Yankees hold top spot, but there's still much to play for (cont.)

Thursday September 3rd, 2009
MLB Power Rankings
11 Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 9
The Rays traded the best pitcher in team history last week. Granted, that's not saying much for a 12-year-old franchise, but if they can have a Turn Back the Clock Night already, then we can call Kazmir the best pitcher in team history. This may yet turn out to be a tremendous trade for the Rays, especially if Sean Rodriguez is as good as advertised and they use the money they saved on Kazmir to sign Carl Crawford. But it's a tough pill to swallow for Rays fans, who had expected their team to last a little longer in the playoff race. Only 17,692 fans showed up to Tuesday's series opener against the Red Sox, which Tampa Bay lost to fall six games behind Boston in the wild card race.
12 Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 12
With the college football season starting on Saturday, the Braves have just a few days left to keep the attention of sports fans down South. How can they do it? How about by boasting the deepest starting pitching staff in the National League, doing something no other NL team had done this season and by moving to within striking distance of the wild-card lead. They got Tim Hudson back from Tommy John surgery and now have six -- six! -- quality starting-pitching options coming down the stretch: Javier Vazquez, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami and Hudson. Unfortunately, they don't have six batters who are equally impressive, although they did become the first NL club to beat the Phillies' Cliff Lee since his trade to the NL, and Adam LaRoche has been spectacular since returning to Atlanta, batting .365/.446/.646 with eight home runs in his first 27 games. Pitching carrying the Braves toward October? Feels very familiar.
13 Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 15
Surely you know about Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. But the Twins have gotten some serious production from Michael Cuddyer, too. Cuddyer's enjoying a career year: He has already matched his previous best with 24 home runs and was on pace for personal highs with a .277 average and .517 slugging percentage entering Wednesday night. Until now, Cuddyer was best known for being the Twins resident magician, but it's his bat that's been producing the magic of late. He hit .351/.415/.784 over a recent 10-game stretch with five home runs. Are the Twins about to pull off a magic act of their own? They've won 10 of 14, their best stretch of the season, and pulled within 4 1/2 games of the first-place Tigers as they attempt to duplicate their comeback of three years ago, when they came from 10 down in August to win the Central.
14 Florida Marlins
Last Week: 13
Dropping a home series against a last-place team in late August is not advisable, and neither is losing to the team you're battling for a playoff spot. What's even worse is seeing your best player (Hanley Ramirez) limp off the field with a hurt hamstring, as he did Tuesday night against the Braves, and then reportedly get into a tiff with teammate Dan Uggla. The past month hasn't been a total nightmare for the Marlins, though. Chris Coghlan finished the month with 46 hits, the most by an NL rookie in more than half a century. Coghlan has very quietly emerged as a sleeper pick for NL Rookie of the Year. Coghlan leads all big league rookies in hits (109), batting average (.296), on-base percentage (.373) and slugging percentage (.440). All he needs now is some good PR representation to give his candidacy a boost. Something tells me it won't be this guy.
15 Seattle Mariners
Last Week: 14
There was plenty going on with the Mariners this week. They were completely dominated by the possible AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, Lee Pelekoudas (one of the longest tenured front-office men in the game) resigned after 30 years with the team, and they showed off the No. 2 pick in the draft, Dustin Ackley, during batting practice at Safeco Field. And yet we still can't escape Cup-gate. The Adrian Beltre thing is old news, but now that he's back, it behooved reporters covering the team to find out if he was going to wear a cup. They got their answer (he will) and we all get an incredibly creepy visual demonstration by a former major league pitcher. (Incidentally, it's good to know Mark Littell is still in baseball. He may now be known for something other than giving up one of the most famous home runs in baseball history.)
16 Chicago Cubs
Last Week: 17
When the Cubs signed Milton Bradley to a three-year, $30 million contract last winter, it was clear there was some significant risk to investing so much time and money in a guy who would soon be 31 and had a history of controversy. But there's no way the Cubs could have envisioned things falling apart this badly. Despite finally hitting in the second half -- with an average above .300 and OBP well north of .400 -- Bradley has torpedoed whatever goodwill still remained with Cubs fans and possibly the front office by first charging that Cubs fans were racist and then blaming the media for allegedly twisting his words. The sooner this season ends for both Bradley and the Cubs, the better.
17 Milwaukee Brewers
Last Week: 18
If only the Brewers could play every game against the Pirates at Miller Park ... They'd be unbeatable. The Brew Crew swept the Bucs yet again in Milwaukee this week and have now won a staggering 21 straight games there against Pittsburgh. (Alas, even if they played the rest of their games this season in that same scenario it might not do them much good with the way the Cardinals are cruising to the NL Central crown.) Those wins took some of the attention away from a minor controversy caused by not calling up one-time All-Star J.J. Hardy until he had been in the minor leagues for 20 days, thereby causing him to be ineligible for free agency until after the 2011 season, rather than 2010. Some have charged that the move is unfair to Hardy, or even a low-ball tactic by the Brewers. Others don't seem to have any kind of problem with it whatsoever.
18 Chicago White Sox
Last Week: 16
The White Sox have waved the white flag. Goodbye, Jose Contreras. So long, Jim Thome. Farewell to your playoff chances. A five-game losing streak has left the Sox seven games out in the AL Central, their biggest deficit of the season. It's doubtful too many people will miss the Metrodome when it's gone, but it's equally doubtful that few will be as glad to see it go as White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. "I don't need any souvenirs from this place," he said recently. "There aren't a lot of good memories in this place for me. Even when I was playing, there were no good memories. I'm glad this is the last time we come to this place." Guillen has reason to hate the place. The White Sox are just 6-20 against the Twins in Minnesota over the past three seasons, and dropped two more this week.
19 Arizona Diamondbacks
Last Week: 21
Every Giants fan will be rooting extremely hard for the D-backs this week. Arizona is in the midst of a nine-game stretch against the Dodgers and Rockies, whom the Giants are chasing in both the NL West and wild card races. If the D-backs' recent five-game winning streak is any indication, they could give both of those teams fits this week. They'll have to do it without Jon Garland, who was dealt to the Dodgers, and closer Chad Qualls, who suffered a somewhat gruesome knee injury closing out a win over the Astros on Sunday and is out for the rest of the season.
20 Houston Astros
Last Week: 19
Miguel Tejada's past just keeps coming back to haunt him. He's been confronted on national television about being two years older than he claimed to be, been outed in the Mitchell Report and pled guilty to lying to Congress about performance-enhancing drugs. This week there was a report in The New York Times that in 2001, Tejada, then with the Oakland A's, was suspected by teammates of tipping pitches to opponents during games. Tejada denied the allegations, even telling MLB.com, "I think it is some guys who played with me on the A's who are jealous. Why am I going to tip pitches? Who am I going to tip pitches to?" Given the reaction earlier this season to similar allegations against Alex Rodriguez, this charge is considered by some fellow players to be even more serious than steroid allegations. The real shame is that it further overshadows his accomplishments as a player, which include six All-Star selections and the 2002 AL MVP award.
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