With just over a month left in the regular season before the MLB playoffs begin, it is the perfect time to start looking ahead at what a showdown between two 2022 heavyweights could mean come October, so we asked ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Joon Lee and David Schoenfield to weigh in on what this week's series can tell us about a potential National League Championship Series clash.
The Dodgers have a 7.5-game lead over the Mets for the NL's best record. How reflective of the difference between the two teams in a playoff series is that?
Doolittle: The "in a playoff series" qualifier is the key with this question. In terms of the regular-season gap, it's not that reflective of the real difference because it should actually be at least twice that. In terms of a 162-game win pace based on run differential, the Dodgers are at 116.6, with the Mets way back at 98.1. While the Dodgers should be the favorite in every playoff series they play, the gap closes considerably when the usage of players becomes more concentrated and makes depth less of a factor. In that vein, the Mets' ability to line up Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer in a playoff series is a huge equalizer, especially if the Dodgers' rotation injury woes stretch into October. The Dodgers are a strong favorite, but not at the level suggested by the run differentials.
Lee: I don't put a lot of stock into regular-season records. Wild-card teams regularly storm through the playoffs because they got hot at the right time. Winning the regular season doesn't mean anything if you get cold at the wrong time of year. The Dodgers have the most talented roster in baseball, but the Mets are right up there -- especially when deGrom and Scherzer are both at their healthiest. A Mets team with both aces taking the mound potentially multiple times in a playoff series will always have a chance to win.
Schoenfield: It doesn't mean a whole lot. Just look at last year, when the 88-win Braves beat the 95-win Brewers, the 106-win Dodgers and the 95-win Astros. I went back through the past five postseasons (not including 2020) and looked at all series (not including wild-card games) in which one team had won at least seven more games than its opponent. The better team has gone 11-7 in those series since 2016 -- but 0-4 last season and 1-2 in 2019, when the 93-win Nationals beat the 106-win Dodgers and 107-win Astros. You might remember a certain starting pitcher from that team who now pitches for the Mets.
Gonzalez: I'm going to disagree and say it does mean something, not because the best teams usually win playoff series -- they don't -- but because the Dodgers have proved themselves to be elite at limiting runs. They've mastered it, actually. There's no other way to explain the dominance that they have enjoyed from the likes of Tony Gonsolin, Tyler Anderson and Evan Phillips, among others. Whether it's pitch-shaping or game-planning or defensive positioning or good ole fundamentals, or all the above, the Dodgers are very good at the simple act of keeping the opposing team from scoring. Their staff is on pace to lead the majors in ERA for the fourth consecutive year. In the two years before that, 2017 and 2018, it finished second. That type of thing doesn't always show up in a short series, but it surely makes a team less vulnerable to injury.
What makes the Dodgers so dominant and how can fans watch that in action during this week's series?
Lee: Depth, depth, depth. Look at the top-end talent on the Dodgers' roster and you see a bunch of players who are not just above league average, but also among the best at their position. Mookie Betts is on track to have the best power-hitting season of his career. Freddie Freeman has proved to be a dynamic addition to the lineup, and Trea Turner is one of the best five-tool players in the game. And that's before even getting into the seasons from Will Smith and Gavin Lux as well. This extends over to the pitching side where, despite injuries to Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw, L.A. has seen success from Gonsolin, Julio Urias and Anderson, who have all helped pick up the slack in the rotation.
Doolittle: It's hard to visualize superior depth, so instead there are two questions you can ask about almost every player who comes onto the screen: Where would this player rank in the hierarchy of talent in, say, Milwaukee? The Brewers are a borderline playoff team, but many of the Dodgers' top 15-20 players would rank in the top 5 or 10 of the Brewers (or most solid but non-elite teams). The other question, if it's someone whom the Dodgers traded for or signed as a free agent: Is this player better with the Dodgers than he was before he arrived in Los Angeles? It's uncanny how often that is the case.
Gonzalez: Watch the top of their lineup. Betts, Turner and Freeman are each among the best in the sport at combining discipline with power, and that approach trickles down to the rest of the lineup. The Dodgers' offense is excruciating to navigate against because it is simply relentless. They chase the fewest amount of pitches in the majors but are also among the best at capitalizing on mistakes. Half-innings can quickly snowball, and one must essentially be perfect to be effective. Here's all you need to know: The man who has seen the most time in the No. 9 spot of their lineup, Lux, is slashing .293/.369/.433.
Schoenfield: Somehow, it is still the quality and depth of the starting rotation -- even without Buehler and maybe even without Kershaw. They still have Urias, who is 34-10 with a 2.68 over the past two seasons. They have Gonsolin, whom we keep expecting to regress, but is 16-1 with a 2.10 ERA while holding batters to a .169 average. Anderson is 13-2 with a 2.69 ERA while holding batters to a .620 OPS. Then you have Andrew Heaney, who between bouts on the injured list has struck out 62 batters in 41 2/3 innings. He's healthy now ... and so is Dustin May, who is back from Tommy John surgery and looks terrific. Gonsolin's forearm strain that just put him on the IL is certainly a concern, but Kershaw is now expected back and could start Thursday's game against the Mets or Friday against the Padres.
What is the Dodgers' biggest question mark for the postseason?
Doolittle: It has to be the rotation and, remember, the L.A. puzzle when it comes to innings got really complicated during their NLCS loss to the Braves last year. We don't know what's going to happen with Gonsolin, and we have to see if Kershaw's back is going to be an ongoing issue. May just got back and Anderson is unproven as an October pitcher. As good as the staff is, will it still feel that way when it starts getting matched up against the likes of Scherzer, deGrom, Max Fried et al?
Gonzalez: It's the ninth inning. Craig Kimbrel began the week with a 4.26 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP, while sporting a career-worst 28.9% strikeout rate. His first one-run save of the season didn't come until the middle of August. There's a belief within the Dodgers that Kimbrel is either the closer or is without a role, which makes one wonder whether he'll crack the postseason roster. This much is certain: The Dodgers are a better team if Kimbrel is good enough to take the ball when it's late and close. It lengthens their bullpen and allows others to slot into more appropriate roles, which is why they'll give Kimbrel every chance to prove himself capable over what remains of this season. But he'll have to earn it.
Lee: This is like choosing the worst member of The Beatles. You can make a choice, but any member is still better than most other musicians. The rotation represents the team's biggest soft spot at the moment. Kershaw is in his second stint on the injured list, while Buehler is out for the season. Gonsolin, Urias, Anderson, Heaney and May have been able to carry the load so far, but what happens when the innings pile on by the time we get to October is up in the air. With Gonsolin hitting the injured list with a forearm strain, the questions will only get bigger as the team awaits Kershaw's return.
Schoenfield: I'm going with the ninth inning as well. The problem is manager Dave Roberts still doesn't have a lockdown closer he can trust. He didn't trust Kenley Jansen a year ago and that ended up hurting the Dodgers when they used Scherzer to close out the Giants series (Scherzer ended up being unavailable until later in that series). They scraped by in the 2020 postseason using various closers, but that's a risky plan. Maybe it will be Kimbrel, who has a very shaky postseason history anyway. Maybe it will be Blake Treinen, who is rehabbing in Triple-A. Maybe it's May or maybe it's closer-by-committee in October. No matter: It's a big question mark.
Is there an advantage the Mets have that they could exploit if these teams meet in October?
Gonzalez: Yes -- Scherzer and deGrom. That's the Mets' answer to the Dodgers' general superiority, and often that's the type of thing that wins out in the postseason. The Dodgers experienced that for themselves in 2019, when a Washington Nationals team headlined by Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg shocked them in the first round. For all the Dodgers' depth and talent, there isn't much they can do if Scherzer and deGrom are on their game. They alone can carry the Mets into the World Series, even though they certainly have plenty of help as well. No disrespect to Kershaw's track record or Julio Urias' dependability or the recent excellence of Gonsolin and Anderson, but with Buehler out, the Dodgers don't have anyone who can rise to that level.
Doolittle: I've harped on the rotation enough, so let me ask this: Who would you rather have closing out a one-run game right now, Edwin Diaz or anyone on the Dodgers?
Lee: Similar to the Dodgers, the Mets feature strong depth in their lineup. Any pitching staff that faces New York needs to get through Francisco Lindor, Jeff McNeil, Starling Marte, Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo and Mark Canha, all of whom are having strong seasons at the plate. If the Mets can exploit a worn-down pitching staff, that's an advantage they could hold over the Dodgers.
Schoenfield: Just throwing this out there for what it's worth: Turner is a career .228/.274/.287 hitter in 39 postseason games. Betts is .272/.350/.408 with just four home runs in 51 games -- fine, but hardly the numbers he puts up in the regular season. If those two struggle at the top of the lineup, do you expect strikeout-prone guys like Cody Bellinger and Joey Gallo to pick up the slack?
What is the Mets' biggest question mark for the postseason?
Doolittle: Getting from the starters to Diaz is going to be the biggest challenge for manager Buck Showalter. There's going to be a bright spotlight on Adam Ottavino, Seth Lugo, Mychal Givens and the rest.
Gonzalez: I agree with Brad on the bullpen, and it might be trending in the wrong direction down the stretch. Mets relievers began the week with a 4.00 ERA in the month of August, even though Edwin Diaz continues to be outstanding. Trevor May and Mychal Givens in particular really need to get going over these last five weeks.
Lee: The Mets find themselves with a lack of offensive production from the catching spot, with Tomas Nido currently taking the majority of the playing time while hitting .221/.,266/.261 with no homers and -0.4 bWAR. James McCann represented one of New York's big free-agent pickups before the 2021 season after signing a four-year, $40 million contract, but the 32-year-old has remained a massive disappointment in 2022, hitting .190/.242/.273 with two homers and -0.1 bWAR.
Schoenfield: I do agree with the concerns about the setup relievers -- Showalter has even resorted to a little creativity of late, using Diaz for one two-inning save against the Braves in early August and then using him in the eighth inning in two other games to face the meat of the opposing lineup later in the month. But I'll also point to the team's mediocre power. If you don't out-homer your opponents in the playoffs, it's difficult to win, and the Dodgers (and Braves, Brewers and Cardinals) all have more power than the Mets.
Are the Mets the Dodgers' biggest threat in the NL come October, or is there another team that could keep L.A. from reaching the World Series?
Doolittle: Yeah, the same team that beat the Dodgers last year. Doesn't seem like anyone has noticed, but the Atlanta Braves are the defending champs and they are better than they were a year ago. Atlanta might be a 100-win wild-card team. The Mets better hold on tight to their precarious lead in the East because if they don't and have to burn Scherzer and deGrom in a wild-card series, then this amazing regular season might have been to no avail.
Gonzalez: I think the Braves are a better overall team, but I think the Mets are the Dodgers' most dangerous postseason opponent simply because if they get their pitching right, they might be able to start Scherzer and deGrom in four out of a potential seven games -- with Diaz potentially taking down more than three outs late. That, coupled with a potent offense and a starting staff that has proved to be a lot more than just the two aces at the top, makes them a very formidable opponent. One thing to keep in mind, though: There's only one travel day in this year's NLCS. Games 3 through 7 will be played on consecutive days. Depth will be a major factor.
Lee: Along with the Mets, it is the other top team in the NL East: the Braves. Atlanta has been one of the best teams in baseball, and the defending World Series champions not only have Ronald Acuna Jr. back in their lineup, but also are seeing breakout seasons from shortstop Dansby Swanson, who is hitting .289/.342/.449 with 4.7 bWAR this season, and Michael Harris II, who is hitting .298/.343/.517 with 3.8 bWAR. Combine that with a rotation anchored by Fried, Kyle Wright and Spencer Strider, and this is a team that is right up there with the Mets that could catch fire at the right time and knock out the Dodgers.
Schoenfield: What the heck, I'll throw out the St. Louis Cardinals, who have been scorching hot in August and shored up the rotation holes with Jordan Montgomery and Jose Quintana ... if only to point out the entire NL playoffs are going to be absolutely ridiculous fun.