By Grant Brisbee, Rustin Dodd and Andy McCullough
Welcome to September, the month when everything seems a little more important. The pennant races. The awards races. The part of the season where even the fan interference calls become central parts of the narrative.
This week’s power rankings are focused on all things September — the postseason chase, the callups, the expanded rosters, the goals for each individual organization.
The most intriguing division race appears to be in the American League West, where the Mariners, Rangers and Astros are engaged in a three-team battle royale. The Orioles, meanwhile, are trying to fend off the Rays; the Cubs are charging on the Brewers; and the National League Wild Card … (???), well, check back in a couple of weeks.
For now, we’re examining the biggest September priority for each club. Here we go.
Last Power Ranking: 1
Biggest September priority: Keep the rotation healthy
With October approaching, the Braves look like the favorites — as far as that goes in the postseason crapshoot — to win it all. The club poses a terrifying matchup for any opposing pitching staff: Atlanta leads the sport in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. They throttled the Dodgers this weekend in Los Angeles. The club’s main concern should just be to stay healthy, specifically in the starting rotation. Spencer Strider is completing his first full season in the majors as a starter. Max Fried has made six starts since missing most of the summer with a forearm strain. Kyle Wright is still working his way back from a shoulder injury. With a full complement of arms, the Braves will look that much more formidable. – Andy McCullough
Last Power Ranking: 2
Biggest September priority: Fold Walker Buehler back into their arsenal
Walker Buehler is back!
The @Dodgers hurler fans two in two perfect frames for his first start of 2023.
— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) September 3, 2023
Ruh roh. Only way to put it. It’s a technical scouting term. You see a fantastic team like the Dodgers doing what they’re doing with a rejuvenated rotation and possibly getting a chance to add an All-Star and perennial Cy Young candidate back to the rotation?
Ruh roh. Only way to put it. — Grant Brisbee
Last Power Ranking: 3
Biggest September priority: Decide the bullpen hierarchy
The Orioles are unlikely to commit to replacing Félix Bautista, who may not return from his elbow injury, with one individual player. The closer-by-committee may just be a two-man committee: Yennier Canó, a right-hander, and Danny Coulombe, a left-hander. Fair enough — most of the enlightened teams don’t worry about deciding upon a Proven Closer, preferring to trust the manager to match up his relievers properly on a given night. But Brandon Hyde does need to figure out which of his other relievers he can trust. Can rookie DL Hall handle high leverage? Will Shintaro Fujinami and Cionel Pérez keep throwing strikes? The team even claimed its former closer, Jorge López, off waivers to help the group in September. López is not eligible to appear in the postseason, but he can help Baltimore capture its first American League East title since 2014. — AM
Last Power Ranking: 4
Biggest September priority: Figure out the October rotation
Could Zack Littell, who was claimed off waivers in May, start a postseason game for the Rays? It’s not outside the realm of possibility, not after injuries decimated the Tampa Bay rotation this summer. Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen are all on the shelf. Tyler Glasnow has made a career-high 16 starts. Taj Bradley posted a 5.67 ERA heading into Sunday. The team has been scrambling. The lineup is deep enough and dangerous to make a run, but the pitching staff will need to find some stability over the final weeks of the season. — AM
Last Power Ranking: 5
Biggest September priority: Keep doing the danged thing
First off, I’m sorry for suggesting last week that Teoscar Hernández’s free-agent stock was down. Apparently, he’s the hottest hitter on the planet. I was looking at season stats; that’s on me. But Hernández is the perfect player to describe the second-half Mariners, who have been the second-best pitching team and the second-best hitting team in baseball since the All-Star break. They were always an absurdly talented team, but now they’re putting it together.
So they just need to keep doing the danged thing. — GB
Last Power Ranking: T-7
Biggest September priority: Win the National League Central
The Brewers have made the playoffs four times during the Craig Counsell era, but they haven’t won a postseason series since 2018 when they made it all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS before bowing out to the Dodgers. It’s possible that the Counsell era could be nearing its end. His contract is up after this year. But the Brewers can put themselves in good position to end the mini-drought if they can hold off the Cubs in the division race. The Brewers would likely lock into the No. 3 seed, allowing them to host a three-game wild-card series. As of now, their most likely opponent would be the Phillies. But the Cubs, Giants, Diamondbacks or Reds could all theoretically find themselves as NLWC1. – Rustin Dodd
Last Power Ranking: T-7
Biggest September priority: Stay healthy
Ugh. The most boring of answers. Might as well write “figure out a way for their players to deliver oxygen from the lungs to the brain through a vast network of arteries, veins and capillaries.” Of course, they need to stay healthy. Every contending team needs to stay healthy.
Except the Astros are expecting a lot from a 40-year-old ace. They’ve recently welcomed Michael Brantley back, and he’s 36 and notoriously hard to keep healthy. José Urquidy is just getting back into action after being out since April. Jose Altuve has played in only two full months this season. There are a lot of paths to postseason success. My favorite scenario is José Abreu lighting up October while “THEY CALL ME JOSÉ” plays on a loop in his head. But getting the band back together and staying healthy is the top priority. — GB
Last Power Ranking: 6
Biggest September priority: Play well enough to make it so that it doesn’t matter if the Mariners (and Astros) do the danged thing
In their last 15 games before this writing, the Rangers won three. Two of them were one-run squeakers. There’s scuffling, and then there’s melting into a pile of goo. This is the latter. The Rangers are being outpitched and outhit. They now have to deal with two teams, both of whom are in front of them. They still have the best run differential in the division, but they’re also being chased in the wild-card race by a Blue Jays team that knows how to be annoying.
Keep scoring runs and keep preventing them. It’s the goal of every baseball team every month, but there’s a little added pressure for the Rangers to get back to doing it in the same way they were for the first half of the season. — GB
Last Power Ranking: 9
Biggest September priority: More standing ovations for Trea Turner
In August, Philadelphia finally saw the player John Middleton signed for $300 million this past winter. On Aug. 4, the fans at Citizens Bank Park rose to applaud Turner, a gesture of goodwill after he acknowledged the frustrations of his season-long cold streak. He began to heat up soon after. In his next 26 games, Turner hit .362 with 11 homers and nine doubles, providing the speed and spark the Phillies hoped would bolster a lineup already featuring Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber. The defending National League champions would prefer Turner stay hot as the team navigates another run as a wild card. – AM
Trea Turner’s revival: Over 26 days, Phillies star has emphatically swung his season
Last Power Ranking: 10
Biggest September priority: Get Vladimir Guerrero Jr. a time machine
If it wasn’t for Shohei Ohtani, Guerrero might have won the American League MVP in 2021. He swatted 48 homers with a 1.002 OPS, leading the Junior Circuit in both categories. He was 22. Whatever happened to that guy? Guerrero regressed but remained productive in 2022. He has backslid further this season, with a .746 OPS from May to August. He has dealt with power outages and an odd lack of production at Rogers Centre. But the ability is still there. The Blue Jays could use 2021-era Guerrero in the final weeks as the club attempts to edge out the other wild-card contenders from the American League West. — AM
Last Power Ranking: 11
Biggest September priority: Finish the job
We don’t have to remind Cubs fans that their team was 10 games under .500 in early June. As The Athletic’s Jayson Stark pointed out last week, since the start of the wild-card era in 1995, only one team has made the playoffs after being that many games under .500 that late into the season: the 2022 Seattle Mariners. The Mariners, of course, were trying to end an interminable postseason drought. The Cubs’ drought isn’t nearly that long; they grabbed a playoff spot in 2020. But after a combined 179 losses in the last two seasons, this appearance could be especially sweet. — RD
Last Power Ranking: 16
Biggest September priority: Find runs
Steal runs. Manufacture runs. Whatever it takes. They need runs. The Giants have a competent pitching staff from top to bottom, and that’s almost certainly underselling them. They can pitch well enough to have some October fun.
They’ll need to score runs, though. They’re 29th out of 30 teams in wRC+ since the All-Star break, and while they have ideas on how to fix that, they’re all uncertain. Mitch Haniger is back, but can he hit? Brandon Crawford is back, but can he hit? Mike Yastrzemski is back, but can he hit? They’re also hoping for some real-time offensive development from rookies like Wade Meckler and Casey Schmitt.
They found runs in the first half of the season. Finding them in the second half is how they’re going to remain relevant over the next two months. They have more strikeouts than any other NL team except the Reds, but they’re second-to-last in slugging percentage, above only the Brewers. That’s a toxic combination and one that they’ll need to change if they have designs for the postseason. — GB
Last Power Ranking: T-13
Biggest September priority: Operation 85 wins
The Twins enter this week’s series with the Guardians with a 5-game lead in the AL Central standings. The Guardians recently added reinforcements in starting pitcher Lucas Giolito and relievers Reynaldo López and Matt Moore. But the Twins essentially only need to hold serve to claim their first AL Central title since 2020.
If they can reach 85 wins, it would force the Guardians to finish with 19 wins in their last 26 games. It might not even take that many wins, of course, and the Twins’ closing schedule is favorable: They will finish the season with nine games against the Angels, A’s and Rockies. — RD
Last Power Ranking: T-13
Biggest September priority: Get consistent starting pitching
From Aug. 28 through Sept. 2, the Diamondbacks sent five starting pitchers to the mound. They allowed 25 earned runs in 23 2/3 innings. The only pitcher who didn’t get blown up was Zach Davies, who is the Zach Daviest of Zach Davieses. The Diamondbacks couldn’t take advantage of the Angels’ cravenness because they were too low in the waiver order, but the rotation is a problem that should have been addressed at the deadline. Now it’s too late.
So they need to get better starting pitching. Get pitchers like Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly back to their early-season effectiveness. Polish the rookies and youngsters as best as they can. It’s not complicated. At least the idea isn’t complicated. The execution is wildly complicated. And it might be the difference between getting a chance to win a World Series or sitting at home with scorpions hiding in their shoes. — GB
Last Power Ranking: 12
Biggest September priority: Start planning a 2024 pitching staff
A week ago, a reasonable priority for Boston would have been to, you know, reach the postseason. But after losing a series against the Dodgers, the Red Sox were swept by Houston, one of the teams Boston was chasing for a wild-card spot. Despite a productive offense and a strong season from Brayan Bello, the Red Sox are unlikely to appear in October. Chaim Bloom would do well to utilize this final month to sketch out how to assemble a pitching staff good enough to keep Boston afloat in the American League East. There will be plenty of work to do, and relying upon a bevy of injury-prone veterans, as the team tried in 2023, won’t cut it. — AM
Last Power Ranking: 15
Biggest September priority: Defy the odds
As of Sunday morning, after two straight walk-off victories over the Cubs at Great American Ballpark, the Reds were in a near statistical tie with the Giants and Diamondbacks for the third NL wild-card spot. And their playoff odds sat at … 20.9 percent? Hmm. Not great. But the schedule offers a silver lining. The Reds need to go on a run, and the scheduling gods have looked favorably upon them.
After three games against the Mariners this week, the Reds will face the Cardinals, Tigers, Mets, Twins, Pirates, Guardians, and Cardinals again. The problem, of course, is not just the ground in the standings but rather the number of teams that the Reds need to surpass (and hold off). There’s only one thing the Reds can do to increase their odds: Win. — RD
Last Power Ranking: 17
Biggest September priority: Protect Eury Pérez — within reason
Remarkably, despite a negative run differential, the Marlins are still lurking in the National League Wild Card picture. Part of the reason is an excellent rookie season from Pérez, the latest talented arm to emerge from Miami’s minor-league pipeline. The Marlins have managed his workload with care, including a month-long demotion to the minors, which occurred despite his strong results and the allure of a postseason berth. Miami would prefer Pérez avoids the injury-plagued fates that have befallen similar young arms like Sixto Sanchez and Trevor Rogers. The Marlins are unlikely to push Pérez, but as long as his arm stays strong, it would be a blast to see him pitch meaningful innings in the season’s final month. — AM
Last Power Ranking: T-19
Biggest September priority: Navigate The Martian’s landing
Jasson Domínguez has traversed the minors under significant scrutiny, with hype that has exceeded his actual production at the plate. But Domínguez, a 20-year-old outfielder, hinted at his potential in his first big-league at-bat, blasting a home run off Justin Verlander. The Yankees called up Domínguez as part of a youth movement to salvage a lost season. Domínguez can benefit from the seasoning even if he starts 2024 back in the minors. The Yankees need to get younger, sleeker and less reliant on aging veterans like D.J. LeMahieu and Giancarlo Stanton. The team would very much like Domínguez to be part of a wave to replace the injury-prone vets. The wave can start to take shape in September. — AM
What we learned about Jasson Domínguez, Yankees’ youth movement in a winning weekend
Last Power Ranking: 21
Biggest September priority: Get hot!
Every year, it seems, something weird happens in September. A first-place team goes into a funk at the worst possible time. A collapse happens. Baseball produces drama in the final days of the season.
The Guardians last week threw a Hail Mary in the form of a mass waiver claim. The goal: Make things interesting in the AL Central. The club will need an all-out heater to chase down the Twins in a month. On Sunday, FanGraphs gave the team a 5.4 percent chance to win the division. But if the Guardians are going to do it, it’s likely two things will happen at once: The arrival of Lucas Giolito will boost the rotation, and a beleaguered offense — which ranks 27th in the majors in combined OPS — will start bashing the ball around the yard for a couple weeks.
Will it happen? Probably not. But the thing about September is you never know. — RD
Last Power Ranking: T-19
Biggest September priority: Win, like, 15 games out of their next 17
You know they’re capable of it. And you know that a streak like that wouldn’t be unprecedented. It’s not like there would be a New York Times front page with “PADRES WIN 15 OUT OF 17: PRESIDENT BIDEN URGES NATION TO STAY CALM.” This kind of stuff happens in baseball, and the odds are better the more talented your team is.
The Padres have a talented team, all right, and even though the odds are (very much) against them, it’s not goofy to still have the tiniest scintilla of hope. Just go on a scalding-hot run and sip daiquiris as you hang the “Third place, 2023 MLB Wild Card Chase” banner.
It probably won’t happen, but it wouldn’t be the most surprising baseball thing to happen over the last year or so. It’s a weird sport. — GB
Last Power Ranking: 18
Biggest September priority: Man, I don’t even know. Just lay in a ditch and feel the stinging raindrops on their unblinking eyes, I guess.
The Angels waived a bunch of their best players because of financial considerations, but just because there was a reason doesn’t mean that it’s not nihilism. They’re in the third act of a biopic about a protagonist who had everything, only to get crushed by poor decisions, bad luck, entropy and a cold, unfeeling universe. They’re sitting poolside, wearing sunglasses and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, possibly played by a bleary-eyed Jude Law, smoking a cigarette, in a place that should make them happy. But they’re miserable. They’re at the end of their journey with nothing but regret. An Aimee Mann song is playing. It’s so danged sad.
At least Arte Moreno will save money, though. — GB
Inside MLB’s surprise waiver whirlwind: ‘Nobody really knew or understood what was going on’
Last Power Ranking: 23
Biggest September priority: Give Parker Meadows a look
Meadows, a 23-year-old center fielder, is up with the big-league club after posting an .812 OPS in 113 games for Triple-A Toledo. A second-round pick in 2018 out of Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga., Meadows projects as a possible long-term answer in the Tigers’ outfield. He provides athleticism in center field and speed on the base paths. But the Detroit brass should get an extended chance to evaluate him at the plate this month. — RD
Last Power Ranking: 24
Biggest September priority: Enjoy Francisco Lindor’s 30-30 chase
It’s been a brutal year in Queens. The most expensive team in baseball history flopped. The mid-summer teardown was a bummer. And there will likely be more change to come this winter. The disappointment has obscured another strong season from Lindor, who hit his 25th homer on Saturday to make him a member of the 25-25 club. Five homers and five steals would put a nice round number on his campaign. He would become the first Met to achieve this milestone since David Wright hit 30 homers and swiped 34 bags in 2007. It’s not exactly the same as Ronald Acuña Jr.’s remarkable output, but it’s still quite good. — AM
Last Power Ranking: 25
Biggest September priority: Look to the future
No. 1 overall pick Paul Skenes is making starts in the minor leagues. Miguel Andújar — once a runner-up to Shohei Ohtani in the AL Rookie of the Year voting — is getting at-bats in the major leagues. The standings don’t matter, but the future is coming, and the Pirates have the opportunity to experiment this month as they wait for a crop of young prospects to arrive. Andújar is as good an experiment as any. He once seemed to be part of the future in the Bronx before injuries and ineffectiveness expedited his departure. Andújar crushed pitching at Triple A this season, but it’s been a while since he’s produced in the major leagues. Maybe he can get back on track this month. – RD
Last Power Ranking: 22
Biggest September priority: Finish with a better record than San Diego
We know, we know. Incredibly petty. But still somewhat amusing, given the hoopla last summer about the Juan Soto trade. Not every prospect the Nationals recouped in that deal has flourished in 2023. But CJ Abrams and MacKenzie Gore have held their own at the big-league level, and James Wood could be a star if he cuts down his strikeouts. The Nationals still have a lot of work to do if they want to return to contention. Then again, so do the Padres. — AM
Last Power Ranking: 26
Biggest September priority: Figure out the rotation
The Cardinals are not in a position to tear down and rebuild. They don’t really do that in St. Louis. The losing this season has been a shock to the system, but there’s always next year, and Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has emphasized that starting pitching will be a priority moving forward. The Cardinals could look to move some of their excess position-player depth. They could dip their toe into free agency. There are options. But one thing is clear: St. Louis’ pitching staff entered Sunday ranked 25th in ERA, and things have to be better than that. — RD
Last Power Ranking: 27
Biggest September priority: Sort out the plan moving forward
In his first comments as the White Sox’s new general manager, Chris Getz talked about increasing the “intellectual firepower” in the front office and building out the depth and balance on the roster. The White Sox finished 81-81 last season and are flirting with 100 losses in 2023. But they do have one advantage as they consider their long-term plans: They play in the AL Central — a relevant fact Getz mentioned in his first press conference. The White Sox need help up and down their roster, but first, they need to figure out if they plan to compete in 2023. – RD
Jerry Reinsdorf was quick to settle on Chris Getz as GM, but his haste seems like a waste
Last Power Ranking: 28
Biggest September priority: Miss more bats
The Rockies have struck out 7.1 batters per nine innings pitched. That’s a strikeout rate straight out of 2003, when pitchers were spooked by the Mitchell Report and throwing a doughy 91 mph. They’re doing this in a ballpark that punishes contact more than any other in the history of baseball. The easiest way to have success in Coors Field is to put the ball in play. The Rockies are obliging, and they’re enjoying a messy season because of it.
So. The goal is to get anyone who can fulfill the modern baseball goal of missing bats. And not just go and get anyone but develop them. Use the expanded roster of September to find them. Anything. Miss more bats, allow fewer runs, win more games. That’s the idea, anyway. — GB
Last Power Ranking: 29
Biggest September priority: Watch Bobby Witt Jr. complete a 30-30 (30-50?!) season
Royals general manager J.J. Picollo seems to have made a shrewd move by acquiring starting pitcher Cole Ragans from the Rangers for reliever Aroldis Chapman. Ragans has been one of the best pitchers in the big leagues since debuting for the Royals, while Chapman has been a little shaky in Texas. Ragans will be worth monitoring throughout September — and as the Royals piece together a rotation in the offseason — but in the meantime, all eyes will be on Witt, who is nearing the first 30-30 season in Royals history.
The (re)making of a 101 mph arm: How Cole Ragans became a flamethrower in the offseason
Witt, 23, needs two home runs to reach 30 homers and 12 more stolen bases to hit 50 for the season. Ronald Acuña Jr.’s 30-60 season has rightly commanded plenty of attention, but Witt’s campaign is worth appreciating. — RD
Last Power Ranking: 30
Biggest September priority: Finish with the 29th-best record in baseball
At one point this season, the Oakland A’s were 12-50. Look at that record. Stare at it. They were on pace to go 31-131. That’s Cleveland Spiders stuff. The worst part is that their run differential suggested that it was exactly the record they should have had. They weren’t unlucky. They were just historically awful.
Since then, 30-45. That’s not exactly good, but it’s not historically awful. It’s just garden-variety awful. And it’s enough to give them a chance to not finish with the worst record in baseball, which was unthinkable at one point. John Fisher is a modern-day Ganondorf, seeking to destroy all that is good and pure for no reason other than he can, but the players are real human beings. The A’s actually passed the Royals in the standings on Sunday. If they can hold them off in the final month, the team should take some satisfaction from it. It looked absolutely impossible just a couple of months ago. — GB
(Top photo of Jasson Domínguez: Bob Levey / Getty Images)