In the years and decades to come, baseball’s storytellers will spin yarns about the unforgettable 2021 trade deadline. So much crazy and so much fun, as teams made bold moves knowing the safety net of the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline was a thing of the past.
Heck, it’s only been a minute and we’ve already seen players change uniforms and deliver heroic moments for their new franchises and fan bases.
It’s a good time to be a fan of competitive, entertaining baseball.
For today’s second-half power poll, we’ll rank all 30 teams but just dive into the top 15. Let’s jump in.
30. Diamondbacks. Carson Kelly is the only player on the active roster with more than five home runs. He has eight.
29. Rangers. Not exactly a summer to remember for Rangers fans. Adolis Garcia is fun, though.
28. Pirates. Rebuilding, again. Ke’Bryan Hayes is worth the price of a ticket.
27. Cubs. At least they still have Kyle Hendricks and Willson Contreras?
26. Nationals. Just go ahead and give Juan Soto a blank check.
25. Rockies. They knew the trade deadline was July 30 this year, right?
24. Twins. Will Byron Buxton come back healthy to finish the season?
23. Orioles. They didn’t trade John Means or Trey Mancini, which was nice for O’s fans.
22. Marlins. Jazz Chisholm is off the injured list. He’s delightful to watch.
21. Royals. Trading Jorge Soler (79 OPS+) was basically addition by subtraction at this point.
20. Indians. As long as Franmil Reyes keeps hitting the ball out of the ballpark, I’ll watch.
19. Angels. They still have Shohei Ohtani, and Mike Trout will be back before long!
18. Phillies. Can they break the hold of .500? Doubtful.
17. Tigers. They’re actually good! 42-33 record since that awful (9-24) early start.
16. Braves. How long will all the new outfielders have to wear name tags?
Record, place: 53-52, third in NL Central, 9.5 back (6.5 back of second wild card)
Why they’re here: There’s a bit of a gap between the Cardinals and the teams ahead of them, and we’ll point out that the Phillies and Braves have better shots at the postseason, thanks to geography placing them in the weak NL East. But we’re not concerned about that with this power ranking. The Cardinals are a better team than either the Braves or Phillies, though that’s not a high hurdle to clear, or they will be when they get a couple of rehabbing starters back in the rotation, particularly Jack Flaherty (Miles Mikolas, too).
It’s hard to see trade acquisitions J.A. Happ or Jon Lester as anything but stop-gaps. Ageless wonder Adam Wainwright (3.53 ERA in 21 starts) has been the rotation’s savior, and closer Alex Reyes has converted 24 of 25 save opportunities. The lineup has solid pieces in Nolan Arenado, Tyler O’Neill, Paul Goldschmidt and Dylan Carlson. Yadier Molina’s good for competitive at-bats in key situations — .778 OPS with runners on vs. .610 OPS with bases empty — and Harrison Bader finally looks like he might become the player the club hoped it was seeing when he finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2018; he has a 136 OPS+, nine homers and six stolen bases in 46 games.
It’s also hard to see the Cardinals making a push to the postseason, but it’s not tough to see them finishing with a better record than the other .500ites, the Braves, Phillies, Angels and soon-to-be Guardians.
Record, place: 55-49, first in NL East
Why they’re here: If Jacob deGrom was healthy, the Mets would be a couple of spots higher. But here we are, in the middle of his potentially historic season, and the best-case scenario seems to be a September return. And who feels confident that will actually happen? Heck, what Mets fan feels confident that the club will even be in first place by the time he comes back? There are a lot of rose-colored-glasses scenarios that could lead a fan to believe the Mets are primed for a run — Javier Baez could thrive in New York, Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeill have been finding their swing the past few weeks and Michael Conforto has to start hitting at some point, right? — but there are a lot of fingers crossed in all those scenarios.
Truthfully, there’s a very good chance that Baez could wind up being the steal of the trade deadline, but there are just too many “ifs” on this club: If Taijuan Walker figures out his second-half hiccups, if Rich Hill throws better, if Carlos Carrasco is fully healthy and effective, if Conforto starts to hit, if Francisco Lindor comes back and plays at an All-Star level, if closer Edwin Diaz’s results match his FIP (2.12) more than his ERA (3.80). That’s too many “ifs” to be in the top 10. I don’t care that they’re in first place in the worst division in baseball.
Record, place: 56-50, third in AL West, 8 back (3.5 back of second wild card)
Why they’re here: Sorry, but the timing of the Kendall Graveman trade was inexcusable. General manager Jerry DiPoto, you’ll remember, shipped his All-Star closer to the division-rival Astros, the day after watching his Mariners complete a stirring rally against those same Astros, capped off by a walk-off grand slam. The timing really was mind-boggling. And, yes, DiPoto did wind up trading for a closer (Diego Castillo) and adding a back-of-the-rotation starter (Tyler Anderson), but I’m guessing you won’t find a single Mariners fan — player? — happy with the outcome of the deadline. For a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001 — it’s the longest postseason drought in baseball — that’s not what you want.
Record, place: 56-50, second in NL Central, 7 back (4 back of second wild card)
Why they’re here: The Reds score a lot of runs, but they allow a lot of runs. It’s been that way all season, but Cincinnati fans are hoping that’ll change soon. How revamped is the Cincinnati bullpen? There are six relievers on the active roster who have thrown three or fewer innings in a Reds uniform this season. And those six relievers have combined for a 0.00 ERA in nine innings, which is a very small sample size, of course, but still a good start. Not all six were added in trades, but the Reds did a good job addressing their most pressing need, which was clearly the bullpen. They’ve won five of their past six games, and though they haven’t gained ground on the equally hot Brewers in the NL Central, they have moved to only four games back of the Padres in the race for the second NL wild card.
Record, place: 56-48, third in AL East, 7 back (2.5 back of second wild card)
Why they’re here: The Yankees did a great job adding left-handed power — Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo — to a lineup that was a surprising weak spot for much of the season. Rizzo was 5-for-9 with two homers and three RBIs in his first series with the club. And they did it without jumping over a luxury tax threshold. Kudos.
Still, it’s fair to wonder how the pitching will hold up week to week, much less the next couple of months. Gerrit Cole has been up and down; he followed two brilliant starts (15 innings, one run) with back-to-back blah starts (10 1/3 innings, 10 earned runs). Andrew Heaney, the rotation trade addition, has secondary numbers that are better than his less-than-stellar ERA (5.27), so there’s reason to hope that he’ll be a boost. And Nestor Cortes Jr. has been a nice surprise with an innings increase. But the bullpen has been iffy, at best, lately and the only reliever they added (Clay Holmes) had a 4.93 ERA with the Pirates.
10. Blue Jays
Record, place: 54-48, fourth in AL East, 8 back (3.5 back of second wild card)
Why they’re here: They’ve had issues with consistency, no doubt. But I like what this team has. The front office did a good job addressing the needs, with splashes big and small. Trading for Jose Berrios was expensive, prospect-wise, but adding an ace such as Berrios to the top of a rotation that already has Robbie Ray (3.04 ERA, 11.4 K/9), Hyun Jin Ryu (3.26) and rookie Alek Manoah (2.47 ERA in nine starts) gives Toronto the best rotation in the AL East. Jordan Romano is settling in nicely in the late innings, and the front office traded for bullpen veterans Brad Hand, Adam Cimber, Trevor Richards and Joakim Soria. The odd man out in the rotation (Steven Matz or Ross Stripling) drops down to fortify the bullpen.
And that lineup, led by MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr., is solid. Remember the four AL All-Star position players? And after missing most of the season on the IL, their big free-agent signee, George Springer, is healthy and raking; he has 11 homers, 21 RBIs and a 152 OPS+ in only 39 games. They’re only six games over .500 at the moment, but this is a team positioned for a stellar run the past two months of the season.
Record, place: 61-47, third in NL West, 6.5 back (second NL wild card)
Why they’re here: If the Padres were going to write a script of how they hoped the final days of July would unfold, the truth of what actually happened would not have made it past the first draft. They struck early and landed Adam Frazier, the infielder who led the NL in batting average, in a trade and they wound up with Daniel Hudson, the reliever who was lights-out for the Nationals in the 2019 postseason. But they didn’t get ace Max Scherzer. They didn’t get coveted slugger Joey Gallo. They didn’t get Jose Berrios, and they couldn’t move Eric Hosmer and his salary. It was, let’s say, less than ideal. And then, on the day after the trade deadline, they had to put Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack on the IL. They’re still a very good team and should be dangerous when October rolls around, but they’ve fallen a few steps behind the Giants and Dodgers in the NL West.
Record, place: 60-47, second in AL West, 4.5 back (second AL wild card)
Why they’re here: Oakland did an excellent job addressing needs at the trade deadline. Starling Marte is, still, a vastly underrated player who immediately upgrades the A’s outfield, both defensively and offensively. Veteran utility man Josh Harrison and veteran catcher Yan Gomes bring on-field impact and off-the-field leadership. Look at the first game with all three newbies in the lineup; Marte had three hits and three stolen bases, Gomes had a homer and three RBIs and Harrison had a hit and a few solid plays at second base in an 8-3 win. Oh, and Andrew Chafin — the lefty reliever acquired from the Cubs last week — chipped in with a scoreless eighth inning to lower his season ERA to 1.93. The rotation was already solid, and now the offense and bullpen have been strengthened. This is a good baseball team.
7. Red Sox
Record, place: 63-44, second in AL East, 1.5 back (first AL wild card)
Why they’re here: The club’s biggest trade acquisition is definitely intriguing. Kyle Schwarber can carry a team with his bat — he’s currently on the IL with a hamstring issue, but has 25 homers in 72 games this year — and he’s always seemed destined to play for an American League team. Not sure anyone saw him getting his first taste of the AL with a club featuring an All-Star designated hitter, though. So the question is this: Can he learn to play first base competently enough, quickly enough, that he can be a regular contributor to the Boston lineup as the Sox look to hold off the Rays, Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East? It is, of course, worth pointing out that he’s not the only addition expected relatively soon. Chris Sale, who finished in the top six of the AL Cy Young voting every year from 2012 to 2018, is looking good in his rehab from Tommy John surgery. He hasn’t thrown a big league pitch since 2019, but he would be a huge boost to a rotation that has been healthy (five guys with 20-plus starts) but not necessarily super effective (four of those five have ERAs north of 4.50).
Record, place: 63-43, first in NL Central
Why they’re here: When asked about the Brewers on radio shows the past month or two, I’ve said that they’re probably a better postseason team than a regular-season team, if that makes sense. The top three pitchers in the rotation — Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodford and Freddy Peralta — are not the type of starters you’d want to face in a short October series, especially when Josh Hader and Devin Williams are throwing important late innings. Their offense, though, hasn’t been up to that level, though they do have a few dangerous bats in the mix. A change of scenery has done wonders for Rowdy Tellez after his arrival in Milwaukee; he’s batting .349 with four homers, 12 RBIs and a 1.016 OPS in his new uniform. Eduardo Escobar was a nice pickup; he has 23 homers on the season and can play third or second, and even left field in a pinch.
Record, place: 64-42, first in AL East
Why they’re here: Even with one of the best records in the bigs, and despite being connected to pretty much every big name on the trade market — they were mentioned along with Max Scherzer, Kris Bryant and others, but didn’t make any huge acquisitions — the Rays entered August with fewer established MLB pieces than they had at the beginning of July. They added Nelson Cruz as their new DH, which was a big get, no doubt. But in the two weeks between the All-Star break and July 31, they traded closer Diego Castillo (14 saves, 2.72 ERA, 12.1 K/9) to the Mariners, they traded starter Rich Hill (3.87 ERA in 19 starts) to the Mets and found out that ace Tyler Glasnow (2.66 ERA in 14 starts) will be gone the rest of the season.
And yet, they’re the Rays. They trade away key pieces and they still win. They fail to land the big fish and they still win. They lose their best starting pitcher and they still win. They finished a three-game sweep of the Red Sox on Sunday to roll past Boston in the AL East and into a tie with the Astros for the AL’s best record.
Record, place: 64-42, first in AL West
Why they’re here: The Astros have scored, by far, the most runs in baseball this year, and their run differential of plus-151 is easily the best in the AL. Their rotation was — and still is — so solid that Cristian Javier lost his spot as a starter back in May despite owning a 3.42 ERA in 19 career starts in 2020-21, just because they had better options. They’ve owned the best record in the AL for much of the season, leading up to the trade deadline. The bullpen, though? Javier was good and closer Ryan Pressly has been great (18-for-19 in save opportunities, 2.05 ERA/2.09 FIP). But aside from those two? Not a lot of consistency or reliability.
So they added Kendall Graveman, who had a 0.82 ERA and 10 saves for the Mariners. And they traded for Yimi Garcia, who had 15 saves with the Marlins. And they picked up Phil Maton, who had 61 strikeouts in 41 innings for Cleveland. They added Rafael Montero in the Graveman deal, and though he’s had issues this season (7.27 ERA), his FIP is a respectable 4.03 and he’s saved 15 games the past two years so he does have experience getting outs in late innings. If he was the only reliever the Astros traded for, that might be an issue. But when he’s the fourth-best guy? That’s depth.
Record, place: 66-39, first in NL West
Why they’re here: Yes, they have the best record in baseball. No, it’s not intended as a slight to have the Giants No. 3 on this list. It really, truly isn’t. The Giants are legitimate World Series contenders, a team that nobody outside of San Francisco really believed in for the first few months, but kept winning ballgames anyway. Then, they added the best available position player in the final hour before the trade deadline arrived. Kris Bryant was a great match because of his versatility, the ability to play either corner infield or corner outfield position full time (he can play center field, too), and he doesn’t mind hopping around the field on a daily basis. That’s huge. He’s another reliable bat in a lineup full of reliable bats, and the rotation is still full of pitchers who specialize in churning out quality starts, with a bullpen stocked with reliable arms.
2. White Sox
Record, place: 62-44, first in AL Central
Why they’re here: This isn’t just about the additions of Craig Kimbrel — who saw the team with one of the best closers in baseball trading for one of the best closers in baseball? — and second baseman Cesar Hernandez. It’s mostly because their rotation, led by Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodon and Lucas Giolito, is still pretty great, and two of their biggest bats are on the verge of getting back to the business of making an impact. Eloy Jimenez, who hit 45 home runs in 177 games in 2019-20, has only played three games this year, and should be good to go after dealing with a spot of groin tightness. Luis Robert, who finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting last year and was batting .316 with a 126 OPS+ in 25 games, is on his rehab assignment at Triple-A and should be back shortly. Add those guys to a lineup that was already one of the best in baseball, with that rotation and that silly/stupid bullpen? That’s why they’re No. 2 over all and our top AL squad.
Record, place: 64-43, second in NL West, 3 back (first NL wild card)
Why they’re here: No, the Dodgers do not have the best record in baseball, but the fact that they’re even close speaks to the depth of this team, considering all the injuries they’ve dealt with this season. And now, things are finally starting to come together, giving us a glimpse of what the rotation and lineup should look like the rest of the regular season and into October. Not only did they add Max Scherzer and Trea Turner in a massive deal with the Nationals, but they got Corey Seager back from the IL over the weekend, too. And Mookie Betts also returned from the IL, though he wasn’t out nearly as long as Seager, who’s only played 39 games all season. If they’re healthy, they are the best team in baseball and the World Series favorites. They’re not unbeatable, but they’re the best.