2022 MLB playoffs: ranking the title contenders from first to worst | MLB

The MLB postseason begins on Friday with the start of the three-game Wild Card series. Thanks to an expanded playoff format, this year’s field features both familiar faces and intriguing newcomers. Below we rank every playoff team by their likelihood of winning the 2022 World Series.

1) Los Angeles Dodgers

Strengths: Where to start? The Dodgers set a franchise record by winning 111 games in the regular season (the fourth-most by any franchise in MLB history). With Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Freddie Freeman, they may well have the best offense in baseball. Plus, their starting pitchers have the best ERA.

Weaknesses: Can future Hall of Fame pitcher Clayton Kershaw reverse his habit of slumping in the postseason? Can manager Dave Roberts push the right buttons with a bullpen that is still in flux after the demotion of closer Craig Kimbrel? Will their Wild Card bye and home-field advantage pay off against stiff National League competition? Stay tuned.

Key player: Mookie Betts, OF. There are plenty of Dodgers who could earn a spot on this list, but we’ll go with the one most likely to score the go-ahead run and make the game-saving catch in two halves of the same inning.

2) Houston Astros

Strengths: By far the best team in the American League, the Astros have great starting pitching and offense, and a bullpen full of relievers who get strikeouts. Plus, the earliest they could face the Dodgers would be the World Series. Hopefully, they’re on the up-and-up this time around.

Weaknesses: Theoretically they should have one, right? Ryan Pressly is a quality reliever but not really the kind of intimidator that you would prefer in a must-win playoff game. Second baseman Yuli Gurriel has had a down year, beating just .242, with eight home runs. Still, these Astros look like the AL favorites.

Key player: Justin Verlander, SP. While Albert Pujols received the media attention, he may not even have put up the season’s best performance by a nearly retired veteran. At age 39, Verlander put up an eye-popping 1.75 ERA.

3) New York Yankees

Strengths: You might not have noticed given the lack of media attention, but this Yankees team can hit an awful lot of home runs. Even when opposing pitchers were working around Aaron Judge to avoid having their names attached to baseball history, the rest of the lineup was designed to drive him in.

Weaknesses: Nominal ace Gerrit Cole has been battling a severe gopherball problem all season long and their bullpen has been beyond untrustworthy. Yankees fans don’t trust manager Aaron Boone to pull the right levers, but when do they ever trust their skipper?

Key player: Aaron Judge, OF. It’s hard not to pick the dude who just set the all-time American League home record and just barely missed out on the triple crown, especially now that teams won’t be as motivated to pitch around him.

4) Atlanta Braves

Michael Harris II has had a superb rookie campaign for the Braves
Michael Harris II has had a superb rookie campaign for the Braves. Photograph: Brett Davis/AP

Strengths: The Braves were basically the Yankees of the National League, hitting the most home runs there, and pulled off the biggest comeback of the regular season by stealing the NL East away from the Mets. If it weren’t for the 111-game-winning Dodgers also being a NL team, one could argue that the Braves would deserve the number one slot here. They’ve got a heap of very good young players on long contracts too, so last year’s World Series could be the start of a dynasty.

Weaknesses: Rookie ace pitcher Spencer Strider may not be available to start the postseason, which could leave the rest of the starting staff treading water until his return. In addition, those homer-happy hitters strike out too often (in 24.6% of their at-bats), a tendency opposing pitchers will look to exploit.

Key player: Michael Harris II, OF. It’s always fun when a player joins the team they rooted for as a kid. It’s an even better story when they then put together a Rookie of the Year-caliber campaign.

5) St. Louis Cardinals

Strengths: As much as you want to count them out, the Cardinals have that pesky Devil Magic on their side. There are also more tangible reasons: first baseman Paul Goldschmidt has a good shot at being NL MVP and third baseman Nolan Arenado did his part by putting together a 103 RBI season.

Weaknesses: The Cardinals pitchers don’t strike out a lot of batters – the second-fewest per nine innings in all of MLB during the regular season – which is usually not great during the playoffs. No matter how good St Louis’ defense is, you add additional uncertainty into the game the more you allow your opponents to make contact.

Key player: Albert Pujols, 1B/DH. Yes, Aaron Judge was given the many, many, many “live look-ins” on ESPN, but for those of us baseball fans of a certain age, Pujols’ quest for 700 home runs (and beyond) was the true feel-good story of the year.

6) Cleveland Guardians

Strengths: The Guardians just don’t strike out. Like that pesky Kansas City Royals team that won it all in 2015, they get on base and make things happen. It also doesn’t hurt that they have a HOF manager who has made three trips to the World Series in Terry Francona, even if it sounds like he’s getting close to retirement.

Weaknesses: Yes, the Guardians won their division, but did you see the AL Central? Plus, they only hit 127 home runs in the regular season, the second-worst total in the majors. That’s certainly not the strategy that tends to lead to postseason success.

Key player: Emmanuel Clase, PR. The best closer in the playoffs might not be a name you recognize: Clase had a phenomenal season picking up 42 saves and 77 strikeouts in 72.2 innings pitched.

7) New York Mets

The Mets have the best one-two punch in the majors with Jacob deGrom (left) and Max Scherzer
The Mets have the best one-two punch in the majors with Jacob deGrom (left) and Max Scherzer. Photograph: Brad Penner/USA Today Sports

Strengths: They have a dazzling one-two punch at the top of their starting rotation in Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom, plus a dominant closer in Edwin Diaz. There is a solid argument that the Mets were the second-best NL team on paper.

Weaknesses: Games aren’t played on paper, and their chances at making the World Series took a hit when they lost control of the division by being swept by Atlanta at the end of the season. Because of this, they now face a tough Padres team in the Wild Card round and then the Dodgers and then possibly the Braves again.

Key player: Jacob deGrom, SP. Once again, deGrom proved himself to be the most unhittable pitcher in baseball when healthy. Also once again, he wasn’t always as durable as New York would have preferred, pitching just 64.1 innings. He also ended the season on a mini-slump after struggling with blister problems.

8) San Diego Padres

Strengths: Yu Darvish and Blake Snell shine at the top of the rotation. If Juan Soto starts hitting for extra bases again (his isolated power is down 100 points since being traded by the Washington Nationals) he’s the type of hitter who can earn series MVP honors.

Weaknesses: First of all, it’s bad news when your franchise player is serving an 80-game suspension for using banned substances: this Padres would look a lot better if Fernando Tatis Jr was still in the lineup. They also have a tough road to the World Series, having to go through the Mets, Dodgers and then possibly the Braves.

Key player: Josh Hader, PR. The Padres brought in the controversial Hader to act as their closer and he had a rocky start in San Diego. He had, however, a 0.87 ERA in September. If he can keep that up in the playoffs, the trade will have been worth it, at least from a statistical standpoint.

9) Toronto Blue Jays

Strengths: The Blue Jays have some serious pop in their lineup thanks to the likes of Vlad Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette. Young Alex Manoah has also emerged as one of the best starters in the game, he has a 1.08 ERA in his last eight outings and has dropped Kevin Gausman into the No 2 starter slot.

Weaknesses: Outside Manoah and Gausman, the starting rotation has some serious question marks. That should be enough to get them through a three-game Wild Card series against the Seattle Mariners but would become a larger concern as the series expand afterward.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr has the power to finish any game
Vladimir Guerrero Jr has the power to change a game. Photograph: Nathan Denette/AP

Key player: Vlad Guerrero Jr, 1B/DH. The second-generation star had a down year by his standards, but that still rose to 32 home runs and 97 RBI. Don’t flip the channel when he comes to bat in close games.

10) Seattle Mariners

Strengths: The best story in baseball has to be worth something, right? It’s been 21 years since the last time the Mariners made the postseason. They were sixth in the majors in home runs during the second half of the season despite being only 29th in batting average. I suppose, when you’re playing with house money, it doesn’t hurt to gamble with your swings like that.

Weaknesses: Not only do the Mariners, as a team, have little playoff experience, this is a very young team. The postseason is usually the time when experience gets rewarded, which might be doubly true for a team not used to the media spotlight. Also, again, they had the second-to-worst batting average in the regular season.

Key player: Julio Rodriguez, OF. An easy pick here. If Seattle makes any noise in the postseason, it will be thanks to Rodríguez, who had 28 home runs, 75 RBI and 25 stolen bases in his rookie campaign.

11) Philadelphia Phillies

Strengths: Aaron Nola is heading into the postseason having flirted with a no-hitter in his final start, making him a solid No 2 after Zach Wheeler. Kyle Schwarber is no Aaron Judge, but he still hit the most home runs in the National League with a more modest 46, making him the key cog in the heart of a lineup that includes JT Realmuto and Bryce Harper.

Weaknesses: They might have the worst defense of all the remaining postseason teams and are limping into the playoffs. Plus they have a lot of uncertainty in their bullpen so everything needs to go right for Philadelphia for them to make a deep run.

Key player: JT Realmuto, C. Realmuto is the best catcher in the game and thus in the playoffs. You don’t often see a signal-caller lead his team in RBI, as he did this season with 82.

12) Tampa Bay Rays

Strengths: The Rays’ biggest strength this year was that the Boston Red Sox were utterly dismal and that MLB playoffs expanded their format. Still, they have a solid young pitching staff and just enough offensive firepower to be a tough out this postseason if nothing else.

Weaknesses: The Rays are the ultimate Moneyball team, for better or worse. This team was perfectly constructed to outperform expectations in the regular season and just squeak into the playoffs. Is that going to be enough for them to compete with the superior talents of teams built to actually win the whole thing? Most likely not.

Key player: Shane McClanahan, SP. The left-handed hurler was a Cy Young candidate for much of the season, racking up 194 strikeouts on the year. The Rays don’t make it this far without him.