The calendar has flipped to September, and you know what that means: it’s time to yank up those stirrups and tighten those belts, because we’ve officially headed down the final turn to the home stretch.
This year, MLB has tweaked its rules allowing for expanded rosters during September, dropping the limit from 40 to 28. In keeping with the spirit of that rule, we’re trimming the number of teams that are featured in this space. This week, we’ll rank the top 17 teams that are still reasonably in the hunt for a playoff spot, highlighting a handful for further analysis. Without further ado, let’s get to it.
17. New York Mets (Last Week: 18)
16. St. Louis Cardinals (LW: 16)
15. Philadelphia Phillies (LW: 15)
Just 11 days ago, the Phillies were a game under .500 and 5.5 games behind the Braves in the National League East. FanGraphs gave them a meager 12.6% chance at making the playoffs, which felt generous after the team had lost 11 of its past 15 games.
Since then, however, the Fightin' Phils have ripped off seven wins in their last nine games to move just two games back of Atlanta. The bats have picked up the pace, and Bryce Harper has been leading the charge. The 28-year-old is enjoying his best season since winning the MVP Award in 2015. He’s hitting .368/.441/.737 with five home runs and 14 RBI in his last 15 games.
Harper’s not alone in peaking at the right time, though. Outfield mates Andrew McCutchen and Odúbel Herrera have also been swinging hot bats, as well as Brad Miller and J.T. Realmuto. Philadelphia has scored an average 6.3 runs over its last 10 games after spending most of the season ranking in the middle of the pack offensively.
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To keep pace with the Braves over the next few weeks, those bats will need to keep producing as the competition gets stiffer. The Phillies are set to face the Brewers for three games beginning Monday, and though they’re fortunate to miss Corbin Burnes, they’ll still face Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta. Interestingly, Philadelphia is undefeated in four games with Milwaukee this season, with two of those coming against Woodruff and Peralta back in May. The Phillies offense fared much better against Peralta—touching him up for five runs in four innings—than it did vs. Woodruff, who allowed one run with 11 strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings.
After facing the Brewers for three games, the schedule eases up considerably. The Phillies will play 14 of their subsequent 17 games against the Rockies, Cubs, Orioles and Pirates before a critical three-game road trip to Atlanta. If they can beat up those bottom-dwellers, they could set up a winner-take-all showdown against the Braves a postseason berth on the line. If he stays hot and leads his team to a division crown, Harper could find himself a real threat to nabbing his second MVP trophy, too.
14. Cincinnati Reds (LW: 11)
13. San Diego Padres (LW: 14)
12. Oakland Athletics (LW: 10)
It seemed as if this was destined to be another year of the A’s outperforming expectations and once again making the postseason. Oakland was 67–48 on Aug. 12 and just 1.5 games behind the Astros for first place in the AL West. Since then, the A's have dropped 15 of their last 22 games to fade to the bottom of the AL postseason picture. Sunday’s 8–0 blowout loss to the Blue Jays capped a three-game sweep in which Toronto scored a combined 29 runs and hit nine home runs.
The A’s have leaned on a balanced, productive starting rotation all season long, but the group has started to wear down at the worst possible time. Lefthander Sean Manaea pitched well against the Blue Jays on Friday but is 0–3 with an 8.00 ERA in six games since the start of August. Rookie James Kaprielian has a 6.67 ERA and given up seven home runs in 29 2/3 innings over his last six starts. Cole Irvin, who has pitched beyond the fifth inning just once in his last five outings, was tagged for seven runs in 2 1/3 frames on Sunday.
Chris Bassitt’s injury and questionable return only makes matters worse, and the bullpen hasn’t kept up its end of the bargain lately either. For the A’s to have any hope of halting this tailspin, they’ll need their offense to continue producing. Matt Chapman seemingly has put his early-season struggles behind him, while Starling Marte quietly has been among the most impactful trade deadline acquisitions in the league.
There’s still time to salvage the season. Oakland has three games at home against the White Sox—who have struggled on the road and against teams with winning records this season—before playing nine games against the Rangers, Royals and Angels. That precedes the final 13-game stretch against the Mariners and Astros, the two clubs Oakland is desperate to catch. A strong showing against the non-contenders would position the A’s for a chance at redemption, but the margin for error is shrinking by the day.
11. Seattle Mariners (LW: 13)
10. Atlanta Braves (LW: 8)
9. Toronto Blue Jays (LW: 12)
8. Boston Red Sox (LW: 9)
7. New York Yankees (LW: 7)
A crash back to Earth should have been expected after the Yankees ripped off 13 straight wins, but dropping two out of three at home to the Orioles is a new low for this once storied franchise. All kidding aside, New York has positioned itself well to once again make the playoffs, though it might need another double-digit win streak to run down the Rays (more on them later).
Two-thirds of the Yankees’ Big Boy Outfield have been pulling their weight, with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton finding their stride offensively. That group didn’t deliver on Sunday, with Judge, Stanton and Joey Gallo going a combined 0-for-12, but Judge and Stanton are hitting a combined .319 with 19 home runs and 54 RBI since the start of August. Not many other Yankees bats have produced regularly in recent weeks, which makes the duo’s ability to remain in the lineup on a daily basis that much more vital.
Beyond an offense with plenty of big names but lacking in consistent contributors, the club’s biggest concern is its starting pitching. Corey Kluber is back but has surrendered seven runs in 7 2/3 innings over his first two starts since coming off the injured list, with five walks and two home runs allowed. Trade deadline acquisition Andrew Heaney has been abysmal since coming over from the Angels, posting a 7.62 ERA in 28 1/3 innings with New York. He’s since been moved to the bullpen, another woe for the Yankees given the erratic performances from Aroldis Chapman this season and the recent injury to Jonathan Loaisiga. Jameson Taillon was one of the best starters in baseball for about a month (July 6–Aug. 9), when he posted a 1.25 ERA across seven starts, but he's struggled in his four outings since (8.20 ERA). That leaves the rotation with the excellent Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery, who quietly has had a good season (3.47 ERA, 3.4 WAR).
Cole is 4–0 with a 0.73 ERA and 39 strikeouts over his last four starts, and he’s likely on his way to picking up his first career Cy Young Award. The Yankees will face the Rays for three games at home to close out the regular season, and they could make that an interesting series if they’re able to heat up over the next couple of weeks. If not, they’re likely better off lining up Cole to pitch in the wild-card game, which would be a Yankees vs. Red Sox matchup if we could be so lucky.
6. Chicago White Sox (LW: 6)
5. Houston Astros (LW: 5)
4. Milwaukee Brewers (LW: 4)
3. Tampa Bay Rays (LW: 3)
It seems no matter who’s on the mound or in the lineup, the Rays simply cannot be stopped. They’ve won 22 of their last 29 games, and haven’t sustained a losing streak of more than two games since July 28. Since trading their primary closer Diego Castillo at the deadline, Tampa Bay’s last 11 saves have been recorded by eight different pitchers, with Andrew Kittredge leading the way at four.
The Rays’s ability to dip into a seemingly endless supply of effective relief pitchers is arguably the biggest reason they hold the best record in the American League. No bullpen has pitched more innings than Tampa Bay (583 2/3), and the group has the best ERA (3.07) and second-lowest home run rate (0.91 HR/9) in the AL. The starting rotation has also been a strength-in-numbers operation, with nine different starting pitchers being used over the last month. That group’s standout has been rookie Shane McClanahan, who is 6–2 with a 3.28 ERA and 59 strikeouts over his last nine starts.
Offensively, the story follows a similar script. Of the dozen Rays hitters who have amassed at least 200 plate appearances this season, 10 of them have a wRC+ above the league’s average of 100. Five of those players top 120, including wunderkind Wander Franco, who collected two more hits in Sunday’s 6–5 loss to the Twins to extend his on-base streak to 35 games—the third-longest such streak by a player 20 years old or younger.
That type of unrivaled depth is the same tactical advantage the Rays used to win the pennant a year ago, and it’s the invaluable edge that makes them such a difficult out in a five- or seven-game series. No club is perfect and everybody has weaknesses, but you can squint all you’d like at the Rays right now and have a difficult time finding any of consequence.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (LW: 2)
1. San Francisco Giants (LW: 1)
More MLB Coverage:
• How MLB Squashed its Fake-Memorabilia Problem
• How Do We Make Sense of the Mets?
• September Call-Ups Who Could Impact the Playoff Race
• When the Mets’ Woes Are More Insidious Than Just the Jokes
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