Rare Air: Emotionally Investing in New MLB Contenders

Who should we *want* to reach the 2023 MLB Postseason?

What a long, strange trip it’s been. We’re roughly six weeks out from the 2023 Major League Baseball regular season coming to an end. In contention, we have a host of the usual suspects. And there’s no shortage of intriguing races, either.

Atlanta looks primed to run the gamut in the National League. The Los Angeles Dodgers are white hot in the second half. Houston’s still here. The upstart Texas Rangers are aiming to remain healthy enough to hold off said Astros.

The NL Central has a trio of Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and the Chicago Cubs vying for the top spot. San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia are all lingering in their respective wild card races. And I suppose someone has to win the AL Central.

Sure, there’s been a mix of disappointments in there. San Diego’s lethargic offense will likely keep them on the outside, as they can’t seem to string enough runs together to challenge for a wild card slot.

Within the same division, Arizona has squandered a hot start to barely remain in that same race. The Yankees are in the cellar of the AL East. So much is happening on all ends of the spectrum, with a lot of baseball yet to play.

Nonetheless, the most intrigue comes from those teams that we haven’t necessarily seen breathe postseason air over the past several years. Or at least done so consistently. Beyond that, we’ve got a couple of squads that are recently re-established, with very little postseason experience on their resumé.

With that, let’s dive into a few of the squads in which we should become emotionally invested as the season heads into the final stretch, regardless of which camp your primary rooting interest falls.


Baltimore Orioles

Last Postseason Appearance: 2016 (AL Wild Card)

The Baltimore Orioles are the best team in the American League. What a world. After their second-half run in 2022, the expectation was that they would remain a team in transition toward contention. This was especially true when they spent the offseason improving around the edges, but not making any legitimate headway in adding centerpieces to their roster.

Baltimore is a sum-of-its-parts type of squad. Their roster as a whole, ranks 14th in WAR (their highest-ranking player in WAR is Gunnar Henderson, who ranks 42nd, with Adley Rutschman just behind him at 43).

They don’t reach base at a particularly high rate, they don’t steal bases, and they don’t hit for a ton of power. Their starting staff is decidedly average (15th in ERA among team starting pitching). Their defense is just okay, depending on your metric of choice (top half of the league in Defensive Runs Saved, bottom half in Outs Above Average).

So why should we care about a Baltimore team that is fine on paper, save for an elite bullpen, and somehow has spent much of the year following Tampa Bay’s absurd start pacing the AL East? It’s all about the new blood and the injection of youth.

The last time the O’s were playing playoff baseball, names like Manny MachadoMatt Wieters, and Adam Jones were on the roster. As solid a team as that was, we’re now looking at a roster that features Rutschman, Henderson, Jordan Westburg, and Cedric Mullins, to say nothing of their relief arms serving as a pillar.

Given what they’ve overcome in perhaps the league’s best division, on top of boasting some of the league’s brightest up-and-coming stars, the Orioles are an easy team to root for. Maybe the easiest of any current contenders?


Seattle Mariners

Last Postseason Appearance: 2022 (ALDS)

The Seattle Mariners were in the playoffs just last year. So why should we invest in a team who was just there? For one, that postseason appearance—which unceremoniously culminated in a quick sweep at the hands of division rival Houston—was their first in over two decades. For another, they have Julio Rodríguez traversing their outfield.

Seattle got off to a slow start to the year. On July 1st, they were fourth in the AL West. They sat 10 games out of the division and had seven teams ahead of them in the wild-card race.

Since that point, the M’s have been elite in just about every facet. They’re fourth in OBP (.341), fifth in ISO (.192), and seventh in runs (221). Their pitching staff has the third-best walk rate (2.27) and second-best ERA (3.29) in the league.

A lineup anchored by Rodríguez, who recently recorded 17 hits in four games, and a pitching staff that features George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, and (more recently) Emerson Hancock may not have quite as much notoriety as the Baltimore lineup, but it’s a fun group.

More importantly, this is one of the most embattled franchises in the history of Major League Baseball. Any time there’s an opportunity to root for this club to make a run, we’ve got to take it. We don’t know how many decades will pass before we have the chance again.


Cincinnati Reds

Last Postseason Appearance: 2020 (NL Wild Card)

It’s hard to lend too much credence to any of the fringe clubs that reached the playoffs during the expanded group in 2020. If we wanted to throw it out altogether, the last playoff appearance for this group was in 2013.

Since then, they’ve started and restarted rebuilds, with an owner simultaneously attempting to alienate their entire fanbase. And yet, who’s more fun to root for than these Cincinnati Reds?

It’s not about the drought, either. You could make the argument that it’s nice to see Baltimore in the mix or that Seattle might not have the wait more than a single calendar year to see their group back in the playoffs. With the Reds, we’re just here for the young guns. If we’re looking at “new blood” as a basis for teams we want to see in the playoffs, Cincinnati could be more likely characterized as…”newer blood.”

With almost any other club you’re looking at in the playoff mix, the Reds are, ironically, the greenest. Most teams have a stable of veteran talent; some are stalwarts while others might be journeymen playing a stopgap role. Not so much the case with the Reds.

Their infield (absent Jonathan India) down the stretch will likely consist of Elly De La CruzNoelvi Marte, and Matt McLain. Spencer Steer has been a lineup regular from the outset of the season, while Christian Encarnacion-Strand still has big power upside to realize. Once healthy, their rotation will feature Hunter GreeneNick Lodolo, and Andrew Abbott at its head.

These are high-to-massive upside guys who play like their hair is on fire. There’s almost nothing better than a young team who doesn’t know any better making noise in a postseason setting. What better team to do that than this iteration of the Reds, who have no business being in the race to begin with?


Arizona Diamondbacks

Last Postseason Appearance: 2017 (NLDS)

The Snakes had as tall an order ahead of them as any other current contender. Projected to finish fourth behind Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, this was supposed to be the year in which the Diamondbacks transitioned to “fun” but not quite genuine contenders.

And while their offense has fallen silent at points throughout the year and their pitching leaves a lot to be desired, this is as fun a roster as we’ve seen out of the desert in quite some time.

Corbin Carroll is not only a Rookie of the Year contender but would likely be in the MVP mix had a shoulder injury not slowed him some. Zac Gallen could be the Cy Young contender out of the National League.

Gabriel Moreno unseated Carson Kelly as the team’s franchise backstop. His fellow former Blue Jay Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was an All-Star. Young pieces like Alek Thomas and Brandon Pfaadt give the D-Backs room for optimism on both sides of the ball.

Arizona teams of the past were built around things like grit and “anybody, anytime.” This is the highest volume we’ve seen of young guys with legitimate multi-tool upside out of the organization … maybe ever? With a strong farm still in place to supplement the future roster, a taste of postseason action could further the development of guys already in place.


Honorable Mention: Texas, Chicago, San Diego

  • Texas is fun. They invested heavily in their roster, via both free agency and trade, in addition to an influx of some young talent. In a division that has been run largely by Houston (and occasionally by Oakland), it’s refreshing to see the Rangers and Mariners stake their claim out west for a change.
  • The Cubs haven’t been out of the playoff mix for long, but they’re an example of a team outplaying the projections. They’re built around precision pitching and elite defense, with their offense catapulting them back into contention after a midseason lull. A playoff appearance could garner Cody Bellinger MVP votes as he re-enters free agency.
  • I just want to see this Padres lineup in the postseason. Give me Fernando Tatis Jr. on a big stage again. I’m also terrified that continued failure from this group will cause owners to shy away from investing in the roster in the way that Peter Seidler has.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

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