to play as he is on administrative leave.
That’s a total of five starting pitchers and two key relievers that Los Angeles is missing as they begin the playoffs.
Luckily for Los Angeles, Clayton Kershaw is one of the Dodgers remaining healthy starters. The veteran has famously struggled at times during the postseason but brings playoff experience and leadership to the staff. He’s made a staggering 31 starts in the postseason compiling a career record of 13-12 with a 4.22 ERA.
Kershaw went 13-5 this season with a 2.46 ERA and 1.06 WHIP and pitched his most innings since the 2019 season, so he’s shown he still has something left in the tank. But as he enters free agency after the season ends and with arguably nothing else to prove in his career, will this be the last postseason to feature the future Hall-of-Famer?
- Will the Phillies avenge their World Series loss from last season?
- How will the bullpen hierarchy shake out during the playoffs?
The Phillies slipped into the playoffs last season as a Wild Card and stormed all the way to the World Series before eventually falling to the Astros in a six-game series. This season, they finished second in the NL East with a record of 90-72 and clinched the top Wild Card spot. They disposed of the Marlins easily, beating Miami with a combined score of 11-2.
As they move into the NLDS against the Braves, they will try to carry that same swagger that is embodied by the play of their superstar Bryce Harper. But will that be enough to move through to the NLCS?
The other question the Phillies have to deal with is who gets the ball in the ninth inning with the game on the line?
During the regular season, Craig Kimbrel led the team with 23 saves, followed by Jose Alvarado with 10 saves, Gregory Soto in third place with three saves, and Seranthony Dominguez in fourth place, tied with a few others with two saves.