MLB September predictions: Playoff races, awards, more surprises

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Welcome to September! We're five months into Major League Baseball's 2023 season, meaning it's all coming down to the wire as the postseason quickly approaches.

Which of the current contenders will be headed to the playoffs come October? Which teams will have narrowly missed the cut? How will the division races shape up? Who will reach the Fall Classic? Who are the favorites to win the MVP and Cy Young awards? At the end of his historic season for the Los Angeles Angels, will Shohei Ohtani win his second MVP and finish with the most home runs in the majors? And what else may happen down the stretch?

To discuss what the final month of the regular season might bring, we asked a panel of 17 ESPN baseball experts some of the game's biggest questions, covering September and beyond. We also asked a number of them to explain their answers -- particularly those who went against the grain.

Below, you'll find our picks for the postseason, major awards and more, including a few surprising answers and some bold predictions about what's next.

Who will finish with the best record in baseball?

Atlanta Braves: 16

Baltimore Orioles: 1

You were the only voter to not pick the Braves. How do you think the Orioles will do it? It's as much wishful thinking as anything, since this team has been so much fun all year, but unlike the Braves, the Orioles NEED these wins to secure their first American League East title since 2014. That year also happens to be the last time they entered September in first place, and they've already matched last year's win total of 83. The Braves are absolutely a better baseball team, but with the way the schedule shakes out, we could be looking at some real Orioles magic at Camden Yards to close out 2023. -- Clinton Yates

Who will be the No. 1 seed in the National League: the Braves or Dodgers?

Atlanta Braves: 17

Los Angeles Dodgers: 0

Not a single person picked the Dodgers. Why are the Braves the overwhelming favorite? The Braves are overwhelming favorites for the same reason Braves fans believe Ronald Acuna Jr. should be the overwhelming favorite for the NL MVP award: consistency. From the beginning of the season to now, they've been an exceptional baseball team, and as magnificent as the Dodgers' 24-5 August may have been, the Braves went 21-8 and actually had a better run differential than Los Angeles. These are clearly the two best teams in the NL. They may well be the two best teams in baseball. But as much as the Dodgers have tried to take the mantle, the Braves have done nothing to give it up. -- Jeff Passan

Will the New York Yankees finish with a losing record?

Yes: 16

No: 1

Everyone seems fairly certain the Yankees will finish under .500, but you think they'll keep their 30-year streak of consecutive winning seasons alive. How come?Legendary manager Davey Johnson always advocated for having two to three rookies on every team because of the energy they bear, and in the Yankees' case, you can immediately see this. The addition of Jasson Dominguez, Austin Wells and others gives them a fresh feel -- and it's not as if the Yankees are just a bad team. Aaron Judge might hit 40 homers in an injury-plagued season, Gerrit Cole is the Cy Young front-runner, and they have a strong bullpen. In 2016, they were a .500 team at the trade deadline -- swapping Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller while turning to rookies like Judge and Gary Sanchez -- and they finished well. I think they'll do that this year.-- Buster Olney

The 2023 AL and NL MVPs will be ... ?


Shohei Ohtani: 17


Ronald Acuna Jr.: 9

Mookie Betts: 7

Freddie Freeman: 1

Ohtani was unanimous among our voters; what makes him a standout in the MVP race? The last thing Ohtani needed to win his second AL MVP was the sympathy vote, but here we are. The Angels' bizarre season -- just when you thought they couldn't find a different way to disappoint and confound, they did -- and Ohtani's elbow injury have cast him in a Shakespearean light. He is by far the most valuable player in baseball, and along the way he has once and for all shredded the idea that a player's worth is contingent on his team's success. -- Tim Keown

Why does Acuna deserve MVP? I'm a numbers guy, and while this MVP race has three amazing candidates, Acuna's numbers are simply historic and impossible to overlook, and that's beyond just being the first 30/60 player. He has started every single Braves game out of the leadoff spot, with these paces:

  • 147 runs: Other than Ted Williams in 1949 and Jeff Bagwell in 2000, this hasn't been done since World War II.
  • 75 stolen bases: Other than Jose Reyes in 2007, this hasn't been done since before the 1994 strike.
  • 219 hits: This hasn't been done since Jose Altuve in 2014 and would be only the ninth instance this century.

Acuna is also pacing for 37 homers, and while we all talk about the Luis Arraez-Freddie Freeman prospective batting title race, Acuna is very much also in that mix. It'll be tough for voters to ignore those statistical accomplishments. -- Tristan Cockcroft

Acuna was the longtime favorite to win MVP. Why do you think Betts can overtake him? I'll say this off the top: I wouldn't have any qualms with anybody voting for Acuna. It's that close. And I don't think WAR should ever be the end-all, be-all, regardless of the version. But Betts' 7.8 WAR at the start of September was a good bit higher than Acuna's 6.7 WAR. Acuna has been dinged mostly by his defense, but few would make the case that he is actually a liability on defense. In fact, most would consider him a dynamic right fielder, regardless of what the metrics show.

Acuna gets the edge in baserunning, a product of him reaching the ridiculous 60-steal milestone before the end of August, but Betts has been a valuable baserunner in his own right. Offensively, of course, it's really close too. But to me, Betts' ability to also play both second base and shortstop -- and play it well, I might add -- gives him a slight edge in a head-to-head matchup that often makes it feel as if we're splitting hairs. His versatility has also allowed the Dodgers to put together a much better lineup against right-handed pitching. -- Alden Gonzalez

The Cy Youngs will go to ... ?


Gerrit Cole: 13

Kevin Gausman: 3

Luis Castillo: 1


Spencer Strider: 6

Blake Snell: 5

Justin Steele: 4

Zac Gallen: 2

What makes you think Gausman can beat out Cole for the award? In a bit of a down AL Cy Young race, I have Gausman with a slight lead over Cole. Gausman leads the AL in strikeouts, has an identical walk rate to Cole and has made just two fewer starts. If the Jays can get into the playoffs with strong performances from Gausman while the Yankees fade into a tumultuous offseason, I think Gausman will win the award. -- Kiley McDaniel

There doesn't seem to be a clear consensus for an NL favorite, with Strider, Snell and Steele all vying for Cy Young. Make the case for Steele. Like MVP, there has to be an element of team value to the Cy Young award. That's where Steele enters. The Cubs would be a second tier squad without him, and there's no debating it. He's the only pitcher on the Cubs who qualifies for the ERA title -- injuries, ineffectiveness and youth have plagued the rest of the rotation -- and he's been that stalwart every playoff contender needs. The only time he failed to pitch at least five innings this season is around the time he went on the injured list back in early June. It was a short stint as he picked up where he left off, going 9-1 with a 2.72 ERA since that minor elbow ailment. Since June, the team has gone 13-1 with him on the mound.

As for league-wide numbers, Steele's 2.69 ERA ranks second in the NL behind Snell, who's on a losing team. Steele also ranks first in ERA+ and fewest home runs given up per nine innings pitched at a measly 0.7. He's given up just 11 long balls all season. His first All-Star appearance should be followed by a Cy Young award. -- Jesse Rogers

Why is Strider your pick for the NL? Wins and strikeouts aren't everything, but when someone these days actually approaches 20 of the former and 300 of the latter -- and for baseball's best team -- we notice. Strider won't win the ERA title, but it's not like anyone has a Bob Gibson-1968 ERA, either. I go with Strider. -- Eric Karabell

The 2023 World Series matchup will be ... ?


Houston Astros: 8

Seattle Mariners: 3

Texas Rangers: 3

Minnesota Twins: 1

Toronto Blue Jays: 1

Tampa Bay Rays: 1


Atlanta Braves: 12

Los Angeles Dodgers: 3

Philadelphia Phillies: 1

Milwaukee Brewers: 1

You have the Astros winning the division, but the Mariners making the World Series. Explain how Seattle gets there. This is all based on fatigue and history. Recent history shows that it's hard to get to three straight World Series and even harder to repeat, but that doesn't mean Houston will go down easily. The Astros have pushed hard of late to get into a position to win the AL West, but eventually those pitching injuries and mileage they've put on their bodies over the last few years will catch up to them.

That's where a new, emerging power will fill the void -- and the Mariners are that team. They're brimming with confidence after a post All-Star break surge. Combined with the experience gained making the playoffs last season, they're poised to go further this time around. The key to it all comes on the mound. The Mariners feature three starters (Luis Castillo, George Kirby, Logan Gilbert) in the top 10 in ERA in the AL. No other team can make that claim. Add their star players -- like Julio Rodriguez -- showing up in the second half in a dramatic way and Seattle's OPS has jumped from 10th to second since the break. The ingredients are all there for a playoff run and an upset in the ALCS no matter who the M's face. -- Rogers

Most of our voters have the Braves making the World Series, but you chose the Phillies. Why? The Braves have the most clout. The Dodgers have the most star power. But the Phillies have the roster best equipped to win October baseball games with fewer deficiencies than either Atlanta or Los Angeles. Philadelphia sports a lineup that can generate runs with or without homering, a rotation that runs six reliable starters deep and a spitfire bullpen that is considerably deeper than it was a year ago. -- Paul Hembekides

A Twins-Brewers World Series?! Explain yourself! I'm calling this the "Hot Chocolate" World Series and, yes, it is admittedly a very long shot. But given the unpredictable nature of this season in general, I'm going with an unlikely World Series matchup. (I'm also aware that the Twins have lost an unfathomable 18 consecutive postseason games going back to 2004. Using straight 50/50 odds for each game, the odds of the Twins losing 18 straight would be about 1 in 261,985. This just means: They. Are. Due.)

There are also analytic reasons to pick both teams: namely, starting pitching. The Twins' starters are near the top of the majors in lowest OPS allowed and strikeout rate. Sonny Gray and Pablo Lopez are an underrated 1-2 punch and Joe Ryan and Kenta Maeda are both averaging more than 10 K's per nine. The Twins also have a potentially dominant closer in flamethrowing Jhoan Duran and his 103-mph fastball. They'll need another reliever or two to step up, but it's a group that could be on a roll in October -- they just need to win that first game.

The Brewers are also capable of a surprise -- even upsetting the Braves. Their rotation is top five in lowest OPS allowed -- and, remember, that's with Brandon Woodruff missing most of the season. But he's back now, Freddy Peralta is one of the hottest starters in the majors (1.71 ERA over his past seven starts with a .451 OPS allowed) and Corbin Burnes can wipe out any lineup on any given night. And they have a better bullpen than the Twins, led by closer Devin Williams and now featuring rookie Abner Uribe, who has averaged 99.5 mph with his fastball. -- David Schoenfield

Who will finish with the most home runs in the majors?

Shohei Ohtani: 8

Matt Olson: 7

Pete Alonso: 1

Kyle Schwarber: 1

What makes you believe Ohtani will hit the most homers? The essence of the question for me is really "who is the better home run hitter right now?" given that the margin between Ohtani and Olson is so narrow. To me, Ohtani is the second-best home run hitter in the majors behind Judge, who is too far back to catch the leaders. So if Ohtani plays out the season, I think he'll win it and, besides, if he's not pitching, he'll be able to focus on that kind of individual feat. The big, blinking caveat to this is that he's injured. I'm sticking with him if he plays to the end of the season, but if he needs Tommy John surgery, it's really hard to imagine he'll wait another month to get that behind him. -- Brad Doolittle

Olson is neck-and-neck with Ohtani. Why do you think he pulls ahead? This is less a bet for Olson being a superior home run hitter than it is a bet against Ohtani's health and the pragmatic challenges it raises. Ohtani has a tear in his right UCL. We do not know the severity. What we do know is that it could necessitate Tommy John surgery, and if that is the ultimate outcome, the sooner Ohtani undergoes it, the better. Delaying until the end of September not only could prevent him from hitting to start the 2024 season but keep him from pitching until after Opening Day in 2025. Maybe Ohtani's desire to hit 50 home runs or make a run at the Triple Crown will keep him going until the end, in which case Olson's road is rough. But he's going to play every day, and until we know the same of Ohtani, we'll go with the sure(r) thing. -- Passan

Who will be the wild-card teams in the NL?

Philadelphia Phillies: 17

Chicago Cubs: 16

San Francisco Giants: 8

Arizona Diamondbacks: 6

Cincinnati Reds: 2

Miami Marlins: 1

San Diego Padres: 1

The Phillies and Cubs were our most-picked teams. Why do they look like wild-card locks?In the Phillies' case, it's simple: They are loaded with accomplished veterans, and with Trea Turner and Bryce Harper heating up, they could be the biggest threat to the Braves' NL preeminence. The Cubs seem to have two very solid traits -- they generally catch the ball well, ranking in the top 10 in just about every advanced defensive metric, and they pitch effectively. And it's always worth remembering that the wild-card races are never a battle of the best teams. The Cubs are a good team being chased by some slightly above average teams. They are hungry and won't lose their edge.-- Olney

Our voters were split between Arizona and San Francisco for the final spot, and you have both making it. What's your reasoning? Just a hunch that the Giants and Diamondbacks will play a bit better than the Cubs in September. The Cubs will host these teams soon, and those series will be critical. It seems unlikely Marcus Stroman will be a factor. In addition, the Cubs have to close on the road with the Braves and Brewers. That may be a problem. -- Karabell

How do you think the Reds secure a wild-card berth? The Reds play pressure baseball and they do so with sheer athleticism and spry youth. They remind me of the way the Guardians played during their playoff push in 2022 -- with a certain innocence in being the youngest team and a mix of veteran confidence. In 2023, the numbers show that the Reds love to run: They're first in MLB in stolen base attempts per game. Even when they get caught, they still force teams to be on their toes constantly. Pitchers, catchers, infielders and outfielders, beware! Even the opposing team's designated hitter is stressed out watching these guys constantly run. (This is also a skill that could help knock off the Brewers, who give up hardly any baserunners.)

Add to the mix that Hunter Greene is back, and before he went down, he was quietly starting to figure it out. In his last four starts before being placed on the IL in June, he allowed 13 hits and struck out 31 batters in 23 innings for a 2.37 ERA. Love this team's talent. So fun to watch. -- Doug Glanville

Will the Orioles or Rays win the AL East?

Baltimore Orioles: 14

Tampa Bay Rays: 3

Why are the Orioles the favorite to win the division? The Rays are charging, and the team they are pursuing, Baltimore, lost dominant closer Felix Bautista, which is why the Orioles are going to hold on and win the AL East. They are young, hungry and well built, with the truest of grit. There's no other explanation for how they can be where they are only two years after finishing 39 games out of fourth place. The Orioles are different. They don't give a damn and were kicked around for so long that now, they just defy the odds. They will clinch the East at Oriole Park on the final day of the season against Boston. Gunnar Henderson will provide the walk-off. -- Tim Kurkjian

Yet, you picked the Rays. What makes you think they can do it? It's probably not cool to predict that anything negative might happen to the Orioles this season. They're baseball's darlings, but they're going to find the final month of the season to be a grim slog to a wild-card spot. This is all new to the O's, and the Rays have a stick-to-the-plan consistency that will win out in the end. It's almost cultish how the Rays can ignore everything outside their own room and assemble a roster that conforms to the plan. Baltimore is putting together its own identity, one that should win multiple AL East titles, but that run starts next year. -- Keown

Who will finish at the bottom of the NL East: the Mets or Nationals?

New York Mets: 12

Washington Nationals: 5

What makes you think Washington will fall back into the cellar? The Nats and Mets are in a virtual tie right now for last place in the NL East and I think the Nats will end up with that title. In short, Washington's team right now is one of the worst in baseball -- second worst, in fact, according to FanGraphs. When they're starting in almost the same place, I'll bet on the more talented Mets playing a bit better. -- McDaniel

Who will win the AL West: the Astros, Rangers or Mariners?

Houston Astros: 10

Seattle Mariners: 4

Texas Rangers: 3

The Mariners currently sit atop the division, but you and our voters still think the Astros will take the title. How come? We sports journalists have short memories, but they aren't that short. The Astros have been in the ALCS six straight seasons, which is a truly remarkable accomplishment. Obviously that streak will end eventually, perhaps even a few weeks from now. But at this point, it would be foolish to pick against them unless they have obviously deteriorated into a lesser team. Perhaps there were some early signs of fraying this season, but now Houston seems positioned just right and is even getting healthier the closer we get to October. The Astros have to give us a reason to pick against them -- massive injuries, obvious widespread aging-out of core players, a division foe who has gotten too far ahead of them. None of those things are true right now. -- Doolittle

Yet, you stuck with Seattle. Why? Because I'm a completely biased Seattle native who grew up going to games in the Kingdome? Or because they've been the hottest team in the AL? You choose! Technically, I'm predicting the Mariners, Astros, Rangers and Blue Jays all enter the final day of the season with the same record. I'm going with a Seattle win over Texas at home while the Astros and Blue Jays also win, eliminating the Rangers. Since Seattle has already clinched the season series over Houston, that gives the Mariners the AL West title. -- Schoenfield

Before struggling in August, Texas spent most of the season leading the division. What makes you think they can still win it? The Rangers finished August with 10 losses in 13 games, but their inconsistencies actually date back even further than that. They went 40-38 from the start of June to the end of August, nowhere near as dominant as they were in April and May. Still, they still had a plus-42 run differential. And I still think they're slightly more talented than the Astros and Mariners, the latter of which was a .500 team through its first 100 games. The Rangers' lineup is deep and will be even deeper when Josh Jung returns. Their rotation is really good and will be even better when Nathan Eovaldi rejoins it. Their bullpen, well, it's a problem. But nobody in the AL is perfect. The Rangers are the least imperfect. I have them winning the pennant. -- Gonzalez

Make one bold prediction about the final stretch

In the American League ...

Aaron Boone will be fired before the playoffs start. -- Matt Marrone

The Mariners, Rangers, Astros and Blue Jays all enter the final day of the season with the same record -- four teams for three spots. Seattle beats Texas and the Astros and Blue Jays both win, so the Rangers miss the playoffs (Mariners win the division since they won the season series over the Astros). -- Schoenfield

The Rays lose their first playoff series after winning the AL East. -- McDaniel

In the National League ...

San Diego will finish with a winning record. -- Hembekides

I'll do you one better. The Padres will make the playoffs. -- Gonzalez

The Phillies will be the wild-card entrant with the best chance to win the World Series. -- Olney

The Reds and Marlins enter the final series of the season tied for the last wild-card spot in the NL. Miami sweeps the Pittsburgh Pirates while Cincinnati only wins two of three against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Marlins make the playoffs in a full 162-game season for the first time since 2003. -- Liz Finny

There will be a three-way tie between the Giants, Reds and Diamondbacks for the final wild-card spot in the NL. -- Kurkjian

As for individual players ...

Freddie Freeman wins the batting title in the NL. -- Karabell

Not only will Freeman win the NL batting title, he'll alsobreak Joe Medwick's NL doubles record (64). -- Doolittle

Actually, Freeman is going to win the triple slash crown, leading in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. -- Cockcroft

Edwin Diaz returns -- and he runs onto the field while playing a trumpet! -- Glanville

Pete Alonso will hit 50 home runs. -- Rogers

Justin Steele will continue his unlikely journey from obscurity (0-6 with 5.59 ERA in Double-A in 2019) to stardom by leading the Cubs to a wild-card spot. -- Keown

Oakland Athletics center fielder Esteury Ruiz will catch Acuna in stolen bases. -- Yates

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