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The 30, Week 19: Bonjour, Washington

With a touch of homage to their 1994 Expos forefathers, the Nationals climb to the top of the charts

Eighteen years ago, on August 12, 1994, fearing aggressive salary-limiting moves from owners in the next collective bargaining agreement, Major League Baseball’s players went on strike. That labor stoppage would wipe out the rest of the regular season, the playoffs, and the World Series, the first time baseball would fail to crown a champion in 90 years. The team with the best record at the time of the strike was the Montreal Expos. With the ball club already under duress due to limited revenue streams and a host of behind-the-scenes problems, the cancellation of the World Series erased the team’s last and best hope to win a championship, accelerating the Expos’ demise and eventually leading to their move to Washington.

This year’s Nationals aren’t quite as good as 1994′s Expos, at least by wins and losses. But they do own the best record in the game. Today, we pay tribute to these Nats and those Expos. It’s Week 19 of The 30.

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

1. Washington Nationals, 71-44 (504 RS, 408 RA) (last week: 4)

We’ve finally got a number. After months of speculation over what the Nationals may or may not do with Stephen Strasburg, GM Mike Rizzo confirmed his young (co-)ace won’t exceed 180 innings this season. Others have opined eloquently on that decision, noting that if the Nationals planned to be cautious with Strasburg all along, they should have curtailed his innings count earlier in the season rather than face the prospect of a playoff roster sans Strasburg if Washington gets playoff baseball for the first time in 89 years. A light defense of Rizzo and Davey Johnson here: The Nats weren’t exactly overwhelming favorites coming into the season, such that thinking about Strasburg’s potential October usage was probably a stretch in April. Then, when the Nats started winning, there had to be ample pressure (internal and external) to keep trotting out Strasburg every five days, lest the Nats squander their NL East lead. As the season progressed, skipping a few Strasburg starts might’ve made sense in theory, but Chien-Ming Wang and John Lannan both looked awful, leaving Washington with few alternatives for spot starts. Finally, it’s not like Strasburg’s been run through the ringer as far as innings go: He’s only pitched seven innings five times this year, and never more than that.

For the record, I’m with Grantland colleague Rany Jazayerli here: It’s great that teams are now paying such close attention to the welfare of their young pitchers, when previous generations burned out burgeoning arms through Draconian workloads and a rub-some-dirt-on-it approach to soreness or even injuries. But if the result here is one of the best pitchers on the planet riding the pine during the postseason for the theoretical benefit of keeping him healthy later, that’s going too far.1

The good news for Nats fans? The team is on fire, ripping off eight in a row before dropping Sunday’s game against the D-backs. They’re in prime position to make the playoffs for the first time since the franchise’s move to D.C. eight years ago. And a rotation of Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson, and Detwiler, combined with an improving offense and a defense that’s not quite elite but still capable of plays like this, might be enough for a deep October run anyway.

2. Texas Rangers, 67-46 (578 RS, 496 RA) (last week: 2)

It took years of losing, shrewd drafting, strong player development, and a Mark Teixeira trade-for-the-ages for the Rangers to compile baseball’s deepest stable of organizational talent. Awards on paper don’t do much good, of course. What does help is having a 28-homer beast like Mike Olt you can pluck from the minors and insert into the middle of a pennant race. Olt has already made an impact in upgrading the Rangers’ bench, rapping a dramatic ninth-inning single to give the Rangers a walk-off win on Saturday. There’s an argument to be made that Olt shouldn’t be on the bench at all, and that Michael Young and his .649 OPS should be providing his trademark veteran leadership while sitting next to Ron Washington. Since there’s roughly a zero percent chance of that happening, we’ll have to settle for rare glimpses of the slugging, young third baseman, and the hope of more fists-raised exclamations to come.

3. New York Yankees, 67-47 (566 RS, 469 RA) (last week: 1)

The week started with two more losses, making it six up and 12 down in their past 18 games. At that point, the once-mighty Yankees could best be summed up by … well … this. Then came a four-game winning streak against the Tigers and Jays, a stretch that included Curtis Granderson becoming the third Yankees center fielder ever to hit 30 homers in back-to-back seasons, Ivan Nova continuing his confounding season with a 10-strikeout game (albeit against the injury-riddled Jays), and Eric Chavez improbably hitting like vintage Eric Chavez, hoisting his season line to .289/.347/.526 and making up for his Cody Eppley bonking.2

But there’s now some cause for concern, beyond Russell Martin’s needing a recent hot streak just to get close to .200: CC Sabathia’s elbow is barking. Both team and pitcher are characterizing the injury as minor, saying the big man will come off the DL as soon as he’s eligible on August 24. Most of Sabathia’s numbers don’t suggest any major regression, with his strikeout and walk rates both near career bests. But this is his second DL stint of the season, after staying off the injured list for six years. The hope is that Sabathia’s previous groin injury and the current elbow ailment are completely unrelated, and that the mile and a half Sabathia’s lost off his fastball this season means nothing, as his continued ability to make batters swing and miss would seem to indicate. But even the slightest risk of Sabathia being less than 100 percent down the stretch, combined with surges by other top teams, knocks the Yankees from their long-standing perch atop these rankings.

4. Cincinnati Reds, 69-46 (495 RS, 424 RA) (last week: 3)

With Joey Votto on the shelf, you had to wonder how long the Reds would go before their bats went cold. We got our answer last week, as Cincinnati dropped five in a row, scoring just 11 runs during that stretch. Gotta love seeing the Cubs on the schedule when things look their worst. The Reds reeled off three wins in a row over the weekend at Wrigley, including a 10-run outburst on Friday.

Ryan Ludwick was the lead instigator. If you dropped in from Mars last night, that might sound crazy. Ludwick slugged 37 homers and posted a .966 OPS in 2008, a career year if ever there was one.3 But he tailed off sharply from there, hitting just .237/.310/.363 last year with the Padres. Signed cheap for one year at $2.5 million, Ludwick figured to serve as a part-time outfielder given his profile as a soon-to-be-34-year-old defensive liability with little speed or base-running prowess whose best hitting days were behind him. By mid-May, that prophecy had been fulfilled, with Ludwick hitting a buck-seventy-six with modest power, splitting time with Chris Heisey and anyone else Dusty Baker could dig up to play left field. Ludwick’s gone nuts since then, swatting 38 extra-base hits (including 18 homers) in his past 65 games. His past three games at Wrigley went like this: three hits, four runs scored, a homer and two RBIs Friday, a game-winning two-run double Saturday, and another homer on Sunday. Joey Votto suffered a setback in his rehab, with his return now pushed back another week to 10 days. But Cincinnati has been on fire without their best player, going 19-8 with Votto out. Of all the unlikely happenings in this wild season, Ryan Ludwick doing a passable Joey Votto impression and powering the Reds to the second-best record in baseball has to rank way up there.

5. Atlanta Braves, 66-48 (535 RS, 456 RA) (last week: 5)

Earlier this season, baseball blogger Jason Lukehart coined a term that’s so brilliant I’m mad I didn’t think of it first: the Maddux. What’s a Maddux? It’s a complete-game shutout in which the starting pitcher throws fewer than 100 pitches, thus showing the kind of efficiency that future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux made famous during his great career. On Friday against the Mets, Paul Maholm scored a Maddux, tossing a three-hit, no-walk shutout on just 95 pitches. That marked two strong starts in two tries for Maholm since coming over in a deadline deal; given his cheaper price tag and early returns, the Braves probably aren’t too broken up about Ryan Dempster opting to play somewhere other than Atlanta. With Kris Medlen faring well in his first three starts after shifting from the bullpen and Craig Kimbrel putting up peak Dennis Eckersley numbers, it’s no wonder the Braves own the second-best team ERA in baseball since the All-Star break. All of which might even be enough to impress the last Brave before Maholm to throw a Maddux: some guy named Maddux.

6. Chicago White Sox, 62-51 (535 RS, 470 RA) (last week: 6)

They have wisely sought younger talent to supplement their veteran core, getting key contributions from the likes of Chris Sale (23), Jose Quintana (23), Addison Reed (23), and Alejandro De Aza (28). But the five best hitters on the White Sox roster are all over 30, with three of those at or near their mid-30s. Two of those senior citizens are hurting. Kevin Youkilis missed Sunday’s game with a stiff forearm, while Paul Konerko’s on the seven-day DL with a concussion. Both injuries qualify as freak occurrences rather than the kind of chronic ailments you might expect from aging players. Still, with Chicago and Detroit looking like they might go down to the wire in the race for the AL Central crown, keeping the older guys upright (and somehow keeping 35-year-old A.J. Pierzynski’s Johnny Bench impression going) would make a huge difference for the Pale Hose.

7. Pittsburgh Pirates, 64-50 (478 RS, 446 RA) (last week: 8)

Great stat courtesy of the whimsically named Pirates blog Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke? Through Saturday, the Pirates’ afterthought trade deadline pickup Travis Snider had racked up 12 hits with his new team. Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino combined for 13 hits with the Giants and Dodgers. Pence blasted a game-winning homer Sunday against the Rockies, but the broader point stands — the Pirates are enjoying their new acquisition. As I wrote coming out of the trade deadline:

Snider is the bigger upside play here, being a first-round pick who was lauded for hitting tools out of high school. Six years later, he’s a strikeout machine, but still just 24. The Pirates obviously believe Snider can be a plus player for the next few years, because they gave up a surer thing in Lincoln. If you’re giving up a valuable swingman with a strikeout-to-walk rate above 4-to-1, in the middle of a pennant race, you obviously think highly of the new guy.

The behind-the-scenes knock on Snider, aside from the strikeouts, was a perceived lack of maturity and/or questionable makeup. Of course, if Snider had killer contact skills and fed orphans in his spare time, the Pirates would have had to shell out a lot more than Brad Lincoln to get him. With some of the early-season pitching magic starting to fade (see: James McDonald’s 8.71 ERA since the All-Star break), getting contributions from non-McCutchen hitters will be crucial. In a quasi-platoon role in right field, Snider’s come up big so far.

8. St. Louis Cardinals, 62-53 (563 RS, 462 RA) (last week: 9)

Continuing this week’s theme of unheralded starting pitchers coming up big, I give you Jake Westbrook. If Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia were healthy this season, it’s quite possible Westbrook would be pulling mop-up duty in the bullpen. Instead he’s stabilized the rotation, making several big starts early in the season while Adam Wainwright works his way back to top form, and more recently shutting down opposing hitters while Lance Lynn goes through his inevitable regression. Westbrook’s past 10 starts: 68⅔ innings, 38 strikeouts, 16 walks, three home runs, 2.88 ERA. Exactly what you’d expect from a soft-tossing, extreme ground ball pitcher who’s on a serious roll.

9. Tampa Bay Rays, 62-52 (471 RS, 430 RA) (last week: 14)

The Rays’ six-game winning streak has people pointing to Tuesday’s return of Evan Longoria as the reason. We have to agree. So powerful is Longoria’s impact on this team that he convinced the schedule-makers to deliver a Twins pitching staff that can’t beat a Little League team right now, and the entire Las Vegas 51s roster, cleverly disguised as the Toronto Blue Jays.

The gifts of three games each against the lowly Twins and decimated Jays played a far, far, far greater role in the Rays’ offense breaking out of a long slump with 37 runs last week than Longoria did, or any supposed protection or inspiration he might’ve provided for others in the lineup. What the Rays do have going for them, against Minnesota, Toronto, or anyone else, is terrific pitching. Tampa Bay has allowed fewer runs than any other team in the American League, despite a defense that hasn’t been anywhere near as strong as it was over the past four seasons.4 Linked to multiple trade rumors and struggling for much of the season’s first four months, James Shields owns a 1.13 ERA in his three starts since the July 31 deadline. Alex Cobb’s at 2.14 with 16 strikeouts and just one walk in his past three starts. Matt Moore’s got a 1.47 ERA, 28 strikeouts, and no homers allowed in his past five starts. And the bullpen has been unhittable: Fernando Rodney recently ran up a streak of 22 scoreless innings, and J.P. Howell just passed that mark and now sits at 22⅔ scoreless, staging a huge rebound after two seasons lost to injuries and ineffectiveness.

Weak opponents or not, Longoria will help the lineup, as could simple regression toward career norms for season-long slumpers Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton, Desmond Jennings, Sean Rodriguez, and others. But what the Rays gain over the rest of the league right now is the deepest pitching staff, with capable starters and multiple weapons out of the pen. If the offense can show even the faintest signs of life, the Rays’ pitching gives them a chance to overcome a loaded field of wild-card contenders and make it back to the playoffs.

10. San Francisco Giants, 63-52 (489 RS, 455 RA) (last week: 12)

Much has been made of Mike Trout’s demolition of the American League over the past few weeks. But The Score blogger Dustin Parkes passes along this gem: Through Saturday, Mike Trout had posted a .477 Weighted On Base Average, with a 209 Weighted Runs Created Plus. Buster Posey: .534 wOBA, 246 wRC+.

Reached for comment, Sergio Romo expressed stealthy excitement about Posey’s performance. On the other hand, the shifty-eyed Ryan Theriot clearly hoped to keep the information to himself.

11. Detroit Tigers, 61-54 (530 RS, 507 RA) (last week: 10)

Considering the whispered predictions of a potential 1,000-run offense, we can call the Tigers’ attack a disappointment, with Detroit ranking just seventh in the AL in runs scored. The usual ploy of blaming a team’s best players makes no sense in this case, though. Miguel Cabrera is a legitimate Triple Crown contender, ranking second behind Mike Trout in batting average (.324 versus Trout’s .340), fifth in homers with 29 (Josh Hamilton leads with 32), and second in RBIs with 98 (Hamilton has 99). Cabrera (.407 wOBA), Austin Jackson (.393 wOBA), and Prince Fielder (.383 wOBA) have carried the team. Meanwhile, the Opening Day second baseman, Ryan Raburn, has been one of the very worst hitters in either league, at just .172/.225/.258. And the lineup’s current no. 5 (Brennan Boesch) and no. 6 (Delmon Young) hitters both sit well below replacement level for the season. Raburn is gone, but Jim Leyland has shown no inclination to bench Boesch or Young … possibly because there aren’t any great alternatives on the roster. Top prospect Nick Castellanos moved from third base to left field this season in the hopes of making the big league roster more quickly. But the 20-year-old has walked just six times in 58 games at Double-A, versus 52 strikeouts. He’s probably not the answer either.

12. Los Angeles Angels, 60-55 (535 RS, 494 RA) (last week: 7)

They made a big deadline deal to reel in Dan Haren two years ago. Gave Jered Weaver an $85 million extension last summer. Spent $77.5 million last offseason to reel in C.J. Wilson. Then made the splashiest move of this year’s trade deadline, nabbing Zack Greinke from Milwaukee. Yet somehow, the Angels might not have enough starting pitching. Haren got hit hard early in the season, hit the DL with back problems in July, put up three straight effectiveness starts upon his return, then got blasted by lowly Seattle over the weekend. Santana’s been arguably the worst starting pitcher in the majors, with an MLB-worst 5.85 FIP and 28 homers allowed in 22 starts. Even Greinke’s had his problems since coming over to the tougher league for pitchers, posting a 5.68 ERA in his three starts as an Angel. As with the Tigers and their lineup dilemma, there aren’t any obvious heir apparents waiting, either, with Garrett Richards putting up lousy numbers in both Anaheim and hitter-friendly Triple-A Salt Lake City this year. If the Halos make the playoffs, a top three of Weaver, Greinke, and Wilson could be terrifying for opposing teams. But if the no. 4 starter’s going to be terribly erratic and the no. 5 guy’s going to serve up batting practice every time out, the Angels might not get a chance to put that top three to the test in October.

13. Oakland A’s, 61-53 (464 RS, 436 RA) (last week: 13)

Eventful times lately for A’s starters. There’s Bartolo Colon, who fired 20⅔ scoreless innings (before his rough start Sunday against the White Sox). Dan Straily was masterful in his major league debut, tossing six innings of one-run ball (before getting cranked for four homers Wednesday against the Angels). But the winner is Brandon McCarthy. On Friday, he made his first start in more than seven weeks, throwing six innings, allowing three runs, striking out four, and walking just one. And his wife, Amanda, caught a foul ball on one of McCarthy’s pitches. Your move, Jarrod Parker.

14. Los Angeles Dodgers, 62-53 (446 RS, 429 RA) (last week: 11)

Vin Scully’s the best. Don’t ever forget it.

15. Baltimore Orioles, 62-53 (481 RS, 530 RA) (last week: 15)

We liked the Manny Machado call-up before he’d taken a single swing in the big leagues. Looks pretty damn good now. Machado belted two home runs in his second major league game, which might seem incredible, until you consider that the same kid caught both home run balls. He followed that performance by whacking his third homer on Sunday. The Orioles still have multiple holes on their roster, including left field, second base, and at least three-fifths of the rotation. But for now, it’s tough to think of anything but this: Dan Duquette has made 119 roster moves this season, and calling up Machado, the 20-year-old prospect with just 109 games above Single-A who no one expected to see in 2012, might end up being the best of them all.

16. Arizona Diamondbacks, 58-57 (524 RS, 484 RA) (last week: 16)

There were always doubts about Paul Goldschmidt, no matter how many home runs he hit. An eighth-round pick out of Texas State in 2009, Goldschmidt hit .334/.408/.638 in rookie ball … but skeptics wondered about his pedigree, and the fact that he was old for that level. In 2010, he hit 35 homers and flashed a .990 OPS at Single-A … but his whiffy approach (strikeout rate of nearly 26.9 percent) spooked scouts. Last year, he belted 30 more homers in just 103 games at Double-A … but critics expected much rougher sledding in the big leagues. He put in a 48-game MLB cameo with a .807 OPS … but also struck out 30 percent of the time. In his first full season as a major league starter, Goldschmidt has finally started to prove his worth: He ranks fourth among all first basemen in Wins Above Replacement and has a line of .299/.358/.532 this season. Never so much as ranked a top-100 prospect by Baseball America, Goldschmidt has grown into one of the best at his position, a middle-of-the-order threat who provides the added bonus of cheap labor, given he won’t see arbitration for another two years. Arizona has had down years from several key players. Goldschmidt’s hot bat’s one of the biggest reasons they’re still in the hunt.

17. Boston Red Sox, 57-59 (573 RS, 532 RA) (last week: 17)

Will Middlebrooks: three-run homer Tuesday, three-run homer Wednesday (tying the record for homers by a rookie Red Sox third baseman) … broken wrist Friday. That kind of year.

18. Toronto Blue Jays, 54-60 (542 RS, 549 RA) (last week: 16)

Still on the edges of the race when they embarked on a 10-game road trip two weeks ago, the Jays dropped eight of 10, more or less sealing their fate for the season given the number of strong teams in the wild-card race. The Jays have used 51 players this year, most for any team. The pitching injuries were bad; knocking Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie onto the DL was the nail in the coffin.

All right, we can’t leave on this depressing a note. Please enjoy the catch of the year and the minor league promotion of the year.

19. New York Mets, 55-60 (506 RS, 530 RA) (last week: 20)

Paul Lukas does yeoman’s work digging into the origins of Mr. Met. But part of the mystery remains unsolved. Consider this the equivalent of a Crime Stoppers ad: If you have information regarding this case, please contact Mr. Lukas. Nothing less than giant-headed justice is at stake.

20. Seattle Mariners, 53-63 (460 RS, 468 RA) (last week: 22)

Jesus Montero against Cy Young candidate Jered Weaver in 2012: .500/.500/2.000, two homers in one game.

Jesus Montero against everyone else in 2012: .270/.313/.395, 10 homers in 97 games.

21. Milwaukee Brewers, 52-61 (512 RS, 519 RA) (last week: 23)

We can’t know for sure if Mike Fiers will keep pitching like a star, not after a mere 82 innings in the big leagues. But the early returns have been fantastic. He posted a 1.80 ERA over 80 innings this year, the lowest by any starter since Fiers’s May 29 debut date this season. That number is supported by terrific peripherals: a strikeout per inning, a strikeout-to-walk rate of 5-to-1, and just three home runs allowed all season. But Fiers is also a 27-year-old rookie right-hander with an 88-mph fastball, a 27.3 percent line-drive rate, and the kind of fly-ball tendencies that suggest his low home-run rate won’t last. Unless he can master the Brewers’ patented 49-mph curveball, you might want to look elsewhere for a fantasy keeper.

22. Philadelphia Phillies, 52-62 (471 RS, 508 RA) (last week: 22)

The first baseball game I can vividly remember watching was the deciding Game 5 of the 1981 National League Championship series. In the 31 years since, I’d never once seen a game end on an infield hit quite like this, where the fielder made a clean pickup, threw to first, and the runner beat it out, thus turning an apparently routine play into a game-winner. Until now.

23. San Diego Padres, 51-65 (444 RS, 498 RA) (last week: 26)

A 5-1 week makes the Padres one of this week’s biggest movers. Since we profiled Chase Headley last week, we probably shouldn’t mention that he’s reached base safely in 103 games this season, the most in the majors. Or that he bashed two homers Friday night and another one Saturday, raising his career-high total to 18 in one of the most punitive ballparks for hitters. Since we can’t do any of that, please enjoy this clip of a guy reaching out of the seats, scooping a ball cleanly and bare-handed, all while deftly holding onto an adorable baby.

24. Cleveland Indians, 53-62 (485 RS, 593 RA) (last week: 22)

The Indians’ recent 11-game losing streak didn’t just knock the team out of contention for the rest of the year. It also put them in rare company. Per ESPN Stats & Info, only five teams have ever lost 11 games in a row while allowing five or more runs in each of those games: The 1962 Mets, the 1994 Red Sox, the 1996 Tigers, the 2005 Royals, and now the 2012 Indians.

25. Kansas City Royals, 49-65 (475 RS, 531 RA) (last week: 27)

The Royals rank dead last in the American League in walks this season. Last year, they ranked 12th. The year before that, ninth. The year before that, 13th. The year before that, last. The year before that, 13th. The year before that, 11th. The year before that, 12th. The year before that, 13th. We could keep going. If you’re looking for both a symptom and a cause of the Royals’ streak of one above-.500 season in 18 years, employing a roster full of Yuniesky Betancourts every year is a pretty good place to start.

26. Miami Marlins, 52-63 (427 RS, 521 RA) (last week: 25)

Jose Reyes’s 26-game hitting streak came to an end Thursday. That means the longest Marlins streak still belongs to Ozzie Guillen, who hedged on his closer situation for the 23rd time this season. Yet another joyous side effect of overpaying for a closer: When it turns out the guy stinks, you have to either keep running him out there, or keep assuring him he’ll get the job back soon, so your GM doesn’t look like a schnook for signing him in the first place.

27. Minnesota Twins, 49-65 (510 RS, 592 RA) (last week: 24)

You take the small victories where you can get them.

28. Chicago Cubs, 44-69 (414 RS, 505 RA) (last week: 28)

From Elias comes this nugget: The Cubs are 0-13 playing at NL West teams this year. Only one other team has lost more games in a row at NL West parks — the ’92 Phillies, who dropped 14 in a row.

29. Colorado Rockies, 41-71 (525 RS, 646 RA) (last week: 29)

Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, and Fernando Rodney have been the three most valuable relievers in the game this season, by both advanced metrics and traditional ones. But the no. 4 guy by Wins Above Replacement might come as a surprise — Matt Belisle. He owns a strikeout-to-walk rate of nearly 5-to-1, a ground ball rate near 53 percent, and a 2.69 FIP, all while playing at pitcher-throttling Coors Field. Belisle’s success isn’t new, either. He ranks as the fourth-most valuable reliever in baseball over the past three years, too, trailing only Sean Marshall, Kimbrel, and Jonathan Papelbon. Of course, a 32-year-old reliever that good offers a lot more value to a contender than to a pending 100-loss team. Just one more misstep by a ball club that’s made a ton of them lately.

30. Houston Astros, 38-78 (437 RS, 587 RA) (last week: 30)

You know what they say … comedy equals tragedy plus time.

Filed Under: Movies, Music, The League, The National

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.

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