Who's legit, and who's not? Ranking the 2023 wild-card contenders

Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire

We need a new term to describe a certain kind of baseball fan: a modern traditionalist. It's a person who loves and respects the game's traditions but can also accept the changes the sport presents in 2023. Like three wild cards in each league! Don't be grumpy about it. Embrace it and enjoy the fact that at least the races in both leagues this year are fun and competitive, with surprise teams to watch and plenty of storylines to follow.

Let's break down the current state of all the wild-card contenders, separating them into three tiers and making some predictions on which teams will ultimately make it. (All stats are through Saturday's games.)

Tier I: Could end up winning their division

Tampa Bay Rays

Current vibe: Trying to regain solid footing after stumbling to an 8-16 record in July and losing their grip on the American League East lead. The Rays never seem to panic, however, and they just had back-to-back walk-off wins over the Guardians on Friday and Saturday, on Wander Franco's first career walk-off home run and then a three-run rally off All-Star closer Emmanuel Clase.

Why root for them: They're doing this without starters Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen and Shane Baz -- and now ace Shane McClanahan, who the team announced last week is unlikely to pitch again in 2023. Oh, and Tyler Glasnow hasn't pitched since July 31 because of back spasms. If you do the math, let's see, yep, that's an entire five-man rotation.

Who's hot: Yandy Diaz went into Sunday leading the AL with a .323 average, two points ahead of the injured Bo Bichette, and had hit .392/.446/.608 over his previous 12 games. He's not your typical leadoff hitter -- he doesn't have a stolen base -- but he has been one of the AL's best hitters all season.

Who's not: Randy Arozarena did drive in the winning run in Saturday's comeback, but after a red-hot April and solid May and June, he has hit .175 with two home runs in 31 games since July 4.

Prediction: The Rays still have their sights on the Baltimore Orioles for the AL East lead, and the teams will have a critical four-game series in Baltimore in mid-September. But the Rays rotation is a major concern and the schedule for the final month is tough. (The Orioles' rotation doesn't necessarily instill a ton of confidence either, but at least it's healthy.) Tampa Bay will win the second wild card -- which is about the worst position to be in. That means a road trip for the wild-card series and then a matchup against the No. 1 seed, whereas the third wild card will draw the AL Central winner.

Houston Astros

Current vibe: Feeling confident with Yordan Alvarez and Jose Altuve finally healthy at the same time and Justin Verlander providing some needed depth to an injury-riddled rotation. This is a team that knows how to win, so its sights are on the AL West title, not the wild card. The three-game series in early September with the Rangers in Arlington will be one of the biggest of the season.

Why root for them: LOL.

Who's hot: Chas McCormick changed his stance a couple months ago, standing taller in the batter's box, and since June 2 has hit .310 with 11 home runs and a .969 OPS. Whether it's the new stance or a sudden ability to lay off sliders down and away that were his Kryptonite, he helped keep the Astros afloat while Altuve and Alvarez missed time.

Who's not: Rafael Montero has been better over the past month but is still trying to regain the consistency of last season, when he was the top setup guy to closer Ryan Pressly and appeared in 10 of Houston's 13 postseason games. The bullpen is still solid with Pressly, Hector Neris and Bryan Abreu, but what made the Astros so good last October is the bullpen went seven deep in dominant arms. The acquisition of Kendall Graveman indicated the Astros are concerned about the depth and could use Montero to get on a roll.

Prediction: The Texas Rangers, who currently sit atop the Astros' division, made their own deadline additions and started August with an eight-game winning streak and 10 wins in 11 games. But the Astros are fighting hard, including Kyle Tucker's dramatic grand slam last week off Orioles closer Felix Bautista. Note that Houston leads the season series 6-4, so the Rangers will have to sweep that final series to own the tiebreaker (as the Braves won the National League East over the Mets last season when they tied with 101 wins). The Rangers have shown no signs of weakening, but they are without Josh Jung and Jonah Heim. The Astros and Rangers tie for the division title -- but the Astros win the tiebreaker and get the top seed in the AL.

Chicago Cubs

Current vibe: Eddie Vedder singing the seventh-inning stretch kind of vibe. They had that eight-game winning streak before the trade deadline that had them adding Jeimer Candelario instead of trading away Cody Bellinger. They beat the Reds 20-9 and 16-6 in back-to-back games early in August and then won series against the Braves and Blue Jays. They're closing in on the Brewers.

Why root for them: This team isn't loaded with talent like the 2016 champs. It's a scrappy mix of veterans and unexpected contributors. If you don't want the blueblood Dodgers or Braves to win the National League, maybe you'll want to get behind the Cubs.

Who's hot: Bellinger continues to rake (including a recent 15-for-30 stretch). Mike Tauchman drove in 18 runs in July and has remained hot in August. In fact, let's just nominate the entire offense, which has the second-highest OPS in the majors behind the Braves over the past 30 days.

Who's not: Marcus Stroman had an All-Star first half but then struggled through a seven-start stretch with a 9.00 ERA before finally going on the injured list because of hip inflammation, with Stroman saying the injury had affected his performance. He's expected to return to the rotation as soon as he's eligible to come off the IL on Aug. 16 and will be a key player in those final weeks.

Prediction: The lineup is hitting and has plenty of depth. The bullpen has been effective. The rotation doesn't have to be great -- just good enough. It helps that Jameson Taillon has pitched much better after struggling into July with an ERA close to 7.00. Here's forecasting the Cubs head to Milwaukee for the final series of the season with the NL Central title still up for grabs -- and the Cubs win it, pushing the Brewers into a wild-card spot.

Tier II: In it to the end

Philadelphia Phillies

Current vibe: Love, nothing but brotherly love. After booing the struggling Trea Turner for much of the season, Phillies fans tried some reverse psychology and started giving the shortstop standing ovations. He hit .457 over his next nine games -- including three-hit games Friday and Saturday -- to snap out of his season-long slump, and he took out ads on billboards across town thanking the fans for the gesture.

Why root for them: We saw last October how fun the Phillies can be when they're clicking on all cylinders. That hasn't really happened in 2023 with Bryce Harper's power outage and inconsistent performances from Turner, Kyle Schwarber and J.T. Realmuto, but since their low point on June 2 when they were seven games under .500, they have the second-best record in the majors. It could be another wild October ride.

Who's hot: Guess who leads the majors in ERA since June 3? The Phillies also added Michael Lorenzen at the trade deadline, and he went eight innings in his debut and followed up with a no-hitter. Given Aaron Nola's long-ball issues, Lorenzen might end up as the team's No. 2 starter in the postseason.

Who's not: Nola will have to earn manager Rob Thompson's trust down the stretch or might not even be in the three-man rotation for the wild-card series. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is still exemplary, although not as impressive as last season when he led the NL, but he has allowed 26 home runs and has had few back-to-back quality outings this season.

Prediction: The Phillies continue to trend upward. They're not going to catch the Braves, but they look like the logical bet to finish as the top wild card. Assuming the Braves earn the NL's top seed, that could set up a Phillies-Braves showdown in the NLDS.

Toronto Blue Jays

Current vibe: A week ago -- after sweeping the Red Sox at Fenway Park thanks in part to the heroics of rookie call-up Davis Schneider, who went 9-for-13 in his first three games -- it was positive, even though Bo Bichette, Jordan Romano and Trevor Richards had all landed on the IL. Since then, however, they split four games with Cleveland and lost this weekend's series to the Cubs, and they're now neck-and-neck with the Mariners for the third wild card.

Why root for them: You love maple syrup, uniforms with soccer numbers and Kevin Kiermaier's eyes. You're probably Canadian.

Who's hot: Yusei Kikuchi has allowed two runs or fewer in 11 of his past 13 starts, including a 1.24 ERA and no home runs in his past five outings -- after allowing 22 home runs in his first 18 starts. He has given the Jays perhaps the best 1-2-3-4 rotation in the majors along with Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt and Jose Berrios.

Who's not: The Jays with runners in scoring position. If it seems like the Blue Jays should be scoring more runs than they have (seventh in the AL), it's because they should. They're 10th in the majors in OPS -- but that dips to 28th with RISP, ahead of only the Royals and A's.

Prediction: It's not exactly fair to say the Blue Jays have underachieved, but it's disappointing this group has yet to win a playoff series, losing the wild-card series in 2020 and 2022 and missing the playoffs in 2021 despite winning 91 games. It's a good team ... but is it good enough? The Blue Jays are 2-8 against the Orioles, 3-7 against the Boston Red Sox, 3-4 against the New York Yankees and 3-4 against the Rays. They end the season with 15 games within the division -- and fail to make the playoffs.

Seattle Mariners

Current vibe: Anything can happen! A couple weeks ago, with the team playing well, manager Scott Servais texted president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto to say "the vibe is back" -- meaning, the good feelings of last season when the Mariners ended their long playoff drought. They've played even better since that text and won consecutive series against the Blue Jays, Twins, Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Angels and Padres. The Orioles finally snapped Seattle's eight-game winning streak Saturday.

Why root for them: They've never won a World Series. They've never been to a World Series. The cream alternate jerseys they wear on Sundays at home are lovely and would be a great jersey to clinch a World Series title in.

Who's hot: Heading into Sunday's game, the Mariners had gone 16-5 since July 20 with a 3.67 rotation ERA -- even though they've started three different rookie pitchers (Bryce Miller, Bryan Woo and Emerson Hancock, who just made his MLB debut). That's third best in the majors over that span. The bullpen has been even better: a 1.93 ERA that's the best in that stretch.

Who's not: Teoscar Hernandez is battling Kyle Schwarber for the MLB lead in strikeouts (teammate Eugenio Suarez isn't far behind), except he doesn't have Schwarber's home runs or walks. Hernandez's second half has been even worse than his first half: a .557 OPS in 26 games with 33 strikeouts and two walks. Not acceptable for a guy still hitting in the middle of the order.

Prediction: A four-game sweep of the Angels allowed the Mariners to leap over not only Los Angeles in the wild-card standings but also the Yankees and Red Sox. The Mariners' offense has been better of late, although they still strike out too much and they end the season with 10 games against the Rangers (seven) and Astros (three). In their biggest dreams, they're still alive in the AL West race, but that might be a stretch. They'll maintain this momentum and end up as the third wild card.

San Francisco Giants

Current vibe: Smoke. Mirrors. Incense. Maybe some alchemy conjured up from some moth-eaten book of spells the baseball gods authored in 1879. I'm not exactly sure how they're doing it, but the Giants keep winning even though their rotation is basically Logan Webb, Alex Cobb and prayer. Manager Gabe Kapler is deploying openers and bulk guys and has used 10 different hitters in the No. 3 spot in the lineup and nine different cleanup hitters. And he somehow makes it work ... err, until recently, when they lost series to the A's, Angels and Rangers.

Why root for them: You love openers and bulk relievers.

Who's hot: The bullpen is fourth in the majors in win probability, which probably undersells its value given that's not counting the good work from the openers. The Rogers brothers have been outstanding in setting up closer Camilo Doval.

Who's not: Giants outfielders are 27th in the majors in OPS -- and last over the past 30 days, hitting just .196 with three home runs.

Prediction: A week ago, the Giants had a little wiggle room, but that's now all but gone. The schedule that started with the Texas series is rough over the upcoming three weeks: vs. Tampa Bay, at Atlanta, at Philadelphia, vs. Atlanta, vs. Cincinnati, at San Diego, at Cubs. That's 25 games in a row against teams that currently have winning records. Then the Giants play the Dodgers seven times in their final 10 games. I don't know if the two-man rotation will hold up. The Giants miss the playoffs.

Cincinnati Reds

Current vibe: Still having fun and enjoying the unexpected ride.

Why root for them: They could go from 62-100 last season to the NL Central title, which is a story nobody expected. Other than the expanded playoffs of 2020, they last made the postseason in 2013. They have Elly De La Cruz, and he's not even the best rookie on the team (that's Matt McLain). They have Joey Votto in what might be his final days with the Reds, and getting him to the postseason would be a nice send-off.

Who's hot: The Reds are relying on some young starting pitchers to keep them in the race -- but not the expected ones, as Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo are injured. Rookie Andrew Abbott has a 2.95 ERA in 13 starts, while fellow rookie southpaw Brandon Williamson has stepped up and allowed two runs or fewer in six of his past seven starts.

Who's not: The rotation has been much better over the past month (13th in the majors in ERA), but that's not the case with De La Cruz. He's hitting .192/.257/.385 over the past 30 days heading into Sunday -- with a whopping 46 strikeouts in 26 games. Indeed, the entire offense has been scuffling with a .699 OPS over that span. Getting Jonathan India will help, but he's now expected to be out until September.

Prediction: The Reds began August leading the NL Central. Then the Cubs outscored them 36-15 in two games to kick off a six-game losing streak, including three in a row to the Nationals at home before large crowds. But they've rebounded before, losing six in a row around the All-Star break only to bounce back with five straight wins. The schedule is favorable the rest of the way -- although they're already done with the Brewers (they went 3-10 against them) and have just one series left with the Cubs. The Reds are headed in the right direction for the long term, but it's hard to see this rotation holding up, and the offense just hasn't done enough lately. They miss the playoffs.

Miami Marlins

Current vibe: It's kind of like when you're at a wedding and the officiant asks if anyone objects and for a moment you think somebody actually might and you suddenly don't feel well.

Why root for them: It would be pretty fun to see what Eury Perez, Sandy Alcantara, Jesus Luzardo and Braxton Garrett might do in October. It would be a historic moment to see GM Kim Ng lift that World Series trophy.

Who's hot: Has Sandy Alcantara rediscovered the feel for his changeup he has lacked most of the season? In three of his past four starts, he pitched a complete game to beat the Yankees, tossed eight scoreless innings against the Phillies (although the bullpen blew a 1-0 lead) and threw a complete game to beat the Rays.

Who's not: The Marlins are 20th in the majors in OPS since the beginning of July, tied for 26th in home runs and tied for last in stolen bases. Trade acquisitions Josh Bell and Jake Burger have hit well, however, with Bell smacking four home runs in his first 10 games.

Prediction: With that negative run differential, the lack of lineup and bullpen depth and the solid-but-not-great rotation, the Reds don't look like a playoff team. They've outscored their opponents in one month out of four, back in June when they had a ridiculously soft schedule. Yet ... with Perez back in the rotation and Alcantara perhaps heading into a hot streak, they have a chance -- and I have more confidence in their rotation than those of the Giants and Reds. The Marlins win the third wild card.

Tier III: Hanging by a thread

Boston Red Sox

Current vibe: Embracing their underdog status as they alternate between looking like legitimate contenders and like a team ready to collapse at any moment.

Why root for them: The Red Sox as underdogs? Please, let's not get overly dramatic here. But they do have some young and new players who are fun to watch: Jarren Duran, Masataka Yoshida and Triston Casas, whom I compared to Justin Smoak earlier this season. He has been one of the best hitters in the majors since, batting .311/.398/.606 since early June.

Who's hot: Casas has made the adjustments you love to see young hitters make and looks like the top prospect scouts envisioned when he coming up. Nick Pivetta excelled in a relief/bulk role (2.42 ERA since late May) and has pitched himself back into the rotation.

Who's not: Batted-ball metrics suggested Duran was outperforming his expected results most of the season, and now he's in a 1-for-23 slump. It could just be a blip, but manager Alex Cora did give him a day off from the starting lineup Sunday.

Prediction: They're hanging in there, but it still seems like they're chasing better. Chris Sale just returned to the rotation, which is now probably in the best spot it has been in all season. The Red Sox are heading out on a 10-game road trip against the Nationals, Yankees and Astros followed by a homestand against the Dodgers and Astros, so these next two and a half weeks will need to go well to make September matter. I think they will, but then I think Boston falls short.

New York Yankees

Current vibe: The team revealed Anthony Rizzo played two months with post-concussion syndrome, a stretch in which he hit .172/.271/.225. Carlos Rodon is on the IL with a hamstring strain. Nestor Cortes just went back on the IL because of a rotator cuff strain. The Yankees' only three-game winning streak since late May came against the Royals. The vibe is not good, not good at all. The franchise's streak of 30 consecutive winning seasons is in jeopardy.

Why root for them: A genie grants you three wishes, but you first have to shift your personal allegiance to the Yankees or Astros. Who do you take?

Who's hot: Gerrit Cole has been terrific with a 2.58 ERA over his past 12 starts and has vaulted into the lead in the AL Cy Young race.

Who's not: The Yankees are 10th in the AL in runs after leading the league last season. Over the past month, they're 14th, scoring more than only the A's.

Prediction: Never, ever, ever bet against the Yankees. But I'm betting against them. This just hasn't been a playoff-caliber offense all season and the rotation, through injuries and mediocre performance, hasn't been good enough. Aaron Judge hasn't seen much to hit of late. Why pitch to him? There was a path to the postseason behind Cole and a hot Rodon, but now that's not going to happen. They finish 80-82.

San Diego Padres

Current vibe: Running out of time to make a run. But the weather is terrific.

Why root for them: They're a small-market team spending with the big boys, which is what we would all love for the owner of our favorite team to do. They've never won a World Series, last getting there in 1998. If they sneak into the playoffs, they have the players to go all the way.

Who's hot: Blake Snell leads the majors with a 2.63 ERA, including 1.13 over his past 14 starts. He has allowed more than one run just three times in that span. He's doing it thanks to an incredibly high strand rate -- he has walked 34 batters in 43 innings over his past eight starts, yet allowed just eight runs.

Who's not: Fernando Tatis Jr. is hitting .145 over his past 18 games with more double plays hit into (three) than home runs (two).

Prediction: A few days ago, Juan Soto kind of destroyed his teammates when he said, "We've got to go out there and grind every day. Grind every at-bat. ... It's been really inconsistent. Some days we do, some days we don't. We got to do it every day. Days like this series, we just give up."

The Padres held a closed-door meeting after that loss to Seattle and Soto tried to walk back his comments, but his words sum up this team's performance: They just don't have it. They're an incredible 0-10 in extra innings and while I kept expecting the Padres to win 12 out of 14 and climb the standings, I'm no longer expecting it. The Padres miss the postseason, which should make for one interesting offseason for them.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Current vibe: The D-backs lost nine in a row to begin August before finally winning Saturday -- meaning the team lost the first nine games after trading for Paul Sewald (it went from 3½ games behind the Dodgers when it acquired him to 12½ games back).

Why root for them: They lost 110 games two seasons ago, so this would be a fantastic turnaround in such a short time span.

Who's hot: Umm, let's see ... well, Kevin Ginkel has allowed one run over his past 20 appearances (and it was a ghost runner, which shouldn't really count as a run allowed).

Who's not: The rotation just hasn't been able to hold it together -- maybe not a surprise because the Diamondbacks were relying on so many young starters. As they've gone 6-20 over the past month heading into Sunday, the rotation has a 5.09 ERA.

Prediction: The season looks disappointing only because Arizona was in first place as late as July 8. It looked like a .500-ish team before the season and now it appears that's where it will finish. Like the Reds, the D-backs are headed in the right direction, but they'll be watching the playoffs from the golf course.

Los Angeles Angels

Current vibe: Sadness. A sense of looming despair. Tears. Yes, literal tears. When the Mariners swept the Angels in a four-game series earlier this month, Shohei Ohtani had to leave his start after four scoreless innings because of cramping in his right middle finger. The cameras zeroed in on him as he sat on the bench, visibly upset, trying to fight off tears of frustration.

Why root for them: The man was crying! Ohtani is having perhaps the greatest season in MLB history and as the team folded in a crucial four-game series, it was like he felt the entire weight of the organization's eight-season playoff drought on his shoulders. It's a long shot, but we all want to see his miraculous season continue with some playoff games.

Who's hot: Who else? We all know about Ohtani's hitting (he leads the AL in home runs, OBP and slugging), and he's also back on track on the mound, where he has allowed one unearned run over his past three starts.

Who's not: The Angels gave up their best prospect in catcher Edgar Quero to acquire Lucas Giolito, who allowed 12 runs in his first two starts for the Angels, including a career-worst nine runs in his second outing, and lost both games. Carlos Estevez hadn't blown a save all season, but then he blew one against Seattle (allowing four runs) and one against the Giants (allowing five runs).

Prediction: That Seattle series was a gut punch, dropping the Angels under .500, and Los Angeles has too many teams to climb over. Barring an offseason miracle, we're likely watching Ohtani's final weeks in an Angels uniform. Get those tissues ready, Angels fans.