This is our last week ranking every team in the league. Once the calendar turns to September, we’re going to be focusing on the teams still in the running for postseason play. So say your final words to the teams who have already started focusing on 2022 and beyond, because these will be ours … in this space, at least.
30. Baltimore Orioles (Last Week: 30)
29. Texas Rangers (LW: 29)
28. Arizona Diamondbacks (LW: 27)
27. Pittsburgh Pirates (LW: 28)
26. Chicago Cubs (LW: 26)
No team embraced the seller’s mentality at the trade deadline more than the Cubs, who offloaded most of their remaining ties to the 2016 World Series team as well as a trio of bullpen arms in Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Chafin and Ryan Tepera. The North Siders have predictably cratered in the aftermath, winning just two of nine series with an NL-worst August record of 6–20.
The offense actually hasn’t missed a beat despite the departures of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez. Before the trade deadline, Chicago ranked 22nd in the majors with a 91 wRC+ and scored 4.23 runs per game. Since then, it holds an 88 wRC+ with 4.36 runs per game. A pair of unusually old rookies in third baseman Patrick Wisdom (a former Cardinals farmhand who turned 30 on Friday) and first baseman Frank Schwindel (a former 18th-round pick who turns 30 next June) and 30-year-old journeyman outfielder Rafael Ortega have given hope to longtime minor leaguers across baseball by deservedly claiming everyday spots in manager David Ross’s lineup. None of them will likely play a major role for the next Cubs playoff team—Wisdom seems to possess the most staying power of the trio after hitting 25 homers in 82 games—but they’ve nonetheless provided some feel-good moments amid one of the more complete midseason teardowns in recent memory.
There haven’t been nearly as many positive takeaways from the pitching staff. Chicago’s 7.21 ERA in August is the worst among National League clubs by more than a run and a half, with the rotation’s 7.11 ERA and the bullpen’s 7.33 ERA in August both ranking 29th in the majors. Alec Mills, who reeled off 8 1/3 scoreless innings against the White Sox in the Cubs’ lone victory in the intracity series Saturday, is the only rotation member with an ERA below 6.00 over the last month. Adbert Alzolay is the NL’s co-leader in losses (13) despite missing a handful of starts due to minor injuries and he has been extremely hittable during the summer after a promising first couple of months.
Even after acquiring 13 young players in their eight July trades, the Cubs landed only two in MLB.com’s midseason top 100 prospect rankings, with lefthander Brailyn Márquez being the organization’s only pitcher at No. 93. Márquez’s rare 80-grade fastball reached 102 mph in 2019, but he lost a year of minor-league seasoning due to the pandemic in '20 and has yet to pitch in '21 due to a COVID-19 diagnosis and subsequent shoulder injury. Chicago built its curse-breaking championship squad around a strong core of position players, but it’s safe to say the franchise needs to develop more MLB-caliber pitchers than it has in recent years to rebuild itself into a contending squad.
25. Minnesota Twins (LW: 25)
24. Washington Nationals (LW: 23)
23. Miami Marlins (LW: 24)
Miami’s young, talented pitching staff helped the Fish maintain a positive run differential through the first half before prolonged absences from leading Rookie of the Year candidate Trevor Rogers and Pablo López sent them spiraling after the All-Star break. The Marlins entered last week with a second-half record of 11–26. But in winning series against the Nationals and Reds at home, they showcased a couple of more arms who could form the backbone of a formidable club in the near future.
After struggling badly in his first five starts for his hometown team, Jesús Luzardo tied a career high with eight strikeouts over six shutout innings against the Reds on Sunday. The secret? Glasses. Or perhaps a first start with Sandy Leon behind the plate rather than Alex Jackson, a fellow trade deadline acquisition without the game management experience of Leon. Regardless, it was good to see the Stoneman Douglas graduate flash his potential for dominance after logging an ugly 7.91 ERA in 18 games with Oakland and Miami this season.
That came just a few days after the major-league debut of the team’s No. 2 prospect Edward Cabrera, who recorded a quality start Wednesday and needed just 57 pitches to get through the first six innings before appearing to tire in the seventh. Cabrera is ranked by MLB.com as the sport’s 30th-best prospect. Max Meyer, the No. 3 pick in the 2020 draft, is one spot behind him and has a 1.97 ERA in Double A this year with just five homers allowed in 17 starts. No. 77–ranked Jake Eder, a left-handed Vanderbilt product, has been even better at the same level. And then there’s Sixto Sánchez, who’s been shut down for the season with a shoulder injury but entered the year as the organization’s best pitching prospect due to his enticing combination of command and stuff—including a changeup that’s drawn comparisons to Pedro Martínez’s.
In contrast to the Cubs, Miami is in desperate need of difference-making position players. Lewis Brinson caught fire for the first couple of weeks of August, but the former top prospect is 27 years old and seems destined to max out as a fourth outfielder. Former Division I home run leader JJ Bleday, the No. 4 pick in the 2019 draft, is barely above the Mendoza line at Double A this year. Shortstop Kahlil Watson was a steal for general manager Kim Ng at No. 16 in the 2021 draft, but he’s 18 and is projected to arrive in Miami in '24 at the earliest. Perhaps outfielder Bryan De La Cruz, who’s slashed .355/.390/.473 since coming over in the Yimi García trade, turns into a useful piece. There’s not much else in the cupboard as far as high-ceiling hitters go. But with a league-high seven players in MLB.com’s top 100 prospect rankings, there are far worse places a rebuilding franchise could be.
22. Kansas City Royals (LW: 22)
21. Colorado Rockies (LW: 21)
20. Detroit Tigers (LW: 20)
19. Los Angeles Angels (LW: 19)
18. New York Mets (LW: 17)
17. Cleveland (LW: 18)
16. St. Louis Cardinals (LW: 15)
15. Philadelphia Phillies (LW: 16)
14. San Diego Padres (LW: 12)
13. Seattle Mariners (LW: 13)
Losing three out of four to the Royals in a long weekend series at home, with every game decided by one or two runs, was a tough string of results to swallow for Mariners fans. The M’s now sit 4.5 games behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race with the A's also sitting between them and their first playoff appearance since 2001. FanGraphs gives Seattle just a 1.9% chance of snapping that drought, with Baseball Reference’s projections just a smidge much more optimistic at 2.8%.
The fact that this team is even in this spot remains a remarkable feat for manager Scott Servais, GM Jerry Dipoto and the 61 different players who have suited up for the Mariners in 2021—the most in the American League, per The Athletic’s Corey Brock. The clubhouse mood was seemingly threatened in July by Dipoto’s trade of Kendall Graveman to the rival Astros, but that deal has turned out to be a win-win deal thus far with Abraham Toro slashing .313/.388/.443 in 30 games for Seattle, most of them at the keystone. The bullpen has also held up well without its former closer, with Mariners relievers combining for a 3.16 ERA in August, the fifth-best mark in the majors, despite the loss of newly acquired closer Diego Castillo to a shoulder injury.
The rotation’s three soft-tossing lefty starters have seen varied results as of late. Marco Gonzales (1.95 ERA in eight second-half starts) is once again pitching like an ace after struggling badly early on. Yusei Kikuchi has taken the opposite path, with his brutal second half inflating his HR/FB rate to an MLB-high 24.1% this season—after his stellar first half earned him an All-Star bid. Deadline acquisition Tyler Anderson has been somewhere in between, walking just three batters to go along with 25 strikeouts and a 3.18 ERA in 34 innings since coming over from Pittsburgh.
With its season hanging in the balance, Seattle is entering an odd portion of its schedule where it plays only the division-leading Astros and the cellar-dwelling Diamondbacks over the next 12 games. The Mariners feel destined to hang on the outskirts of the playoff race before making a real run for it next year, when No. 1 prospect Julio Rodríguez should be ready to showcase his impressive power at Safeco Field. But if they can win eight games in the aforementioned stretch, it’ll be hard for the projection systems not to take them more seriously.
12. Toronto Blue Jays (LW: 14)
11. Cincinnati Reds (LW: 11)
10. Oakland A’s (LW: 9)
9. Boston Red Sox (LW: 10)
8. Atlanta Braves (LW: 8)
Atlanta’s recent nine-game winning streak was halted in a two-game sweep by the Yankees last week, but the Braves recovered over rare consecutive off days to take two of three from the Giants. The schedule the rest of the way is an odd one that features three separate trips to the West Coast, including an NLCS rematch this week with the Dodgers. But after going 18–6 in August to stake out a 4.5-game lead in the NL East, the Braves are granted an 83.5% chance of winning their fourth straight division title by FanGraphs and an 87.8% chance by Baseball Reference.
It’d be easy to attribute Atlanta’s recent surge to GM Alex Anthopoulos’s flashy outfield makeover at the trade deadline. The four (!) new outfielders have certainly done their part, especially Jorge Soler, who’s slashed .283/.396/.543 with seven home runs in 25 games with Atlanta. Even Eddie Rosario went 2-for-4 with a triple, two RBIs and a stolen base in his first start with the Braves on Sunday after returning from an abdominal strain that had sidelined him since early July. But that’d be ignoring the historic contributions of the infield and a pitching staff that’s finally settled into a groove. Atlanta boasts six reliable starters after Ian Anderson celebrated his return from the injured list Sunday by shutting out the Giants over 5 2/3 innings.
Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley are on pace to become just the second infield to all hit at least 25 home runs in a season, joining the 2008 Marlins. They also could become the first in history to all reach the 30-homer mark, though Albies would have to ramp up his output a tad. Swanson has been MLB's most valuable shortstop by fWAR (1.8) since the All-Star break. Riley is two home runs away from becoming just the third Braves player this century to hit 30 homers at age 24 or younger, joining Ronald Acuña Jr. and Andruw Jones. The third baseman entered Sunday leading the NL with a .362 batting average since the All-Star break, and ranked second over that span in home runs and third in OPS and wRC+.
The return of Travis d’Arnaud behind the plate has also been significant after Braves backup catchers combined for a league-worst -1.1 fWAR and 46 wRC+ in his three-month absence caused by a thumb injury.
Atlanta’s 3.44 ERA since the All-Star break ranks fifth in the majors. Max Fried (1.90 ERA in seven second-half starts) and Charlie Morton have the makings of a powerful lefty-righty punch for the top of the playoff rotation, and Huascar Ynoa has recorded quality starts against the Yankees and Giants since returning from his self-inflicted broken hand. While Will Smith’s tendency to make things interesting in the ninth looms as a potential postseason Achilles' heel—he’s allowed five home runs in 17 1/3 innings since the All-Star break—there’s enough depth in the bullpen to displace him from the closer’s role if necessary. The Braves still can’t claim to be in the top tier of contenders without Acuña, and the NL East race is far from over. But Brian Snitker’s crew should still harbor expectations of making noise in October.
7. New York Yankees (LW: 7)
6. Chicago White Sox (LW: 6)
5. Houston Astros (LW: 5)
4. Milwaukee Brewers (LW: 3)
3. Tampa Bay Rays (LW: 4)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (LW: 2)
1. San Francisco Giants (LW: 1)
Now that we’re on September’s doorstep, we can officially say we have the modern equivalent of a pennant race on our hands in the NL West. It turns out that with the baseball world ready to crown Dodgers-Padres as the game’s next great rivalry, the division is actually coming down to what’s long been the West Coast’s two best franchises.
The amount of factoids connecting these fierce rivals is truly bizarre. The Giants are 27–14 since the All-Star break, while the Dodgers are 26–14. San Francisco had won nine consecutive series before losing two of three in Atlanta over the weekend. Los Angeles had won eight straight series before inexplicably losing two of three to the Rockies at home that same weekend. The previous series the Dodgers had lost was to the Giants, of course. San Francisco’s 2.96 ERA in August ranks as the second-best in the NL, with Los Angeles’s 2.23 ERA coming out on top. Dodgers ace Walker Buehler’s 1.32 ERA in the second half is the best among NL starters. The second-best? San Francisco’s Logan Webb (1.69), of course.
Both clubs also took big swings at the deadline; San Francisco brought in former MVP Kris Bryant, which would qualify as the most impactful midseason addition of many seasons. But Los Angeles had to go and pull off perhaps the biggest trade deadline blockbuster of all time. Bryant has an .867 OPS in 22 games with the Giants. Trea Turner has an .861 OPS in 21 games with the Dodgers.
The Giants are staring down the toughest homestand of the season this week with three-game sets against the NL Central–leading Brewers and Dodgers … who begin the week with a home set against the NL East–leading Braves. If I had to make a pick now, I’d still go with the Dodgers to win their ninth straight division title. But it sure seems like it’ll go down to the wire.
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