Wednesday, February 8, 2023

MLB Power Rankings: What’s the best playoff race in baseball? Ranking all eight on Labor Day

Labor Day is here. The national holiday means different things to different groups of people, but given that you’re on a Major League Baseball page right now, you are part of the group where it is a benchmark each season. It means the homestretch of the regular season leading to the playoffs is truly upon us. Just a few more weeks of jockeying before the postseason. 

Where will see said jockeying? Well, let’s take a look. In The Official Power Rankings, we rank teams. This time around, you get double the ranking fix. We’re going to rank the playoff races and then the teams. You’re welcome. 

Here are the six divisional races and two wild-card races, ranked in order of how fun they’ll be to follow the rest of the way (most to least, obviously). 

1. NL East

The Mets had a 10 1/2 game lead at one point and it’s been dwindled down to one game. Now, there’s a vast difference in how everything has unfolded vs. how perception might look. The Mets didn’t choke the lead away. They’ve actually played great baseball, for the most part, since they built that huge lead. They’ve gone 51-33 since the beginning of June (it’s a 162-game pace of 98 wins). This division becoming a race has more more been a product of how great the Braves have played since that huge Mets lead. The two rivals have been duking it out for a while. Since July 23, the Mets are 27-13 while the Braves are 26-13. 

Unfortunately, only three head-to-head games remain. Fortunately, those are the second-to-last series of the season and if it’s within three games, hoo boy that’ll be something to behold. 

It should be noted that there’s a bit of a built-in cushion. Whoever doesn’t win the division here will be the top-seeded wild card, meaning it plays host to the No. 2 wild-card team. While you definitely want to win the division and take the bye, the escape hatch makes losing a bit less disastrous than falling out of the playoffs. 

Then again, you surely want that bye, right? 

2. AL Central

A really close three-way race with lots of head-to-head action and no wild-card off-ramp! That’s incredibly fun. 

Why isn’t it No. 1, then? Well, first of all, I never said being ranked second was bad. It’s still plenty worthwhile. We have five great races and this is ranked second. There’s just an internal negative here because these teams are inferior to the top teams in every other race. 

Past that, though, we’re looking at the underachieving White Sox trying to rally down the stretch for a second-straight division title. They are 67-67, but only two games back while the Twins and Guardians are tied at the top. 

The Guardians and Twins face each other eight more times (with the last of those games being Sept. 19, so they are coming quickly). That’s a playoff atmosphere eight times in September while also possibly providing the White Sox chances to move on up. The White Sox and Guardians play four more times. Oh, and the White Sox and Twins play six of the last nine games of the season. 

3. AL East

This would have been last of the eight races two months ago. In a way, that’s why it’s third instead of fifth or even sixth here. It’s the possibility of history. 

If the Yankees blow a 15 1/2-game lead, it would be the single biggest blown division lead in the history of baseball. Even if other races are closer, as long as the possibility of the Yankees blowing the lead remains, this one stays toward the forefront and the closer it gets, the higher it would move in the rankings. In fact, if the Yankees had lost on Sunday, I think I would have put this at No. 1.

Also, could this become a hotly contested three-team race? Dare we even dream of a four-teamer? Can you imagine that one? 

As things stand, it’s highly doubtful four teams are involved late. The Rays are five back, the Blue Jays six, and the Orioles 8 1/2. The Yankees have looked terrible, but with that cushion it is highly unlikely to see a four-team race into the last week or even two weeks. There could be a path to a two- or three-teamer, though. 

There’s a ton of head-to-head action here, including: The Blue Jays play the Orioles 10 times the rest of the way. They have the Rays nine times. The Yankees have the Jays, Rays and Orioles three more times apiece. 

The intrigue of seeing history trumps a lot, especially since it’s the Yankees with their history (most decorated franchise, most unforgiving and entitled fan base, etc.). 

4. AL wild card

The Central teams should have, thankfully, fallen back far enough that this is a race includes the three non-division-winner AL East contenders and the Mariners. It’s four teams for three spots and it could go any which way. Plus there are added layers. 

The Mariners have the longest playoff drought in major North American professional sports. Just playing meaningful games isn’t enough at this point. They need to break through and make it. I’m buying it. They look the part. 

The upstart Orioles just went through the worst stretch in MLB history, if you include consecutive 162-game seasons. They lost 115 games in 2018, 108 in 2019 and 110 last year. Everyone — yes, everyone — expected them to finish last in the AL East this year. Yet they are right here in the mix, 2 1/2 games out. 

The Blue Jays had World Series aspirations heading into the season. They could miss the playoffs. The Rays won the AL pennant in 2020, lost in the ALDS last season after 100 wins and they could miss the playoffs. 

The Yankees could, conceivably, given the way they are playing, miss the playoffs, too, which would be utterly absurd. It’s so unlikely to happen that it shouldn’t be considered realistic (they are 8 1/2 games in), but even them falling into a wild-card spot makes this race more entertaining. 

There’s a lot to watch here. It’s amazing theater. Most of it trickles down from the AL East race, however, so it has to be ranked below that one. 

5. NL wild card

Tossing out the NL East champ, who will easily be the top wild card, it looks like this could be really intriguing. After all, the Padres and Phillies are only separated by a half-game! Of course, they are both in playoff spots and would be fighting over which superior opponent they’d have to face on the road in the first round. The Brewers are the only other team in the mix here — 2 1/2 games behind the Phillies — and they seem safely inferior at this point. 

Also, there are zero head-to-head games remaining with any combination of Brewers, Phillies and Padres. 

It could absolutely be a three-team race for two spots down to the wire. It’s possible this will be the last race standing when we get to the final days of the regular season, too. It’s just less inspiring, by gut feeling, than the races above. 

Regardless, we have five races. 

6. NL Central

As I told you would happen back in May — when the Brewers were big favorites — the Cardinals are going to win the division. I didn’t necessarily think they’d run away with it like this, but they are doing so. In fact, it has happened in a month. On Aug. 5, the division was tied. On Sept. 5, the Cardinals have an 8 1/2-game lead. 

Four head-to-head games remain between the Brewers and Cardinals and I suppose if the Brewers won all four they could make it a race. I’m not betting on it, though, nor should you. 

There is a much bigger gap between five and six here than six and seven. The Cardinals might have this over rather quickly. 

7. AL West

I believe in the Mariners to hold onto a wild-card spot, not run down the Astros from 10 games back in a month. 

8. NL West

Yawn. 

(That was the Dodgers‘ yawn, not mine). 

Biggest Movers

Rk

Teams

 

Chg

Rcrd

1

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Dodgers

Is getting to Labor Day with 92 wins good? 92-41
2

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Astros

This is the best Jose Altuve has looked at the plate since 2017. What happened that postseason? Hmm … 86-48
3

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Braves

Spencer Strider is a monster. I know the Road Rockies are essentially a Double-A team, but 16 strikeouts against no walks this far into a rookie season is incredibly rare. Kudos to Strider. 1 84-51
4

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Cardinals

Look at the rest of their schedule. They might win 100 games. They were 51-47 at one point. Ridiculous. 2 79-55
5

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Mets

The Mets have the easiest remaining schedule in baseball. They have the three games against the Braves and three against the Brewers (who aren’t really good anymore anyway). The rest? Nats, A’s, Pirates (seven!), Marlins and Cubs. The coast should be clear, but the margin is razor thin. Then again, they just got their asses kicked twice in a row by the Nationals. 2 85-50
6

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Mariners

Second-year catcher Cal Raleigh capped off a four-homer week with a shot that effectively won the game on Sunday. He now has 22 home runs in 308 at-bats this season. The Mariners have won seven in a row and nine of 10. They just swept a road trip! 3 76-58
7

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Rays

I would never blame a seasonal outcome on one call, but I can’t help but wonder how much that terrible called strike three to end Sunday’s game against the Yankees will matter. The tying run was on third and the winning run was on second. A single probably means the Rays only trail by three games. Tough one to swallow. 1 74-58
8

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Yankees

Winning five in a row shortly before last week’s rankings got them a stay of execution. Now they’ve lost six of eight and again look pretty bad. If anything, I don’t have them low enough, I think, but this is uncharted territory. As outlined two weeks ago, we’ve never seen a team this great turn into a team this bad. Balancing the full-season ledger with the current look is a difficult task. 3 80-54
9

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Blue Jays

Talented, inconsistent, tough remaining schedule … not much is off the table here. 1 73-59
10

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Orioles

Five games into his age-21 season, Gunnar Henderson has six hits, two doubles, a home run, a stolen base and a few highlight-reel defensive plays. 3 71-62
11

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Padres

Given everything leading up to that point, I couldn’t believe Bob Melvin threw Josh Hader in the fire like that last Wednesday. And he protected a one-run lead. The lone baserunner he allowed was a Texas Leaguer with eyes, too. Sometimes, an outing like this is all it takes. 3 74-61
12

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Phillies

There have been a few times these last few weeks where I’ve noted the potential variance on the Phillies roster and I’ve said something like “they could win the World Series or lose 12 in a row and miss the playoffs.” Well, they just followed a six-game winning streak with losses in six of their last seven. Fasten those seatbelts, Phillies fans (not that any of them disagreed with me before; they all knew it). 5 73-61
13

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Guardians

They’ve now lost eight of 10 as the roller coaster continues. And hey, being the closest big-league team to the best roller coaster park on the planet means it’s a fitting ride. 2 68-64
14

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Brewers

They were 14 games over .500 after winning a doubleheader on May 30. They have gone 38-45 since. 2 70-63
15

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Twins

It’s a season-defining stretch. Not only do the Twins face the Guardians eight times in their next 18 games, but they have to deal with their personal house of horrors (four games in Yankee Stadium) first. Let’s see what they’re made of. 68-64
16

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White Sox

Shane McClanahan and Justin Verlander get hurt and then Dylan Cease gets within one out of a no-hitter? We might have to compile a list of Cy Young winners who weren’t chosen for the All-Star team, even if it reminds us how dumb it was that Cease wasn’t chosen. 67-67
17

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Red Sox

Should I have included the Red Sox on the AL wild-card discussion? Maybe. They have won five straight. They are 7 1/2 games out, but that’s closer than the Brewers are to the NL Central lead. 67-68
18

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Diamondbacks

The D-Backs have won eight of their last 10, and that’s all against playoff contenders (White Sox, Phillies and Brewers). A winning record this season isn’t out of the question and they are actually within 8 1/2 games of a wild-card spot. If they do climb into that race, it shots a spot or two up those playoff race rankings. 1 64-69
19

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Giants

From the All-Star break through the end of August, the Giants went 13-25 and looked every bit that bad. Then they went out and swept the Phillies with a blowout and two hard-fought victories. That series was a red herring. The Giants will start playing bad baseball again immediately when they head to Dodger Stadium on Monday. 1 64-68
20

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Angels

Mike Trout is one home run away from his seventh 30-homer season through his age-30 season. Previously, 18 players have pulled this off. The only ones with *more* than seven are Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Jimmie Foxx, Miguel Cabrera, Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle. Hank Aaron is one of the players with exactly seven, as is Adam Dunn! 2 58-76
21

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Rangers

The Rangers are tied for the MLB lead with the Astros by having four 20-plus home run hitters. That’s a feather in their cap, I guess. 1 58-75
22

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Rockies

Waiver-claim reliever Dinelson Lamet has looked really good in his limited time since arrival. Perhaps he’s earned an extension? 2 57-78
23

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Cubs

Cubs minor-leaguers in the last 10 years to hit 30 homers in a season: Javier Baez (2013), Kris Bryant (2014), Alexander Canario (2022), Matt Mervis (2022). 2 56-78
24

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Reds

Nick Senzel was the second overall draft pick out of college in 2016. He’ll be in his age-28 season next year. He’s nearing 1,000 MLB plate appearances. He’s hovering around a 75 OPS+ and wRC+ for his career. 1 53-79
25

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Royals

I was gonna work earnestly on a Bobby Witt, Jr. comment, but I realized the Chiefs play in less than a week and Royals fans have long since quit reading this year, as they do every year when the team isn’t playoff-caliber. I’ll just say on Witt: Pretty good rookie year. 1 55-80
26

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Marlins

Since July 5, the Marlins have been the worst team in baseball by record. The rest of their schedule features six games against the Phillies, five against the Mets, four against the Brewers and three against the Braves. Who can take advantage? 3 55-78
27

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Athletics

The A’s haven’t lost 100 games in a season since 1979. They’ll need to go 13-14 the rest of the way to avoid hitting that plateau. 50-85
28

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Tigers

Take a second to go back up to the Rangers comment. You back? OK, cool. The Tigers don’t have a single player with more than 12 home runs. 51-83
29

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Nationals

Victor Robles was once a top-10 prospect in all of baseball. He was the crown jewel of the Nationals’ system (above Juan Soto!). He’s still only 25 years old, but he’s played in 462 career MLB games and he’s a .233/.309/.359 (81 OPS+) hitter. He’s gotten worse, too. 1 47-87
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Pirates

They’ve won only 11 of their last 45 games. In order to avoid 100 losses, they’d have to go 14-15 the rest of the way. 1 49-84

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