In the final first-half edition of Power Rankings, the Cardinals try to hold off the Pirates for first place, while the White Sox rise and the Astros fall.
One single point: That's all that separated the Cardinals from the Pirates for first place in the final Power Rankings of the first half. St. Louis and Pittsburgh split this week's first-place votes, each taking three, but the Cardinals squeaked past the Pirates by a point, ultimately holding on to the top spot for a seventh straight week. Pittsburgh finished in second once again, with the resurgent Royals taking third place and the Dodgers and Nationals occupying fourth and fifth, respectively.
We're No. 1: Cardinals
St. Louis' grip on first place in the Power Rankings was tenuous this week, but the Cardinals have to be more worried about their shrinking lead in the NL Central. After losing three of four to the Pirates to close the first half, St. Louis is just 2 1/2 games up on Pittsburgh in the division, a far cry from the Cardinals' nine-game advantage in the Central just two weeks ago. Since June 28, when St. Louis beat the Cubs to create that nine-game lead, the Cardinals have gone just 3–8, giving life to what had been a seemingly dead division race.
What's wrong with the Cardinals? Their bats have gone ice-cold in July: St. Louis is hitting a pathetic .217/.291/.313 in its last 13 games with just seven home runs. All-Star Jhonny Peralta is practically the only hitter keeping the Cardinals afloat, slashing .296/.350/.444 on the month. But the rest of the lineup has been atrocious, with Matt Carpenter (.589 OPS since July 1), Jason Heyward (.637) and Yadier Molina (.517) mired in particularly bad slumps. Matt Holliday should return after the All-Star break to give the team a punch in the arm offensively, but he can only do so much. If the bats don't wake up, the Cardinals could soon find themselves staring up at the Pirates in the division.
Cellar Dweller: Phillies
Unsurprisingly, the worst team of the first half was the Phillies, who have the majors' worst winning percentage (.319) and run differential (-160). The firing of Ryne Sandberg did nothing to spur Philadelphia, as the team is just 3–14 under interim manager Pete Mackanin. The Phillies have lost five straight, including a humiliating 15–2 demolition at the hands of the Giants last Friday, and the team hasn't won a series since taking two of three from the Yankees back on June 22–24.
All that's left for the Phillies in the second half is to see just how far through rock bottom they can drill. At 29–62, the team is on pace for a 52–110 record, which would be the most losses for a Philadelphia squad since the 1941 Phillies lost 111 games. No Phillies team, meanwhile, has lost 100 or more games since 1961, when Philadelphia went 47–107. And things are only going to get worse once the team starts dealing away its veterans at the trade deadline. On the plus side for the Phillies, they have a 10 1/2-game lead on the Brewers for the worst record in baseball, so the No. 1 pick in next year's draft is almost assuredly theirs.
Biggest Riser: White Sox
Chicago only jumped from 28th to 24th in this week's rankings, but the White Sox have shown signs of life to close out the first half. Chicago went 5–2 last week, taking series from the Blue Jays and Cubs, to climb to within four games of .500 and just 5 1/2 games back in the Wild Card race. That still may be a gap too big to close given the White Sox' putrid start to the year, but it's not an impossible disadvantage.
If Chicago does truly harbor hopes of getting back into contention, it's going to need more consistent production offensively from everyone not named Jose Abreu. The Cuban first baseman has been far and away the team's best hitter, with a 136 OPS+ and 14 homers on the year; he's the only White Sox hitter to reach double digits in homers this season. Chicago's reversal in fortunes has been accompanied by better performances at the plate from its supporting cast, particularly Melky Cabrera and Alexei Ramirez. The former, who hit just .252/.296/.310 in the first three months of the season, has woken up in July, slashing .333/.364/.564. The same is true of Ramirez, who stumbled to a .212/.235/.281 line through July 1 but has hit a more respectable .324/.361/.382 since then. They both need to keep up that production if the White Sox want to have any hope of crashing the postseason dance.
Biggest Faller: Astros
No team dropped more than three places in this week's rankings, so let's focus on Houston, which fell out of the top five and lost its grip on first place in the AL West amid a pronounced slump. The Astros have lost six games in a row, dropping three of four to the Indians and getting swept by the Rays to finish the first half. Houston is now half-a-game behind the surging Angels for first in the division, the first time the team hasn't occupied the division's top spot since April 18.
That slump is due in part to Houston's boom-or-bust offense hitting the skids of late. The Astros scored a grand total of 15 runs in seven games last week, with nine coming in their lone win, and were shut out twice. The outfield is a mess, with George Springer sidelined with a broken right wrist and Jake Marisnick (.176/.176/.176 since July 1) and Colby Rasmus (.167/.194/.300) both falling apart at the worst possible time. No one has slumped harder, however, than Chris Carter. The burly first baseman has just two hits in 28 July at-bats, with 10 strikeouts and just one home run. That kind of struggle is nothing new for Carter: He was hitting just .205 at the end of the first half last year, albeit with a .465 slugging percentage and 19 homers. Currently hitting .185/.300/.380, Carter needs a massive second half if he wants to keep his job and help the Astros stay in the division race.