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Nationals narrow gap; A's unexpectedly close in playoff race

The Rangers are still on top of the rankings, but their large early season lead has all but vanished, as the Nationals are just one percentage behind after a strong surge over the last week. Washington made a tremendous rebound this weekend, splitting a four game series with Atlanta after blowing a 9-0 on Friday to keep their NL East lead at 3 1/2 games. With Stephen Strasburg's expected shutdown looming, the Nationals need to build their lead up to stave off a late season surge by Atlanta, as the new playoff rules make winning the division far more important than in previous years because division champs avoid the one-game playoff the wild card teams face.

The other big push comes in Oakland, where the A's have gone 9-1 in their last 10 games and just competed a four game sweep of the Yankees at home. The A's are winning with a ragtag group of players that other teams didn't want, and have managed to keep pace with the Angels, who have a payroll nearly three times their size. Yes, this is a familiar story, and GM Billy Beane deserves a lot of credit for once again putting a team together than can unexpectedly compete with the big boys.

NOTE: All stats are through Sunday, July 22.

Rankings written by Ben Duronio of Fangraphs.com. The system used to rank the teams is based not on the current standings or a gut feeling about team quality, but on how well they've performed at the underlying traits that predict future performance better than wins and losses.

wRC+ is an offensive index where 100 is league average and every point above or below that denotes how far from league average a player's performance has been up to that point. It is adjusted for park and league, so it takes into account the context of a player's surroundings, and allows for comparison of performance from players in different situations and in different times.

MLB Power Rankings
1Texas Rangers
Last Week: 1
WAR Winning Percentage: .621; Current Winning Percentage: .596; WAR Wins: 58; Current Wins: 56
The Rangers are hanging onto the top spot in the rankings despite struggling offensively throughout July. Only Mike Napoli, Nelson Cruz and Craig Gentry have an above 100 wRC+ for the month, with David Murphy, Josh Hamilton and Michael Young all posting marks below 41. In fact, Young has been the worst player in baseball this season, racking up a -1.3 WAR. While the team searches for help at the trade deadline, bringing in a new DH might not be a terrible idea.
2Washington Nationals
Last Week: 2
WAR Winning Percentage: .620; Current Winning Percentage: .585; WAR Wins: 58; Current Wins: 55
Ryan Zimmerman entered July with a .234/.297/.345 line and was worth 0.2 WAR. This month alone, Zimmerman has hit .414/.481/.886 and has been worth 1.9 WAR, including two home runs in Sunday's win against the Braves. It is amazing that the Nationals played so well without Zimmerman hitting for most of the season, but now that he appears healthy, their line-up appears strong enough to make a serious World Series push.
3St. Louis <a href=Cardinals" title="St. Louis Cardinals">
Last Week: 4
WAR Winning Percentage: .599; Current Winning Percentage: .526; WAR Wins: 57; Current Wins: 50
Matt Holliday is quietly having the best offensive season of his career. With offense down across the league, Holliday has a .402 OBP and 16 home runs, including four this month, backed by a .390 batting average in 69 July plate appearances. There may not be a more underrated elite hitter in the game than Holliday.
4New York Yankees
Last Week: 3
WAR Winning Percentage: .585; Current Winning Percentage: .600; WAR Wins: 56; Current Wins: 57
A four game sweep at the hand of the Athletics was certainly not how the Yankees envisioned the start to their seven-game West Coast road trip. The Yanks narrowly lost all four games in Oakland, losing by one run in each contest. Despite the streak, New York still has a six game lead in the AL East and Mark Teixeira seems to be back on track, with six home runs and 21 RBI this month.
5San Francisco <a href=Giants" title="San Francisco Giants">
Last Week: 10
WAR Winning Percentage: .561; Current Winning Percentage: .448; WAR Wins: 53; Current Wins: 53
The Giants make a big jump this week, moving up five spots after two road series wins against the Braves and Phillies. Buster Posey has led the offense at the start of the second half, hitting .486/.513/.771 with two home runs and 13 RBIs in nine games since the All-Star break. It is not a coincidence that the Giants are 7-2 over that span.
6Boston <a href=Red Sox" title="Boston Red Sox">
Last Week: 5
WAR Winning Percentage: .559; Current Winning Percentage: .500; WAR Wins: 54; Current Wins: 48
The Red Sox still have a very good team, as only three American League teams have a better run differential than Boston. They need to start translating that run differential into wins though, as their record has them 9 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the AL East. Jon Lester in particular needs to perform better, as his ERA has ballooned to 5.46 after Sunday's miserable four-inning, 11 run outing.
7Detroit <a href=Tigers" title="Detroit Tigers">
Last Week: 7
WAR Winning Percentage: .557; Current Winning Percentage: .542; WAR Wins: 53; Current Wins: 52
The Tigers have gone 8-2 over their past 10 games while no other team in the AL Central has done better than 3-7 over that stretch. Not only are the Tigers playing their best baseball, but the rest of the division is falling apart. Miguel Cabrera has hit five home runs in those 10 games, including two yesterday, which gave him 300 for his career.
8Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 6
WAR Winning Percentage: .551; Current Winning Percentage: .542; WAR Wins: 53; Current Wins: 52
Dan Haren came back from the disabled list Sunday to post a solid yet unspectacular outing. He allowed just two runs over six innings in the Angels' win against the Rangers, but had an even strikeout-to-walk ratio and allowed a home run. Haren returning to form over the rest of the year could be a big swing for the Angels, especially given the horrendous performance that the team has gotten from Ervin Santana.
9Arizona <a href=Diamondbacks" title="Arizona Diamondbacks">
Last Week: 13
WAR Winning Percentage: .549; Current Winning Percentage: .495; WAR Wins: 52; Current Wins: 47
Jason Kubel played in five games last week and hit six home runs, including three on Saturday. Over the past 30 days, Kubel has 12 homers and an .827 slugging percentage as he tries to keep the Diamondbacks in the NL West race. Arizona has the best run differential in the division, so a late season run could be in store, even though it is six games behind San Francisco as the week begins.
10Cincinnati <a href=Reds" title="Cincinnati Reds">
Last Week: 9
WAR Winning Percentage: .544; Current Winning Percentage: .579; WAR Wins: 52; Current Wins: 55
The Reds are the hottest team in the NL, winning four straight and going 8-2 in their past 10 games. It is especially impressive that the Reds have performed so well with Joey Votto on the disabled list for most of this stretch, as the Reds have a narrow half game lead over the Pirates in the NL Central.
11New York <a href=Mets" title="New York Mets">
Last Week: 12
WAR Winning Percentage: .529; Current Winning Percentage: .495; WAR Wins: 50; Current Wins: 47
The Mets have won just one of their past 10 despite having a team wRC+ of 113 over this stretch of play. Injuries to the pitching staff have been a big reason for their recent play, as both Dillion Gee and Johan Santana hit the disabled list. The Mets are calling up top prospect Matt Harvey to pitch on Thursday in an attempt to stay in the playoff hunt.
12Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 11
WAR Winning Percentage: .520; Current Winning Percentage: .547; WAR Wins: 49; Current Wins: 52
The Braves mounted the biggest comeback in the history of their franchise on Friday, as they were down 9-0 against the Nationals and won 11-10 in extra innings. Even though they won on Friday and in the first game of the double header on Saturday, the Braves did not pick up any game on the Nats, as they split the four game set 2-2 to remain 3 ½ out.
13Chicago <a href=White Sox" title="Chicago White Sox">
Last Week: 8
WAR Winning Percentage: .518; Current Winning Percentage: .526; WAR Wins: 49; Current Wins: 50
Kevin Youkilis started off hot in Chicago, but his performance has fallen back to the levels it was at that led to Boston trading him. Over his past nine games, Youkilis has hit .189/.295/.405. It may have been just a tad too soon to say that he was officially back after he changed his Sox. It isn't just Youk who hasn't hit though, as the only player with a wRC+ above 100 over the past 10 games is Alex Rios, which is part of the reason the White Sox have fallen 1 ½ games behind the Tigers in the AL Central.
14Los Angeles <a href=Dodgers" title="Los Angeles Dodgers">
Last Week: 15
WAR Winning Percentage: .514; Current Winning Percentage: .542; WAR Wins: 49; Current Wins: 52
The Dodgers have gotten very good pitching since the All-Star break, with none of their five starters posting an ERA above 3.86 since the Midsummer Classic. The Dodgers do not have much offense outside of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, so continuing to get solid pitching from Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang and Nate Eovaldi will be key during the final months of the season.
15Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 16
WAR Winning Percentage: .511; Current Winning Percentage: .438; WAR Wins: 49; Current Wins: 42
The Phillies essentially have no other option than to sell at this point, as they have not performed well enough in July to justify buying or standing pat. Philadelphia's biggest issues this year have come at home, where it has the least amount of wins of any team in the National League. The Phillies are trying hard to extend pitcher Cole Hamels, but outfielder Shane Victorino may in his final days in Philadelphia.
16Pittsburgh Pirates
Last Week: 17
WAR Winning Percentage: .501; Current Winning Percentage: .574; WAR Wins: 47; Current Wins: 54
The Pirates continue to surge and are still moving up the rankings each week. Pittsburgh has won five straight, backed by a huge week from Pedro Alvarez. The Pirates' third baseman hit four more homers last week, pushing his season total to 21. Along with Alaverez's hot hitting, Neil Walker has been on a tear as well, as he his 209 July wRC+ ranks 10th in baseball.
17Milwaukee <a href=Brewers" title="Milwaukee Brewers">
Last Week: 14
WAR Winning Percentage: .498; Current Winning Percentage: .468; WAR Wins: 47; Current Wins: 44
Michael Fiers has been a surprisingly great story in Milwaukee this year. After being drafted in the 22nd round in 2009, the 27-year-old-rookie has a 1.96 ERA and 2.26 FIP this season, including a 0.80 ERA over his past five starts. The Brewers are likely too far out of the NL Central race to compete, but this rookie may take the ease off of trading some of their top starting pitchers.
18Tampa Bay <a href=Rays" title="Tampa Bay Rays">
Last Week: 19
WAR Winning Percentage: .495; Current Winning Percentage: .510; WAR Wins: 48; Current Wins: 49
Rays designated hitters have really struggled this year, as the group has a league worst .193/.249/.358 line this season, good for just a 66 wRC+. The Rays will have to search for a bat at the deadline to help their under performing offense, and could also be looking for an upgrade at catcher, where they have received a league worst -0.4 WAR this season.
19Oakland Athletics
Last Week: 23
WAR Winning Percentage: .469; Current Winning Percentage: .537; WAR Wins: 45; Current Wins: 51
Oakland is one of the hottest teams in baseball after a four game sweep of the Yankees. The A's are tied for the second wild card entering the week, as they have the lowest team ERA in the American League at 3.38. Tommy Milone has been especially impressive as of late, striking out more than one batter per inning and netting a 1.38 ERA over his past two starts. The recent surge has pushed the A's within a half game of the wild-card-leading Angels, and the upstarts from Oakland are tied with Baltimore for the second wild card position. Maybe they'll call this one Moneyball Rides Again.
20Cleveland <a href=Indians" title="Cleveland Indians">
Last Week: 18
WAR Winning Percentage: .468; Current Winning Percentage: .495; WAR Wins: 44; Current Wins: 47
The Indians have had six pitchers start games over the past 30 days, and only one of them has an ERA below 5.34. Cleveland desperately needs to upgrade its starting pitching to stay in the race, as its offense can hit well enough to keep it in the race with another starter or two to back Zach McAllister.
21Miami <a href=Marlins" title="Miami Marlins">
Last Week: 20
WAR Winning Percentage: .468; Current Winning Percentage: .463; WAR Wins: 44; Current Wins: 44
The Marlins continue to reel, losing five straight and now falling eight games behind in the race for a wild card entry. Given their current place in the standings, Miami will likely look to sell veteran players to contenders, though they'll have to be cognizant of the fact that any large sell-off will evoke memories of previous fire sales, which is probably not what the organization wants in the first year of their new stadium. The Marlins have definitely been one of the more disappointing teams this year, and while admitting defeat is difficult, they can better their future by acquiring prospects at the deadline, but they'll have to do it in a measured way that doesn't alienate the fan base again.
22Toronto <a href=Blue Jays" title="Toronto Blue Jays">
Last Week: 21
WAR Winning Percentage: .459; Current Winning Percentage: .505; WAR Wins: 44; Current Wins: 48
The Blue Jays swept the Red Sox without Jose Bautista, which showed that the team still has some fight left. Carlos Villaneuva and Aaron Laffey have been godsends since joining the rotation, with both posting sub-3.00 ERAs as starting pitchers. With most of their rotation hurt or underperforming, these two pitching this well has kept the Blue Jays close in the wild card hunt.
23Kansas City <a href=Royals" title="Kansas City Royals">
Last Week: 24
WAR Winning Percentage: .453; Current Winning Percentage: .426; WAR Wins: 43; Current Wins: 40
Not much has gone well for Eric Hosmer this year. The second year first baseman is enduring a sophomore slump, hitting just .230 with nine home runs on the year. The struggles have continued as of late as well, as he has hit .216/.298/.297 since the break. His career wRC+ is down to just 101 after posting a big rookie year with a 114 mark.
24Baltimore <a href=Orioles" title="Baltimore Orioles">
Last Week: 22
WAR Winning Percentage: .449; Current Winning Percentage: .537; WAR Wins: 43; Current Wins: 51
Somehow, the Orioles just keep on winning enough games to stay in the wild card lead. They have, by far, the worst run differential in the division and have scored more runs than only three other AL teams. Chris Tillman continuing to pitch well could help fill the void left by Jason Hammel's knee injury, but it looks like their record is still built on a house of cards, and it's hard to see the Orioles staying in the race over the final two months of the season.
25Colorado <a href=Rockies" title="Colorado Rockies">
Last Week: 25
WAR Winning Percentage: .439; Current Winning Percentage: .383; WAR Wins: 41; Current Wins: 36
One-fifth of Willin Rosario's season walk total came last week, which is not as impressive as it sounds. The powerful catcher has 15 home runs but just 10 walks on the year, one of which is intentional. He is obviously a very talented hitter, but improving his plate discipline could go a long way in making him one of the better hitting catchers in baseball.
26Seattle <a href=Mariners" title="Seattle Mariners">
Last Week: 27
WAR Winning Percentage: .426; Current Winning Percentage: .433; WAR Wins: 41; Current Wins: 42
Jesus Montero and John Jaso have been on a tear as of late, posting a 184 and 251 wRC+ respectively over the past 14 days. Montero's performance has moved his WAR from -0.4 to 0.1 in just his past eight games, which speaks to how poorly he has played this year and to how well he is hitting lately. With little to play for this year, the Mariners would at least like to see a solid second half from Montero.
27San Diego <a href=Padres" title="San Diego Padres">
Last Week: 28
WAR Winning Percentage: .426; Current Winning Percentage: .423; WAR Wins: 41; Current Wins: 41
The Padres opted to extend outfielder Carlos Quentin for three years rather than trade him, as the oft-injured slugger has a 150 wRC+ in 41 games with San Diego. The Padres will likely sell off other pieces in the next week, however, as Chase Headley could potentially net some decent prospects from a team looking for a third base upgrade.
28Chicago <a href=Cubs" title="Chicago Cubs">
Last Week: 26
WAR Winning Percentage: .403; Current Winning Percentage: .404; WAR Wins: 38; Current Wins: 38
If there is any chance that the Cubs are able to move Alfonso Soriano for anything valuable, now is the time to do it. The Cubs will have to eat most $36 million that he is owed through 2014, but with him swinging the bat better than he has in recent years, the Cubs could get some value back for him at the deadline.
29Minnesota <a href=Twins" title="Minnesota Twins">
Last Week: 30
WAR Winning Percentage: .384; Current Winning Percentage: .421; WAR Wins: 36; Current Wins: 40
The Twins have hit themselves out of the last spot in the rankings, as they have a team 110 wRC+ over the past 30 games. They are far out of the playoff race, but have some decent trade chips that should make the next few weeks relatively interesting in Minnesota. The Twins need to focus on pitching prospects, as they have had awful starting pitching all season long.
30Houston <a href=Astros" title="Houston Astros">
Last Week: 29
WAR Winning Percentage: .372; Current Winning Percentage: .354; WAR Wins: 36; Current Wins: 34
Houston made a nice trade this week, moving veteran reliever Brandon Lyon and starter J.A. Happ to Toronto for a decent prospect haul and Francisco Cordero, and then shipped Brett Myers to the White Sox as well. The youth movement in Houston is on in full force, as new GM Jeff Luhnow is attempting to rebuild the organization from the ground up. He's still got work to do, but Astros fans should be excited that their organization is finally starting over the right way.

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