Pecking order crystallizing as regular season winds down

Thursday September 10th, 2009

The Power Rankings are starting to crystallize as the playoff picture comes into clearer focus with each passing week. In the NL West, the Rockies are closer to the Dodgers for first place than the Giants are to the Rockies for the wild-card lead. In the AL, it's looking increasingly clear that there are only five teams in serious contention for the four postseason spots, although I won't bring down the baggie on the Twins' season and the history of baseball in the HHH Metrodome just yet.

MLB Power Rankings
1 New York Yankees
Last Week: 1
It's all about Derek Jeter these days. After years of impressive play, the Yankees captain is on the verge of a historic accomplishment that has gotten all kinds of media attention lately. I'm speaking, of course, about his supposed engagement to TV star Minka Kelly (yet another reason I need to start watching Friday Night Lights, if it's even still on the air). Jeter has denied it, of course, but people need something to talk about, because the Yankees' dominant play, including a four-game sweep of the Rays, has made the rest of their month about as significant as the Pirates'. There is also the focus on Jeter's chase of Lou Gehrig to become the Yankees' all-time hits leader, with Jeter tying Gehrig with a three-hit night on Wednesday (better pair of nicknames: "Captain Clutch" and "Mr. November" for Jeter, or "Iron Horse" and "Biscuit Pants" for Gehrig?). And don't forget about Jeter's quest to overtake Joe Mauer for the AL MVP award. In fact, despite having the best record in baseball and legit candidates for both MVP (Jeter and Mark Teixeira) and Cy Young (CC Sabathia and Mariano Rivera), it's possible the Yankees could be shut out altogether come awards season. I definitely don't see their representative winning this award.
2 St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 2
After sweeping the Brewers in Milwaukee, the Cardinals are set to begin a nine-game homestand on Friday that should see them clinch the NL Central, giving St. Louis its first postseason berth in three years and fourth division title in the past six years. That would give them two weeks to flip a coin to decide whether the rotation should go Carpenter-Wainwright or Wainwright-Carpenter (I'm guessing it'll be the former), set their roster for the postseason (does the recently activated Troy Glaus deserve a spot?) and see if they can channel the spirits of Jeff Suppan, Anthony Reyes and Jeff Weaver, the unlikely stars who pitched them to the World Series title in 2006. We might also have been treated to an interesting MVP discussion concerning the merits of Matt Holliday challenging Albert Pujols for the award. He did, after all, bat .381 with a .706 slugging percentage, 12 home runs and 41 RBIs in his first 42 games since his trade to St. Louis, and the team gained 10 games in the standings to turn the NL Central into a rout (for comparison's sake, Manny Ramirez batted .395 with a .743 slugging percentage, 14 home runs and 43 RBIs in his first 42 games with the Dodgers a year ago and wound up fourth in the voting). But then Pujols went crazy in Milwaukee -- making him a sure bet for 50 home runs -- and Holliday left a game with a bruised knee. Suddenly, we all returned to our senses.
3 Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 3
What was the bigger development for the Angels in Kansas City: taking three of four from the lowly Royals or putting their off day to good use by holding their fantasy football draft? It must have been the latter, because even injured players went out of their way to rejoin the club just so they could hear someone say "With the first pick, I'm going with Adrian Peterson." The Angels should enjoy such fun and easy games while they can because after wrapping up a homestand with the Mariners and White Sox this weekend, they face a daunting three-city, seven-game road trip starting Monday that will go a long way toward determining their postseason fate: a makeup game in New York against the Yankees, three games in Boston in a possible playoff preview and a showdown series with the Rangers in Texas.
4 Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 4
This Saturday, the Dodgers are hosting their second Manny Ramirez look-alike contest at Dodger Stadium (last year's winner will be tough to beat). At this point, though, I think the team would settle for seeing the actual Manny Ramirez look like himself. He's batting just .260 since late July and has only six home runs and 15 RBIs over that time frame. Fortunately for the Dodgers, other players have stepped up to resemble Ramirez (and this does not include players who get hurt by running into walls -- before the game). Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier continue to do a more-than-passable Manny imitation this season and have kept the Dodgers in front in the NL West with some breathing room heading into the final three weeks of the season. Ethier is garnering some MVP consideration for his string of walk-off hits this year, and he looks positively Manny-like against righties, batting .316 with an OPS just shy of 1.000, while Kemp has hit .391 against lefties this year with a 1.148 OPS.
5 Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 6
If Curt Schilling ever makes it to the U.S. Senate (and I doubt he will), perhaps he can make his first legislative act getting Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon to work faster, because major league baseball is clearly toothless in this regard. Papelbon was fined -- again -- last week for taking too much time between pitches. How ineffective has this punishment of a few thousand dollars been? Even Papelbon doesn't know how many times he's been fined for this particular transgression, guessing it was "either the fifth or seventh" time, and he clearly hasn't let it affect his routine on the mound. It also hasn't affected his performance. Papelbon ranks fourth among AL relievers in saves, third in save percentage and second in ERA. He's been even better of late, converting his last nine save chances and allowing just two runs in his past 15 outings. In other words, teams have eight innings to beat the Red Sox, and with Billy Wagner and Daniel Bard offering a powerful righty-lefty combo in the 'pen in front of Papelbon, they have even less.
6 Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 7
There's been no shortage of personnel moves (such as Yorvit Torrealba supplanting Chris Iannetta as the starting catcher and Dexter Fowler returning from a knee injury) and injuries (to such important pieces as Troy Tulowitzki, Ian Stewart, Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook and Huston Street), yet the Rockies continue to roll. They ran off five straight wins, reaching 19 games over .500 for the first time in franchise history and opening up a four-game lead in the wild card race. Their upcoming nine-game road trip, which includes a three-game showdown series in San Francisco, may be all that stands between the Rockies and their second postseason berth in three years. After that, they have just three road games left.
7 Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 3
Things are getting a little testy in Philadelphia lately. There was the four-game sweep at the hands of the Astros (the Astros? Seriously?), a curious advertisement in a local magazine involving Cole Hamels and children who aren't his lying in his bed that is causing a stir, and, of course, the continuing Brad Lidge Saga. In this week's episode, the manager says Lidge is still his closer before the game, tells his closer he's still his closer after the game (even though he pulled him in the ninth inning), but tells the media he maybe isn't still his closer. Then the next night, he doesn't use Lidge at all in a save situation. This is all very confusing, but, hey, at least they still have a six-game lead in the standings and the memory of a world championship in 2008 to comfort them. Or not. "[Expletive] the last couple of years. What the hell? That don't mean [expletive]. Last year is dead and gone. We play for today," ranted manager Charlie Manuel. Fortunately for Manuel, Ryan Howard is still walking through that door, and so are Chase Utley, Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez, who have now become just the 12th foursome of teammates to each hit 30 home runs in a season.
8 Texas Rangers
Last Week: 9
A sweep of the Indians has left the Rangers just two games out in the AL wild card heading into a critical nine-game homestand that will leave them with just three home games remaining. Josh Hamilton might be back by week's end, but Michael Young has no return date in sight. The Rangers' postseason hopes might just rest on the arm of 21-year-old Neftali Feliz, who throws hard enough to top 100 mph and well enough to have allowed just two runs in 23.2 innings with 29 strikeouts against just two walks, making him one of the premier middle relievers in the game. One of those strikeouts was especially memorable for him, or more accurately, for his mother. According to USA Today, Feliz's mom shrugged off her son's excitement about striking out David Ortiz and requested he strike out Alex Rodriguez to do something really special. So he did. Feliz asked his mom to stop making requests, but I think his teammates might have one, albeit a much tougher one: keep us alive, K-Rod '02 style, for the last three weeks.
9 San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 8
That sound you heard was every last Giants fan taking a deep breath when it was learned that Tim Lincecum was going to be scratched from his start on Tuesday because of stiffness in his back. The next sound was the enormous sigh of relief from those same fans, as Lincecum's injury doesn't seem serious, and the man who replaced him, Madison Bumgarner, looked as good as advertised in allowing just two runs while pitching into the sixth inning against the Padres (though his velocity was a bit lower than expected). Unfortunately for those same fans, the Giants lost not only that game but the next one too and are now four games out in the wild card. The remainder of their homestand now looms larger than ever: three games against the first-place Dodgers and three-games against the wild card-leading Rockies.
10 Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 10
The Tigers have legitimate contenders for MVP (Miguel Cabrera), Cy Young (Justin Verlander) and Rookie of the Year (Rick Porcello), but could it be that the player who is most admired in their clubhouse is ... Adam Everett? Not that Everett's .236 average is especially noteworthy, but he's the only Tiger whose wife, Jennifer, made it to the Miss America pageant. Adam says she had never done a pageant before this season but took home Georgia state honors before falling short in the national event (remember, poise counts -- and so does knowing simple geography.) That -- and Fernando Rodney's suspension -- was the rare bit of bad news this week for the Tigers, who won four straight at one point to open up their biggest lead of the season in the AL Central. Even two straight losses to the Royals couldn't prevent them from taking a comfortable 5 1/2-game lead into a week-long homestand against the struggling Blue Jays and Royals.
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