With a 12-team playoff bracket under the new postseason format, the road to the World Series is as wide open as ever in 2022.
But while the four biggest powerhouses in baseball this year watch and wait with an automatic berth in the Division Series -- the Astros and Yankees in the American League, the Dodgers and Braves in the National League -- let's take a look at the eight teams who have to fight it out in the Wild Card round.
In the AL, there's the Guardians, Blue Jays, Mariners and Rays. In the NL, there's the Cardinals, Mets, Padres and Phillies. Which of those teams is most likely to go all the way to a championship?
Here are the Wild Card Series teams most likely to win the World Series, ranked from 1-8.
The Cardinals will go as far as their superstar duo takes them. Paul Goldschmidt, who chased a Triple Crown for much of the season, is the NL MVP frontrunner with a .317 batting average, 35 home runs and 115 RBIs. Nolan Arenado, who has 30 homers and 102 RBIs while playing his usual Gold Glove-caliber defense at third base, is behind him.
Plus, it's the last postseason ride together for franchise icons Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, who have already helped bring two World Series championships to St. Louis. And it's not like the veteran trio can't play anymore. Pujols caught fire in the second half, belting 18 home runs down the stretch to join the 700-home run club and then some. Wainwright has thrown 191 2/3 innings with a 3.71 ERA. And Molina continues to captain the pitching staff and has been a top-10 pitch framer in baseball this season, with +5 framing runs.
The Mets have 100 wins and look like the strongest Wild Card team on paper, but they'll also probably have a harder path to the World Series than the NL Central champions. Just to get into the Division Series, New York will likely have to beat a Padres team led by two superstars in Manny Machado and Juan Soto and a starting rotation (Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Blake Snell) and closer (Josh Hader) that can go toe to toe with its own elite arms. That's just to earn the right to play the 110-win juggernaut Dodgers in the next round.
But the Mets, who led the NL East almost the entire season, have the talent to beat anyone. Pete Alonso (40 home runs, MLB-best 131 RBIs), Francisco Lindor (26 home runs, 104 RBIs) and Jeff McNeil (Major League-best .327 batting average) lead a balanced lineup. Jacob deGrom (14.3 K/9), Max Scherzer (2.29 ERA) and Chris Bassitt (15 wins) form an elite starting rotation. Edwin Díaz (50.2% strikeout rate) is the best closer in baseball.
The Rays have been there before. Not only are they entering their fourth straight postseason, they made the World Series as a Wild Card team two years ago, a run in which they happened to knock off three other 2022 postseason teams in the Blue Jays, Yankees and Astros on their way to the AL pennant and push a fourth, the Dodgers, to six games in the Fall Classic.
Tampa Bay is also getting its stars back at just the right time. Wander Franco is batting .322 since returning from a fractured hamate bone in his right wrist on Sept. 9. Tyler Glasnow just returned from Tommy John surgery and has allowed only one run with 10 strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings in his first two games back. And ace Shane McClanahan was able to return quickly from the left shoulder impingement he suffered at the end of August and now has a 2.54 ERA and 194 strikeouts this season.
4. Blue Jays
Toronto certainly has the star power to make a deep postseason run, it's just a matter of making the leap after a Wild Card round exit in 2020 and a narrow playoff miss in 2021 following a 91-win season.
First you have the lineup led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who's slugged 32 home runs this season. Bo Bichette has 24 homers and 13 steals; George Springer has 25 and 14. Teoscar Hernández has 25 homers, too, Alejandro Kirk is having an All-Star season at catcher, and 2022 additions Matt Chapman and Whit Merrifield have made the Blue Jays even deeper. Then you have the pitching staff led by Alek Manoah, who has a 2.24 ERA in nearly 200 innings; Kevin Gausman, who's hit the 200-strikeout mark for a second straight year; and closer Jordan Romano, who has 36 saves. If José Berríos can find his old electric stuff, this team can beat anyone.
The 20-year playoff drought is over, but the Mariners will have to go through some tough opponents if they want to reach their first World Series, let alone win it: the talented Blue Jays in the Wild Card round, the No. 1-seeded Astros in the ALDS and potentially the Aaron Judge-led Yankees in the ALCS. But the M's have proven they can run with those powerhouses -- they even have a 5-2 record against Toronto and a 4-2 record against New York this season, although they struggled against Houston, going 7-12.
If Julio Rodríguez is healthy, Seattle has a chance. The Rookie of the Year favorite has 27 home runs and 25 stolen bases this season and is already one of the most electric players in the game. The Mariners' starting pitching is also good enough to keep them in any series, with a pair of aces in reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray (212 strikeouts) and trade acquisition Luis Castillo (2.99 ERA) and two great young arms behind them in sophomore Logan Gilbert (3.20 ERA) and rookie George Kirby (3.39 ERA).
The Padres' blockbuster moves at the Trade Deadline put them in World Series-or-bust mode, and they could certainly get there, but they have maybe the hardest path of any Wild Card team. San Diego might have to beat three 100-win teams just to get to the World Series -- first the Mets, then the Dodgers, then potentially the reigning World Series-champion Braves. And there could be a fourth waiting in the Fall Classic in the Astros or (possibly) the Yankees.
For San Diego to pull it off, Juan Soto needs to return to the superstar form he displayed in carrying the Nationals to the World Series title in 2019, when he had the game-winning hit off Josh Hader in the NL Wild Card Game, the game-tying homer off Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 of the NLDS and three homers off Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in the World Series. If he does -- and he's looked good lately, including a big home run off AL Cy Young contender Dylan Cease -- Soto and NL MVP contender Manny Machado are the type of duo that can carry a championship lineup. Meanwhile, the Padres' pitching staff has the potential to be as dominant as any in the postseason with Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell in the rotation and Hader at the back of the bullpen.
The Guardians, as the AL Central winners, have the benefit of the top Wild Card seed in the American League, but that's only earned them a first-round matchup against a playoff-experienced Rays team that's just reaching full strength. However, the Guardians will have home-field advantage, which could help against the Rays, who've struggled to win on the road this year -- their 35-45 road record is by far the worst of any playoff team. But awaiting them in the ALDS would be the Yankees, who went 5-1 against Cleveland this season.
The Guardians do have a superstar anchoring the lineup in José Ramírez (29 home runs, 20 steals, 124 RBIs, 77 extra-base hits), an ace atop the rotation in Shane Bieber (2.88 ERA, 198 strikeouts, 200 innings pitched) and an elite closer at the back the bullpen in Emmanuel Clase (1.36 ERA, Major League-leading 42 saves), with plenty of solid pieces around them. All those other players will need to step up.
The Phillies have to slug their way past a lot of great teams to win the World Series, which probably means big postseasons from reigning MVP Bryce Harper, NL home run leader Kyle Schwarber, catcher J.T Realmuto and first baseman Rhys Hoskins, plus contributions from players like Alec Bohm and Nick Castellanos. That slugging is an absolute necessity because the Phillies are one of the worst defensive teams in baseball, and they might have trouble keeping runs off the board against other strong playoff lineups.
Philadelphia's best chance is if their top arms, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, can shut down the offenses they face enough for their big bats to out-homer the opposition. That's not out of the realm of possibility -- Nola has a 3.25 ERA and 235 strikeouts in 205 innings and just took a perfect game into the seventh inning against the 104-win Astros to clinch the Phillies a playoff spot, while Wheeler has a 2.82 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 26 starts himself. Meanwhile, Schwarber has 46 homers, Hoskins has 30, Realmuto has 22 and Harper has 18 (in 98 games).