Thursday September 22nd, 2011

In the 25 weeks this space has (powerfully) charted each team's forward and backward progress, the most consistent club has been the one at the top: Philadelphia.

Thats right where the Phillies belong in this final edition of Power Rankings. One of the preseason co-World Series favorites (along with the Red Sox), the Phils have spent 15 weeks in the No. 1 spot, including the last nine weeks consecutively.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, are not only plummeting -- down to No. 12 -- but they never reached No. 1, a spot occupied by six other teams: Phillies (15 weeks), Indians (three), Rockies (three), Rangers (two), Cardinals (one) and Yankees (one).

Herewith are a few Power Rankings team awards:

World Series favorite: Phillies. Who else? Despite recent injury scares with Ryan Howard and Hunter Pence, Philadelphia remains the majors' best team with a dominant rotation that should serve them well in the postseason.

Team peaking at the right time: Tigers. The recipient of this esteemed honor last year was the San Francisco Giants, and last fall obviously worked out rather well for them. Can the Tigers recreate the same World Series magic? With Justin Verlander and Doug Fister atop the rotation and the ALs fourth-best offense to support them, Detroit has a legitimate shot at its first title since 1984.

Biggest jump: Diamondbacks. They debuted at No. 24, fell as far as No. 25 on May 12 and spent only week above No. 20 before a late May run set them on their current track to win the NL West. They finish the season at No. 6.

Worst fall: Rockies. They sprinted out of the gate with a 16-7 (.696) start that was baseballs best, a scorching three-week stretch that put them atop the rankings for three weeks. But Colorado has been just 54-62 (.409) since and finishes the year at No. 24.

As my last executive order before abdicating Power Rankings for its offseason hibernation, I award each team's unsung hero -- the player, coach, executive or person formerly associated with the team whose positive impact on this year's team has gone underreported. In some cases that's a burgeoning star not getting sufficient due; in other cases it's a utility player or middle reliever that keeps falling in the shadow of his more celebrated teammates.

NOTE: All stats are updated through Wednesday, Sept. 21.

MLB Power Rankings
1Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 1
Kyle Kendrick, SP/RP
Essentially, everyone else on this pitching staff has already been celebrated: the starters, of course, but also new closer Ryan Madson and top set-up man Antonio Bastardo, who has shaved more than two runs off his ERA for the second straight season. Kendrick, meanwhile, a much-maligned fifth starter for most of his career, started the year in the bullpen, made capable starts with Joe Blanton on the DL (3.14 ERA in 15 starts) and is now expected to return to relieving (2.76 ERA in 29 1/3 IP) in the playoffs.
2New York Yankees
Last Week: 2
Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher, OFs
Lost in their atrocious starts to the season -- Gardner was batting .145 with a .197 on-base percentage on April 27; Swisher was hitting .204 with two homers on May 25 -- and in the fact that they flank an MVP candidate in centerfield is that Gardner and Swisher have rallied to have big finishes to their season. Since April 28 Gardner has put together a .278/.364/.384 batting line with 43 stolen bases. Since May 26 Swisher has a .285/.397/.520 batting line with 21 homers.
3Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 3
Jeff Jones, pitching coach
It's hard to prove coaching's cause-and-effect on players' performance but there's at least a notable correlation between the Tigers changing pitching coaches and their pitchers performing much better. Under Rick Knapp's guidance through July 2, the Tigers were 44-40, with a 4.41 staff ERA, a .261 average against and a 1.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Since July 3 under Jones, the Tigers are 46-25, with a 3.61 ERA, .252 average against and a 2.64 K/BB ratio. During that time Detroit acquired Doug Fister, but he alone couldn't make up that night-and-day difference.
4Texas Rangers
Last Week: 4
Elvis Andrus, SS
Andrus had a reputation of being such a good fielder that it could overshadow his sub-par bat. While he continues to play a high level of defense -- he ranks fifth in the majors at shortstop by the Fielding Bible's Plus/Minus and seventh by Ultimate Zone Rating -- his offensive skills have improved too. He's still reaching base at roughly the same rate (.342 OBP last year, .343 OBP this year), but he's making better contact, raising his average from .265 to .279 and his slugging from .301 to .361. On an injury-plagued team, he's also been durable, logging 145 games.
5Milwaukee Brewers
Last Week: 5
Randy Wolf, SP
With all the attention on newcomers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum joining incumbent ace Yovani Gallardo, Wolf was lost in the shuffle. Still, he leads the Brewers in innings pitched (206 2/3) to go along with a solid 3.61 ERA that puts him among the top No. 4 starters in baseball. His 21 quality starts are one behind Gallardo for the team lead. Walks have often hurt Wolf, but his 2.7 BB/9 rate is his second-best of the last seven seasons.
6Arizona Diamondbacks
Last Week: 6
David Hernandez, RP
Hernandez has arguably been as important as closer J.J. Putz to the success of this year's Arizona bullpen thanks to his versatility of roles. Hernandez is the only reliever this year to have at least 20 holds and 10 saves (actually, 22 and 11) while throwing a team-high 66 1/3 relief innings that have included a 3.53 ERA and 9.6 K/9. The one notable blemish: his walk rate (4.1 BB/9) is a bit high.
7St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 10
Jon Jay, CF
The club may have had other issues with Colby Rasmus, but it's unlikely they would have traded him without confidence that Jay could ably man centerfield. And, other than a poorly timed slump right after the trade deadline, Jay has done quite well, batting .299 with 10 homers and a .773 OPS that ranks 10th among regular centerfielders. According to the Fielding Bible's Plus/Minus, Jay has also saved a combined 16 runs defensively in right and center fields.
8San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 12
Sergio Romo, RP
During last year's World Series run, he was merely known as the other Giants reliever with a crazy beard, but Romo became one of the game's best eighth-inning set-up men in 2011. An injury sidelined him for half of August, but his effectiveness has been without equal. He's allowed just 24 hits and five walks in 46 innings while striking out 65; among pitchers with at least 40 innings he leads the majors in WHIP (0.63) and K/BB ratio (13.0) while his 1.37 ERA ranks fourth. If he finishes the year with that K/BB figure, he'd join Dennis Eckersley as the only pitchers in history to have struck out at least 13 batters for every walk.
9Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 9
Alberto Callaspo, 3B
In 2010 the Angels had the majors' worst offensive production at third base (.573 OPS), but in 2011 they rank 10th (.733 OPS) primarily because of an improved year from Callaspo, who struggled after being acquired in a trade late last year. This season, however, he leads the team in on-base percentage (.365) while batting .288 and playing steady defense. He lacks the traditional power of a third baseman (23 doubles, 0 triples, five homers), but no longer is the Hot Corner a black hole in Anaheim.
10Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 7
R.J. Harrison, scouting director
The Rays' strength this season has been their starting staff, which has logged AL bests in ERA (3.52) and innings (1,019 1/3), both of which are franchise records. What's remarkable about the staff is that all seven pitchers who have started games this season are homegrown, having been drafted and developed by only the Rays franchise. That group includes last year's Cy Young runner-up in David Price, an All-Star with 11 complete games and four shutouts in James Shields and a possible AL Rookie of the Year in Jeremy Hellickson. An eighth starter, also homegrown, will throw on Thursday -- that's Matt Moore, widely considered the game's best pitching prospect.
11Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 11
Freddie Freeman, 1B
The team's closer, Craig Kimbrel, is probably a lock for NL Rookie of the Year, but Freeman has been arguably as important to the Braves' success by providing Atlanta with steady offense and some power for the first time since Mark Teixeira in 2008. Freeman has a .286/.351/.452 batting line with 31 doubles and 20 homers -- the former total leads all rookies and the latter is tied for the most among NL rookies -- and for a while earlier this month had displaced Chipper Jones from the No. 3 spot in the lineup.
12Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 8
Alfredo Aceves, RP
That the letters "SP" don't follow his name has become a point of contention in Boston because Aceves has been one of the Red Sox' only reliable pitchers this season alongside Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. Aceves is 9-2 with a 2.74 ERA in four starts (all in May or June) and 84 relief innings, the second-most of any AL pitcher. Aceves has 10 late-inning holds but, perhaps more importantly, had a knack for pitching long innings of middle relief to keep the Sox in games after their starters have been knocked out early.
13Toronto Blue Jays
Last Week: 13
Casey Janssen, RP
Toronto began the year with four relievers (Jon Rauch, Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel and Jason Frasor) who had more than 30 career saves, yet has the worst save-conversion rate of any AL team at just 56.1 percent. And so while the bullpen was a disappointment, Janssen has been anything but, having pitched 52 innings with a 1.90 ERA thanks to a 3.43 K/BB rate and a groundball rate of 62 percent. By necessity and by merit he's moved into an eighth-inning role.
14Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 14
Javy Guerra, RP
Reigning two-time All-Star closer Jonathan Broxton saved only seven games, ran up a 5.68 ERA in 12 2/3 innings and didn't pitch after May 3, meaning the ninth-inning could have been a disaster for the Dodgers. Shortly thereafter, however, L.A. summoned Guerra from the minors on May 15. He picked up his first career save on May 24 and by July was entrenched as the primary closer, converting 19 of 20 opportunities with a 2.06 ERA in 43 2/3 innings. Along with Kenly Jansen, the Dodgers didn't lack for reliable late-inning options.
15Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 15
Mike Leake, SP
Leake's sophomore season got off to an inauspicious start. He began the year in the bullpen, was arrested for shoplifting in late April and was demoted to the minors for the first time in his career in May. But after returning to the big leagues he was the Reds' second-most reliable starter behind only Johnny Cueto. Leake made 20 starts with a 3.36 ERA and solid 3.44 K/BB ratio while logging 14 quality starts and failing to complete six innings only once.
16Washington Nationals
Last Week: 16
Wilson Ramos, C
This honor would have gone to Michael Morse had not already named him MVP of its All-Underrated Team, but Ramos is having a fine season worthy of its own recognition. He's filled in ably while Ivan Rodriguez has been injured and is now finishing with a flourish. After a 3-for-3 night with a homer and four RBIs on Wednesday, Ramos is batting .377 in September and on the season has 14 homers and 50 RBIs.
17Chicago White Sox
Last Week: 17
Brent Lillibridge, Utility
He's blended surprising power and speed while playing all over the diamond, notching starts at all three outfield positions as well as first base and second base. He hit 13 homers and stole 10 bases and slugged .505; his 216 plate appearances were the fewest of any player with a 10-10-.500 season. Lillibridge started just eight of the White Sox' first 42 games and just 46 games overall, but he made significant contributions in short stints, most memorably a pair of game-saving catches as a rightfield defensive replacement to preserve a win over the Yankees in late April.
18Cleveland Indians
Last Week: 18
Orlando Cabrera, 2B
No, not for his play, but for his advice. In the first few months of the season people in the Cleveland organization pointed to O-Cab's counsel of young shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera as a positive influence, with perhaps no suggestion more important than his urging of younger, similarly surnamed double-play partner to swing harder. Asdrubal, who had never hit more than six homers in a season, has crushed 24 this year, to go along with 32 doubles and a .794 slugging percentage. The 24 homers tie Roberto Alomar in 1999 and Jhonny Peralta in 2005 for the most by an Indians middle infielder since 1959.
19Kansas City Royals
Last Week: 22
Alex Gordon, LF
Gordon has received some acclaim for his breakout season (including a spot on's All-Underrated Team), but, quite frankly, that still isn't enough for the man who leads the majors in outfield assists (20), ranks second in doubles (45) and ranks in the AL top-10 in runs (101), total bases (307), hits (185), extra-base hits (72) and OBP (.376); he ranks 13th in slugging (.502). According to FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Gordon has been the AL's seventh-best position player this season.
20New York Mets
Last Week: 20
Lucas Duda, 1B/RF
An argument can be made that Carlos Beltran was deserving of this honor both for what he contributed to Mets in the season's first four months and for what he netted them in return: the Giants' top pitching prospect, Zack Wheeler. But Duda has grown into a middle-of-the-order hitter for the Mets despite an underwhelming major league cameo in 2010. This season Duda has batted .292 with 21 doubles and 10 homers in 347 plate appearances, walking 33 times for a .370 OBP that leads all Mets not named Beltran or Jose Reyes.
21Florida Marlins
Last Week: 21
Emilio Bonifacio, INF
The versatile Bonifiacio, who has started games this year at three infield positions and all three outfield positions, found a daily home when shortstop Hanley Ramirez went down with a shoulder injury. Bonifiacio also developed the plate discipline to go along with his great speed and make him a good leadoff hitter. His career OBP was .306 prior to this season but has been .357 this year. His team-leading .289 average is also a career-best (by 28 points) and he has nearly doubled his best steals total by swiping 39 bags.
22Pittsburgh Pirates
Last Week: 23
Ray Searage, pitching coach
Before the season the Pirates, on paper, had what appeared to be the worst rotation in the majors. In two of the last three years, they had an ERA over 5.00, but under Searage's tutelage Pittsburgh's starters have a 4.16 ERA in 2011, second only to 1998 (by 0.004) since their streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons began in 1993. Charlie Morton, in particular, was a new pitcher, more than halving his ERA from 7.57 to 3.67. The pitching staff as a whole, including the bullpen, has a 3.99 ERA, which would be the franchise's first sub-4.00 season since 1998.
23Chicago Cubs
Last Week: 24
Darwin Barney, 2B
The Cubs' spring training began with a position battle at second base -- between Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt. Barney played his way not just into the mix but into the starting lineup for 119 games at second. He has cooled off from his first half in which he batted .306 by batting .238 in the second half, but the 25-year-old former Oregon State star has shown the promise of being an everyday player in future seasons.
24Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 19
Seth Smith, RF
The Rockies' two biggest bounceback seasons belonged to Peyon Manning's backup quarterback at Tennessee, Todd Helton, and to Eli Manning's backup quarterback at Ole Miss, Smith. The latter gets the nod here because of Helton's extensive track record. Smith has had four great months (April, May, June and August) in which he batted over .300 and had an OPS more than .850; his best month was August, when he hit seven homers with an even 1.000 OPS. Smith was inconsistent in July and September, but chalk those up to growing pains for a player who only eclipsed both 400 and 500 plate appearances for the first time in his career.
25Baltimore Orioles
Last Week: 26
Matt Wieters, C
Before his 2009 rookie season, it seemed impossible that Wieters' accomplishments could ever be unsung or at least under-sung -- he was, after all, hailed as the best prospect in the game, according to Baseball Prospectus and, a year later, on the cover of SI. But in his first full season of 2010, he disappointed with a .695 OPS and only 11 homers, so it was important he have a bounceback season. In 2011 Wieters has hit 20 homers with a .779 OPS and has thrown out a greater percentage of basestealers (34.9) than any other AL catcher.
26Oakland Athletics
Last Week: 25
Jemile Weeks, 2B
The phrase "exciting offensive player" is rarely used in conjunction with recent Athletics teams, but Weeks certainly qualifies. Since his June call-up Weeks has hit 23 doubles and eight triples, which is tied for the most by any A's player since 2003, and he's done it in only 377 at bats. His 21 steals are the most by an Oakland rookie since Luis Polonia in 1987.
27Seattle Mariners
Last Week: 27
Jim Riggleman, ex-interim manager
It was under Riggleman's watch that the Mariners won their last three games of the 2008 season, ensuring that they would have the second overall pick in the following year's draft, rather than the first. That meant Seattle selected Dustin Ackley rather than Stephen Strasburg, and while the M's surely would have made room for a talent like Strasburg, their system has great pitching but is in dire need of more offensive pieces. As a rookie, Ackley has become the Mariners' daily No. 3 hitter, batting .280/.355/.430 with 27 extra-base hits in 83 games.
28San Diego Padres
Last Week: 30
Jesus Guzman, 1B
If there's such a thing as a journeyman rookie, Guzman qualifies. The 27-year-old from Venezuela had been signed and released by the Mariners, A's and Giants -- receiving just 20 major league at bats, all with San Francisco in 2009 -- before the Padres scooped him up over the winter. After free agent Brad Hawpe and prospect Anthony Rizzo slumped, Guzman was given the shot at first base and for half a season has raked. His average (.313), slugging (.479) and OPS (.848) are all the best among Padres with at least 250 plate appearances.
29Houston Astros
Last Week: 28
Wandy Rodriguez, SP
Rodriguez received a public lashing during the waiver trading period with open discussion about how crazy a team would have to be to claim him and his onerous contract, which includes two guaranteed years for $23 million and a $13 million option for 2014 that becomes a player option if he is traded. Through it all, the lefthanded starter has pitched effectively for 184 2/3 innings. He has a 3.51 ERA and a K/9 rate of 8.1, meaning he and Giants ace Tim Lincecum are the only two starters to have an ERA of 3.60 or less and a K/9 of 8.0 or more while throwing at least 130 innings in each of the past four seasons.
30Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 29
Michael Cuddyer, Utility
That Cuddyer is most accurately listed as a utility player, rather than at any one position, shows the extent of his contributions to the Twins. The longtime corner outfielder and first baseman added third base to his repertoire last year and second base this year, and produced another fine offensive season: .281/.348/.460 with 19 homers. Those four stats may look modest by some standards, but each ranks first on the Twins among players with 250 or more plate appearances.

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