The 12-team Major League Baseball playoffs have opened, but they may be trickier than ever to navigate.
Some teams found themselves well-equipped to attack in October after making significant trade deadline acquisitions. But their paths to glory may be blocked.
Did your team beat the baseball deadline, or at least try? If so, congratulations. It also won’t mean much when the playoffs arrive and commissioner Rob Manfred’s penalty comes true.
With that, in the wake of Tuesday’s trade deadline, we take a look at the top eight clubs poised to win it all, a ranking based on both trajectory and talent:
You have to get there to win it, and nobody does that better than the Astros, who have reached five straight AL Championship Series and were two wins short of a World Series title last year. This time, they’ll have ace Justin Verlander, and it’s hard to argue that anyone in the AL throws the ball better than the 39-year-old with a best 1.81 ERA. They can stack now-playoff-hardened Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy behind him – all after clinching a division title and a first-round bye.
They’re just 22-5 since June 1, delivering knockout hits to opposing pitchers before many fans take their seats. A fearsome 1-2-3 in any combination — pull the names of Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Trea Turner out of the hat and go with it — is backed by suddenly terrifying cleanup hitter Will Smith, who has an .821 OPS and a . 906 marks in his last 35 games. Pitching is something of an adventure, but the capacity of the arms will pave the way to the World Series, one way or another.
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He wasn’t sold on Frankie Montas as the man to kill their longtime tormentors in Houston, but New York will clinch the East title and have a significant advantage over the wild card survivor. We’re left to believe they know something about Jordan Montgomery that we don’t, but his trade makes you wonder if they’re too smart by half again.
4. Blue Jays
Bold pick here, but relies heavily on a 1-2 punch of Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman that could make for a painless trip to the wild-card round, especially if the Jays retain the right to host the best-of-three at the Rogers Center . A streaky team that will be volatile but fun in October.
Jacob de Grom is back, perhaps just in time for a natural rise to join Max Scherzer, as troubled pitching duo Steve Cohen envisioned when he paid Scherzer $43.3 million to pair with de Grom. Stubbornly, the Mets haven’t given the NL East lead to Atlanta since April 12, in part because they’re so well matched in every aspect. We envision a long-awaited Queens star turn for Francisco Lindor.
They’re too low here, and feel free to move them up to No. 3 if you think they’ll win the East. At this point, we’re not going to doubt that Austin Riley can carry the offense through a hot summer and tough fall, but he’s going to need help. Ronald Acuna Jr., whose on-base percentage has dropped from 12% to 6%, would greatly help the cause if he regains his MVP form.
They made arguably the best pick-up during the trade – and paid a decent price for it – by adding Luis Castillo to the rotation. But questions hang over the clubhouse, most notably if rookies Logan Gilbert and Julio Rodriguez stay healthy and avoid hitting the figurative wall, and if expensive lefty Robbie Ray will look like the type of closer they paid for rather than the inconsistent one with a 4.11 ERA . Too many potholes to go through in three rows.
Juan Soto might be the best trade in history – or at least since the invention of MLB Trade Rumors. But the NL is a dogfight, and the Padres, who trail the Dodgers by 11 ½ games, don’t win the division. Those hitters? They face a steep mountain with Scherzer and de Grom, Max Fried and Kyle Wright, Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers machine conspiring against them. These pitchers? Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove are a nice combination, but running a Braves-Mets-Dodgers slate, say, will reveal the overall depth of the staff.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB playoff standings: World Series contenders after trade deadline