The postseason is finally here, and not a moment too season. After an 162-game marathon that featured plenty of twists and turns, the calendar has flipped to October and MLB’s Wild Card round is set to get underway. A quick primer for those who forgot: MLB expanded the postseason last year, which means that the lowest-seeded division winner welcomes the lowest-seeded of three Wild Card teams to their ballpark for a three-game series — while the top Wild Card team invites the No. 2 Wild Card team to their ballpark for a three-game series.
This year, the matchups are:
All four series will begin on Tuesday, October 4. While we wait, though, let’s break down what we might expect from each of these series — with a look at the most important X-factor for all eight teams.
Toronto Blue Jays
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
While Vlad netted his third straight All-Star selection this season, it was a down year for him overall, as he hit fewer home runs than last year and had a batting average that was 10 points lower than his ‘22 mark. Still, the slugger ranks in the the 93rd percentage in xWOBA, the 95th in expected batting average and the 91st in average exit velocity, so that thump hasn’t left his bat. He’s disappeared in both of his trips to the Wild Card series (he’s a combined 2-for-15 in his career in the postseason), but will have a chance to rewrite the story of his season with a strong October showing.
Buxton, who has been on the injured list since Aug. 1 with a knee injury, recently told La Velle E. Neal III of the Minnesota Star Tribune that he’s working to join the team’s roster for the Wild Card series. Buxton had been playing solely at designated hitter prior to going on the IL, but told Neal that he’ll work out this weekend at Target Field to prove that he can play the field in the postseason. If Buxton is able to play in the Wild Card series (and play center to boot), then he’ll provide a huge boost for a Twins lineup that will also get Royce Lewis and Carlos Correa back from the injured list as well.
While there’s some serious swing-and-miss in Buxton’s bat (he struck out 109 times in 85 games and is in the 8th percentile in strikeout rate), when he’s on, he has the pop (90% barrel rate) and speed (95th percentile) to impact a game in a way few can; now it’s just a matter of seeing if he’ll be able to make it on the field. Minnesota’s rotation is as deep as anyone’s, and if they get prime, healthy Buxton this week, look out.
An All-Star who looked like the AL Rookie of the Year before he got hurt, Jung slugged 23 home runs in the regular season and is among the league’s best at making solid contract (98th percentile in sweet-spot rate). The Rangers limped into the postseason and have a shaky bullpen and banged-up rotation, so they’ll take whatever offense they can get from postseason rookies Jung and Adolis Garcia. Jung struggled against the Rays in the regular season, as he went 4-for-24 with a home run in six games against Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay Rays
Last year a knee injury moved Elfin to the bullpen during the Phillies’ march to the World Series, where he allowed four runs in 10.2 innings while also picking up a save. Now he’s healthy and entering the postseason as the Rays’ de facto co-ace after an excellent regular season (16-8, 3.50 ERA, 1.02 WHIP). With starters Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs all on the shelf for the rest of the season, Eflin will need to set a tone for the Rays in Game 1. He’s entering the postseason on the back of a tough last month, as he recorded a 4.00 ERA in five September starts. He allowed seven runs in four innings in his only career appearance against the Rangers.
Although Pham only played 48 games with the D-backs, his 32 RBIs with Arizona nearly tied the 36 runs he drove in during his 78-game tenure with the Mets earlier in the season — a testament to his ability to generate big plays. Pham’s played both corner outfield sports with the D-backs and brings some bottom-of-the-order power to a lineup that’s a bit top-heavy — things fall off a cliff after Corbin Carroll, Ketel Marte and Christian Walker. Pham faced off against the Phillies four times this year while with the Mets, going 4-for-13 (.231) with an RBI. He’s a career .352 hitter in the postseason with three home runs.
Last year, the Phillies shored up their outfield defense with their mid-season trade for Brandon Marsh. This year it’s been through the promotion of Rojas, who has been worth six Outs Above Average this season and 2.2 bWAR despite not debuting until July. Oh yeah, and he had the walk-off hit to send the Phillies to the postseason.
With Rojas in center, the Phillies will likely have Nick Castellanos in right and then toggle between Marsh and Kyle Schwarber in left while putting Bryce Harper at first. Every year, it seems like there’s some impact rookie who makes an impression in the postseason, and Rojas has a chance to be that rookie this year.
Arraez became the first player to win a batting title in both leagues since 1901, finishing the regular season with a .354 average. He had an average above .400 as late as June 24, but has only had one at-bat since Sept. 24 after he twisted his ankle on a ball during batting practice. He was hitting for more power prior to getting injured (he had five home runs in September) and finished the year with a 7.8% whiff rate with just 34 strikeouts. He can play three different positions, and hit .455 in the ALDS for the Twins in 2019. If Miami has any hope of springing an upset against Philly, Arraez is going to need to be the engine atop a thin lineup.
It seems weird to say a former MVP is underrated, but I think Yelich has fallen into that category. After bottoming out with a .205 batting average in the truncated 2020 season, Yelich has gotten better over the past couple years, with his .277 average this year serving as his best mark since his 2019 MVP season.
While he missed 10 days at the end of the month with a back injury, Yelich is as healthy as he’s been in a while. He’s hitting for more power (19 home runs) and is running more than ever (27 steals), two things that should help him take over in the Wild Card series — and be the key factor for a Milwaukee team that just needs a little run support behind Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta.