MLB Power Rankings Week 21: An NL battle for the top spot

Thursday, August 24, 2023

After the Rays' downturn, it seemed as if the Braves would coast to the best record in baseball. But now, it's not even a certainty that they'll finish with the best record in the National League. The Dodgers have dominated in August, going 17-3.

Meanwhile, the Rangers are facing a similar dilemma in the American League -- and within their own division, at that. After leading the AL West by as many as 6 games in late June, Texas is locked in a tight three-way battle for the title with Houston and red-hot Seattle.

With so much change from week to week, it's impossible to know how these races will play out, but it makes for exciting baseball!

Our expert panel has combined to rank every team in MLB 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 20 | Second-half preview | Preseason rankings

1. Atlanta Braves


Previous ranking:1

Remember when Marcell Ozuna hit .085 in April? The DH started off slow, hit 14 home runs in May and June, scuffled a bit in July and is now heating up again, batting .363 with six home runs in August after hitting two home runs on Monday, one on Tuesday and and another on Wednesday, his 28th. That raised his season slugging percentage over .500 for the first time all season. The Braves are still trying to figure out the back of the rotation. Yonny Chirinos was placed on the injured list with elbow inflammation after recording a 9.27 ERA in five starts. Rookie Allan Winans was sent back to Triple-A with a 5.17 ERA in three starts as Jared Shuster was recalled, although Shuster will pitch out of the bullpen. Kyle Wright will begin a minor league rehab assignment with the hope that he's able to return in late September. -- Schoenfield

2. Los Angeles Dodgers


Previous ranking:3

Tony Gonsolin, an All-Star last season, gave up 10 runs and recorded 10 outs against the Marlins on Saturday, then was placed on the IL with a forearm strain the following day. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Gonsolin is unlikely to pitch the rest of the year, yet another blow to a starting rotation that has faced its share of hurdles this season. Gonsolin had been pitching through what Roberts described as an "arm issue" for about a month, which seemed evident given his diminished fastball and the lack of bite on his breaking pitches. The Dodgers will rely on another one of their young arms to fill the role moving forward. But what they really need -- for the postseason, specifically -- is for Walker Buehler to make his way back from his second Tommy John surgery, and that is no certainty. -- Gonzalez

3. Baltimore Orioles


Previous ranking:2

The list of those who have made their MLB debuts for the Orioles over the past two years is staggering. Just to name a few: Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, DL Hall, Kyle Bradish, Felix Bautista (debuted in 2022),Colton Cowser, Grayson Rodriguez and Jordan Westburg (debuted this season). Through Tuesday, the Orioles had been credited with 33.1 bWAR as a team this season. The players listed here account for 13.4 of that total. And the Orioles' system continues to be ranked at the top of the prospect ranking charts despite all the arrivals in the majors. In other words: Baltimore's talent spigot is still open wide.

One player whose name could possibly be added to the list is the current top-ranked overall prospect, 19-year-old phenom Jackson Holliday. Baltimore GM Mike Elias told the media before the trade deadline he wouldn't rule out calling up Holliday in September -- and he reiterated that sentiment this week. Of course, "not ruling anything out" is different than saying, "We're going to call him up." If anything though, it underscores that the Orioles nailed yet another premium draft pick when they selected Holliday just over a year ago. So far in 2023, Holliday is hitting .334/.454/.529 across three levels and has .964 OPS over his first 26 outings in Double-A. It's an exciting time to be an Orioles fan. -- Doolittle

4. Texas Rangers


Previous ranking:4

The sweep at home to the Brewers was particularly alarming for the Rangers as they had the schedule advantage after Milwaukee flew all night Thursday for the weekend series. The Brewers went on to outscore Texas 9-8 in that first game and 21-11 overall in the series. Freddy Peralta and Adrian Houser -- the Brewers' No. 3 and 4 pitchers -- held Texas to just three runs in the final two games. The Rangers ranked 25th in OPS over a five-game span ending Tuesday, highlighting an unusually bad week at the plate. Their woes continued into the week with back-to-back losses to Arizona. Marcus Semien is among those who have struggled, striking out eight times in a five-game span while hitting just .217. Can Texas survive the charge by Houston and Seattle? It's looking less and less likely. -- Rogers

5. Tampa Bay Rays


Previous ranking:6

Between the Wander Franco investigation and all the major injuries, the news around the Rays has been dark in recent weeks. So it's been perhaps easy to overlook the fact that, on the field, manager Kevin Cash's crew has been trending upward. The nadir of the Rays' season may have been July 29, when a 17-4 drubbing in Houston dropped them to a season-low .589 winning percentage. Since that date, the Rays have gone 14-7 and remained in position to chase down the Orioles in the AL East. With Franco away from the team, the Rays turned to 22-year-old Osleivis Basabe at shortstop and so far, he's mashed. Basabe hit .303/.361/.485 in his first eight MLB games, including a grand slam off Colorado's Daniel Bard for his first career homer. He also posted eight straight errorless games at shortstop. And so the Rays' beat goes on. -- Doolittle

6. Houston Astros


Previous ranking:5

The Astros have found themselves in the midst of what has suddenly become a three-team scramble for the AL West title because of a poorly-timed Rangers slump with a concurrent hot streak from the Mariners. However, the Astros' up-and-down play has contributed to their inability to fully take advantage of Texas' downturn. With the Blue Jays lurking behind the AL West trio in the overall league standings, none of them can take the postseason for granted, including October fixture Houston. The Astros have just one series left against each of their two primary division foes. Both are on the road: Houston has a three-game set at Texas from Sept. 4-6 and then at Seattle from Sept. 25-27.

After all their success in recent years, the Astros are certainly comfortable in high-stakes games. With a six-year streak of ALCS appearances on the line this season, chances are the AL's other contenders would be just fine with the unlikely scenario in which Houston misses the postseason altogether. -- Doolittle

7. Seattle Mariners


Previous ranking:10

Mariners fans have been waiting for Julio Rodriguez to heat up, but his recent stretch was an all-time heater: 17 hits over four games, never done before in the majors. Four straight games with at least four hits -- done just once before. He went 4-for-6 and 5-for-5 against the Royals and then 4-for-5 and 4-for-6 against the Astros. He singled in his first at-bat of the next game, making him 18-for-23 over four-plus games -- all Mariners victories. They've improbably moved into a wild-card spot while closing in on the Astros and slumping Rangers in the AL West. Rodriguez is hitting over .400 in August and raised his average from .251 at the beginning of the month to .278 after the four-game outburst. -- Schoenfield

8. Toronto Blue Jays


Previous ranking:7

The Blue Jays dropped out of a wild-card slot this week even though they continue to play sound baseball. The immediate problem was the scorching Mariners stopped losing. The long-term problem for Toronto and the other playoff contenders is that there's going to be a pretty good team left out of this postseason.

Toronto's quest to avoid being that team was bolstered this week by the return of Bo Bichette from his knee injury. He made an immediate impact, collecting a single, scoring a run and making an outstanding clutch play on a ninth-inning grounder toward the hole at shortstop. Knock on wood: With Bichette back in the fold, the Blue Jays are pretty close to being full strength for the stretch run and that could be bolstered by the looming return of reliever Chad Green, who has been rehabbing in the minors. -- Doolittle

9. Philadelphia Phillies


Previous ranking:8

The Phillies scored 45 runs over a six-game stretch with Bryce Harper leading the way, going 10-for-22 (.455) with four home runs and eight runs, including an inside-the-park home run, his first. J.T. Realmuto is also heating up, batting over .300 in August with an OPS near .900. Trea Turnerhas hit .343 with a 1.015 OPS in the 18 games since Phillies fans gave him a standing ovation on Aug. 4. "The last three, four weeks have been a lot better," Turner said. "Normal me, I guess." Turner had struggled for much of the season against fastballs -- through Tuesday, his .676 OPS ranks 133rd out of 139 qualified hitters -- but he had an OPS around 1.050 against them in that stretch. -- Schoenfield

10. Milwaukee Brewers


Previous ranking:9

Milwaukee rebounded after getting swept by the Dodgers last week. Despite a tough travel schedule, the Brewers managed to sweep the Rangers and returned home to beat the Twins on Tuesday.Freddy Peraltais striking out batters at a productive rate, having whiffed 11 Rangers in his start over the weekend. He has 37 K's in four August starts. But it's the return of Brandon Woodruff who makes the Brewers really dangerous -- now and potentially in October. Batters are hitting .183 off him since returning from injury. He's building arm strength and could be at his best during the stretch run. -- Rogers

11. Boston Red Sox


Previous ranking:14

While sweeping a weekend series at Yankee Stadium might not mean what it used to, the Red Sox looked like a club set to catch fire. But a dip against Houston proved to be a reality check -- largely because of Boston's wretched defense -- five errors leading to five unearned runs and marring the first two games. The defense is hurting the club. Boston ranks last in the traditional measures of errors and fielding percentage. The Red Sox are also last in Statcast's outs above average with a minus-53 figure through Tuesday. Second worst: Cincinnati at minus-22. -- Doolittle

12. Chicago Cubs


Previous ranking:12

The Cubs have starting pitching concerns. Although it's not the time of year to be experimenting, they may have to dip into the minors. Marcus Stroman remains out, while Drew Smyly has been ineffective -- he gave up seven runs in 3 innings to the Tigers on Tuesday. Dansby Swanson had a home run and four RBIs in that game, continuing a nice season. He has the highest OPS among all four free agent shortstops from last year's class and he's likely to win another gold glove. He could be the best signing of the group -- for the least amount of money. -- Rogers

13. Arizona Diamondbacks


Previous ranking:18

The D-backs began August with a nine-game losing streak but have turned it around dramatically, winning nine times in 11 games, an encouraging sign for a relatively young team that was an aggressive slide. Their current four-game winning streak -- against a Padres team that's chasing them and a Rangers team that has been among the best in baseball all year -- was especially uplifting. And Monday's win offered a convenient encapsulation of these past few weeks. The D-backs found themselves down in the ninth and trailing again in the 11th but rallied both times, ending it with a walk-off double byTommy Pham. Prior to their current 9-2 run, the D-backs had lost 25 of 32 games. "As you can see," Pham said, "this team has a lot of heart." -- Gonzalez

14. Minnesota Twins


Previous ranking:13

Has there been more of a win-win trade in recent memory than the one in which the Twins sent Luis Arraez to the Marlins for Pablo Lopez and two minor-league hurlers? Arraez has been vital for the contending Marlins, and while he'd have to hit around .560 the rest of the way to reach .400, he's still on track for the NL batting title. Meanwhile, Lopez has been solid for the Twins and has recently emerged as one of baseball's hottest pitchers. Lopez won each of his first four starts in August while yielding a 0.36 ERA -- one run allowed in 25 innings. He's cracked the AL top 10 in ERA and tied with Toronto's Kevin Gausman for the league lead in strikeouts entering Gausman's start on Wednesday. If Lopez keeps this up, it's not too late for him to enter the Cy Young conversation. -- Doolittle

15. San Francisco Giants


Previous ranking:11

The Giants have a habit of graduating promising prospects to the major leagues this year, but none have come with the fanfare of their most recent one -- Kyle Harrison, considered their most-hyped pitching prospect since a man named Madison Bumgarner. Harrison, a 22-year-old left-hander who stands 6-foot-2, was ranked 36th in Kiley McDaniel's midseason list of top prospects. He battled command issues this year, which showed up in 48 walks in 65 innings in Triple-A, but his stuff -- most notably his power fastball -- is elite. Harrison showed encouraging signs while recording 10 outs, half on strikeouts, against the Phillies on Tuesday. The Giants will give him a chance to join Logan Webb and Alex Cobb as the only traditional starters in their rotation. If that doesn't work out, he could still be a crucial bullpen weapon down the stretch. -- Gonzalez

16. Cincinnati Reds


Previous ranking:16

A bad week at the plate can't be what the doctor ordered for the already pitching shaky Reds. Cincinnati ranked last in OPS over a seven-day span ending Tuesday, hitting just .185. It didn't help that Hunter Greene's long-awaited return went south pretty quickly. He gave up five home runs to the Blue Jays in Sunday's 10-3 loss. With the latest news on injured lefty Nick Lodolo not very encouraging, Cincinnati's second-half boost on the mound may never come. Greene will likely be better in subsequent starts and the offense is likely to return to form, but the Reds are in a fierce wild-card battle with more experienced teams. -- Rogers

17. Miami Marlins


Previous ranking:15

Jesus Luzardo snapped a recent skid -- he had allowed 21 runs in 17 innings in his previous four starts -- with six shutout innings against the Padres on Tuesday. He credited a pep talk earlier in the day from a friend back home to give him perspective. The big key: He threw more first-pitch strikes after falling behind too often in recent outings. Meanwhile, in his third start back from the minors after being sent down to save innings, Eury Perez was dominant with 10 K's in six scoreless innings against the Dodgers (although David Robertson lost the game in the eighth). The Marlins haven't really had Luzardo, Perez and Sandy Alcantara all clicking at the same time, but if that happens down the stretch, they can win a wild-card spot. -- Schoenfield

18. San Diego Padres


Previous ranking:19

When Tuesday began, the Giants had lost seven of their previous 10 and the Reds and Marlins had lost six of 10, meaning the Padres still found themselves 5 games out of the final playoff spot in the NL. They were then shut out by the Marlins later that night, triggering boos from their fans. So the Padres' mystifying season continues. Every time it seems as if they're getting ready to go on a run, they stumble. Their longest winning streak all season has been three games (the Mariners, meanwhile, have had two eight-game winning streaks this month). What's stunning is that it's happened even though Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Xander Bogaerts and Manny Machado have combined to play in more than 90% of their games, and their starting pitchers boast the second-lowest ERA in the majors. Mystifying indeed. -- Gonzalez

19. Los Angeles Angels


Previous ranking:20

The month of August has gone from bad to worse to, well, dark for the Angels. They lost both ends of a doubleheader to the Reds on Wednesday night, after which general manager Perry Minasian revealed that Mike Trout was going back on the IL because the fractured hamate bone is still a problem (he just returned from after a seven-week absence), and Shohei Ohtani would not pitch the rest of this season because of a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament.

Ohtani had a UCL sprain five years ago and ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery. That could be the course of action again -- a procedure that would keep him off the mound for all of 2024 and severely impact his free agency, which was expected to net him a contract of at least $500 million. For now, though, Ohtani will seek second opinions. The Angels are 5-16 since deciding to keep Ohtani and go for it before the trade deadline. But now their concerns are bigger than immediate contention.-- Gonzalez

20. Cleveland Guardians


Previous ranking:21

Manager Terry Francona hinted at his possible retirement at the end of the season -- no surprise, given his health problems in recent years. "This job is really hard," he told reporters. "Not that it's a bad job, it's a great job, but it's hard and the older you get or the more beat up you get, and sometimes it's both." Francona has won two World Series with the Red Sox, one AL pennant with Cleveland and is 13th on the all-time wins list. Every manager ahead of him on the wins list except the still-active Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy is in the Hall of Fame, and Francona no doubt will land there. -- Schoenfield

21. New York Yankees


Previous ranking:17

What can you really do with the Yankees at this point but highlight the horrific list of "first time since" events that have popped up daily. The big one is the losing streak, which has ended at nine games after a 9-1 win over Washington on Wednesday night. The Yankees had not lost nine straight since 1982.

As much as we've harped on the injury-battered starting rotation, the offense has been a bigger problem. To put it pointedly: The offense has gone completely missing, even with Aaron Judge returning to the lineup. Two weeks ago, we looked at the Yankees and thought it was conceivable that their 30-year streak of winning seasons could be in peril. At this point, it would be shocking if the streak continued. -- Doolittle

22. New York Mets


Previous ranking:22

Reports surfaced this week that the Mets and Brewers had discussed a deadline trade involving Pete Alonso, but Alonso was clear that won't affect his feelings toward the organization. "Being a Met, it's the only thing I know," he said after Tuesday's loss to the Braves. "I love being a Met. I take pride in putting on the jersey every day and representing the city of New York." Alonso is eligible for free agency after the 2024 season, which means he could be on the trade block in the offseason if the Mets are indeed pointing more toward 2025 instead of next season. Alonso is hitting just .222 (he's had some bad luck on balls in play with an expected batting average over .250), but he's near the top of the NL in home runs and RBIs. -- Schoenfield

23. Washington Nationals


Previous ranking:26

With the Nationals playing much better than expected in a rebuilding year, the club announced a two-year extension for manager Dave Martinez -- and are expected to announce a similar deal for general manager Mike Rizzo. "I love the process of what we are going through and watching them go out every day and do what they are doing has been a lot of fun," Martinez said of his team. Meanwhile, outfielder Dylan Crews, the second pick in the 2023 draft, has been promoted to Double-A after hitting .355 with five home runs in 14 games in Class A. He went 1-for-1 with two walks, a hit by pitch and a sac fly in his Double-A debut. -- Schoenfield

24. Detroit Tigers


Previous ranking:24

The Tigers' future outfield configuration might have started to take shape this week with the promotion of center fielder Parker Meadows. Meadows, who collected a couple of hits with a triple and two runs scored in his second game after the call-up, is a touted defender and his arrival means that Riley Greene will likely spend more time in an outfield corner. Meadows is the younger brother of Austin, who has been away from the team since early May dealing with mental health issues. With Kerry Carpenter enjoying a strong second season, the outfield should emerge as an area of depth and strength for the Tigers. -- Doolittle

25. St. Louis Cardinals


Previous ranking:23

Adam Wainwright might not win 200 career games after all. He has a month left to get there and if his last one is any indication, it might not happen. Wainwright had four starts in August and none came close to getting him to win No. 199. His ERA for those four outings was 14.73. There's just no life left to his pitches, but with nothing else to play for, St. Louis is likely to give him every chance to still get there. On second thought, the Cardinals do have something to play for: avoiding last place. -- Rogers

26. Pittsburgh Pirates


Previous ranking:25

Pittsburgh already promoted top draft pick Paul Skenes to Double-A, putting him in line to possibly make his MLB debut sometime next year. And the Pirates need him, as their rotation ERA ranks near the bottom of the NL. Speaking of draft picks, their No.1 overall pick from 2021 has struggled recently, going just 9-for-57 in August. Henry Davis has seven walks and 19 strikeouts during that time frame with three extra base hits. But this is the time of year to see pitchers, get experience and turn those numbers around for when the calendar turns to 2024. -- Rogers

27. Colorado Rockies


Previous ranking:28

Kris Bryant has played in only 107 of the Rockies' 288 games since signing his mega contract in free agency last year, and there's no defined date for when he'll return from a fractured left index finger this year. When he does come back, there's a chance he could do so as a first baseman. The Rockies are clearly entering a rebuilding phase and would ideally make room for some of their younger outfielders, namely Brenton Doyle and Nolan Jones. Bryant, at least, has shown versatility in his career. He just needs to be healthy. -- Gonzalez

28. Chicago White Sox


Previous ranking:27

The shocking firings of top executives Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn overshadowed everything on the field for the White Sox over the past week. On top of it, there was a report the team could look into moving when its lease with Chicago is up in a half-decade. Safe to say, the organization is in turmoil and in need of stability. Considering the team's timeline to replace Williams/Hahn, internal candidates are likely to emerge as favorites. Former player and current assistant GM, Chris Getz, has the inside track to take over. -- Rogers

29. Kansas City Royals


Previous ranking:29

One area to address in the offseason: the bullpen. The Royals had a chance to win all four games last week against Seattle, but the bullpen faltered in all four games and allowed 14 runs in the eighth inning or later (the Royals did rally to win one of the games). On Monday, Dylan Coleman lost another game in the ninth, serving up a two-run home run -- after hitting the first batter of the inning. The bullpen is last in the majors in win probability added and near the bottom in most other categories. The trades of Aroldis Chapman and Scott Barlow obviously thinned the ranks, but the pen ERA is over 5.50 the past three months. -- Schoenfield

30. Oakland Athletics


Previous ranking:30

The baseball side takes a backseat with the A's these days, unfortunately. They've now submitted their relocation application to MLB, leaving it to the relocation committee to review. Their move from Oakland to Las Vegas is inevitable. And their owner, John Fisher, speaking in an exclusive interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said he is not considering selling the team, which has been a plea from A's fans in Oakland all year. Instead, he talked about how Las Vegas can change things for the franchise, saying: "We're super excited about where we are today with the new stadium we're going to build, which I think is going to be iconic for The Strip." The 2023 Oakland A's, meanwhile, continue to flounder, winning no more than 10 games in any month this season. -- Gonzalez

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