If the 2020 season is a sprint (tosses a dollar in the Cliché Swear Jar), the final three weeks are the kick to the finish line and lunge across the tape. Even in a uniquely short season (another dollar in the jar), there’s been no shortage of narrative twists and turns, and of rising action that will pay off in the weeks to come. With 16 playoff spots up for grabs and the first round truncated to a best-of-three series, the chase for a postseason berth might not be as interesting as in a normal year. But for at least half a dozen teams that are currently on the outside looking in (dollar in the jar), any playoff appearance would represent a huge positive step, even if it comes with an asterisk. There is (dumps out entire wallet into the cliché jar) still plenty to play for.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (Previously: 1)
Among the 30 MLB teams, the Dodgers have the best record, the highest FanGraphs playoff odds, the highest FanGraphs World Series odds, and are tied for the biggest divisional lead, despite having the team with the second-best record in the NL and second-best run differential in all of baseball (San Diego) behind them. Across a 162-game season, the Dodgers’ current winning percentage would put them on pace to win 116 games. With all due respect to this season’s other standout performers, the question of whether the Dodgers are better than this year’s Rays is much less interesting than whether this year’s Dodgers are better than, like, the Big Red Machine or the 1927 Yankees.
2. Tampa Bay Rays (Previously: 6)
One reason I was so high on Tampa Bay heading into this season was the Rays’ underrated pitching depth—and they’ve needed every bit of it to stretch out a 6.5-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East. Of all of Tampa Bay’s vaunted starters, only Blake Snell has been healthy and good all year, and even then he’s yet to throw a pitch in the sixth inning this season. Tyler Glasnow absolutely shredded the Yankees in his August 31 start, but he got knocked around quite a bit early this season. Charlie Morton and Ryan Yarbrough are returning from IL stints, and Brendan McKay, Yonny Chirinos, and Jalen Beeks are all out for the season. That’s put a lot of strain on the bullpen, which is currently missing José Alvarado, Andrew Kittredge, Oliver Drake, Colin Poche, and others. Suffice it to say this was never plan A for the Rays, but few if any teams are more comfortable with plans B-Z.
3. San Diego Padres (Previously: 13)
I think there’s clear separation between the Dodgers and Rays, and clear separation between the Rays and whoever the third-best team in baseball has been. What’s not clear at this moment is who the third-best team is. Since my last power rankings were published on August 18, the A’s are playing .500 ball, the Twins have fallen out of first place in the AL Central, and Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are hurt again.
So I’m going with a team I ranked 13th three weeks ago, and that I admitted that I might be overrating “because of how enjoyable they are.” Since then, the Padres have gone 14-5 and improved at the deadline more than any other team by picking up (among others) Austin Nola and Mike Clevinger.
FERNANDO TATIS JR. 15th HOME RUN OF SEASON— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) September 6, 2020
plus THAT BAT DROP pic.twitter.com/X1FFLP64sk
4. Atlanta Braves (Previously: 10)
Last time out, I was worried about the Braves’ ability to withstand injuries to the likes of Mike Soroka, Cole Hamels, Ronald Acuña, and Ozzie Albies, as they were in a near tie with the Marlins for first place in the NL East. Acuña’s back, Albies and Hamels will be back soon, and while the Braves haven’t been spectacular, they’ve been pretty good. More to the point, their division rivals have fought against each other like crabs in a pot, giving Atlanta a pretty comfortable lead. I have questions about what this team can do when it reaches the playoffs, particularly regarding the pitching staff, but I have absolutely no concerns about the Braves losing eight in a row and dropping into the bottom of the bracket.
5. Oakland Athletics (Previously: 3)
Marcus Semien played all 162 games last year, but has missed the past five and counting after suffering a core muscle injury. When Semien is on his game, he’s one of the best players in the AL, and this team is very different with Vimael Machin in the lineup. (No disrespect intended to the VCU Rams legend.) And if Semien’s injury wasn’t concerning enough, Matt Chapman left Sunday’s game with a hip injury. Given that the Astros never quite went away through the season’s panicked early days, it’s of paramount importance that Chapman and Semien not only return to the lineup, but return at full strength rather than rush back so they can Kirk Gibson their way around the infield. Not even the A’s can play up to their potential with their two best position players nursing injuries.
6. Cleveland Indians (Previously: 8)
It’s not that the other shoe hasn’t dropped yet after trading Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger in the past 13 months. It’s that Shane Bieber caught that other shoe and threw it right over the black at 95 miles per hour.
It’s a bit of a pity that this season isn’t being played under normal playoff rules, because this would be a hell of a pennant race. FanGraphs gives each of the top three teams in the AL Central roughly one chance in three at winning the division, but it has all of them at 99.5 percent or higher to make the postseason. Cleveland’s pitching staff and shallow offense would make a fascinating opponent for a White Sox team that has more young sluggers than it can put in the lineup. But a best-of-three series would leave me only wanting more.
7. Chicago White Sox (Previously: 12)
Like the Padres, this team is packed with exciting young players who have blown the doors off the competition in the past three weeks. From Luis Robert’s one-man struggle against physics to Lucas Giolito’s no-hitter to Tim Anderson’s spirited defense of his batting title, there are many reasons to love this group. They’ve played well enough in the past few weeks that they’ve invited comparisons to the very best teams in baseball, but one weakness stands out: the rotation.
Even dating back to March, Chicago needed to catch a few breaks in order to build a playoff-caliber rotation. Giolito has been outstanding, but now Gio González is on the IL and Dallas Keuchel was lifted from Sunday’s game with a back injury. Dylan Cease has a 3.29 ERA but also peripherals that suggest he’s playing on borrowed time. Michael Kopech opted out of the season; even I—the biggest Carlos Rodón fan on the planet—am preparing to give up on the former NC State left-hander; and the less said about Reynaldo López, the better. Now, rookie Dane Dunning has pitched well in three starts, González and Keuchel may recover quickly, and honestly, this offense might score so many runs they could make a postseason run with latter-day Jason Bere on the mound. But this situation is worth monitoring, particularly considering the quality of the pitching staff that lurks just a couple of hours east.
8. Minnesota Twins (Previously: 4)
A little bit of bad injury luck, a little bit of the rest of the division being better than expected, and Minnesota—a club I thought of as a World Series favorite heading into the season—is all the way down in third place. The Twins get one last shot at each of their two main division rivals: three games against Cleveland and four against Chicago, starting on Friday. Therein, more or less, lies the difference between playing the no. 7 seed in the first round and being the no. 7 seed.
That’s kind of a heavy note to end on for a team that’s nine games over .500, so here’s a clip of Byron Buxton turning a routine groundout into a walk-off single because when you’re this fast the rules don’t apply.
Wanna see Byron Buxton beat out an infield single to win the game? Wanna see him do it again? pic.twitter.com/zLE21laQzi— Cut4 (@Cut4) September 6, 2020
9. Chicago Cubs (Previously: 5)
The Cubs are in position to win the division despite having gotten almost nothing from Javy Báez, Kris Bryant, or José Quintana this year—and to be honest, they seem pretty pleased about it.
This won’t sound like a compliment, but it is: The Cubs haven’t been very interesting this year. Yes, Yu Darvish has been phenomenal, Jason Heyward and Ian Happ are hitting again, and their dugout dancing is unparalleled. But while the Cubs are the clear no. 1 team in the NL Central, they’ve just been reliably good all season. On August 2, they earned an 11-inning win against Pittsburgh to establish a 2.5-game lead in the division, and until Sunday, they hadn’t led by less than two games nor more than 5.5 games. For a team that’s spent the past five years vacillating between unimaginable highs and moments of infuriating self-inflicted defeat, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
10. St. Louis Cardinals (Previously: NR)
If you have red birds breathing down your neck, you’re either an old-timey Disney princess in the middle of an exposition-heavy musical number, or you’re the Chicago Cubs. I’m sure someone’s said that before.
The Cardinals have already handed 11 pitchers their MLB debut this year. Or rather, 10 real pitchers plus rookie second baseman Max Schrock, who was dragooned into a perfect inning of mop-up duty. They also have six doubleheaders left on their schedule, including 23 games in 18 days without an off day to end their season. All of that remains cause for concern, but as of right now, the Cardinals are back in the top 10.
11. New York Yankees (Previously: 3)
Since the upstart Rays are absolutely taking it to the Bronx Bombers at the moment, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the topic. There’s a small but increasingly noisy corner of the baseball-watching public that seems to find the Rays distasteful. The Rays are a small-market club crying poverty to pay players rock-bottom wages, with a legacy of success built on principles of arbitrage.
Their on-field innovations—most notably, the opener—reject long-established norms that never became rules, because if anyone back in Iron Man McGinnity’s day actually played like that they’d get dragged out of the Polo Grounds by their hair. (Never mind that Tampa Bay’s distaste for conventional player usage patterns is in fact—and I say this with reverence in my heart—some extremely John McGraw–ass shit.)
All of this is true. The Rays are, in many respects, baseball’s avatar for post-2008 capitalism. And it’s undeniably good that more people are realizing that plucky small-market underdogs are frequently made into such because of negative societal forces.
With that said, let’s not be obtuse. We’re not at a point when the Yankees—the actual honest-to-God New York Yankees, the Empire, the all-conquering pinstriped, clean-shaven, dynastic rulers of baseball—represent the forces of righteousness. The Yankees exist so neutral fans can hate them, and have for 100 years. Let them fulfill their destiny.
12. Houston Astros (Previously: 9)
Speaking of teams everyone loves to hate: The Astros are on a five-game losing streak and sit 4.5 games out of first place. But with a five-game series against Oakland on tap this week, Houston could erase that deficit in the blink of an eye. This series could come at a better time for the Astros from an injury perspective. Justin Verlander and Yordan Álvarez are out and were recently joined on the IL by Lance McCullers Jr. and José Altuve. The 2017 AL MVP hasn’t been himself all year, and added injury to insult last week when he hurt his knee on an awkward slide that ended with him taking the corner of third base right in the gooch. It’s a metaphor.
13. Toronto Blue Jays (Previously: 24)
Three weeks ago, the Blue Jays were a season-worst 7-11. Bo Bichette had just landed on the IL, Nate Pearson was soon to follow, and it looked like the Jays would be the American League’s version of the Padres … eventually. Since then, they’ve gone 16-7 and are now two games ahead of the Yankees in the standings. Toronto picked up Taijuan Walker, Robbie Ray, and Ross Stripling at the deadline to shore up the rotation, Bichette is taking batting practice again, and Pearson is throwing off a mound. FanGraphs now rates Toronto’s playoff odds at 89.8 percent, some four times what its chances were on August 16. The Blue Jays have tried for years to sell fans on the future, but there’s no time like the present.
14. Philadelphia Phillies (Previously: 18)
The Phillies aren’t frustrating because they’re bad, they’re frustrating because they’re sometimes extremely good. From August 23 to September 4, the Phillies won 10 of 11 games. Rhys Hoskins looked like he was breaking out of a slump that dated back to May 2018. Rookie slugger Alec Bohm was flirting with a .300/.400/.500 batting line, and at one point, the woeful pitching staff strung together 20 scoreless innings. The only loss came in a game that they trailed 10-0 but nearly came back to win.
But Philly lost the five games before that, won the four games before that, and lost five of six before that. The Phillies are the best team in the NL East when they’re at the top of their game, but they’re at the top of their game quite rarely, and usually not for very long.
15. San Francisco Chaos Giants (Previously: 25)
Not only is it an even year, but Taylor Swift released an album—a good album, to be precise. The last three times Taylor Swift released a good album in an even year, a very weird Giants team won the World Series. We need to make our peace with this team backing into the no. 8 seed with a record of, like, 26-34, then knocking the Dodgers out in the first round on an extra-inning home run by Chadwick Tromp. No, wait, that isn’t weird enough. An extra-inning home run by Chadwick Tromp, with a pitcher pinch-running, and it comes out later that Tromp played the entire game with his shoes on the wrong feet. There we go.
16. Miami Marlins (Previously: 14)
The Marlins have relatively little to show for their purge of big league stars in the past few offseasons, but the crown jewel of the J.T. Realmuto trade return made his big league debut two weeks ago, and he is something else.
Sixto Sánchez, 100mph Fastball, 89mph Changeup and 88mph Slider, Overlay with Tails. pic.twitter.com/WUBCfjaDyL— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 29, 2020
This is Sixto Sánchez. He has an extremely cool, very alliterative name; he just turned 22 years old; and he’s absolutely crushed every minor league level he’s been a part of since he was 17. There are your basic concerns about durability for a 6-foot pitching prospect, but just based on stuff, I have no idea how anyone ever gets a hit off this kid. He could either win a Cy Young for the Marlins or get them a huge trade return in four years.
17. Baltimore Orioles (Previously: 11)
Go back in time nine months and start telling people that Anthony Santander suffered an oblique injury the first weekend in September, and only then did the Orioles’ playoff hopes fade. I guess that’s not the most surprising true thing you could tell someone from January 2020, but it’d be up there.
The trouble for Baltimore is that there are eight playoff spots in the American League and, if the Blue Jays are legit, eight good teams to fill them. This is in contrast to the National League, in which there are eight playoff spots, four or five good teams, and another seven teams that aren’t that good but can put together a couple of hot series and grab a chair before the music stops. Under those circumstances, I’d like Baltimore’s chances, but because the original Milwaukee Brewers joined the American League in 1901 before moving to St. Louis and then Baltimore, we must give the Orioles their lovely parting gifts and congratulate them on exceeding expectations.
18. Cincinnati Reds (Previously: 20)
There’s a professional cyclist named Tejay van Garderen who’s riding the Tour de France right now, and while he’s progressed into the Jim Thome–on-the-Twins phase of his career, he was probably the best American male cyclist of the post–Lance Armstrong generation.
Anyway, Reds pitcher Tejay Antone is coming for the title of Best Athlete Ever Named Tejay. He’s got a ways to go—van Garderen finished in the top five in the Tour de France twice, so let’s give the man his due—but Antone’s got a 198 ERA+ with 33 strikeouts in his first 25 1/3 MLB innings. He’s definitely on the right track.
19. New York Mets (Previously: 23)
I know I just went on a rant about the state of the world in 2020, but videos like this bring me comfort.
Jacob deGrom is making his case for another Cy Young, but the Mets are in fourth place? The more things change …
20. Colorado Rockies (Previously: 7)
Last time out, I was a bit ensorcelled with Colorado’s rotation and tickled by the fact that the Rockies were briefly ahead of the Dodgers in the NL West, so I made a “First-Place Colorado Rockies” GIF and spread it across the internet. Since then, the Rockies have gone 7-12 and dropped to some 10 games shy of first place. My colleague, Zach Kram, not one to leave a petard unhoisted, has been on my case to create a “Fourth-Place Colorado Rockies” GIF. So here it is.
21. Milwaukee Brewers (Previously: 19)
In his first 12 appearances this year, Josh Hader threw 11 2/3 innings, struck out 18 batters, walked 10, hit two, and gave up two runs and zero hits. Not to sound like a cranky old-timer, but it took Hader five weeks to do what Nolan Ryan would do in a single start. Maybe it’s premature to confer the title of Brewers relief ace on someone else, but rookie right-hander Devin Williams has outperformed Hader this year: 17 innings, one earned run, four hits, and a staggering 35 strikeouts.
22. Detroit Tigers (Previously: 22)
The Tigers are still hanging in there with a 7.4 percent chance of making the playoffs, but like the Orioles, they face an uphill climb against stiffer American League competition. The good news is that the final 15 games on Detroit’s schedule are against either the teams they’re chasing (Cleveland, Minnesota, and Chicago) or the Royals, who are—not to put too fine a point on it—quite bad. It’s a recipe for either a Little Big League–style charge on the back nine or a winter spent regretting a missed opportunity.
23. Seattle Mariners (Previously: 28)
Since I ranked the Mariners as the worst team in the American League last month, Seattle has shown some spunk. That’s the kind of thing you say about a team that probably won’t make the playoffs this year, or the next, or the one after that, but you like their style. In the past three weeks, the Mariners have ripped off not one but two four-game winning streaks, and while trading Nola, Walker, and most of their bullpen at the deadline won’t help matters, this team has the potential to be fun as soon as next year. Good is a little farther off, but with Kyle Lewis, Justin Dunn, J.P. Crawford, and eventually Jarred Kelenic and Taylor Trammell, fun is progress.
24. Washington Nationals (Previously: 17)
Any team can suffer a bad World Series hangover. What I like about the Nationals is how far they’ve steered into the bit: Stephen Strasburg out for the year, shortened season, all of it. And yet they’ve been worth watching. Juan Soto and Trea Turner are both MVP candidates, they have a second baseman who was born in 2000, and their GM is getting tossed out of the luxury boxes so Joe West can use him as a prop in an impromptu political stand few can understand and nobody asked for.
Everyone’s coming back next year, the fans are still basking in the glow of the franchise’s first title, and this whole season is a fluke anyway. The Nationals’ 2020 season will be the easiest mulligan in baseball history, and I salute them for it.
25. Arizona Diamondbacks (Previously: 16)
The Diamondbacks built a team designed to contend this year, but when an eight-game losing streak took them out of the hunt, they parted with a few free-agents-to-be: Andrew Chafin and Robbie Ray, plus Starling Marté (who has a team option for 2021) and closer Archie Bradley. It was the obvious move for GM Mike Hazen to make, but with the sport facing an uncertain financial future and so few teams motivated to improve, this is a tough year to be a seller. All the more so when Merrill Kelly, one of the team’s top trade chips, suffered a season-ending injury before Hazen could move him.
Sports analysis has become so detailed that saying, “They tried, it didn’t work, it’s a shame” makes for an unsatisfying conclusion, but that’s pretty much what happened here. Better luck next year.
26. Kansas City Royals (Previously: 26)
It makes sense that Sluggerrr, the Royals’ mascot, would be a lion wearing a crown, what with the lion being king of the jungle and all. Very straightforward symbolism. Less straightforward costume design, because Sluggerrr’s crown is not an article of clothing but embedded into his skull, either as a natural bony protuberance or a surgical implant. Anyway, here’s a video of Sluggerrr beating the hell out of Pikachu.
27. Boston Red Sox (Previously: 27)
We talk a lot about Boston’s pitching staff being bad, and it is, but here on September 8, their collective ERA is 6.21. From the founding of the American League until now, only three teams have posted a worse collective ERA over a full season. Only eight teams have gone over 6.00. What’s important to remember, however, is that we are in a relatively low-scoring period of baseball history. All eight of those teams were either from the steroid era or the early days of the live-ball era, when a spectator selected at random and armed with a broom handle could hit .275 with 20 home runs in a season. (One of those other teams, the 1999 Colorado Rockies, posted a 6.03 ERA, which came out to an ERA+ of 97 after adjusting for park and league.)
The Red Sox, unless they shape up or sign prime Pedro Martínez in the season’s final two weeks, are in danger of becoming the worst pitching staff in major league history, adjusted for park and league context. It’s not what you want.
28. Texas Rangers (Previously: 15)
Since August 15, the Rangers are 3-18 and have allowed nearly twice as many runs as they’ve scored. They have fallen out of the playoff race, to the basement, and out of the basement. I suppose losing Corey Kluber for the season after one inning is pretty bad, as omens go, but the Rangers made an admirable attempt to sneak into a playoff spot. Now, though, they’re staring down a long rebuild.
29. Los Angeles Angels (Previously: 21)
Could be worse. They could be just as bad despite getting outstanding seasons from Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon.
30. Pittsburgh Pirates (Previously: 29)
There was a Twitter thread going around a few days back about a highway underpass in Pittsburgh that’s essentially a giant concrete trough, and if it rains hard enough the whole thing floods to the brim. It’s the kind of thing that makes you scratch your head and wonder how that happened, just like opening Baseball Reference and seeing that Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds, and Gregory Polanco are somehow all hitting under .200.