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The 30, Week 4: Don’t Mess With Tampa

The Rays rise while the Angels and Marlins, our offseason co-champs, are losing their way

The three teams that made the biggest splash this offseason are also the fastest fallers in this week’s rankings. You could say that shows how pennant races aren’t won in December and January … except they’re not won in April either.

All we have is the present. It’s Week 4 of The 30.

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

1. Texas Rangers, 16-6 (120 RS, 67 RA) (last week: 1)

Remember when we said last week that the Rangers had banked nothing but good fortune, how they’d dodged the injury bug, clobbered everyone in sight, and might be due for some bad tidings? That didn’t take long.

The Rays marched into Arlington over the weekend and took two out of three from Texas. That was a minor setback compared to Josh Hamilton’s early exit from the game. As loaded as the Rangers’ offense is, they’d surely miss the .395/.438/.744 annihilation their left field has laid on the league this season, and Hamilton has a long and alarming track record of missing games.

Still, with a team this good, you can’t help but look at the bright side. Dropping two out of three to the Rays marked the first time Texas lost a series all season. Hamilton’s injury has been diagnosed as a stiff back, and the Rangers are saying he’s just day-to-day. This is the team that continues to overcome its manager slotting its second-worst hitter (Elvis Andrus) in the no. 2 hole, while one of the top sluggers in the league (Mike Napoli) gets relegated to no. 8. It’s the team that can shake off Ron Washington ordering Andrus to bunt in the fourth inning, resulting in Hamilton having the bat taken out of his hands with an intentional walk. It’s a team so loaded with talent that it can withstand an ugly start by its nine-figure offseason signing, then wait for Yu Darvish to drop 10 strikeouts and 8⅓ scoreless on a team like the Yankees.

The Rangers could stay up here for a while.

2. Tampa Bay Rays, 14-8 (103 RS, 96 RA) (last week: 9)

A few words on what goes into ranking the 30 teams every week before we delve into the Rays. The formula includes some combination of won-lost record, run differential, strength of schedule, component stats, and a general sense of team quality. The question is how much weight each of those factors gets, and how those weights change over the course of the season. The Rays own the same record as four teams below them, and a worse record than one other team they outrank. They’ve scored only seven more runs than they’ve allowed, rank 21st in team ERA, and are toward the bottom of the league in team FIP, too. So why the no. 2 ranking this week, up seven spots from last week?

The schedule.

In this case, we’re placing an inordinate amount of weight on who the Rays have played: New York, at Detroit, at Boston, at Toronto, Minnesota, L.A., at Texas. If you figure the Angels (widely picked to win 90-plus games and vie for a playoff spot) will bounce back, that’s six out of seven teams likely to finish above .500, four of the strongest offenses in the league, and the best team in the majors in a span of 22 games (just nine of them at home). From a macro standpoint, that’s how you overlook some lousy early pitching stats (chalking up part of it to 12-2 and 13-5 losses to Boston that skew the numbers) and a probably unsustainable pace in close games (4-1 in one-run games, 6-2 in two-run games) and see one of the very best teams in baseball, year to date.

That and drilling down to specifics. David Price harnessing his blazing fastball and (finally) starting to pair it with a great changeup, tossing a career-high 29 in a shutout of the Angels and 24 against the Rangers, 18 of those for strikes. An improved and suddenly power-stacked offense getting big contributions from Matt Joyce (.327/.394/.667), Carlos Pena (.266/.396/.468), and Wolverine (.271/.328/.610). Joe Maddon, with the help of behind-the-scenes stats wizards James Click and Erik Neander, and even on-field audibles from James Shields, deploying defensive overshifts at a pace that threatens to shatter any previous team’s tendencies, including their own (we’ll see if it works as well as it did last year). And even some serendipity. From Rays PR ace Dave Haller comes this gem: Dan Johnson was a first baseman claimed from Oakland on April 21, 2008. He hit a ninth-inning home run in his first at-bat as a Ray (along with a few other slightly important homers). Brandon Allen was a first baseman claimed from Oakland on April 21, 2012. He got his first official at-bat as a Ray on Thursday, with the Rays down one in the bottom of the ninth. That worked out pretty well too.

3. St. Louis Cardinals, 14-8 (113 RS, 60 RA) (last week: 2)

If we’re going to make a fuss about Lance Lynn every week (and we will), let’s at least spread the love around. Cardinals teammates Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook join Lynn among the National League’s ERA leaders, giving the Cards the second-lowest ERA as a staff. Lynn, Lohse, Westbrook, and Jaime Garcia are a combined 13-2 with a 1.71 ERA in the Cardinals’ first 22 games. You do have to wonder about sustainability here. Lohse is striking out fewer than six batters per nine innings, Garcia and Westbrook about five. But it’s a staff with impeccable control: The Cardinals have issued fewer walks this season than any team in baseball. They put the ball on the ground, too, with Westbrook’s second-in-MLB 65.1 percent ground ball rate making him one of four St. Louis starters with GB rates above 50 percent. All that, plus a league-leading 113 runs scored.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers, 16-6 (89 RS, 73 RA) (last week: 5)

What a long, strange trip it’s been for Chris Capuano. The Diamondbacks drafted the lefty in the eighth round out of Duke in 1999. He made it further than most eighth-round picks, landing in Triple-A in 2002. Just a few games into that season, though, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm and went in for Tommy John surgery. Incredibly, and in a testament to how far medical procedures and rehab have come in baseball, less than a year later Capuano made his major league debut. He took the loss in a two-inning extra-inning appearance against the Braves. Two weeks later, the Pirates rocked him for seven runs in his first start, and Capuano was sent back to the minors. He bounced between Triple-A and the majors for the rest of that year, appearing in just nine major league games all told.

That offseason, Arizona shipped him and five other players to the Brewers in the infamous Richie Sexson trade. Capuano struggled in his first season in Milwaukee, yielding a mind-blowing 18 homers in 88⅓ innings and a 4.99 ERA. In 2005, he broke out, setting what remain career highs in wins, strikeouts, and starts. He pitched well again in 2006, then hit a wall in 2007: After starting the year 5-0, the Brewers lost the next 22 games he pitched. At year’s end, Capuano had his second Tommy John surgery. The list of pitchers who’ve had the surgery more than once and gone on to pitch even moderately well includes Jose Rijo and … ummm … Brian Wilson if he comes back strong next year. That’s about it. Milwaukee nontendered Capuano after the ’08 season, re-signed him to a minor league deal, then relegated him to the low minors for most of the year as he worked his way back into pitching shape. He made it back to the majors in 2010, throwing 66 innings with a 2½-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate as a swingman. The Mets then took a flyer, signing Capuano to a one-year, $1.5 million deal to pitch in 2011. Harnessing his trademark fastball-change combination (with occasional sliders and cutters mixed in), Capuano had his best season in half a decade, just missing a career high in strikeout rate and making 31 starts for the also-ran Mets.

With a need at the back of the rotation and the McCourt saga hanging over the team, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti saw an opportunity with Capuano. So it was that at age 33, 12 ½ years after getting drafted, he landed the biggest payday of his career, a backloaded, two-year, $10 million deal with a $6 million club option. On Sunday, Capuano hurled a gem for the Dodgers, striking out nine over 6⅔ shutout innings against the NL East–leading Nationals. He’s now 3-0 with a 2.73 ERA, averaging a strikeout per inning.

We’re long overdue to write at length about Matt Kemp, and you’ll see something on that front later this week. For now, let’s tip our caps to Chris Capuano, the four-team, two-time Tommy John survivor turned unlikely rotation mainstay for baseball’s biggest surprise team.

5. Atlanta Braves, 14-8 (113 RS, 86 RA) (last week: 6)

The offensive heroes keep coming for the NL’s top-scoring team (tied with the Cardinals). Slow-starting Dan Uggla raised his OPS 96 points over the past week. Michael Bourn, who got The 30 treatment last week, continues to roll and now ranks fifth in the NL in hitting at .344. Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and the ageless Chipper Jones have all had big moments for the Braves less than a month into the season, with Chipper becoming the third-oldest player ever to homer on his birthday (Jim Thome and Darrell Evans did it at 41, Chipper at 40).

But the biggest boost might come on the pitching side. Though they fell just short of the playoffs last year after a heartbreaking collapse, the Braves owned one of baseball’s deepest pitching staffs, one that figured to provide ample quality in 2012, with a bulging surplus of starters also making a big trade possible. Never happened. The Braves dumped Derek Lowe on the Indians for little more than salary relief. Then Tim Hudson missed the start of the season with back problems. Top prospect Arodys Vizcaino hurt his elbow and was lost to Tommy John surgery. Then Jair Jurrjens experienced infinite regression all at once, his 2.96 2011 ERA and so-so peripherals somehow exacting revenge on him in a span of four 2012 starts. Suddenly a team known for pitching both past and present needed to lean heavily on its offense, as well as its vaunted bullpen.

Thus, Hudson’s Sunday return couldn’t come soon enough. He went five innings, ceding six hits, two walks, and two runs against six strikeouts, making 96 pitches. With Hudson now working alongside young mainstays Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, and Mike Minor, the Braves figure to have the pitching to support their high-powered attack, assuming the hits keep coming.

6. New York Yankees, 12-9 (118 RS, 101 RA) (last week: 7)

From here on out every team comes with questions. In some cases, big questions.

Whether Michael Pineda’s torn labrum allows for Curt Schilling–like awesome rehab times or the Wade Miller path of doom, the Yankees know they’ll be without their big offseason acquisition for the rest of 2012. Problem is, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes are putting up sub–Ed Whitson numbers, with Garcia finally getting demoted to the bullpen in favor of rookie long man David Phelps, and Hughes remaining one of the biggest Yankees prospect enigmas in years. Andy Pettitte’s comeback continues as he starts in Single-A Tampa in front of Yankees brass, but it’s hardly a given that a soon-to-be-40 Pettitte can or will deliver league-average or better pitching over 25-plus starts. Meanwhile, top pitching prospect Manny Banuelos got off to a horrific start this season before hitting the minor league DL, and big right-hander and onetime hot prospect Dellin Betances is walking a batter an inning at Triple-A.

The Yankees have cruised to the playoffs before with a thin rotation behind CC Sabathia, with the always-potent offense now backed by a strong bullpen. But the trade deadline could nonetheless offer intrigue if status quo holds: Do the Yankees shop for starting pitching help when summer hits, or do they go with what they’ve got, hoping they can bludgeon teams early and get Mo late, then get Pineda back for 2013, all while eventually downsizing below the luxury tax threshold? It might seem early to ask these questions. Then again, if current form holds, this could be the strongest AL East we’ll have seen in years. And that’s saying something.

7. Washington Nationals, 14-8 (74 RS, 59 RA) (last week: 4)

Last week we wrote: “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.)”

Turns out Ryan Zimmerman’s shoulder injury was worse than they were letting on. And now, despite a near-historic April for the starting rotation and the energizing promotion of Bryce Harper, the Nats might be primed for some regression.

8. Baltimore Orioles, 14-8 (95 RS, 82 RA) (last week: 12)

BWI rivalry! Thing is, while you could close your eyes and imagine an upgraded Nationals rotation fostering a contender in D.C., even the most loyal, Boog’s Barbecue–engorged orange-and-black supporter wouldn’t have predicted a contender on Eutaw Street. After 22 games, the O’s very much belong in this spot, winning six of their past seven games to climb into a tie for first in the AL East. Is there any chance they can claim contender status 100 games from now? Or hell, even 20 games from now?

For some added insight we turned to Baseball Prospectus writer and Orioles superfan Jon Bernhardt. Are you skeptical of Jason Hammel’s 1.73 ERA to start the season? Bernhardt notes that Hammel’s three-to-one strikeout-to-walk rate and lofty 61.8 percent ground ball rate can be at least partially traced to a sinker that Hammel started throwing this year (because apparently having an effective sinker at Coors Field isn’t useful??). Adam Jones’s .330/.359/.614 start smacks of batted-ball luck and a Jonesesque microscopic walk rate that’ll cause his overall numbers to drop sharply sometime soon; but Jones is also roping line drives at his highest rate since he became a full-time player, small sample size caveat acknowledged. Matt Wieters might be turning into the franchise player everyone expected. And Rangers castoff Pedro Strop has been a late-inning revelation as a flame-throwing strikeout and ground ball guy, whether he settles in as the primary setup man or as Jim Johnson’s replacement. Actually, the Rangers donated three of Baltimore’s top 2012 contributors: Strop, starter Tommy Hunter, and first baseman Chris Davis, because they have so much talent they sometimes run out of room.

The O’s get the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Rays, and Yankees in their next five series. That means this very well might be the last time this season they achieve these heights. If so, we salute you, Baltimore, with your killer crab cake Benedicts and your compelling walk-off bombs.

9. Toronto Blue Jays, 12-10 (104 RS, 102 RA) (last week: 8)

Edwin Encaranacion is a house afire. Finally (maybe?) (hopefully?!) making good on years of big potential, Encarnacion has combined his trademark power (seven homers, .644 SLG) with a .310 average to become one of the league’s top hitters as we roll into May. Over his past three games, Encarnacion has reached base seven times in 11 plate appearances, with three homers and two doubles. He’s been so potent with the bat that manager John Farrell took the unusual step of publicly anointing him as the team’s new cleanup hitter.

More good news: Brandon Morrow finally had a start that earned the prodigious hype he’s gotten in baseball and especially fantasy baseball circles for the past few years. Facing the Mariners on Saturday, Morrow fired six shutout innings, allowing six hits and striking out nine batters. It was an encouraging sign for a pitcher who’d fanned just a batter every other inning coming into that start. And get this: This marked the first time in Morrow’s 76 career starts that he’d issued zero walks. Morrow’s slider was particularly effective, with six strikeouts coming on that pitch and Seattle hitters going 0-for-9 on at-bats that ended with Morrow sliders. The day after Morrow’s big outing, Henderson Alvarez won his first game of the season, a 7-2 decision over the M’s. It was interesting to read about Alvarez’s own slider, and how he’d picked it up from fellow Venezuelan Felix Hernandez. But if Morrow’s road has seemed bumpy, Alvarez’s threatens to run off a cliff — no amount of deception is going to cover for 2.5 strikeouts per nine innings for very long.

Like the Yankees with Sabathia, the Jays need someone behind their ace to produce above-average numbers out of the rotation. Unlike the Yankees, the rest of the roster’s not strong enough for a playoff push, if that second-tier starting strength never comes.

10. Cleveland Indians, 11-9 (90 RS, 91 RA) (last week: 11)

Albert Pujols’s homerless streak has been the big attention grabber, but here’s a weird one for you: The Indians haven’t homered since the fifth inning of their April 17 game against the Mariners, when Carlos Santana went deep off Kevin Millwood. Yet Cleveland’s got 6-5 during that dingerless stretch, claiming first place in the AL Central with the Tigers and White Sox falling into nasty slumps. They’ve gotten it done with pitching, timely hitting, and some luck: The Indians have allowed just 10 runs in those six wins, going 4-1 in one-run games during this 11-game stretch. Oh, and your top four Indians pitchers so far this season? Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin, Joe Smith, and Jeanmar Gomez. Weird times, Cleveland. Weird times.

11. Detroit Tigers, 11-11 (94 RS, 104 RA) (last week: 3)

Go 1-5 for the week and get swept (at home!) by the Mariners(!!) and you lose your penthouse digs in a hurry. Over the past 10 games dating back to the start of the Rangers series, opponents have outscored the Tigers 64-36. The back of the rotation has been a complete mess, with Rick Porcello and his perennially flaccid strikeout rate catching up to him, Max Scherzer getting beaten senseless by a .459 batting average on balls in play, and fill-in lefty starter getting roasted his last two times out before his losing his rotation spot. Also, Jose Valverde’s been a replacement-level pitcher, Brennan Boesch has a .607 OPS, and Tigers second basemen and DHs have collectively hit a number so low it can’t be calibrated by 21st-century technology. Oh, and Delmon Young got arrested after a brawl in New York and is being charged with a hate crime. On the six-year anniversary of the Delmon Young Bat Toss. With Young’s lousy bat, terrible glove, and indifferent base running adding up to a sub-replacement-level player so far this season.

So where can the Tigers turn, other than to the defending MVP and their $366 million corner infield bookends? Why, to Drew Smyly of course. Through his first four starts, Smyly sports a 1.23 ERA. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that Smyly is the first pitcher since 1900 to allow one run or fewer in each of his four appearances in the majors, with all four appearances being starts. He won’t keep pitching at a Justin Verlander pace, of course. But there’s reason to feel optimistic if you’re a Tigers fan, or even a fantasy owner: Smyly carved through two of the best offenses in baseball in his past two starts, striking out 14, walking four, and allowing just two runs over 12 innings against the loaded Yankees and Rangers. Doug Fister’s expected to start a rehab assignment this week, but even when he returns, Fister would take the spot now occupied by Duane Below. If you want a superstealthy Rookie of the Year candidate, Drew Smyly’s your guy.

12. New York Mets, 13-9 (88 RS, 107 RA) (last week: 13)

A tidy 5-3 week to move up in the standings, but this is as shaky a 13-9 team as you’ll ever find. The Mets committed six errors in Friday night’s 18-9 debacle of a loss, including a fifth inning from hell that wiped out whatever good feelings Scott Hairston hitting for the cycle might’ve prompted. The weirdest element of the Mets’ season, though, has been the team’s criminal lack of support for Johan Santana. After sitting out all last season, Santana has returned to his dominant form of old, flashing a 2.25 ERA and 1.90 FIP in his four starts. Somehow, the Mets didn’t score a single run while Santana was in the game for his first three outings. They finally broke through on Sunday against Jamie Moyer … only to have the bullpen blow a 4-0 lead on a Todd Helton pinch-hit grand slam in the eighth. LOOGY Tim Byrdak was the man who gave up the slam, which is a damn shame. Byrdak easily ranks among the top 10 relievers in the game in legendary wrestler-impression-to-walk ratio.

13. San Francisco Giants, 12-10 (90 RS, 86 RA) (last week: 14)

Interesting question posed by Grantland colleague and Gchat pal Jay Caspian Kang: Is Madison Bumgarner a top-10 starting pitcher?

Jay’s an avid fantasy baseball player, and he was referencing fantasy value when asking the question. On the fantasy front, Bumgarner’s nowhere close so far this year, despite his shiny 4-1 record and 2.53 ERA. Part of that’s due to an inordinate number of pitchers flashing ERAs from the Bob Gibson circa late-’60s catalog. But a steep drop in strikeout rate, to less than five per nine innings, also plays a big part in preventing MadBum’s ascent. Bumgarner’s velocity is intact, so no major worries there. The big wrinkle this year has been a sharp decline in Bumgarner’s fastball usage, with a lot more sliders being thrown instead. It’s probably not a coincidence that Bumgarner’s groundball rate has shot up to a career-high 55.4 percent in 2012.

Burning worms at that rate and pitching to contact in a pitcher-friendly park could help Bumgarner go deep into games, maybe even thrive during a possible Giants playoff run. But if the strikeout slump persists, that would likely hurt Bumgarner’s real-life value nearly as much as his fantasy value. Pitching in a favorable environment and preventing walks are excellent ways to get by with subpar strikeout totals. Still, there’s still nothing surer than blowing a pitch by a hitter. Whether Bumgarner’s strikeout reduction is by design or not, it warrants watching … in real life, and otherwise.

14. Chicago White Sox, 11-11 (85 RS, 82 RA) (last week: 10)

Carrying a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Red Sox, even with the wind blowing in at New Comiskey and Boston down an Ellsbury, a Crawford, and a Youkilis, is pretty impressive. Such is life for Gavin Floyd and his boom-or-bust 2012 season. In two of his starts this year, Floyd has surrendered five runs each time, serving up four gopher balls and five walks (against 10 strikeouts) over 11 innings. In his other three starts, including his nine-strikeout, 6⅔-inning gem against Boston on Sunday, Floyd has ceded just two runs over 20 innings, with zero homers and six walks allowed, against 21 strikeouts.

In other words, when Floyd’s on, he pitches like teammate and MLB pitching WAR leader Jake Peavy has … all the time.

15. Boston Red Sox, 10-11 (116 RS, 118 RA) (last week: 22)

Another week, another wild swing for the Red Sox. Lots to cover, so let’s hit the bullets.

• Carl Crawford’s elbow injury was worse than first believed, and the left fielder will now miss the next three months. This isn’t necessarily keeping the Sox up nights: Crawford was a big disappointment last year, hasn’t played a game this year, and Cody Ross (.359 Weighted On-Base Average) and Ryan Sweeney (.410 wOBA!) have done an excellent job covering the corners.

• Kevin Youkilis was scratched Sunday with a bad back. Youkilis was an exceptional hitter from 2008 through 2010, ranking behind only Albert Pujols for best wOBA in baseball. He’s hitting .219/.292/.344 this year, and suffering through his second straight season of seemingly perpetual injuries. Fans have a tendency to impatient and forget the recent past when their favorite team struggles. Still, you watch Youkilis with his diminished mobility, sketchy health, and weak (if from a small sample size) numbers, and you can’t help but pine for top third-base prospect Will Middlebrooks and his 1.104 OPS this season.

• More Bobby Valentine shenanigans, because the man apparently can’t stay shenaniganless for more than 10 minutes. When Valentine filled out his lineup card last week against Twins starter Liam Hendriks, the skipper thought he was a lefty. Per ESPNBoston’s Gordon Edes:

“‘I looked on this thing,’ Valentine said, gesturing to his cellphone, ‘and there was no history on him. It had his name, and “against left-handed hitting.” My fault. That’s why you make these lineups out early enough.'”

Then there was Valentine’s Mr. Burns–like speech to Jon Lester before Saturday’s game, which netted seven scoreless innings for the lefty:

“‘Sometime, either yesterday or today, [Lester] asked what he had to do. I told him to pitch like an ace. Tonight, he pitched like an ace.'”

Also known as …

“You there, Strawberry. Hit a home run!”

“OK, skip!”

16. Arizona Diamondbacks, 11-11 (95 RS, 97 RA) (Last week: 15)

After getting repeatedly whacked like a pinata, Josh Collmenter finally got demoted to the bullpen. Rather than call up megaprospects Tyler Skaggs or Trevor Bauer, the Diamondbacks tapped Patrick Corbin, a left-hander they consider more polished, for the vacated starter’s job. Corbin is merely the latest Arizona starter causing intrigue in the desert. Wade Miley, the lefty long man converted to the rotation a week ago, has struck out 13 batters, walked three, and allowed just three hits in his two starts and 12⅓ innings pitched. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders would be the biggest sell-high candidate in the history of fantasy baseball if everyone weren’t already so painfully aware of just how Joe Saunders he is. To wit:

0.90 ERA
5.4 K/9 IP
.214 BABIP
4.3 percent HR/FB
89.8 percent strand rate

The reckoning, she is coming.

17. Cincinnati Reds, 11-11 (87 RS, 90 RA) (last week: 20)

Johnny Cueto got something of a Joe Saunders treatment (or at least a Jair Jurrjens treatment) last season after posting a 2.31 ERA that would have ranked second in MLB had Cueto racked up a few more innings to qualify for the league ERA title, but with an accompanying 3.90 xFIP that made him look decidedly mediocre. Cueto’s up to the same tricks this year, with a 3-0 record and 1.39 ERA to start the year … but also an xFIP nearly three runs higher at 4.16. Cueto’s pitched inordinately well with men on base (.454 OPS allowed with runners in scoring position, vs. .624 with nobody on) and also received strong bullpen support, inflating his strand rate to a sky-high 91.2 percent (league average is in the low-70s).

Cueto’s certainly not the strikeout pitcher he was in his rookie season, when he fanned more than eight batters per nine innings. But he’s trimmed his walk gradually over time, and induces more groundballs now than he did early in his career. He’s also backed by a strong defense that ranked third in team UZR last year and now features Zack Cozart playing shortstop everyday. We can’t call Cueto a Matt Cain–level DIPS destroyer yet. But just because a pitcher’s a bit overrated by traditional metrics doesn’t mean he can’t be a valuable member of a playoff hopeful.

18. Seattle Mariners, 11-12 (92 RS, 100 RA) (last week: 24)

A three-game sweep of the Tigers in Detroit, with the M’s winning the series by a combined score of 21-9? Not bad at all. Using Leverage Index on a Mariners broadcast to explain the impact of rookie Lucas Luetge’s outing and the importance of high-leverage situations for relief pitchers in general … now if someone could just figure out what happened to Justin Smoak (.187/.238/.320), we’d be in business.

19. Oakland A’s, 11-12 (67 RS, 81 RA) (last week: 23)

Lose Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez? No problem. The A’s rank third in ERA (3.11) and third in FIP (3.69) despite the offseason trades of two of their top three starters. Only Texas has allowed fewer home runs among AL teams. The offense, on the other hand, has been abysmal. Kurt Suzuki (.228 wOBA), Coco Crisp (.238 wOBA), Eric Sogard (.240 wOBA), Jemile Weeks (.255 wOBA), and Daric Barton (.277 wOBA) all rank among the worst hitters in baseball at their respective positions.

20. Philadelphia Phillies, 10-12 (70 RS, 74 RA) (last week: 19)

When news broke that Hunter Pence tweaked his left shoulder and would be going for an MRI to check it out, you could hear every Phillies fan in a 500-mile radius flipping frantically to the Eagles long snapper depth chart. A serious injury to Pence, coupled with the prolonged absences of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, might’ve signaled the end for a pitching-loaded team that can’t buy a lick of offense. Fortunately Pence’s injury proved to be minor, and Howard just got cleared for baseball activities, meaning he can start his rehab in earnest now. When Juan Pierre’s one of your offensive bright spots, you wonder if $50 million might have been better spent some other way.

21. Milwaukee Brewers, 10-12 (94 RS, 119 RA) (last week: 21)

No Prince? No problem. The Brewers lead the National League with 29 homers. It’s been a balanced attack, led by Corey Hart with six homers and a .286/.378/.671 line. The three-year, $26.5 million contract Milwaukee gave Hart before the start of the 2011 season looks better and better for the team every day. On the pitching front, Zack Greinke’s stat line looks better and better with each passing start; he has a 1.73 ERA and 25-to-5 strikeout-to-walk rate across all his 2012 starts but one, the April 12 eight-run meltdown against the Cubs. Perhaps no team in baseball has a more favorable schedule just ahead than the Brewers: Padres, Giants, Reds, Cubs, Mets, Astros, Twins. If you’ve created some kind of Intrade program for The 30 (and you’re my kind of nerd if you did), Milwaukee’s the team to back for biggest potential mover in the next three weeks.

22. Los Angeles Angels, 7-15 (76 RS, 91 RA) (last week: 16)

We gave the Angels the benefit of the doubt for a while, but a 1-5 week has the Halos fighting for scraps with other bottom-feeders at this point. Albert Pujols is hitting .216/.266/.295 with no homers in 94 plate appearances. He’s walking less than he ever has, striking out more than he ever has, and has been the third-least valuable player in baseball year-to-date by WAR. The good news for Pujols and the Angels is it can’t possibly get any worse. Mike Trout got the call from Triple-A just hours after Bryce Harper got his, and could help the team in a variety of ways. What’ll be interesting to see is who sits with Trout in the lineup. Peter Bourjos, a breathtakingly great defensive center fielder, grabbed pine Sunday by dint of his .167 batting average.

One guy who won’t be competing for Angels playing time: Bobby Abreu, who got the boot when the Trout move was announced. Per the Orange County Register‘s Bill Plunkett, the Angels owe $9 million through the rest of this year to Abreu. Since August 2009, the Angels have eaten a total of $46 million by dumping Justin Speier, Scott Kazmir, Gary Matthews Jr., and now Abreu.

Not fed up enough with the Angels’ recent player acquisitions and roster management? With Abreu gone and the Angels still stuck paying and playing Vernon Wells, the team now includes nine right-handed hitters, four switch-hitters … and zero left-handed hitters, making the Halos easily the most lopsided team in the league. Meanwhile, Mark Trumbo played five positions in five nights recently and Mike Scioscia stripped Jordan Walden of his closer role after exactly one blown save, temporarily handing the job to veteran Scott Downs … at least while they consider alternate options like Grant Balfour, Joel Hanrahan, and Brandon League, per Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe.

Though the season in many senses has just begun, betting on the Angels to make up a nine-game deficit on Texas might already be too much to ask. But simply putting the best nine players on the field as often as possible would go a long way toward helping the Angels start the climb back. Pujols is almost certainly going to hit sooner or later. Best to get everything else settled while we wait.

23. Colorado Rockies, 10-11 (107 RS, 110 RA) (last week: 18)

Jeremy Guthrie suffers a freak bicycle accident, lands on the DL, and he’s still out of the running for craziest injury in Rockies history? Such is the legacy of Clint Barmes and his deer meat. The Rockies do have two other freaks on the roster, though. Jamie Moyer, the 49-year-old starter who broke the all-time record for oldest pitcher ever to win a game, leads the Rockies in pitcher WAR. The stealthier one is Todd Helton, the 38-year-old Colorado lifer who’s hitting .270/.352/.587 and leads the club in both position-player WAR and Peyton Manning–inspiring highlights.

24. Miami Marlins, 8-13 (68 RS, 78 RA) (last week: 17)

By any measure known to man, Heath Bell has been awful in his first month as a Marlin. He’s posted a 9.53 ERA, allowed 16 base runners in 5⅔ innings, and isn’t getting anyone to swing and miss. There are some positive signs amid the wreckage of a 1-5 week and last place in the NL Central: Giancarlo Stanton’s first homer of the season (a drought nearly as shocking as Pujols’s); Anibal Sanchez striking out 14 D-Backs on Saturday and looking more and more like the ace of the staff; and Josh Johnson pitching way, way better than his 5.34 ERA would indicate, looking good in virtually every metric except BABIP (.436). But Bell’s already making the Marlins regret splurging for him over the winter, and he’s only just begun to take $27 million from the team over the next three years.

Paying big bucks for closers is a bad idea. Paying big bucks for closers is a bad idea. Don’t do it. Stay far away.

25. Houston Astros, 8-14 (100 RS, 97 RA) (last week: 25)

National League batting average leaders:

Matt Kemp: .425
David Wright: .397
Player X: .373
Buster Posey: .353
Michael Bourn: .344

Player X is the shortest player in the majors at 5-foot-5. He’s a week away from his 22nd birthday. He hit .276 (with a .297 on-base percentage) in his rookie season last year. He’s walking a lot more, striking out a bit more, and hitting for a lot more power than he did in his debut season. His batting average is wildly inflated by a .435 BABIP, but with seven doubles, three triples, and a homer already this season, he’s flashing some poor man’s Dustin Pedroia pop. His team is in complete rebuild mode, and desperately needs some core players to build around.

It’s so early in his career, but the Astros might … might end up with that kind of player in Jose Altuve.

26. Pittsburgh Pirates, 9-12 (49 RS, 63 RA) (last week: 26)

On Wednesday, James McDonald allowed only one hit in seven innings, the first hit coming in the seventh. He struck out eight, and allowed only one run. And he got a no-decision. Elias Sports Bureau informs us that the Pirates are the first team since the 1972 Brewers to score five runs or fewer in the first 20 games of the season.

And yet … I’m telling you now to go get Pedro Alvarez in your fantasy league. Seven hits in his last 18 at-bats, with four doubles and two homers. He’s always had the power potential, his batting average will rise at least a bit more as more balls in play fall for hits (though he might still lead the league in strikeout rate), and talented teammates like Neil Walker and especially Andrew McCutchen just can’t stay this bad forever. Alvarez’s upside amounts to Mark Reynolds in a good year, so don’t expect any batting average help. But if you’re in a deep league and a frustrated leaguemate dumped him, pick him up.

27. Chicago Cubs, 8-14 (78 RS, 97 RA) (last week: 29)

This is as interesting a no. 27 team as you could hope to find. Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija are a treat to watch every five days, Starlin Castro might have the quickest wrists in the game, and Bryan LaHair is one of the best stories in baseball. LaHair’s .607 (.607!!!) BABIP will regulate just a tad, which should bring down his overall numbers. Still, this is a guy forever labeled a Quadruple-A player, a journeyman who hit and hit in the minors but could never get a clean break. Comes up to the majors … and posts a 1.197 OPS. If you don’t like the Bryan LaHair story, you’re either a Cardinals fan or you’re not trying.

28. San Diego Padres, 7-16 (72 RS, 91 RA) (last week: 28)

Chase Headley’s early-season heroics aside, there’s not much to cheer for right now in San Diego. So here are two items that’ll make Padres fans better about the future: The team’s considering moving in the right-center-field fence enough to require slightly less than a rocket launcher to hit a home run that way, and a group led by Peter O’Malley might buy the Padres by the All-Star break, which would end an ownership mess that wasn’t quite on the McCourt level, but was a giant headache for the Padres and MLB nonetheless.

29. Kansas City Royals, 6-15 (83 RS, 102 RA) (last week: 30)

Danny Duffy’s a 23-year-old left-hander who’s also one of the hardest-throwing starting pitchers in the majors. This is a good thing.

Fans in the best seats in the house reading books during live game action, though? Worst. Promotion. Ever.

30. Minnesota Twins, 6-15 (84 RS, 120 RA) (last week: 27)

The good news? Finally halted a six-game losing streak Sunday. The bad news? It took the team so bad that reading books during games was a better alternative to do it.

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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