Have the red-hot Toronto Blue Jays vaulted up the rankings? Will the San Francisco Giants finally find breathing room in their race against the Los Angeles Dodgers? With those two National League West powerhouses both assured a playoff spot, who has the edge for the second spot in the NL wild-card race?
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 23 observation based on what they have seen recently for all 30 teams.
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The Giants immersed themselves in a full-fledged champagne celebration Monday night, even though they merely secured at least a wild-card game and have yet to solidify the division title -- and they have every right to. The Giants should easily surpass 100 wins for only the second time since 1962, which would mark one of the greatest -- and most unexpected -- turnarounds in recent memory. They've continually held off the hard-charging Dodgers, one of the most talented teams in baseball history. And they've done it with a unique blend of unheralded veterans and former stars who have been at their best throughout the summer. Celebrate away. -- Gonzalez
The Dodgers were short-handed with their rotation for a while, but that is no longer the case. Clayton Kershaw and Tony Gonsolin each provided encouraging starts upon getting activated from the injured list earlier this week, solidifying what could be a devastating rotation if the Dodgers ultimately advance into the division series. In a five-day stretch that culminated with Gonsolin's strong outing against the D-backs on Tuesday, the five members of the team's current rotation combined to allow just three earned runs in 31 innings. -- Gonzalez
Wander Franco hitting the injured list with a hamstring strain certainly doesn't represent positive news for Tampa Bay. To replace Franco, the Rays called Taylor Walls to fill in the spot. The depth of this Tampa Bay roster continues to shine, with Brandon Lowe, Randy Arozarena, Joey Wendle and Mike Zunino all posting bWAR above 3.) and Franco and Kevin Kiermaier trailing right behind with 2.9 bWAR each. -- Lee
Things are going so well in Milwaukee that star Christian Yelich felt compelled to buy 10,000 tickets for the Brewers' series next week against the Cardinals. He's giving them out to fans for free. On the field, rightyFreddy Peralta's performance against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday might be the most important thing to go down for the Brewers this month. Coming off some shoulder issues, he pitched his best game since the end of July. He didn't give up a run over six innings, putting him back in line as the Brewers' likely third starter in the postseason. -- Rogers
With the Astros and White Sox on an apparent American League Division Series collision course, it's worth considering a couple of factors for Houston. First, there is home-field advantage between the teams in a prospective meeting, which at present is very much up in the air. The clubs played seven games over a pair of home-and-home series this season. While those results have limited predictive power, this much is true: Houston won all four games at Minute Maid Park by a combined score of 27-8. Chicago won two of the three games at Guaranteed Rate Field and generally has been a much stronger club at home than on the road. While the White Sox haven't appeared in the LDS since 2008, the Astros have been a playoff fixture in recent seasons, earning berths five times in six seasons through 2020. During that span, Houston has done just fine on the road. Since 2015, the Astros have gone 19-12 during the playoffs at home and 17-15 in away games.-- Doolittle
Here come the Blue Jays! Toronto is the hottest team in baseball, and its run differential, one of the best in baseball, is catching up with its record. The Blue Jays swept the Yankees last week, catapulting into the No. 2 slot in the wild-card standings. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. continues his chase for the Triple-A crown, while Jose Berrios looks like one of the most important acquisitions of the trade-deadline season, posting a 3.31 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in nine starts since joining the Jays. -- Lee
A question emerged as the second half progressed about who would be left out of Chicago's postseason rotation, given the consistency and durability of the White Sox's five primary starters. The answer didn't seem likely to beDallas 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
Adam Duvall leads the NL with 101 RBIs through Tuesday after mashing his 35th home run, which leads to all kinds of weird facts. No RBI leader has split the season between two clubs. Duvall's .229 average would be the lowest ever for an RBI champion -- Harmon Killebrew hit .243 when he led the AL with 126 RBIs for the Twins in 1962. Duvall's .788 OPS would be only the fourth below .800 for an RBI leader; the others to fall below that mark belonged to George Kelly in 1920, Lee May in 1976 and Cecil Fielder in 1992. -- Schoenfield
The story of the Yankees' season: inconsistency. New York had its 13-game winning streak snapped on Aug. 28 and has struggled to an AL-worst record since. With the season closing out against the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays, the Bronx Bombers face a tall road to make it into the playoffs with competition from the rest of the division chasing after a spot in the wild card. Ultimately, the team's inability to succeed against its division rivals could be its undoing. -- Lee
10. Boston Red Sox
Despite the team's COVID-19 outbreak, the Red Sox have found themselves playing better baseball, receiving contributions from up and down the roster. Kyle Schwarber started strong coming off the injured list but has struggled in recent weeks. One of the factors playing in favor of Boston is its schedule compared to the rest of the wild-card contenders. Boston finishes out the season playing games against the Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals, New York Mets and New York Yankees. -- Lee
The Athletics are slowly falling out of the main picture for a wild-card spot, sitting fifth in the AL race. The team faces a tough schedule ahead with 13 games against the Houston Astros and the Seattle Mariners, teams it has a losing record against so far this season. While Starling Marte continues to look like one of the best trade-deadline acquisitions, now up to 23 stolen bases, it might not be enough to jolt Oakland into the playoffs. -- Lee
12. Seattle Mariners
Yusei Kikuchi is 7-8 with a 4.23 ERA/4.66 FIP, but two recent bad starts against the Astros (2 IP, 7 R and 1 IP, 6 R) leave a large impression about his inconsistency. The guess here is the Mariners don't exercise the four remaining option years on his contract at $16.5 million per season. If the Mariners decline, Kikuchi has a one-year, $13 million player option. Tyler Anderson produces similar results and won't cost nearly as much if the Mariners want to bring back the trade-deadline acquisition. -- Schoenfield
The Cardinals are a story of perseverance as they've fought back into the wild-card race and might very well earn a postseason spot. Injuries to their starting staff slowed their progress but didn't knock them out for good. Splitting a four-game series with the Dodgers after losing the first two games propelled them to series wins over the Red and Mets this past week. The two one-run victories over L.A. might be looked back upon as key moments to a topsy-turvy year for St. Louis. A 2.09 ERA from its pitching staff over the past seven days highlighted its rise to the second wild-card position. -- Rogers
14. Cincinnati Reds
Crunch time isn't proving to be fruitful for the playoff-hopeful Reds as they dropped two of the three to rival St. Louis over the weekend and then lost an series-opening game against the lowly Pirates on Tuesday. Cincinnati's usually reliable offense came up short over the past week, compiling just a .618 OPS. That was second worst in the NL over that time frame. Perhaps the Reds are feeling the loss of Jesse Winker more than they anticipated, while Nick Castellanos was just 3 for his last 19 through Tuesday's game. -- Rogers
15. San Diego Padres
As if the Padres' stretch run couldn't get any more difficult, the team placed Chris Paddack on the injured list Monday with elbow inflammation -- one day after Blake Snell suffered an adductor injury that forced him to prematurely exit his outing against the Dodgers. Yu Darvish, meanwhile, has an 8.68 ERA while contributing only 18 innings over his past four starts. In short, the starting staff is in disarray again, just as it was beginning to get settled, and the schedule won't offer a reprieve. Still remaining for the Padres: seven games against the Giants, four against the Braves and three each against the Cardinals and Dodgers. -- Gonzalez
As the recent bad stretch pushes the Phillies toward another .500-ish season (80-82 in 2018, 81-81 in 2019, 28-32 in 2020), the defense has yet again been a season-long issue. With minus-57 defensive runs saved, only the Tigers rate worse than the Phillies in that category. Odubel Herrera has actually been OK in center field, although it's not clear if he's the 2022 answer. What's more clear is that Alec Bohm is a bad third baseman and the Phillies need a shortstop, even though Didi Gregorius is signed for $15.25 million. He has had a terrible year at the plate and lacks range at shortstop. -- Schoenfield
17. New York Mets
The Mets took two of three from the Yankees, including a memorable Sunday night win when Francisco Lindor hit three home runs, and right when you think some good things might be happening again, they lose a series at home to St. Louis. Javier Baez's free agency has taken a dramatic turn for the better since joining the Mets, as he has hit .304/.375/.600 in 32 games with them (through Tuesday). Given the lack of power in the Mets' lineup in 2021, might they be interested in trying to re-sign Baez? With Lindor locked in at shortstop, Baez would have to give up the position, and there should now be plenty of interest in him to play shortstop somewhere. -- Schoenfield
With Cleveland playing for the future, its 2021 record has gradually slipped to and under .500, putting the franchise's eight-year streak of winning seasons in jeopardy. That figure matches the high-water mark of the offensively dominant Indians teams of the end of the last century, when Cleveland finished over .500 every season from 1994 to 2001. The franchise record is 10 straight winning seasons during the heyday of the Bob Feller/Larry Doby/Bob Lemon teams. Those clubs finished over .500 in each season from 1947 to 1956, a stretch in which they won two pennants (1948 and 1954) and Cleveland's last World Series crown (1948). The 1990s streak resulted in six postseason appearances and two pennants (1995 and 1997) but no titles. As for the current streak, Cleveland made the playoffs five times from 2013 to 2020, won the 2016 AL pennant and, so far, has gone without a title. -- Doolittle
Jo Adell's second season in the major leagues seemingly ended Wednesday, when the 22-year-old outfielder was diagnosed with an abdominal strain that he originally suffered after running into the fence over the weekend. Adell's 2021 finished with a .246/.295/.408 slash line in 140 plate appearances. Brandon Marsh, 23, entered Wednesday with a .256/.319/.360 slash line in 188 plate appearances. The Angels have both of them, plus Mike Trout and Justin Upton, in the final year of his contract, heading into 2022. What the Angels do with Marsh or Adell this offseason -- or whether they do anything at all -- will be interesting to watch. -- Gonzalez
20. Detroit Tigers
Young righty Casey Mize isn't likely to get more than mild support in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting, but he has had a season that has probably been underrated for its start-to-finish consistency. Getting a firm read on Mize's traditional numbers is a little tricky, as the Tigers have put draconian limits on his pitch counts over the second half of the season. To wit: Mize hasn't thrown as many as 90 pitches in a start since late June. Still, you add it up and Mize's ERA+ of 117 over 140 innings is impressive and a hopeful sign of what's to come. The only other rookie Detroit starters to hit those marks during the divisional era have been Mark Fidrych (1976), Dave Rozema (1977), Justin Verlander (2006), Armando Galarraga (2008) and Michael Fulmer (2016). -- Doolittle
When you sketch out the future of the Royals' rotation, the names that leap to mind are the four young starters from the 2018 draft, all of whom have reached the majors. That quartet -- Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar and Kris Bubic -- would be joined on most such sketchings by Asa Lacy, the Texas A&M lefty taken with the fourth pick of the 2020 draft. Lacy's first professional season has been a mixed bag -- lots of strikeouts and far too many walks, but the talent is apparent. While the foursome above awaits Lacy's arrival, another young hurler has worked his way into the mix: Carlos Hernandez, who sports a 139 ERA+ over 76 innings this season. Hernandez has been consistently good, with five quality starts in nine outings. His 56.1 average game score is tops among Royals starters still on the roster. While his pitch mix might eventually land him in the KC bullpen, Hernandez's strong 2021 showing marks him as a rotation candidate for next season.-- Doolittle
22. Colorado Rockies
Brendan Rodgers, the No. 3 overall pick in 2015, has shown some encouraging signs in his first full season in the major leagues, batting .281/.330/.790 with 1.3 Baseball-Reference wins above replacement through his first 86 games. The question -- given the expected departure of Trevor Story, not to mention the price tags on other free agents at his position this offseason -- is whether he can handle shortstop on an everyday basis. The Rockies have played Rodgers mostly at second base thus far. -- Gonzalez
23. Miami Marlins
Sandy Alcantara's season continues to fly under the radar. He has allowed no runs or one run in 13 of his 30 starts. He's tied with Walker Buehler with 13 starts of seven-plus innings -- only Zack Wheeler and Adam Wainwright have more. He's also one of just 11 pitchers to allow eight or more runs at least twice. Take out those two bad starts when he allowed 18 runs over five innings and his ERA is 2.30. If you want a sleeper Cy Young pick for 2022, pick this guy. -- Schoenfield
24. Chicago Cubs
The spoiler role has mostly suited the Cubs well, but the San Francisco Giants took it to them on offense, scoring 27 runs in a weekend three-game sweep. If the Cubs are to return to contention as soon as next season, finding a starting staff is of utmost importance. Tryouts this month have produced mixed reviews as youngsters Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson along with journeyman Adrian Sampson have produced mixed results. Still, the learning process for the team should benefit them for 2022. -- Rogers
25. Minnesota Twins
Here's something from the silver lining department: The Twins' plummet from last season's .600 winning percentage has been dire, but it's not going to be the worst season-over-season drop in franchise history. They have only a small amount of work to do to avoid the worst such drop since the franchise moved to Minneapolis. The worst one-year drop in franchise history came in 1934, when the Washington Senators lost 216 percentage points over their mark in 1933. This year's Twins won't match that even if they fail to win another game. The worst drop during the Minnesota years was the 191-point drop from 2010 to 2011. Mathematically, that figure remains in reach, but Minnesota has to reach only 67 wins to avoid it, and the Twins were at 64 through Tuesday's games. The Twins' .438 winning percentage through Tuesday would translate to a 162-point drop from 2020, which would be the fifth-highest year-over-year drop in franchise history, and second highest since the team relocated to the Midwest. -- Doolittle
One encouraging sign for 2022: Josh Bell has actually been pretty good after a miserable April when he hit .113. Since May 13, he has hit .282/.360/.527 with 23 home runs. Of course, those first five weeks count, but he looks like a player the Nats can pencil in for the middle of the lineup. Note that he has cut his strikeout rate from 22.2% in the first half to just 13.3% in the second half -- an elite contact rate. -- Schoenfield
27. Texas Rangers
Adolis Garcia is making his final month push for rookie of the year as he's coming off a .381/.409/.619 week. Will it be enough to beat out Randy Arozarena or Ryan Mountcastle? Garcia leads them in home runs, but both hitters have him beat in OPS mostly thanks to their on-base percentages. Garcia's is just .296 for the season, which could prevent him from winning the award. -- Rogers
Pittsburgh has had a good run lately, winning series against the Tigers and Nationals before taking a game against the playoff-hopeful Reds on Tuesday. Lefty Dillon Peters continues to pile up productive innings. He has compiled a 2.84 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP over the past month including five scoreless against a dangerous Reds lineup on Tuesday. He could be the real deal. -- Rogers
This season is all about finding out what the D-backs have in their young players, and one obvious bright side has been Daulton Varsho, a 25-year-old outfielder and catcher who entered Wednesday with a .298/.370/.595 slash line since the All-Star break. Carson Kelly seemingly has the catching spot locked up for the foreseeable future, but Varsho is a plus runner who can handle center field and could bring additional value with his abilities behind the plate. -- Gonzalez
The heat is turning up in Baltimore for the team to start seeing results from its rebuilding process. The Orioles boast one of the top farm systems in baseball, but marquee prospects don't always lead to success. Baltimore does have some positives to take away from the season, including Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays, while Adley Rutschman waits in the wings as one of the top prospects in the sport. -- Lee
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