Sports

Where all 30 teams stand as the wild-card races heat up


We’re a week into September and there’s plenty of question marks in MLB’s playoff races.

Which teams battling it out for the two American League wild-card slots will hang tough? Are the Phillies poised to make a run on the Braves in the National League East? Who will win the epic NL West battle between the Giants and Dodgers — and which of baseball’s two best teams will be forced into the wild-card game? Are the Mets still alive in the NL playoff hunt?

Here is what the members of our eight-voter expert panel decided based on what they have learned over the course of the 2021 season so far. We also asked ESPN baseball experts David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle, Joon Lee, Jesse Rogers and Alden Gonzalez to weigh in with one Week 22 observation based on what they have seen recently for all 30 teams.

Previous rankings: Week 21 | Week 20 | Week 19 | Week 18 | Week 17 | Week 16 | Week 15 | Week 14 | Week 13 | Week 12 | Week 11 | Week 10 | Week 9 | Week 8 | Week 7 | Week 6 | Week 5 | Week 4 | Week 3 | Week 2 | Week 1 | Opening Day


lad

Record: 88-52
Previous ranking: 1

The Dodgers are without Trevor Bauer, Clayton Kershaw, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, and yet they employ two guys who could realistically take the top two spots in NL Cy Young Award voting. Max Scherzer (1.05 ERA, 63 strikeouts, five walks in 43 innings since joining the Dodgers) and Walker Buehler (2.31 ERA, 0.94 WHIP in 28 starts this season) have been two of the best performers in the sport this season. Those two, alongside Julio Urias and Kershaw, who pitched three innings in a rehab start Tuesday, give the Dodgers a devastating postseason rotation. Who among them would start a potential wild-card game? Well, take your pick. — Gonzalez


sf

Record: 90-50
Previous ranking: 2

The Giants’ season can basically be summed up by their highly anticipated weekend series against the rival Dodgers. They were languishing while the Dodgers were surging, seemingly on the verge of taking control of the division and establishing themselves as the best team in the sport. But the Giants won two of three, entering Labor Day with a one-game lead in the NL West. They found a way. And they’ve done it all year — by matching up in their bullpen, platooning in their lineup, maximizing value with their starting pitchers and extracting greatness from their aging veterans. — Gonzalez


tb

Record: 88-52
Previous ranking: 3

Wander Franco continues settling into life in the big leagues, passing Mickey Mantle for the second-longest on-base streak for players age 20 or younger with 37 games. He now trails Frank Robinson, who got on base in 43 straight games in 1956. In 60 games at the major league level, Franco is hitting .285/.346/.467 with seven homers as the Rays continue their march toward the AL East crown. — Lee


mil

Record: 86-55
Previous ranking: 5

Milwaukee’s magic number will soon be down to single-digits. That’s the good news. Now the Brewers just have to get starter Freddy Peralta back in midseason form. He pitched two innings in his first start off the IL, so there’s room for improvement. Manager Craig Counsell said the plan was to ease him in slowly. Peralta’s status is one of the few big issues for the Brewers as they prepare for October considering they’ve been on top of the division for months. Infielder Eduardo Escobar had a good week (.333) at the plate after returning from his own IL stint. — Rogers


hou

Record: 81-58
Previous ranking: 4

For most of the season, the Astros started Myles Straw in centerfield. He played pretty well and then got traded to Cleveland. So Houston plugged in Chas McCormick. He played pretty well, moved over to right field for a spell because of injuries and then got hurt as well. So it was rookie Jake Meyers’ turn, and he has played so well that it looks like Meyers is going to see a lot of time in October. Over his first 29 games, Meyers has hit .315/.340/.511 while posting positive defensive numbers. He hasn’t walked much, so you wonder if some regression is on the horizon. But so far, the free-swinging has been working out well for Meyers. — Doolittle


chw

Record: 80-59
Previous ranking: 7

A question emerged as the second half progressed about who would be left out of the postseason rotation, given the consistency and durability of the White Sox’s five primary starters. The answer didn’t seem likely to be Dallas Keuchel, who is by far Chicago’s highest-paid pitcher and has the longest postseason track record on the staff. Alas, Keuchel’s season has unraveled, going from so-so to pretty terrible. Keuchel has given up six runs in each of his past four starts and owns a 7.44 ERA over nine second-half starts. Things have gotten so bad that even if, say, Carlos Rodon’s shoulder woes continue, it’s possible that resurgent righty Reynaldo Lopez might be a better pick to fill out the playoff rotation than Keuchel. Suffice to say, the veteran lefty needs to turn things around fast. — Doolittle


nyy

Record: 78-61
Previous ranking: 6

The Yankees currently sit atop the wild-card standings, but the blows keep coming. The injury to setup man Jonathan Loáisiga represents a big blow to this team’s bullpen corps, which has struggled this season with consistency and quality in the ninth inning. Loásiga has been the most valuable reliever in the AL this year with 2.2 fWAR, tied for the lead in all of baseball with Brewers reliever Josh Hader. — Lee


atl

Record: 73-65
Previous ranking: 8

The Braves signed Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year, $16 million extension and Charlie Morton to a one-year, $20 million extension. Both moves make perfect sense. The Braves struggled to get any offense from catcher after d’Arnaud injured his thumb early in the season and this offseason’s crop of free-agent catchers is weak. Morton has been terrific at age 37 (13-5, 3.47 ERA, 185 strikeouts), and his velocity is actually up from recent seasons, averaging 95.5 mph with his fastball, plus he’s headed for his third straight season (excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020 season) of 30-plus starts. — Schoenfield


tor

Record: 76-62
Previous ranking: 11

The Blue Jays just won’t go away. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. became the youngest player in Toronto franchise history to tally a 40-homer season, while Marcus Semien continues having the best season of his career, a bounceback from struggles during 2020. If Boston goes on a losing streak and the Blue Jays catch fire at the right time, Toronto could find itself in playoff games come October. — Lee


bos

Record: 80-62
Previous ranking: 9

Boston continues to cling to the second wild-card slot. Alex Cora has struggled to find consistent production from the leadoff spot throughout the season, but put trade-deadline addition Kyle Schwarber there, and he has flourished since returning from injury. With Boston, Schwarber is hitting .325/.450/.550 with four homers and 19 runs scored in 22 games. The Red Sox will need to watch their backs, with the Blue Jays creeping up the standings and challenging them for the wild card. — Lee


sd

Record: 74-65
Previous ranking: 13

As the Padres make a push for the second NL wild-card spot down the stretch, in the midst of a grueling schedule, they’re finally starting to see the Blake Snell they anticipated. Snell, who struggled to pitch deep into games for most of the season’s first four months, held the Angels hitless until the last out of the seventh inning Tuesday and didn’t allow a baserunner through the first six. The Padres ultimately lost that night, but Snell — taken out after seven no-hit innings against the Diamondbacks on Aug. 31 — has a 1.85 ERA over his past seven starts, with 65 strikeouts and 14 walks in 43⅔ innings. — Gonzalez


oak

Record: 75-64
Previous ranking: 10

Oakland faces a tough road to the playoffs after getting swept by the Blue Jays. The A’s are now looking up at Toronto, Boston and division-rival Seattle in the playoff standings. Starling Marte continues to look like one of the best trade-deadline additions in baseball, stealing 21 bases since joining Oakland in July. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, Marte could become the first player ever to finish in the top 10 in stolen bases in both leagues, ranking fifth in the AL and fourth in the NL. — Lee


sea

Record: 76-64
Previous ranking: 16

The Mariners lead the majors with 28 wins in their final at-bat, so it makes sense that J.P. Crawford, Kyle Seager and Ty France ranked 4-5-11 in the “clutch” stat at FanGraphs. The definition is a little misleading as it doesn’t necessarily say who the best hitters are in high-leverage situations, but who improves the most compared to their overall numbers. Still, all three have been clutch. Crawford has hit .355 in high-leverage at-bats, .214 in low-leverage. Seager has a .817 OPS in high-leverage, .975 in medium-leverage and .542 in low-leverage. France has a 1.023 OPS in high-leverage. — Schoenfield


cin

Record: 74-67
Previous ranking: 12

Cincinnati has a great record against sub-.500 teams, which makes its recent stumbles against the Tigers and Cubs more glaring. Locked in a tight wild-card race, the Reds can’t afford many letdowns. They’ll have to play on without the services of All-Star Jesse Winker, who is recovering from an intercostal (rib cage) injury. The Reds don’t believe it’s serious, but the team’s strength is their lineup. Without Winker, it has been more inconsistent. It doesn’t help that Joey Votto is in a slump, slashing .200/.294/.333 over the past seven days. — Rogers


phi

Record: 71-68
Previous ranking: 14

Aaron Nola’s strange, frustrating season continued in Tuesday’s 10-0 loss to the Brewers when he allowed three runs in five innings to see his ERA climb to 4.57. Nola has averaged 10.96 K’s per nine — one of 102 pitchers to qualify for the ERA title and average at least 10.5 K’s per nine. Only seven of those pitchers finished with an ERA over 4.00 (including Robbie Ray twice). Nola’s is third worst on the list, behind Ray in 2016 (4.90) and Michael Pineda the same year (4.82). The big problem: Nola has allowed a .291 average and .500 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position. — Schoenfield


nym

Record: 70-70
Previous ranking: 18

This might not be quite peak 2021 Mets, but Sandy Alderson’s statement that Jacob deGrom sprained elbow has “resolved itself” was bizarre, adding that the “elbow is perfectly intact based on MRIs and the clinical evaluations from our doctors.” Meanwhile, deGrom reportedly is not likely to throw off a mound until mid-September, so any return this season remains up in the air. Still, the Mets have won eight of their past 10 heading into Wednesday, somehow remaining in the playoff race despite all the weirdness. — Schoenfield


stl

Record: 70-68
Previous ranking: 15

Every time the Cardinals make a push to the wild card, they fall backward. The latest crushing defeat came on Sunday when Brewers pinch hitter Daniel Vogelbach hit a walk-off grand slam. St. Louis went on to lose Monday and Tuesday to the Dodgers, making it four losses in a row after a 15-4 win over Milwaukee on Friday. The story of the Cardinals’ season — besides injuries to their starting staff — is their atrocious bullpen. It keeps rearing its ugly head and will likely keep them from playing in October. — Rogers


cle

Record: 68-69
Previous ranking: 17

Cleveland has hung tough even after slipping to the perimeter of the wild-card race, though its most recent downturn quells any thoughts of a miracle finish. One thought to file away is to start cataloging the final feats with the club set to transition from the Cleveland Indians to the Cleveland Guardians. For the record, Cleveland first became commonly known as the Indians in the 1915 season, though team monikers didn’t generate the kind of fanfare then that they do now. Still, the history books tell us that the first Cleveland Indian to win a game that long-ago season was Willie Mitchell, in the season opener against Detroit. The first hit and RBI were recorded by Shoeless Joe Jackson and the first run scored — driven in by Jackson — went to the ill-fated Ray Chapman, who reached base on a dropped fly ball by Ty Cobb. The first homer didn’t come until the fifth game of the 1915 season, but Shoeless Joe got that one, too. So who will be the last Cleveland Indian to land in those categories? We’ll find out soon. — Doolittle


laa

Record: 69-71
Previous ranking: 19

The Angels’ lack of pitching has been a storyline for at least the last half-decade, but there is potential hope on the horizon. The Angels currently employ as many as six starting pitchers who ascended to the major leagues this season and could step into a major role in 2021. The list: Patrick Sandoval, Griffin Canning, Chris Rodriguez, Reid Detmers, Jose Suarez and Jaime Barria, the latter of whom will be out of options in 2022 and is coming off a solid seven-inning outing against the Rangers. The Angels need, say, half of them to step up. That, plus Shohei Ohtani, plus at least a couple of established arms acquired either via free agency or through trade could give the Angels a formidable group next season. — Gonzalez


det

Record: 66-75
Previous ranking: 20

Detroit closer Gregory Soto can look unhittable at times. Other times, you wonder if he has any idea where the ball is going. Still, Soto has logged a strong season at the back of AJ Hinch’s bullpen. The metrics on his slider are off the charts — .398 OPS allowed, 37% strikeout rate, 8% walk rate. But Soto’s fastball command continues to be the obstacle keeping him from becoming an elite reliever. This season, Soto is giving up an .849 OPS on the sinker, with a 18% strikeout rate and 19% walk rate. A few more strikes on that fastball, or perhaps a switch to more frequent use of his four-seamer, and Soto could really take off in 2022. — Doolittle


col

Record: 63-77
Previous ranking: 21

Despite playing in a division with three top-tier clubs, the Rockies have basically been a .500 team since the start of June. At home, they’re a juggernaut. On the road, they’re a bottom-feeder. They have a starting pitching group they can build off and a handful of nice players in their lineup, but clearly they aren’t a player or two away from contention — not with the Dodgers, Giants and Padres present. The new front office, still to be determined, needs to decide how long of a rebuild will be required in Denver. And quickly. — Gonzalez


kc

Record: 62-77
Previous ranking: 22

The Royals wanted the plate discipline that Carlos Santana has always possessed at the plate and that their lineup very much needed. Santana has provided that with a team-high 74 walks. But overall, Santana’s sub-.400 slugging percentage and sub-.700 OPS have to be viewed as disappointments. Since the beginning of last season, Santana has hit .217/.335/.367. He’s 35 years old and at this point, this is might be just what he is, which makes him a sore spot rather than a strength in the Royals’ lineup going forward.— Doolittle


chc

Record: 65-76
Previous ranking: 26

Do you prefer the Schwindy city or Frank the Tank? New first baseman Frank Schwindel has been lighting up the box score with clutch hit after clutch hit during a Cubs’ seven-game win streak. In fact, he became just the second player in modern history to drive in the go-ahead run in four straight games in the sixth inning or later. The 29-year-old is making a case for a spot on the roster and playing time next season. He won rookie of the month in August and now player of the week in September. — Rogers


min

Record: 62-77
Previous ranking: 23

Given how far off the rails the Twins’ season veered, we now know that Byron Buxton staying healthy would not have been enough to save Minnesota’s season. Still, after playing like an MVP candidate before he got hurt, Buxton has struggled since he returned. Over his first 11 games after coming off the IL, Buxton hit just .133 with one homer, one RBI and zero stolen bases. It’s just the latest downer in a season full of them for the Twins. — Doolittle


mia

Record: 58-81
Previous ranking: 24

It’s a small point, but Marlins pitchers are hitting .072, worst in the NL. They’ve scored three runs and driven in just two (the NL averages are 9.9 and 9.0). That would be the lowest batting average ever for a pitching staff, not including AL teams during the DH era (the Reds hit .079 in 2016). The fewest RBIs for a pitching staff over a full season is five, done a few times (the Cubs and Pirates are currently sitting at four RBIs, so they’re not far ahead). Please, let’s go to the universal DH. — Schoenfield


wsh

Record: 58-81
Previous ranking: 25

Victor Robles’ demotion to the minors sends a pretty clear message: The Nationals will be looking for a new center fielder for 2022. With a .203/.310/.295 batting line, he’s just too often overpowered at the plate. His average exit velocity ranks in the first percentile of all major league hitters — the worst. He just doesn’t hit the ball hard. His defense in center is fine, though not what it was in 2019, but it’s not enough to carry him in the lineup. Unfortunately, the free-agent market for center fielders is weak other than Starling Marte, so a new center fielder might have to come via trade. — Schoenfield


Record: 51-88
Previous ranking: 28

After a year of inconsistent pitching, the Rangers showed up on the mound last week when they gave up just 11 runs over the span of five games. Jordan Lyles had a solid seven-inning affair — tied for his longest outing of the season — while the staff compiled a 2.09 ERA, second best in the AL. But it’s the work of 11th-round pick A.J. Alexy that is making headlines. In two starts, he has pitched 11 scoreless innings while giving up just two hits, including a six-inning shutout on Monday against the Angels. He struck out seven in that game and has 11 K’s in 11 innings. Alexy is getting lots of love as a late-season fantasy baseball option, but he’s also giving some hope to Rangers fans heading into 2022. Texas needs starting pitching, and Alexy might be one answer.


pit

Record: 50-90
Previous ranking: 27

Pittsburgh simply has very little pitching right now. It gave up a whopping 30 runs in getting swept in a four-game series by the new-look Cubs last week. There are a couple bright spots, though. Reliever David Bednar, 26, hasn’t given up a run in 10 appearances, and youngster Dillon Peters pitched well in a win over the Tigers on Tuesday. Maybe getting back home helped the Pirates, as they took the first two games of their series against Detroit, giving up a total of five runs. Something had to give, as their series on the mound at Wrigley Field was brutal. — Rogers


ari

Record: 45-95
Previous ranking: 29

One of the better stories in what has otherwise been a miserable Diamondbacks season has been Josh Rojas, a 26th-round pick who didn’t get an opportunity for extended playing time until his age-27 season in 2021. Rojas has taken full advantage. Heading into Wednesday, he was batting .269/.346/.435 and had been worth 1.4 Baseball-Reference wins above replacement, providing coverage in both the middle infield and the outfield corners. The D-backs could use more finds like that. — Gonzalez


bal

Record: 45-93
Previous ranking: 30

Baltimore took two of three games against the Yankees in New York, and Cedric Mullins continues his breakout season, with a top-10 WAR among position players in baseball this season. Former Angels top prospect Chris Ellis has pitched well to the tune of a 2.84 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in 12⅔ innings pitched in three starts since Baltimore claimed him off waivers.— Lee

Source link: https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/32171126/where-all-30-teams-stand-wild-card-races-heat-up
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