After a frantic few days — frantic few weeks, really — the 2023 trade deadline has officially come and gone, and as the dust settles, we’ve begun to get a sense of the new landscape around the league. Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery provided instant returns for the Texas Rangers, while Jack Flaherty looked like a totally different pitcher in his Orioles debut. The Dodgers have to be ruing Eduardo Rodriguez’s no-trade clause right about now, while the Reds have to be ruing not going and getting any starter at all. The Los Angeles Angels’ laudable attempt to go all the way in appears to be backfiring, while the Cubs and Padres look ready to finally vault up the standings after maddeningly inconsistent starts.
A lot has changed in just the last few days, and the playoff picture seemingly shifts every hour. Which makes this is a great opportunity to take stock of where things stand as the marathon that is the regular season suddenly turns into a sprint. Who put themselves in pole position? Let’s break it down.
2023 MLB power rankings: Week 20
You could make the argument that the Braves deserve to be in a tier of their own here — that offense is relentless — but at the end of the day, I just have a few too many questions about what this rotation is going to look like come October. Max Fried looked every bit like Max Fried, and Spencer Strider is a monster, but then ... what, exactly? Granted, you could say that very same thing about the Orioles, probably even more so, but if Flaherty is sitting 97 mph with his fastball now Baltimore could have the horses to keep up.
The next three teams here are really in their own mini-tier, but they’re closer to the top two than to the teams below them. The Astros have all the pieces to make a run at a repeat, but we’ve seen in the Bronx this weekend the inconsistencies that have held them back so far this year — this offense remains a bit less than the sum of its parts. As good as Scherzer and Montgomery looked in their debuts, the Rangers still have pitching questions to answer, as do the Dodgers, who are just trying to get to October with Clayton Kershaw and Julio Urias healthy and confident.
We now enter baseball’s middle class, teams with plausible claims to be considered contenders but still some work to do to actually prove it. By overall record, the Rays deserve to be higher than this, but honestly I’m more apt to be convinced to drop them a bit: Tampa is now just 10-18 since the start of July, with Shane McClanahan’s season looking increasingly in doubt and Tyler Glasnow and Aaron Civale possessing some of the sketchiest injury histories around. (Glasnow was scratched from his start Sunday with back spasms, because of course.) Unless Tampa starts hitting the ball like they did in April, they simply don’t have the horses to overcome all the hits they’ve taken to their rotation.
We’ve been waiting on the Jays and Phillies all year, and they’ve shown positive signs both in their aggression at the deadline and their play after it. Toronto’s rotation and Philly’s offense remain question marks, but I have (slightly) more faith in the former than the latter right now. And then we arrive at the Giants and Brewers, overachievers rather than underachievers who we still have a bit of a hard time trusting but whose play needs to be recognized. With Brandon Woodruff back, no one is going to want to face Milwaukee in a short series, while San Francisco ... well, what if they found a way to port even-year magic over into an odd year?
Really, you could rank these teams in just about any order and we wouldn’t fight you too hard. The Yankees still feel like the worst of this bunch, but despite a woeful lineup they just keep finding ways to scratch wins; if Nestor Cortes and Carlos Rodon can get things figured out, a Wild Card run is still very much possible. The Reds, on the other hand, are feeling the effects of a trade deadline in which they opted not to upgrade on the likes of Luke Weaver in their starting rotation — while the division-rival Cubs are streaking after a shot in the arm in the form of Jeimer Candelario. I’m still not sure Chicago has enough pitching itself, but this lineup is as deep as anyone not named Atlanta when it’s clicking.
Perhaps this is too high on the Mariners, but how many teams can top a trio of Luis Castillo, George Kirby and Logan Gilbert? If Seattle gets any hitting at all, there’s no reason why they can’t be at the front of the line for the third and final Wild Card spot. (Speaking of getting any hitting at all: Can Matt Wallner save the Twins from another underwhelming playoff exit?)
We can call this group the outer circle, teams on the fringe of the postseason chase and in need of a spark at some point soon. Of these five, the Padres are the only one trending in the right direction — Joe Musgrove’s injury hurts a lot, and makes a Yu Darvish resurgence practically necessity, but an offense finally starting to live up to expectations can make up for a lot. For the other four, however, the arrow is pointing straight down: The halo of the Angels’ all-in push has worn off, and we’re now left with a roster that’s still profoundly flawed and thinned out by injury; the Marlins and D-backs, meanwhile, are simply regressing back to the mean after dream first halves, without enough firepower to sustain over a 162-game season.
We’ve officially crossed out of the Circle of Plausible Contention and into the Vast Void of Tanking. We knew the Mets were going to be rough after their deadline fire sale, but this team’s vibes are impressively bad right now; we’re going to be seeing a lot of the likes of Tylor Megill and Rafael Ortega over the last two months. The Cardinals are also bearing the weight of missed expectations, but this team’s 2024 outlook feels much rosier — especially if Steven Matz starts pitching like a mid-rotation starter again and Masyn Winn earns a late-season promotion. There’s still a ton of talent on this team, and they’re too proud to just play out the string.
The Tigers, Pirates and Nationals, meanwhile, are here just to see what their young kids can do with some extended Major League playing time — we’ve ranked them in roughly descending order of long-term optimism, with the Tigers a couple of position players away from being genuinely interesting.
They almost certainly won’t reach the bottom of these rankings, but man, there’s not liable to be a sadder team down the home stretch of this season than the White Sox (as if Tim Anderson getting knocked out in front of god and everyone weren’t bad enough). The Rockies and A’s feel like pretty known — and very bad — quantities, but the Royals are showing real signs of life right now and could even find themselves moving up a tier if Bobby Witt Jr. stays this hot.