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The 30, Week 18: Fear the NL East

Smack in the middle of the dog days of August, the Braves and the Nationals put the rest of baseball on notice

Every week, we dig through reams of data to evaluate Major League Baseball’s 30 teams. We consider win-loss record, run differential, recent trends, injuries, trades and other transactions, and overall quality of rosters. Reasonable people can and will disagree with these rankings. Just know that no matter how heated the disagreements might get, we can handle it. This guy? Not so much.

It’s Week 18 of The 30.

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

1. New York Yankees, 63-44 (521 RS, 429 RA) (last week: 1)

When your team is both well run and well funded, setbacks don’t matter nearly as much.

The latest trouble spot: Ivan Nova. The right-hander posted a 5.18 ERA in April, and a 5.87 ERA in May. He surrendered 13 homers in 62⅔ innings. Then, in typical tantalizing Nova form, he turned things around in June, flashing a 1.26 ERA and flourishing, partly from luck and partly from an improved pitch mix, which included an impressive slider. Then, again, his luck turned. Nova posted a 5.97 ERA in July, and suddenly became hittable again, putting 57 runners on base in six starts.

Doesn’t matter. The Yankees built up a big lead, the rest of the division has fallen under the weight of roster holes and injuries, and Joe Girardi can start setting his playoff rotation in a few weeks.

2. Texas Rangers, 63-44 (548 RS, 465 RA) (last week: 2)

It got dicey for a bit there. The mighty Rangers, the two-time defending AL champs, playing in a hitter’s paradise, scored fewer runs than any other team in July (81). Josh Hamilton stopped hitting. Michael Young, having a horrendous season, arrived at rock bottom, hitting .256/.266/.311. It got to the point where even Mitch Moreland, a fairly unremarkable platoon first baseman, felt missed.

We can’t say for sure that they’re cured, but the Rangers have looked a lot better lately, scoring 51 runs in their past seven games. Moreland’s back, slugging corner infield prospect Mike Olt got called up, and support players like David Murphy (.301/.388/.477) have picked up the slack. And here’s the kicker: The Rangers led the AL West by 4½ games on June 6. Two months later, the lead is 5½.

3. Cincinnati Reds, 66-42 (469 RS, 397 RA) (last week: 3)

First weekend of August, and the biggest series was Reds vs. Pirates, just as everyone predicted. The Reds couldn’t quite sweep, but they did take two of three, making it 22 wins in their past 26 games. Aroldis Chapman continues to be preposterous (39 strikeouts and eight hits allowed out of the past 68 batters he’s faced; final five pitches Wednesday night: 100, 101, 102, 100, 101). But Chapman has been a killer all year. It’s the starting rotation’s improvement that has driven much of the team’s recent success. Mat Latos posted a 5.97 ERA and an 18-to-10 strikeout-to-walk rate in April. Since then: 3.40 ERA, 104 strikeouts, 33 walks, in 106 innings.

4. Washington Nationals, 65-43 (468 RS, 386 RA) (last week: 4)

They’re getting healthy, and getting scary. The Nats already led the majors in ERA and FIP, but the lineup had holes. Those holes are slowly being plugged. Washington picked up Kurt Suzuki from the A’s, acquiring a catcher who’d struggled terribly all year (.536 OPS) but still likely constitutes an upgrade over the previous tandem of Jesus Flores and Sandy Leon. The bigger news came when Jayson Werth finally made it back after missing nearly three months. The Nationals probably aren’t getting the offensive beast they expected when they threw $126 million at him two years ago. But Werth adds needed thump to a lineup that was already on the rise with Ryan Zimmerman erasing his early struggles and Mike Morse coming back from injury. While the Nats were quiet on the trading front in July, Werth’s return could end up topping nearly every move made by the other 29 teams.

5. Atlanta Braves, 62-46 (499 RS, 437 RA) (last week: 7)

Winners of 20 out of 27, and excelling in every facet of the game. Jason Heyward’s hitting .307/.369/.543 in the past month. The defense is doing things like this. Craig Kimbrel’s been out of his mind, striking out 50 batters and walking one in his past 28 innings. Even the support staff’s looking good — Kris Medlen’s ceded just two runs in his two starts since joining the rotation, Paul Maholm struck out eight in his first start since joining the team in a deadline deal, and Reed Johnson is a sneaky-good pickup who bolsters the bench and provides a needed right-handed bat for the outfield. The Braves don’t feature multiple Cy Young candidates like the Nats, they’re not an out-of-nowhere story like the Pirates, and they don’t have the best record like the Reds. But they’re a real threat to win the National League pennant.

6. Chicago White Sox, 59-48 (510 RS 446 RA) (last week: 8)

For two years, Alex Rios was a cautionary tale, a reminder of what could go wrong when you tried to be too aggressive with waiver claims. Snatched from the Jays on August 10, 2009, in the midst of a replacement-level season, Rios fared better in 2010, hitting .284/.334/.457, with 21 homers, 34 steals, and solid defense — exactly what White Sox GM and dice-roller Kenny Williams wanted when he took his shot. But Rios was awful again in 2011, posting a .613 OPS and ranking among the worst position players in the game. Then this year … resurrection. He’s hitting .316/.348/.538, and ranks as a top-15 AL position player by Wins Above Replacement. Friday’s performance might’ve been his best yet: two homers, including a walkoff in the 10th. He and A.J. Pierzynski (sitting on a club record of five straight games with a homer) have helped keep the White Sox in first place, despite a big recent charge from the surging Tigers.

7. Los Angeles Angels, 58-51 (508 RS, 459 RA) (last week: 5)

Albert Pujols hitting like a utility infielder ranked as a bigger problem at the time, but one of the secondary reasons for the Angels’ slow start this year was a leaky bullpen. The May acquisition of Ernesto Frieri and improved performances from Frieri’s new wingmen appeared to fix the problem. Now the pen’s an issue again. Frieri carried a 0.00 ERA for his first 10 weeks as an Angel. But over his past eight appearances, he’s ceded eight runs. Meanwhile, lefty setup man Scott Downs just hit the disabled list. If there’s a worthy reliever out there on the wire this month and said reliever makes it all the way to the Angels’ low waiver priority, you have to figure Jerry Dipoto will strike.

8. Pittsburgh Pirates, 61-46 (441 RS, 405 RA) (last week: 6)

A.J. Burnett, Cy Young contender? Maybe not by advanced stats; he’s right on the edge of the NL’s top 20 by WAR and FIP. But most BBWAA award voters don’t exactly obsess over such stats. And by more traditional metrics, Burnett’s starting to make a case. He’s tied for the NL lead with 14 wins, only ranks behind Kyle Lohse in winning percentage, and is moving up the ranks in ERA, coming in 11th at 3.19 (just behind Stephen Strasburg). Whether or not he collects any hardware, it’s impossible to look at the Yankees’ dump job on Burnett and not see two results: a great gamble by the Pirates, and a reminder that life’s a little easier for a pitcher in the NL Central than it is in the AL East.

9. St. Louis Cardinals, 59-49 (538 RS, 428 RA) (last week: 10)

They lead the league in runs scored, and they’re missing their two best starters from 2011 (Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia). But starting pitching has been a driving force behind the Cardinals’ recent winning ways. St. Louis has won 12 of its past 16 games, with the team’s starters tossing six or more innings in 28 of their past 30 starts. Kyle Lohse’s six innings of shutout ball on Sunday gave him six straight wins. Rookie Joe Kelly’s last start against the Brewers marked the first time in eight tries he hadn’t logged six-plus frames. And Adam Wainwright’s on fire, with a 2.38 ERA, 39-to-5 strikeout-to-walk rate, and just one homer allowed in his past six starts — the most recent one a complete-game gem that had nothing to do with a Grantland bump, but we’ll pretend it did anyway. All this starting-pitching longevity is especially important given the Cardinals’ bullpen situation: Motte and Boggs and Pray for Smog.1

10. Detroit Tigers, 58-50 (496 RS, 472 RA) (last week: 13)

A 4-2 week, capped by an electrifying 10th-inning comeback Sunday, with Miguel Cabrera launching a walkoff homer to win it. And that’s after umpires let the Tigers and Red Sox play through rain Tuesday, then called the game with the Tigers trailing 4-1 with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth.

We’ve lauded Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and the revelatory performance of Austin Jackson already. Justin Verlander’s no secret. So how about Doug Fister? One of the best pickups at last year’s trade deadline, Fister struck out 57 batters and walked just five in 70⅓ innings with Detroit in the last two months of 2011. He struggled with injuries and erratic performance early this year, but has rediscovered that killer command. In his past five starts, covering 39 innings, Fister’s whiffed 37, with five walks, one homer allowed, and an opponents’ OPS of just .503. The Tigers have their no. 2 starter back. And at the rate they’re going, Fister might be starting Game 2 of the ALDS.

11. Los Angeles Dodgers, 59-50 (426 RS, 411 RA) (last week: 11)

Like the Nationals, the Dodgers were a good team that’s now very good, thanks to the arrival of reinforcements. No team has been more aggressive in making deals and spending money over the past few weeks than L.A. Hanley Ramirez arrived to fortify a brutal left side of the infield and hit in the middle of the lineup, with Randy Choate adding a needed lefty-killer to the bullpen. Shane Victorino addressed the hole in left field. The latest pickup, Joe Blanton, came to the Dodgers boasting the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the league but also more home runs allowed than any other NL pitcher; he pitched six innings of two-run ball in his L.A. debut Sunday.2 The Dodgers don’t have the best record in the league (or even their division), with a run differential that suggests a team with two or three fewer wins. But the roster’s now loaded and ready for a big stretch run.

12. San Francisco Giants, 59-49 (449 RS, 430 RA) (last week: 12)

They didn’t quite go on the spending spree that the Dodgers did, but the acquisition of Hunter Pence should offer some much-needed pop for a team dealing with Pablo Sandoval on the DL and several weak spots in the lineup.

It’d be nice to see Bruce Bochy get the most out of what the Giants have, though. Bochy’s efforts to staple promising first baseman Brandon Belt to the bench have mostly ended, with Belt at least getting the better half of a platoon with righty-swinging Brett Pill. Next up: getting Ryan Theriot out of the lineup, or at least spotting him at the bottom when he does play. When Theriot struck out with a man on first during Wednesday’s game, color commentator Mike Krukow’s reaction was priceless: “I think Theriot’s smart [to take strike three],” he said. “I think he thought he was going to hit into a double play. Veteran move.”

13. Oakland A’s, 58-50 (430 RS, 402 RA) (last week: 9)

Tough week for Oakland, with the A’s going 3-4, scoring just five runs in dropping two out of three to Tampa Bay, and losing starter A.J. Griffin to the DL. The closer situation’s starting to look a little sketchy, with Ryan Cook blowing four of his past five save chances. There’s still plenty of good news. Grant Balfour owns a 0.00 ERA since July 1 should the A’s need to replace Cook in the ninth. Rookie Dan Straily made his first major league start after obliterating the minors this season, and fired six innings of one-run ball against the Jays. And yes, walkoffs are still en vogue at the Coliseum.

14. Tampa Bay Rays, 56-52 (434 RS, 415 RA) (last week: 14)

Shut out twice in a row by the Orioles. Scored two runs or fewer in eight of their past 14 games. It’s probably more painful to watch, say, the Astros right now. But when Miguel Gonzalez is carving through your lineup laden with Mendoza hitters, it’s tough to be optimistic.

So why the relatively favorable ranking? Pitching, certainly. The Rays lead the majors in team ERA, strikeouts, and opponents’ batting average since the All-Star break, and it’s not particularly close. The starting rotation bagged four shutouts in a span of six games, the first time that had ever happened in Rays history. And the bullpen’s been obscene, giving up just three runs in its past 50 innings, with 69 strikeouts. Fernando Rodney just tied the franchise record for most consecutive scoreless innings with 21, and J.P. Howell’s just a hair behind at 20. Maybe even more encouraging, the offense might finally, finally get some help: Luke Scott might be back before the end of the Rays’ current homestand, and Evan Longoria is 50-50 to play in Tampa Bay’s next game on Tuesday, according to Joe Maddon. Not a moment too soon. Per team PR ace Dave Haller, the Rays’ lineup with Longoria hit .254/.339/.429, scoring 4.61 runs per game; without Longoria (through Saturday): .225/.305/.353, 3.90 runs per game.

15. Baltimore Orioles, 57-51 (444 RS, 501 RA) (last week: 17)

Want a stealth candidate for best offseason signing? How about Wei-Yin Chen? The 27-year-old Taiwanese lefty signed with the O’s over the winter for three years at less than $4 million a year, plus a team-friendly option. Facing the A’s July 29, Chen struck out 12 in 5⅔ innings, allowing no earned runs and leading the way to a 6-1 win. Against the Rays on August 4, he tossed seven shutout innings, giving Baltimore the first of two straight shutout wins over the Rays as the O’s reclaimed second place in the AL East. Throw in Lew Ford’s first major league hit in five years, and it was an auspicious week for the Orioles.

16. Arizona Diamondbacks, 55-53 (489 RS, 447 RA) (last week: 18)

Welcome back, Justin Upton. After nearly three months of awful results, culminating in a shocking round of trade rumors, Upton’s finally hitting like we figured he would: .316/.405/.493 in his past 38 games. The highlight came Friday night, when Justin and brother B.J. both smacked their 100th career home runs, becoming only the sixth brother tandem to pull that off.3 Arizona crept to within two games of the division lead before falling back to four by week’s end. Upton hitting like vintage Upton would go a long way toward cutting into that lead again.

17. Boston Red Sox, 54-55 (530 RS, 501 RA) (last week: 15)

First Adrian Gonzalez started to hit. Now Carl Crawford has come off the DL and started mashing. But it might be too little, too late. Dustin Pedroia’s been ice-cold for nearly three months, hitting just .225/.277/.315, thanks in part to his playing through a badly injured thumb. Josh Beckett can’t stay healthy. And the Aaron Cook novelty act has worn off, with Cook allowing 17 runs over his past 15 innings, with six homers.4 There were rumors of Gonzalez trade discussions (and maybe others), but nothing got very far. Boston’s carrying some huge contracts, and many of the players on those contracts have been horribly disappointing this year. Tough to win when that happens.

18. Toronto Blue Jays, 53-55 (522 RS, 513 RA) (last week: 16)

Saturday’s lineup:

SS Escobar
2B K. Johnson
1B Encarnacion
DH Cooper
RF R. Davis
C Gomes
RF Sierra
CF Gose
3B Hechavarria

The same injury plague that hit the pitching staff has spread to the rest of the roster. Not good.

19. New York Mets, 53-56 (489 RS, 494 RA) (last week: 20)

On Wednesday, the Mets totaled 20 base runners in nine innings, scored just two runs … and still found a way to beat the Giants 2-1 (that was the first time a team had pulled that trick in four years). When they’re not being the maddening Mets, you can dream on their future starting rotation: Matt Harvey’s struck out 23 batters in his first 16⅓ major league innings, and Carlos Beltran 2011 deadline trade booty Zack Wheeler just got promoted to Triple-A. This will likely mark the sixth straight year that the Mets don’t make the playoffs. But we could see a rotation of R.A. Dickey, Johan Santana, Jon Niese, Harvey, and Wheeler as soon as next season — a potentially playoff-worthy quintet.

20. Seattle Mariners, 51-59 (434 RS, 437 RA) (last week: 22)

A full-on Ewing Theory was never truly in the cards, but the Mariners reeling off a seven-game winning streak right after trading Ichiro was … something, anyway. The M’s allowed just 18 runs over those seven games, showing off their best-in-baseball defense in the process. A week of lofty ambition aside, the M’s are auditioning players for 2013 at this point. Blake Beavan hasn’t done anything quite as scintillating as Felix Hernandez did in two-hitting the Yankees on Saturday. But posting a 15-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate, 2.01 ERA, and .522 opponents’ OPS over his past three starts offers at least a glimmer of potential, as Seattle tries to sort out what two through five might look like in next year’s rotation.

21. Philadelphia Phillies, 49-59 (449 RS, 478 RA) (last week: 22)

They’ve been playing better over the past few weeks, shaking off key subtractions in Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence, Joe Blanton, and others to string together some wins. But the latest blow is one of the cruelest. Carlos Ruiz, in the midst of a career year, hit the DL with a case of plantar fasciitis, an injury expected to keep him out four to six weeks. Rather than end on a sour note, here’s Jorge Arangure’s great piece on Ruiz’s rise from obscure non-prospect to Choochy star.

22. Cleveland Indians, 50-58 (458 RS, 548 RA) (last week: 19)

Derek Lowe designated for assignment. Johnny Damon designated for assignment. The first winless road trip of nine games or more in franchise history. A miserable run of pitching that led to 74 runs allowed in those nine games. It’s gotten so bad, the Indians don’t even know what to do when they hit the ball out of the park anymore.

23. Milwaukee Brewers, 48-59 (487 RS, 500 RA) (last week: 23)

Rickie Weeks lives! After three months as one of baseball’s worst hitters, he went .295/.402/.579 from July 1 to August 1. In a down year, the Brewers still carried an Opening Day payroll near $100 million, with Weeks the biggest long-term expense at $38.5 million. They’ll want plenty more moments like these, lest Weeks’s deal turn into an albatross in a hurry.

24. Minnesota Twins, 47-61 (476 RS, 555 RA) (last week: 26)

Impossible as it might sound after their abysmally slow start to the season, no team scored more runs than the Twins in July. Josh Willingham’s been the team’s offensive star for much of the season. But the M&M boys have been the ones flexing lately. Justin Morneau, whose big contract and diminished performance seemed to make him a logical trade candidate at the deadline, stayed in Minnesota and flashed a .916 OPS over his past 28 games. Meanwhile, Joe Mauer is having one of the quietest great seasons of any player in the game: .320/.416/.442. Though he’s never come close to his 28-homer outburst in 2009, Mauer’s still capable of slaying teams with power, too … as the Red Sox found out on Friday.

25. Miami Marlins, 49-60 (400 RS, 500 RA) (last week: 24)

Every team goes through injuries, and the Marlins have had plenty of other problems too. But the team’s inability to stay healthy has turned what could have been at least a respectable season into a disastrous one. Emilio Bonifacio reinjured his surgically repaired thumb, landing him back on the shelf for two to three weeks. He joins Giancarlo Stanton and Logan Morrison on the DL, with Stanton and Bonifacio having missed at least a month each already. Most teams won’t go very far with their highest, third-highest, and seventh-highest projected hitters getting badly hurt, failing to live up to expectations, or both.

26. San Diego Padres, 46-64 (414 RS, 475 RA) (last week: 25)

Not trading Chase Headley might work out just fine for the Padres. After a strong first half, Headley has fared even better in the second half, cracking seven homers and posting an OPS over .900, despite playing in the death for hitters that is Petco Park. If San Diego opt to market Headley this offseason, they’ll be shopping the fifth- or sixth-best third baseman in the game, affordably priced, with two years to go until free agency. In a far less crazy environment than the one teams face at the deadline, the Padres could end up with a better deal four months from now than they would have had last month.

27. Kansas City Royals, 45-62 (447 RS, 507 RA) (last week: 27)

Johnny Giavotella: 25 years old, .328/.415/.492 at Triple-A, lagooned there for 770 at-bats over the past two seasons and counting. Über-prospect Wil Myers is just 21 and getting his first taste of Triple-A, and the Royals likely have concerns about starting his service time clock. Giavotella rotting in the minors while the likes of Yuni Betancourt (finally, mercifully, DFA’d Sunday) and Chris Getz get ample playing time? I don’t know, either.

28. Chicago Cubs, 43-63 (393 RS, 474 RA) (last week: 28)

The kids are finally getting their chance. Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters both got called up in time for Sunday’s game, with Jackson going 2-for-4 as the starting center fielder and no. 2 hitter and Vitters getting in a pinch-hit appearance. Jackson and Vitters both have serious flaws in their game, starting with iffy plate discipline (235 strikeouts and just 77 walks between them this season at Triple-A Iowa). But at least Cubs fans can start to dream of a future lineup that would include Jackson, Vitters, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, and, if things break right, Jorge Soler.

29. Colorado Rockies, 38-68 (504 RS, 621 RA) (last week: 29)

Last week’s management shakeup, in which Dan O’Dowd lost his hold on the fourth-longest-tenured GM job in every capacity but official title, will get the full treatment in the offseason, when we’ll have time for a proper State of the Rockies piece, the same way new acting GM Bill Geivett will have time to figure out how to prevent runs at Coors Field. For now, let’s celebrate one of the very few bright spots of the season — shortstop Josh Rutledge, who just became the first Rockies rookie ever to homer in four straight games. Funny that the Rockies prospect to show the most promise at the big league level this year plays the same position as Colorado’s franchise player. Sounds about right for a season as dreadful as this one.

30. Houston Astros, 36-73 (415 RS, 557 RA) (last week: 30)

Per Mike Elias, Justin Maxwell just became the first Astros center fielder to go 4-for-4 or better with two homers in the same game since the “Toy Cannon” Jimmy Wynn did it 46 years ago. Which is about the only exciting thing we can muster on the Astros right now, unless someone has an old Denny Walling highlight reel laying around somewhere.

Filed Under: Music, The National

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 New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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