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The Second Century Is Always the Hardest

The 30, Week 3: Cardinals on the Move

Injuries and a few giant question marks haven't stopped St. Louis from lighting up the league

Big moves in the East(s), the AL Central gets interesting, and a change at the bottom. It’s Week 3 of The 30.

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

1. Texas Rangers, 13-3 (94 RS, 42 RA) (Last week: 1)

The best team in baseball, by any objective or subjective measure. Over the past week alone, they hung a pair of 10-spots on the Tigers and bludgeoned the Red Sox for 18 more. They got more great pitching from Colby Lewis (24/2 strikeout-to-walk rate), Matt Harrison (2.90 FIP), and Derek Holland (3.14 FIP). They won on home run barrages, even on an extra-inning squeeze play with the bases loaded and nobody out, adding another page to Ron Washington’s Bad Process, Good Result scrapbook. And they did all that on the road, finishing 8-1 on a three-city tour, capped by taking three out of four against the star-laden Tigers.

But even the team that leads all of baseball in most runs scored and fewest runs allowed has some vulnerabilities. Adrian Beltre tweaked his left hamstring Saturday. That’s the same hamstring that cost him five weeks of last season. A Monday MRI should clear things up, and Beltre says he only expects to miss a few days. But the injury highlights the Rangers’ biggest weakness, one of their only weaknesses: They’ve got a bunch of fragile players on the roster. Beltre missed 38 games last year, 51 two years before that. Josh Hamilton has averaged just 114 games played over the past three seasons. When Nelson Cruz isn’t butchering his team’s shot at its first-ever World Series, he’s a regular visitor to the disabled list, having never played in more than 128 games in a season.

The Rangers are so loaded with elite talent that they can withstand — and have withstood — multiple injuries to key contributors. But between the specter of ill health, Yu Darvish’s continued woes (13 walks in his first 17⅔ big league innings — is this a small-sample blip, random wildness, or is he afraid to throw strikes?), and pending regression for Josh Hamilton (.420 BABIP) and Michael Young (.434 BABIP), you’re seeing the absolute best-case scenario play out for Texas right now. This is a good team, even a great team, but it isn’t a perfect team. Nine straight against the Yankees, Rays, and Jays, starting Monday night, should be a fun test.

2. St. Louis Cardinals, 11-5 (82 RS, 46 RA) (Last week: 3)

Another team hitting on all cylinders for the moment. Only the Braves have scored more runs among National League teams, and no NL club can touch the Cardinals’ huge plus-36 run differential this early in the season.

But here, the injury woes run deeper than a gimpy hammy here or there, on a team that lacks the Rangers’ wave of stars to cover for multiple setbacks. Chris Carpenter hasn’t thrown a pitch all year. Lance Berkman reinjured his heel last week and landed on the DL. Jon Jay’s out with a bum shoulder after smashing into a wall. Allen Craig’s still trying to work his way back. And that’s not counting key contributors Rafael Furcal, Carlos Beltran, and David Freese, all with long histories of battling injuries.

Talk to most Cards fans and they’ll tell you that it’s Adam Wainwright more than all those others who’s causing the most consternation; a 9.88 ERA through three starts after a year on the shelf will do that. Wainwright’s strikeout and walk rates are in line with career norms, and his fastball’s only lost a bit off its typical levels. But the concern with any Tommy John recovery case is command. Sure, Wainwright’s avoided the base on balls. But he’s also served up a few meatballs, with five homers in 13⅔ innings the result. Many pitchers can struggle for weeks, even months, after T.J. before relearning how to make pitches go where they want. Kyle Lohse and Lance Lynn (98.2 percent strand rate!) have been more than impressive, and our love for Jaime Garcia is out there for the world to see. But the difference between the Cardinals fighting for a playoff spot and putting a stranglehold on the NL Central could rest on these two factors: keeping as many bodies upright as possible, and finding the old Adam Wainwright.

3. Detroit Tigers, 10-6 (70 RS, 65 RA) (Last week: 2)

Going solely on run differential, there are worthier teams for this slot. But you can’t penalize a team too badly for getting its brains beaten in by the Rangers. Sure, regression has come swiftly for Detroit in many areas. The Tigers scored 26 runs in their first three games of the season; they’ve scored 30 in their last 10. Rick Porcello entered Saturday’s game with a 1.84 ERA; he left, after one unspeakably nightmarish inning, at 6.32.

But there’ve been pleasant surprises too. Three big ones: Miguel Cabrera might not be a dystopian hellscape of a third baseman, Drew Smyly (15 strikeouts in 16 innings over the first three starts of his career, including Sunday’s beauty against Texas) looks more than able to sub competently while Doug Fister heals, and Prince Fielder’s ready to challenge Rickey Henderson’s single-season stolen base record.

4. Washington Nationals, 12-4 (58 RS, 45 RA) (Last week: 7)

Sometime soon, we’ll do a deeper dive into the excellent rotation the Nationals have built, and what it means for the playoff chances of a franchise with only one postseason appearance in 43 seasons (zero in seven seasons in D.C.). For now, just consider the following:

• Since returning from T.J. last September, Stephen Strasburg has struck out 49, walked eight, and allowed two extra-base hits over 49 innings.

• Of the top 15 pitchers in Major League Baseball ranked by xFIP this year, four start for the Nats.

• You can run this exercise with nearly every team (and we will, soon), but it warrants mentioning that the Nats have already lost two games that arguably turned on terrible umpiring: April 9 against the Mets on a blown call at second base, and the Laz Diaz Game of Death April 15 versus the Reds (hat-tip to @willbhenline).

All of which is to say, the Nationals are pretty damn good, and they’ve got a chance to win this thing. (Warning: This offer may not be valid if Ryan Zimmerman’s shoulder injury proves worse than they’re letting on.)

5. Los Angeles Dodgers, 12-4 (68 RS, 58 RA) (Last week: 4)

If you’re a human and you’ve heard the word “baseball” said at least once at some point in your life, you probably know that Matt Kemp leads the universe in absolutely everything. But Kemp (and Clayton Kershaw) was never in doubt. What the Dodgers needed, and need, is a bunch of useful contributions from the other 23 guys on the roster. To wit: Jerry Hairston Jr. making gigantic defensive plays not once but twice to seal a 4-3 win over the Brewers on Thursday.

6. Atlanta Braves, 10-6 (91 RS, 66 RA) (Last week:14)

This week’s biggest risers (tied with another team to be revealed soon), the Braves built their big move on a 5-2 week, spearheaded by a suddenly monstrous offense that tallied 50 runs in those seven games. The catalyst was Michael Bourn, the Braves center fielder who’s gone 12-for-17 with four walks over his past five games, while swiping six bases in a recent six-game stretch (Mr. Bourn’s fantasy owners are acutely aware of this outburst). When it comes to game-changing leadoff men from the past week, he truly was no. 1.

7. New York Yankees, 9-6 (90 RS, 73 RA) (Last week: 7)

Gotta love those early-season stat lines, given the difference one great day can make. Curtis Granderson was hitting a pedestrian .208/.321/.458 heading into Thursday’s game. Then he launched an assault on Twins pitching that triggered multiple John Sterling orgasms, going 5-for-5 with three homers, ending up at .283/.377/.679. That was just a warm-up for Saturday’s Yankees comeback, which you might’ve heard about. Mark Teixeira blasted two homers and raised his slugging average 131 points Saturday; Nick Swisher bumped his season line to .283/.371/.583 as he tries to become one of the very few relevant free agents to hit the open market at season’s end coming off a big year. Per Elias Sports Bureau, Saturday’s comeback marked the first time in 10 years that a team had scored seven or more runs in consecutive innings; it had happened just five times dating back to June 1985, including another Yankees wipeout of the Red Sox in 2000.

The Yankees’ league-leading average of six runs scored per game has taken some of the sting out of a starting rotation that’s a bit of a mess: Freddy Garcia and Hiroki Kuroda have both ceded 1.5 homers per nine innings in their first three starts, while Phil Hughes is allowing a somewhat fluky but still terrifying 2.7 homers per nine innings. With the news that Michael Pineda’s been shut down due to continuing shoulder weakness, the Yankees are hoping someone other than CC Sabathia can provide plus innings every fifth day. The soon-to-be-40-year-old Andy Pettitte might be a long shot after a year out of baseball. Ivan Nova’s early 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate (and his streak of 15 straight winning decisions, if that’s your jam) offers some cause for optimism.

8. Toronto Blue Jays, 9-6 (78 RS, 70 RA) (Last week: 8)

A week after harping on the Jays’ unlikely .333 batting average with runners in scoring position, they hiked that mark to an MLB-leading .345, which is an excellent way to overcome a middle-of-the-packish .732 team OPS across all situations. Sergio Santos’s recent trip to the DL with shoulder inflammation should be a bigger deal in fantasy circles than in real life, given the lengths that management took to build a deep bullpen this offseason. But the Jays’ pen has been one of baseball’s worst, hovering right around replacement level as a unit. Toronto’s gotten around that problem by doing things like turning its first triple play in 33 years, scoring nine runs in support of a rookie making his first major league start, and riding Ricky Romero through eight-plus innings in two of his past three starts. At least two of those trends are probably not sustainable.

9. Tampa Bay Rays, 9-7 (76 RS, 78 RA) (Last week: 10)

The Rays have scored more runs than all but five other teams, a condition that probably won’t last, despite the team’s offseason offensive upgrades. Much more Rays-like have been the minor adjustments and bits of strategy that have come up more than ever this year on a team already known for obsessing over every detail.

They read up on pitch-framing studies done by Mike Fast (now with the Houston Astros) and other analysts, then signed Jose Molina, a 36-year-old plodder with a .631 career OPS and limited mobility behind the plate to be their starting catcher. That begot The Great Jose Molina (and Larry Vanover) Frame Job of 2012. They distribute cheat sheets to every position player for all of their frequent defensive shifts, even prompting some players to sneak a peek while on the field. They leave cheat sheets on every pitcher’s chair in the clubhouse, too, so that they can all study opponents’ tendencies against various pitch types and locations and weave that knowledge into that night’s repertoire.

But the most visible success story of Tampa Bay’s young season has been the transformation of Fernando Rodney. Always blessed with good raw stuff and some serious hat-brim swag, Rodney suffered from command issues ranging from serious to maybe-you-shouldn’t-stand-in-the-on-deck-circle. Sometimes the best solutions are also the easiest: The Rays had Rodney shift toward the left side of the rubber. Just like that, Rodney’s throwing 96-mph fastballs and 82-mph changeups when he wants, where he wants, and finding great success: The Rays’ substitute closer has struck out seven and walked just two in 7⅓ innings, while throwing the final pitch of the game in eight of the team’s nine wins this year.

10. Chicago White Sox, 9-6 (67 RS, 53 RA) (Last week: 13)

Jon Morosi ably covers the human-interest side of Philip Humber’s out-of-nowhere perfect game against the Mariners Saturday. A few nerdier points here:

• Humber’s perfect game wasn’t just the 21st flawless performance ever thrown in a major league game. It was also the first complete game of his career.

• If Humber’s wasn’t the most unlikely perfect game ever, it certainly was close: Entering the game, Humber had made 29 starts and had 11 wins. That’s the third-fewest starts and second-fewest wins prior to a perfect game in MLB history. (Fellow White Sox Charlie Robertson had made just three starts with just one win prior to twirling his perfecto in 1922.)

• Humber threw 32 sliders, resulting in 15 outs and six strikeouts. In his two starts this season, opponents are 1-for-22 with nine strikeouts in at-bats ending with a Humber slider. He threw his slider 13.5 percent of the time the first time through the order, then 45.8 percent of the time the next two times through the order. Leading off the ninth, Humber fell behind Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders 3-0. He stormed all the way back to strike him out on … yup, a slider. That was the first time in his career that Humber had ever struck out a batter after falling behind 3-0.

• From ESPNChicago’s Jon Greenberg’s game wrap:

“It didn’t take Humber long to see why the organization has been successful with reclamation projects. He talked to (Don) Cooper on the phone after the Sox claimed him in the winter, and Cooper immediately told him he wanted him to add a slider. In spring training, Humber got simple instructions: Stay tall, pitch downhill and attack the strike zone. And he’s gone from there.”

• We’re still trying to quantify exactly how much a pitching coach can affect a team’s results. But after a while, you see enough Esteban Loaiza, Matt Thornton, and Philip Humber stories and wonder if Don Cooper might be the best pitching coach in the business.

11. Cleveland Indians, 8-6 (74 RS, 72 RA) (Last week: 19)

Going 7-2 on your first road trip of the season (and 4-2 without All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera) is a good way to tie the Braves for biggest jump of the week. As Indians beat writer Jordan Bastian noted, the Indians’ bullpen has played an integral part in the team’s turnaround from an ugly start. In their first eight games of the season, Tribe relievers yielded 27 earned runs in 37⅓ innings, for a 6.51 ERA. In the six games since: 2 ER in 19⅔ IP, good for a 0.92 ERA. That’s a pretty dangerous combination when paired with the AL’s third-best offense by runs per game (5.3 R/G). And if you’re a neutral fan looking for a reason to back Cleveland, try this: Indians starters work faster than any other team. So the next time you’re flipping through MLB.TV and see Josh Beckett counting blades of grass before throwing the damn ball, flip to the Indians game instead.

12. Baltimore Orioles, 9-7 (68 RS, 71 RA) (Last week: 20)

If we’re going to ding the Dodgers for beating up on the Padres and Pirates early in the year, we have to acknowledge teams that have held up amid difficult schedules too. After sweeping the shaky Twins to start the year, the O’s played three straight top-10 teams from this list in New York, Toronto, and Chicago, then tangled with the Angels, who are off to a slow start but widely regarded as playoff contenders coming into the season. It’s been a team effort, too: Matt Weiters and Adam Jones are slugging .625 and .621, respectively; Jake Arrieta (3.27 FIP), Jason Hammel (2.84 FIP), and Wei-Yin Chen (15 strikeouts in 17⅓ innings) have all exceeded expectations thus far; and Nolan Reimold, by at least one measure, has been the second-best hitter in baseball.

It hasn’t been all peaches and cream. Jim Johnson’s 0.00 ERA and seven saves belie his poor peripherals and frequent habit of pitching into trouble; Jerry Meals’s bizarre strike zone and Alex Rios’s staredown of an 0-2 hanging curve allowed Johnson to escape with the save Thursday. Still, between color commentator Jim Palmer’s impressive ability to call out umpires even more than I do, the great throwback unis, and a batch of talented, young players helping the O’s overcome a tough early schedule, you should be watching more Baltimore games.

13. New York Mets, 8-6 (53 RS, 62 RA) (Last week: 12)

Another tough-schedule club, which helps explain this ranking despite the poor run differential. David Wright and a strong rotation have led the way: The Mets boast four starters with FIPs under 3.00. Still, this being the Mets, we’ve seen plenty of weirdness, too. There was the Luis Castillo play by fill-in center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, a play so ludicrous it made Terry Collins do this. The Mets somehow won the game, thanks to Scott Hairston’s legal takeout slide into Buster Posey.

And then there was the fallout from the Philip Humber perfect game. The Mets included Humber in the Johan Santana blockbuster trade of 2008. Four years later, Humber became the seventh former Met to throw a no-hitter, while the Mets themselves celebrate the 50th anniversary of the franchise with nary a one. Mets fan and Grantland agitator Cousin Sal has a post on the Mets’ no-no-less streak going up later today that you won’t want to miss.

14. San Francisco Giants, 7-7 (58 RS, 58 RA) (Last week: 16)

Speaking of Saturday’s crazy Mets-Giants game, the Giants set up their eventual loss when their second baseman failed to cover second on a grounder to short with runners on first and second and one out in the ninth. Can’t really blame the guy, though, considering this was Aubrey Huff, a 13-year major league veteran first baseman used to sliding to his left on grounders, who was manning the deuce for the first time ever. When we lobbied last week to get Brandon Belt into the lineup by any means necessary, we probably should have included the proviso, “Unless that means you’re going to do something amazingly stupid like play Aubrey Huff at second base with the game on the line.”

In brighter news, the Giants signed Madison Bumgarner to a five-year, $35 million contract earlier in the week, the most money ever guaranteed to a pitcher with less than two years of service time. The deal escalates to $40 million if Bumgarner qualifies as a Super 2 arbitration case at the end of this season. It also includes club option years for 2018 and 2019. This might seem like a lot of money compared to, say, the five-year, $14 million deal (with three club options) the Rays gave Matt Moore in December. But the Bumgarner contract reflects the realities of the market, and of this team: With players like Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Bumgarner’s teammate Matt Cain signing enormous long-term deals and fewer and fewer elite players expected to test free-agent waters in the near future, players gain leverage in negotiations, since the best ones stand to make a mint if they buck the trend and go out on the open market. With Tim Lincecum signed for only one more year after this one and justified concern that he might never again be the perennial Cy Young candidate he once was even if he does stay, it made sense for the Giants to lock up their two other aces in Cain and now Bumgarner. The hope is that San Francisco aggressively pursues a marquee bat after the ’13 season if and when the $42 million paid to Lincecum and Barry Zito that year comes off the books.

15. Arizona Diamondbacks, 8-8 (64 RS, 70 RA) (Last week: 5)

The second-steepest drop for any team, and the reasons go well beyond an ugly 2-5 week. The lineup was already struggling as Justin Upton battled a painful thumb injury; Chris Young tearing the AC joint in his right shoulder and sidelining his .410/.500/.897 start suddenly turned a once-strong Diamondbacks lineup into a Festival of Bloomquists. Upton made it back to the lineup over the weekend, but he’s now threatening the Mendoza line and might need a while longer to regain his stroke. Stephen Drew’s still recovering from a nasty ankle injury and hasn’t played a game yet this season. The curious Jason Kubel signing at least looks better now, with Gerardo Parra putting his excellent defense to good use in center while Young sits and Kubel is covering Parra’s old position in left.

A bad situation got worse when staff co-ace Daniel Hudson hit the DL Saturday with what doctors called a shoulder impingement. Soft tosser Josh Collmenter was already sitting on an ERA over 10 and needed replacing. The D-backs do have multiple attractive options to replace Hudson (and Collmenter too). For now they’re taking the path of least resistance, promoting Wade Miley from the bullpen to start Monday night. That leaves megaprospects Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer and the more polished Patrick Corbin to wait for their eventual promotions. If the lineup stays short-handed for much longer and Miley can’t deliver, the Diamondbacks might have to get a lot more aggressive about their promotion policy … and fast.

16. Los Angeles Angels, 6-10 (67 RS, 71 RA) (Last week: 11)

A generous ranking for a 6-10 team perhaps, but the Angels still own that deep starting rotation and Pujols-improved lineup that made them playoff and even World Series threats three weeks ago. Still, those losses are banked, and we probably need to reevaluate our year-end projections for the Halos at least a bit. The Replacement-Level Yankee Weblog, which runs detailed projections throughout the offseason and into the regular season, now pegs the Angels to win 85 games this year, five wins fewer than RLYW’s initial forecast.

The Angels did get some good news, both short-term (Scott Downs returning quickly from an ankle injury) and long-term (Erick Aybar signing a four-year, $35 million extension that looks like a bargain given the going rate for quality would-be free agents). But a poorly built (if talented) roster continues to dog the Angels’ decision-making process. The latest shenanigans happened Friday, when Mark Trumbo, who’d moved from first base last year to third base on Opening Day to the bench after repeated defensive miscues, got the start in left field Friday. The Angels hope to eventually free up lineup space by dealing Bobby Abreu. But the return of Kendrys Morales, the pending promotion of Mike Trout, and the continued employment of deceptively effective third baseman Alberto Callaspo still make it unclear where Trumbo will play, and how often. Too bad. Dude can mash.

17. Miami Marlins, 7-8 (57 RS, 53 RA) (Last week: 18)

What a weird team. The $106 million man, Jose Reyes, has been the Marlins’ worst position player year-to-date. The team’s supposed ace, Josh Johnson, has been stung by a .444 batting average on balls in play, but also by his strikeout rate getting cut in half from recent norms. Giancarlo Stanton, a dark-horse candidate for the NL home run title in some circles, hasn’t hit a single bomb, a bum knee hurting his defense too. Omar Infante is slugging .775, Hanley Ramirez is hitting like his old self (.385 wOBA) but can’t even pull off a simple tag play at third, and only two teams have been worse with the leather than Miami.

18. Colorado Rockies, 8-7 (72 RS, 77 RA) (Last week: 24)

One of the two teams to fare worse than the Marlins defensively is Colorado. And the biggest defensive disappointment on this or any other team has been Troy Tulowitzki. The two-time Gold Glove winner made six errors in his first 11 games this year, the same number he totaled for all of last season. Chalk up two of those mistakes to umpires foolishly letting the Rockies and Diamondbacks play through monsoon-like conditions on April 14. But the rest have weighed on Tulo’s mind. “It’s in my head,” he told the Denver Post‘s Troy Renck. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in my head. I think about it because I care.”

Still, the Rockies fought off those defensive concerns to post a 4-2 week, propelling themselves into second place in the NL West. Jamie Moyer won one of those games, thus becoming, at 49 years, 150 days, the oldest pitcher ever to win a major league game. The Moyer tributes have come hot and heavy, as have the (mostly good-natured) jokes about Moyer’s age. My two favorite factoids: (1) Moyer has faced 8.9 percent of all batters in MLB history, and (2) Moyer didn’t once crack 80 mph in setting his record for the aged.

19. Philadelphia Phillies, 7-9 (43 RS, 46 RA) (Last week: 15)

How does a struggling team with three aces and a miserable offense see its fortunes slip even further? When one of those aces pulls a poor man’s Harvey Haddix, then later gets diagnosed with a strained oblique and lands on the DL. Get well soon, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Like, really soon.

20. Cincinnati Reds, 7-9 (53 RS, 69 RA) (Last week: 17)

The 30 was, is, and will remain your official home for bitching about Aroldis Chapman’s job description until the Reds finally take action. But while young righties Homer Bailey and Mike Leake or 2011 washout Bronson Arroyo figured to be the most likely candidates to see their starting job Aroldis’d, Mat Latos has been the staff’s biggest disappointment. It’s tough, if not impossible, to spot any meaningful trends over three measly starts. So we’ll simply quote some Latos numbers without extrapolation: 6.5 K/9 IP (career 8.6/9 IP), 4.7 BB/9 IP (career 2.7/9 IP), 1.2 HR/9 IP (career 0.8/9 IP), O-Swing% (percentage of pitches a pitcher makes a hitter swing at out of the strike zone) 29.4 (career 32.2), swinging strike percentage 8.9 (career 10.7). We’ll chalk this up to random chance, small sample size, and maybe missing Petco Park (though Latos showed minimal home/road splits with the Padres). But the longer the guy you traded half your farm system to get struggles, the more doubt starts to creep in.

Your #FreeAroldis update: 11⅔ innings, 18 strikeouts, two walks, three hits, zero runs, one continued relegation to middle relief.

21. Milwaukee Brewers, 7-9 (67 RS, 79 RA), (Last week: 23)

We’re about one-tenth of the way into the season and one of the most productive offensive positions, surprisingly, has been catcher. Through Saturday, catchers were hitting .254/.335/.416, basically dead even with first basemen and trailing only DHs (hello, David Ortiz) and center fielder (hellooooo, Matt Kemp) in production. The Brewers have been responsible for much of that success. Even after Sunday’s 0-for-4, Milwaukee’s starting catcher Jonathan Lucroy’s hitting a robust .256/.348/.487. Meanwhile, backup George Kottaras has been lethal in 21 plate appearances, hitting a ludicrous .440/.550/1.067. The Brewers recently signed Lucroy to an extremely affordable five-year, $11 million contract (with a club option). Meanwhile, Kottaras was an OBP hound throughout his minor league career who started developing some power once he hit his late 20s. It’s painfully early, and both catchers will surely come back to earth. But at a combined $1.2 million this year, anything north of efficiently exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen would qualify as a raging success.

22. Boston Red Sox, 4-10 (70 RS, 95 RA) (Last week: 9)

So much ink has already been spilled on the Red Sox, and Bill Barnwell weighs in today with thoughts on Alfredo Aceves at The Triangle. I liked Hardball Talk writer Matthew Pouliot’s take the best: If Bobby Valentine was hired specifically because of his tactical prowess (fine, and some weird Larry Lucchino power play), then why aren’t we seeing any of this genius at work? Granted, the front office left the bullpen vulnerable by acquiring injury-prone Andrew Bailey and not fortifying much else beyond importing Mark Melancon from Houston. Injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury have decimated what figured to be a good-to-very-good outfield. And the rotation’s big three of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz has laid a succession of eggs, including a five-homer Buchholz strafing at the hands of the Yankees during Fenway Park’s 100th-anniversary game.

Booing Valentine for those shortcomings makes little sense. Even booing Valentine for calling out Kevin Youkilis doesn’t do much good: Valentine’s motivational techniques might be suspect, but we don’t have much proof that a manager griping about a player to the media negatively affects that player, much less the team. We do know that leaving Daniel Bard in to face Carlos Pena when Bard (a recently converted reliever-to-starter) had passed 100 pitches and Boston had rested-and-ready lefties waiting to come in could and did backfire. We know that after missing the plate by a mile repeatedly and walking Pena, Bard clearly signaled that he was done, only Valentine pushed him even further, having him face Evan Longoria. And we know that Bard walked Longoria on four pitches, cashing the only run either team would score and bumping the Rays to 3-0 on Patriots’ Day Fenway visits. Valentine also left lefty Franklin Morales to face lefty annihilator Mike Napoli on Tuesday with the bases loaded, resulting in a three-run double. He then had the right idea in getting Alfredo Aceves ready to pitch the eighth on Saturday, only to leave Morales in instead to give up a leadoff single first. Two ill-advised intentional walks merely fanned the flames, and the Yankees would eventually tack seven runs onto the seven they’d scored the inning before, turning a 9-0 deficit into a 15-9 win.

Trading for Marlon Byrd might help a little, if his months-long slump dating back to last year is more of a bad run than the aftereffects of getting beaned by Alfredo Aceves last May. Skipping Bard’s Monday start and possibly weaving him into the bullpen might help a little (though counting on Daisuke Matsuzaka as an effective replacement a month from now is probably asking too much). Being done with an impossibly tough early schedule (Tigers, Jays, Rays, Rangers, Yankees) will almost certainly help, as will moving on from a 14-game stretch in which every break that could have gone against the Red Sox did go against the Red Sox. No one wants to hear Valentine tell his team that they’ve hit rock bottom. But the truth is, they probably have. Just as the Rangers will come back to the pack a bit, the Red Sox will start stringing together wins, because there’s still plenty of talent here, and because the basic nature of regression toward the mean won’t let that not happen. Whether Boston can accomplish something more ambitious than that depends on a slew of factors, from better health to (much) better pitching to, yes, Valentine making the right decisions at the right time (granted, the former two much more than the latter). It seems unfathomable to imagine good tidings now, but this season has a long, long, long way to go.

23. Oakland A’s, 8-9 (52 RS, 56 RA) (Last week: 25)

Cliff Lee (along with Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips) and Bartolo Colon were traded for each other 10 years ago. That Colon is again pitching like the ace he was 10 years ago is nothing short of a medical miracle. That he threw 38 straight strikes Wednesday night against Albert Pujols and the rest of the Angels seems preposterous. That he’s the fourth-most-valuable pitcher in the majors so far this season seems impossible. That the A’s got Colon on a one-year for all of $2 million shows there’s still some Moneyball left in that front office after all.

24. Seattle Mariners, 7-10 (60 RS, 72 RA) (Last week: 21)

Did Brendan Ryan swing at the pitch that sealed Philip Humber’s perfect game? Sam Miller posted a screen-cap at Baseball Prospectus and … yeah, I don’t know either. When in doubt, give the guy the perfect game. Except those times when you don’t.

Oh, and if Tim Lincecum wants a blueprint for how to deal with diminished fastball velocity, he should watch a video of Felix Hernandez’s last start and witness the Changeup of Obliteration.

25. Houston Astros, 6-10 (71 RS, 61 RA) (Last week: 22)

A 12-0 whitewash of Chad Billingsley and the Dodgers takes some of the sting out of a five-loss week anyway. Of course, the rebuilding Astros are all about the long view right now. So here are a few encouraging signs:

• Possible trade bait Wandy Rodriguez has a 1.42 ERA (after Sunday’s seven shutout innings).

• 25-year-old Jordan Schafer is hitting .263/.373/.368 (after Sunday’s grand slam).

• 24-year-old J.D. Martinez is hitting .309/.424/.527.

• 21-year-old Jose Altuve is hitting .321/.381/.464.

26. Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-9 (30 RS, 44 RA) (Last week: 26)

The Pirates are last in the majors in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average. So what could possibly make them feel good right now? A.J. Burnett! No, seriously. The exiled Yankee, whom the Pirates got for a three-day-old Primanti sandwich last offseason, destroyed the National League’s best offense Saturday, hurling seven shutout innings while surrendering just three singles and two walks against seven strikeouts. He needed just 76 pitches for the day. Burnett’s still got this year and next left on his $82.5 million contract, most of it being paid by the Yanks. You wouldn’t count on him to succeed again, say, in the AL East. But a National League contender that needs pitching help at the deadline could do a lot worse than to check in on Burnett.

27. Minnesota Twins, 5-11 (58 RS, 85 RA) (Last week: 30)

A 3-4 week and some generally competitive baseball against the Yankees and Rays were enough to lift the Twins out of The 30′s basement for the first time this year. Josh Willingham’s been one of the five best hitters in the game to start the year, hitting .328/.435/.655. Denard Span’s also hitting .328, albeit with way, way less power. Justin Morneau’s striking out more than he ever has in the early going, but you don’t say no to a 40-homer pace given Morneau’s hellacious battles with migraines and other ailments.

Francisco Liriano, on the other hand? “We’re going to step back and see what we need to do to try and help him out,” Ron Gardenhire said after the game. Which sounds ominous and maybe even a bit premature … until you see Liriano’s season line: 16⅓ innings, 22 runs, 25 hits, and 13 walks.

28. San Diego Padres, 5-12 (60 RS, 71 RA) (Last week: 29)

Chase Headley before Wednesday’s Grantland Q&A sitdown: .238/.389/.500. Chase Headley after Wednesday’s Grantland Q&A sitdown: .438/.550/.875

29. Chicago Cubs, 4-12 (59 RS, 81 RA) (Last week: 27)

Starlin Castro has reached base in 55 of his last 56 games, dating back to mid-August of last year. He also has zero homers and three walks in 68 plate appearances this season. Which isn’t really a problem if he keeps hitting .365. Which almost certainly won’t happen given how tough it is to continue a .404 batting average on balls in play. Which is reasonable but also nitpicking given Castro’s age: He’s 22 freaking years old. We’re seeing some freaky ability here, like Ichiro arriving in the majors half a decade earlier, batting right-handed, and playing a pretty lousy shortstop.

30. Kansas City Royals, 3-12 (56 RS, 77 RA) (Last week: 28)

A sampling of tweets from my beleaguered Royals-fan friend and Grantland colleague Rany Jazayerli, as Kansas City built a 10-game losing streak:

• Yuniesky Betancourt has a .318 OBP. That’s not the bad news. The bad news is that among the 8 Royals with 20+ AB, his OBP ranks second.

• YUNIESKY BETANCOURT IS BATTING LEADOFF. I REPEAT: YUNI IS BATTING LEADOFF. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. EVERYONE TO BATTLE STATIONS IMMEDIATELY.

• This is now the 9th straight season the Royals have had a six-game losing streak – BY MAY 14TH.

• Seven times in the last 9 seasons, the Royals have had a six-game losing streak by the end of April.

• One of my favorite stats ever: the Royals once went OVER FIVE YEARS (4/12/03 to 6/21/08) without a six-game winning streak.

• The good news is that Detroit lost in extra innings, keeping the Royals just 6.5 games behind. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

• “Patience is the one thing that an organization most needs to develop stars – patience, and scouts.” I hope Royals have some. I’m fresh out.

• Alright, good night everyone. I’ve got better things to do with my life then watch this.

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