MLB’s greatest postseason ever? New playoff format offers wild best-of-three first-round series

The Toronto Blue Jays celebrate clinching a playoff spot after the win against the Boston Red Sox at Rogers Centre on September 30

The bracket is set and the new expanded MLB playoffs are ready for their first run, with 12 teams vying to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy in what could become the greatest postseason in baseball history.

The reformatted playoffs not only rewards the top two teams in each league with first-round byes – the National League’s Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, as well as the American League’s Houston Astros and New York Yankees – but it also offers the same three-game wildcard series that proved so popular with fans at the end of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Perhaps best of all, the World Series picture includes an 111-win team, the Dodgers, and three other 100-win clubs: the Astros, Braves and New York Mets. So even if an underdog sneaks through to the Divisional round, several of the best regular-season clubs in recent memory will still be around to play for the pennant.

As a result of the strike-delayed start to the season, the World Series will finish in November – with Game 7 set for November 5, which would be the latest date an MLB game has ever been played.

Here, Sportsmail looks at why each team can – and can’t – dream of World Series glory. Teams are ranked in order of their playoff seedings.

The Toronto Blue Jays celebrate clinching a playoff spot after the win against the Boston Red Sox at Rogers Centre on September 30

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Jordan Romano (68) and catcher Danny Jansen (9) celebrate the win against the Boston Red Sox at Rogers Centre

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Jordan Romano (68) and catcher Danny Jansen (9) celebrate the win against the Boston Red Sox at Rogers Centre

hiladelphia Phillies' Matt Vierling, left, and Alec Bohm celebrate after Vierling hit a game-winning RBI-single against Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Adam Cimber during the 10th inning of a baseball game, Wednesday

hiladelphia Phillies’ Matt Vierling, left, and Alec Bohm celebrate after Vierling hit a game-winning RBI-single against Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Adam Cimber during the 10th inning of a baseball game, Wednesday

AMERICAN LEAGUE

1. HOUSTON ASTROS (106-56, won AL West)

Why they’ll win it all: Is it possible to underrate a 106-win team? As the most hated team in the sport it is hard to find people willing to give them too much credit, but this is a winning machine and – by virtue of a relatively easy path to the World Series – could well be the favourite. Only the Dodgers allowed fewer runs this season than the Astros, who have six excellent starters battling for four spots in the rotation. The lineup has recovered from the loss of Carlos Correa and George Springer, mostly thanks to a monster year from Yordan Alvarez, and put up a fourth 100-win season in the last six years.

Why they’ll fall short: The bottom of the lineup remains a concern. Yuli Gurriel and Martin Maldonado have been two of the easiest outs in baseball this year and there’s very little help coming from the bench, as the mid-season acquisition of Trey Mancini did not pan out as Houston had hoped. That said, if these are your team’s only concerns heading into October, you’re in a pretty good spot.

Houston Astros players celebrate in the clubhouse after clinching the AL West title after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays during a baseball game Monday, September 19

Houston Astros players celebrate in the clubhouse after clinching the AL West title after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays during a baseball game Monday, September 19

Aaron Judge hit an AL-record 62 home runs this season, but a World Series ring would top that

Aaron Judge hit an AL-record 62 home runs this season, but a World Series ring would top that

2. NEW YORK YANKEES (99-63, won AL East)

Why they’ll win it all: You may have heard, but Aaron Judge hit 62 home runs this season. Sixty-two! His second half statistics alone (29 home runs in 68 games, batting .349 with a 1.286 OPS) are reason enough to fear the Yankees, and Giancarlo Stanton has found his power stroke at the right time, too. The rotation is improving by the day with Luis Severino back to join Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes and Jameson Taillon, and this is still one of the best bullpens in baseball – even if Aroldis Chapman makes it onto the postseason roster.

Why they’ll fall short: The world champion 2000 Yankees will tell you exactly how little regular-season momentum counts for in the playoffs, but the fact remains that this year’s team was a .500 ballclub after the All-Star Break, falling shy of 100 wins when in June they looked as though they might be headed for all-time records. Judge’s OPS in the second half was double the rest of the roster combined, and that has to change if the Yankees are to end their 13-year title drought.

3. CLEVELAND GUARDIANS (92-70, won AL Central)

Why they’ll win it all: The youngest team in baseball has a certain magic about it that’s been irresistible all season. Manager Terry Francona is doing his best to bring back the 1980s with hit-and-runs, speed on the bases and – gasp – contact hitting. They had the fewest strikeouts of any lineup in baseball, and ground opponents down with their relentless approach.

Why they’ll fall short: Of course, this isn’t actually the 1980s anymore. Home runs are the order of the day, and Cleveland hit only 127 of them as a team in the regular season – second-last in front of only the lowly Detroit Tigers. Facing multiple high-velocity arms in a postseason series will seriously test their ability to string enough hits together if they aren’t clearing the fence.

The Cleveland Guardians celebrate a win over the Kansas City Royals at Progressive Field

The Cleveland Guardians celebrate a win over the Kansas City Royals at Progressive Field

Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and teammates celebrate clinching a wild-card playoff berth, after defeating the Boston Red Sox in a baseball game Friday, September 30

Toronto Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and teammates celebrate clinching a wild-card playoff berth, after defeating the Boston Red Sox in a baseball game Friday, September 30 

4. TORONTO BLUE JAYS (92-70, 2nd in AL East)

Why they’ll win it all: The Blue Jays lineup is pounding the baseball again, and the team pegged by many as the pre-season favourites for the AL pennant may just be peaking at the right time. They finished the season on a 22-11 run, and with the roof shut at Rogers Centre can claim the most raucous home support in baseball. That will be even more crucial this year with wildcard rounds being played entirely at the stadium of the higher-seeded team.

Why they’ll fall short: This still feels like a Blue Jays team playing to their floor rather than their ceiling. Perhaps the bright lights of October will help them raise their game, but they were expected to lay waste to pitching staffs across the sport this season and never quite got there, resulting in manager Charlie Montoyo being fired in July and replaced by interim John Schneider. They played .622 baseball under Schneider in his first head coach role, but can he replicate that in the playoffs?

5. SEATTLE MARINERS (90-72, 2nd in AL West)

Why they’ll win it all: What do they have to lose? Ending the longest active postseason drought in North American professional sports earns you quite a lot of credit, and there are no playoff scars to hold them back. There is more than enough talent here to make a serious run, including a rotation led by Robbie Ray and Luis Castillo, plus resurgent right fielder Mitch Haniger and the five-tool force of nature that is runaway AL Rookie of the Year favourite Julio Rodriguez.

Why they’ll fall short: The other side of the coin to a lack of playoff baggage is a ballclub extremely experienced in October. Only nine members of the Mariners’ 25-man roster have been to the postseason, and among position players the problem is particularly stark. Carlos Santana leads the way with 96 career postseason plate appearances, but the next most is Eugenio Suarez on 11, and they all came with no fans in the stands in 2020. On the road first up in the Rogers Centre cauldron, can the Mariners handle the spotlight?

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales, left, and starting pitcher George Kirby, right, celebrate on the field following a 2-1 victory against the Oakland Athletics to clinch a wild card playoff berth

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales, left, and starting pitcher George Kirby, right, celebrate on the field following a 2-1 victory against the Oakland Athletics to clinch a wild card playoff berth

Seattle Mariners third baseman Eugenio Suarez (front row, left), second baseman Adam Frazier (front row, middle) and center fielder Julio Rodriguez (front row, right) celebrate in the clubhouse following a 2-1 victory against the Oakland Athletics to clinch a wild card playoff berth at T-Mobile Park

Seattle Mariners third baseman Eugenio Suarez (front row, left), second baseman Adam Frazier (front row, middle) and center fielder Julio Rodriguez (front row, right) celebrate in the clubhouse following a 2-1 victory against the Oakland Athletics to clinch a wild card playoff berth at T-Mobile Park

6. TAMPA BAY RAYS (86-76, 3rd in AL East)

Why they’ll win it all: The Tampa Bay pitching factory is still open for business, with the Rays finishing 3rd in the AL in team ERA this year. They are better set up than any other team for modern playoff baseball, which often descends into a catwalk of relievers piecing together 27 outs. They have been the smartest guys in the room for a long time, though often by necessity with such a low payroll. Can they produce another miracle this year?

Why they’ll fall short: The Rays’ fourth consecutive playoff appearance came with a bumpy landing, losing nine of their last 11 games. That closed the season on a nine-game road trip, and won’t get back to Florida unless they win their wildcard series in Cleveland. That amount of time on the road will take its toll on any club, and particularly a Rays lineup that has struggled all year to click. They will not get any respite from an excellent Guardians pitching staff.

Rays third baseman Jonathan Aranda (62) and second baseman Taylor Walls (0) celebrate after scoring runs against the Toronto Blue Jays in the fourth inning at Tropicana Field

Rays third baseman Jonathan Aranda (62) and second baseman Taylor Walls (0) celebrate after scoring runs against the Toronto Blue Jays in the fourth inning at Tropicana Field

NATIONAL LEAGUE

1. LOS ANGELES DODGERS (111-51, won NL West)

Why they’ll win it all: Of all the great Dodger teams in the last decade of dominance, none hold a candle to this year’s iteration. No team had won 111 games in the National League since the 1906 Chicago Cubs, until the already stacked Dodgers added Freddie Freeman to Mookie Betts and Trea Turner at the top of the lineup. Throw in that they led the majors in most runs scored and fewest allowed, and this is still the team to beat.

Why they’ll fall short: Do they have anyone they trust to take the ball in the ninth inning? The Craig Kimbrel experiment flopped, Blake Treinen is still working back from an injury that limited himself to five innings this year, lockdown reliever Evan Phillips is better suited to a fireman setup role, and Dave Roberts can’t justify using Julio Urias there as he did in the triumphant 2020 run – the lefty and his NL-best 2.16 ERA are needed to front the rotation. The Dodgers’ pitching staff has bent to support the weight of injuries to Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, Daniel Hudson and Treinen all year. In the playoffs, will they finally break?

Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate in the locker room after a 4-0 win against the Arizona Diamondbacks clinched a playoff berth back on September 13

Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate in the locker room after a 4-0 win against the Arizona Diamondbacks clinched a playoff berth back on September 13

Atlanta Braves left fielder Eddie Rosario, left, right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr., center, and center fielder Michael Harris II, right, celebrate after a victory a baseball game against the New York Mets on Saturday

Atlanta Braves left fielder Eddie Rosario, left, right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr., center, and center fielder Michael Harris II, right, celebrate after a victory a baseball game against the New York Mets on Saturday

2. ATLANTA BRAVES (101-61, won NL East)

Why they’ll win it all: This is a better ballclub than the one that stormed the playoffs to win it all last year. Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson lead a fearsome lineup that took on the Mets’ three best pitchers last week and bounced them out of town en route to a season-altering sweep. Since starting the year 23-27, they have torn through the league and are the hottest team in the sport entering the playoffs. Does anyone want to face them?

Why they’ll fall short: The Braves’ only hole might be a lack of starting pitching depth. Max Fried is a bona fide ace, and proved his postseason credentials with six scoreless innings in last year’s clinching World Series Game 6. But beyond that, Kyle Wright has a career 5.84 ERA in the playoffs, Father Time-defier Charlie Morton has had a down year and is 38, and rookie fireballer Spencer Strider is on the Injured List.

3. ST LOUIS CARDINALS (93-69, won AL Central)

Why they’ll win it all: Have they stopped celebrating at any point this year in St Louis? The city has been in a constant standing ovation as Cardinals fans watched Albert Pujols reach 700 home runs on his farewell tour (supporting acts: Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright), while corner infielders Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt battled it out for the NL MVP award. With the best defense in baseball and a lineup that was the best in the National League by OPS+ this year, what price the year-long St Louis celebration ending in a parade in early November?

Why they’ll fall short: The rotation is still a problem, despite the defense picking them up and star turns from mid-season arrivals Jordan Montgomery and Jose Quintana. Wainwright will almost certainly get the ball in a Game 1 but he is also probably the fourth-best starter. A powerful Phillies lineup will fancy their chances in the wildcard round.

The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate winning the National League Central Division by defeating the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field

The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate winning the National League Central Division by defeating the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field

Mark Canha #19, Terrance Gore #4 and Tyler Naquin #25 of the New York Mets celebrate the win over the Washington Nationals during game two of a double header on Tuesday

Mark Canha #19, Terrance Gore #4 and Tyler Naquin #25 of the New York Mets celebrate the win over the Washington Nationals during game two of a double header on Tuesday

4. NEW YORK METS (101-61, 2nd in AL East)

Why they’ll win it all: Buck Showalter has made everyone forget everything they thought they knew about the Mets in his first year as manager, transforming the club into a serious contender. Mets fans are hoping their star one-two punch of Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer will be this generation’s Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in the playoffs, while Francisco Lindor is back to being the player they thought they were trading for and Pete Alonso will relish the postseason intensity. Not winning the division puts them on course for a Division Series date with the Dodgers, but they did win their regular-season series against LA by four games to three.

Why they’ll fall short: The Mets led the division by 10.5 games on June 1, and while a 96-win pace since then can’t be classified as a ‘choke’, last week’s brutal series in Atlanta exposed their weaknesses. Chief among those is a lack of home-run power, ranking tied-15th in baseball in the regular season. In October, facing the best arms the sport has to offer, that could come back to bite them.

5. SAN DIEGO PADRES (89-73, 2nd in AL West)

Why they’ll win it all: They have the best hitter in baseball, even if he hasn’t played like it since donning Padre brown. Juan Soto will still be the man every opposing pitcher wants to steer clear of, however, and Manny Machado might yet win the MVP. Josh Hader’s return to form at the back end of the bullpen is also a major lift.

Why they’ll fall short: Outside of Soto and Machado, this is a paper-thin lineup. The pitching may rescue them, and Petco Park will provide a huge home-field advantage if the Padres can win through to a series where they actually play at home, but at some point San Diego’s inability to score runs is going to be a problem.

The San Diego Padres clinched a wildcard playoff spot, but are hoping to win the club's first ever World Series without suspended shortstop, Fernando Tatis Jr., who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs

The San Diego Padres clinched a wildcard playoff spot, but are hoping to win the club’s first ever World Series without suspended shortstop, Fernando Tatis Jr., who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs 

Philadelphia Phillies players run off the field after taking a team photo to celebrate after clinching a wild-card playoff berth on Sunday

Philadelphia Phillies players run off the field after taking a team photo to celebrate after clinching a wild-card playoff berth on Sunday 

6. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (87-75, 3rd in NL East)

Why they’ll win it all: They have already overcome a managerial firing, their best player and reigning MVP missing two months through injury and, frankly, a terrible defense. Central to that is interim skipper Rob Thomson, who has got the Phillies playing at a 94-win pace since taking over in June. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola can go toe to toe with any frontline starting pitchers, the bullpen has been a revelation after a string of horror seasons and this supposed lineup of sluggers stole 105 bases this year – second only to the Guardians among playoff teams.

Why they’ll fall short: The decision to build a large portion of the roster out of designated hitters has panned out almost entirely as expected. This is the second-worst defense in baseball by Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, exacerbated by having Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos on the field for so long while Bryce Harper recovered from injury. Statcast credits that pair with giving the opposition a combined 22 extra runs with their gloves this year. The offense can only keep up for so long.

The Philadelphia Phillies celebrate after clinching the Wild Card, their first playoff berth since 2011 with a 3-0 win over the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Sunday

The Philadelphia Phillies celebrate after clinching the Wild Card, their first playoff berth since 2011 with a 3-0 win over the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Sunday

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