As chaotic as the MLB standings were two months ago, things have now settled down considerably. Certain surprise contenders have consolidated their early-season gains, while others returned quickly to the bottom half of the standings. The result: an unusually clear playoff picture for this stage of the season. No team currently outside of the 10 playoff spots is within three games of getting in, and according to Baseball Prospectus’s projections, only the Yankees have better than a one-in-three chance of making a late charge and upsetting the current order.
That’s not to say we’re doomed to a dull pennant race—with any luck, the clear stratification between buyers and sellers will lead to a brisk trade deadline and some surprises in August and September. But teams currently outside the top 10 are running out of time to make their decisive move.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (56-35)
How can a team that doesn’t lead its own division be the best team in baseball? Turns out it’s a really tough division.
The Dodgers have the best run differential (plus-142), the highest PECOTA playoff odds (99.7 percent), and the best roster in the game, even with the likes of Corey Seager and Clayton Kershaw on the IL. And even without Seager, the Dodgers’ lineup boasts seven position players with an OPS+ of 110 or better; the exception is former MVP Cody Bellinger, who’s still playing his way back into peak form after a hamstring injury.
So the better question is this: How is this team still behind the Giants? The obvious answer is that while the Dodgers are the league’s best team on paper, they’ve been the league’s worst team in extra innings—literally, at 1-8—and they’re five games under .500 in one-run games. Ordinarily, teams that underperform that much in close games have bad bullpens. But while the Dodgers’ relief corps ain’t exactly the 1990 Reds, it’s pretty solid overall: ninth in strikeout rate, fifth in opponent batting average, eighth in WPA, fifth in home run rate. Kenley Jansen has a 1.24 ERA, for God’s sake! The past three and a half months have revealed plenty of new information about the NL West’s power structure, but I’d still expect the Dodgers to end up on top by season’s end.
2. Houston Astros (55-36)
George Springer’s gone. Alex Bregman is hurt. José Urquidy is hurt. Justin Verlander (remember him?) is hurt. Houston got basically nothing from Framber Valdéz and Jake Odorizzi for the first two months of the season. And this team finished under .500 last year and only made the playoffs by virtue of a uniquely inclusive postseason format.
But reports of the Astros’ demise seem to have been exaggerated. It turns out that José Altuve (.278/.361/.498) and Yuli Gurriel (.313/.377/.472) aren’t washed after all. Yordan Álvarez, who barely played in 2020, is back to his Rookie of the Year form. And Carlos Correa, who’d drifted into a contract year after three seasons of inconsistency and injuries, is having his best season since 2017. The conga line offense of the peak Trash Can Astros is back—and it’s as strong as ever.
3. San Francisco Giants (57-32)
If you haven’t already, you should make your peace with this Giants team as a serious title contender. Mike Yastrzemski’s shocking emergence as a star in 2019 and 2020 was not an outlier, but merely a harbinger of things to come. Steven Duggar, another unremarkable left-handed college outfield prospect, is all of a sudden hitting like Orlando Cepeda. The last remaining holdouts from the Even Year Bullshit teams have rediscovered their lost youth, so much so that it wouldn’t be a shock to see Peter Thiel banging on the stadium gates demanding to know their secrets.
But once you get past the initial shock of, say, Anthony DeSclafani throwing two complete-game shutouts and having an outside shot at 20 wins, it’s hard to identify a fatal weakness for the Giants. Maybe injuries—Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria, and Tommy La Stella are all on the IL—but the team had been planning for life after those guys anyway. When Posey went down, they could call up Joey Bart. Darin Ruf has hit .271/.387/.542 since returning from Korea a year ago. Their rotation is deep, their bullpen is solid, and their run differential is the second best in the NL. This run doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon.
4. Chicago White Sox (54-35)
The White Sox have had six starting position players either suffer a long-term injury or play poorly enough to get pushed off the roster. One of their best position players, Yasmani Grandal, was hitting .188 before he got hurt (albeit with ludicrous secondary numbers). Their manager even invited opposing teams to throw at one of his own players following a ridiculous “unwritten rules” controversy. And yet the White Sox have an eight-game lead in the AL Central—a lead that’s twice as big as any other division leader’s—and are on absolute autopilot for October.
There are many reasons for this. First is the Twins’ catastrophic and unexpected collapse. Second is the fact that José Abreu, Tim Anderson, and Yoán Moncada are picking up the slack for their fallen comrades, as is rookie Andrew Vaughn, who is not only hitting well in his first taste of big league action but has managed to play 67 games in the outfield without maiming himself—which would not have been a given in late March. Most of all, though, Chicago’s rotation has been the best in the American League. Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodón have formed a near-unbeatable 1-2 punch, while Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito, and Dallas Keuchel have not only been effective, but healthy. Whatever other rotten-injury luck the White Sox have had, it is extremely easy to win baseball games with five healthy, effective, and consistent starting pitchers.
5. San Diego Padres (53-40)
One almost has to feel bad for the Padres. Fernando Tatis, Jr. is ascending to hitherto unimaginable heights of baseball excellence, and the bullpen is by far the best in baseball. But injuries have taken Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, and Dinelson Lamet out of the rotation. The Padres were built to weather such choppy waters—literally in this case, as 21-year-old Ryan Weathers has posted a 2.91 ERA in 58 2/3 innings as a starter and long reliever. But even so, they seem to be headed inexorably for a one-game wild-card playoff, on the road, against either Walker Buehler or Kevin Gausman. Life isn’t always fair.
6. Boston Red Sox (55-36)
This is going to sound ridiculous, because it shouldn’t be possible to underrate a three-time All-Star who plays shortstop for the Boston Red Sox and was an everyday player in two World Series. But I think Xander Bogaerts is a little underrated right now.
Sure, he came up to enormous fanfare as a 20-year-old in late 2013, but since then the Red Sox brought up Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers, signed David Price and J.D. Martinez, and traded for Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale. Across the league, Bogaerts’s rising star was swallowed by the likes of fellow shortstops Correa, Seager, Francisco Lindor, and Fernando Tatis Jr. He’s not as flashy or as talkative as his contemporaries, and he’s had no injury, trade, or contract drama to keep him in the news. He’s just been quietly good since late 2013—and over the past four years, maybe even great.
Since 2018, Bogaerts is hitting .304/.374/.537 and averaging 31 home runs and 10 stolen bases per 162 games. Maybe we won’t end up talking about Bogaerts’s Hall of Fame case in 15 years’ time, but at the very least he’s on pace for a Miguel Tejada– or Jim Fregosi–type Hall of Very Good career. Even if he’s not underrated per se, I think nationally we’re taking him for granted.
7. Tampa Bay Rays (53-37)
The Rays are playing the hits. After a surprisingly successful year, Tampa Bay got rid of most of the players you’d heard of and replaced them with prospects and platoon guys. At the break, the Rays are on a 95-win pace, ahead of the Yankees in the AL East standings and stocked with more good relief pitchers than the entire NL East put together. See you in October.
8. Milwaukee Brewers (53-39)
It’s not like everything’s gone according to plan for the Brewers, unless the plan somehow involved both Jackie Bradley Jr. and Keston Hiura hitting in the .160s over the first half of the season. But the Willy Adames trade looks like an absolute steal at the moment, which could alter the direction of the franchise. And just as Rodón and Lynn have solved a lot of problems for the White Sox, so has the rotation for the Brewers. Eighty-eight of Milwaukee’s 92 games have been started by Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, Adrian Houser, Eric Lauer, or Brett Anderson. Of those six pitchers, three have an ERA under 2.50 and only one has an ERA over 4.00. It bears repeating: Baseball gets a lot easier when you have good starting pitching.
9. New York Mets (47-40)
I was scanning the Mets’ Baseball-Reference page recently, trying to figure out what to focus on for this blurb. Perhaps a joke about the rest of the NL East falling apart, or Taijuan Walker turning out to be one of the best signings of last year’s free-agent class, or even a comment about how one of the coolest college baseball players of the past decade—Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker—fell into the Mets’ lap with the 10th pick in this week’s draft.
Then I saw Jacob deGrom’s name and remembered that he has a 1.08 ERA, and I laughed out loud. Even after all the column inches that have been devoted to deGrom discourse this year, and as blindingly obvious as it is that he’s the best pitcher in the world by far, I don’t think the modern baseball observer’s mind is set up to truly comprehend a 1.08 ERA over the course of a full season. Not to mention the fact that deGrom’s ERA hit 1.08 because he doubled his previous ERA over his past three starts—allowing seven earned runs in 20 innings. That’s a 3.15 ERA, or exactly the same as Rick Porcello’s ERA when he won the Cy Young five years ago. Ridiculous.
10. Oakland Athletics (52-40)
On the other end of the spectrum from deGrom is Yusmeiro Petit, the venerable rubber-armed reliever. Petit’s never thrown a pitch harder than 92.9 mph in a big league game, and hasn’t even hit an even 92 since 2017, but he’s been a crucial element of Oakland’s bullpen for the past four seasons. Petit is currently tied for the MLB lead in relief appearances with 45, which is to be expected; since he arrived in Oakland, nobody has thrown more games in relief. And it’s not just bulk mop-up duty, either. Petit has won seven games for Oakland and saved two more, despite striking out just 23 batters. If he keeps that ratio up, he’ll become the first pitcher in 15 years to win at least five games while striking out fewer than 3.5 batters per win. As a predictive bit of analysis, that’s obviously useless, but it’s a fun microcosm for Oakland’s fun collection of slightly odd but undeniably effective players.
11. Toronto Blue Jays (45-42)
The record isn’t great, I’ll concede, and the Jays are 4 1/2 games out of a playoff spot in a crowded AL wild-card race. To return to the postseason, the Jays will have to navigate a virtual five-way tie for sixth in the AL, then overhaul Oakland to grab the second wild-card spot. It won’t be easy.
However: Toronto has gotten here while playing a de facto all-road schedule, like Philip Roth’s Ruppert Mundys, and—at the risk of spoiling The Great American Novel—with only slightly better luck for their star center fielder. Even though the Jays could not reasonably have expected more from the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Marcus Semien, Robbie Ray, and rookie right-hander Alek Manoah this season, I still think there’s upside for this team. George Springer isn’t settled in yet, Hyun-Jin Ryu has merely been fine instead of dominant, and I’m still holding out hope—perhaps foolishly—for Nate Pearson to swoop in at the 11th hour and save the day. It’s possible that the AL playoff field is already set, but if I had to pick one team from the wrong side of the bubble to make a run, it’d be this one.
12. New York Yankees (46-43)
Well, at least we can all agree that Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gary Sánchez—the Yankees’ three top hitters by OPS+—are not the problem this time around, right?
Instead, let’s talk about Aroldis Chapman. Chapman got touched up in three of his last four appearances before the break, which has probably exaggerated his struggles. And while he’s blown four saves, the Yankees came back to win two of those games. One thing to keep an eye on, however, is Chapman’s home run rate. Over the first 10 seasons of his career, he just once allowed a HR/FB% higher than 10, or more than four home runs in a season. This year, he’s already up to five dingers, with a HR/FB rate in the 30s, which is even worse than that one Edwin Díaz year. The Yankees are only 4 1/2 games out of a playoff spot at the moment—not all of which can be blamed on Chapman. But if Chapman legitimately struggles to keep the ball in the yard, things could go south very quickly.
13. Cincinnati Reds (48-42)
As much as we try not to freak out over early-season results, sometimes it’s tough to ignore a disaster unfolding before our eyes. Like when Cincinnati’s Luis Castillo, a perennial dark horse NL Cy Young candidate, got crushed on Opening Day and continued to get crushed through Memorial Day. At the end of May, Castillo had a 7.22 ERA, and considering that opponents were hitting .321/.392/.505 against him at the time, he’s fortunate his ERA wasn’t even worse. Wins are only so informative as a statistical measure, but Castillo had lost seven starts in a row, which carries the kind of face-value shock that advanced metrics don’t really convey.
Fear not: Since June 1, Castillo has held opponents to a .171/.268/.234 batting line and allowed just 11 earned runs in his past 50 1/3 innings, bringing his season-long ERA down to a more palatable 4.65. Plus, he’s made it through at least 5 1/3 innings and 95 pitches in each of his past eight starts. All seems to be well.
14. Cleveland (45-42)
The Clevelanders have cheated death for years now thanks to their uncanny ability to develop pitchers, and early returns from their 2021 draft class indicate that the focus on pitching will continue. Cleveland picked 11 times in the first two days of the draft and spent 10 of those picks on college arms, including an exciting assortment of SEC guys: Mississippi’s Doug Nikhazy and the Florida trio of Tommy Mace, Jack Leftwich, and Franco Alemán. Remember those names, because one of them is going to get Cy Young votes in about five years.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, the team’s current crop of pitchers hasn’t been healthy enough to keep up with Chicago. Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale are currently on the IL, while Zach Plesac missed about six weeks earlier this year with a broken thumb. Most teams wouldn’t survive that level of attrition, and certainly not a team that hasn’t invested enough in its lineup to cultivate a Plan B. All things considered, they’ve done well to stay this close to the wild-card series, but they probably don’t have the depth to make a late charge.
15. Seattle Mariners (48-43)
Well, would you look who’s five games over .500. Seeing the Mariners in the playoff picture this late is like seeing a 15-year-old with a hilariously bad fake ID trying to buy beer. Seattle’s minus-50 run differential is the worst by far among teams that are over .500. In fact, no other team with a run differential that bad is within 10 games of .500. The Mariners are 19-8 in one-run games and an astonishing 10-1 in extra-inning contests, which means they’ve been more lucky than good. Not that it matters how they got here; after all, they don’t ask how, they ask how many.
There’s sometimes a danger that a team as starved for success as Seattle would grab onto an obviously deceptive record and compromise the future with short-term offseason transactions. But that’s not really a worry for this franchise. The Mariners’ projected payroll for 2022 is less than $100 million, which gives them space to make four or five shortsighted free-agent acquisitions and still have money to spare. Their farm system is not only well-stocked, but the bulk of the big names—Julio Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic, Emerson Hancock—are close to big-league ready. None of those guys are getting shipped off for a rental closer.
In the meantime, the Mariners can use this season to build confidence and to get the likes of J.P. Crawford and Logan Gilbert some reps in a pennant race, before bringing in the rest of the cavalry and contending in 2022.
16. Los Angeles Angels (45-44)
Every so often, a work of literature comes along and truly captures the cultural moment in a permeating, indelible way—The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and so on. For our generation of baseball fans, that work of literature is the “‘Tungsten Arm’ O’Doyle” tweet.
every time I see an Angels highlight it’s like “Mike Trout hit three homes runs and raised his average to .528 while Shohei Ohtani did something that hasn’t been done since ‘Tungsten Arm’ O’Doyle of the 1921 Akron Groomsmen, as the Tigers defeated the Angels 8-3”
— ℳatt (@matttomic) May 18, 2021
17. Atlanta Braves (44-45)
The 2021 season wasn’t going too well for Atlanta to begin with, and then Mike Soroka reinjured his Achilles tendon, Ronald Acuña Jr. blew out his knee, and now Ian Anderson is having shoulder tightness investigated. There’s really only so much a team can do to build depth—no squad is prepared to lose its two best pitchers and its best position player in the span of a couple of weeks.
18. Washington Nationals (42-47)
The Nats currently sit six games out of the division lead and nine games out of a wild-card race that seems to be locked down by the second- and third-place finishers in the NL West. Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber are having monster years, and after upsetting Shohei Ohtani in the first round of the Home Run Derby, Juan Soto is back and jauntier than ever.
But Stephen Strasburg is still on the mend, and Jon Lester and Patrick Corbin haven’t picked up the slack. Baseball Prospectus gives Washington just a 5.5 percent chance of making the playoffs. That means—and it feels sacrilegious just to say this—it’s time to start thinking about what it’d take to get certain contenders to drive home today in a certified pre-owned Max Scherzer.
19. Philadelphia Phillies (44-44)
The rottenness that has befallen the Phillies is impossible to blame on one person. For six years, this club has been tethered to the most frustrating .400 to .500 record in the sport, like Prometheus to the rock where eagles eat his liver every day for all eternity. The funk is in the walls and foundations and has lasted through two front-office regimes, three managers, and three nine-figure free-agent signings—all of which, it bears mentioning, have been rousing successes thus far.
The concept of “absolutely fucked vibes” comes up pretty frequently in Philadelphia sports. But there’s the kind of fucked vibes that involve Didi Gregorius getting pseudogout. Then there’s the kind of fucked vibes that involve Didi Gregorious getting pseudogout and—according to a hair-raising article by The Athletic’s Matt Gelb—blaming it on the COVID vaccine as part of a clubhouse-wide anti-vaxxer discourse that leaves the team below the league’s 85 percent vaccine threshold. I don’t think a trade or a managerial shake-up is going to do the trick here. Sell the team, move the team, and turn Citizens Bank Park into a hippodrome and start over.
Also, this is the team PECOTA projects as having the best chance of knocking off one of the current playoff teams.
20. St. Louis Cardinals (44-46)
This roster ought to be winning more games. Plain and simple. But there are a few reasons why they aren’t. First, there are some moderate underachievers in the lineup, which leads to an offense with the 25th-best aggregate wRC+ in baseball. Right field has been particularly bad with a collective stat line of .221/.299/.293. Breaking down each team’s offensive production by defensive position, we get 240 positions: 30 teams and eight defensive positions, excluding DH, pitcher, and pinch hitter. The Cardinals’ right fielders have an sOPS+ (OPS+ relative to league production at that position) of 61. That’s seventh from the bottom among those 240 defensive positions. And at the risk of stating the obvious, the Cardinals are missing Jack Flaherty. Without him, St. Louis starters have the dubious distinction of having the worst strikeout rate in baseball and the worst walk rate in baseball. But at least the Cardinals didn’t just scuttle the final season with their beloved championship core by losing 11 games in a row.
21. Miami Marlins (39-50)
The Marlins are on the rise. Jazz Chisholm does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of making this team entertaining, but he’s not alone. Starling Marte is exactly the kind of offensive table-setter-cum–veteran leader this team’s young core needs, and Miami is reportedly taking steps to keep him around past this season. The rotation, headlined by Sandy Alcantara, Pablo López, and Trevor Rogers, is already playoff-caliber. Rogers might be the best pitcher in baseball that nobody’s heard of. And the two most exciting Miami arms—Sixto Sánchez and 2020 no. 3 overall pick Max Meyer—haven’t even reached the majors yet this year.
22. Chicago Cubs (44-46)
A month ago, these guys were 11 games over .500 and tied for first place in the division. But nothing clarifies the buyer-seller question like losing 11 consecutive games by an aggregate score of 83-35.
23. Minnesota Twins (39-50)
The Twins’ offense isn’t the record-breaking juggernaut of two seasons ago, but it’s good enough to win games. Minnesota is third in the league in home runs, seventh in wRC+, and 10th in runs scored per game. Unfortunately, there’s a corollary to the axiom about awesome starting pitchers making it easy to win baseball games: Bad pitching makes it very difficult to win baseball games. José Berríos is as consistent as ever: 18 starts, 108 2/3 innings pitched, and 120 ERA+, 9.4 K/9. But the rest of the pitching staff has been a write-off, from reigning Cy Young runner-up Kenta Maeda to the newly extended Randy Dobnak to offseason acquisitions J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker, the latter of whom has already been DFA’d.
This pretty good offense has been fettered to the fifth-worst pitching staff in baseball by ERA-, and the sixth-worst bullpen in baseball by WPA—a bullpen with more meltdowns (reliever appearances with a WPA worse than minus-0.06) than any other in the league. So here the Twins find themselves, in fourth place in the AL Central.
24. Detroit Tigers (40-51)
After a team makes a series of high draft picks, baseball’s long learning curve to the majors can be frustrating. The top pick in the 2020 draft, Spencer Torkelson, is slugging .606 in Double-A right now and progressing appropriately through the minors, but it’s hard not to be impatient. At least Tigers fans have Casey Mize, who is already in the big leagues. The top pick in the 2018 draft had a troubling debut in the majors last year, with an ERA close to 7.00 in seven starts. But he’s rebounded nicely, if a little quietly, in his sophomore season: 17 starts with an ERA+ of 120. The strikeout numbers—a 19.9K%—aren’t ideal for a top-of-the-rotation starter, but it’s a welcome rebound from what looked like a crisis not too long ago.
25. Colorado Rockies (40-51)
Shortstop Trevor Story is the no. 1 position player on the trading block right now, but if I were running a contending team and was trying to relieve the Rockies of a star player, I’d give up a lot for right-handed pitcher Germán Márquez. Márquez, a six-year veteran who’s still somehow only 26 years old, doesn’t have big strikeout numbers, but he throws a ton of innings and is one of the best in the league at preventing hard contact—even in Coors Field. Plus he’s under team control through 2024. Put him on a contender, let him throw a shutout in the playoffs, and watch him turn into a superstar overnight.
26. Kansas City Royals (36-53)
On April 29, I published a column feting the first-place Royals’ rebuilding process. They were 15-8 at the time, the best record in the AL, and had a 1 1/2–game lead over their nearest competition in the AL Central. Since then, though, Kansas City has gone 21-45; only the Diamondbacks and Orioles have been worse in the past two and a half months. The Royals, it seems, are a team of contrasts.
27. Texas Rangers (35-55)
It’s going to be a long rebuild, and it’s going to suck for Rangers fans, so this feels like a good time to talk about Jack Leiter. On Sunday, the Rangers spent the no. 2 overall pick on Al Leiter’s son, who just led NCAA Division I in strikeouts, with 179 in just 18 starts. He recorded a 16-strikeout no-hitter against South Carolina this March, and in the College World Series struck out 15 over eight innings in a 1-0 loss to NC State.
All pitching prospects carry plenty of risk, but if you’re not excited about Leiter, you might be dead.
28. Pittsburgh Pirates (34-56)
I kind of love what the Pirates did early in the draft. First, they spent the no. 1 overall pick on Louisville catcher Henry Davis, a highly regarded prospect, but one who’s probably closer to the consensus fifth-best pick in the class than the first. If I had the no. 1 pick and just wanted to take the best player, I would’ve selected either Leiter or high school shortstop Marcelo Mayer, who went fourth to Boston. But both of those players are expected to demand a much higher signing bonus than Davis, so Pittsburgh went with the cheaper option. Then the team spent its next three picks on high-schoolers: New Jersey prep pitcher Anthony Solometo at no. 37, Pennsylvania high school outfielder Lonnie White Jr. at no. 64, and Georgia high school pitcher Bubba Chandler—a Clemson quarterback recruit—at no. 72.
All three are exciting, high-ceiling prospects with attractive college options who’ll demand the kind of signing bonuses the Pirates wouldn’t have been able to pay had they pursued Leiter or Mayer. So instead of having the best prospect in the draft and playing it straight when they picked again in the 30s, the Pirates have—according to MLB.com—the fifth-, 17th-, and 21st-best prospects in the draft.
The very first pick in the current bonus-cap era, Carlos Correa, was part of just such a gambit, as the Astros floated expensive high school prospects Lance McCullers Jr. and Rio Ruiz later in the draft. You can draw a straight line from that decision to the 2017 World Series. That strategy is high-risk and hasn’t been replicated quite as successfully by another team since—even manipulating the draft’s complicated negotiation structures to keep Solometo, White, and Chandler on the board was no small feat. There hasn’t been a lot to celebrate for the Pirates on the field, but they had a very, very good week off it.
29. Baltimore Orioles (28-61)
Cedric Mullins entered this season with 418 big league plate appearances under his belt, in which he hit .225/.290/.342. As a right-handed batter hitting against left-handed pitching, he hit .147/.250/.189. This year, batting exclusively from the left side, Mullins is hitting .314/.380/.541, including .298/.355/.491 against lefties. Factor in his solid center-field defense and 16 stolen bases and Mullins has been one of the five most valuable position players in the American League this year, according to Baseball-Reference. If not for Ohtani, he’d have a decent MVP case.
Switch-hitting is for suckers.
30. Arizona Diamondbacks (26-66)
I thought about putting the Mississippi State Bulldogs here to commemorate their first national championship in school history. The Bulldogs won 50 games out of the 68 they played this year. The Diamondbacks are on pace to play 162 and win only 46.