In this week's Power Rankings, the Blue Jays hold off the Cardinals for first place, the Cubs rise up the standings, and the Astros take a dive.
With just two weeks left in the regular season, the Blue Jays maintained their hold on the top spot in SI.com's Power Rankings for the second straight week, receiving six of the seven first-place votes to hold off the Cardinals, who were dethroned last Monday after a four-month run at No. 1. St. Louis had to settle for second place, jumping the Pirates, who fell to No. 3, with the Royals landing at No. 4 and the red-hot Cubs moving up to fifth.
Team of the Week: Blue Jays
Toronto managed to hold onto first place in the Power Rankings, but its AL East lead over the Yankees may yet be in danger. The Blue Jays went just 3–3 last week, including dropping two of three at home to last-place Boston, and starts a crucial three-game set at Rogers Centre with the Yankees on Monday sporting just a 2 1/2-game advantage. It's the final head-to-head matchup for these two teams, and a series win or sweep for the Jays would all but clinch Toronto's first division title since 1993.
Regardless of whether the Jays win the division, however, the team's first playoff berth in 22 years is just about wrapped up. The Jays enter the week with a nine-game lead over the third-place wild-card team, and Baseball Prospectus calculates Toronto's odds of reaching the playoffs at 100%. When the Jays do end their playoff drought, they can thank the sterling work of David Price. The ace lefty takes the mound on Monday on a brilliant run since being traded from Detroit in July: a 2.17 ERA in 62 1/3 innings over nine starts—an average of 6.9 innings per start—to go with 74 strikeouts and just three homers allowed. Eight of his nine outings as a Jay have been quality, and he's held his opponent to one run or less in four of his nine turns with Toronto. All of that has helped the Blue Jays rocket to first in the AL East, but it's also put Price squarely in the AL Cy Young conversation and ensured that he'll be the top free-agent target this winter.
Team of the Weak: Brewers
Reports out of Milwaukee indicate that the Brewers are set to hire Astros assistant general manager David Stearns as their new GM to replace Doug Melvin, who stepped down earlier this season, and last week was yet another reminder of how much work Stearns will have to turn around this franchise. Long since eliminated from playoff contention, the Brewers flopped to a 1–5 record last week and have lost 10 of their last 12 games, dropping them into the NL Central basement. At 63–86, Milwaukee is on pace to lose 94 games, which would be their most since losing that same amount in both 2003 and '04.
Looking at the Brewers' roster, it's hard to see where any notable improvement for 2016 is coming from. The lineup has only three players producing above league average: Adam Lind (132 OPS+), Khris Davis (118) and Ryan Braun (113). The rotation has Taylor Jungmann (121 ERA+ in 111 1/3 innings) and Jimmy Nelson (98), but little else upon which to build. The farm system has some intriguing pieces, notably top prospect Orlando Arcia and trade-deadline acquisition Brett Phillips, but both are unlikely to help next year. In short, Stearns is going to have to do some serious work even to get Milwaukee back to respectability, much less contention.
Big Riser: Cubs
Chicago moved up only three places, from eighth to fifth in this week's rankings, but the team has put a charge into the NL playoff races. After taking three of four from the Pirates and two of three from the Cardinals last week, the Cubs are now tied with the Royals for the third-best record in baseball, and while they're still six games behind St. Louis in the NL Central, they're just two games behind Pittsburgh for the first wild card. So while the division title is likely out of play, the right to host the Wild-Card Game is still up for grabs, as Chicago and Pittsburgh still have three head-to-head games remaining, to be played this weekend at PNC Park.
While it's a shame that two of baseball's best teams will be forced into a one-game playoff, for the Cubs, this season has been a success far beyond what the team and its fans could have imagined. Chicago's 87 wins are already more than the team has posted in a season since 2008, when the Cubs won 97 games and the NL Central but were swept by the Dodgers in the NLDS. Meanwhile, Chicago's .584 winning percentage has the team on pace to win 95 games; the Cubs have finished with 90 or more victories just twice in the last 17 years. And regardless of how 2015 ends, all the pieces are in place for '16 to be as good or better: Of the current team's roster, the only notable free agents will be righthander Dan Haren and centerfielder Dexter Fowler.
Big Faller: Astros
Both the Mets and Astros dropped three spots this week, but with New York still comfortably in front in the NL East, let's turn our attention to Houston. A brutal four-game sweep at the hands of the Rangers last week erased the Astros' AL West lead, dropping them into second place and from No. 7 to No. 10 in our rankings. Houston did rebound somewhat over the weekend, taking two of three from the Athletics to pick up a game on Texas, but the Astros are still 1 1/2 games back in the division race with just 12 games to go.
Houston still has three head-to-head games left against the Rangers, but it will have to pull out of what has been a long skid before that series, which starts on Friday. Since jumping out to a 31–20 record through the first two months of the season, the Astros have slowly deflated; since June 1, Houston is just 48–51, including a disastrous 6–12 in September. The biggest reason for the Astros' fall has been the collapse of the team's pitching. On the month, Houston's hurlers have a 5.13 ERA, including 30 homers allowed in 154 1/3 innings; the bullpen has been especially hard hit, with an MLB-worst 6.31 ERA in September. Unless the Astros can get those pitching problems fixed in a hurry, their dream season may end in a nightmare.