By: Abe Rothstein
Will the Atlanta Braves be the first repeat World Series Winner since the New York Yankees dynasty? The quest to unseat the reigning champions begins on Friday with four Wild Card matchups in the first year of the adaptation of the new format. Rather than a one game series to determine who will face either the MLB best Dodgers, Braves, Yankees, or AL best Astros, each matchup is best of three and all in one location. Let’s dive into each matchup and see if any of these teams can emerge out of the playoffs as the World Champions, much like 2019 NL wild card winners, the Washington Nationals.
Seattle Mariners (90-72) @ Toronto Blue Jays (92-70)
The Toronto Blue Jays came into the 2022 season expecting to win the AL East. While they did have a successful season by winning 92 games, it did come with turmoil which resulted in the mid-season firing of Manager Charlie Montoyo. Interim Manager John Schneider took over, and the Blue Jays have vastly improved. Following the firing of Motoyo on July 13th, the Jays finished the season 45-28.
The Seattle Mariners were able to end the longest playoff drought in all major sports this year, making it for the first time since 2001. With a farm system among the strongest in baseball, young players that have energized the team, such as superstar rookie Julio Rodriguez, a young pitching staff led by 2021 AL Cy Young winner and former Blue Jay Robbie Ray, along with major trade deadline acquisition Luis Castillo, the M’s are ready to make noise.
Offense: Toronto was propelled by their young guns as Shortstop Bo Bichette finished the season with an outstanding September, batting .403 with 7 HR and 28 RBIs in his final 28 games. Along with Bichette, 2021 AL MVP runner-up Vlad Guerrero Jr. socked 32 home runs. The Jays’ lineup is deep, featuring former WS MVP George Springer, 3B Matt Chapman, OF Teoscar Hernandez, and All-Star C Alejandro Kirk. This team was good for 4.78 runs per game, which was 4th in the Major Leagues. Limiting the long ball will be key for the Mariners, as the Jays are 7th in the MLB in home runs per game.
The Seattle Mariners, with a very young lineup, have become one of the more fun teams in all of baseball. While their excellent young pitching has been instrumental to their success, the offense must perform to have a chance in this series. Rookie sensation Julio Rodriguez is back from a short stint on the IL (back tightness) and is ready to lead his team. Major offseason acquisition Jesse Winker will miss the series as he suffers from neck tightness amidst his worst season in the major leagues .219/.344/.344. While Winker will miss time, the Mariners’ offense is also led by All-Star 1B Ty France and 3B Eugenio Suarez. The Mariners will need the offense to perform at a higher rate than their 2022 season input, as they were only able to muster 4.26 runs per game, which was good for 18th in the MLB.
Edge: Blue Jays
Seattle invested a lot into their pitching staff during the offseason by signing reigning Cy Young Robby Ray to a five year contract worth $125M. Along with Ray, they acquired All-Star SP Luis Castillo (8-6, 2.99) from the Reds in a blockbuster trade at the trade deadline to bolster their top notch rotation. Veteran Marco Gonzalez continues to eat innings in a valuable role, while young pitcher Logan Gilbert (13-6, 3.2o) and rookie George Kirby (8-5, 3.39) have helped solidify the Mariners rotation into one of the best in baseball. The Mariners’ bullpen compliments a young rotation with a mix of flamethrowers and pitchers who can paint the corners. Andres Muñoz, Diego Castillo, Paul Sewald, Penn Murfee, along with Pitching Ninja favorite Matt Brash have helped the Mariners compile a team ERA of 3.59, which is good for ninth in the league. This pitching staff and bullpen will be essential to try to stop the high powered offense of the Blue Jays.
Toronto: Much like the Mariners, the Blue Jays have heavily invested in their starting pitching. After losing Cy Young winner Robby Ray to the Mariners in free agency, the Jays quickly pivoted by signing 2021 NL Cy Young contender Kevin Gausman, former Mariner Yusei Kikuchi, and acquiring José Berrios from the Twins. Young starter Alek Manoah showed the MLB why he was drafted in the first round in 2018 by posting a 2.24 ERA. With two Cy Young caliber starters leading the playoff rotation, the Blue Jays are scary for opponents. The team will be looking for José Berrios to improve on his poor regular season output, but fortunately, the playoffs shrink the rotation needed. The Jays’ bullpen has struggled at times this year but worked to acquire RP Anthony Bass from the Marlins at the trade deadline. Bass, along with Jordan Romano, who had stepped into the closer role this year, will be essential pieces for this bullpen as they look to stop the Mariners, even though they were the 18th ranked team in terms of team ERA.
Prediction: Blue Jays win series 2-1
Tampa Bay Rays @ Cleveland Guardians
The Cleveland Guardians are the true underdog story of 2022. Originally projected to be in third place in the AL Central (arguably the weakest division in baseball), Manager Terry Francona has led the youngest team in baseball to win their division. The Guardians are a scrappy team that is hungry to make a run in the postseason. Only a few years ago, it seemed as if Cleveland was going to fully rebuild after trading away SS Francisco Lindor to the Mets and reports of possibly not re-signing All-Star 3B José Ramirez. The return for Lindor, 2B Andres Gimenez and SS Amed Rosario are both exceeding expectations. After falling just short of a championship only a few years ago, the Guardians are looking for a ring, which seems as if it is the only thing Terry Francona is missing from his successful tenure with Cleveland.
The Tampa Bay Rays are a perennial playoff team with players who do not necessarily scare you on paper. Manager Kevin Cash brought the Rays to the World Series and infamously pulled Blake Snell from the game, which wound up being costly. Cash and the Rays have been notorious for their use of analytics to manage the games, and this can lead to some questionable decisions down the road. What cannot be denied though, is the winning culture of the organization, even without big name players. 2021 rookie sensation SS Wander Franco disappointed many in his first full season in the big leagues, and after the team traded away OF Austin Meadows, the team was looking to make up for lost offense. Nonetheless, the Rays won 86 games en route to yet another playoff berth.
The Guardians, despite having the least amount of home runs in all of baseball, have proven that small ball is still effective in the major leagues. Rookie Steven Kwan has been an excellent piece for the offense as a pure hitter batting .298 with a 5.5 WAR. Kwan, along with fellow young players such as Amed Rosario and all star Andres Gimenez, have proven to help bring the team to a higher level. Even though there is not much power on the team to speak of, Josh Naylor can provide the big hits when needed (20 HRs). While the Guardians do employ the worst qualified hitter in baseball in Myles Straw, his top caliber defense makes up for it. All of this is without even mentioning former AL MVP Jose Ramirez, who continues to perform at an MVP level. Ramirez is the heart and soul of the Guardians, who continue to play complimentary baseball at times when they need it the most.
Much like their pitching, the Rays also lost contributors who have been key for their offense in years past, such as Austin Meadows, Nelson Cruz, Willy Adames and Joey Wendle, among others. In August of 2021, prospect Wander Franco was seen as the next generation player in baseball but did not meet the astronomical expectations in 2022, posting only a .277 batting average with minimal power. Yandy Diaz has been able to bring some offensive production with a .296 batting average and an absurdly high .401 on base percentage. Diaz is complimented by 2020 ALCS MVP Randy Arozarena, who hit 20 home runs on the year. This offense is not nearly on par with Rays teams in the past after finishing 21st in the MLB in runs scored. The young guns must show up for the Rays in order to beat the pitching of the Guardians.
Throughout their stretch of recent success, pitching has been at a premium for the Cleveland Guardians. From Shane Bieber to Triston Mackenzie, the starting rotation has been much better than expected for the Guardians. In all facets, young players have been making the difference for the Guardians, as the pitching staff with a 3.47 ERA (6th in MLB) has helped propel them to the top of the division. Not only are Bieber and Mackenzie performing, but young starter Cal Quantrill has drastically improved. The young rotation is backed up by a solid bullpen headlined by the second best closer in baseball (we will get to Edwin Díaz later), Emmanuel Clase. This year, Clase has been almost unhittable with his triple digit cutter with a 1.36 ERA along with his 42 saves this year. Along with Clase, former all star James Karinchak is having a bounceback year out of the bullpen, and the Rays will have to do their best to avoid the back end of the bullpen if they want to win the series.
The pitching rotation of the Rays is far different from the one you saw in the world series only three years ago. Blake Snell is now a Padre, Charlie Morton is a Brave, and Tyler Glasnow has been rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery. Without Glasnow, the Rays’ pitching has fared well. USF product SP Shane McClanahan has developed into one of the best starting pitchers in all of baseball after compiling a 12-8 record to go along with a 2.54 ERA. With McClanahan leading the rotation, Drew Rasmussen has also proven himself to be a valuable starting pitcher. With these pitchers stepping up throughout the season and with Glasnow likely to pitch in the playoffs, the Rays have a formidable rotation for playoff baseball. In the bullpen, Peter Fairbanks has also taken a large leap by posting a 1.24 ERA this season. It will be interesting to see how Kevin Cash manages his bullpen and to see if he may use an opener to start games.
Prediction: Guardians win 2-1