Drafting top World Series contenders after Trade Deadline

August 7th, 2023

It’s August. We’re beyond the Trade Deadline. Contending rosters are what they are for the rest of the season, absent potential minor changes from within; the rosters are essentially locked in from here on out.

Given that, and given the trades we’ve seen over the last few weeks, who now looks best positioned to win the World Series? That’s exactly the question that MLB.com’s Mike Petriello and Will Leitch will attempt to answer -- a little more than four months after their first draft. This time, they are drafting 21 contenders in order of “who is most likely to win a ring.” (Why 21? Because that’s how many teams had playoff odds of at least 10 percent at FanGraphs after the Deadline passed.)

Will chose first. There couldn’t possibly be a surprise at the direction he went.

1. Atlanta Braves
Leitch: How might you nitpick the Braves if you desperately wanted to? Let’s see. They wouldn’t have the rotation advantage in a theoretical NLDS against, say, the Brewers, or maybe the D-backs, or even the Phillies. The bullpen has a bunch of good arms but no one who makes you feel like, if you’re down a run heading into the seventh, the game is already over. Ronald Acuña Jr. had his worst month of the season in July. (He still had a .918 OPS.) They’re only on a 102-win pace, and “102” is quite definitively less than “162.”

Otherwise, good heavens, who in the world wants to face this team in October? This lineup is terrifying top to bottom, and they’re packed with stars who are at their peak or will be hitting it at any moment. The 2021 Braves were a postseason buzzsaw, one of the most fun October teams I can remember. This team is better even before you account for the fact that they have a healthy Acuña. They’ll need to win another World Series, I think, before they can pass the Dodgers as the NL’s premier franchise. But they’re the obvious pick to do so.

2. Texas Rangers
Petriello: It feels almost unfair to the Braves to have any other team second. It feels like it should be more like “1) Braves, 2-6) spots held empty out of respect, 7) the next-best team.” That’s how large the gap feels here, in part due to how they’re the only team that’s absolutely guaranteed to win their division, and in part because of how loaded their roster is. But a second team we must pick, and so I choose the Rangers, who probably did the most in the weeks leading up to the Deadline to improve their right-now chances, adding not only Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery, but also Aroldis Chapman earlier in July.

And, I might add, Austin Hedges, who, despite his extreme offensive shortcomings, is something like the best defensive catcher in baseball, which is suddenly an extremely important addition given the uncertainty over whether All-Star Jonah Heim’s wrist will allow him to return this year. Maybe they’ll win the division, and maybe they won’t, but they’ll be in the postseason either way. Suddenly, instead of starting a top three of, let’s say, Jon Gray, Dane Dunning, and Andrew Heaney (if Nathan Eovaldi’s arm prevents him from being available) it’s Scherzer, Montgomery, and [pick one]. Add that to the only lineup that’s scored more runs than Atlanta? Honestly, if they do this, it’s the greatest short-term turnaround in history, given that they lost 102 games all of two years ago.

3. Houston Astros
Leitch: There are more close division races at this point in the season than I can remember, which should make the last couple of months even more exciting than usual. But there’s clearly no race more packed with intrigue than the AL West. It has two intrastate rivals. It has the defending champs against the team they’ve long tormented. It has two old Cy Young Award-winning gunslingers facing off after being acquired at the Deadline (from the same team). And it has significant stakes: Whoever comes out on top gets a first-round bye instead of a potential first-round matchup with the Rays or Orioles.

What makes it even more fun is that I also think they’re the two AL teams with the best chances to win the World Series. The Astros haven’t quite felt like the Astros most of this year, so it’s all the more impressive that they’ve hung with the Rangers (a team having an all-timer of a year) and may end up passing them soon. And in the end, I’m glad you took the Rangers, because I do believe in the Astros a little bit more, particularly because, with the Justin Verlander trade, they’ll have the best No. 1 starter. The Astros may look and act a little differently than they used to, but they remain stacked. They might just sneak up on everybody and win this thing again.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers
Petriello: The fourth pick, and I already feel terrible about it! I don’t even really like the Dodgers more than the Rays or Orioles, necessarily, but I do think the path here is a somewhat easier one, because A) I think they’ll win the division, and B) I think they’ll get that bye into the second round. Meanwhile, the AL path looks … harder. So, while it’s definitely disappointing that the Dodgers couldn’t do more to reinforce their roster than the hopes-and-prayers path of “Yeah, sure, we can make Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Ryan Yarbrough, and Amed Rosario better,” I do think there’s an argument that we spent so much time last winter and this summer focusing on what they didn’t do that it’s perhaps overshadowed the fact that this team has the fifth-best winning percentage in baseball -- and that Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman are playing at an MVP level.

They’ll get Clayton Kershaw back (probably). They could get Walker Buehler back (maybe). Maybe they’ll get Blake Treinen back? Remember Jimmy Nelson? Wouldn’t it be funny, anyway, if this is the Dodger roster that actually wins a full-season title, in the year when every review of their approach was “more vulnerable than they’ve been in a decade?”

5. Tampa Bay Rays
Leitch: I actually went back and forth between the Rays and Orioles here, which, wow, what a thing to say when we’re talking about World Series contenders. (The human being who got the win in the last Orioles postseason victory: Bud Norris! Delmon Young batted fifth for them in that game.) The Orioles are the hot pick right now, and why wouldn’t they be? They’re playing with an infectious joy that has a lot of fans of soon-to-be-eliminated teams jumping on their October bandwagon. But the Rays are still the Rays, and after a bit of an injury-related dip, they look more like the team that got off to that incredible start. And now they have Aaron Civale, who, even if you’re not entirely on board with him, clearly does make them better. (And it sure seems like the Rays have earned the benefit of the doubt on pitchers).

The rest of the division hardly stayed idle, though it’s sort of funny how much of the Deadline fortifications seemed to come from the Cardinals, one of the most disappointing teams in baseball. The Rays might not be the all-timer team we thought they were in May. But they’re good enough to still win this division and position themselves well heading into October. And they’re exactly the sort of team to be afraid of once they get there.

6. Baltimore Orioles
Petriello: Thank you, Will, for choosing between the Rays and Orioles so I did not have to. OK, let’s do this: Since June 1, the Orioles are an AL-best 35-21, while the Rays are a middling 28-28. I choose to believe the Ryan O’Hearn renaissance is for real. I choose to believe that when Cedric Mullins Jr. returns next week, he’ll be an added jolt to a lineup that hardly needs one. I choose to believe that Gunnar Henderson, who has raked since a slow April, is The Next Big Thing. I choose to believe there’s magic in teams that are so young, talented, and assured that the fact that they didn’t do much at the Deadline will be viewed as confidence in what’s there, not disappointment in what’s not.

I also choose to believe that they’ll fix trade acquisitions Jack Flaherty and Shintaro Fujinami, and that Yennier Cano’s July struggles are a blip and not the inevitable signs of fatigue, and that Félix Bautista will keep on having one of the greatest seasons in relief history with no hiccups, thank you very much. Because as much as I like Baltimore’s lineup, I am absolutely terrified by a pitching staff that doesn’t have even a No. 2 starter, much less a No. 1, and has a bunch of young arms blowing past any previous innings totals. (See: Tyler Wells backing up so bad he ended up in Double-A). I’m all-in on this talented, young lineup, but I’m pretty worried about this pitching staff simply running out of gas before the finish line.

7. Milwaukee Brewers
Leitch: I know, I know: This seems early. But regardless of any skepticism one might or might not have about the Reds -- and while I think they’re as well-positioned the next few years as any team in this division, in 2023 they sure look like a team that’s going to run out of gas -- the Brewers look like a team about to find itself.

After a slow start (for him, anyway), Corbin Burnes looks like his Cy Young self again, and he's got old running mate Brandon Woodruff alongside him again. Speaking of former award winners, Christian Yelich has been giving off some real 2019 vibes lately himself. They were smart and surgical at the Deadline, bringing in some real OBP juice with Mark Canha and Carlos Santana, at discount prices. They have a bullpen that has been getting the job done yet again. Devin Williams has been magical and he hasn’t even been the best reliever on this staff. (That would be Joel Payamps). And they have a manager in Craig Counsell who always seems to be finding every little advantage his team can get. I’m not sure they’re passing the Dodgers for a No. 2 seed -- though they might! -- but they have exactly the sort of roster that thrives in the postseason. They’re my big postseason sleeper pick … assuming, of course, they can get in. Look out for these guys. Remember where you heard it first.

8. Toronto Blue Jays
Petriello: I think I’m taking a risk here by picking a team highly unlikely to finish higher than third in its own division -- one that might not even make the playoffs. But I feel the same way about the Blue Jays as I did at the start of the season, which is that if there’s any team likely to get red hot for exactly the right four weeks in October, it’s them. They might be history’s most disappointing “10 games over .500 team” this side of the Dodgers, but they are still 13 games over, and that’s with a roster that has rarely, if ever, been running on all cylinders at the same time.

I’ll admit to being more than a little worried about George Springer’s subpar offensive production, and I have no faith whatsoever in Alek Manoah figuring it out, plus Bo Bichette’s knee is a concern now as well. Still, Kevin Gausman might win the AL Cy Young Award, José Berríos has been much better than last year, Hyun-Jin Ryu is back, and I think they have a sneakily outstanding bullpen, especially since they added Jordan Hicks, and Jordan Romano’s back injury isn’t expected to be serious. Throw in much-improved defense in the outfield, and the never, ever, ever-ending hope that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is just going to sort out whatever his incredibly frustrating problems are and, well … it remains a very frustrating team. But one good enough to do this, nonetheless.

9. Philadelphia Phillies
Leitch: I feel like the drop-off happened really fast this year: Are we already at the Phillies? At the very least, it makes a bit more sense to have faith in them this year than it did last year, and we saw how that turned out. Neither Aaron Nola nor Zack Wheeler have been what they were last year, but they’re still a 1-2 you feel good about in that rotation, and Michael Lorenzen was a nice little Deadline addition. The way I’m looking at Nola and Wheeler is the way you have to look at the Phillies in total, almost like an NBA team that rested its stars in the regular season to have them ready for the playoffs. There are so many big names who haven’t played up to expectations in 2023, from Nola and Wheeler to J.T. Realmuto to Bryce Harper to Trea Turner. And yet, here they still are, in the second NL Wild Card spot, without ever quite looking like themselves.

So that’s my bet here: The Phillies lumber into the postseason and then come alive in October like the veterans they are. The NL Wild Card race is lunacy right now, but the Phillies look as likely as anyone to emerge from the wreckage. And as we saw last year, anything can happen then.

10. San Diego Padres
Petriello: I … think? This is lunacy, right? The Padres are still under .500 and out of a playoff spot, but it’s straw-grasping time here. Hey! Did you know that they’ve mostly been torpedoed by an absolutely unbelievable 0-10 mark in extra-inning games, which is a disaster but is also not really predictive of anything? Hey! Did you know that even though adding Ji Man Choi and Garrett Cooper aren’t headline-grabbing moves, they’ll go a long way toward fixing a 1B/DH situation that was second-weakest in baseball?

I feel like when we talk about “expensive, underperforming 2023” teams, the Mets and Padres understandably got lumped together a lot. But while it felt like the Mets just always showed us who they really were, the Padres still have that glimmer of “but if they do figure it out, it’s going to be special” sheen there. I hope. I really hope.

11. Boston Red Sox
Leitch: It would seem impossible for a team like the Red Sox to sneak up on anyone. But with the (semi-understandable) agita about losing Betts and Xander Bogaerts and all of that, it’s almost like no one has noticed that the Red Sox are pretty good. The rotation is a little better than anyone realizes -- James Paxton Renaissance Hive Assemble -- and the bullpen is performing exactly the way you’d want them to, holding down the fort enough for the offense to do its thing. In retrospect, their offseason moves look savvy and prudent, as was trusting that Triston Casas would eventually figure it out. He has been one of the best hitters in baseball for the last month-and-a-half.

Having much faith in them come October may come down to how much you want to trust in a healthy Chris Sale, which is to say: not much. But they looked like the clear last-place team in this division heading into the year, and while that still might be their fate thanks to the high level of competition, for now they’re right in the thick of the Wild Card chase.

12. San Francisco Giants
Petriello: Sure, why not. I do think the 61-51 Giants are getting slept on a little, in part because 2022’s follow-up to 2021’s miracle was unimpressive, and in part because most of the notice they got last winter was about “failing to sign the top-tier free agents they thought they were going to sign.” But Farhan Zaidi and friends did a solid job of adding depth and competency -- and even though rookie catcher Patrick Bailey hasn’t hit all that much, he is something absolutely special behind the plate. (That’s whether you look at metrics, where he’s tied for 2023’s best defensive catcher, or just the highlights, when he’s doing things like “ending a game on a back-pick at first base.” Who does that? He does.)

Though they have an outside chance at the division, it’s more likely they’ll get in as a Wild Card, and it’s not that hard to see them making noise. I’m into the bullpen that has essentially-tied-for-best-in-baseball OBP against, and Logan Webb and Alex Cobb are a solid enough top two in a best-of-three series. But really, I like this team’s Guys. They just seem to have a higher Guy-per-roster-spot ratio of anyone in baseball, in terms of non-star players who you could easily see doing something legendary in the playoffs. LaMonte Wade Jr.? Absolutely a Guy. J.D. Davis? Definite Guy qualities. I’ve watched enough Pat Burrell / Cody Ross / Darin Ruf moments over the years to know that AJ Pollock is hitting a walkoff in the NLDS, Will.

13. Los Angeles Angels
Leitch: Time for a heart pick? Time for a heart pick. The whole Angels thing right now is to believe. So let’s believe that …

  • All the new additions, none of whom are spectacular but all of whom are better than what they had, will catch fire at the right time.
  • Mike Trout is going to come back and be Mike Trout (and that’s old Mike Trout, not necessarily 2023 Mike Trout).
  • The space-time continuum will implode before the calendar hits 2024 and therefore there’s no reason to worry about anything that happens then.
  • You have a moral obligation to try to win while Shohei Ohtani is being Shohei Ohtani in your uniform.

My brain tells me only the fourth one is true, and I’m not even entirely sold on that one. But my heart wants to plunge headfirst into all four. Their playoff odds are so low mostly because of their brutal schedule in August, but if they can survive this month (big if), maybe in September, Trout and Ohtani can carry them. And if they can get in? Well, then, the Angels become Earth’s Team. We all want to see it. Do I think we see it? No. But I want to badly enough that I choose to believe.

14. Arizona Diamondbacks
Petriello: I have now selected the entire NL West this side of Denver. This seems like a bad strategy! (It is a bad strategy.) Here’s what I’ve got: A few star-level players in Corbin Carroll, Christian Walker, Ketel Marte and Zac Gallen. A bullpen that just added a high-quality arm in Paul Sewald, and please do not ask anyone outside the desert to name even a single other member of the relief corps. A quietly good Deadline addition in Tommy Pham, who is having a pretty solid season and should be a nice veteran reinforcement for a lineup that could really stand to be lengthened out a bit. I don’t, for the record, believe Arizona is winning the World Series, because the pitching staff is thin. But hey, they’re fun, and they have some stars. I like fun. I like stars.

15. Miami Marlins
Leitch: How many games higher in the standings are the Marlins right now if they hadn’t sent down Eury Pérez to manage his innings? They’re a half-game out in the Wild Card race right now, and, I don’t know, it seems fair to ask whether they’re going to end up a half-game out at the end of the year and cursing not having their best pitcher for the whole summer. (Pérez is returning on Monday.) This may seem unfair, sure: Pérez is ostensibly a big part of the Marlins’ future. But in every other way, the Marlins are, and have been, playing for right now. This is a team, and a front office, that needs to prove it can break through, and they added pieces at the Deadline accordingly. (It would be wild if Josh Bell just suddenly went nuts over the last two months.)

I’m just staying that seasons like this don’t really come along all that often for the Marlins, and maybe you want to take advantage of them in every way you can, while you can. If they can sneak in, a 1-2 punch of Pérez and Sandy Alcantara could give them a puncher’s chance in any series. So what’s the play, Marlins? Are you in, or are you out?

16. Cincinnati Reds
Petriello: Remember all things I just wrote about the D-backs where it was all “well, I don’t think they’re actually winning because I don’t trust the pitching, but they’re young and they have some fun stars, and wouldn’t that be exciting,” and well, the Cincinnati Reds. I suppose, given the fact that the Reds have a much clearer path to a division title than the D-backs do, the math would suggest I should have taken Cincinnati over Arizona. But despite that NL Central boost, I have more questions about the Reds, in part because the rotation remains an enormous problem, one which was not at all addressed at the Deadline, and also because they have fewer stars I trust. (That’s right. We all love Elly De La Cruz. I hope he ends up in the Hall of Fame some day. But right now, he’s batting .240/.290/.438 since July 1). There is, I guess, a non-zero chance they win the Central by one game and then go on the kind of high-intensity, cardiac-level event for a month that you make movies about. But I’m not really banking on it.

17. Chicago Cubs
Leitch: The underlying numbers have long argued that the Cubs may be the best team in this division, and their recent eight-game win streak may have brought them back closer to the water level where they should be. The Cubs don’t really have any huge stars, but you could argue they have fewer holes than anyone else in this division, and they’ve got one clear skill (defense) that doesn’t really slump and makes everything else better. They’ve got a tougher schedule than you might think down the stretch -- they won two of three vs. the Braves over the weekend, but play three more against Atlanta in the final week -- but if you’re not sold on the Brewers or the Reds, the Cubs could absolutely make a run. They clearly think it’s possible: They were surprisingly stout at the Deadline. They believe. Maybe we should, too.

18. Minnesota Twins
Petriello: fine

I don’t even know where to go here. A likely division winner at No. 18 is a pretty solid value choice, I guess, but we also all know that this is only happening because the AL Central is something like the sorriest division we’ve ever seen, and the complete lack of movement at the Deadline doesn’t exactly inspire confidence here. They didn’t get the righty bat they needed, or the extra reliever, and that’s frustrating because they’ve built one of the best rotations this club has had in decades. I will say this: I really like rookie Edouard Julien, and I keep hoping Carlos Correa will find a way to turn around what’s been a very disappointing season. But if the best case here is “plays in a weak division,” it’s a hard case to make.

19. New York Yankees
Leitch: With all the relentless negativity going on in The Bronx right now, is it possible to make a case for the last-place Yankees? Well, Aaron Judge could go all Babe Ruth on the league over the last two months. That is, after all, how they made the playoffs last year. But the pieces around Judge in 2023 are even thinner than they were then, and if Carlos Rodón doesn’t figure it out soon (he left Sunday's start with hamstring tightness), the rotation may actually be worse than that atrophying lineup. The Yankees were relatively quiet at the Deadline, and they were smart to be. Do you think this team is worth adding to right now? The Yankees clearly don’t. It’s tough to argue with them.

20. Seattle Mariners
Petriello: As I’m asked to choose between Seattle and Cleveland, the phrase I keep coming back to is “a run.” That is: Which of these unlikely contenders have a better shot of going on a shocking last-minute run? I guess, like the Reds, the better answer is the one with the clearer path to October. (That’s Cleveland, but the Guardians are 4 1/2 games out in the Central.) But give me Julio Rodríguez heating up, give me a rotation that lost none of its pieces via trade, give me some hope that newcomer Dominic Canzone is quietly a super sleeper. It’s not going to happen, but I’ll take the talent here over a Cleveland lineup that’s struggled to score runs and a Cleveland rotation that traded away one of its few healthy pitchers in Aaron Civale.

The All-Star Game was fun, anyway.

21. Cleveland Guardians
Leitch: I’ll say this: If the Guardians win the World Series, Aaron Civale is going to have a truly amazing story to tell every time someone asks about his World Series ring.