Major League Baseball's 2023 postseason is upon us with 12 teams battling to be the last one standing in early November.
While the regulars – the Dodgers, Astros and Braves – are here, this year's postseason is a showcase for some unexpected teams, including the AL East champion Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks, each of whom lost 110 games just two years ago. The Miami Marlins are back in the playoffs in a full season for the first time in 20 years.
With the four wild-card series getting underway Tuesday, here's a look at one crucial question facing each club in the postseason:
Will John Means be a frontline playoff starter?
As dominant and as fantastic as closer Felix Bautista was these past two seasons, Baltimore can withstand his loss to Tommy John surgery. Heck, a guy who strikes out two batters per inning is perfect for the postseason cauldron. But overall bullpen depth remains a Baltimore strength.
Yet there is one pitcher who can separate the Orioles from the pack: John Means.
The 2019 All-Star’s September return from Tommy John surgery was carefully timed so that the lefty was stretched out and ready to take down several innings a start. Somewhat stunningly, he’s done so with great effectiveness.
In four starts, Means has produced a 0.72 WHIP, going at least five innings in every outing. His last two starts are of particular note: A 7 ⅓-inning, one-hit effort against Cleveland and a 6 ⅓ -inning, three-hit effort against Boston. His strikeout-walk ratio those two games: 8-1.
The Orioles will almost surely break with Kyle Bradish and rookie Grayson Rodriguez as their Game 1-2 starters. Veteran innings eater Kyle Gibson has pitched particularly well of late, too. But should the Orioles advance past the best-of-5 ALDS, Means could be a significant asset when the club needs four starters.
– Gabe Lacques
Can Houston capitalize on home-field advantage?
The Astros, who looked like they had no chance to win the AL West just a few days ago, came storming back by winning five of six games on their road trip to Seattle and Arizona to clinch the division on Sunday.
The title was wildly celebrated, letting the Astros have a week off at home instead of having to travel to Minnesota or Tampa Bay to play a best-of-three wild-card series.
It’s huge for their pitching staff enabling them to now set up their rotation with Framber Valdez and Justin Verlander in Games 1 and 2 with plenty of rest, followed by J.P. France. The downside to winning the division? The Astros have a losing record at home this season, going just 39-42, and were just swept by the Kansas City Royals in their last three home games. It’s their worst home winning percentage since 2016 after producing at least a .630 winning percentage since 2019. Now, that they will have home-field advantage in the ALDS, they must figure out a way to win at Minute Maid Park.
– Bob Nightengale
Are injured hitters ready to help end postseason losing streak?
The Twins cruised to the AL Central title, but they’ve been here plenty of times before. Their biggest question is can they finally win a postseason game? They have lost 18 consecutive playoff games since Oct. 4, 2004, the longest drought in North American sports. Their biggest trouble has been their inability to hit in the postseason, averaging just 2.47 runs a game. Now, their offensive woes could plague them once again. They finished the year without the left side of the infield with Carlos Correa (plantar fasciitis) and Royce Lewis (hamstring). Neither has played game in two weeks? Will they be ready for Game 1 on Tuesday – and if so, just how effective will be?
– Bob Nightengale
Toronto Blue Jays
Does the bullpen have what it takes to win a short series?
Toronto's relievers struggled in September with a 4.65 ERA, raising questions about the bullpen's abilities to finish behind starters Kevin Gausman, José Berríos and Chris Bassitt. Deadline acquisition Jordan Hicks (1.42 ERA in 12 games) had a great month but All-Star closer Jordan Romano suffered two losses in the final eight days. On Saturday in the team's biggest game of the season, Romano pitched the eighth while Hicks got the ninth and 10th of the eventual extra-inning loss, with Hicks surrendering his only runs in the month of September. Who will manager John Schneider trust to get the biggest outs in the wild-card series?
– Jesse Yomtov
Tampa Bay Rays
Can a gaggle of young players make up a position-player shortfall?
A season that started 13-0 and 27-6 ended with 99 wins and a second-place finish, but for the Tampa Bay Rays, it’s impossible to ignore what was lost along the way.
A stellar pitching staff will have undergone an entire renovation, but hey, it’s October and it’s the Rays and funny things were going to happen, anyway. No, the bigger question might be how the club’s gaggle of young position players will respond to the postseason spotlight.
The loss of All-Star shortstop Wander Franco – still under investigation in the USA and Dominican Republic – was significant, as was the loss of center fielder Jose Siri to a broken hand.
Franco won’t return. Siri could by the AL wild card series against Texas, almost certainly in time for a potential ALDS date against Baltimore. Whether the Rays are a factor this autumn may be determined by the production of rookies Junior Caminero and Osleivis Basabe and second-year man Jonathan Aranda.
All were bumped up the organizational depth chart by various developments, with Aranda figuring to serve as DH against right-handed pitching. Caminero, the club’s top prospect, hit his first major league homer Sunday and, at 20, should get postseason playing time at third base.
Another rookie, Curtis Mead, should be on the roster and get some platoon at-bats against lefty pitching.
It’s an awful lot for a gaggle of kids, but this is also the Rays way: Throw ‘em in the fray, and they’ll grow up quicker. How smooth that process goes will likely determine how long Tampa Bay remains a playoff nuisance.
– Gabe Lacques
After blowing AL West, can pitching get them to ALDS?
The Texas Rangers are back in the postseason for the first time since 2016. They had a chance to win the AL West Division, but lost the season finale in Seattle to drop behind the Houston Astros in the AL West and into the wild-card spot.
It's been quite a turnaround for the Rangers under first-year manager Bruce Bochy. He led the club to 90 wins, a 22-game improvement over last season when they finished with 68 wins. The Rangers will have a tall task in front of them facing the Tampa Bay Rays. With shortstop Corey Seager and second baseman Marcus Semien fulfilling the Rangers' vision of a $500 million middle infield, questions surround the starting rotation.
There is uncertainty beyond lefty Jordan Montgomery and righty Nathan Eovaldi. Andrew Heaney has only made one start since Sept. 4, Jon Gray landed on the injured list with forearm strain just before the season ended and Max Scherzer's availability in the postseason is unlikely after suffered a strained teres major muscle on Sept. 12.
They're of course also without $185 million man Jacob deGrom.
– Scott Boeck
Los Angeles Dodgers
Is Clayton Kershaw up for one last ride?
All eyes will be on future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw, who could be spending his final days in a Dodgers’ uniform. This is the Dodgers’ 11th consecutive postseason, but never have they had so many questions about their rotation, relying on Kershaw once again. He will start Game 1 of the NLDS (his first since 2017), rookie Bobby Miller likely in Game 2, maybe veteran Lance Lynn in Game 3, and no idea who will be start the rest of October. Kershaw’s effectiveness will be a pivotal key to their success. Kershaw sustained a shoulder injury in late June, and now struggles to hit 90-mph with shaky command at times. Still, he hasn’t given up more than three runs his last eight starts, permitting just one or no runs in six of them. He finished the year still leading the team in victories (13), ERA (2.46) and innings (131.2). The Dodgers are expecting him to pitch at least five innings or 80 pitches before turning to their bullpen.
– Bob Nightengale
Will this be Spencer Strider's October?
Atlanta won 104 games this season, yet it knows as well as anyone that one bad inning can render it all meaningless.
Like bottom of the third, Game 3, NLDS last October.
With the series squared 1-1 and the game scoreless, everything went sideways on strikeout artist Spencer Strider:
Walk to Brandon Marsh. Error on pickoff throw. RBI double, Bryson Stott. Intentional walk, Kyle Schwarber. Three-run homer, Rhys Hoskins.
Game over, and soon enough, series and season over for Atlanta.
Well, this time both team and pitcher come in with even more sparkling credentials. Strider won 20 games – an even bigger anomaly in this era of thin starting pitching – and broke John Smoltz’s single-season record by striking out 281 – a major league-leading 13.5 per nine innings.
It’s all set up to be Strider’s time this October – and it probably has to be if Atlanta is to fulfill the promise of its epic regular season.
October baseball means its record-setting lineup likely won’t have the same predictive firepower every night. Max Fried is coming off a blister issue, Charlie Morton a bum finger that will keep him out until a possible NLCS appearance.
It’s all the more important that Strider, 24, set the tone, preferably in Game 1 of every series. He’s almost exactly the same age as Cole Hamels in 2008, when Hamels was MVP of both the NLCS and World Series, going 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA overall that postseason; Philadelphia won all five of his starts.
Now, it’s possibly the Phillies standing in the Braves’ way again in the NLDS. It’s up to Strider to move them out of their path – and keep plowing a course toward 11 victories and a second World Series title in three years.
– Gabe Lacques
Can Rhys Hoskins pull a Kyle Schwarber?
The Phillies’ defense of their National League pennant got dinged toward the end of spring training, when power-hitting first baseman and team leader Rhys Hoskins suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament. On the surface, it didn’t hurt the Phillies: They improved their win total to 90 and besides, with Bryce Harper recovering from Tommy John surgery, first base would eventually be accounted for, anyway.
But man, would Hoskins add an intriguing power dimension should the Phillies make the World Series.
Precedent is lurking just a few stalls away in Philadelphia’s clubhouse: Kyle Schwarber was just a rookie prodigy when he tore his ACL in the second game of 2016, ostensibly taking him out of the Chicago Cubs’ dream championship season.
But Schwarber diligently rehabbed and the will-they-won’t-they activate Schwarber became the dominant storyline in the run-up to the 2016 World Series. Well, the Cubs activated Schwarber and the rest is history: He batted .412 (7 for 17) with a .971 OPS and the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years.
Hoskins’ activation won’t be quite as dramatic, nor perhaps even as necessary. Schwarber himself slugged 47 home runs and isn’t moving off DH, nor is Harper budging from first base. But a team can look a lot different at the end of a playoff run than the beginning.
Even as a bench bat, Hoskins would give the Phillies another power bat at a time power is at a premium. If his rehab goes swimmingly and the Phillies keep winning, it would be a most dramatic return.
– Gabe Lacques
Does a bad offense even matter in a best-of-three?
Of the 12 playoff teams, Milwaukee ranks last in just about every offensive category.
“There’s nothing offensively where you go and play them and you're really scared of anything," Cubs manager David Ross said of Milwaukee. "But they always have really good starting pitching, which is as good as it gets for me, and it seems like they’re in every game.”
And in a best-of-three series, you can’t ask for more than that.
Willy Adames led the team with 24 home runs and 80 RBI and Christian Yelich had a nice bounce-back year (.817 OPS, 28 SB), while veteran midseason additions Carlos Santana (11 HR in 52 games) and Mark Canha (33 RBI in 50 games) delivered down the stretch.
The Brewers have failed to advance in their last three postseason appearances (2019-2021), but find themselves with a favorable home wild-card matchup against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
– Jesse Yomtov
Who's starting the opener?
The Diamondbacks are in the postseason for the first time since 2017, but exhausted their entire pitching staff trying to get into the dance. Their best two starters are Zac Gallen, who will finish in the top five of the Cy Young race, and Merrill Kelly. The trouble is that neither will be ready to pitch until Game 2 (Gallen) and Game 3 (Kelly) of the postseason. So who’s Game 1? They may have no choice but to turn to rookie Brandon Pfaadt, who is 3-9 with a 5.72 ERA, surrendering 22 home runs in just 96 innings, and could go with a bullpen game if needed. It’s hardly ideal, but they simply have no choice.
– Bob Nightengale
Can they advance without Sandy Alcantara ?
The reigning NL Cy Young winner, who hadn't pitched since early September with an arm injury, had a setback during a rehab start and won't participate in the postseason. Alcantara hadn't been himself this season (4.14 ERA after 2.28 in 2022), but he's obviously who the Marlins would have wanted to start their first (non-COVID-shortened-season) playoff game in 20 years. Lefty Jesús Luzardo (3.63 ERA in 32 starts) had a nice post-hype breakout season and Braxton Miller (2.56 ERA in final 11 starts) give Miami a nice one-two punch on regular rest to start the wild-card series – but there's question marks surrounding Edward Cabrera or Johnny Cueto in a winner-take-all Game 3.
– Jesse Yomtov
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB playoffs 2023: One question for every postseason team