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The 30, Week 13: AL’s Manifest Destiny

After high expectations and a shaky start, everything is falling into place out West

One team has made two straight trips to the World Series. The other was the biggest spender in a wild offseason. After a brief fall from the top spot for one and a horrendous start for the other, the two best teams in the AL West are taking over. It’s Week 13 of The 30.

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

1. Texas Rangers, 50-30 (427 RS, 327 RA) (last week: 2)

There was so much gushing over Josh Hamilton through the first two months of the season, you’d have thought this was a one-man team. Through May 30, he was hitting an off-the-charts .368/.420/.764, and looked primed to not only win his second MVP award but run away with it. Then the bottom dropped out, with Hamilton getting crushed by both his free-swinging approach and good, old-fashioned regression to the mean: From June 2 through June 23, he hit an abysmal .188/.268/.344. But Texas hung tough even with their best player tanking, racking up a 13-7 record over that three-week stretch (then winning six of their next eight, with Hamilton rebounding to slug three more homers).

Derek Holland and Colby Lewis on the DL? Just plug in newly signed Roy Oswalt, get three straight impressive starts from Yu Darvish, then have Martin Perez throw 5⅓ solid innings in his first major league start. Michael Young having an off year? Get big performances out of part-time players like Craig Gentry (.355/.424/.460). The strength of the Rangers never lay with one player. They’re the best team in baseball because they never seem to run out of bullets.

2. New York Yankees, 48-30 (373 RS, 312 RA) (last week: 1)

It all depends on CC Sabathia. When the Yankees ace hit the DL with a strained groin, reports described it as mild, noting that he might miss no more than two starts. Given the excellent in-season rebounds by Ivan Nova (3-0, 1.27 ERA, 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his past five starts) and Phil Hughes (3.27 ERA, 4.2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his past 10) as well as the season-long excellence of Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda and the Yankees’ dominant play overall, even the most pessimistic Yankees fans weren’t sweating the big guy’s injury too much. But when Pettitte took a shot off the leg Wednesday and suffered a broken ankle that’s expected to keep him out as long as two months, everything changed. The Yanks could make do with productive rookie David Phelps in the rotation, or take a couple spins with Freddy Garcia coming off a functional 2011 campaign as a no. 5 starter. Running them both out for the next several weeks was a far less encouraging scenario.

We’ve heard the names Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels swirling about for the past couple weeks, with the Brewers and Phillies moving closer to becoming full-fledged sellers and the Yankees assumed to be among the most interested buyers. But Brian Cashman’s recent history suggests he won’t flip multiple high-ceiling prospects in a deadline deal, even when the prize is a no. 1 starter like Cliff Lee. Assuming Sabathia is back soon after the All-Star break, the Yankees have enough pitching depth and a big enough cushion in the AL East to withstand the moderate gap between Pettitte and either Garcia or Phelps at the back of the rotation. Greinke or Hamels would be great, of course. But even the Yankees have come to recognize you don’t mortgage the farm unless you have to.

3. Washington Nationals, 45-32 (316 RS, 268 RA) (last week: 4)

From a sub-.500 2011 season to the best record in the National League, the Nats are still one of the best stories of the year, and we’re nearly halfway done. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper get most of the credit for Washington’s big leap this year, and for good reason. But big years from Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond have also loomed large. LaRoche played in just 43 games last year, hitting a subterranean .172/.288/.258; he’s at .251/.336/.502 this year, leading all Nats regulars in homers, walks, and slugging average. Meanwhile, Ian Desmond’s having one of the biggest breakouts of any player in baseball. After hitting just .253/.298/.358 last year, he’s up to .276/.308/.484, still showing the patience of a rabid squirrel on his 14th Red Bull, but making up for it with a huge power surge. He doesn’t turn 27 until your friendly narrator’s birthday (September 20, also the birthday of Jim Taylor, Guy Lafleur, and Red Auerbach, if you’re scoring at home); on a team with two budding superstars, Desmond makes a nice keeper himself. If you’re a betting man, drop a couple gummies on a contract extension for Desmond by next spring.

4. Los Angeles Angels, 44-35 (347 RS, 303 RA) (last week: 6)

No half-season stat should be taken as immutable truth, certainly not one that includes Ultimate Zone Rating, a useful defensive metric but also one that’s most reliable when viewed through a three-year lens. Now that we’ve got that caveat out of the way … how about Mike Trout being the most valuable player in the AL, despite playing just three major league games in April? The Angels’ 20-year-old phenom leads the league in batting average (.339) and stolen bases (22), banging out 27 extra-base hits and playing all-world defense (assuming we can at least start to size up his D based on just 57 games played). With a deep starting rotation, a much-improved bullpen, and a deep lineup that’s recovered from a slow start, the Angels probably could have contended with or without Trout this year. But having him in there every day and playing this well changes the outlook from possible contender to wild-card front-runner and a major threat to mighty Texas. Plus, anytime an offensive star can also make catches like this, your team becomes can’t-miss programming.

5. San Francisco Giants, 45-35 (317 RS, 301 RA) (last week: 9)

Oh, you know, nothing much, just the first time the Giants ever swept the arch-rival Dodgers with three straight shutouts in the history of the franchise, leading to San Francisco hurdling L.A. in the standings for the first time all year. What made the triple shutout even more impressive was that none of those starts were made by the Giants’ two best pitchers, Matt Cain and All-Star snub Madison Bumgarner. MadBum would make it four straight shutouts for the Giants the next day, chucking a complete-game one-hitter at the Reds to open that series. That made the Giants the first team to throw four straight shutouts since the Orioles did it in 1995, and the first team since the 1999 Reds to pitch four games with one hit or less allowed in a single season.

Better news: Tim Lincecum’s seven innings of shutout ball during that streak gave him 35 strikeouts, 13 walks, and just three home runs allowed over his past five starts, covering 29⅔ innings. Sure, that line came with a still-ugly 5.16 ERA. But beyond a drop in velocity that has had little to no effect on his still-elite strikeout rate, Lincecum’s struggles this season boil down to one factor: He’s great with the bases empty (limiting hitters to a line of .233/.299/.416) and terrible with runners in scoring position (.300/.444/.490). If Lincecum’s mechanics are getting messed up while pitching from the stretch, or if the guy with two Cy Young awards has suddenly and inexplicably started melting down in high-leverage situations, that’s a major problem. It could just as easily be one of those random things that is regressing toward the norm as the season wears on. Maybe he won’t ever again be the best pitcher on the planet. But you probably don’t want to bet against a big second half.

6. Cincinnati Reds, 43-35 (331 RS, 298 RA) (last week: 8)

Not only should Aroldis Chapman have avoided scolding after celebrating Tuesday’s strike-out-the-side save with a double somersault, he should have been praised for it.1 After the result had been decided, Dusty Baker and others clucked about the integrity of the game or something (I always did fall asleep during lectures). But who exactly gets harmed when a player dares to show a little occasional flair? If we the fans are the paying customers, why should we be deprived of enthusiastic post-save gymnastics, archery, shirt untucking, or any other Olympic event? If a team decides the best way to celebrate a walkoff homer is by channeling The Big Lebowski, on what planet is that anything other than awesome?

Maybe these are just the rants of a guy who played one year of Little League, stunk, and called it quits, someone not versed in playing the game the right way. Fine. I’ll still root for the next dramatic save to end with a jubilant closer hang-gliding out of the stadium on his way to the great kangaroo court in the sky.

7. Boston Red Sox, 42-37 (406 RS, 349 RA) (last week: 10)

Has any team derived more value from Dumpster-diving finds this year than the Red Sox? That might seem crazy for a team that spends so much it’s now holding the line to avoid passing 2014’s luxury tax threshold of $189 million. A cynic might also note that the Sox wouldn’t have to scrape the bottom of the barrel for talent had they not crapped out on multiple long-term contracts, including John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and, for now at least, Carl Crawford. A harsher cynic might further note that Boston wouldn’t have to go spelunking if GM Ben Cherington hadn’t traded away the slugging duo of Jed Lowrie and Josh Reddick. But let’s give credit where credit’s due. Everyone in the bullpen other than Mark Melancon cost next to nothing to acquire, both in terms of dollars and talent given up. Starting shortstop Mike Aviles is making $1.2 million. Mashing catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a post-hype prospect who came much cheaper than he would have a few years earlier. Ditto for suddenly dominant fifth starter Franklin Morales.

And then there’s Daniel Nava. His pedigree was so modest that he …

• tried out for his college team at Santa Clara as a walk-on

• didn’t make it

• became the equipment manager

• left after two years because he couldn’t afford tuition

• transferred to junior college

• went undrafted

• signed with the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League

got cut by the Outlaws after a tryout

• came back a year later

• and finally got signed by the Red Sox on the say-so of assistant director of pro scouting Jared Porter …

• … for $1.

Nava is now the leadoff man for the Sox, hitting .294/.411/.462 and making the league minimum, after J.D. Drew’s $70 million contract expired at the end of last season. The little things always matter. Even when you’re a team as flush as the Red Sox.

8. Chicago White Sox, 42-37 (368 RS, 326 RA) (last week: 12)

Four times this season, Gavin Floyd has thrown six innings or more and given up no runs. In another three-start stretch spanning late April to early May, Floyd struck out 21 batters, walked just three, and allowed just four runs over 21 innings. In his nine other starts, Floyd has allowed four runs or more each time, racking up a 9.19 ERA over 47 nightmarish innings. If you, too, are an unfortunate Gavin Floyd fantasy owner, our support group meets every Wednesday at 7. Come for the doughnuts, stay for the creative curse words.

9. New York Mets, 43-37 (365 RS, 343 RA) (last week: 14)

The Mets in their past 22 games:

• Swept by the Yankees

• Swept the Rays

• Swept by the Reds

• Four-game winning streak

• Four-game losing streak

• Four-game winning streak

• Blown out by the Dodgers (who’d lost seven in a row), thanks to three errors, one runner caught stealing, and another one picked off (both were Andres Torres).

The aggregate numbers suggest a good team, one worthy of top-10 status. But the game-to-game results can be maddening. The next person to figure out this no-hitter-throwing, bullpen-often-imploding, Jason Bay–bemoaning ball club will be the first.

10. Los Angeles Dodgers, 44-36 (312 RS, 294 RA) (last week: 3)

Shut out in five of their first six games last week, the lone non-shutout a 3-2 loss to a pitcher who made just eight starts combined in the previous two seasons. Andre Ethier’s strained oblique marked the latest injury for a lineup that’s been decimated by injury and seen pixie-dust performances by the likes of Bobby Abreu disappear into the vast maw of reality. The offense has turned so ugly that the Dodgers tried to trade for Carlos Lee to replace James Loney, and were genuinely disappointed when the 36-year-old statue with five home runs exercised his veto rights2 and turned down the deal. The Dodgers are still only a game out, there’s still plenty of pitching here, plus the hope that Ethier and Matt Kemp can come back at full strength after the All-Star break. But right now, the state of the Dodgers looks something like this.

11. St. Louis Cardinals, 41-38 (395 RS, 338 RA) (last week: 11)

The Lance Lynn magic carpet ride might be over. The Cardinals righty rang up a 10-2 record with a 2.42 ERA in his first 13 starts this year. In three starts since then, he’s been creamed for 17 runs in 15⅓ innings, with seven walks and four homers allowed in that span. Workload is also becoming a bigger concern: Lynn should pass his entire 2011 innings total just after the All-Star break. By August, there’s a good chance he’ll be in the bullpen. With word coming down that Chris Carpenter has thoracic outlet syndrome (a serious condition that causes nerve compression and can require season-ending surgery for players who are diagnosed with it) and Jaime Garcia already out indefinitely with a shoulder injury, the Cardinals could be the contending team most motivated to trade for starting pitching help this month.3 It’ll be interesting to see how GMs handle the old saw about not trading within your own division: Zack Greinke, Matt Garza, and Ryan Dempster could all be great pickups for St. Louis, if the Brewers and/or Cubs are willing to go that route.

12. Atlanta Braves, 41-37 (357 RS, 336 RA) (last week: 13)

When ESPN did its MLB Franchise Draft at the end of May, I got the booby prize of selecting 30th out of the 30 writers and broadcasters invited. This was a lamentable position … until Jason Heyward fell into my lap. The draft was meant to serve as a proxy for the always fun question, “If you could pick one player to lead a new franchise for the next 10 years, who would it be?” In 2011, Heyward was the seventh overall pick. A year later, 30. So what happened? A shoulder injury whacked his production last season. There were concerns about Heyward’s ability to hit lefties, his strikeouts, and a home run total that wasn’t quite high enough for his critics. All of which ignored Heyward’s many qualities: A precocious walk rate right from the start of his career, solid defense and baserunning for a 6-foot-5, 240-pound behemoth, and hints at an offensive breakout on the way, with Heyward’s isolated slugging, fly ball, and line drive rates all trending higher. He’s also 22 freaking years old.

You might’ve heard what Heyward’s done since June 1: .348/.379/.674, with 16 extra-base hits in 89 at-bats. Chuck the humblebrags aside and we can take away this lesson: Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are not the norm. For most players, it takes time to adjust to the big leagues, for hitters to track nastier curveballs and pitchers to deal with patient batters who won’t chase the junk they threw to get guys out at Double-A. Heyward’s already made adjustments himself, going from a walks machine who takes a ton of pitches to a more aggressive hitter now seeing an uptick in power. There are multiple All-Star games in his future, even if the voting didn’t go his way this time.

13. Tampa Bay Rays, 41-38 (328 RS, 329 RA) (last week: 5)

A 1-6 week that included a sweep at the hands of the lowly Royals left the Rays with a brutal 4-12 mark against AL Central teams and a suddenly huge 7½-game deficit behind the front-running Yankees, with the Rays just one game out of last. Evan Longoria’s absence continues to weigh on the team, with the Rays hitting a league-low .222 in June and committing more errors this year than any team except the Orioles. In some ways, they’re lucky to be where they are: Tampa Bay pitchers have allowed an impossibly low line of .175/.240/.321 in high-leverage situations, an MLB-best figure that speaks to the team’s strong bullpen and Joe Maddon’s pitcher usage, but almost certainly to copious amounts of good fortune, too. It could get uglier quickly with the powerful Yankees in town for three games, starting Monday. Only the returns of Luke Scott, Jeremy Hellickson, Kyle Farnsworth, and Joel Peralta prevented the Rays from falling further.

14. Pittsburgh Pirates, 42-36 (297 RS, 291 RA) (last week: 16)

In our preseason Pirates preview, we wrote:

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT
Alvarez and McDonald join McCutchen in posting breakout seasons, the bullpen gets big results from pitchers not named Joel Hanrahan, Bedard stays healthy, Burnett’s revitalized, and Neal Huntington pushes his chips in at the deadline following a surprising first three months. If … all of this clicks for the Bucs, we could see a pennant atmosphere by the three rivers for the first time since Kevin Young’s heyday.

Your move, Mr. Huntington.

15. Baltimore Orioles, 42-36 (329 RS, 355 RA) (last week: 7)

The Orioles have been the healthiest team in the injury-ravaged AL East. But we’re starting to see that they also possess the least talent of any team in the division. They did try to fill one hole by acquiring Jim Thome from the Phillies for a pair of minor leaguers. But the pitching’s starting to unravel after a hot start: The O’s have gone 3-9 in their past 12 games, allowing an average of 8.7 runs per game in their past six.

16. Arizona Diamondbacks, 39-39 (344 RS, 331 RA) (last week: 15)

Weird week. The D-backs welcomed back Stephen Drew from a season-long DL stint, gave Trevor Bauer his first major league start, and celebrated a major league record: two cycles in a span of just 11 days for red-hot Aaron Hill. But Arizona also dropped four of six, fell back to .500, and learned that Daniel Hudson has a UCL tear that will knock him out for the season. We might see a lot more of Bauer this year, and maybe of 20-year-old lefty Tyler Skaggs too.

17. Cleveland Indians, 40-38 (345 RS, 382 RA) (last week: 18)

It looked ugly for a while there, with the Tribe losing five in a row, culminating with a sweep at Yankee Stadium and a drop to .500. But Cleveland’s subsequent trip to Baltimore went better, with the Indians taking three of four and climbing back to within a game and a half of the White Sox. One area screaming for a trade deadline upgrade: Cleveland’s offense vs. lefties. The Indians own an ugly .291 Weighted On Base Average against southpaws, 24th in MLB (compared to .330 vs. righties, sixth-best in baseball).

18. Toronto Blue Jays, 40-39 (398 RS, 369 RA) (last week: 17)

An eventful week that included …

… a nifty Rajai Davis–to–Jeff Mathis throw for an out at the plate

… Adam Lind homering twice in one game in his fourth game back from Triple-A, as he tries to make good on the multi-year deal that made every other team pass when the Jays put Lind on waivers

… Henderson Alvarez overcoming an elbow scare, not missing a start, and firing seven innings of one-run ball against the Angels, the kind of performance the Jays desperately need given the plague of injuries that’s ripped the pitching staff apart

… 14 homers for Jose Bautista in June, a record for any month by any Jays player

… Toronto somehow losing four out of seven anyway.

19. Detroit Tigers, 39-40 (346 RS, 353 RA) (last week: 19)

As great a story as unheralded, 27-year-old rookie Quintin Berry has been so far for the Tigers, the reckoning is coming. Berry’s hitting a robust .296/.385/.400 with 12 steals in just 36 games. But he also strikes out more than one-quarter of the time, and has been riding a .414 batting average on balls in play, a mark some 120-plus points above league average that’s an extreme long shot to stick, even with Berry’s blazing speed. Given Berry’s flimsy prospect profile, Brennan Boesch’s hellacious struggles this year, and Dealin’ Dave Dombrowski’s trade-friendly tendencies, Detroit landing a corner outfielder might be the lock of the deadline.

20. Miami Marlins, 38-40 (297 RS, 355 RA) (last week: 22)

Five out of seven for the Fish, which takes a little of the sting out of a previous six-game losing skid. The unlikely catalyst has been Justin Ruggiano, a big outfielder with a Quadruple-A reputation whom the Rays let walk last offseason. Ruggiano’s June was a killer: .400/.475/.740 in 61 plate appearances, featuring a sky-high .434 BABIP. Pending regression or not, the Marlins continue to operate short-handed with Emilio Bonifacio still on the DL. He might return soon after the All-Star break. Until then, we’ll probably see a bunch more Ruggiano.

21. Oakland A’s, 38-42 (300 RS, 302 RA) (last week: 20)

Brandons!

22. Milwaukee Brewers, 36-42 (344 RS, 355 RA) (last week: 23)

For an underrated best offseason signing candidate, I give you Norichika Aoki. The 30-year-old outfielder cost Milwaukee a $2.5 million posting fee to get from the Yakult Swallows of Japan’s Central League, and another $2.5 million over two years for a major league contract. In return he’s hit .291/.357/.443, swiping 10 bases and giving the Brewers the top-of-the-order threat they lacked after a bunch of tiny aliens Space Jammed Rickie Weeks’s baseball powers right out of him.

23. Philadelphia Phillies, 36-45 (347 RS, 362 RA) (last week: 21)

It’s begun. The Phillies don’t lose much by trading away a bench-ridden Jim Thome and a slop-throwing reliever in Chad Qualls. But given how aggressive a buyer Ruben Amaro Jr. has been at the deadline over the past few years, even the tiniest move in the other direction, combined with the Phils dropping five in a row and fading out of the race, has suitors lining up to bid on Cole Hamels, and maybe Shane Victorino, too. Both players are free agents at year’s end, and the new collective bargaining agreement weakens the compensation a team can get by offering a free-agent-to-be arbitration, then letting him walk. That shifts the focus more squarely toward both players’ present value. Hamels has pitched like the ace everyone expected (3.08 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate) and there’s always a chance a team takes a run at locking him after a trade with a monster contract, even with Scott Boras advising Hamels; he should fetch plenty either way. Victorino, on the other hand, is hitting just .254/.322/.386, his power cratering compared to last year’s career-best numbers. Still, Victorino’s just half a season removed from being the eighth-most valuable position player in the NL, per FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement. There’s a buy-low opportunity here, and about a dozen contenders that could use outfield help.

24. Kansas City Royals, 35-42 (310 RS, 347 RA) (last week: 24)

If Jed Lowrie and Ian Desmond are 1a and 1b on the list of best 2012 breakouts by shortstops, Alcides Escobar is probably 1c. In this, his third full major league season, he’s ramped his wOBA up to a career-best .343, smoking last year’s poor .282 result. Much of that jump is due to a huge spike in BABIP. But Escobar’s also showing a bit more power than he has before, he’s on pace for another 25-steal season, and assuming we believe multi-year samples of defensive data over half a season, he’s one of the best glovemen in the game at the most demanding position. With Escobar still just 25 and top right-handed pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi knocking on the door of the big leagues, the Zack Greinke trade still has plenty of fruit left to bear.

25. Seattle Mariners, 34-47 (316 RS, 346 RA) (last week: 25)

Justin Smoak’s turned back into a pumpkin, Franklin Gutierrez is so snakebitten that he’s now getting hit in the face by pickoff throws, and the Mariners are hitting a ridiculously bad .197/.277/.287 at home, leading some to wonder if we might need to start treating Safeco Field like Bizarro Coors (which would be a more encouraging outcome than to simply say, jeez, this Seattle offense is horrible). Credit Munenori Kawasaki for maintaining enough joie de vivre to throw a one-man dugout dance party.

26. Minnesota Twins, 33-45 (325 RS, 410 RA) (last week: 28)

Through May 12, Trevor Plouffe was hitting .130 with one home run and a .481 OPS. Since then: .289, 15 17 homers, 1.015 OPS. Another reminder for future fantasy baseball seasons: Spend your free agent money and waiver priorities early and aggressively. You never know when you’re going to hit the lottery.

27. Houston Astros, 32-47 (321 RS, 374 RA) (last week: 26)

If you’re looking for a player to cheer on in next week’s All-Star game, make it Jose Altuve, the 22-year-old Venezuelan second baseman hitting .308/.350/.450 in his first full major league season whose diminutive stature (he’s listed at 5-foot-5) has spawned a new unit of measurement.

28. Colorado Rockies, 30-48 (394 RS, 459 RA) (last week: 27)

Dexter Fowler at Coors Field: .338/.437/.648

Dexter Fowler on the road: .209/.289/.372

Rockies at Coors Field: .291/.360/.500

Rockies on the road: .243/.299/.390

R.I.P., humidor?

29. San Diego Padres, 30-50 (273 RS, 351 RA) (last week: 29)

Yasmani Grandal is a promising switch-hitting catching prospect who looked like Babe Ruth in his first trip to Coors Field, becoming the first player ever to make his first two major league hits home runs from each side of the plate. That was good. Grandal dishing out phantom high-fives when his teammates predictably gave him the silent treatment? That was better.

30. Chicago Cubs, 29-49 (286 RS, 357 RA) (last week: 30)

And if you’re looking for another player to back in the midsummer classic, make it Bryan LaHair. Sure, LaHair’s early-season surge was largely due to good luck on balls in play, and he’s struggled mightily since then, including a current 4-for-26 streak with no extra-base hits. Still, he racked up nearly 1,000 games and more than 4,000 at-bats in his long minor league career before getting his first crack at full-time big league duty this year. Now, thanks to a scorching start, he gets to play alongside the best players in the world. Whatever becomes of his career from here, no one will ever be able to erase this line from his baseball epitaph: Bryan LaHair, All-Star.

Filed Under: Movies, The League

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

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