Sep 14, 2023, 07:00 AM ET
Midway through September, the 2023 playoff picture is quickly taking shape.
The Braves became the first team to secure a postseason berth this past weekend and followed that up by clinching the National League East with a win over the Phillies on Wednesday night. The Orioles and Dodgers are not far behind Atlanta, and a handful of other teams are comfortably leading their respective divisions.
Two division races in the American League remain close — the AL West and AL East — while the NL wild-card race will seemingly go down to the wire. What else might the final weeks of the season bring?
Our expert panel has combined to rank every team in baseball based on a combination of what we’ve seen so far and what we already knew going into the 162-game marathon that is a full baseball season. We also asked ESPN MLB experts David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle, Jesse Rogers and Alden Gonzalez to weigh in with an observation for all 30 teams.
Week 23 | Second-half preview | Preseason rankings
Previous ranking: 1
After going 18 games without a home run, Matt Olson is on fire once again, hitting eight in a 10-game stretch that culminated with his 51st home run Tuesday, tying Andruw Jones’ franchise record set in 2005. The Braves also passed the 2019 Dodgers for the most home runs in NL history and are on pace to beat the 2019 Twins’ major league record of 307. Kyle Wright made his first start since May but gave up six hits and six runs in three innings against the Phillies, generating just two swinging strikes out of 62 pitches. The Braves would love for Wright to give them another starting option for the postseason, but he’ll need to see his stuff tick up. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 2
By this time next week, we might know whether the Orioles have a hammerlock on the AL’s top playoff seed, or if they are going to be mired in a down-the-stretch dogfight with the Rays for the AL East crown. With the way the standings are shaping up, the division champ will land that top playoff seed and all the comforts that go with it — a first-round bye, home-field advantage, etc.
Starting today, the Orioles and Rays clash at Camden Yards in the first of four games that’ll take us through the weekend. If the Orioles can win three or four, their hold on the division lead will be rock-solid. Otherwise, it’s a battle. Either way, this is the matchup this season has been building toward for Baltimore. The Orioles have actually been a better road team this season but make no mistake: Opening the playoffs in the ALDS round in Baltimore would be huge for this breakout team. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 3
The Dodgers called up a 25-year-old right-hander named Kyle Hurt on Tuesday for two reasons: He can provide multiple innings out of the bullpen, and he strikes out a lot of dudes. Hurt, acquired from the Marlins as part of the Dylan Floro trade of 2021, struck out a whopping 145 batters in 88⅓ innings in Double-A and Triple-A and did precisely what the Dodgers hoped he would in his major league debut. He entered the eighth inning to face Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto and Manny Machado and retired all three in order, then came back out for the ninth and struck out the side to seal a victory over the Padres. Hurt might still be a long shot for the Dodgers’ postseason roster — he was sent right back down to the minors on Wednesday, in fact — but he could provide precisely what they’ll need given that they’re not expecting to get much length from their starting pitchers in October. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 4
The Rays have been dealing with crushing player absences all season and that trend continued last week when starting center fielder Jose Siri went on the injured list with a hand fracture. Siri’s season isn’t necessarily over but Tampa Bay will have to navigate most, if not all, its remaining schedule without him. Siri has become kind of the prototypical role player for the Rays — they always seem to be able to leverage the things he does well, while ignoring or working around his flaws. In Siri’s case, he hits homers (25, second on the team) and plays elite defense (10 outs above average). The Rays could get Manuel Margot back soon; he just began a short rehab stint as he works his way back from elbow trouble. Siri has had a better 2023, but he and Margot are roughly equivalent in bottom-line production overall, even if the shape of their games is different. Still, that’s the Rays. They tend to have an answer for every problem. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 5
The Astros continue to confound. After ending August with a resounding sweep of the Red Sox at Fenway Park, Houston began September by getting swept at home by a Yankees club mired in a kind of catatonic stupor. Then they went up to Arlington and clubbed a revved-up rival in the Rangers by a three-game score of 39-10. Then, after taking two of three from the Padres, the Astros lost two straight — scoring just two runs — at home to the A’s, who have been firmly in last place in the AL West since April 7. Houston is as healthy as it’s been all season and we probably can dismiss all of this as “it’s baseball.” But it’s still confusing. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 9
Milwaukee’s big three — Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta — continues to roll as the team heads for another postseason appearance. Decisive wins over the Marlins earlier this week showcased what the Brewers can do in the playoffs: roll out more pitching than most opponents can. Woodruff’s complete game shutout Monday, for example, was a thing of beauty as he gave up six hits while striking out seven in the 12-0 win. The next night it was Peralta’s turn — he struck out nine over 6⅓ innings while giving up just a run on two hits. Then came the NL’s third-ranked bullpen, as Hoby Milner, Abner Uribe and Devin Williams all sport ERA’s under 2.00. That 3-1 win Tuesday showcased the Brewers’ formula for October — though they’ll also certainly take the blowout. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 8
The Blue Jays missed a golden opportunity to bury one of their prime competitors this week when they dropped the first two games of a crucial four-game set against Texas. The Rangers entered the series at the Rogers Centre reeling but took the first two games against a Toronto club that had won six of seven and welcomed Bo Bichette back to the lineup. Those two losses not only pushed the Blue Jays back to the brink of falling off the right-now AL playoff bracket but also clinched the season series between the teams in Texas’ favor. Thus, if the last playoff slot comes down to a tiebreaker between the pair, the Lone Star guys will get the nod. It has been that kind of season for Toronto, as the Jays just haven’t been able to put together a prolonged hot streak since early in the campaign. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 10
One of the key players of this postseason will be Phillies closer Craig Kimbrel. As we saw last year, the Phillies have the talent to perform better in October than in the regular season — including beating the Braves — but they’ll likely need Kimbrel to lock down the ninth inning. His postseason history is checkered, however, with a 4.13 ERA and 13 runs in 24 career innings. He was last in the playoffs with the White Sox in 2021 and allowed runs in two of his three appearances. With the Red Sox in 2018, he allowed runs in five of his nine appearances. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 6
The Mariners temporarily fell back out of a playoff position after an ugly 3-8 road trip against the Mets, Reds and Rays in which they suffered two walk-off losses. Then, in their home series opener to the Angels on Monday, they lost in 11 innings after Julio Rodriguez had tied the game with a two-run home run in the 10th. But wins on Tuesday and Wednesday put the Mariners back into a wild-card spot, one game ahead of the Blue Jays. Rodriguez became the 44th member of the 30-30 club as he continues his torrid hitting streak — he’s now closing in on 100 RBIs and 100 runs and has hit .384 since July 25. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 7
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Texas righted the ship — at least for now — by going on a mini win streak after getting swept by the Astros early last week. The big question for the Rangers, though, is whether they can survive the injuries to Adolis Garcia, Josh Jung and now Max Scherzer, who will miss the rest of the regular season, and possibly the playoffs, with a shoulder injury. Scherzer’s injury certainly makes the job that much harder on the mound, and the Rangers already had pitching issues from Dane Dunning, Nathan Eovaldi and others. The pen has also been a hot mess, compiling a season-long ERA close to 5.00, which ranks in the bottom five in MLB.
Considering all of that, it’s no wonder Texas is in a dogfight in the AL West. At least Corey Seager continues to be a leader on offense. He homered twice and hit .364 last week, which included three hits — two of them doubles — in Tuesday’s 6-3 win over the Blue Jays. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 11
The future is now for the Cubs’ No.1 prospect, Pete Crow-Armstrong. He arrived just in time to roam spacious Coors Field, making multiple highlight-reel catches in his first MLB start this week. The Cubs will undoubtedly use him on defense late in games while giving him spot starts down the stretch. It’s possible that could be the plan in October, as Crow-Armstrong’s speed and defense make him a valuable postseason commodity. Meanwhile, Justin Steele continued his Cy Young bid with another good outing last week. In his first two starts this month, he pitched 15 innings while giving up a single earned run. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 12
Byron Buxton received a cortisone shot to address inflammation in his right knee. The oft-injured outfielder exited a rehab start for Triple-A St. Paul on Sept. 1, just his second outing for the Saints. Despite this, Twins trainer Nick Paparesta told reporters the club still expects Buxton to return this season. He added that the notion of Buxton patrolling center field, at least part of the time, is still on the table. Obviously, the Twins would have a better shot at reaching their full potential in October if that were to happen. At the same time, if you’ve been following Buxton and the Twins to any extent, you know it’s nothing to count on. Sadly, everyone in Minnesota has plenty of experience in dealing with limbo when it comes to the team’s most talented player. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 14
In a trade market devoid of premium bats, Tommy Pham is standing out as one of the most prized acquisitions. The 35-year-old outfielder has been a major boost to a young D-backs team fighting for a playoff spot, slashing .300/.340/.580 in September and coming up with timely hits, most notably an eighth-inning, game-tying home run in his return to Citi Field on Monday. The D-backs are also raving about his influence in the clubhouse.
“He’s on a quest to make this team better by being himself and sharing information on what he knows through experience he’s got,” D-backs manager Torey Lovullo told reporters. “To talk about the consistency of the at-bats, the consistency of the workouts — it’s just setting a standard for what we believe in, and the young players see it.” — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 15
A series loss to the Cardinals over the weekend didn’t help the Reds’ playoff hopes, but they remain firmly in the race for the final NL wild-card spot. Newly acquired outfielder Hunter Renfroe had a rough week, going just 2-for-13 at the plate in an eight-day span through Tuesday. Fellow newcomer Harrison Bader fared better, going 4-for-15 and driving in three runs, while rookie Elly De La Cruz was 3-for-23 with five strikeouts. He’s hitting just .167 in September. This might serve as a reminder that Cincinnati’s best hope is in the future, not the present. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 17
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The race for the NL’s final wild-card spot remains tight, but the Giants are getting some much-needed reinforcements back. Their rookie catcher, Patrick Bailey, returned from a concussion Wednesday. Ross Stripling, out since Aug. 16 because of a back strain, threw a four-inning simulated game Monday and is seemingly ready to return, based on his public frustration over not yet being activated. Michael Conforto, who suffered a Grade 2 hamstring strain Aug. 23, could return to the Giants’ lineup before the end of the week. Conforto was slashing .424/.500/.636 over an 11-game stretch before going down. The Giants, with the majors’ second-fewest runs per game in the second half, would love nothing more than to see him pick up where he left off. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 16
Series wins over the Dodgers and Phillies were huge, but the Marlins came out of those series and scored one run in two losses to the Brewers, halting any playoff momentum they had. Nobody has pulled away yet in that race for the final wild-card spot, however, so the Marlins are still hanging in there. Let’s give a shoutout to Tanner Scott, who has been the team’s one consistent reliever all season. He’s in the top 10 among all MLB relievers in strikeouts, holds (he also has seven saves) and innings. Most impressively, he’s first in win probability added, just ahead of Alexis Diaz, Felix Bautista and Gerrit Cole. Pretty good company there. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 13
Barring a miracle run, the Red Sox have fallen out of playoff contention, though their race against the Yankees to avoid the AL East cellar remains a nail-biter. Rafael Devers mashed his 30th homer, a rainbow shot to right, in a doubleheader against New York. He has three 30-homer seasons under his belt even though he has yet to turn 27 years old. Among players who have played at least half their games at third base for Boston, Devers is fourth in bWAR (behind Wade Boggs, Larry Gardner and Jimmy Collins) but he’s far and away the franchise homer leader at the position. His 169 career bombs is 38 more than second-place Frank Malzone, Boston’s regular at the hot corner from 1957 to 1965. Only Boggs and Malzone have had longer third-base tenures for the Red Sox than Devers, who is at seven seasons and counting. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 18
After a brief uptick, the Yankees’ doom-struck season resumed its inevitable course with two more depressing developments. First, starter Luis Severino was lost for the season because of an oblique injury. Overall, it was a nightmarish campaign for the righty as he finished 4-8 with a 6.65 ERA and 6.15 FIP, though he had been pitching much better of late, putting up a 2.49 ERA over his past four outings. And that wasn’t even the real gut punch of the week. That would have to be the news that rookie center fielder Jasson Dominguez was headed for elbow surgery that will probably keep him out into next season. For now, Dominguez’s career numbers are stuck at eight games, four homers and a .677 slugging percentage, but at least they are frozen in a state that can offer fans in the Bronx some hope until he returns. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 19
Yu Darvish, dealing with a stress reaction and a bone spur in his right elbow, announced Tuesday that he had given up on returning before season’s end, shutting down his throwing program in hopes that his arm will ultimately heal without the need for surgery. Manny Machado, however, continues to play. The Padres’ star third baseman has been dealing with a recurrence of tennis elbow for a few weeks, prompting him to spend all month relegated to DH duties. Offseason surgery is a possibility. But for now, barring more intense pain, he intends to keep playing — at least until the Padres are eliminated, which could happen soon. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 20
Cleveland is now closer to third-place Detroit than first-place Minnesota, so the news that Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie made rehab starts Tuesday and Wednesday comes a little too late — although at least it’s good news that they’re healthy enough to pitch, a positive sign for 2024 (Bieber will no doubt be potential trade bait in the offseason, however). Indeed, as the season winds down, it will be interesting to see what the Guardians do in the outfield. Their outfielders have hit just 17 home runs — last in the majors by a large margin. Steven Kwan is a likely Gold Glover in left field and has a solid OBP, but they’re going to have to upgrade in center and right. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 21
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Shohei Ohtani missed only two of the Angels’ first 137 games, despite suffering a tear of his right ulnar collateral ligament near the end of that stretch. Then he tweaked an oblique muscle during a rare session of outdoor batting practice Sept. 4 and hasn’t played since. Wednesday marked the 10th consecutive time in which Ohtani tried to get himself ready to be in the starting lineup but couldn’t. He has yet to give up on serving as the Angels’ designated hitter this season, but there is no telling when he will be able to do so again. He still leads the majors in OPS and the AL in home runs, while having contributed a 3.14 ERA in 132 innings as a pitcher. He shouldn’t have to take another plate appearance to lock up his second MVP. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 23
We’re into the home stretch of Miguel Cabrera’s career and it’s hard to predict what will happen. Cabrera has struggled badly at times but every so often, a little vintage Miggy emerges, such as in his four-hit game against the White Sox on Sept. 2. There is still time for him to do a little end-of-career chart climbing. At 510 career homers, he’s one shy of Mel Ott for 25th. He’s also one extra-base hit behind Adrian Beltre for 14th. And if that next extra-base hit is a double, it would tie Hank Aaron at No. 13. Even if none of these things happens, the fact that Cabrera is among a group that includes Ott, Beltre and Aaron tells you all you need to know about what kind of career he has had. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 22
Ronny Mauricio continues to impress in his first two weeks in the majors and blasted his first career home run, a 440-foot shot into the second deck in right field. Mauricio has played second base in all his games while Jeff McNeil has slid into left field, perhaps a sign of how the Mets will align things in 2024. McNeil is signed through 2026, but he has now had two less-than-stellar seasons sandwiched around his batting title in 2022, so his bat doesn’t necessarily profile all that well in left field. Indeed, McNeil and Starling Marte could both face job competition in 2024 from DJ Stewart, who has earned a look next year thanks to his impressive hitting the past few weeks. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 25
Pittsburgh got a much-needed well-pitched game from Bailey Falter in Tuesday’s 5-1 win over Washington. Even with his outing, the Pirates compiled a 5.00 ERA last week. Pitching will be an offseason need as much as anything for Pittsburgh, which features depth in position players but not as much on the mound. Outside of Mitch Keller, it has been a task to find consistent starting pitching. Meanwhile, Oneil Cruz has been shut down so his 2023 was a lost season after he fractured his ankle in April. The Pirates should have a good offense next season if Cruz and others stay healthy, but pitching will be the No.1 focus all winter. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 26
Adam Wainwright finally got win No.199 this week, over the AL’s best team, the Orioles. Now, he’ll have a couple chances to get No. 200, first at home then on the road. St. Louis plans to honor him during his final weekend as a Cardinal. It’s about the only thing the organization can celebrate this year. Though, one bright spot has been the progression of outfielder Jordan Walker, whose season-long numbers are looking pretty good right now. He’s hitting .300 with a .945 OPS just this month and is showing signs of being the complete player the Cardinals need as they focus on pitching this offseason. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 24
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It took a little longer than expected to make the official announcement, but the club has agreed to a multiyear extension with longtime GM Mike Rizzo (to go with the two-year extension given to manager Dave Martinez in August). The Nationals have been more competitive than expected this season as the franchise continues its rebuild.
“I don’t think that it’s a successful season, but it’s a very encouraging season,” Rizzo told reporters. “Nobody wants to win 70 games in a season; we want to win 97 games in a season. So that’s our goal, that’s always been our goal, but this is a good step in the right direction to that.” — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 27
Manager Pedro Grifol sent a not-so-subtle message to rookie outfielder Oscar Colas when he demoted him to Triple-A recently — a rare move for a prospect who needs playing time on a team out of it in September. Grifol told reporters that Colas needed to work on all aspects of his game. The same could probably be said of the whole team, as the White Sox attempt to avoid losing 100 games for the fifth time in franchise history. That’s as many as they lost in 2018 when they were in mid-rebuild. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 28
With a blowout loss to the division-rival Giants on Saturday, the Rockies became the third team to be mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, joining the A’s and Royals. They were 51-90 by that point, having dropped 15 of their previous 18 games. With 2½ weeks remaining, the Rockies must go no worse than 10-7 to avoid the first 100-loss season in franchise history. Given how it’s been going lately, that feels impossible. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 29
Cole Ragans’ streak of scoreless innings ended at 26 in Sunday’s loss to the Blue Jays. Ragans had allowed just one hit over 5⅔ scoreless innings, but a couple of walks and a few wild pitches culminated in two runs. He walked six in the game, showing his first serious issues with control since coming to the Royals. Batters are hitting just .192 off him in his nine starts with just one home run allowed in 53⅓ innings. Get him for your fantasy team next year. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 30
The Astros began the week leading the majors in runs scored since the All-Star break, and the A’s had won only one of 10 games against them all season. But Ken Waldichuk followed an opener with six no-hit innings against Houston on Monday, despite striking out only three batters, and JP Sears contributed six innings of two-run ball Tuesday, clinching the A’s sixth road series victory of the season. Justin Verlander offered a tip of the cap afterward, telling reporters, “They’re making good pitches, and their hitters are really locked in right now. They have some good young talent.” — Gonzalez