Thursday August 4th, 2011

The Brewers recently won eight of nine games to extend their National League Central lead to a season-high 3 1/2 games and to claim another season-high, a No. 4 spot in's weekly MLB Power Rankings.

And that's as high as they -- and everyone else -- are likely to get.

It seems bordering on impossible that any club will crack the 2011 season's inner sanctum of the Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees, who have set themselves apart from the rest of the pack -- and here's a critically important point -- for the rest of the regular season. Anything can and will happen come October, but for now consider the merits of the Northeast's power brokers (sorry, Mets):

*The Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees are the only teams with a winning percentage of at least .615; no one else's is greater than the Braves' .571.

*The Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees are the only teams with positive run differentials in the hundreds with New York at +168, Boston at +142 and Philadelphia at +118; no one else is higher than the Rangers' +88 (and the Braves' +47 is next, distantly behind Texas).

*The Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees are the only teams with a playoff likelihood greater than 99 percent, according to Baseball Prospectus. The Phillies and Red Sox check in at 99.9 percent and the Yankees at 99.1 percent; no one else is at 80 percent, though the Braves, Tigers and Rangers are all greater than 75 percent.

It can't be ignored that the Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees are the only teams with payrolls greater than $160 million -- no one else's payroll is greater than the Angels' $139 million -- and for now they've assembled, by far, the best teams in baseball.

NOTE: All stats are updated through Wednesday, Aug. 3.

MLB Power Rankings
1Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 1
Though Hunter Pence has made a grand debut in Philadelphia, he isn't the only outfielder the Phillies have added to their roster recently: so too have they acquired a Raul Ibañez, circa 2009. The leftfielder had a .231/.279/.386 batting line with nine home runs in 80 games through July 4; since then his line is .299/.340/.567 with seven home runs in 24 games, including nine multi-hit games. On Sunday he went 3-for-5 with a double, two homers and four RBIs to rally Philadelphia to a 6-5 extra-innings win over the Pirates.
2Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 2
Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera has two career hits against Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard and both scored runs, as he doubled home a run on May 23 and homered on Aug. 1. In between those two hits by Cabrera, Bard threw 26 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings during which time he tallied 16 holds and struck out 25 while allowing only 11 hits and six walks. Bard, whom many expect to assume closing duties for the Red Sox because Jonathan Papelbon will be a free agent after the season, averages 97.4 mph on his fastball, which ranks fourth among major league relievers.
3New York Yankees
Last Week: 3
One gag from the offseason was that, since the Yankees planned to patch together the final two spots of their rotation with some combination of Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova, the amalgamation of their names became "Garciacolonova" . . . who now lives as a fully three-headed beast. In the short term New York is using a six-man rotation, meaning each of the trio will start games this week and why not? Garcia is 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA; Colon is 8-6 with a 3.30; and Nova is 9-4 with a 4.01. Before Phil Hughes threw six scoreless innings on Tuesday, he seemed most in jeopardy of losing his spot in the rotation.
4Milwaukee Brewers
Last Week: 8
The Brewers vaulted into sole possession of first place by winning eight of nine on their homestand, including two of three against the second-place Cardinals, and third baseman Casey McGehee may be snapping out of a season-long funk. He had three hits in each of his last two games, including three home runs and five RBIs in the series finale with St. Louis on Wednesday. This year McGehee has made contact at a rate comparable to the rest of his career, but he's walking a career-low percentage of the time (6.8) and hitting 53.1 percent of balls on the ground compared to a career rate of 46.8.
5Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 6
Dan Uggla's early-season struggles were regular fodder in this space, so it's only fair now to acknowledge his July and early August turnaround. The veteran second baseman was batting .173 at the end of play on July 4 but then ripped off a 25-game hitting streak with 11 home runs that raised his season average to .215 and home-run total to 23. Of course, Uggla set some ignominious history along the way, as he became the first player with a hitting streak of at least 15 games and an average less than .200 after his team had played at least 100 games.
6Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 11
Justin Verlander carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning for the third time this season in Sunday's 3-2 win over the Angels and improved to 15-5 with a 2.24 ERA. He leads the majors with a 0.87 WHIP, 187 strikeouts and 181 innings. He's likely to make 11 more starts this season, putting him on pace for 264 innings; in the last 13 seasons only Randy Johnson (1999 and 2002) and Roy Halladay (2003) have eclipsed 260 innings. Also, after two seasons of leading the AL in average fastball velocity but trailing the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez, this year Verlander leads all major league starters at 95.1 mph.
7San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 4
Somehow the Giants didn't score more than six runs in a game at home until Wednesday, their 53rd game at AT&T Park this year, when they blasted the Diamondbacks 8-1. Dating back to the end of 2010, the Giants had endured a 58-game streak of not scoring more than six runs at home -- it was the second-longest such streak in baseball since 1919, falling two games shy of the 1942-43 Phillies. No other team had even eclipsed 40 games since 1967. In fact, the 2011 Giants hadn't scored more than six runs in any game since July 2, a string of 26 games in which the club still went 13-13 thanks to its great pitching.
8Arizona Diamondbacks
Last Week: 9
For a day the Diamondbacks were back in first place in the NL West, albeit tied with the Giants, before losing badly on Wednesday. That loss shouldn't take away from a road trip in which Arizona won all three series it played, taking two of three from the Padres, Dodgers and Giants, and featured the strong debut of first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. The 23-year-old, who debuted August 1, had good at bats against some of the game's best, lining a Matt Cain pitch to rightfield for a single, homering off Tim Lincecum and working two walks in his first three games since his promotion from the minors.
9Texas Rangers
Last Week: 5
The Rangers are about to face a problem everyone would love to have. Their two hottest hitters over the past month have been Mike Napoli and Michael Young; since Napoli returned from the DL on July 5 he has led the club in average (.426), OBP (.480), slugging (.838) and home runs (seven); Young is tied for the lead in doubles (nine) ranks second in average (.392) and OBP (.438) while ranking third in slugging (.546). It's been easy to find playing time for both in the absence of third baseman Adrian Beltre, who is on the DL with a strained hamstring, but will soon have a playing time logjam when Beltre takes third base back from Young.
10Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 7
After Angels centerfielder Peter Bourjos misplayed a ball in a recent game, it was so unusual and unsettling that's Joe Sheehan tweeted that it was "like watching your priest steal a candy bar." Indeed, the speedy Bourjos leads all centerfielders in both of the two most prominent advanced defensive metrics, Ultimate Zone Rating (10.0) and Plus/Minus (+28). He's not alone, as Torii Hunter is tied for second in Plus/Minus (+16) among rightfielders and not a single Angels regular has a negative UZR. Their team's Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, as ranked by Baseball Prospectus, is second in the majors behind Tampa Bay.
11St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 10
Early on it's been a mixed bag for new acquisitions. Shortstop Rafael Furcal made a game-saving over-the-shoulder catch in Tuesday night's thriller in which the Redbirds beat the Brewers in extra innings, and the next day he had two hits, including a home run, and four RBIs. Relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepcyznski have combined for 6 2/3 scoreless innings. A similar story could not be told about starter Edwin Jackson, who was left on the mound for a shelling on Wednesday, allowing 14 hits and 10 runs (eight earned) over seven innings. Worst of all, the Cardinals fell to 3 1/2 games back of the Brewers in the NL Central.
12Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 13
The list of baseball folks who have had appendectomies this year started with players Matt Holliday, Michael Cuddyer, Adam Dunn, Joba Chamberlain and Ramiro Peña and recently extended to include Rays' vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who admirably made trade-deadline phone calls from his hospital bed. Tampa Bay ultimately made no deals, however, and continues to have little chance at the playoffs because of a 10-game deficit behind the wild-card-leading Yankees despite the Rays boasting the league's fourth-best run differential and fifth-best record.
13Cleveland Indians
Last Week: 14
All the attention is on new ace Ubaldo Jimenez, but he won't debut until Friday and in the meantime team MVP Asdrubal Cabrera will continue to rake. On Monday night he hit his 18th home run in his 421st at bat of the season, matching the number of home runs he had hit in his previous 1,412 career at bats over the previous four seasons; Cabrera added his 19th homer in his 422nd at bat of 2011. He seems particularly willing to swing for the fences early in games, as seven of his homers have come in the first inning, 11 in the first four innings and only two in the eighth inning or later.
14Toronto Blue Jays
Last Week: 15
The Blue Jays would do well if they were members of the AL Central. Toronto is, of course, closer to Detroit's Comerica Park (242 driving miles) and Cleveland's Progressive Field (295) than it is to the closest AL East ballpark, Yankee Stadium (480 miles), but the competition suits the Jays better too. They are 16-11 against Central teams, as opposed to 19-24 against East teams. The Jays' overall record (56-54) would rank second in the Central, and their run differential (+11) is better than all five AL Central team, as all have negative totals.
15Florida Marlins
Last Week: 18
The Marlins were 10 games over .500 at 30-20 as recently as May 28 and 10 games under .500 at 38-48 as recently as July 5. With comeback wins Monday and Tuesday, they returned to .500, meeting the first goal of manager Jack McKeon, who took over on June 20. "I've always preached to them that once we get to .500, we'll be all right and we'll take off," he said. "I'm just hoping that history repeats itself. That's the same speech I gave in '03." When he took the reins in Florida in May of 2003 he had the benefit of more time. That club was also 10 games under .500, though it was 19-29. The Marlins finished '03 by going 30 games over .500 over the remainder of their schedule (72-42) and won the World Series.
16Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 20
The Reds remain the league's most inconsistent and unpredictable team. After winning the NL Central last year and retaining their core, they seemed likely to improve on their 91-win season in 2010. Instead, Cincinnati recently had a 32-game stretch in which it failed to win consecutive games, only to break that streak against a Braves team that at the time had the NL's second-best record. The Reds followed up those back-to-back wins by losing four straight to the middling Mets, to which they rebounded with a three-game sweep of the NL West-leading Giants . . . only to lose a series to the Astros.
17Pittsburgh Pirates
Last Week: 12
The shine is slowly dimming on the Pirates' dream season. They've now lost eight of their last nine, and while six of those games came on the road against the Braves and Phillies, the last three losses were at the hands of the Cubs at home. With the loss the Pirates sank under .500 for the first time since they were 36-37 on June 21. Trade acquisition Derrek Lee is at least off to a strong start. He homered twice in his Pirates debut on Monday.
18New York Mets
Last Week: 16
After missing 58 games with a stress fracture in his back, Mets third baseman David Wright is making up for lost time. He returned to the lineup with a 10-game hitting streak that included seven straight games with multiple hits; the latter mark is tied for the longest in the majors this season. The streak raised his average 36 points, and the Mets won five of the seven games, including a four-game sweep of the Reds in Cincinnati.
19Chicago White Sox
Last Week: 17
Manager Ozzie Guillen has shown that he is either loyal or stubborn for his persistence in not just putting Adam Dunn's name on his lineup card each night but regularly doing so in the heart of the order. Dunn has batted third, fourth or fifth in each of last 26 starts despite batting .166 with a .296 OBP and an AL-leading 138 strikeouts; Dunn is 3-for-77 against lefthanded pitchers. Guillen has included Dunn, who signed a four-year, $56 million contract in the offseason, in his starting lineup in 85 of Chicago's 99 games since Dunn returned from his early-season appendectomy.
20Washington Nationals
Last Week: 24
It was a newsy week for rehabbing starting pitchers. The Nationals announced that Stephen Strasburg would make a minor league rehab start on Sunday, and they gave Chien-Ming Wang his second big-league start since returning from the DL. Wang, the noted sinkerballer, hasn't been sharp so far. In his first outing against the Mets he gave up eight hits and six runs (four earned) over four innings, even allowing more flyballs (nine) than groundballs (eight). On Wednesday against the Braves Wang gave up seven runs and six runs (two earned) in five innings, though four of the runs were unearned only because of Wang's own throwing error.
21Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 22
Dodgers reliever Hong-Chih Kuo has had a remarkable fall from grace. The lefty reliever was a 2010 All-Star with a franchise record 1.20 ERA that year (min. 50 innings), but in 2011 he has multiplied that figure tenfold to 12.46. His BB/9 rate went from 2.7 to 11.1; his WHIP tripled from 0.78 to 2.46. After allowing just one extra-base hit (a double) to lefty batters in all of 2010, Kuo gave up a homer to lefthanded Arizona outfielder Gerardo Parra on Sunday, the fourth extra-base hit he's given up to lefties in one-third as many at bats (21) as in 2010 (63).
22Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 19
Justin Morneau hasn't played a game since June 9 because of wrist soreness and then surgery to repair a ruptured disc, but the Twins' offensive production at first base has actually increased. There is no doubting the overall talent and credentials of Morneau, a former AL MVP, but injuries have slowed him. In his absence, Michael Cuddyer has a .353/.409/.632 batting line with nine homers in his 37 games while playing that position; Joe Mauer is 16-for-31 (.516) when he mans first base. Morneau is expected to start a rehab assignment soon.
23Oakland Athletics
Last Week: 21
Cue the Bash Brothers, the boppin' A's are back in town! Okay, not quite, but Oakland's offense has woken up. From July 24 to July 31 the A's scored five or more runs in eight straight games for a total of 59 runs (a 7.4 run/game average); they had not scored more than 45 runs in any other independent eight-game stretch this season. At the conclusion of the run-scoring streak Oakland still, however, ranked 13th of 14 AL teams in runs per game.
24Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 23
On the bright side for Colorado this year, Todd Helton has resurrected his career. In two of the past three season the first baseman had failed to reach 10 home runs or post an OPS in the .800s. Last year he batted just .256 with only 27 extra-base hits for a .367 slugging percentage that was exactly 200 points lower than his career rate of .567 before the season. In 2011, however, Helton has hit .309 with 11 home runs and a .482 slugging percentage, which means the $33.6 million remaining on his contract from 2011-13 (though more than a third of the money is deferred) won't seem so onerous.
25San Diego Padres
Last Week: 25
Reliever Mike Adams, whom the Padres traded to the Rangers on Sunday, showed up at Petco Park on Monday because he didn't have to join Texas until Tuesday. Also on Monday closer Heath Bell made the unexpected admission that he'd probably accept arbitration from the team to remain a Padre. It is, after all, the majors' best bullpen -- a 2.79 ERA at the time -- and, of course, San Diego is beautiful. Only Chad Qualls is likely to join Adams in leaving as his $6 million club option almost certainly won't be exercised. The rest of the 'pen is under team control for at least one more year.
26Seattle Mariners
Last Week: 29
In the last week Ichiro Suzuki had both a four-hit game and a three-hit game as he tries to become the first player in baseball history with 11 seasons of at least 200 hits. His streak of 10 straight such seasons is already a big-league record, but Pete Rose had 10 non-consecutive 200-hit seasons. Ichiro now has 122 hits in 110 Mariners games, and if he continues at that pace he'll finish with 180 hits, though getting the necessary 78 hits in his next 52 games is definitely doable.
27Chicago Cubs
Last Week: 28
On Aug. 1, the first day after the trade deadline, the Cubs started a lineup against the Pirates that included eight of the nine players whose names were on the lineup card from their second game of the season on April 2, which was also against the Pirates. Such consistency is typically enviable, except when the team entered play 22 games out of first place in the NL Central and ought to be more aggressive in stocking the farm system. While the Cubs could still make some waiver trades, they dealt only outfielder Kosuke Fukudome before the deadline.
28Kansas City Royals
Last Week: 26
Billy Butler isn't the prototypical power-hitting DH -- he's never hit more than 21 homers in a season -- but he sure did a great impression of one last week. Butler hit five homers in seven games last week, raising his season total from seven to 12, as he shared AL Player of the Week honors with the Angels' Ervin Santana. Butler also smacked two doubles to boost his season total to 26 through 106 games, which puts him on pace for his third consecutive year with at least 40 doubles.
29Baltimore Orioles
Last Week: 27
The Orioles did exactly as they were supposed to at the trade deadline: deal their aging first baseman (Derrek Lee) and reliever (Koji Uehara) for younger counter parts at first (Chris Davis) and in the bullpen (Tommy Hunter), as well as Class A hitter Aaron Baker. Though Davis has battled a prohibitive strikeout rate in his career, he has shown plenty of power and won't be arbitration-eligible until the 2013 season; Hunter has shown improvement in each of his four partial major-league seasons and won't be arbitration-eligible until the 2014 season.
30Houston Astros
Last Week: 30
After the Astros traded middle infielder Jeff Keppinger and outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, they demoted slumping corner infielders Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace to the minor leagues. That left Houston with a lineup that one writer for the Houston Press declared to be "the Worst Lineup in Major League History," given that four of the eight hitters were in the minors 10 days previously, that a player with a career .674 OPS was batting third and that the cleanup hitter, Carlos Lee, was merely tied for the most homers hit at the Astros' home ballpark this year with Lance Berkman, a former Astro who is now with the Cardinals. Such are the growing pains of rebuilding.

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