Our weekly contender rankings lost one more team this week. We’re officially saying goodbye to the Mets after they were swept by the Cardinals and dropped two of three to the Phillies. New York is 5.5 games back in the NL East and seven out in the wild-card standings with 12 games to go. Only three of those games come against a team the Mets are chasing for a playoff spot, in their final series at Atlanta. Time has just about run out in Year 1 of the Steve Cohen era. Thumbs down all around.
That leaves us with 16 teams vying for 10 postseason spots, including two who had the odds stacked against them up until very recently. Here’s how things look with two weeks to play in the regular season.
16. San Diego Padres (LW: 14)
15. Seattle Mariners (LW: 12)
At four games back in the wild-card race, the Mariners are the team furthest out of the playoff picture included in our contender rankings—but they aren’t nearly as messy as the Padres are right now, so we’ll keep them ahead of the floundering Friars for the moment. Seattle’s postseason outlook is quite bleak, though, after losing a series to the Red Sox last week. Toronto and Boston currently occupy the wild-card spots, with the Yankees and Athletics also both ahead of the Mariners in the pecking order. Entering Monday, their playoff odds are at 1.4%, according to Baseball-Reference, and 0.8%, per FanGraphs.
Most likely, the Mariners will extend their postseason drought, the longest in North American professional sports, to two decades. However, enough positive developments have unfolded this season to generate deserved optimism about the future of the club. Just on Sunday, two of the Seattle's top prospects, Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert, led the way in a must-win game against the Royals to clinch the three-game series. Kelenic went 3-for-4 with three RBIs and launched his third homer of the weekend in the 7–1 win; Gilbert allowed just one run on three hits over seven innings. Neither youngster has found life in the big leagues to be easy. Kelenic’s 71 wRC+ ranks 226th among the 241 MLB players with at least 300 plate appearances, while Gilbert has faded in the second half and taken his lumps while logging a 4.74 ERA. (Gilbert isn’t alone in that regard; opponents have hit .301 against All-Star Yusei Kikuchi since the All-Star break to tag him with a team-high 5.82 ERA over that span.) But Kelenic and Gilbert are both still under age 25—Kelenic is one of the league’s youngest regulars at age 22—and have plenty of time to adapt. In fact, Kelenic appears to already be finding his groove. In his 16 games this month, he's slashing .283/.348/.650 with six home runs and 15 RBIs.
It was announced last week that Seattle will host the All-Star game in 2023, marking the first time that’ll happen since 2001—the last season which saw the Mariners make the playoffs. If the M’s can once again supplement their hosting gig with a playoff appearance, the tenures of Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais will have to be considered a success. Wouldn’t it be something if they could do it before then, though? Kyle Seager and Mitch Haniger will both probably be out of the Emerald City by 2023, but they’ve both tallied 30-homer seasons this year to try to burnish their legacies with the franchise for which they’ve suffered through many losses. To do so, Seattle will need to go on a run over its final 13 games, all coming against the A's and Angels, and also hope the three AL East contenders go cold.
14. Cincinnati Reds (LW: 13)
13. Philadelphia Phillies (LW: 16)
12. New York Yankees (LW: 10)
11. Oakland A’s (LW: 11)
10. St. Louis Cardinals (LW: 15)
A little over a month ago, I declared the Cardinals “just about dead in the water,” given their minuscule playoff odds—both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference estimated their chances to be below 2%—and poor early returns from deadline acquisitions Jon Lester and J.A. Happ. Even 10 days ago, their playoff odds were just 5% on FanGraphs. Since then, all they’ve done is win eight in a row against a trio of playoff contenders—the Reds, Mets and Padres—and damn near kill the hopes of the latter two in the process. As a result, St. Louis now holds a three-game lead over Cincinnati for the second wild-card spot, with San Diego and the Phillies another half-game behind the Reds. Zooming out a bit, they’ve gone 35–23 since the All-Star break and 28–18 since adding Lester and Happ at the trade deadline. Those once-microscopic playoff odds now stand at 73.6% (FanGraphs) and at 76.0% (Baseball-Reference).
Jack Flaherty is trying to make it back to the mound before the playoffs, but the Cardinals are exercising caution as he works his way back from a shoulder strain and admit he likely won’t have time to ramp up his workload to that of a regular starter. A primary reason they’ve been able to withstand his absence for much of this season has been Adam Wainwright, who is pitching like the ace he was for many years. The 40-year-old’s 2.08 ERA since the All-Star break is fourth-best among NL starters, and his 2.6 fWAR ranks third. This resurgence, which comes after he recorded a 4.43 ERA over the previous five seasons, cannot be understated in terms of its importance, though it didn't exactly come out of nowhere. He pitched well down the stretch in 2019 and had a 3.15 ERA in last year's pandemic-shortened season. Happ and Lester have done what they were brought in to do and eaten valuable innings, but Wainwright has been the driving force in St. Louis. Giovanny Gallegos’s inheriting of the closer role following several meltdowns from Alex Reyes has solidified the back end of the bullpen, too.
However, the secret sauce to all of this team's success has been its defense—a key factor for a pitching staff with the third-lowest strikeout rate (20.1%) in the majors. The Cardinals have graded out as the best fielding team in the majors by Statcast’s outs-above-average metric (41), with the 24 OAA recorded behind Wainwright easily standing as the most any pitcher has benefited from in 2021. And while Happ and Lester have recorded similar walk rates, strikeout rates and FIPs before and after their arrivals in St. Louis, their surface-level stats have vastly improved in no small part to the glut of Gold Glove–caliber defenders behind them. Nolan Arenado, Harrison Bader, Tommy Edman, Paul Goldschmidt, Yadier Molina and Tyler O’Neill all rank among the best defenders at their positions by OAA.
Many will attribute the rise of Mike Shildt’s club to Cardinals Devils Magic, but this team's true formula to success is one it has been using for the better part of 20 years: pitching and defense.
9. Atlanta Braves (LW: 9)
8. Boston Red Sox (LW: 8)
Boston has won five in a row to grab a narrow lead in the wild-card race, a surprising and praiseworthy development after a COVID-19 outbreak ripped through the clubhouse and sidelined 13 players for various amounts of time. A couple of those players are still working their way back, but the Red Sox have persevered and gone 13–9 since Kiké Hernández became the first player to test positive for the virus on Aug. 27. They may end up as this year’s version of the Marlins—the team that wasn’t expected to contend but fended off a COVID-19 outbreak that reshaped the roster for several weeks to qualify for the playoffs.
Boston’s offense, which has been its calling card, maintained its high level of play during the trying test of its depth. The Red Sox rank third in runs scored since Hernández’s positive test set off a string of absences, including All-Star shortstop Xander Bogearts. First baseman Bobby Dalbec stepped up to lead the offense; he's hit seven home runs with a 191 wRC+ in 19 games since the start of the outbreak. But he was far from alone, as nine Boston players have topped a 100 wRC+ during the outbreak (min. 12 games in that span).
We’re six starts into Chris Sale’s return from Tommy John surgery, and other than a COVID-19-induced absence that the unvaccinated ace perhaps could have avoided, the results have mostly been encouraging. The 32-year-old hasn’t racked up strikeouts as often as he did during his prime, but he’s still averaging more than one per inning while recording a 2.40 ERA, which would rank as the third-best mark of his career. He’s the clear choice to start for the Red Sox in the wild-card game, if they get that far. And with three off days in the next eight days, manager Alex Cora has the luxury of setting his rotation up to accommodate that plan.
7. Toronto Blue Jays (LW: 7)
6. Chicago White Sox (LW: 6)
5. Milwaukee Brewers (LW: 4)
Despite clinching a playoff berth Saturday, the Brewers held off on popping champagne in the clubhouse. They instead are waiting until they clinch the NL Central to do so, which should happen this week. Milwaukee has come a long way under GM David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell. Including 2021, the Brewers have reached the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, the same number of postseason appearances they had in their franchise's first 49 years.
This group may end up as the best Brew Crew in team history; at 91–58, it almost certainly will break the current franchise record of 96 wins. That’s a phenomenal feat considering injuries have limited Christian Yelich's playing time (106 games) and production (eight home runs), and Jackie Bradley Jr. has been the worst hitter in the majors (36 wRC+) among those with at least 400 plate appearances. Every major midseason acquisition to upgrade the offense, from Willy Adames to Rowdy Tellez and Eduardo Escobar, has fit in seamlessly. Adames and Tellez both are currently on the injured list, but Adames is set to return Monday and Tellez should be back by the end of the regular season.
The lion’s share of the credit, of course, must go to the pitching staff. Of the 14 players with the most innings pitched, only Brett Anderson has an ERA above 4.00, and his 4.18 ERA is about the best you can hope for from a veteran innings-eater. Counsell’s decision to move to a six-man rotation early on in the season to give each starter an extra day of rest has worked out beautifully. Corbin Burnes may end up losing out on the NL Cy Young award due to the handful of starts he didn’t make, but he may not have pitched this well without the team managing his workload. On Saturday, in his first start since combining with Josh Hader for a no-hitter, Burnes recorded his eighth double-digit strikeout game and allowed his first home run in seven starts, snapping a 44-inning homer-less streak that was the longest active one in the majors.
But the Brewers' starter with the lowest ERA since the All-Star break isn’t Burnes, Brandon Woodruff or Freddy Peralta, who are regularly billed as the team’s Big Three. It’s Eric Lauer, whose 2.13 ERA is the seventh-lowest in the majors among pitchers with at least 50 innings in the second half. The 26-year-old lefty, who was drafted in the first round by the Padres in 2015 and came over from San Diego with Luis Urías in a trade for Trent Grisham and Zach Davies, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning last Sunday against Cleveland. The possibility that he may not even crack Milwaukee’s postseason rotation—it’ll come down to either him or Adrian Houser for the fourth spot—speaks to this club’s incredible depth that’ll surely come into play in October.