MLB Power Rankings Week 22: Who has the edge in baseball's most heated division battles?

ByESPN via ESPN logo
Thursday, September 8, 2022
ESPN

The battle for the American League East division, which was once thought to be a lock, is heating up.

With less than four weeks to go in the regular season, the Rays are now just five games behind the Yankees -- who were once on a historic win pace and held a 15.5-game lead in the division. Who will secure the title, and who will have to battle it out in a best-of-three wild-card series?

Meanwhile, in the National League East, the Braves have finally caught up to the division-leading Mets, tying New York's record on Wednesday. Atlanta is now just a half-game behind the Mets.

How will these division races shake out?

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, Alden Gonzalez and Buster Olney to weigh in with an observation for all 30 teams.

Week 21 | Second-half preview | Preseason rankings

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

Record:94-42

Previous ranking:1

Maybe all Craig Kimbrel needed to turn his season around was to summon Elsa. The veteran closer recently changed his walk-out music to "Let It Go," the popular song from the Disney movie "Frozen," and hasn't given up a run since, allowing just two baserunners in 6 innings across six appearances. The song debuted Aug. 21, as part of an event in which the Dodgers asked players' children and significant others to select their entrance music. Kimbrel, who used to come out to "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses, pitched a clean inning that night, and he seemed to like how the crowd sang along. He won't be changing it any time soon. -- Gonzalez

2. Houston Astros

Record:88-49

Previous ranking:3

Monday was quite a day for the Astros. Ace Justin Verlander threw off flat ground, boosting hopes that his stay on the injured list because of a sore calf won't be a long one. Then Houston beat cross-state rival Texas 1-0 behind a scintillating MLB debut for righty Hunter Brown. Brown went six scoreless innings, allowed just one barreled ball, averaged 96 mph with his four-seamer and induced chases on more than a third of his pitches outside the zone. While the healthy version of a Verlander-led playoff rotation doesn't necessarily require Brown's presence, the Astros suggested to reporters that he could be in the mix for a bullpen role during October. If he earns that spot, a deep Astros staff will add yet another elite arm to the mix for a playoff run. -- Doolittle

3. New York Mets

Record:87-51

Previous ranking:2

Jeff McNeil's big second half has put him in spitting distance of Paul Goldschmidt and Freddie Freeman for the NL batting crown. That's a rarity for a Mets player, with both Shea Stadium and Citi Field being more pitcher-friendly parks. Jose Reyes in 2011 (.337) is the only Met to win a batting crown,and only eight Mets players have ever finished in the top five in batting average (including McNeil in 2019, when he finished fourth). Even in 2022, McNeil is hitting .350 on the road compared to just .287 at home. -- Schoenfield

4. Atlanta Braves

Record:86-51

Previous ranking:4

Spencer Strider set a Braves record with 16 strikeouts in a brilliant eight-inning win over the Rockies -- the 10th time in a 12-start stretch in which he allowed one run or zero runs. The franchise record is Warren Spahn's 18 for the Milwaukee Braves in 1952, but that came in a 15-inning performance. Strider's Game Score of 94 is fourth highest in Atlanta history behind Kevin Millwood (98 and 96) and Greg Maddux (96). It's also the highest individual Game Score of 2022. The Rookie of the Year race between Strider and Michael Harris II remains quite the battle. -- Schoenfield

5. St. Louis Cardinals

Record:81-56

Previous ranking:5

The Albert Pujols show continues to roll on, as he hit career home run No. 695 against the Cubs on Sunday. It was only fitting it came against Chicago, in his final at-bat against them, as he has tortured the Cubs for two decades now. He hit 59 of his 695 home runs off Cubs pitching, finishing with a career OPS of .999 against Chicago. Meanwhile, the Cardinals maintained a healthy lead in the NL Central with a weekend sweep of the Cubs. -- Rogers

6. New York Yankees

Record:83-54

Previous ranking:6

You might have heard that Aaron Judge is a front-runner for the AL MVP Award, battling Shohei Ohtani. On one hand, he has been carrying the Yankees, batting a staggering .338 since the All-Star break, with an OPS over 1.300. But if New York's collapse continues and the Yankees suffer the ignominy of the greatest divisional meltdown in baseball history, will that somehow impact Judge's candidacy because his team didn't finish first? -- Olney

7. Tampa Bay Rays

Record:77-58

Previous ranking:8

Wander Franco, who was supposed to be Tampa Bay's best offensive player this season, has appeared in 58 games and continues to struggle with health issues. Mike Zunino and Kevin Kiermaier, theoretically, the back bone of the defense, are both out for the season. Brandon Lowe has played in 61 games. Considering the importance of those players in the Rays' payroll, it's as if Tampa Bay has lost its version of Mookie Betts, Trea Turner, Freddie Freeman and Cody Bellinger -- and yet they keep winning. Incredible. -- Olney

8. Seattle Mariners

Record:77-60

Previous ranking:9

The Mariners have won 10 of their past 13 games, including a 6-0 road trip to Detroit and Cleveland that concluded with a rain-delayed, 11-inning victory over the Guardians. That game showcased the strength of the Seattle bullpen, as manager Scott Servais had to use nine relievers after George Kirby was pulled following the delay. Matthew Boyd escaped a bases-loaded jam in the 10th while former starter Chris Flexen got the save. The Mariners are on pace for the fourth-best bullpen ERA in franchise history, and shout out to Andres Munoz, who ranks third among all relievers with at least 50 innings pitched in strikeout rate (behind only Edwin Diaz and Ryan Helsley). -- Schoenfield

9. Toronto Blue Jays

Record:76-60

Previous ranking:11

Bo Bichette could be viewed as a barometer for Toronto. The Jays have slogged along for a lot of this season, with Bichette struggling on defense, and on offense -- to the degree that he was dropped in the Toronto lineup. But in his past 17 games, Bichette is batting .406 with a .468 OBP and a .725 slugging percentage. In those 17 games, Toronto is 11-6. -- Olney

10. San Diego Padres

Record:76-62

Previous ranking:10

Juan Soto was booed by Padres fans at Petco Park in the late stretches of Monday's game, a seemingly unfathomable thought when you consider the hype that surrounded his acquisition a little over a month earlier. He came out of that game riding a 2-for-23 slump,though his on-base percentage in San Diego remained above .400 at that point. Two nights later, Soto took a fastball to the upper part of his back and exited the game shortly thereafter. At some point, one would think, Soto will really get going. And the Padres' offense might follow right along with him.-- Gonzalez

11. Philadelphia Phillies

Record:75-61

Previous ranking:7

Bryce Harper is still looking for his first home run since coming off the injured list on Aug. 26, but he's getting hits and walking, so at least he's getting on base. We have a few weeks to go before the season is over and we put a wrap on Harper's age-29 season. Where does he stand at this point in his career? Among position players in the wild-card era (since 1995) through age 29, he's 10th in bWAR and could pass Evan Longoria, with Scott Rolen about three WAR ahead at No. 8. Among those just behind him are David Wright and Nomar Garciaparra, so while Harper looks like a future Hall of Famer, those names show us it's not a lock. -- Schoenfield

12. Milwaukee Brewers

Record:71-65

Previous ranking:14

Milwaukee needs to find another gear if they want to make it back to the postseason again. Through Tuesday's loss to the Rockies, the Brewers are 5-5 in their past 10 games, 9-11 in their past 20 and 15-15 in their past 30. That might be fine if they were holding on to a wild-card berth, but they keep losing ground in that department and can basically say goodbye to the NL Central title. Their once vaunted starting staff is just 13th in ERA this season. -- Rogers

13. Cleveland Guardians

Record:70-65

Previous ranking:12

What better way to leap into the stretch run than losing the last five games of a homestand that wrapped up the day before Labor Day? That's what happened to the Guardians, who refuse to put their arms around a division race that is there for the taking. Manager Terry Francona's offense has gone missing over the past two-plus weeks. Over a stretch of 15 games from Aug. 20 to Sept. 6, Cleveland was shut out five times. The Guardians averaged 2.4 runs during the slump with a 29th-ranked .573 team OPS. Things began to tick up with 10 runs in two wins at Kansas City. Nevertheless, the young Guardians are being challenged as the division race enters its last few weeks. -- Doolittle

14. Baltimore Orioles

Record:72-65

Previous ranking:13

The season has been a success for the Orioles. However, one of the lingering questions about this year's emergence is why the front office didn't use any resources at the trade deadline to bolster the surprising effort of the players to win a playoff spot -- and instead dealt away two of the O's most productive veterans, Jorge Lopez and Trey Mancini. The decision to trade away veteran contributors is underscored by Baltimore's recent slide. -- Olney

15. Minnesota Twins

Record:68-67

Previous ranking:15

Beginning Aug. 15, the Twins won four straight. Then they lost six straight. Then they won five straight. Then they lost four of five. What will they do next week? Who knows? This has been Minnesota's season. One bright spot has been the continued improvement of long-time infield prospect Nick Gordon, who has emerged as a key utility player. There's plenty of room left for growth in terms of strike-zone mastery, and Gordon hasn't hit lefties with any authority, but his combination of speed and extra-base power has been a boon to the lower sector of the Minnesota batting order. -- Doolittle

16. Chicago White Sox

Record:69-68

Previous ranking:18

The White Sox rebounded from what looked a lot like a season-killing nadir in a 9-7 loss to Kansas City on Aug. 30 to win four straight. In this year's AL Central, that's enough for a middle-of-the-road team to resurrect a three-team race in the division that, according to rule and custom, someone gets to win. The starting rotation has fueled the Chicago upswing, with Johnny Cueto and Lance Lynn supporting the outstanding work of Dylan Cease, who has pitched himself into the thick of the AL Cy Young race. Since the beginning of June, Cease is 9-4 over 17 starts with a deGrom-like 1.32 ERA. Strangely, when Cease missed a no-hitter by one out on Sept. 3 against Minnesota, the notoriety generated by the near miss might have been just the public relations boost Cease needed to bolster his candidacy. -- Doolittle

17. San Francisco Giants

Record:65-70

Previous ranking:16

The Giants ended August with a seven-game losing streak and began September by sweeping the Phillies, a perfect encapsulation of their up-and-down season. Here's a consistent positive, though: Logan Webb, Alex Cobb and Carlos Rodon have combined for a 2.80 ERA in 115 2/3 innings since the start of August. Rodon in particular has a 2.92 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and a 4.28 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and he has surpassed the innings threshold that would allow him to opt out of his contract after this season. Chances are he will. -- Gonzalez

18. Arizona Diamondbacks

Record:65-71

Previous ranking:19

Over the past three weeks, the Diamondbacks have beaten Webb, Cueto, Cease, Aaron Nola and Brandon Woodruff, and they very nearly beat Woodruff's teammate, Corbin Burnes. All six of those pitchers have proven to be legitimate top-of-the-rotation starters. And yet, against Arizona, they have combined to give up 32 runs (30 earned) in 33 innings for an 8.18 ERA, as noted by the Arizona Republic. The D-backs won't make the playoffs this year, but they have taken major strides nonetheless. Their starting rotation has been good, and their lineup is seemingly ascending. -- Gonzalez

19. Boston Red Sox

Record:67-71

Previous ranking:17

Boston is still within range of a playoff spot, and with one great week, it could catch the pack of teams that aren't exactly immortal. But the decisions of the past week suggest that the focus for the Red Sox is increasingly about 2023 -- such as the signing of Enrique Hernandez to a one-year contract and the promotion of Triston Casas to the big leagues, for what amounts to a first look for the slugging first baseman. -- Olney

20. Texas Rangers

Record:59-77

Previous ranking:20

The latest phase of a forgettable season for Texas came Monday when Houston debuted a rookie who pitched a shutout over six innings. Brown carved up the Rangers, giving up just three hits while striking out five. That added to a terrible week at the plate for Texas, as it hit just .203 with an OPS of .557 in its past seven games. The Rangers do have a rookie starter of their own who is finishing strong. Glenn Otto has given up five earned runs over his past three starts, spanning 14 innings (3.14). It's a small silver lining to an otherwise bad season in Texas. -- Rogers

21. Los Angeles Angels

Record:60-77

Previous ranking:21

All the attention has been on Ohtani lately, but don't forget that Mike Trout is also really, really good. Trout was playing at an MVP level before a back injury forced him to miss 30 games. And he has been playing at that same level again since his return, batting .310/.364/.676 with eight home runs in 18 games. With Trout and Ohtani together again, the Angels have won eight of their last 12 games.-- Gonzalez

22. Chicago Cubs

Record:57-79

Previous ranking:24

The Cubs are right behind the Reds in player usage this season (Cincinnati leads the league), meaning we've seen several debut performances by first-year players. Righty Hayden Wesneski was the latest when he shut down Cincinnati in relief on Tuesday, pitching five shutout innings to earn the win in his first major league appearance. Wesneski was just acquired this summer from the Yankees and could fit into the Cubs' starting plans as soon as next season. -- Rogers

23. Miami Marlins

Record:55-80

Previous ranking:22

Is Sandy Alcantara's grip on the Cy Young Award suddenly fading? With two six-run outings in his past three starts, it's definitely a bit more up for grabs than it was a couple weeks ago, as the Dodgers' Julio Urias now leads the NL in ERA. Still, Alcantara's volume of innings is huge and he holds a sizable lead over Max Fried in bWAR (6.6 to 5.3). And Arizona's Zac Gallen is making a mad rush to the finish line with six straight scoreless starts. Still, Alcantara looks a solid favorite, but another six-run outing could really turn the race into a scramble. -- Schoenfield

24. Colorado Rockies

Record:59-79

Previous ranking:23

It's an all-too-common, in-no-way-surprising problem, but it's worth noting nonetheless: Rockies starting pitching has been particularly bad this season. They hold the second-highest ERA (5.29) and the lowest strikeout rate (16.9%) in the majors, even after Kyle Freeland's dominant six-inning outing against the Brewers on Wednesday. It isn't just a Coors Field thing, in case you're wondering -- their road ERA, 4.94, is the fifth-worst in the majors. One of the front office's justifications for not triggering a full-scale rebuild was its belief that the Rockies possessed foundational starting pitching. That has not proven to be the case in 2022. -- Gonzalez

25. Kansas City Royals

Record:56-82

Previous ranking:26

While no one would go so far as to call this a successful Kansas City season, the Royals are on track to avoid a couple of markers for ignominy. First, after taking two or three in Detroit last week, Kansas City is in position to avoid last place for a fourth straight season during its current rebuild. Hey, it's something. Six head-to-head encounters with the Tigers remain, so K.C. can't get complacent. Also, the Royals are on pace to avoid 100 losses, which might only be a symbolic thing but would represent a step in the rebuilding process. The franchise avoided 100 losses for its first 35 seasons before finally hitting triple-digit defeats in 2002. Beginning with that season, the Royals lost 100 or more games six times in 18 years. -- Doolittle

26. Cincinnati Reds

Record:54-80

Previous ranking:25

Injuries have probably derailed any respectable finish for the Reds, yet they're still unlikely to attain one of the three best lottery slots for next year's draft. That's a lose-lose for Cincinnati, which has used the most players in the league this season. That number is over 60 now and includes Spencer Steer, who provided some excitement in his debut last Friday. He reached base four times, hit a home run for his first big league hit and scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth in Cincinnati's walk-off win over Colorado. Steer provided some cheers for Reds fans that day. -- Rogers

27. Detroit Tigers

Record:52-85

Previous ranking:27

At any point in the season, you can tally a team's runs scored or allowed pace by multiplying its average runs by 162. Simple. The Tigers once were on pace to score 810 runs. That was the case after they scored five runs in their season opener way back in April. Since then, the Tigers have been on a pace to score even 600 runs just once, after putting up 13 runs against Colorado on April 23. For much of the season, the Tigers were on schedule to score under 500 runs, which would be unheard of. Through Tuesday, the pace was 529.

If that holds up, it'll be the lowest run total for a full season for a Detroit offense during the live ball era (since 1920). Three dead ball era teams did worse over a full campaign: the 1904, 1905 and 1906 clubs, the last two of which featured a young Ty Cobb. The 1904 club holds the record by scoring just 505 times. This year's club isn't out of the woods in regards to that record just yet, but it needs to score only a little over 2.3 runs per game to avoid it. -- Doolittle

28. Oakland Athletics

Record:50-87

Previous ranking:29

As many other small-market teams tanked over the past two decades, the Athletics managed to contend consistently even while turning over their roster, reaching the playoffs in 11 of 22 seasons from 2000 to 2021 and avoiding the deep performance sinkholes. But with less than a month left in the season, the Athletics are in jeopardy of suffering their first 100-loss season since 1979. Oakland must win 13 of its last 26 games to avoid the shame of landing in triple-digit defeats. -- Olney

29. Pittsburgh Pirates

Record:50-86

Previous ranking:28

Pittsburgh redeemed its week by beating the Mets on Tuesday after getting swept by the Blue Jays in a home series over the weekend. The Pirates scored just four runs in those three games against Toronto, resulting in a .216 batting average. They also had the fewest walks in the majors over a seven-day span ending on Tuesday. Their young hitters have seemingly hit a wall, as Oneil Cruz has just a .295 OBP since Aug. 1, while Ke'Bryan Hayes is worse, getting on-base just over 25% percent of the time in the past five weeks. Sometimes, progress isn't linear. -- Rogers

30. Washington Nationals

Record:48-89

Previous ranking:30

With back-to-back series wins over the A's and Mets, the Nationals' hold on the first pick in the 2023 draft is suddenly in jeopardy. The Nationals have twice had the No. 1 overall selection, and you're familiar with the names: Stephen Strasburg in 2009 and Harper in 2010. When the Nats were still the Expos, they drafted Bill Gullickson second in 1977, and he went on to win 162 games in the majors. Speaking of young players, maybe CJ Abrams' four-hit game Monday will set up a strong finish. -- Schoenfield

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