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The 30, Week 5: Braves Are Bourn Again

Atlanta is trying to claw its way up the standings, while the Rangers' offense keep everyone else at bay

The problem with ranking every team 1 to 30 is one of degree. As we near the quarter-pole, both leagues look top-heavy. Only six American League teams own a positive run differential, and five of them reside in the AL East (none in the AL Central). The National League features a handful of legitimate pennant contenders, followed by a big batch of suspect-to-awful teams. This week’s rankings might tell us more if we could jump from, say, nine to 12, or 21 to 26.

Until the bosses allow Fibonacci-style rankings, we’ll search for clarity with what we have. It’s Week 6 of The 30.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

1. Texas Rangers, 23-12 (207 RS, 127 RA) (last week: 1)

In four of Jered Weaver’s first seven starts heading into this season, he allowed zero runs, including a no-hitter against the Twins. He gave up more than three runs in a game just once. He came into Sunday night’s start against the Rangers with a 1.60 ERA.

He exited Sunday’s start with a 2.83 ERA, having been blasted for eight runs and 10 hits in 3⅓ innings by the juggernaut that is the Rangers offense. And it really wasn’t a huge surprise. Texas leads the majors in runs scored, averaging half a run more per game than the next-best offensive team. Mike Napoli’s talents are being wasted batting eighth, but the fact that a .255/.347/.509 catcher is hitting eighth should scare the bejeezus out of everyone else. No. 2 hitter Elvis Andrus, the guy we lobbied to drop in the order due to his supposedly weak bat, has surged to .328/.404/.431 from .256/.340/.354 in just 12 games.

Of course, those two and the rest of the Rangers lineup have nothing on Josh Hamilton. It doesn’t seem fair to name Hamilton AL Player of the Week for his accomplishments over the past seven days, because he did enough to dominate a whole damn month: 14-for-30, 10 runs scored, 18 driven in, nine home runs, and a 1.963 OPS. On Tuesday against the Orioles, Hamilton blasted four homers and a double, tying the all-time AL record with 18 total bases in a game and becoming just the 16th player ever to hit four homers in a game (by comparison, there have been 21 perfect games thrown by pitchers). The video from that game resembles highlights from that weekend you came home from college and challenged your 3-year-old cousin to a Baseball Stars tournament, except more one-sided. It’s glaringly obvious that Hamilton’s pace isn’t remotely sustainable, not after also striking out 11 times last week but also going 14-for-19 on at-bats in which he made contact. Still, even after Hamilton and the Rangers inevitably cool their furious hitting pace, they’ll have a soft schedule on their side: Texas’s next six opponents are the Royals, A’s, Astros, Mariners, Jays, and Mariners again. Other than those three games against Toronto, they don’t see an AL East team again until after the All-Star break. The Rangers’ 2-4 record the week before last seems like a distant memory.

Here’s a visual representation of every other team’s chances of unseating Texas from the top spot anytime in the next few weeks. Joe Nathan represents the Rangers.

2. Atlanta Braves, 22-13 (189 RS, 155 RA) (last week: 4)

March into St. Louis, sweep the talented Cardinals, and this is your reward. After starting the season 0-4, the Braves have won 22 of their past 31 games, leading the league in runs scored and getting enough pitching to make it stand up. Michael Bourn has been one of the NL’s five most valuable position players and is making last year’s mid-season trade look like a steal, doubly so given Bourn replaced the execrable Nate McLouth as the team’s center fielder. The team’s pitching star has been 25-year-old right-hander Brandon Beachy. One of the game’s best underdog stories, Beachy wasn’t selected in the 2008 draft, instead landing with Atlanta as an undrafted free agent out of Indiana Wesleyan University. He put up big minor league numbers but mostly failed to wow scouts, who looked at Beachy’s modest pedigree and lack of overwhelming stuff and wondered how he’d be able to survive, much less thrive, in the big leagues. But thrive he has, ranking fourth in the majors with a 1.60 ERA through seven starts this year after impressing in his 2011 rookie season.

Hitching your World Series hopes to a slap-hitting (albeit speedy, defensively sound) outfielder like Bourn and a surprise performer like Beachy (.219 batting average on balls in play, just 6.6 strikeouts per 9 innings after 10.7 K/9 IP last season, xFIP more than two runs higher than his ERA) might seem a risky proposition. But few teams can match the Braves’ balance, with everyone from post-hype phenom Jason Heyward to the ageless Chipper Jones to the killer bullpen combination of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters making big contributions. Subtract Matt Kemp from the Dodgers and you have a team that might struggle to generate offense, or wins. Subtract any one player from the Braves and they’d likely remain in good shape.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers, 23-11 (151 RS, 117 RA) (last week: 6)

Speaking of potentially subtracting Matt Kemp from the Dodgers …

“I’m definitely not going on the DL,” said L.A.’s mashing star. “This team needs me.”

He says that, but Kemp’s scheduled Monday MRI has Dodgers fans holding their breath. If Kemp’s injury proves to be nothing serious, Chris Capuano, A.J. and Mark Ellis, Andre Ethier, Clayton Kershaw, and newly minted closer Kenley Jansen get to go on as a surprisingly effective supporting cast. But if his hamstring injury ends up earning him an extended DL stint, suddenly a lot of other Dodgers story lines look much smaller, from Capuano’s just-ended shutout streak of 24⅔ innings to A.J. Ellis emerging as this year’s most unlikely hitting star to Don Mattingly managing like it’s 1906. The Dodgers own the best record in baseball and are coming off a strong 5-1 week, hence their lofty place in the rankings. Where they go from here might rest on what a lab technician holds up to the light later today.

4. St. Louis Cardinals, 20-14 (187 RS, 122 RA) (last week: 5)

Remember how pitching coach Dave Duncan got all the credit in the world for goosing the careers of uninspiring pitchers like Kyle Lohse, greatly enhancing the Cardinals’ annual playoff hopes? At what point do we extend that credit to GM John Mozeliak and his staff for repeatedly hitting the jackpot on older, seemingly withering hitters? Last year’s winning ticket was Lance Berkman, who put up the worst numbers of his career dating back to his first cup of coffee, then swatted 31 homers and hiked his OPS 178 points on a dirt-cheap, one-year deal at age 35. This year’s twin assassins have been 34-year-old Rafael Furcal (.383/.447/.519 in year one of a two-year, $14 million contract) and 35-year-old Carlos Beltran (.298/.406/.653 and a league-leading 12 homers in year one of a two-year, $26 million contract). Adam Wainwright continues to pitch horribly (14 base runners in 4⅔ on Saturday), and it continues to not matter for a loaded Cardinals team playing in a terrible division — one impressive series sweep by the Braves aside.

5. Baltimore Orioles, 22-13 (163 RS, 148 RA) (last week: 3)

A 3-4 week against the Rangers and Rays certainly isn’t anything to mourn. And Baltimore came within one Sean Rodriguez dive of sweeping a very good Tampa Bay club. But the O’s drop back a bit this week thanks to other teams picking up the pace and Baltimore’s depth getting tested with Nolan Reimold (an actual loss after starting the year at .313/.333/.627) and Mark Reynolds (very possibly addition by subtraction) hitting the DL. Twenty-two-year-old Xavier Avery is expected to start in Reimold’s stead in left after posting an 842 OPS in 128 Triple-A at-bats this year. A prolific base stealer (36 swipes last year, eight without being caught this year), Avery could give the Orioles a dimension they lack, too: The team is dead last in the majors in steals.

6. New York Yankees, 19-15 (166 RS, 149 RA) (last week: 9)

A running theme in this column has been teams’ insistence on overrating the closer position — overpaying those who’ve racked up saves in the past over much cheaper pitchers with better overall skills, managers catering to the save rule and losing games as a result, you name it. One closer has long been regarded as the exception to the rule, the guy for whom you pay a premium, whose playoff performances outshine any other pitcher’s and whose mystique rivals that of future inner-circle Hall of Famer Derek Jeter’s: Mariano Rivera. When Rivera suffered a season-ending ACL injury and David Robertson blew his second post-Rivera injury save chance by getting torched for four runs in the ninth by the Rays, the supposed impact of the closer effect got shouted from various South Bronx rooftops. While it’s true that Rivera’s loss will hurt the Yankees, the main effect might be a loss of middle-relief depth, with Robertson and Rafael Soriano sliding to later-inning duties. That’s an area the Yankees can easily address in a deadline deal, given the relative low cost of non-closing relievers in trade. Do that, and the Bombers could feel even less than the relatively modest two-to-three-win setback that losing even an elite closer typically entails.

Want to worry about something on this very good Yankees team (other than whether or not Andy Pettitte can improve on a fairly lousy debut against a weak Mariners team)? Make it Mark Teixeira. A notorious slow starter, Teixeira has topped his own ugly early precedents, hitting .223/.275/.369. Trailing 4-2 with two outs and the bases loaded Sunday, Teixeira whiffed on an ankle-high breaking ball from Seattle lefty Charlie Furbush. A chest specialist at Columbia Presbyterian diagnosed the Yankees’ first baseman with “severely inflamed bronchial airways” that have impacted his breathing. Raul Ibanez slugging .568 has helped the Yanks withstand the loss of Brett Gardner for longer than expected, and top pitching prospect Manny Banuelos has struck out 15 batters and walked none in his first 14⅔ innings since coming off the disabled list. But Teixeira’s got four years and $90 million left on his gigantic contract, not counting the $22.5 million he’s owed for the rest of this season. Whether Teixeira’s woes are due to breathing issues, random variance, or whatever the hell’s going on here, the Yankees could use a non-giant sucking vortex in the middle of their lineup.

7. Tampa Bay Rays, 21-14 (158 RS, 149 RA) (last week: 2)

Losing Evan Longoria for six to eight weeks was bad. Losing Desmond Jennings to a knee injury that isn’t healing as expected and could conceivably land him on the DL sometime soon leaves the Rays with a badly undermanned lineup, especially against left-handed pitching. The Rays do get six of their next seven games against right-handed starters, where sluggers like Matt Joyce and Carlos Pena are more likely to contribute. But they’ll need to get over other obstacles against the Jays, Red Sox, and a very good Braves team, starting with the team’s weak .226 batting average with runners in scoring position (which might be due to bad luck more than anything), as well as Matt Moore’s hideous start to the season (5.1 walks per 9 innings, 4.98 FIP), which the Rays can only hope is also a function of random variance and not something more alarming.

Whatever happens this week, Sunday’s game will be must-see TV, with injured, stats-savvy outfielder Sam Fuld guesting on a special Rays sabermetrics broadcast.

8. Washington Nationals, 21-13 (121 RS, 106 RA) (last week: 7)

How many more blows can the Nationals lineup withstand before the team starts losing? The Nats got Ryan Zimmerman and hot-hitting Adam LaRoche back, but lost starting catcher Wilson Ramos for the year with a torn ACL. With Jayson Werth and Mike Morse also on the shelf and the offense not particularly strong in the first place, it’s no surprise that Washington ranks third-to-last in the NL in runs scored. The starting pitching remains otherworldly: Gio Gonzalez is loving the NL life, with 50 strikeouts and no homers allowed in 41⅔ innings; Stephen Strasburg owns a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio; and only one member of the starting rotation (Edwin Jackson, with a K/BB rate of nearly 4-to-1 in his own right) owns an ERA over 2.14. Even with all that pitching, the Nats have been caught and passed by the Braves. Hence the trade interest in the Angels’ Peter Bourjos. Danny Espinosa moving closer to the 20-home run guy he was last year and not this season’s .215/.304/.322 disaster would surely help.

9. Toronto Blue Jays, 19-16 (163 RS, 141 RA) (last week: 8)

Alex Anthopoulos admitted he wasn’t sure the team would get anything out of newly signed DH Vladimir Guerrero at this late point in his career. Still, the die-hard Montreal Expos fan and Expos employee turned Jays GM can dream on something approaching the Vlad of old, while hopefully lighting a fire under Adam Lind and his buck-eighty-nine average. The good news: Jose Bautista has finally started hitting, launching three homers between Toronto’s Friday and Saturday games. As much as the Jays have reaped contributions from multiple sources, a return to 40-homer form for Bautista would change the team’s fortunes dramatically. The prospect of that happening has Eric Thames celebrating nice little defensive plays as if he just captained the Maple Leafs to the Cup.1

10. Miami Marlins, 18-16 (128 RS, 128 RA) (last week: 15)

Up 14 spots in just two weeks, the Marlins are the hottest team in baseball, with 10 wins in their past 12 games. After going nearly as long as Albert Pujols without hitting a home run, Giancarlo Stanton now has seven bombs (and four doubles) in the past two weeks — the latest a walk-off grand slam Sunday that just missed the life aquatic animatron in left-center. Jose Reyes is improving at a slower rate, but he’s worked his way up to .260/.344/.359 after an abysmal start. And get this: After nearly pitching and bitching his way out of baseball while with the Cubs, Carlos Zambrano fired seven more quality innings on Sunday, lowering his ERA to 1.88 and his FIP to 3.39. Feels like more is on the way, too: Heath Bell’s yielded nearly as many runs in six weeks (15) as he did in the entire 2010 season (17); Hanley Ramirez is threatening the Mendoza line after a hot start; and Gaby Sanchez is hitting below .200 and playing below replacement level. Bell can always be re-demoted after losing his job for about 10 seconds last week, and Ramirez and Sanchez almost have to improve, if only by default.

11. Detroit Tigers, 17-17 (142 RS, 148 RA) (last week: 11)

The return of Doug Fister nudges the Tigers past Cleveland for the title of best team in a terrible division. Fister has ceded just one run over 13 innings in his first two starts since coming off the DL. Suddenly the Tigers rotation looks like it can go four deep with quality starters: Verlander and Fister atop the rotation, Drew Smyly and his AL-leading 1.59 ERA (!), and Max Scherzer, who got through his early-season blues quicker than usual this year and now has 18 strikeouts, two walks, and three runs allowed on his ledger over his past 13⅓ innings. Miguel Cabrera’s slugging below .500 and Prince Fielder is hitting a modest .266/.340/.406; once they get going, the Tigers should have the hitting to match their quality starting pitching (not a concern one imagined six weeks ago). Through 34 games last year, the Tigers owned an even worse record at 16-18, a full seven games behind the Indians. The smart money’s on Detroit catching and passing the Indians again, likely much quicker this time.

12. Cincinnati Reds, 17-16 (129 RS, 125 RA) (last week: 12)

Welcome back, Joey Votto! The Canadian first baseman wasn’t struggling as badly as Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista, Giancarlo Stanton, and other sluggers had to start the year, but he’d still shown little power, hitting just two homers as he closed in on mid-May. Votto surpassed that total in a single afternoon Sunday, smoking three homers that included a walk-off grand slam to match Stanton’s in Miami. We should’ve expected Votto to bounce back, but how about Bronson Arroyo rebounding from one of the worst starters in baseball last year to leading the majors by a wide margin in strikeout-to-walk ratio this year at 6.6-to-1? They’ll need that kind of production given the two ongoing dead spots in the order: Scott Rolen struggled mightily at third before landing on the DL, and he’ll now be replaced by the immortal combination of Mike Costanzo and Todd Frazier. Meanwhile, no NL team has gotten less out of its left fielders than the Reds have from Chris Heisey and Ryan Ludwick.

Finally, time for our #FreeAroldis weekly update: 17⅔ innings, six hits, four walks, 31 strikeouts, zero runs, and one apparent, ongoing vendetta.

13. Cleveland Indians, 18-16 (147 RS, 163 RA) (last week: 10)

After sweeping a doubleheader against the White Sox to start the week, the Indians have run into their worst stretch of the season: five losses in six games, including three in a row, with 39 runs allowed over those six contests. Small sample size caveat applies, but the Indians have been the fourth-worst fielding team in baseball per UZR so far this year. Considering they ranked third-worst in MLB last year, a repeat performance wouldn’t be surprising, nor welcome. Meanwhile, Casey Kotchman’s winning .186/.270/.275 and Johnny Damon is at .159/.196/.227 as he tries to tack on enough stats to become one of the least-deserving Hall of Fame inductees of all time. Let’s hope the Rays gave out receipts when they unloaded those two.

14. San Francisco Giants, 17-17 (126 RS, 131 RA) (last week: 13)

Facing the Dodgers on the night of the Great Don Mattingly Bunt-A-Thon, Giants manager Bruce Bochy made a puzzling move of his own at precisely the wrong time, letting a less-than-dominant Ryan Vogelsong lead off the eighth inning of a one-run game. Vogelsong predictably struck out, short-circuiting a potential rally given Angel Pagan singled right after him. The right-hander then allowed a walk and a bunt single to start the bottom of the eighth, retiring his first batter of the inning thanks only to the Dodgers’ generous offer to piss away an out via sacrifice bunt. It all worked out in the end for the Giants: Vogelsong would get lifted after the most predictable Matt Kemp intentional walk of all time, followed by lefty-killer Javier Lopez putting down the threat by inducing an Andre Ethier double play, and the Giants holding on for a 2-1 win.

Still, Bochy needs to be aware that even with Brian Wilson lost for the season and Guillermo Mota suspended for 100 games, the Giants have enough bullpen depth to get by. What they don’t have is a good offense: After scoring just 18 runs in six games last week, the Giants have now scored fewer runs than every NL team save the lowly Padres. With Pablo Sandoval on the DL, things don’t figure to improve in the near future. Teams obsess over the idea of manufacturing runs, a term that has become shorthand for smallball tactics such as laying down copious sacrifice bunts. But you can manufacture runs in other ways, such as getting the best hitters possible to the plate in as many situations as possible. Bochy has a chance to prove he can do just that over the next few weeks.

15. New York Mets, 19-15 (146 RS, 163 RA) (last week: 20)

Lots of angry e-mails and tweets last week from Mets fans after a 15-13 record earned just a no. 20 ranking. Those miffed missives increased in volume after the Mets swept the Phillies in convincing fashion, outscoring them 22-12, on the road no less. Then Frank Francisco happened. The Marlins strafed the Mets closer twice in three days, turning another potential sweep into a losing series in Miami. In some ways, closer problems are among the easiest for a team to fix. If you’ve got a deep bullpen, shuffling a good reliever into higher-leverage work and letting your deposed closer pitch in lower-pressure situations can be a free, relatively easy way to add a win or two — something you can’t do if, say, your cleanup hitter breaks his leg. The question is whether the Mets actually have that depth. Hard-throwing righty Bobby Parnell has struck out more than five batters for every one walk allowed and Tim Byrdak has been largely effective as a lefty one-out guy. But Jon Rauch doesn’t miss enough bats and Ramon Ramirez walks too many batters to be fully trusted in big spots. If the Mets do end up lingering longer than expected as surprise contenders, snagging a quality reliever on the cheap might make sense.

Or they could just wait for David Wright (.400/.489/.581) to bang out three hits every night. Either way.

16. Oakland A’s, 18-17 (127 RS, 138 RA) (last week: 18)

Don’t bother trying to figure out if Brandon Inge could hit .197/.265/.283 in 300-plus times up last year, manage just two hits in 20 plate appearances this season, sign with a terrible-offense team playing in a terrible offensive park, then crush four homers and knock in 16 runs in a five-game span. You can’t explain Inge’s Bingeit just happened. In Josh Reddick’s case, there’s at least some reasonable hope for continued results: The 25-year-old right fielder’s 21 homers between Pawtucket and Boston last year make you believe that his recent spurt of four homers in six games might not have been a fluke. With Yoenis Cespedes hitting the DL, such heroics are sorely needed, flukes or not.

17. Los Angeles Angels, 15-20 (130 RS, 143 RA) (last week: 19)

On May 3, the Angels made a seemingly minor trade, dealing two prospects to the Padres for right-handed reliever Ernesto Frieri. San Diego pitchers can be a dicey proposition given the huge benefit they derive from playing at Petco Park. Frieri had posted big numbers himself, so you had to wonder how he’d fare in the tougher league, and a tougher park. So far, so good: 4⅓ innings pitched, nine strikeouts, three base runners, no runs. You’d like to see Frieri rein in his walks a bit. But overall, he’s been a welcome addition to a bullpen that sorely needed a reliable power arm.

Maybe Angels GM Jerry Dipoto should quit while he’s ahead. If the rumors are to be believed, the Angels are shopping center fielder Peter Bourjos. It’s been an ugly offensive season to be sure, with Bourjos hitting a paltry .196/.258/.286. With star prospect Mike Trout earning a promotion to the majors, there didn’t figure to be space for everyone to play, and Bourjos’s struggles might’ve branded him as a logical player to bench. That is, if the Angels didn’t have Vernon Wells on the roster. Last season, Wells posted a .248 on-base percentage, one of the lowest put up by an everyday major league outfielder in a century; despite hitting 25 homers, Wells finished barely above replacement level for the year. Wells is on a similar home run pace this year, but actually sits slightly below replacement level, pairing a brutal .258 OBP with subpar defense. Wells is 33, Bourjos is 25. In a vacuum, this would be a painfully easy decision. Of course, the biggest pain-inducing factor here is Wells’s abominable contract: two more years, plus the rest of this year, at $21 million per season. The most logical conclusion is that the Angels won’t accept Wells’s deal as a sunk cost and simply cut bait on one of baseball’s worst regulars, clearing the way for a younger, potentially much better player to step in.

Of course, that might also be giving Dipoto too little credit. He inherited a bunch of messes left behind by his predecessors (starting with the Wells deal) and has been aggressive in making moves since, from the huge contracts for Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson in the offseason to smaller transactions like the Frieri pickup. Meanwhile, Bourjos may well have great potential at age 25, blessed with great speed, amazing range afield, and surprising pop, if his 2011 campaign was any indication. But Bourjos also strikes out way too much for a player whose game is largely built on speed (his K rate has climbed from 20.7 percent in his rookie year to 22.5 percent last season to 26.2 percent this year) and who rarely walks. Though his defense and speed alone could make him a league-average center fielder, it’s possible there’s a bidder out there who sees Bourjos as a potential star and is ready to pay up to get him. With the Angels lacking a long-term solution at catcher and sans Chris Iannetta for six to eight weeks, there’s a pressing need at that position, to name just one. No one’s buying Vernon Wells and his apocalyptic contract. Many teams figure to be interested in Peter Bourjos. Nothing wrong with testing the waters. Not when the Angels have won eight of their past 13 games, threatening to jump back into the race.

18. Boston Red Sox, 15-19 (188 RS, 186 RA) (last week: 22)

Some quick Josh Beckett thoughts:

• The Sox appear to be the ones who scratched a sore but hardly infirm Beckett from that Saturday start, as a way to get Aaron Cook a spot start and avoid losing him to another team.

• Many pitchers, including future Hall of Famers like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, have played golf between starts for years. Beckett can and should do what he likes between starts so long as those activities don’t harm his performance, and there’s no evidence to suggest that a sore lat muscle near the shoulder would get aggravated swinging a golf club (file this under “I’m not a doctor or physical therapist, and neither is virtually everyone wanting to hang Beckett for golfing”). But, the Sox could have surely used him when their May 6 game went deep into extra innings and ended with Darnell McDonald losing the game from the mound — assuming Beckett’s injury was not, in fact, serious.

• If Beckett shut out Cleveland Thursday, this all would’ve been chalked up as a silly moment and nothing more.

• Unfortunately, Beckett got shelled, and as Dave Cameron notes, his missing fastball, not fried chicken, beer, golf, or a seemingly standoffish attitude, is the biggest culprit.

Best Josh Beckett tweet ever.

Finally, there’s the ongoing debate of Will Middlebrooks vs. Kevin Youkilis. Middlebrooks made a huge impression almost right away, hitting a combined three homers and knocking in nine runs in the third and fourth games of his major league career. Meanwhile, Youkilis has looked worn down and perpetually injured for the better part of a calendar year now, leading many to wonder if or when he’ll return to Boston’s lineup at full strength. There are still a lot of ifs and buts in the mix, though. Middlebrooks has cooled off a bit after a torrid start. And Youkilis isn’t due back for at least another week, maybe a fair bit more. Sending Middlebrooks back down, alternating the two players and a couple others across multiple positions, making a trade for one or the other depending on demand and where the Sox sit in the standings … all these and other options are available. It’s too soon, too presumptuous to try to pick one. Hell, Middlebrooks struck out more than once every four at-bats at Double-A Portland last year; maybe he just whiffs his way back out of the lineup.

19. Arizona Diamondbacks, 15-20 (142 RS, 156 RA) (last week: 14)

Ugly 1-5 week for the Snakes, who were outscored 35-19 by the Cards and Giants. Stephen Drew’s season-long DL stint, Chris Young’s own continued absence, and Justin Upton’s bad thumb/prolonged slump have torpedoed what figured to be a strong offense, and major home run problems for closer J.J. Putz and would-be co-ace Daniel Hudson (now also DL’d) have turned one-fifth of the roster from expected strengths into liabilities. Ryan Roberts struggled so badly in April (after a breakout 2011) that he got replaced by minor league lifer Cody Ransom, who actually made an impact, then quickly lost the job back to Roberts. The one saving grace has been the team’s defense, outstanding last year, and among baseball’s best so far this season, too. Of course when you use a legendary ringer as a fourth outfielder, that tends to help.

20. Philadelphia Phillies, 16-19 (133 RS, 138 RA) (last week: 16)

From the day he took over as Phillies GM, Ruben Amaro Jr. has adopted an extreme “win now” approach, spending big money to lock up players like Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Ryan Howard, and making blockbuster prospect-for-established-player deals to reel in talent like Hunter Pence, propping open Philly’s window for contention a little longer. But Amaro reportedly ripped his team last week, leaving open the possibility he could blow things up and trade veterans to replenish the now-thin farm system. Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino are the two names that immediately spring to mind, given their pending free agency status at year’s end.

But what about Carlos Ruiz? The 33-year-old late-blooming catcher is having a career year and a half, ripping the ball at a .330/.369/.580 clip. Ruiz has the rest of this year’s $3.7 million salary but a club option at $5 million left before free agency, making him a great buy for any number of catcher-needy teams, even assuming some inevitable regression in his stat line. It’s still way too early to go from heated rhetoric to actual trades — not when your team is coming off a 102-win season, still owns one of, if not the best, starting rotations in the game, has two big bats in Howard and Chase Utley on the mend, and plays in a weak National League with two wild-card slots up for grabs even if they can’t catch up in the East. But Ruiz has serious sell-high potential, his beloved Choochness notwithstanding. That’s a move worth considering no matter where the Phils go from here.

21. Chicago White Sox, 16-19 (135 RS, 136 RA) (last week: 17)

How long can the White Sox stick with Brent Morel? The third baseman was having an impossibly bad season last year before catching fire in September. Citing that big September spike and some history of other players following a similar pattern then breaking out the next season, Beyond the Box Score speculated that Morel could become “The Next Next Jose Bautista.” Problem is, Morel’s gotten worse — worse than his aggregate 2011 numbers, worse even than the horrendous stats he’d put up before getting hot in the final month. Through 109 plate appearances, Morel’s hitting .182/.221/.202, displaying roughly 0 percent of his power potential with no homers and two doubles in 31 games. He’s striking out more often than any big league regular except teammate Adam Dunn and Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez, with about seven times more strikeouts than walks. He never put up the kind of huge minor league numbers that would suggest future stardom and prompt you to keep sticking with him week after week, month after month, no matter how bad he looked. It’s a testament to the team’s utter lack of alternatives that Morel keeps playing virtually every day.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. The White Sox do have a third baseman in the organization who might be able to top Morel’s anemic production. Not sure how Robin Ventura would feel about becoming player-manager, though.

22. Seattle Mariners, 16-20 (135 RS, 143 RA) (last week: 24)

This Week in Sabermetric Progress: Mike Blowers mentions UZR on air, unprompted! Baby steps.

23. Pittsburgh Pirates, 16-18 (97 RS, 118 RA) (last week: 26)

Andrew McCutchen through May 3: .290/.350/.385

Andrew McCutchen through May 13: .339/.403/.496

Two four-for-four games in four days, scoring from second on an infield hit, and spearheading the home plate celebration on Rod Barajas’s Tuesday walkoff. All that plus the first winning week of the season for the Bucs. Much better.

24. Houston Astros, 15-19 (143 RS, 137 RA) (last week: 21)

Is Jed Lowrie for real? FanGraphs’ Chris Cwik thinks so:

Jed Lowrie has arrived. After four injury riddled seasons with the Boston Red Sox, the 28-year-old shortstop is experiencing a breakout year with the Houston Astros. Lowrie’s performance makes him one of the most exciting players on a Houston team devoid of talent. While health has always been an issue, Lowrie is proving that he’s a player the team may want to build around.

The feeling is hardly unanimous. Baseball Think Factory commenter Jose Can You Seabiscuit trots out the following stats:

Jed Lowrie May 11, 2012 – .301/.387/.473 – 106 PA
Jed Lowrie May 11, 2011 – .327/.360/.505 – 114 PA
Lowrie 5/11/11 – 9/29/11 – .213/.274/.317 – 227 PA

Lowrie needs to stay healthy another four and a half months and produce throughout the season to earn the breakout tag, especially for a player closer to 30 than he is to 25. Getting to feast on NL Central pitching rather than dealing with the likes of Sabathia, Price, Shields, Romero, & Co. can’t hurt his chances, though.

Carlos Lee was all set to weigh in with his opinion, but he had a little accident.

25. Milwaukee Brewers, 15-19 (141 RS, 170 RA) (last week: 25)

Brewers closer and noted Canadian John Axford snaps his streak of 49 consecutive saves. Does he pout about it? No. Does he answer the media’s questions as sparsely as possible? Nope. With the blown save coinciding with his wife going into labor, Axford dashes out of the clubhouse, but not before dashing out a handwritten note to reporters. The big finish:

Cliche … Cliche … Another cliche. Gotta go!

Love, AX

Note: The “o” in “Love” was actually a heart. These are the kinds of gestures that get you through a likely lost season where Prince Fielder’s gone, your replacement first baseman and starting shortstop are out for the year, and your All-Star second baseman is both hurt and not hitting a lick.

26. Colorado Rockies, 13-20 (164 RS, 181 RA) (last week: 23)

The Rockies have exactly one starting pitcher who’s put up an xFIP of 3.50 or lower: Christian Friedrich, who’s made one start, throwing six strong innings and ostensibly vaulting from minor leaguer to best Colorado starter to own in fantasy in a span of a couple hours.

27. Kansas City Royals, 13-20 (133 RS, 157 RA) (last week: 28)

Jeff Francoeur hit 20 homers in 601 at-bats last season. His first homer this year came in his 124th at-bat of the season. In the world of Ned Yost, where a slow start to the season is enough to drop your best (lefty) power hitter to sixth in the order, who knows what Frenchy will get for his sudden hot hand. Danny Duffy will take a hot hand right now, so long as it’s not a hot elbow: He’s on the Matt Kemp path today, getting an MRI on Monday that could determine his short- and intermediate-term future.

28. Chicago Cubs, 14-20 (122 RS, 142 RA) (last week: 27)

Here’s a shocker: The Cubs rank sixth among all MLB teams for Wins Above Replacement from starting pitchers. Leading the way is Ryan Dempster, the perennially underrated righty who this year leads the majors in ERA (1.02) and worst run support. The other two members of the Cubs’ top-performing trio could stick around a while: Jeff Samardzija, the breakout skyscraper striking out more than a batter an inning, isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2015 season. Meanwhile, the latest on Matt Garza has the Cubs trying to sign him to a long-term extension rather than trading him at the deadline. A leverage ploy to leak potential contract negotiations, perhaps. But the Cubs are so lacking in legitimate, keeper-worthy talent on the big league roster right now that locking up Garza might make more sense than it would for some other clubs.

29. San Diego Padres, 12-23 (109 RS, 138 RA) (last week: 29)

Why you should take Petco Park pitching stats with a grain of salt, and why you should invest in as many Padres pitchers as possible in your fantasy league, Exhibit V: Edinson Volquez, who’s dropped his ERA by nearly three runs compared to last year and is on pace for career bests in ERA (2.79) and FIP (3.50). On Saturday, Volquez breezed through six innings, striking out five, walking two, and allowing just one run. That made a losing pitcher out of Roy Halladay, making the Padres the first team to beat Halladay twice in one season since 2009. No, really.

30. Minnesota Twins, 10-24 (116 RS, 182 RA) (last week: 30)

Francisco Liriano, one of the best starting pitchers in the game in 2006 and again in 2010, allowed 56 base runners in 26⅔ innings before getting demoted to the bullpen last week. Danny Valencia, who’d been the Twins’ starting third baseman since 2010, got sent to Triple-A. As for “catcher” Ryan Doumit … when you see incompetence on such a grand scale, all you can do is tip your cap. Then hope he doesn’t slip on it and crack a rib.

Filed Under: Teams, Texas

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri