Braves among teams in playoff battles

Matt Olson trots around the bases after a home run against Pittsburgh on Aug. 24. The blast helped the Braves keep pace with the Mets in the NL East race. // Photo courtesy of Keith Srakocic Associated Press

As the lockout-delayed 2022 MLB regular season enters its last month, baseball fans are getting closer to see the new, 12-team playoff format resulting from CBA discussions. 

The division winners with the two best records get a bye while the third division winner and three wild card teams are pitted against each other. 

Once the playoffs proceed past the wildcard round, the format remains the same as years past. 

This historical playoff race starts in the NL East, where the division-leading New York Mets boast slugger first baseman Pete Alonso, ace pitching tandem Max Scherzer and Jacob DeGrom, a top closer in baseball in Edwin Diaz, and a returned-to-form star shortstop in Francisco Lindor. 

However, the bullpen gap between Scherzer/DeGrom and Diaz is being rapidly thinned out due to injuries just as the hometown Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies are riding
hot streaks.

The Braves roared back into the playoff picture in June, winning 14 consecutive games and hitting the lights out to the tune of 35 homers over that span. Superstar third baseman Austin Riley has put together an incredible season, aided by the likes of outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., first baseman Matt Olson and young star center fielder Michael Harris, who has provided incredible defense and baserunning all while hitting north of .280 with 12 home runs. 

That being said, inconsistent hitting since their hot streak, pitching inconsistency from Charlie Morton and a laundry list of injuries to 2021 World Series contributors could damage their standing down the line. If they can overcome those problems, they can steal the division crown from the Mets. 

Unfortunately for Atlanta, the Phillies aren’t going anywhere, despite reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper being sidelined. 

Thanks to third baseman Alec Bohm, Philadelphia’s defense has taken leaps forward while power-hitting outfielder Kyle Schwarber continues to carry the offense. An improved defense, well-built bullpen and solid — albeit streaky — offense make the 2022 Phillies a likely candidate to break a ten-year playoff drought. 

Out in the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals are in the driver’s seat to be the division winner without a bye, even with an elite infield of MVP candidate first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, rock-solid second baseman Tommy Edman and superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado. Furthermore, designated hitter Albert Pujols’ return to St. Louis, as he chases 700 career home runs, has been a subplot for their season. 

The NL West has two drastically different types of playoff contenders: the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres. LA has the best record in the NL because of stars like outfielder Mookie Betts, shortstop Trea Turner and the legendary former Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, along with an elite bullpen boasting a league leading ERA of 2.84 and .211 opposing batting average through Aug. 23. 

The Padres saw that collection of talent and attempted to match it, adding a young superstar in outfielder Juan Soto, former All-Star first baseman Josh Bell and all-around third baseman Brandon Drury to a lineup with superstar infielder Manny Machado and solid second baseman Jake Cronenworth. However, the Padres have gone 6–10 since the deadline, their additions have underwhelmed and star outfielder Fernando Tatis Jr. won’t suit up in 2022 due to suspension. This team’s hold on a playoff spot is far from secure. 

Moving over to the American League, the AL playoff race is even tighter with only a few games separating the wild card contenders. 

In the AL East, the Yankees were playing at a historically good level for most of the season. 

Since the start of August though, even MVP contending outfielder Aaron Judge has not been able to save them from their offensive slump and pitching woes. They have a talented bullpen and the bats have been uncharacteristically cold, but they need to get right fast with the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays hot on their tail. 

The Rays’ strong pitching rotation and bullpen, led by Cy Young candidate Sandy Alcántara, and star shortstop Wander Franco’s return from injury will be impactful, but they suffer from overall mediocrity. 

They’ll need to contend with the Toronto Blue Jays, who have weathered down seasons from elite sluggers first baseman Vlad Guerrero Jr. and shortstop Bo Bichette with the contributions of outfielder George Springer, breakout catcher Alejandro Kirk and a solid bullpen. 

Both teams have to watch out for the Baltimore Orioles, who sit only a couple games out of a wild card spot led by AL ROY contender catcher Adley Rutschman. 

The AL Central race deserves just as much attention since the Cleveland Guardians, Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox are all fighting for the division crown. Of these three teams, the Guardians have the best record, led by AL MVP contender third baseman José Ramírez, with a dynamic pitching duo in former Cy Young winner Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie supported by a deep bullpen. However, Cleveland’s home run production is below average while the White Sox and Twins are only a couple games back. Assuming health, the White Sox should be able to count on offensive production from shortstop Tim Anderson, outfielder Luis Robert and former AL MVP first baseman José Abreu. The Twins are strong too, with a slugging trio of outfielder Byron Buxton, shortstop Carlos Correa and infielder Luis Arráez. 

Finally, the AL West is a tale of two powerhouses in the Houston Astros and the Seattle Mariners. Outfielder Yordan Álvarez leads the Astros at the plate. His 31 home runs and 77 RBIs, combined with his .400 on-base percentage are the centerpiece of a roster flush with talent, including star second baseman José Altuve, quality third baseman Alex Bregman, and Álvarez’s All-Star outfield partner, Kyle Tucker. They have created distance between themselves and potentially the first Seattle playoff team in 20 years. AL ROY frontrunner outfielder Julio Rodríguez, All-Star first baseman Ty France and a top-of-line pitching rotation and bullpen bolstered by ace pitcher Luis Castillo bolster the lineup, but the Mariners need consistency to make history and break the streak.

Even though the official seeds and matchups haven’t been decided yet, it is shaping up to be an extremely entertaining postseason come October. There are juggernauts in both leagues, but the month of September should cut pretenders out from the field and leave teams with upset potential.