2023 MLB season: Final-week playoff races, MVP battle, more


With one week left to go in the 2023 regular season, there are a number of storylines to watch, as quite a few teams still have something to play for.

Will the Baltimore Orioles or Tampa Bay Rays win the American League East? Which of the four teams battling for the final two National League wild-card spots will win out? Are there any players to pay special attention to before the postseason?

The season ends Oct. 1, with the postseason to begin two days later. What should you be watching? We asked ESPN MLB experts what they're following most closely over the final week of the season. Let's get to it.

AL playoff races

There's a four-team scrum for three playoff spots in the AL -- two wild-card slots and the AL West title -- and, almost miraculously, they're all pretty good teams. It's as close to an old-fashioned pennant race as we can get in the "generous" contemporary format.

Among the Toronto Blue Jays, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers or Seattle Mariners, one will be starting the offseason in a week. It's a battle that, despite the erratic new scheduling formula, manages to feature two head-to-head clashes over the final week (Rangers-Mariners and Astros-Mariners). Plus, the Blue Jays finish the season with the New York Yankees (who are battling to avoid a losing season) and Rays (who are in a dogfight for the AL East title and top AL seed), while the Astros finish up at the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are also fighting for their postseason lives.

All of this would be enough as is, but what elevates the drama is the precarious place of the Astros, who would be on cruise control if not for a sudden inability to beat the AL's worst teams. If Houston's run of six straight ALCS appearances ends in a week because of that​, it will be one of the defining stories of the season.

And if Houston does end up as the odd team out, the AL playoff bracket would consist entirely of clubs with historical chips on their shoulders: the Blue Jays (no titles in 30 years), Orioles (no titles in 40 years), Rays (no titles ever), Rangers (also no titles), Minnesota Twins (18-game playoff losing streak) and Mariners (last extant franchise to never win a pennant). It's going to be a fun week. -- Bradford Doolittle

NL wild card

Note to teams playing an "easy" final week schedule: Beware.

Just ask the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs how they feel about that, after the Pittsburgh Pirates took a series from them both over the past several days. It's happened all over baseball in September, meaning the Miami Marlins' final six games against the New York Mets and Pirates won't be a cakewalk, not with all six coming on the road.

The Cubs also have six road games to close their season, but their challenge is a different one, as they play two division leaders in the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers. Both have nothing to play for in the standings. Does that make them vulnerable, or does being an ultratalented team who can play loose make them more dangerous? Meanwhile, Arizona has been impacted by the weather on the East Coast, meaning it'll play eight straight days to finish the season while the other wild-card contenders get a day off in between series. As for the Reds, they might be cooked after blowing a big lead to the Pirates on Saturday.

It could very well mean Arizona, Chicago and Miami are playing for the final two wild-card spots, with Philadelphia in control of the No. 4 seed. With the Marlins sporting a 35-40 record on the road this season -- and sitting outside the final wild-card spot as the week begins -- they'll be the odd man out in the NL wild-card race. -- Jesse Rogers

Yankees' historic streak in jeopardy

It's the greatest streak in modern sports: 30 consecutive winning seasons. The Yankees last finished under .500 in 1992 when Danny Tartabull led the team in home runs, Melido Perez led in wins and the team used its first-round draft pick on a high school shortstop from Michigan named Derek Jeter. Yes, the Yankees have always had the money to invest in large payrolls, but as we've seen this year with the New York Mets and San Diego Padres, that doesn't ensure anything. And Jeter? That was the last time the Yankees picked in the top 10 of the draft -- in a sport where even the first pick isn't always a sure thing.

The streak appeared over in late August when the Yankees were 62-68 and had lost 12 of 14 games. They couldn't hit, the rotation was ravaged by injuries and they had become irrelevant in the playoff race. They somehow rebounded, including a crucial sweep of the Astros in early September, and they now head into the final week one game over .500.

"I acknowledge the streak as impressive, especially when you frame it in American sports history and all that," manager Aaron Boone said recently. "It is remarkable, but we go into certainly every season since I've been here with loftier goals than that."

Yes, a mere winning season is far from what the Yankees -- and their fans -- desired. As painful as it's been to not play in a World Series since 2009, Yankees fans are dreading something they deem even worse: being a losing team. -- David Schoenfield

Saying goodbye to legends

The last days of this season will be about goodbyes for some big names, folks who have served the game well over the years. Miguel Cabrera has been honored throughout baseball in his last season in the big leagues. This week, he'll hear cheers -- perhaps responding with a final home run, a final hit among his 3,000-plus, a final curtain call. Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch told ESPN that he intends to play Cabrera in each of the Tigers' last three home games, so that Cabrera has a chance to get "the ovation that he deserves."

Terry Francona has tried to downplay the end of a managerial career that will eventually be capped by a speech in Cooperstown. The Cleveland Guardians will honor him before his final home game Wednesday, and with a "Tito" T-shirt giveaway. Francona's final game, coincidentally, will be in Detroit, where he'll share the stage with Cabrera.

It's unclear whether Brandon Crawford will play in 2024, but he'll always be remembered by the San Francisco Giants for his role in their championships. Crawford will be eligible to come off the injured list the last day of the regular season, allowing manager Gabe Kapler the opportunity to perhaps give Giants fans one last moment with him on the field. Regardless, with the Giants playing their last week of the regular season at home, you'd assume the Oracle Park crowd will summon him from the dugout at some point as they have in the past with Buster Posey and Hunter Pence.

Zack Greinke will have a chance to say goodbye next weekend, when the Royals host the Yankees -- and Greinke is currently in line to start that last game. Given his personality, you'd expect that Greinke's goodbye will be a little different than anybody else's. Joey Votto hasn't announced whether he's going to retire, but with his contract expiring, it's possible that the career of the 2010 MVP is in its final days, too. -- Buster Olney

NL MVP race

There is no better story, no gnarlier debate, than Ronald Acuna Jr. vs. Mookie Betts for the NL Most Valuable Player Award.

Their OPS+ is identical at 167. Acuña has one more home run than Betts, who has four more RBIs. It's true: Acuña is far ahead in runs (143-125) and stolen bases (68-13). But the biggest number in Acuña's favor -- bigger than the first 40/60 (and probably 40/70) season in MLB history -- should be his total base lead: 372-333. The best argument for Acuña: In a race where their slash lines are practically identical, he just did it more: eight more games, 50 more plate appearances and almost 40 more total bases. It's not based on achievements we think are cool because of our obsession with round numbers. It's the embodiment of Acuña's superiority.

The case for Betts isn't nearly as in your face as the ceaseless recitation of "40/70." Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, the two versions of Wins Above Replacement we accept as meaningful, agree: By a thin margin, Betts is having the better season. Defensive metrics do not like Acuña's glove in right field, while Betts' has been solid and makes up for the offensive deficiency. Beyond WAR, the argument for Betts is clear: His ability to play second base, too, allowed the Los Angeles Dodgers to stack their outfield with left-handed hitters against right-handed pitchers, bringing tangible, direct benefit to the team via a very rare skill. That is the definition of valuable, is it not?

Regardless of who's ahead now, the last week can win and lose races. It's a ridiculous conceit. One week out of 24 is more important because of when it happens to fall on the calendar? Of course not -- especially with two teams that have wrapped up their divisions. But it does come when voters are looking for every little difference. Because in reality, there are so few. -- Jeff Passan

Recent wave of top prospect promotions

Rays third baseman Junior Caminero is my most anticipated player of this group of recently called-up top prospects that I'm watching, and he's also the most recently promoted. I mentioned in my prospect rankings from last month that he's similar to an NFL pass rusher, with explosive bat speed and 40-homer upside but also the baseball skills to make enough contact and play third base. He just needs to swing at the right pitches.

Beyond Caminero, some other top-100 types who are somewhat fresh in the big leagues (likely with an eye toward a 2024 ROY campaign) with clear everyday roles include Texas Rangers CF Evan Carter (14th on my most recent ranking), St. Louis Cardinals SS Masyn Winn (16th), San Francisco Giants SS Marco Luciano (29th), San Francisco Giants LHP Kyle Harrison (36th), Cincinnati Reds SS Noelvi Marte (37th) and Baltimore Orioles RF Heston Kjerstad (49th). In the 51st to 80th tier that just missed the top 50 includes New York Mets SS Ronny Mauricio, Cincinnati Reds RHP Connor Phillips and Oakland Athletics RHP Mason Miller.

Lastly, keep an eye on Atlanta Braves RHP Hurston Waldrep and Toronto Blue Jays LHP Ricky Tiedemann as potential late season or playoff call-ups for specific relief roles. His season will likely end on Sunday, but my top 2023 draft prospect, Texas Rangers LF Wyatt Langford, has blitzed to Triple-A in his pro debut with eye-popping numbers, especially for being young for each level: 194 PA, .360/.480/.677, 29 XBH, 10 HR, 36 BB, 34 K, 12/15 SB. -- Kiley McDaniel

Dodgers' pursuit of 100 wins

It might not ultimately impact the playoff field, but it would be an incredible achievement -- both historically and within the context of their season. If the Dodgers can win four games over this last week, they'll tie a major league record with their third consecutive 100-win campaign (also done by the 2017-2019 Astros, 2002-2004 Yankees, 1997-1999 Braves, 1969-1971 Orioles, 1942-1944 Cardinals and 1929-1931 A's, according to ESPN Stats & Information).

If you exclude the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, it's an unprecedented four straight. If you include the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season -- when they rode a 116-win pace through the summer, then won the World Series in a bubble -- it's five straight. And if you consider that: (1) their rotation has been decimated like no team other than the Rays, (2) their bullpen held the fifth-worst ERA in the majors by the end of June and (3) their lineup heading into the season was largely composed of journeyman veterans and unproven young players, it's practically unbelievable.

You can knock the Dodgers' constant failures in October all you want, and that's totally fair. But the substantive sample of the regular season is the true measure of a team's ability, and no team -- ever, perhaps -- does it like these Dodgers. -- Alden Gonzalez