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?
As we enter the final month of the season, the past week was not particularly good in changing the standings. The teams who were having epic Augusts continued to do so, the dregs of the league kept losing, while the middle class is still battling for the same playoff spots. But even in this very status quo week, there are two franchises that stood out, even if they are in polar opposites of the competitiveness cycle.
On one hand, we have the Washington Nationals, who have quietly been one of the most pleasant surprises of 2023. With a month left to play, they are a lock to go way over their preseason win projection, signaling a promising future for a team that was expected to have a years-long rebuild. On the other, the Texas Rangers are going through their toughest stretch of the season at the worst possible time, and are now primed to go into an intense three-horse race for the AL West. Once a surefire playoff squad, the Rangers now need to survive the month and avoid a collapse that would earn a lot of questions towards 2024.
Movin’ On Up
Rank change: +2 (25 to 23)
While we usually tend to highlight teams in the playoff chase, the Nationals have been such an under-the-radar story that they deserve a day in the sun. Pegged in the preseason as one of the teams that could be in line towards 100 losses (after already losing 107 in 2022), they have earned the title of the best bad team and will enter September with a better record than several marquee teams, including the Mets, Cardinals, and Padres. In a way, the Nationals are becoming an underrated spoiler, as the past week showed just how they can wreak havoc against teams with playoff aspirations.
With three consecutive road series at the Yankees, Marlins, and Blue Jays, Washington went a respectable 5-4, adding those teams to the list of squads who may regret not playing better against the so-called lowly Nats. Just among teams still battling for October, the Nationals currently own winning records against Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Seattle, San Francisco, and Texas. The fact that they are doing this after trading their best hitter, Jeimer Candelario, and having the third-youngest roster in MLB merits a deeper dive, as it all appears that Washington is ahead of schedule and could become a playoff contender as soon as next year.
There are several positive signs for Washington, starting with the development of their own drafted prospects and the ones acquired in trades for franchise stalwarts. Just a year later, the haul for Juan Soto appears to be a winner for the Nats, as CJ Abrams has turned into a serviceable shortstop with a league-average bat, while still being only 22, and MacKenzie Gore, only 24 himself, has shown promise on the mound. Similarly, the players acquired for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray, promise to be the headlining battery for the next winning Washington squad. With the addition of a few late bloomers – Lane Thomas and Joey Meneses come to mind – and almost no veterans on expensive contracts, the Nationals should have enough flexibility to improve their team over the next half decade.
If you want to see the glass half-empty, this is still a team with a -107 run differential, playing in a division with arguably the best team in baseball, the defending NL champ, and the richest franchise ever. Even as 2023 has been a success, there are many items to upgrade in order to make a jump into contention. The team’s 4.89 ERA ranks 27th in baseball, even as they have only used seven starting pitchers, with five of them having at least 20 starts. Offensively, they rank in the league’s bottom half in OPS, runs per game, and homeruns (just 121, ranking 29th), with only four current lineup regulars being in double digits. With a clear need for top-line pitching and more power in the lineup, the team could be tempted to add mid-tier free agents to solidify their core in 2024, or maybe wait for a better class in 2025, when the untradeable Patrick Corbin contract comes off the books.
At least internally, the franchise must be a huge believer in their own process, as the recent contract extensions of manager Dave Martinez and GM Mike Rizzo suggest. Even with the sad news of Stephen Strasburg’s retirement, and being on the hook for a lot of money, there are several reasons for optimism in the bigger picture. Washington’s farm system is still considered top-10 by several outlets, as outfielders Dylan Crews and James Wood are usually considered blue-chip prospects, albeit with a ways to go before their MLB debuts. The situation on the field has not yet translated towards more interest in the DC area (13th in attendance in the NL), as there is still a lot of goodwill to be built following the painful departure of most of the 2019 championship players. Winning tends to cure all wounds, along with an extended effort to provide some of the best fan giveaways in the league.
Rounding back into this season, the Nationals still have a lot to play for. Another month of development for all of their youngsters is the priority, as well as setting up their roster needs for next season. Continuing with their role as spoiler, September will bring several matchups with playoff contenders or at least teams battling for a better position, including the Dodgers, Brewers, Braves, and Orioles. While their end result may not yield another top-5 round pick, it’s likely that Washington’s front office and their fans will be pleased with 2023, as the franchise climbs slowly back to relevance.
Hittin’ The Skids
Rank change: -2 (5 to 7)
For most of the season, the Rangers were the model franchise for aggressive free-agent signings and overall team building. Despite playing in a very competitive division, they had seized control of the AL West with their relentless offense and adequate pitching, topping out with a 6.5-game lead at the top as late as June 23, when Texas had a playoff probability over 90%. However, the end of August has marked the first time with the Rangers not in first place, following a string of 150 days as the top team in the West. This slow collapse had been brewing for a while, and as Texas lost 10 of its last 13 games, the Mariners and Astros made their move, jumping them in the standings. While there is still a month to play, can Texas get it together in time?
It is difficult to find a culprit for Texas’ troubles in August, as they did not even have such a terrible month. With a 15-12 record, +28 run differential, and a top-10 offense, things do not look so different to what the Rangers have done throughout the season. However, there is nuance to what has suddenly made Texas so vulnerable, as it was exposed in the team’s dreadful 8-game losing streak. While starting pitchers have done a middling job, the bullpen has become a true weak spot for the team, now standing at 22nd in terms of ERA and having the dubious distinction of owning more blown saves than actual saves.
The bullpen issues are evident in certain key splits for the Rangers, as they are 2-7 in extra inning games, 11-19 in one-run affairs, and have been on the losing side of nine walk-offs. Will Smith has struggled as closer, sporting 5 losses and a 4.01 ERA. Other heavy usage members of the pen, such as Josh Sborz and Grant Anderson, have struggled, which is why the team paid the hefty price of one Cole Ragans to acquire Aroldis Chapman from the Royals. While the power lefty has been mostly effective with Texas, he was the losing pitcher in one of the toughest losses of the year, hitting a batter with the bases loaded. It was the second similar loss of the week for the Rangers, as they also squandered a big lead in Minnesota last Sunday, only to lose in extras when Jonathan Hernández allowed a walk with the bases full of Twins.
As the Rangers have slowly regressed, their division foes have capitalized on the opportunity. The Mariners just established a team record with 21 wins in a calendar month, seeing Julio Rodríguez go supernova at the plate. Meanwhile, the Astros held a steady 17-11 record in August, while also now having Justin Verlander at full force and the return of Michael Brantley from injury. Even as there is only one game separating the three squads, Texas has now fallen behind in the projections for the division winner, which could be the difference between a deep playoff run and a quick October exit. It is almost certain that the AL West winner will be the #2 seed and earn a first-round bye, while the wild card team (or teams) may have to face each other or travel to Minnesota for a three-game series. The urgency of a good playoff position creates a scenario in which September may give us a good, old-fashioned division race.
Looking at Texas’ upcoming schedule, there are almost no freebies (outside of a home series against the A’s), but there are also plenty of opportunities to separate themselves from their direct competition. Next week’s home matchup versus Houston may be the fiercest Lone Star series in years, while the regular season will finish with seven of the last ten games against Seattle, in what well could decide of the division or even leave one of the teams out of the playoffs. Fangraphs still gives the Rangers a 70% chance of reaching their first postseason since 2016, so they are certainly in a good spot. However, manager Bruce Bochy needs to exercise his mythical powers to find the correct bullpen mix, while the likes of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien have to keep their top form to carry the offense. Regardless of the outcome, this is bound to become a memorable battle for the wild, wild West.
Week 22 Power Rankings