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The 30, Week 15: Never Say Die

Ben Sheets proves once again that the comeback is always the best story in baseball.

Ben Sheets

Eleven years ago this month, Ben Sheets was a phenom. A first-round pick for the Brewers, he’d made it to the big leagues in less than two years. Went 10-5 with a 3.69 ERA in his first 16 major league starts, at the height of the steroids era. Made the All-Star game as a rookie. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, he was a specimen, with the kind of sturdy build that suggested plenty of 220-inning seasons and All-Star Games to come.

Eight years ago this month, Ben Sheets was a superstar. He wielded a 93-mph fastball he could spot anywhere, anytime, and a big curveball that made hitters’ knees turn to pudding. Sheets may have been one of the five best pitchers on the planet. In 2004, he finished second in strikeouts (264), third in innings pitched (237), third in ERA (2.70), second in FIP (2.65), and second in Wins Above Replacement (8.0, per FanGraphs). His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 8.3 to 1 was the best in all of baseball. If you faced Sheets that year, about the best you could do was pray for a quick death.

Six years ago this month, after making 102 starts from 2002 through 2004, injuries had started to sidetrack Sheets’s career. He was still extraordinarily efficient when he pitched, striking out a combined 257 batters and walking just 36 in 2005 and 2006. But he made just 39 combined starts in those two seasons, a seven-week DL stint due to shoulder tendinitis in the summer of 2006 the most troubling of those setbacks.

Four years ago this month, Ben Sheets was the National League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game. He wasn’t quite the unstoppable force he’d been four years earlier. But he’d regained his health and reemerged as one of the best pitchers in the league. He went 10-3 with a 2.85 ERA in the first half of the 2008 season, then became the first Brewer ever to start the mid-summer classic. With a dynamic young offense and trade deadline splash CC Sabathia riding shotgun, Sheets helped lead the downtrodden Brewers to their first playoff berth in 26 years. But because of a barking elbow, Sheets never got to pitch in that year’s playoffs.

Two years ago this month, Ben Sheets was one of baseball’s best comeback stories. He was about to sign a two-year contract with the Rangers in February 2009 when tests showed major damage to the flexor tendon in his right elbow. Sheets had surgery on the elbow and didn’t throw a single pitch in the big leagues in ’09. The A’s took a big leap of faith with him in January 2010, handing out a one-year, $10 million contract that raised a lot of eyebrows in baseball circles. Sheets didn’t regain his ace status of old. But he did emerge as a competent innings eater, answering the bell for each of his first 20 starts in 2010, then posting a 2.25 ERA in three July starts (albeit with so-so peripherals) that enticed several suitors as the trade deadline approached. He wasn’t a star, or anything close, but he was a hot commodity again. Then the bottom fell out. The swollen elbow Sheets had pitched through over those three July starts turned out to be the result of another torn flexor tendon, as well as a torn pronator tendon and a torn ulnar collateral ligament, requiring complicated surgery that included a Tommy John procedure and more. Sheets vanished from the baseball landscape, presumably never to be heard from again.

Until Sunday. Nearly two years to the day after throwing his last big league pitch, Ben Sheets took the mound against the New York Mets — and dominated them. Commanding all of his pitches, Sheets breezed through six innings, striking out five, walking one, allowing just two hits and no runs. He got some help from home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor, who called an inconsistent strike zone for much of the day, and handed Sheets six or seven strike calls on pitches off the plate. None of that would dampen Sheets’s day, a day he fought two long years to have, one that seemed impossible to most others in the game, if indeed they ever stopped to think about the old right-hander who’d seeimgly disappeared from baseball forever.

We can never be sure what the future will hold. Sheets might never pitch that well again. He might not even be long for the Atlanta rotation. But right now, the Braves are the hottest team in baseball. And the guy who bagged their seventh win in a row is a shining example of perseverance and determination. Ben Sheets, we salute you.

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

1. New York Yankees, 54-34 (431 RS, 365 RA) (last week: 1)

Who won the Curtis Granderson trade? Seems like a trick question, doesn’t it? Walk the streets of any city that’s not Detroit (and maaaaaybe Phoenix), and it’s likely that most people would refer to the three-team, seven-player deal that went down December 8, 2009, as “the Curtis Granderson trade.” But the Yankees, Tigers, and Diamondbacks have all derived excellent value from the exchange.

For Arizona, the big coup was landing Ian Kennedy, then watching him break out in the desert. This after Kennedy rode the shuttle between New York and Scranton more often than Jan Levenson in heat. Kennedy’s 2011 season (21-4, 2.88 ERA, 3.22 FIP, 222 IP, 5.0 WAR) ranks as one of the best seasons by any starting pitcher in franchise history. The D-backs also landed veteran right-hander Edwin Jackson in the trade; seven months later, Jackson was shipped to the White Sox, with Daniel Hudson and minor leaguer David Holmberg coming back. Hudson was also terrific in Arizona last year, virtually matching Kennedy in multiple statistical categories (222 IP, 3.28 FIP, 4.9 WAR). Kennedy’s tailed off a bit this year, and Hudson’s not expected back until next summer after Tommy John surgery. Still, the Diamondbacks rebuilt the top of their starting rotation, and it all started with one trade.

Tigers fans are over the moon these days with how the trade has worked out. One lefty reliever acquired in the deal (Daniel Schlereth) hasn’t amounted to much, while the other (Phil Coke) has thrown a bunch of high-leverage relief innings, even spent a little time in the rotation, and acquitted himself well overall. Max Scherzer’s an enigma. Armed with great raw stuff and the best strikeout rate in the American League this year (11 K/9 IP), you’d think Scherzer would have found stardom by now. But accelerated batting averages in play (up to .356 this year) and home run-per-fly ball (up to 14.7 percent this year) rates, combined with an increasing tendency to put the ball in the air, have seen Scherzer get hit and hit hard far too often. Maybe he’s the victim of bad luck, or maybe he hasn’t fully figured out how to pitch yet. Either way, the Tigers have, at the very least, a starting pitcher with major talent and upside. None of those players have Tigers fans nearly as excited as does Austin Jackson. The 25-year-old center fielder burst onto the scene in 2010 by hitting .293, scoring 103 runs, swiping 27 bases, and playing good defense; his numbers were inflated by a .396 BABIP, he hit only four homers, and struck out three and a half times more often than he walked, but you could see potential there. Fewer balls dropped in the next year, but Jackson’s power and walk rate edged up in 2011. This season, Jackson has emerged as a premier player and borderline MVP candidate: He’s hitting .323/.405/.538, with huge improvements in all underlying stats (as well as a .406 BABIP, though you get the sense his skill set will allow for high numbers in that category). On Sunday, Jackson extended his run-scoring streak to 12 games, the longest by a Tiger since Rocky Colavito in 1961. The Tigers are starting to make a move in the AL Central, and Jackson’s one of the biggest reasons why.

So should the Yankees have pulled the trigger, given all (Kennedy, Coke, Jackson) they gave up? If this were just an exercise in WAR counting, then no. But for all the homegrown success stories in New York (Jeter, Rivera, Williams, Posada, Pettitte, Cano, etc.), this is a team that’s built to contend for the World Series every year, making it logical to favor established stars over green rookies who’d need to learn, and would possibly struggle, on the job. In two and a half seasons wearing a Yankees uniform, Granderson has bashed 90 home runs. Last year, he finished second in the league in homers, fifth in slugging average, and fourth in MVP voting.1 Advanced fielding metrics have hated Granderson for the past two years, either because he plays shallow, because he plays next to space-eater Brett Gardner (though Gardner’s been hurt for much of this season), because he’s actually a bad fielder, because advanced metrics aren’t always reliable … or possibly all of the above. At any rate, Granderson’s a perfect hitter for Yankee Stadium, a lefty hitter with a slashing swing who’s right in his prime, emerging along with Robinson Cano as the two pillars of an aging lineup. He’s been worth more than 12 wins to the Yankees since the start of the 2010 season, and he’ll make less than $37 million over the final four years of his existing contract, which expires after his club option’s exercised next year.


And if you’re a fan of team-dependent stats, first in runs scored and first in RBI.

That 2009 deal has been as much of a win-win-win move as you’ll ever see. For now at least, the Yankees shouldn’t have any regrets.

2. Texas Rangers, 54-35 (450 RS, 373 RA) (last week: 2)

You don’t want to pick too many nits with a team that owns the second-best record in baseball, one that’s loaded with top-flight players and is about to get stronger with the return of Colby Lewis, and Neftali Feliz not far behind. But we have to ask: What’s up with Ian Kinsler? Seems like a funny question to ask of an All-Star second baseman, one on pace for 18 homers, 27 steals, and 118 runs scored. But 2012 has actually been the worst offensive season of Kinsler’s seven-year major league career, his .342 Weighted On Base Average undercutting the .345 mark he put up during his rookie campaign. His walk rate sits near a career low at just 7.8 percent and his Isolated Power number of .166 lies well below his career average. The drop-off from last year’s numbers is particularly striking (32 homers, .370 wOBA), especially with Kinsler hitting 54 points higher on balls in play in 2012. Kinsler turned 30 last month, and there’s some history of some second basemen wearing down quicker than you might expect given the beating they can take around the bag year after year. This could also be simple regression toward the mean, with Kinsler edging lower after putting up big numbers last year. Still, with Kinsler’s five-year, $75 million contract not starting until 2013, you hope this is more of a blip than the start of a painful decline.

3. Washington Nationals, 51-35 (358 RS, 293 RA) (last week: 3)

The hot topic in D.C. has been Stephen Strasburg’s potential innings limit this year. General manager Mike Rizzo has said he plans to cap his young ace at 160 frames. Of course, Rizzo first made that claim when the Nationals were just an upstart team hoping for a break; now they own the best record in the NL, with Bryce Harper flying high, Jayson Werth potentially back in a few weeks, and plenty of room to maneuver on the trade market. Six shutout innings Sunday brought Strasburg’s total to 105, which doesn’t leave much wiggle room with 76 games (15 starts in a normal five-man rotation) left on the schedule. It’s hard to see Rizzo following through on his plans if the Nats head into September still leading the division. At the very least, you have to figure Strasburg for playoff starts if his team makes the postseason. But there are ways to limit the about-to-turn-24-year-old’s workload: You could go with John Lannan or Chien-Ming Wang, either to make periodic starts in place of Strasburg or as part of a six-man rotation. You could keep the rotation as is and skip a couple of Strasburg starts. You could keep doing what you’re doing, pulling Strasburg from games early, but instead doing it after five innings instead of six or seven. You could also acquire a starting pitcher in trade, someone who’d either absorb some of Strasburg’s workload or eventually replace him outright, possibly even relegating the staff ace to a bit of high-leverage relief work.

The Nationals believe that running Strasburg out there 15 more times without limits, plus potentially adding a few more playoff starts, would come at a cost. But so, too, would any other move, including buying an insurance policy in the form of a deadline acquisition (check out Tom Tango’s excellent post laying it all out). We don’t have any definitive answers in this space, and neither do the Nats. But if Rizzo does do something approaching sticking to his guns, we’d applaud his balls if nothing else. Seventh in the NL in ERA (2.66), second in the majors in FIP (2.43), best strikeout rate in the game (11.6 K/9 IP) … bench a guy like that and you’ll get even more mud-slinging in Washington come fall.

4. Los Angeles Angels, 49-40 (396 RS, 353 RA) (last week: 4)

Erick Aybar lives! In a season that has seen every member of the lineup not named Trout or Trumbo underperform expectations, Aybar has finally joined Albert Pujols and a couple other underachievers in starting to bury their terrible first couple months. On May 17, Aybar was hitting a he-only-wishes-he-were-Carlos Zambrano .189/.214/.236 for the year. Since then, he’s hit a robust .318/.359/.484. The Angels might get Dan Haren back this week off the DL, and Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson remain reliable options at the top of the rotation. But even with Trout and Trumbo mashing, this has been a middle-of-the-pack offense, and it’s entirely possible that after Pujols, this lineup’s just not very good. Whether or not a trade’s in the cards, the Angels will take everything they can get from their resident Aybars.

5. Chicago White Sox, 49-39 (423 RS, 361 RA) (last week: 5)

A.J. Pierzynski played his first major league game a few months after Chumbawamba peaked. He put up his best numbers as a no. 1 catcher nine years ago, hitting .312/.360/.464 for the Twins. In the eight seasons that followed, his best season in terms of overall value netted 2.1 WAR, meaning at his best he was merely average. This season, at age 35, Pierzynski’s hitting .292/.345/.528. He’s posted a career-high .366 wOBA, and in mid-July sits just two short of a career-high in homers, with 16. Hitting coach Jeff Manto has drawn accolades in his year one with the White Sox, with Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, and Pierzynski among the players enjoying big upticks in performance this year. But Pierzynski says that, other than a minor tweak that Manto suggested, everything’s the same as it’s ever been — no difference in approach, no changes in batting practice habits, no LASIK surgery, no trips to Germany with Kobe Bryant. Of all the what-the-hell outcomes we’ve seen this year across baseball, the Pierzynski Awakening has been one of the weirdest.

6. Cincinnati Reds, 50-38 (370 RS, 323 RA) (last week: 7)

Winners of six in a row, the Reds have climbed back into first place. They’ve done it with pitching, ceding just 14 runs over that six-game winning streak (and just 25 in their past 10 games). Mat Latos has led the charge. Reds fans likely lamented the team’s big offseason acquisition for a while, with Latos getting off to a terrible start, plus departed Reds farmhands Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal crashing San Diego’s lineup. Turns out Latos just warms up with the weather. This season, Latos has posted a 5.97 ERA, 5.7 K/9 IP, and 1.8 strikeout-to-walk rate in April — and a 3.44 ERA, 9.4 K/9 IP, 3.7 strikeout-to-walk rate since (hat-tip Paul Sporer of Baseball Prospectus). In his past four starts, he’s been nearly untouchable, striking out 33 and allowing just 21 base runners and one home run in 30 innings, good for a 1.20 ERA. This happens every year, too. Latos’s career April ERA: 5.73. That’s followed by 2.65 in May, 3.80 in June, 2.40 in July, 3.35 in August, and 3.86 in September and October.

7. Atlanta Braves, 49-39 (412 RS, 370 RA) (last week: 10)

Ben Sheets’s amazing comeback won’t necessarily preclude the Braves from exploring the trade market, not with Ryan Dempster out there, Zack Greinke and Matt Garza likely to be available, and maybe Cole Hamels, too, if the Phillies’ last-ditch offer doesn’t work. The Braves already made an effort to patch their shortstop hole by snagging light-hitting Paul Janish from the Reds. But the team that’s tied for the NL wild-card lead, dipped into the farm to get Michael Bourn at last year’s deadline, and has a relief pitcher leading the team in pitcher WAR wouldn’t seem likely to stop there.

8. Pittsburgh Pirates, 49-39 (359 RS, 331 RA) (last week: 6)

The power of Zoltan didn’t quite work out for the Buccos over the weekend, as Pittsburgh dropped two of three to Milwaukee. Can’t blame Andrew McCutchen for that hiccup. This two-run shot on Saturday marked the first time Cutch had hit homers in three consecutive games … then he immediately topped that with another one on Sunday. After setting a career-high last year with 23 homers, the 5-foot-10, 188-pound McCutchen’s hitting with the big boys this year, with 21 bombs already in the bank. What’s been the difference? McCutchen entered this season with just eight career home runs to right- and right-center field, in about 1,800 career plate appearances. This year? Eight in 357 PA.

9. San Francisco Giants, 49-40 (349 RS, 351 RA) (last week: 13)

You don’t normally get this kind of jump from beating an Astros team that’s 9-35 on the road, but several other teams in this next tier had pretty awful weekends. The Giants’ catchers enjoyed themselves more than most. Buster Posey went 5-for-10 with two walks, a homer, and four RBIs, hiking his season line to .297/.370/.470. Meanwhile, Hector Sanchez went nuts on Saturday, banging out four hits, including a walk-off single in the 12th, raising his line to a respectable-for-a-catcher .278/.282/.381. Last year, the two catchers who got in the most games were Eli Whiteside (.197/.264/.310) and Chris Stewart (.204/.283/.309). If you’re looking for ways to explain the spike in San Francisco’s record this year, you can start with the Giants’ 20-13 record in one-run games, and 5-1 mark in extra-inning games. Number two is the Melky Cabrera Experience. Number three, with a bullet, is the decrappening of the team’s catchers.

10. Boston Red Sox, 45-44 (445 RS, 398 RA) (last week: 14)

Despite the horrific tales of players refusing to hold hands during Red Rover or whatever it is people are bitching about today, the Sox sit just a game and a half out of the second wild-card slot after taking two out of three from the Rays at the Trop. Reinforcements are coming fast: Jacoby Ellsbury banged out six hits over the three-game set, and Carl Crawford is expected to be activated Monday. Ellsbury might’ve been the most valuable player in baseball last year, so he’s an upgrade regardless, even if Crawford disappoints when he gets back. But the bigger news, at least in terms of need, was Clay Buchholz’s return. The oft-injured righty made it back Saturday and pitched very well against the Rays: 6⅓ innings, three hits, one walk, eight strikeouts — five on fastballs, two on cutters, one on a changeup. Josh Beckett’s seven-strikeout outing in St. Pete Sunday was another good sign. Multiple injuries remain, and a couple of decent starts against a team that can’t hit right now don’t prove that much. But the Red Sox own the second-best offense in the majors, and every other team vying for the AL’s second wild-card slot is also badly flawed. Call it a case of inflated expectations, but the critics might be in the midst of excoriating a playoff team.

11. Los Angeles Dodgers, 48-42 (332 RS, 322 RA) (last week: 11)

Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier returned from the DL and went 10-for-20, yet the reeling Dodgers still dropped two of three at home to the lowly Padres. Multiple lineup holes remain, with James Loney so deep in the dugout that Carlos Lee and his five home runs were actually considered an upgrade. Oddly, the Dodgers’ sights appear set on pitching, with last week’s podcast guest CBS Sports’s Jon Heyman reporting heavy interest in Cubs starters Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza. That route starts to make more sense if the latest news on Chad Billingsley isn’t good: He’s got an inflamed flexor tendon in his right elbow, and will go in for more tests today. With rookie Nate Eovaldi already flailing in the fifth starter’s spot and Ted Lilly’s return date unknown, you might soon be able to add starting pitching to the Dodgers’ growing list of pressing needs.

12. Detroit Tigers, 46-43 (404 RS, 391 RA) (last week: 17)

As much hype as Detroit’s offense got after the Prince Fielder signing, the Tigers rank a decent-but-unspectacular sixth with 4.5 runs scored per game, just a hair ahead of the Angels and White Sox in the middle-of-the-pack derby. Brennan Boesch is hitting .303 since June 7, but that stretch also includes 20 strikeouts to just four walks and three homers. Quintin Berry has been a nice story, but his .288/.370/.394 line belies his .398 BABIP and one home run. Twenty-year-old top prospect Nick Castellanos is starting to see playing time in right field, but he’s still raw, striking out 10 times more often than he’s walked while in Double-A. The Tigers are a team with high expectations and an owner who’s not afraid to move on a big deal; corner outfield is one of their biggest needs, and they have some intriguing prospects on the farm, starting with Castellanos. If you’re looking for a dark horse in the Justin Upton sweepstakes, this is it.

13. St. Louis Cardinals, 46-43 (433 RS, 368 RA) (last week: 9)

Lance Berkman’s back from the disabled list, which raises another question: What happens to Allen Craig? The team’s first baseman in Berkman’s absence has mashed to the tune of .297/.364/.584 this year, with 13 homers in just 185 at-bats. But with first base now occupied and the team’s corner outfield slots well manned by Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran, it’s not clear where Craig fits. The answer would presumably be second base, but manager Mike Matheny might prefer Skip Schumaker and Daniel Descalso at the deuce for defensive purposes — which seems crazy given that Schumaker’s a converted outfielder, but Craig could very well be considerably worse at that position. The prudent thing would be to wait for Berkman’s contract to lapse at year’s end, then give Craig the job, spotting him here and there until he can take over in 2013. Might a Plan B make sense, though? Craig can rake and has less than two years of service time in the bigs, which makes him attractive to pretty much all 30 teams. But he also turns 28 this week, and he’s suffered through a history of injuries. With the Cards in the market for starting pitching, could Craig be a potential linchpin for a deal … or even someone who fetches a bunch of prospects who then get flipped for a good-to-very good starter?

14. Tampa Bay Rays, 46-43 (372 RS, 372 RA) (last week: 12)

The following are the preseason ZiPS projections for the Rays’ starting lineup, along with actual results:

The two players who outproduced their projected rate stats by a substantial margin are Longoria and Joyce. But Longoria hasn’t played since April 30 and Joyce has been out since June 20, so the Rays haven’t derived any net benefit over either player’s projections. The one Ray who’s outperformed his forecast and remained in the lineup is Zobrist … who’s given the team a big, fat 25 points of bonus OPS. And that’s before we get to the team’s multiple pitching disappointments, including Jeff Niemann (injured), Matt Moore (too much hype, too soon), and James Shields (five straight starts with four-plus earned runs allowed; most consecutive starts (four) by any Rays pitcher allowing 10 or more hits in a game since 2002; only one start in last 15 with less than three runs allowed; leads the majors with 135 hits allowed). And none of that’s counting the team’s defense, consistently at or near the top of the league in the past few years, well below average this season. In fact, the one and only Ray who’s vastly outperformed his 2012 projection is Fernando Rodney.

Under those circumstances, you’d think the Rays would be dead and buried by now, not a half-game out of a wild-card spot. When Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon answer reporters’ trade inquiries by saying that getting injured (and slumping) players back and producing at 100 percent would outstrip the impact of any one potential move, they aren’t kidding.

15. Baltimore Orioles, 46-42 (361 RS, 404 RA) (last week: 15)

Feels like the reckoning is coming, if it’s not already here. The O’s have lost 15 of their past 22 games. The starting rotation has been suspect after Jason Hammel, with three starters recently getting sent to Triple-A in the span of a week. Which makes the latest news even more painful: a knee injury for Hammel, which is expected to sideline him at least three-to-four weeks. Baltimore will roll with Chris Tillman and Zach Britton in the rotation, two young starters with ample talent but a lousy (albeit short) track record in the majors. If this seems like a gloom-and-doom report for a team that’s still clinging to a slim wild-card lead, consider this stat: The Orioles have won 10 straight extra-inning games. You might chalk that streak up to stout relief pitching, clever managing, and some deep-down fortitude. More often than not, it’s largely about plain old luck. That kind of luck is rarely projectable — or sustainable.

16. New York Mets, 46-43 (407 RS, 395 RA) (last week: 8)

While rotation mate R.A. Dickey nabbed all the headlines, 25-year-old lefty Jon Niese quietly put up huge numbers in June and again in his first start of July: 41⅓ innings, 37 strikeouts, seven walks, 1.74 ERA. The Mets’ winning ways, along with Niese’s own streak, have quickly turned sour: New York’s dropped four in a row, and Niese’s most recent start yielded seven runs on nine hits … against the Cubs.

17. Oakland A’s, 46-43 (343 RS, 326 RA) (last week: 19)

Oakland’s 20-8 record since June 12 is impressive enough. But the way the A’s have rolled up that record — by bashing home runs — might be more improbable given the team’s recent track record. In their weekend sweep over the Twins, they repeatedly flexed their muscle, bagging three homers in the second inning of Sunday’s game alone. Called up June 29 by the A’s and toiling mostly on the lesser side of a platoon with Brandon Moss, Chris Carter has already whacked five homers in his first 26 at-bats. Moss has gone bonkers too: Starting on June 12, the first win of the A’s 20-8 streak, he’s hit .273/.333/.714, with 10 homers in 74 at-bats. Keep playing this well, and it’ll become nearly impossible for Oakland to trade veterans for prospects as they eye a new ballpark years down the road. If anything, they might have to (gasp) … go for it.

18. Toronto Blue Jays, 45-44 (444 RS, 418 RA) (last week: 18)

We broke down Edwin Encarnacion’s new, three-year, $29 million contract in intimate detail on Friday. The next day, Encarnacion got intimate with the outfield seats, sending two blasts into orbit, the second one a third-deck job to dead center. Only the Yankees have hit more bombs than the bashing Blue Jays. If Toronto can ever keep a starting rotation upright and even reasonably productive for a full season … yikes.

19. Cleveland Indians, 45-43 (395 RS, 428 RA) (last week: 16)

Lost two of three to those Jays, but at least a few dormant Indians bats are starting to produce a little. Casey Kotchman’s hitting .400 with three homers in his past nine games, Johnny Damon is at .309/.345/.509 in his past 17 games, and Michael Brantley’s mashing at a .460/.542/.760 clip in his past 14 contests. Of course the other shoe can drop in an instant. Ubaldo Jimenez owned a sparking 2.93 ERA over seven starts, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t going to be the league’s piñata anymore. Then he went to Toronto and gave up eight runs in 2⅓ innings. Whack away!

20. Arizona Diamondbacks, 42-46 (378 RS, 380 RA) (last week: 20)

The thing about this Justin Upton trade talk is, it’s nothing new. At the GM meetings in Orlando in 2010, less than two months after taking over as Arizona’s general manager, Kevin Towers tried to trade Upton for a package of three or four premium, young players. This after Upton posted a disappointing season, one that saw him hit a relatively modest .273/.356/.442, after a big breakout year in 2009. Nothing came of those efforts, so Towers stood pat. He got rewarded for it last year, as Upton established career highs in multiple categories, hitting .289/.369/.529, helping to push the D-backs to a 94-win season and an NL West title. An early-season thumb injury sapped Upton’s power, and there’ve been whispers of a lingering shoulder injury from years past. But the D-backs’ desire for a trade might simply come down to the team not buying Upton as a true superstar, now or later. The trade talks are real, too. As the Arizona Republic‘s Nick Piecoro reported, Towers told Upton he “should look at [trade discussions] in a good way, that people like you, [and] you’re perceived very, very well throughout baseball.” Gentlemen, start your bidding.

21. Milwaukee Brewers, 42-46 (402 RS, 407 RA) (last week: 22)

Brewers GM Doug Melvin sounds resigned to trading Zack Greinke. As he told the Journal-Sentinel‘s Tom Haudricourt:

When players get this close (to free agency), there’s not many that will sign, at that (talent) level,” said Melvin. “He’s a difference-maker to a team that’s got a chance to go to the post-season. Unless you’re raising the bar (to a higher salary), you usually go on the market.”

If there’s a sliver of good news, it’s that Ryan Braun’s not going anywhere. A two-homer game Friday gave Braun 26 on the year, tops in the NL. He’s hitting .312/.399/.615, on pace to match or top his career-best 2011 numbers. It’s unlikely that Braun’s production will net another MVP award, for reasons ranging from the Brewers being a far inferior team this year to the offseason controversy surrounding Braun’s drug test. But Milwaukee has one of the three or four best hitters in the game locked up for the next eight, maybe nine seasons. There are worse fates.

22. Philadelphia Phillies, 39-51 (383 RS, 408 RA) (last week: 23)

Chase Utley’s back, Ryan Howard’s back, and, barring a setback, Roy Halladay will rejoin the Phillies’ rotation on Tuesday. Probably too little, too late to hoist the Phillies into a pennant race. But maybe enough to keep things interesting while Ruben Amaro Jr. offers one last huge payday to Cole Hamels before trade talks start in earnest.

23. Miami Marlins, 42-46 (337 RS, 400 RA) (last week: 21)

The fine folks at ESPN’s Fantasy Focus podcast have slapped a name on any debate that assesses whether or not a player is for real. It’s called “Bona fide, or Bonifacio?” The term was first used in reference to Emilio Bonifacio’s 2009 season, when the then-Marlins third baseman came out of the gate strong only to turn into a pumpkin late in the year. Bonifacio has improved somewhat as a player since then, hitting .296/.360/.393 last season, swiping 40 bases, and netting 3.3 Wins Above Replacement. But Miami’s now-center fielder has slipped again this year, hitting just .266/.356/.316 and missing nearly eight weeks with a thumb injury. He did return on Friday, and stole a base over the weekend. Still, both player and team have been big disappointments this year. If the question is “Bona fide or Bonifacio?,” both the Marlins, and Bonifacio himself, are truly Bonifacio.

24. Kansas City Royals, 38-49 (359 RS, 399 RA) (last week: 24)

The top hitting prospect in the minor leagues, Wil Myers has now hit 28 homers this season in 87 games at Double- and Triple-A. Though some wondered how the 21-year-old Myers would fare against Triple-A competition, his .316/.397/.638 mark there shows he’s plenty ready. We’re past the point at which calling up Myers would speed up his free-agency clock, or his arbitration clock. The only things stopping Myers from getting promoted are a vague notion that Myers still has to serve out his apprenticeship in the minors, and that Jeff Francoeur needs to play. Which is to say, there’s really nothing stopping this promotion.

25. Chicago Cubs, 36-52 (332 RS, 389 RA) (last week: 29)

The lowest ERA of any starter in baseball (1.86) and the longest scoreless innings streak (33) of any Cubs pitcher in 43 years: Ryan Dempster’s amazing season has only improved since he came off the DL just before the All-Star break, with the 35-year-old right-hander wielding excellent fastball command and adding 11 scoreless frames to the streak. Even more shocking, Alfonso Soriano has somehow turned himself into a viable trade commodity. After a sharp, multi-year decline that ended with Soriano hitting .244 with a .289 on-base percentage last year and starting this season off in the dumps, the 36-year-old left fielder has caught fire, hitting 17 homers in the past two months. On Friday he became the first Cubs player in the Live Ball Era to tally at least two homers, two doubles, and five RBIs in a game. Soriano’s got two more years left on his megacontract at $18 million apiece. But the Cubs have reportedly expressed interest in paying for all or most of the $6 million or so that remains on Dempster’s deal before he hits the open market at the end of this year, so long as they can get the prospects they want in a deal. With their deep pockets and other teams’ understandable concerns about absorbing a lot more money in Soriano’s case, you have to figure the Cubs pick up much of his tab, too. Not hard to picture him in an Orioles uniform, is it?

26. Seattle Mariners, 37-53 (346 RS, 372 RA) (last week: 25)

Another lost season for a Mariners team that will make it 11 years without a playoff berth. But after a pokey start, Felix Hernandez has reemerged as the lights-out ace we all know and love. His latest masterpiece was a three-hit shutout Saturday against the top offense in baseball, with Hernandez’s 12 strikeouts of Rangers hitters marking the first time a pitcher has recorded multiple shutouts with 12 or more strikeouts in a single season since Randy Johnson did it in 2002. The best part of Saturday’s highlight reel? A whole section of fans donning yellow, royalty-themed T-shirts, expressing appropriate levels of awe. USS Mariner‘s Dave Cameron dubbed a 17-year-old wunderkind in the low minors “King Felix.” Prescient, that.

27. San Diego Padres, 36-54 (320 RS, 391 RA) (last week: 27)

What do you do when your team’s hitting .171 with runners in scoring position and two outs? Take matters into your own hands. Down to their final strike of the game Saturday, the Padres pulled a fast one on the Dodgers and a napping Kenley Jansen, thanks to Everth Cabrera’s daring steal of home, Jansen’s throwing error, Jansen’s continued lack of focus making him late to cover the plate, and heads-up baserunning by trailing runner Will Venable. Watch the whole play unfold here. Then stare in awe as home plate umpire Greg Gibson almost foiled the thing by calling Cabrera out after the ball had flown to the backstop. Normally we’d advocate for robot umpires after a case like this. But now I’m not sure. Who wouldn’t want to hear Dick Enberg’s voice rise to Mariah Carey–level octaves more often?

28. Minnesota Twins, 36-52 (364 RS, 465 RA) (last week: 26)

The 30th pitcher ever to strike out 15 batters in a game and still lose. The first pitcher ever to strike out 15 batters in a game and also surrender a grand slam. Never change, Francisco Liriano.

29. Colorado Rockies, 34-54 (425 RS, 494 RA) (last week: 30)

We’re seeing flashes of competence from Rockies starters lately, after the team’s initial efforts with a four-man rotation ended in disaster. The most encouraging sign came from rookie lefty Christian Friedrich, who fired six innings of one-run ball against the Phillies, striking out seven and walking just one … at home. Coors Field has turned back into Coors Field this year, leading to a parade of hits and homers for all pitchers who dare enter. But Friedrich’s also striking out a batter an inning since getting called up in May, with a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate (96 strikeouts vs. just 27 walks in 100⅔ innings if we also include Friedrich’s numbers at hitter-friendly Colorado Springs). Whether the Rockies settle on a four-man rotation or go back to a conventional five-man, they might’ve found a keeper starter in an otherwise dreadful season.

30. Houston Astros, 33-56 (349 RS, 427 RA) (last week: 28)

As if things couldn’t get any worse, breakout shortstop Jed Lowrie just landed on the disabled list with a sprained ankle. That after the Astros got owned by Tim Lincecum, who couldn’t handle a 55-and-older softball team the way he’d been pitching over the past few weeks. But hey, if you’re rooting for Houston to land two straight no. 1 overall draft picks, you just might get your wish.