Thursday April 21st, 2011

The big prospect is struggling -- but not as much as the star outfielder. The expected ace has an ERA near 5.00. And the guys platooning in leftfield, a position that's typically a bastion of power in any lineup, have yet to hit a home run or contribute in any meaningful way.

Yet, despite all of that, the Cleveland Indians -- who failed to win 70 games last season -- keep on winning and have asserted themselves as the best team in the American League.

For now.

So while rookie catcher Carlos Santana, All-Star rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo, Opening Day starter Fausto Carmona and leftfielders Austin Kearns and Travis Buck have faltered, the Indians have benefited from an offense that leads the AL in runs scored (97), batting average (.270) and on-base percentage (.342), a pitching staff that ranks fourth in team ERA (3.36) and a defense that is first in the majors in team Ultimate Zone Rating, saving more runs (10, in this case) defensively than a club of average fielders. All told, Cleveland has baseball's best run differential (+34), is tied for its best record and could get better if its expected top performers shake off their early-season funks.

Will this first-place run atop the AL Central last? Probably not. But for now the Indians have capitalized on the struggles of the division's projected top-three finishers, the White Sox, Twins and Tigers, all of whom are under .500 and at least 4 ½ games behind Cleveland.

NOTE: All stats are updated through Wednesday, April 20.

MLB Power Rankings
1Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 1
The name "Ubaldo" is at least phonetic to a Spanish speaker; the name Jhoulys Chacin is a bit more of a challenge. (It's pronounced "JO-lease cha-SEEN.") The only thing trickier has been hitting him in the air. Utilizing an 89-91 mph fastball, Chacin threw a six-hit, complete-game shutout Friday night against the Cubs, and he leads the majors in groundball-to-flyball ratio at 3.91. The 23-year-old has yet to allow a home run and has yielded just three extra-base hits (all doubles) in 22 innings with a 1.64 ERA.
 
2Cleveland Indians
Last Week: 5
It has only been four games and 14 at bats, but Grady Sizemore's return to an Indians uniform has been an unquestioned success story so far. After undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee, he made it back to the majors on Sunday and homered in his second at bat. He's had multiple hits in each of his first two starts and is batting .357 with three extra-base hits. Whether the speed ever returns is unknown -- he averaged 29 steals in his four full seasons -- but he's only 28 and ought to have several good years ahead of him.
 
3Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 2
On Wednesday afternoon the Phillies rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Brewers thanks to home runs from Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino. Indeed, the top two hitters in Philadelphia's lineup accounted for all four RBIs; Polanco is now tied with Ryan Howard for the team lead with 15 while Victorino is tied with Raul Ibañez for third place with 10. Add catcher Carlos Ruiz and rightfielder Ben Francisco, and six of the Phillies' top seven hitters in the lineup have at least nine RBIs. The lone exception is No. 3 hitter Jimmy Rollins, who somehow only has one RBI, which came in his 12th game. The culprit is his .229 average with runners on base.
 
4Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 9
Howie Kendrick looks like a completely new hitter in the first three weeks of the season. The second baseman's career high for homers is 10, and he's never exceeded a frequency of one HR every 37.4 at bats. In 2011, however, he's already hit six homers with an AB/HR rate of 12.3. He's also drawing walks at an unprecedented rate. His career high is to draw a walk on 5.0 percent of plate appearances, but he's up to 11.8 percent so far this year. The homer and walk rates -- if he keeps them up -- will push him from high-average singles hitter to a power hitter in the company of second-base counterparts Robinson Cano and Ian Kinsler.
 
5New York Yankees
Last Week: 7
In 1990 rookie Kevin Maas became an immediate Yankees sensation when he began his career with 12 home runs among his first 28 hits. Jorge Posada, in his first year as a full-time D.H., is on track to shatter that pace. Five of Posada's first seven hits this season were home runs, accounting for eight of his nine RBIs. The former catcher has 11 seasons with at least 17 homers, but he has never exceeded 30 in a year. The other hits should come soon, however. Posada's batting average on balls in play is an astronomically low .094 -- by far the worst in the majors -- and should start creeping toward the MLB average of .292 soon, a move that will manifest in the form of singles and doubles, balancing out his early power.
 
6Texas Rangers
Last Week: 3
Given the cost of the trade (set-up man and former closer Frank Francisco), the Rangers were expected to find at bats for Mike Napoli, either at catcher or first base, especially after he homered in his first two games and three of his first five. Instead, Napoli played in just six of Texas' first 14 games, restricted by being one of only two catchers on the team along with Yorvit Torrealba and thus making manager Ron Washington reluctant to use him as a pinch-hitter. But on Wednesday the Rangers called up a third catcher, Taylor Teagarden, which will create what Washington called more "offensive flexibility with Napoli." Good thing -- through nine games he's slugging .704.
 
7Kansas City Royals
Last Week: 6
Billy Butler started his 25th birthday on Monday with two singles and two walks. In the eighth inning, however, while sliding into second on a possible force-out, Butler thought he had been called out and wandered off second base; he later discovered -- too late -- that he had been safe at second. It was an unfortunate gaffe in a game the Royals went on to lose, marring his hot start to the season: Butler has a batting line of .354/.475/.508. He leads the AL with five intentional walks and is tied for fifth with 14 total walks.
 
8Florida Marlins
Last Week: 12
The Marlins have a three-time All-Star and former batting champ in Hanley Ramirez, a hyped power-hitting prospect in Mike Stanton and two 2010 All-Stars in John Buck and Omar Infante, but the team's two best hitters so far this season -- by far -- have been Logan Morrison and the man who displaced Morrison from first base to leftfield, Gaby Sanchez. Both are hitting above .325 with an OBP of at least .400, and
 
9San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 14
Slimming one's waistline wouldn't seem to have an effect on a player's batting eye, but third baseman Pablo Sandoval, fresh off an offseason in which he lost 40 pounds, is more patient at the plate, taking his time to feast on offspeed pitches rather than hastening his way to the postgame spread. Sandoval has put together a .328/.400/.603 batting line with five homers by changing his approach at the plate. He's seeing 3.80 pitches per plate appearance (up from 3.42 for his career), by swinging at the first pitch only 26.2 percent of the time (down from 44.1 percent in his career) and by reducing his number of plate appearances per walk to 9.29 (down from 13.35 for his career).
 
10Milwaukee Brewers
Last Week: 11
Last year Prince Fielder drew the most walks in his career (114) and had his fewest RBIs (83) since 2006. In 2011 Fielder has reversed that trend. He has a major league leading 19 RBIs, meaning he's on pace for 171, and has walked only six times, a rate of 7.7 percent of all plate appearances compared to 16.0 percent last year. No doubt Fielder is swinging more freely in his contract year -- RBIs earn more cash than walks -- which, along with the emergence of Casey McGehee as his protection in the lineup, partly explains why he's on pace to more than double his RBIs and more than halve his walks.
 
11Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 28
In his last five full games before suffering a finger injury on Sunday, Johnny Damon went 8-for-23 (.348) with at least one hit and one RBI in each, all of which were Rays wins. Twice in the weekend series against the Twins, Damon delivered a walkoff win for Tampa Bay, with a two-run homer on Thursday and an RBI single on Saturday. Damon has always had a flair for the dramatic and is tied for the major league lead in both go-ahead RBIs (six) and game-winning RBIs (five).
 
12St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 20
Nearly 90 percent of the season remains, but at the rate Lance Berkman is going, I'm likely to owe him an apology. In SI's baseball preview issue, I identified him as the NL Central's "star on the decline" -- in 2010, after all, he struggled mightily against lefty pitchers and this year the Cardinals were asking the oft-injured 35-year-old to be an everyday outfielder for the first time in seven years -- but he logged one the best five-game stretches anyone in baseball will enjoy this year. Berkman went 10-for-21 (.476) with six home runs and 12 RBIs.
 
13Arizona Diamondbacks
Last Week: 21
Admittedly, the Twins' Joe Mauer is on the D.L., but in his absence the Diamondbacks' Miguel Montero is asserting himself as one of the game's premier offensive catchers. Montero's 1.028 OPS is No. 1 among catchers and is No. 10 among all NL hitters. He's not only batting .358 but has drawn eight walks. There are two drawbacks, however, to his fine start. One, his batting average on balls in play is .405, which will likely regress closer to his .311 career rate and cost him a few points on his average; two, he has made five errors, also the most among all catchers.
 
14Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 4
Writers and fans have become numb to most athlete arrests, but Monday's incident with Mike Leake stood out for the alleged perpetrator (a promising young pitcher of little national name recognition except for his having skipped the minor leagues), the alleged offense (stealing six t-shirts that cost less than $60) and his compensation (he received a $2.3 million signing bonus and is making $425,000 this season). Making matters stranger is this Cincinnati TV report which suggests Leake tried to make an in-store exchange without telling any store employee and the police reports which lists his place of employment as "Reds Stadium" rather than Great American Ballpark.
 
15Chicago Cubs
Last Week: 16
In Carlos Zambrano's third start of the year on April 13, he pitched five scoreless innings and homered in the top of the sixth before allowing five runs in the bottom half of the inning and leaving the mound before his manager, Mike Quade, arrived to take the ball. Zambrano apologized the next day and what likely spoke louder than words was his performance in his next outing on Monday night. Zambrano threw eight shutout innings and struck out 10 while allowing just three hits and one walk.
 
16Oakland Athletics
Last Week: 17
Rickey Henderson's name and face keeps popping up everywhere. Most notably, he appears -- thrice -- in this new Pepsi Max commercial in which three Rickey Hendersons, wearing different uniforms, appear; while one drinks from a bottle of soda, the other two are playing Paper-Rock-Scissors before one proclaims (in the third person, of course), "Rickey wins again." Meanwhile, the Oakland A's are trotting out a Rickey Henderson bobblehead night, and their TV network is running a commercial in which Coco Crisp excitedly tells the clubhouse manager that Henderson told him that disco aerobics are the key to his fitness level -- only for the clubbie to tell Crisp that Henderson told another player that Irish line dancing was the secret. And there's this tale, from a blog, in which Henderson mistook the steal sign for adulation.
 
17Washington Nationals
Last Week: 24
Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa had only 15 RBIs in 28 games in 2010 but notched his 15th RBI of 2011 in his 17th game and, in fact, has nearly twice as many RBIs as any teammate. (Ian Desmond ranks second with eight). But don't expect that to continue: Espinosa has hit his way out of most RBI opportunities. By reaching base reliably -- he has a .375 OBP -- he has taken over from Desmond, his double-play partner, as the Nationals' new leadoff hitter.
 
18Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 18
Centerfielder Austin Jackson was the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up last year, while leftfielder Ryan Raburn was the club's breakout performer by finishing with 13 homers and a .333 average over the season's final two months. But this year Raburn has struck out 25 times and Jackson 24 times -- while batting just .230 and .157, respectively -- which means that two-thirds of the Tigers' starting outfield are the majors' top two strikeout victims.
 
19Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 15
On Wednesday MLB commissioner Bud Selig essentially seized control of the Dodgers and handed it to an as-yet-unnamed representative to "oversee all aspects of the business and the day-to-day operations of the Club." Such a move likely won't immediately affect the Dodgers' on-field performance -- players generally have little regular interaction with ownership -- but it could hamstring general manager Ned Colletti if he wants to add payroll at the trade deadline. Admittedly, the Rangers were very active last year under the league's watchful eye and made it to the World Series, but, as Jonah Keri thoughtfully reflects over at FanGraphs.com, things weren't as rosy when MLB took over the Expos in 2002.
 
20San Diego Padres
Last Week: 22
In the first 18 games of the 2010 season then-Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez had a .317/.429/.667 batting line with six homers and 14 RBIs. In San Diego's first 18 games of 2011, however, with Gonzalez now playing in Boston, the team has had a major dropoff in production from their starting first basemen. Brad Hawpe and Jorge Cantu have shared starting duties at that position, and collectively the two Padres first basemen have .129/.182/.200 batting line with one home run and only three runs scored.
 
21Toronto Blue Jays
Last Week: 13
Aaron Hill and Adam Lind continue to replicate each other. It started in 2009 -- when Hill batted .286 with 36 homers and 108 RBIs and Lind hit .305 with 35 homers and 114 RBIs -- but it hasn't been a good thing since. In 2010, Hill fell to .205 with 26 homers and 68 RBIs; Lind checked in at .237, 23 homers and 72 RBIs. And in 2011 Hill is batting .242 with zero homers and nine RBIs, and Lind is hitting .232, one homer and nine RBIs. Each has three doubles, while Lind has four walks to Hill's three.
 
22Baltimore Orioles
Last Week: 10
That dalliance atop the AL East standings was fun, but reality struck cruelly. Beginning with the second game of a doubleheader on April 9, the Orioles lost eight straight, going from a one-game lead in first to fourth place and a 3 ½ game deficit. During that skid the club batted .219 and scored just 20 runs, an average of 2.5 per game. On the season, not one player with at least 25 at bats is hitting better than .274 or has an OBP higher than .333, which are fine numbers for a team average but not for the top of the scale.
 
23Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 19
Mayfield Farms, a prominent dairy farm in the southeastern U.S., announced recently that it was creating Triple Play, the official ice cream of the Atlanta Braves. The name comes from the three flavors -- white chocolate ice cream with a raspberry puree and raspberry-filled chocolate cups ? that comprise it but the Braves haven't turned a triple play in seven years, last doing so on May 6, 2004 against the Padres. In 2003, however, then shortstop Rafael Furcal completed one of the rarest feats in baseball by turning an unassisted triple play against the Cardinals. That was duplicated against Atlanta in 2007 when Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki did the honors.
 
24Pittsburgh Pirates
Last Week: 23
As bad as the Pirates were last year -- their .352 winning percentage was their worst since 1954 -- at least they won at home, going 40-41 in front of their fans at PNC Park. That, unfortunately, left only 17 wins in road games. This year, oddly, the Pirates have reversed that trend, starting 7-5 on the road and 1-5 at home. If their struggles in Pittsburgh continued, they may not be immune to the mocking laugh of the scoreboard Pirate (check these videos on Yahoo!'s Big League Stew).
 
25Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 30
After starting 0-6 and 2-10, it was easy to point to Boston's starting rotation as the key culprit. The staff had a 6.71 ERA in those first dozen games, and opponents hit .281 against them. In their last five games, however, which is a full turn through the rotation, Sox starters are 4-1 with a 1.15 ERA after allowing just four earned runs and a .179 average against in 31 1/3 innings. Most surprising was the outing from Daisuke Matsuzaka, who pitched seven shutout innings, yielding just one hit and one walk and needing only 89 pitches to get 21 outs. He had thrown seven innings in his first two starts combined, while allowing 10 earned runs.
 
26Chicago White Sox
Last Week: 8
From 2007 to 2009 the first pitch for White Sox home games was scheduled for 7:11 p.m. as part of a sponsorship with convenience store chain 7-Eleven. After that contract expired, games were returned to their prior start time of 7:10, and this year the White Sox ought to move forward the remainder of their home games by far more than one minute. Through three weeks, Chicago is 1-6 in night games but 6-5 in day games. The club is in the middle of a seven-game losing streak, and though they won't actually change their entire home schedule, it may be time for a drastic shakeup of another kind -- maybe by shuffling the lineup and dropping struggling Juan Pierre and Gordon Beckham out of the top two spots.
 
27Houston Astros
Last Week: 29
On Wednesday, in Houston's 18th game of the season, the first Astro hit multiple home runs -- not for the game but for the season. Amazingly, no player had more than one homer until Hunter Pence parked his second round-tripper of the season at the Mets' Citi Field. It was the key blow in leading the Astros to consecutive wins for the first time this season.
 
28Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 26
Of the Twins' early-season problems -- catcher Joe Mauer's leg weakness and viral infection, closer Joe Nathan's struggles and subsequent demotion, the broken leg of Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the rampant flu that sidelined Justin Morneau and Delmon Young and Francisco Liriano's shakiness -- at least one, Liriano, showed a glimpse of turning things around. In his first three stars he allowed a 9.42 ERA without pitching more than five innings. But against the Orioles on Monday, the lefty earned his first win after allowing only two runs in 6 1/3 innings. Troubling still was that he walked five while striking out two, bringing the season total of both to 14, and that he didn't get a swing and miss on any of his 47 fastballs despite averaging 93 mph.
 
29Seattle Mariners
Last Week: 27
In Eric Wedge's last six seasons managing the Indians, they never scored fewer than 773 runs, even when they only won 65 games. That's the background to his recent comments blasting the offense of his new team, the Mariners, who scored a paltry 513 runs last year and have scored only 70 runs in 19 games this year. That's a pace for 597 runs. Though that's way more than last year's Seattle team, it still would have ranked last in the AL. That's why Wedge told the Seattle press recently, "It's the same thing, different day, and it's unacceptable." Unfortunately for Wedge, he doesn't have a ton to work with -- so little, in fact, that he used second baseman Adam Kennedy, whose career slugging percentage is a paltry .387, as clean-up hitter.
 
30New York Mets
Last Week: 25
The Mets' early-season losing has already become so monotonous and routine that New York Daily News beat writer Andy Martino led his story of Tuesday night's loss like so: "Blah blah blah blah rain blah blah blah Niese blah blah Astros blah blah Mets got spanked. Blah blah, 6-1. We really don't know what else to tell you about this one. But we will try . . ." One out of the ordinary note with the Mets: last week they hosted an afternoon doubleheader while the Yankees were home at night, allowing me to see (most of) a tripleheader.

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