It’s October, and there are no more easy games. As MLB’s top 12 teams prepare to battle for the ultimate prize, everyone is suddenly dangerous. How dangerous? Well, that’s the real question.
Wins and losses and playoff seedings tell us a lot, but they don’t necessarily capture the levels of fear you should feel about your team’s opponent at this moment in time. What is facing each of these squads really like?
We’ve ranked each of October’s would-be apex predators by how terrifying they are right now, heading into the playoffs, and taken a shot at crafting an appropriate warning for those who might challenge them.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Danger: Avengers filming in progress
Somehow, it might be flying under the radar that the Dodgers have won 111 games. Their three big-ticket acquisitions in three years — Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Freddie Freeman — have created a lineup as loaded as a blockbuster Marvel movie poster. If there are any questions here, they revolve around the less flashy names on the pitching staff. Which is a weird thing to say about the team that posted MLB’s best ERA.
2. Houston Astros
Danger: Glowing spaceship spotted overhead
Can they roll to their sixth straight ALCS? Yes, of course they can, and perhaps beyond. Justin Verlander’s 1.75 ERA at age 39 is one thing, but the organization’s broader pitching development might be more otherworldly. Whether it’s Cristian Javier, Hunter Brown or a more established starter, at least one very talented pitcher is going to be popping up to crush opponents’ dreams in the middle innings.
3. Atlanta Braves
Danger: Approaching train has no brakes
It’s starting to feel like their viral stadium attraction — Beat the Freeze — was foreshadowing. For the second straight season, the Braves gave themselves some ground to make up, then blazed past the competition with a fury no one could have seen coming. Last year it was a trade deadline bonanza. This year it was hosting a self-contained NL Rookie of the Year race between Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider. It’s not certain if Strider — a flame-throwing young starter — will be able to return from injury in time for the playoffs, but if so, look out.
4. New York Yankees
Danger: Literal giant with a big stick
Everyone knows the biggest threat here. Aaron Judge’s 62 homers make him even less capable of sneaking up on people than your average 6-foot-7 super-athlete. What might be sneaky about the Yankees? They’ve actually had several hitters turn a corner since the August nadir. Gleyber Torres hit .323 with six homers in September, while Giancarlo Stanton will enter the postseason having homered in three straight games.
5. New York Mets
Danger: Wounded animal ahead
Look, the Braves series wasn’t pretty. The sinking feeling of watching the NL East slip away was all too familiar to Mets fans. But 100-win teams don’t grow on trees. Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Chris Bassitt are a formidable combo even if they didn’t get results against Atlanta. I mean, come to think of it, Scherzer is probably so mad. Do you want to face mad Max?
6. Cleveland Guardians
Danger: Tiny fire ants, thousands of them
The Guardians' bit involves making you work. They don't hit it hard, or far, but they strike out less than any team in the majors and steal more bases than any other playoff team. Don't overlook their evolution, though. They are 24-10 since the start of September, largely thanks to a pitching staff that has ascended to a new level. Look out for starter Triston McKenzie and any of a half dozen relievers to join Shane Bieber as nationally known names this month.
7. St. Louis Cardinals
Danger: TRAP DOOR (come on, you fall through every year)
Adam Wainwright, Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina’s entire season has been ripped from the script of a TV movie turned down for being too good to be true. So there’s serious Cardinals energy here, but there’s also real pop. They’ve blasted more homers than any other team since the All-Star break.
8. Toronto Blue Jays
Danger: The youths are unpredictable
If you’re looking for offense, you should watch the Blue Jays. They have a parade of sluggers — beyond Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette has been on a tear since summer — and uh, less of a parade of arms. Beyond young ace Alek Manoah, there are very few secure innings for Toronto. And yet, they might bash their way past you anyway.
9. San Diego Padres
Danger: Sleepy bear due to wake up
The Padres offense looks terrifying but has never fully hit its stride, even after the blockbuster addition of Juan Soto. Manny Machado is putting up one of his best seasons, and may need to put the lineup on his shoulders to help San Diego advance. On the mound, they’ll feel good with Yu Darvish and Blake Snell out there, and less so if they have to dip into Mike Clevinger or Sean Manaea, who have struggled down the stretch. The bullpen has been an adventure, but Josh Hader quietly returned to form with a 0.87 ERA in 10 1/3 innings since Sept.1.
10. Philadelphia Phillies
Danger: They could be contagious
What if the Padres had a more top-heavy rotation? On paper, the Phillies also raise eyebrows. They have J.T. Realmuto, Bryce Harper and NL homer champ Kyle Schwarber to anchor the lineup. They have two serious aces atop the rotation in Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, who flirted with a perfect game in clinching their long-awaited playoff spot. Beneath the shiny surface, there’s potential, but a lot of uncertainty. One urgent question: Who exactly is closing the game if they do get a lead?
11. Seattle Mariners
Danger: Fire juggler who can’t feel pain
They would never say it, but the postseason results are gravy for this Mariners team. Led by Julio Rodriguez, they are young and loaded up for a run of contending seasons. This one was about breaking the drought, and they did it. Now they enter October with some solid starting pitching, no fear and the most “swing hard in case you hit it” lineup you can imagine. In the second half, they ranked 29th in the majors in batting average and sixth in home runs.
12. Tampa Bay Rays
Danger: You didn’t see the subprime mortgage crisis coming either
The Rays, oh the Rays. They just keep finding ways into October even when their most productive hitter (Yandy Diaz) scratched out a whopping nine home runs. Like their other recent contenders, this one derives strength from the pure number of good pitchers they can throw at you. Don’t be surprised to see recently returned starter Tyler Glasnow or Drew Rasmussen piggybacked with another sterling arm.