Thursday June 9th, 2011

If Albert Pujols returns to his usual form the rest of the season, the rest of the National League can blame the Cubs. The Cardinals' Pujols has long tormented his division rivals up I-55, and last weekend was no exception.

Pujols homered in all three games of the series, the first time he had done that since Aug. 2007, also against the Cubs. On Saturday and Sunday he hit walkoff homers in consecutive games, the first NL player to do so since the Cubs' Ron Santo in 1966. Overall, Pujols is batting .500 with four homers in six games against Chicago this season.

The Cubs series was Pujols' most prolific of a three-series stretch in which he's had multiple hits in five games and gone 14-for-35 (.400) with six home runs and 11 RBIs. St. Louis had already risen to first in the NL Central and second in the overall league standings before Pujols' hot streak. Should he revert to his normal Pujolsian ways at the plate, the Cardinals will be a terror this summer.

This recent outburst from the best player of the 21st century -- combined with St. Louis' two-game sweep of Philadelphia last month -- gives the Redbirds a slight edge over the Phillies for this week's top spot.

NOTE: All stats are updated through Wednesday, June 8.

MLB Power Rankings
1St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 3
While the Albert Pujols of yesteryore is a key reason the Cardinals had won four in a row until losing Wednesday, here's another reason why Lance Berkman has been so important to vaulting St. Louis within a half-game of the majors' best record: the Redbirds have the game's best record against righthanded starters at 28-18. While righthanded-swinging stars Pujols and Matt Holliday have little trouble with righties, switch-hitting Berkman has provided the power lefty bat the club needed. He's got a .346/.464/.639 batting line with 11 homers against righty pitchers while Jon Jay (.304/.355/.464 with four homers) and Colby Rasmus (.259/.351/.426 with four homers) have also made significant contributions.
 
2Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 4
The Phillies lost a seemingly innocuous game on the road June 3 in Pittsburgh, but what made the 2-1 defeat noteworthy was that it was the first (and thus far only) game in which Philadelphia fielded its projected Opening Day lineup now that Chase Utley, Domonic Brown, Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz were all healthy at the same time. Jimmy Rollins would soon go down with a mild injury -- after missing four games, he could return Thursday -- but the concurrent health of so many key members bodes well as the Phillies enters the middle third of their schedule.
 
3Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 11
Not only did David Ortiz avoid a desperate season-starting slump as he had the previous two seasons, but the longtime Red Sox DH has also shown a renewed ability to hit for average. He's batting .323 -- it would be his second-best full season mark behind his .332 clip in 2007 -- while maintaining a .390 OBP, also his best since '07. Ortiz, in the final year of his contract in Boston, ranks fourth in the AL in average, sixth in OBP, second in slugging (.609), third in OPS (.999) and fifth in home runs (15). His pitches per plate appearance had grown from 4.03 in '08, 4.19 in '09 and 4.37 in '10 before dropping this year to 3.90, suggesting some combination of him growing too selective at the plate and pitchers being more willing to challenge the 35-year-old.
 
4San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 10
With a strikeout of the Nationals' Jerry Hairston Jr. in the second inning of his last start on Monday, Giants ace Tim Lincecum reached 1,000 career strikeouts in his 897th career inning. The 26-year-old three-time NL strikeout champ became only the eighth pitcher to reach 1,000 strikeouts in his fifth season, joining an elite group: Tom Seaver, Bert Blyleven, Dwight Gooden, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Kerry Wood, Hideo Nomo and Mark Langston. It's an impressive milestone for Lincecum that is somewhat lost in the fact that he has a 5.89 ERA over his last three starts after throwing 133 pitches in a complete-game shutout of the A's on May 21.
 
5Texas Rangers
Last Week: 7
Tough crowd: the Rangers dismissed hitting coach Thad Bosley on Wednesday despite the club ranking fourth in the AL runs scored (298), second in homers (73), second in average (.265), fourth in OBP (.331) and third in slugging (.432). But the club reportedly still wasn't pleased with his communication, as sources told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Bosley failed to mesh with hitters. Scott Coolbaugh, the club's Triple-A hitting coach, takes over, becoming Texas' third major league hitting coach in less than three seasons.
 
6Milwaukee Brewers
Last Week: 8
Prince Fielder has done nothing to dissuade free-agent suitors from breaking the bank for him. After a two-homer game against the Mets on Wednesday, the first baseman has homered in five of his last six games (and has 17 total) and took over the major-league lead in RBIs with 54. Impressively, only Wednesday's home runs came with the benefit of a new lineup featuring Corey Hart batting fifth behind Fielder, rather than Casey McGehee, who was demoted to sixth where he ended an 0-for-27 slump with a seventh-inning single.
 
7New York Yankees
Last Week: 1
Head-to-head record isn't too important in baseball, as it only settles playoff seeding and not the berths themselves, but still the Yankees must be concerned about their futility against the Red Sox. After losing Tuesday and Wednesday nights, New York is just 1-7 against its archrivals, including an 0-5 mark at home. So while there's no overly critical tiebreaker at stake, consider this: If the head-to-head games were taken out of the standings, New York would be 32-19 (.627), five games ahead of Boston at 28-25 (.528). Red Sox-Yankees regular-season games may be overhyped by the media, but they are growing increasingly important for the Yankees, who trail the Sox by a game despite maintaining the game's best run differential (+64).
 
8Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 13
In six appearances from April 27 to May 16 high-priced set-up man Joaquin Benoit had a 21.60 ERA, allowing 12 earned runs (14 total) over three innings -- a total that exceeded the number of earned runs (nine) he yielded in 60 1/3 innings in all of 2010. That poor stretch has destroyed his chance of a good season ERA, but he's otherwise been the pitcher the Tigers paid for. Before that horrific stretch, he allowed one earned run in 10 2/3 innings for a 0.84 ERA. Since then, he's been even better, not allowing a run in 7 2/3 innings over nine outings, picking up three holds and two saves and limiting hitters to only three singles and two walks.
 
9Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 9
Jonny Venters, the Braves' late-inning lefty reliever, has already established himself as one of the game's best. As a rookie in 2010 he had a 1.95 ERA in 83 innings over 79 appearances, and hitters haven't been able to adjust to him in 2011, as "Everyday Jonny" has been even better this season. Venters has a 0.48 ERA and 0.74 WHIP while throwing 37 2/3 innings over a major league-leading 34 appearances. He's effective against lefty (.427 OPS against) and righty batters (.383 OPS against). Opponents are slugging just .165 against him.
 
10Cleveland Indians
Last Week: 2
After losing two of three games to the Twins -- the Indians have lost six of their last seven games and 11 of their previous 15 overall -- Cleveland's odds of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus,, dipped to 18.0 percent, trailing both the Tigers (61.6 percent) and the White Sox (24.7 percent) even though the Tribe lead the AL Central by a game and a half over the Tigers and six games over the White Sox. The Indians are just 1-4 against the division's cellar-dwelling Twins and 1-4 against the White Sox, though 3-0 so far against the first-place Tigers.
 
11Arizona Diamondbacks
Last Week: 5
Last August team CEO Derrick Hall acknowledged that in the offseason the Diamondbacks would debate whether to install a humidor to minimize the high volume of homers at Chase Field. In February the club decided against the measure, and it's proven wise, at least for this year. Arizona ranks second in the NL with 70 home runs and its regular lineup boasts seven of eight position players with a slugging percentage of at least .435, which is the largest collection in the majors of players slugging that high with at least 140 plate appearances. No one else has more than five.
 
12Seattle Mariners
Last Week: 15
The Mariners have by far the majors' worst offensive production from their outfielders. Collectively, the group -- despite featuring Ichiro Suzuki -- has a batting line of .220/.284/.318 with 12 homers and a .602 OPS; only the home-run total isn't the worst in the majors. Hope might have arrived, however. Greg Halman had back-to-back three-hit games after being called up, and on Wednesday Seattle summoned Mike Carp, who had a .348/.409/.661 batting line with 19 homers in 57 games at Triple-A. Carp has primarily been a first baseman in his minor league career, though he has logged 144 games at leftfield and could see time there and at DH with the Mariners given that Justin Smoak is entrenched at first base. Carp doubled in his first game.
 
13Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 14
Many people in baseball were skeptical of the Rays' intentions of using Kyle Farnsworth as their primary closer, as the hard-throwing righty has often suffered from control problems, evident in the career walk rate of 3.9 per nine innings that he carried into the season. But Farnsworth -- a perfectly average pitcher over his first 12 seasons, as judged by his ERA+ of exactly 100 -- has excelled in the ninth innings, saving 12 of 13 chances while walking only one batter in 22 innings, contributing to a miniscule 0.68 WHIP. There is one troublesome stat: Farnsworth has allowed 46.2 percent of all inherited runners to score, which ranks 115th out of the 137 relievers who have thrown at least 20 innings.
 
14Pittsburgh Pirates
Last Week: 19
Andrew McCutchen's evolution into a headlining star continues. The Pirates centerfielder has a similar approach at the plate in all three of his major league seasons -- average in the .280s and OBP around .370 -- but he's driving the ball more, cutting his at bat-per-home run rate from 36 to 23 and with 10 through 60 team games he is on pace to not only eclipse 20 homers for the first time but to finish with 27. More significantly, he's improved as an outfielder, morphing from a player that advanced defensive stats rated as below-average to one of the game's best. As a result, his FanGraphs WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is 3.1, the fourth-best among all major-leaguers.
 
15Toronto Blue Jays
Last Week: 16
Jose Bautista may only have one home run in the past two weeks, but in addition to still leading the majors with 20, he's also first in all three rate categories that comprise the so-called Modern Triple Crown: he's batting .351 with a .502 OBP and .723 slugging percentage. Since May 23, when he hit his 19th home run, Bautista's average has only fallen two points and his OBP only one point, suggesting that his approach at the plate has remained the same even though his power has waned -- his slugging has fallen 104 points.
 
16Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 12
Due to a quirk in the schedule, the Reds have played 38 intra-divisional games, which is by far the most of any club in either league. (The Phillies and Astros, at 32 and 30 respectively, are the only other clubs with at least 30.) Cincinnati is 24-14 in those 38 games against NL Central opponents, a .632 winning percentage that's far above their .508 overall mark (32-31). So far the Reds are only 3-7 against the NL East and 5-7 against the NL West, though those numbers include four of the five best teams in those divisions already (Phillies, Braves, Marlins and Diamondbacks).
 
17Chicago White Sox
Last Week: 17
What would happen if Adam Dunn started hitting lefties? The lefty-swinging DH has been absolutely horrible against southpaws, going 1-for-42 with a single, seven walks and a hit-by-pitch in 50 plate appearances. The White Sox' numbers against lefties (.240/.324/.357) would rise dramatically just by the elimination of Dunn's near-automatic outs up to .259/.336/.386. He's never crushed lefties, but he at least entered the season with a respectable batting line of .235/.352/.465 and a home run every 16.5 at bats, rather than his current .024/.180/.024 without an extra base hit. Manager Ozzie Guillen is giving Dunn a few days off this week to clear his head.
 
18Florida Marlins
Last Week: 6
The 2011 Marlins appear to be lending further evidence to the belief held by some baseball theorists that the outcomes of one-run games are often a random occurrence -- the 2003 Tigers, for example, were 43-119 overall but had a winning record (19-18) in one-run games -- and will eventually even out over the long season (though such factors as a strong bullpen can help). This year Florida started 14-4 in one-run games but has lost its last seven such outings, including six on its active seven-game losing streak, to close the gap on its one-run game record to 14-11.
 
19Baltimore Orioles
Last Week: 21
The Orioles swept the A's in a three-game series for the first time since 2005 -- and first time at home since 1998 -- but, then again, everyone is sweeping Oakland these days. Baltimore, at 29-31, is by far baseball's best last-place team, again mired behind a stout class of AL East teams. But its current place 5 1/2 games out of first is the closest they've been to the top of the division on the morning of June 9 since it led the East on that date in 2005. Last year the O's were 22 games out already and over the past five years they've been an average of 11 1/2 games behind first in the division.
 
20Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 22
Dee Gordon got his call to the majors, and the Dodgers' top prospect -- No. 26 in the game, according to Baseball America's preseason rankings -- has already infused some energy into an increasingly lackluster lineup. Gordon, a lefty-swinging shortstop and son of former pitcher Tom "Flash" Gordon, went 3-for-5 with a stolen base in his major-league debut on Tuesday, as Los Angeles beat the Phillies 6-2. Gordon became the first Dodger to get hits in each of his first three at-bats since Mike Piazza in 1992 and should get the lion's share of at-bats at short with Rafael Furcal on the DL.
 
21Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 23
Since starting 16-7, the Rockies have been baseball's worst team since April 26, going 13-25, as their 4 1/2-game NL West lead has become a 5 1/2 -game deficit. After his club failed to score more than three runs in 10 of 11 games, manager Jim Tracy split up his Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, by moving CarGo to the leadoff spot on Monday. Colorado only scored more than three runs once in three games since the switch, but it at least won two games.
 
22New York Mets
Last Week: 25
Attendance at Citi Field has been weak, but New Yorkers are missing a great show. The old adage is that baseball's most exciting play is a triple, and Jose Reyes has a major league-leading 11 of them. He also leads the majors in hits (86) and the NL in average (.346) while drawing enough walks for a .391 OBP, not to mention a 20-for-24 conversion rate on stolen bases. He's also been sensational when games are on the line: as the New York Daily News notes, Reyes leads major leaguers with a .531 average (17-for-32) in late-inning pressure situations (seventh inning or later with club trailing by three or fewer runs).
 
23San Diego Padres
Last Week: 26
Player A: .335/.385/.566 with 12 home runs and 53 RBIs in 61 games. Player B: .365/.444/.715 with 16 home runs and 63 RBIs in 52 games. It's admittedly not even close to being a fair comparison, given that Player A's stats have come in the major leagues and Player B's stats have come in Triple-A, but Player A is Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and Player B is Anthony Rizzo, the first-base prospect whom the Padres received in its trade of Gonzalez and who will make his major league debut Thursday. The lines are shown side-by-side here to reassure San Diego fans that they received a significant prospect in return. Consider this (unrealistic) hypothetical: if Rizzo manages exactly 75 percent of his per-game Triple-A production over the Padres' final 99 games, he'll hit .274/.333/.536 with 23 home runs and 90 RBIs.
 
24Washington Nationals
Last Week: 24
Jayson Werth's season numbers don't stand out -- .243/.344/.416 with eight home runs and average defensive play with a 0.1 Ultimate Zone Rating -- but according to data at FanGraphs, he only needs a slight uptick in performance to earn his $18 million this year. The cost of free-agent players is steep, usually rated at around $5 million per win, and Werth's WAR is 1.3, meaning he's contributed a win and a third to the club with 100 games to go. FanGraphs computes his value at $6 million, which, when prorated for the full schedule, comes out to $15.7 million. What wouldn't help is a DL stint, as Werth has missed two games with an ankle injury, though he expects to play Thursday.
 
25Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 30
The Twins' pitching staff has had a great week in leading the club to wins in six of seven games. Opponents scored more than two runs in only one game, which Minnesota won anyway by a 6-4 score. In those seven games Twins starters notched five quality starts, failing in the other two starts only because Francisco Liriano was limited in his return from the DL and Nick Blackburn left with back stiffness. The rotation had a 1.91 ERA over the week, lowering his season number from 4.58 to 4.24.
 
26Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 18
Jered Weaver and Dan Haren are continuing to pitch out of their minds but the Angels' lineup is no longer supporting them like in the season's first few weeks. Weaver won his first six starts and Haren his first four decisions with, at the time, 0.99 and 1.16 ERAs, respectively. Those numbers have crept up to a still-excellent 2.24 for Weaver and 2.41 for Haren, but Weaver is now 7-4 and Haren 5-4 because they are two of the least-supported pitchers in the AL. Haren receives 2.3 runs per nine innings that he's on the mound, the league's lowest; Weaver gets 3.1 runs, the eighth-lowest.
 
27Houston Astros
Last Week: 27
Hunter Pence holds the game's longest active hitting streak at 19 games. In 10 games he's had multiple hits, including the first six of the streak, tying him with teammate Brett Wallace and the Mets' Jose Reyes for third-longest multi-hit streak this season. The Orioles' Vladimir Guerrero and the Cardinals' Lance Berkman both had streaks of seven earlier this season. Also of note: Pence has driven in Michael Bourn for 19 of his 45 RBIs, the most frequent occurrence of one teammate driving in another in the majors. Next best are two pairs with 15 such RBIs (Boston's Adrian Gonzalez knocking home Jacoby Ellsbury and Milwaukee's Prince Fielder driving in Ryan Braun).
 
28Kansas City Royals
Last Week: 28
The hot start of third baseman Wilson Betemit -- he was batting .314 with a .379 OBP as late as May 30 -- is a key reason the Royals have kept top power prospect Mike Moustakas in Triple-A as long as they have. But now that there's no real fear of Super 2 status and now that Betemit is slumping (2-for-20 with no walks or extra-base hits in his last five games), it's about time Kansas City residents worked on their Moose calls. Moustakas hit 36 homers last year with a .322/.369/.630 batting line while splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A, and this year has hit 10 homers in Triple-A with a .287/.347/.498 triple-slash.
 
29Oakland Athletics
Last Week: 20
Once upon a time, the Athletics were a healthy, thriving ballclub with aspirations of riding its AL-best pitching corps to a division title. After pounding the Angels 14-0 on May 17 to pull into a first-place tie in the AL West, however, Oakland has been a disaster. They lost six straight, rebounded to win five of six, only to then start a nine-game losing streak which cost manager Bob Geren his job. Closer Brian Fuentes had publicly blasted Geren recently over the way he was being used but that wasn't Oakland's only problem of late. Lefthanded starter Brian Anderson (who is about to visit Dr. James Andrews) and second baseman Mark Ellis were added to a disabled list that already includes pitchers Brandon McCarthy, Tyson Ross, Dallas Braden and Rich Harden.
 
30Chicago Cubs
Last Week: 29
With Wednesday's matinee win over the Reds, Chicago snapped an eight-game losing streak and won just its second game against Cincinnati in eight tries this season. The Cubs are now 6-18 against their intra-division rivals since the start of the 2010 season and have been nearly doubled up in runs scored, lagging behind 141-76. If not for last season's 4-12 mark against the Reds, the Cubs' 75-87 record would have been nearly .500 at 71-75 and this year the Cubs would be a more respectable 22-30 if they never played Cincinnati.

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