Every week, the Pitcher List team publishes an update to our power rankings, reviewing the biggest risers and fallers of the past seven days. As always, the full rankings can be found at the bottom of this article … but where’s the fun in that?
With around six weeks left in the season, the mess in the middle of the standings is finally appearing to give us clarity. Even as 18 teams are still within 5 games of a postseason spot one way or another, the middle class appears to be stratifying itself and identify the teams that can be actual threats for October.
The two teams that are highlighted in week 20 have been in the bubble for a couple of months, but recently have seen their fortunes go in different directions. Nearing the mountaintop, the Seattle Mariners are finally living up to their potential and have been one of the best squads in August. Rapidly falling back to earth, the Cincinnati Reds are finding out some of the growing pains of having too many untested players in their roster. While there are still scenarios in which we could see both (or neither) of these teams in the playoffs, today we take a look at how they look for the stretch run.
Movin’ On Up
Rank change: +6 (15 to 9)
At the midway point of their season, the Mariners stood at a very disappointing 39-42 record. Following a 2022 season that finally saw them break their confounding postseason drought, Seattle regressed especially on offense, as their strikeout-prone hitters were not able to carry the gains of a young and exciting pitching staff. As late as July 24, the team was barely back at .500, then traded closer Paul Sewald and appeared to be on track towards a soft retooling, as it was unlikely they would climb over several other wild card contenders in the American League. Since that day, they have been the hottest team in baseball, with an impressive 16-5 record, fulfilling their promise to battle for the playoffs.
Despite their mild approach to the trade deadline, the Mariners have become what the Angels expected when they tried to surround Shohei Ohtani with talent – a team that got hot at the right time in order to fight the odds. During this torrid winning streak, Seattle has played a brand of baseball that fits them well and could make them a dangerous team should they get to October. Their pitching has kept them in all games, as even their losses have been close (their five losses have come by a combined seven runs), and the previously tepid offense has come alive in all kinds of manners.
Just over the past week, they went toe to toe with the Orioles, losing one of the best games of the year in a 1-0 contest that went 10 innings. George Kirby went 9 shutout innings in that game, solidifying his status as one of the best young pitchers in the game. That game started a three-game losing streak, but the Mariners have not missed a beat since, winning the next three contests in Kansas City. The most recent series was chaotic, with all games decided in the eighth inning or later. The final game served as a showcase for the resurgence of Julio Rodríguez, who went a career-best 5-for-5 with 5 RBI, including a game-changing three-run homer that reminded us just how exciting he can be.
If Seattle is to remain with this momentum and reach the postseason in any way – they are just a half game back of the final wild card spot and six back in the division – they will need Rodríguez to be the hitter he has been post All-Star break. His season splits are stark, as his OPS has been more than 150 points above his first-half mark. His strikeout rate has remained steady, but his quality of contact has increased significantly. While his high .368 BABIP over the second half could suggest some regression, Rodríguez’s hitting profile has always shown that he should be able to over perform some peripherals as long as he is making quality contact. Even with the current IL stints of J.P. Crawford and Jarred Kelenic, the Mariners have found other contributors on offense, as Ty France and Cal Raleigh have climbed to become above-average hitters, while Eugenio Suárez and Teoscar Hernández have gone from bad to decent, which should be enough to win for a team with such dominant pitching.
The Mariners will probably enter September with a top-5 ERA in the league (they are currently second), as the final six weeks of the season are bound to give us an epic battle for the last playoff spot in the AL. With teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Angels fading, it all points out to a 4-team scrum for 3 playoff spots. Even the Rays, who still hold the top wild-card position, are having issues at the worst possible time, providing yet another possible avenue for a team like the Mariners to take advantage. Following a tough road series in Houston this weekend, the schedule gods will give a nice gift to Seattle, with 12 straight games against non-contenders. This stretch could provide the boost needed to create separation in the standings, as other AL playoff teams are probably not eager to face Luis Castillo, George Kirby, and Logan Gilbert in a short series.
Hittin’ The Skids
Rank change: -4 (12 to 16)
Before being a bummer about the Reds, there is a very important caveat to consider. Regardless of how this season ends for Cincinnati, they could almost go on a 40-game losing streak to close out 2023, this year will be considered a rousing success for the franchise. Just at the very same juncture last season, they were a dreadful 48-74, staring at what could be a years-long rebuild despite playing in a middling division. That we are here and the team is only a couple of games back in the division and in possession of a wild card spot is remarkable, and truly one of the best stories of the season. So, why are the Reds now falling behind the rest of the NL contenders?
In several ways, Cincinnati has been sort of the anti-Mariners, as a dynamic offense has carried what is truly a bad pitching staff (4.76 ERA, 26th in baseball). The excitement around the team in the Queen City has been such that the team has already had more fans in the stands than in all of 2022, with 19 home games still to go. It is very easy to root for a team that hits homers and fields a lineup full of players whose ages start with a 2 (plus the delightful Joey Votto!), and the quick turnaround for the franchise suggests that the outcome of 2023 can barely be a footnote over the long-term goals of the front office. To wit, the Reds were not major players at the trade deadline despite being in a great position to solidify their pitching.
Following an impressive road series win over the Dodgers to close out July, the regression bug has come back to bite Cincinnati. Their 4-10 mark so far in August has been one of the worst in the league. They allowed at least five runs in eight of those contests, while most of the offense has been boom-or-bust over that span. Just over the past week, the Reds scored 22 runs in their three wins, but were limited to 2 runs in their two losses, which appears to be a bad profile to have during the dog days of summer. Rookie sensation Elly De La Cruz may be the best barometer of the team, as his presence suggested a new era of Reds baseball. However, over the past two weeks, his OBP stands at .278, with a 37% strikeout rate. As the league has started to figure him out, he and the other youngsters need to make counter-adjustments to keep up.
The other big reason why Cincinnati is looking more vulnerable every day has to do with how the other NL Central contenders have evolved since the trade deadline. The Milwaukee Brewers have been frustratingly inconsistent for most of the season, and were just swept by the Dodgers, but they finally have a full healthy rotation with Freddy Peralta striking out hitters in bunches, Corbin Burnes channeling his old self and Brandon Woodruff returning from his long absence. On the other hand, the Cubs have gone 20-11 since the break, kept their veterans and now appear to be a good bet to overcome the Reds in this race. After all, Chicago has the only positive run differential in the Central (and the third-best in the NL), and this could all be the result of positive regression arriving at the Friendly Confines.
In any case, the Reds are not out of the race by any means. They have already shown they can be streaky, just like in July, when they sandwiched a six-game losing streak around two separate five-game winning ones. An upcoming brutal 10-game road trip to the West Coast should provide clarity for the rest of the season for Cincinnati, especially as it will be followed by their final meeting with the Cubs. For a franchise with such a clear positive outlook for the future, anything that happens in 2023 is just gravy. Even as they are still in position to make some noise, it is looking more and more unlikely.
Week 20 Power Rankings