Tomorrow marks the first day of September — meaning the race for October is only going to get more intense from here.
While a few teams are staring down the postseason as they sit atop their division with a comfortable lead, a number of squads have a lot left to play for in the final month of the regular season.
That includes three divisional rivals in the American League, who are not only neck-in-neck fighting for positioning in the playoffs but also in our standings, as one makes its debut in the top five for the first time this season. Who will come out on top?
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 21 | Second-half preview | Preseason rankings
Previous ranking: 1
The best regular-season team in Braves history was the 1998 squad that finished 106-56 with a plus-245 run differential. The 2023 Braves will need to finish strong to get there, but they show no signs of slowing down. Entering Wednesday’s game, they were on pace for 106 wins and a plus-286 run differential. Six regulars are hitting around .300 in August as is part-timer Nicky Lopez. The four-game series at Dodger Stadium will be an interesting playoff preview, and they have seven games left against the Phillies, but the Braves certainly have a shot at 107 wins, even if they start resting some of the regulars a bit in September. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 2
The Dodgers are surging through August, winning 24 of their 28 games to increase their National League West lead to a whopping 14½ games. And their two MVP candidates, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, have predictably shouldered a lot of the weight, combining to hit over .400 and slugging around .700 this month. Betts in particular boasts a major league-best 1.309 OPS in August and is making a late surge to chase down the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. and capture his second MVP Award. Betts is slashing .316/.410/.611 with 36 home runs and 10 stolen bases for the year. With one day left in August, his 7.5 FanGraphs wins above replacement easily top the NL, with Freeman (6.8) and Acuna (6.5) lagging slightly behind. All three will share the same field beginning today, with the Dodgers and Braves set for a four-game series from Dodger Stadium. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 3
For anyone waiting for the Orioles to regress on the basis of their run differential, it ain’t happening. Rather than Baltimore’s record moving towards its differential, it’s the opposite. On July 24, the Orioles had a 162-game win pace of an even 100, though their run differential suggested they were actually more like an 89-win team. The prevailing analytic wisdom is that run differential is more predictive of a team’s future record than actual record. Well, tell that to the O’s. After Baltimore clubbed the White Sox on Tuesday, their 162-game win pace was up to 102, while the differential was that of a 93-win club. There’s still a disparity, of course, but the bottom line is that the Orioles have an awful lot of wins in the bank, and they just keep getting better. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 5
As the Rays’ offense keeps rolling, the performance of Isaac Paredes continues to stand out even among a lineup full of hot hitters. Paredes is one of the more unsung players in the game. Perhaps it’s because he plays in Tampa/St. Petersburg, or perhaps it’s because he’s a third baseman in an era unusually prolific in star third basemen. But it’s time for Paredes to get some due.
After homering and driving in four against Miami on Tuesday, Paredes was on pace to top both the 30-homer and 100-RBI thresholds this season. Only four Rays have ever done that: Carlos Pena (2007, 2008, 2009), Evan Longoria (2009), Aubrey Huff (2003) and brand new Hall of Famer Fred McGriff (1999). Paredes ranks sixth among primary third baseman by bWAR, ahead of luminaries such as Rafael Devers, Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 7
With their victory on Sunday and a Rangers loss, the Mariners temporarily moved into sole possession of first place, the latest they’ve been in first place since 2001. Julio Rodriguez followed up with a four-hit game on Monday, making him the first player since 1900 with five four-hit games in a 10-game stretch. He hit .596 over those 10 games with five home runs and 16 RBIs. He missed Tuesday’s game with a pinched nerve in his foot, however, and the Mariners have him listed as day-to-day. They’ll need his red-hot bat in the lineup as the schedule now gets more difficult, starting with a 10-game road trip against the Mets, Reds and Rays. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 6
Michael Brantley is back. The Astros activated Brantley from the injured list on Tuesday and he made his season debut that night at Fenway Park, going 0-for-4. It was his first MLB action since June 26, 2022, and his return positions him to play a part in Houston’s title defense after he missed last year’s championship run. Brantley hit just one homer in 16 rehab games for Triple-A Sugar Land, but other than that, he hit very much like Michael Brantley. He posted a .298/.453/.447 slash line for the Space Cowboys, with 15 walks and one — one! — strikeout. The Astros, who are last in the majors in plate appearances by lefty hitters, can use a guy like that. Anyone could. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 4
The Rangers lost eight in a row and then lost hold of first place in the American League West as the hard-charging Mariners overtook them. A series win over the Mets helped right the ship, though, as their pitching stabilized after a rough ride. Andrew Heaney threw a needed 5⅓ shutout innings on Tuesday, striking out seven while giving up five hits and a walk. The night before, it was Jon Gray tossing a quality start. In the last 10 days, Rangers’ starters posted a 5.22 ERA. Most of the season, that part of their team has been great. Their one blip cost them first place. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 9
A series win over the Giants, a sweep of the Cardinals and a series win over the Angels have allowed the Phillies to open up a little breathing room in the wild-card race. Aaron Nola had back-to-back seven-inning starts — allowing no runs and two runs, respectively — and Bryce Harper has found his home run groove, with eight in a 13-game stretch, including his 300th career home run on Wednesday, in which he hit .458/.574/1.063 with 17 RBIs and struck out just five times.. Meanwhile, Kyle Schwarber hit seven home runs in an 11-game stretch, hitting .275 with more walks than strikeouts and a 1.317 OPS. A locked-in Harper and Schwarber? Watch out. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 10
A nine-game win streak came to an end on Tuesday in a 1-0 loss to the Cubs, but Milwaukee firmly established itself as a possible playoff force during the run. It started after the team arrived in Texas for a series at 4 a.m. local time. The Brewers swept the Rangers that weekend before doing the same to the first-place Twins a couple days later, and then Milwaukee buried the Padres with a home sweep. Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes are doing their thing, but Freddy Peralta has also been excellent. He averaged over nine strikeouts in five August starts, all wins by the Brewers. The NL Central is theirs to lose in September. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 8
Even as the Blue Jays slip increasingly behind in the playoff race, Davis Schneider has established himself as a spectacled, mustachioed folk hero. Over his first 14 big league games, the Blue Jays’ 28th-round selection in 2017 went 19-for-45 with nine walks, six homers, 14 RBIs and a .426/.526/.894 slash line. Can he keep it up? Well, either Schneider is due for a major regression, or he’s the best hitter who ever lived. We’ll leave it up to what you want to believe. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 12
Justin Steele continues to make his Cy Young case as he tossed another six shutout innings against the Brewers in a tight 1-0 win on Tuesday. His 2.69 ERA is second only to Blake Snell in the NL. The outing helped stabilize a Cubs rotation that’s now relying on two pitchers — lefty Jordan Wicks and righty Javier Assad — who have limited experience in the big leagues. Wicks made his MLB debut on Saturday against the Pirates, striking out nine while featuring a change-up — a rarity for left-handed pitchers. The Cubs could use more production out of righty Jameson Taillon down the stretch. He’s given up at least four runs in his last four starts, tying a career high set earlier this season. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 13
When the week began, Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly had combined for a 3.32 ERA in 52 starts, making up one of the best one-two punches in the sport — not to mention one of the biggest reasons why the D-backs remained in contention. In back-to-back starts against the Dodgers on Monday and Tuesday, however, Gallen and Kelly combined to allow 13 runs on 21 hits and six walks in 10⅓ innings, taking the loss in both outings. The D-backs have taken some major steps forward this year, but the gap between them and the Dodgers is still really wide, especially in recent weeks. There’s no better evidence of that than watching their two best pitchers by far struggle mightily against them. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 14
The development of Royce Lewis was slowed by injuries, but through it all, his talent has shined through and continues to do so at the big league level. Lewis was the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, but a pair of ACL tears kept him on the Baseball America top 100 prospects list six straight years. His rise to the majors required a lot of patience and perseverance, but he is in Minnesota now, and he’s doing what you hope a first overall pick will do.
Lewis mashed grand slams in back-to-back games this week, becoming the first player in the history of the Senators/Twins to do so. He followed that up with a solo homer in the subsequent game. The sample size on his big league numbers remains small, but if you want to dream on him a little, consider this: Over his first 51 MLB games, he slashed .312/.354/.538 with 162-game paces of 35 homers and 108 RBIs, all while posting positive defensive metrics at third base. The wait certainly appears to have been worth it. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 15
Alex Cobb came within one out of throwing a no-hitter against the electric Reds on Tuesday, ultimately giving up an RBI double to Spencer Steer before finishing with a 131-pitch complete game. Only three men reached base. It might not have been a historic start, but it was further indication of how crucial Cobb, 35, has been for this year’s Giants. His ERA is down to 3.57 in 141⅓ innings. He and Logan Webb have basically been the only mainstays in the rotation. But Kyle Harrison, their 22-year-old rookie, has allowed just two runs in 9⅔ innings in his first two starts, striking out 16 batters. He could change the dynamic down the stretch as the Giants look to secure a wild-card spot in a hyper-competitive field. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 11
After a three-game road series against the lowly Royals, the Red Sox will begin a brutal make-or-break part of their schedule on Sept. 4. Boston will play at Tampa Bay, at home against the Orioles and Yankees, and then on the road at Toronto and Texas. The contests against the offensively-potent Rays, Orioles and Rangers are of particular concern for the Red Sox’s ice cold run prevention, which has not warmed up over the last week. Since Aug. 16, the Red Sox rank as a bottom-five team in the majors in team ERA. On top of all that, Boston will finish the season without Jarren Duran, whose turf toe injury required surgery. It was a breakout season at the plate for Duran, who entered the 2023 campaign with a career OPS+ of 69 but leaped to a 120 mark this season. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 16
A late-season West Coast trip hasn’t been kind to the Reds as they struggled on offense to begin the week. They were nearly no-hit by Cobb and the Giants on Tuesday, managing just one run in the ninth inning — their third straight game scoring two or less runs. Nick Martini has been a nice find for Cincinnati, though. He went 6-for-16 over a seven-day span ending on Tuesday that included two home runs and six RBIs. Martini has raked since coming up from Triple-A recently and has been a much-needed addition for an up-and-down offense. The Reds have fallen behind in the wild-card race, but once they get into September, their schedule lightens up. They’re down but not out. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 17
It’s beginning to slip away from the Marlins. They’re still in the wild-card chase, but now have three teams to jump over. And they just haven’t played good baseball since June, going 9-15 in July and 9-17 in August. In their latest 2-8 stretch, they scored just 17 runs while hitting .207/.254/.319. It didn’t help that they actually had leads in two of those games, but closer David Robertson lost them late. Robertson looked like a good trade deadline move, but he’s blown three of his six save chances, losing all three of those games and his role as closer. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 18
Is it time to give up any hope on these Padres? They’re surely making it tempting. The Padres were swept in a weekend series against the Brewers, and two days later they lost to the hapless Cardinals in extra innings. It moved the Padres to 0-11 in extra innings in 2023 — one loss away from tying the 1969 Montreal Expos, an expansion team that lost 110 games, for the worst record in extra-inning games in a single season. Worse: The Padres placed Yu Darvish on the IL with elbow inflammation on Sunday. Darvish wants to return before the end of the season, as does Joe Musgrove, who’s recovering from shoulder inflammation. But if the Padres can’t get into contention by mid-September, it won’t be worth the risk. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 21
The Yankees sent a clear message on Tuesday that they’re turning the page and looking to next season with their decisions to place center fielder Harrison Bader on waivers and release third baseman Josh Donaldson.
Bader could stick around if he goes unclaimed, but the focus in New York remains on going-forward evaluation. With Donaldson on the IL most of the year, the Yankees have leaned on veterans like D.J. LeMahieu and Isiah Kiner-Falefa at the hot corner. In recent games, however, Oswald Peraza had gotten the lion’s share of the time at the position, so we can expect that to continue with Donaldson now an ex-Yankee. It was less clear what the Bombers had in mind for center field, until they called up Jasson Dominguez — whose status as “phenom” has been up and down — on Thursday, with the intention of activating him prior to the team’s series against the Astros starting Friday. Dominguez, 20, played just eight games at Triple-A before being called up, going 12-for-27 with five walks and just two strikeouts. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 20
The Noah Syndergaard experiment didn’t work out as the Guardians designated him for assignment after six starts and a 5.40 ERA. The Guardians did manage to go 3-3 in his starts, and in one of the losses he allowed just one run, so he’s hardly the reason the team has fallen behind the Twins after starting the month just one game out of first place. Indeed, they can look at their 5-8 record against the White Sox and 3-7 record against the Tigers as two teams they should have — or could have — done better against. They do have one last series against the Twins beginning Monday, and they’ll need to sweep that to have any chance at the division. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 23
The Nationals lost to the Blue Jays on Wednesday for their first series loss after previously winning six straight in August against the A’s, Red Sox, Phillies, Yankees and Marlins. They are 26-18 in the second half, the same record as the Phillies and nearly as good as the Braves (27-16) and Astros (27-17). They’ve done that despite a 5.16 ERA that ranks in the bottom third in the majors since the All-Star break. The offense ranks in the bottom half of the majors in OPS in the second half, so I wouldn’t necessarily interpret this stretch as a sure sign that the Nationals are suddenly much improved. But they’re learning to win, and the organization will no doubt look to improve its roster depth in the offseason.
One key that has kept their season respectable: They’ve used just seven starters, tied for fewest in the majors. Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore and Trevor Williams have each made 26 starts, while Patrick Corbin made his 27th Wednesday. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 19
The Angels flooded the waiver wire with a handful of notable players on Tuesday, a list that included starting pitcher Lucas Giolito, outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Randal Grichuk, and relievers Reynaldo Lopez and Matt Moore. The decision was made, at least in part, in an effort to get back under the luxury-tax threshold. But it also embodied their harsh reality.
By that point, the Angels had gone 7-17 since the Aug. 1 trade deadline — a time when they not only decided to keep Shohei Ohtani, but also shed prospects to acquire some of the aforementioned rentals. Ohtani has since been diagnosed with a torn UCL that will prevent him from pitching the rest of the year, Mike Trout is back on the IL, and nobody seems to have any idea if Anthony Rendon will play again this season. The Angels’ decisions a month ago — inspired as it might have been — might ultimately set this franchise back several years. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 22
Francisco Lindor has quietly reached 5.1 WAR, which ranks him 10th among all position players. With a strong finish, he has a chance to reach 100 runs and 100 RBIs in the same season for the first time in his career, after just missing last season (98 runs, 107 RBIs). Some of his value is in quantity — he’s missed just two games — but he’s played excellent defense (he could win a Gold Glove) and swiped 24 bases in 26 attempts. His 118 OPS+ is right at his career average of 117. Does it feel like he’s been one of the best players in the game? Not really, but other than his mediocre .251 average, he’s excelled at everything else. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 24
Reports came out this week that Casey Mize, who has missed the entire 2023 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, faced live batters last weekend for the first time during his recovery process. It’s not out of the question that we could see Mize before the end of the season. He wouldn’t be stretched out, but, nevertheless, the Tigers could get a glimpse of their core 2024 rotation on the same MLB staff for the first time all season.
Two of those building blocks — Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal — continue to trend in the right direction. Manning, who tweaked his back in his last outing and had to have a scheduled start pushed back, has allowed just one earned run over his last three starts. Meanwhile, Skubal has a 3.93 ERA over 10 starts since returning to the big league rotation on July 4. He’s really been even better than that: Skubal’s 2.41 FIP since that date is the best in the majors, according to Fangraphs. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 26
Mitch Keller has returned to pre-All Star break form as he pitched eight scoreless innings against the Cubs last Friday. Including his previous two starts, Keller has given up just three runs over 20 innings. Take away three earlier outings in the second half, where he gave up 22 runs, and Keller has been one of the better pitchers in the game. It gives the Pirates a pitcher to build around as they slowly attempt to come out of a long rebuilding cycle. The long awaited return of Oneil Cruz was unfortunately put on hold as his injury wasn’t fully healed. Pittsburgh missed him as the season wore on, coinciding with their fall in the standings. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 25
Playing out the string has not looked pretty for the Cardinals. The one thing to play for isn’t even going their way as Adam Wainwright is still stuck on 198 wins. He’s pitched better in two of his last three starts, but the offense has dried up with him on the mound — scoring a total of six runs in those outings. As a team, St. Louis had the worst week at the plate in MLB, hitting just .147 with a .470 OPS over a five-day span ending Tuesday. Nolan Arenado went 0-for-15 during that stretch while Nolan Gorman went 1-for-13. Ugly doesn’t begin to describe the Cardinals’ season. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 28
Despite Chicago’s struggles, Luis Robert Jr. has set career marks in doubles and home runs in his breakout year. He’s also been consistent, hitting at least five long balls in each month while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense in center. Robert isn’t fully formed as a hitter just yet — as evidenced by his 149-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio — but he’s chasing 3% less than last season, meaning he’s improving upon his big weakness. As the White Sox retool, they have a player to build around. It’s one bright spot in an otherwise terrible year for the organization. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 27
The worst run-differential in Rockies history took place in 1993, the team’s inaugural season, when they finished at minus-209. With more than a month of baseball ahead of them, the 2023 Rockies stand at minus-197. They’re also on pace for their first 100-loss season in franchise history. The Rockies have been a disaster since they last reached the postseason in 2018. And given that their farm system ranked 18th when ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel revealed his updated rankings in mid-August, it could be a while until they’re relevant again. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 29
The Royals may have pulled off a rare coup — for them — in picking up Cole Ragans in the Aroldis Chapman trade. The former first-round pick had struggled in a relief role with the Rangers with a 5.95 ERA, but the Royals moved him into their rotation after a brief hiatus in Triple-A. In seven starts, he has a 1.73 ERA with 56 strikeouts and just one home run in 41⅔ innings — including back-to-back scoreless outings with 20 strikeouts in his last two starts. Ragans has had two Tommy John surgeries and was throwing in the 92-93 mph range with the Rangers, but his velocity has suddenly ticked up to 96 mph and his cutter and slider have been dominant as well. His 53 strikeouts in August tied for the second most in a month in Royals history behind Dennis Leonard, who had 55 in June of 1977. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 30
The A’s, who will host the Angels over the weekend, haven’t notched a home sweep of at least three games all year. They had a prime opportunity to do so last Wednesday, against the similarly hapless Royals, but they were shut out in the finale. The A’s offense ranks dead last in the majors in OPS and has been shut out 14 times so far this year, tied with the Tigers, Mets and Royals for the major league lead. Zero sweeps at home, but they’ve been the victim of a home sweep on eight occasions. — Gonzalez
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