It's Week 2 of Grantland's weekly rundown of baseball's best to worst, and already this column's got a new name: The 30. Hopefully the name will stick.
The same can't be said for this week's rankings, which featured some big moves over the past seven days. That volatility should eventually subside as baseball's hierarchy stabilizes. For now, we're left with a mishmash of current results and an assessment of overall team quality.
That means the team with the best record won't necessarily be no. 1, just as the team with the worst record isn't a lock for no. 30. You might even occasionally see one team ranked above another that just cleaned its clock. Just remember: This is baseball, not college football. It's a long season.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats and Info.
The big, bad, bashing Rangers, who play in one of baseball's harshest environments for pitchers, have allowed the fewest runs in the game. Texas's run prevention starts with a stout defense that features MLB's best trio of vacuum-cleaning infielders in Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, and Ian Kinsler. But Rangers pitchers have also dominated in areas they can control, sporting MLB's second-best strikeout-to-walk rate.
Oddly, the staff laggard has been Yu Darvish, the purported ace and nine-figure investment who's struggled with command issues in his first two major league starts. By contrast, the Rangers' other Japanese League import, Colby Lewis, just might be baseball's biggest free agent bargain: After giving the Rangers nearly seven Wins Above Replacement for just $5 million over the past two seasons, he sports a 15-to-1 strikeout-to-walk mark through two starts in his $3.25 million option year.
All this plus a welcome contract extension for quiet superstar Ian Kinsler, and Josh Hamilton making his own contract drive by shaking off a lingering g-g-groin injury, swinging at the first pitch a league-leading 64 percent of the time, and hitting .390/.381/.756 with seven extra-base hits and zero walks. If the Rangers hadn't marked Darvish's debut by selling the Yu Dog, a hot dog topped with sesame seeds and seaweed salad and wrapped in a wonton (?!), you could call this an ostensibly perfect start to the season.
On Tuesday, Justin Verlander took a one-hit shutout and a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning against the Rays then blew the game, with help from Daniel Schlereth and a suddenly leaky Jose Valverde. The next day, Drew Smyly made his first major league start, loaded the bases with nobody out and somehow wiggled out of trouble, keeping the Rays at bay for four innings before the Tigers offense rallied and eventually whacked Tampa Bay pitching. If Smyly can keep his team in the game for five or six innings a pop as the fifth starter for as long as Doug Fister lingers on the disabled list, that would give the Tigers a huge lift.
As for Valverde, he's looked shaky (eight base runners in 4.2 innings) in the early going after clocking a perfect 49-for-49 in save opportunities last year. Then again, maybe Papa Grande is just grooving pitches on Jim Leyland's orders. The Tigers skipper gave defensive whiz Brandon Inge his first start of the season Sunday by having him DH, while Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Delmon Young, and Ryan Raburn all played the field. Leyland must want to give opponents a fighting chance before Detroit's offense beats 'em to death.
Please say you joined us on the Lance Lynn bandwagon: 13 strikeouts and just three walks in his first two starts, with a legitimate four-pitch assortment that underscores why it made sense for the Cardinals to transition him back to starting, after a brief stint in relief last season. St. Louis has needed every bit of Lynn's hot start, Jaime Garcia's ever-underrated finesse, and Kyle Lohse's pact with Beelzebub to overcome a brutal start for Adam Wainwright in his first two outings back from Tommy John surgery. You probably don't sweat too much over Wainwright yet given how likely he is to maintain his 37.5 percent home run-per-fly ball rate (no chance).
You do breathe a sigh of relief that David Freese is expected back Tuesday after a finger injury over the weekend, though. Freese has breakout written all over after last fall's magical playoff run and a gaudy .406/.424/.688 start to the season; he's the biggest reason the Cardinals lead the majors in runs scored through 10 games sans Albert Pujols. Getting awesome World Series rings with subtle Rally Squirrels etched into the side can only help the prevailing good juju.
We covered the Dodgers' cakewalk early schedule on Friday, noting that destroying the Padres, Pirates, and Padres again isn't quite grounds for the Medal of Honor. Still, the second-best start in franchise history has been banked, so you have to ratchet up your estimate for the Dodgers this season by at least a couple of wins.
It's been an eventful 10 games, too. The incredible Matt Kemp has launched home runs on six of the nine fly balls he's hit so far this season and is batting .457/.487/.971; Aaron Harang struck out nine Padres in a row Friday, just missing Tom Seaver's all-time record of 10 straight Ks; they benefited from one of the worst and worst-timed displays of umpiring in a while (more on this later); and the $2.15 billion that Guggenheim Partners CEO and new Dodgers owner Mark Walter pledged to buy the team from Frank McCourt might be (shockingly!) more complicated than anyone has let on.
Strong start, especially considering:
• The Dbacks' leadoff man is Willie Bloomquist (career .265/.317/.338, though hitting .296 to start this season).
• Their no. 3 hitter is Justin Upton, who's hitting .241 with no homers as a nagging thumb injury hampers his production.
• Mike Winters's umpiring crew saw fit to let the Snakes muddle through two days of apocalyptic weather in Denver, one of them resulting in a walk-off loss after closer J.J. Putz had so little grip on a soaking-wet baseball that he nearly took Marco Scutaro's head off before Todd Helton lofted one into the seats to end it on Saturday
Arizona did go 1-1 in Noah's Ark weather, so it could have been worse. Multiple analytical sites have taken cracks at alternatives for Bloomquist atop the lineup. That leaves Upton, who could probably use more than the one game off he's had to heal but isn't getting it, despite Kirk Gibson's acknowledgment that his star player is far from 100 percent. Three games against the lowly Pirates and a two-start week for Ian Kennedy could help soften the blow.
The Yankees went from an 0-3 start to a share of first place in just one week. The team's surprise star has been 37-year-old Derek Jeter at .366/.395/.610, including a three-run bomb in Sunday night's whitewash of the Angels. Oh, and if you want a celebrity sighting at Yankee Stadium from the past week, you can stick Wade and Tebow in your ear. Nobody can match this guy.
First place in the NL East and the best run prevention in the senior circuit but it all feels a little fleeting. Drew Storen's visit to Dr. James Andrews didn't result in Tommy John surgery, but a procedure to remove bone fragments from his right elbow will likely keep the Nats closer out until the All-Star break. You can recover from the loss of a short reliever, especially when you've got a fireballer like Henry Rodriguez hitting triple digits in Storen's stead.
The bigger problem is Mike Morse getting shut down for at least six weeks (and very possibly longer) with a lat injury. The Nats rank just 10th in the NL in runs scored and figured to struggle scoring runs even with Morse coming off a 31-homer breakout in 2011. The bold move would be to call up Bryce Harper, given that the Nats are now giving playing time to the dreadful combination of Rick Ankiel and Mark DeRosa in the outfield. However, Harper's hitting just .222 with a .263 OBP to start the year in Triple-A Syracuse, the Nationals want him to gain as much experience as possible playing center field, and the guy's six months away from turning 20. Washington's hopes this year were going to rest on pitching regardless. But a lineup this thin might eventually demand more aggressive action, especially if Morse's injury stretches from weeks to months and Harper's left to develop on the farm.
Sergio Santos's early struggles (four walks in three IP) made headlines early on, but the bigger news are the early tidings for post-hype prospect Kyle Drabek: 10 strikeouts, four walks, and just one home run allowed over his first two starts and 12⅔ innings pitched, which we'd note makes him 2-0 on the young season if anyone here cared about pitcher wins. Jose Bautista hasn't started hitting at all yet, and the Jays share a three-way tie for first, so no major complaints. Some regression might lie ahead, though: Through Saturday, only the Red Sox and Astros had hit better than Toronto's .333 batting average with runners in scoring position.
How the hell do you rank the Red Sox? From a 1-5 start to a game out of first after taking three straight from the Rays, two of those wins being double-digit-scoring annihilations. The bullpen's getting more settled by the day as Alfredo Aceves starts to settle in at closer and unlikely heroes like 36-year-old journeyman Scott Atchison chip in. The fallback starting shortstop's slugging .548 and the supposed-to-be platoon right fielder's slugging .517. David Ortiz looks like Tony Gwynn, slapping opposite-field singles at will when teams shift on him (and driving the ball the rest of the time). Josh Beckett shook off a terrible first start to shut down the Rays, Felix Doubront's piling up the strikeouts in his first go-round as a regular part of a big league rotation, and Daniel Bard was often dominant in his first start (18 swinging strikes), even as he surrendered five runs thanks largely to a bunch of seeing-eye singles.
Now the bad news: Jacoby Ellsbury's out six to eight weeks after Reid Brignac landed on his shoulder following Ellsbury's takeout slide at second. Teams can get over losing a closer like the Sox did with Andrew Bailey. But Ellsbury was one of the (if not the) most valuable players in all of baseball last year; even a loaded Boston lineup getting unlikely contributions from the likes of Mike Aviles and Cody Ross will feel the sting of Ellsbury's absence, especially when the Sox stop hitting .349 with runners in scoring position. Carl Crawford's slated to start taking at-bats in extended spring training on Tuesday. If he can not only come back from wrist and elbow injuries but return to pre-Boston Crawford form, an already dangerous team becomes even scarier.
In short: Lots of question marks, lots of possibilities.
Injuries to the likes of Ellsbury or even closers like Bailey, Joakim Soria, Ryan Madson, and Brian Wilson might get more attention, especially in fantasy circles. But the Rays have quietly racked up a collection of early-season injuries that combined with a ferocious Boston attack to quickly erase warm thoughts of Tampa Bay's perfect opening week.
• B.J. Upton hasn't played a single game yet.
• Neither has closer Kyle Farnsworth, whose elbow injury dates back to last fall and makes you wonder if he could be out a lot longer than the four to six weeks the Rays have suggested.
• Backup catcher Jose Lobaton just hit the disabled list and alternate backup Robinson Chirinos is already on the DL, a situation that hurts the Rays more than it would any other team given how unlikely it is that 36-year-old starter Jose Molina will start more than 100 games.
• Sam Fuld's out four to five months after wrist surgery.
• Luke Scott missed three games before returning to hit homers in back-to-back games at Fenway.
No one injury from this bunch would or should be enough to sidetrack a top team. But for a team like the Rays, which relies more heavily on depth than any other contender, the combination of these setbacks makes a significant dent. The good news for the lineup is that Scott's back and Upton could return by Friday. But the bullpen's suddenly a potential weakness, with Farnsworth out, the 2011 winner for Rays random scrap-heap find of the year, Joel Peralta, struggling mightily early on, and some of the team's middle men getting lit up. Starting the season with 19 of 22 games against good to very good competition (Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox, Jays, Angels, and Rangers, with only the Twins as potential respite) won't help.
When rumors swirled that the Angels could go after Roy Oswalt or a similar veteran starter this offseason, you might've wondered why. After all, few teams could match the Halos' top four of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson, and Ervin Santana. Sunday night provided some explanation. In his first start of the season, Jerome Williams got creamed by the Yankees and didn't make it out of the third inning. Granted, the Yanks own one of baseball's best offenses, and Williams was just returning from the DL after rehabbing from a hamstring injury. But there was little reason to trust Williams to hold down the fifth starter's spot this season anyway, a few decent moments last year in his first stint in the big leagues since 2007 notwithstanding.
The Angels' other offseason area of concern, the bullpen, suffered a setback last week when reliable lefty setup man Scott Downs hurt his ankle after colliding with Denard Span on a cover play at first. Downs hopes to return this week, but for now the pen consists of six right-handers, all of them either old, unreliable, or both except for closer Jordan Walden. The good news for the Angels: The offense will probably start papering over some of these ills, especially once Albert Pujols hits his first post-Cardinals homer.
Earlier in his career, David Wright unfairly took the blame for a pair of late-season Mets collapses, even though he excelled while many of his teammates crumbled. A move to power-sapping Citi Field and a series of injuries cut into Wright's production, making his critics' complaints progressively louder and harsher. A fractured right pinkie suffered late last week figured to land Wright on the DL, particularly cruel timing given the Mets' lively start and Wright's hopes for a big season with his current deal up after this year or next season's $16 million club option.
It was comforting (and impressive) to see Wright miss just three games, return to the Mets' lineup Saturday, and smack three hits, including a home run, against the Phillies. He collected two more hits Sunday and is now up to .571/.615/.857 in 26 plate appearances. With Jose Reyes gone, the Mets see Wright as the face of the franchise. If he can dodge the injuries that plagued him last season and take advantage of Citi Field's new, friendlier dimensions, Wright could be an investment worth making. And if there's one team that could use a good investment right about now, it's the Mets.
Dare we say, a little sleeperish? The Sox took two out of three over the weekend from the loaded Tigers, leaning on strong run prevention (just eight runs allowed over the three-game set) to get it done. We talked about Chicago's very good, very deep bullpen last week, even after the surprise trade of Sergio Santos to Toronto during the winter meetings. But really, this is a team full of high-variance all-stars, with players like Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, Gordon Beckham, and Brent Morel possessing the skills to reverse ugly performances from last year. Three of those four gentlemen are currently hitting below the Mendoza Line, and Dunn's at .233 with one homer, so we're still waiting. But a healthy Jake Peavy combined with a successful conversion for Chris Sale would give the Pale Hose a deceptively strong rotation that just might be the AL Central's best. With 10 games coming up against Baltimore, Seattle, and Oakland, there's a Dodgers-esque opportunity to make a little run here.
The Braves looked so awful in starting 0-4 that the season's biggest highlight was the excellent bullpen chart compiled by manager Fredi Gonzalez's cruel alter ego on Twitter (the how-to-sabotage-Jason Heyward chart was pretty sweet, too).
Amazing what a five-game winning streak can do. Heyward's flashing the bat that made him a rookie sensation two years ago (and then some at .345/.424/.655 this year); Chipper Jones made a much-needed return after his latest knee flare-up and blasted a key three-run bomb Sunday; and the team's been handing Gonzalez leads over the past few days, which makes it easier for the Braves skipper to make non-ridiculous decisions with his bullpen management.
Only the Pirates have scored fewer runs than Philly, in what figures to be a major problem right up until the moment that Ryan Howard and Chase Utley return at 100 percent this season — assuming that happens at all. Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee have been predictably good-to-excellent. It's almost as if the Phillies have set up an elaborate sociological experiment to see if three Cy Young–caliber starters and a handful of solid supporting players are enough to overcome one of the league's worst offenses.
Brian Wilson's season-ending elbow injury's generating the most buzz right now. But the Giants have carried a loaded pen for years now, and Sergio Romo at his best is even better than Wilson anyway. So not much figures to change, save for Taco Bell scrounging for Matt Capps's phone number and the British Method actor who secretly plays Brian Wilson having to learn how rehab works.
Tim Lincecum potentially never again returning to his past Cy Young form is a far more worrisome issue; if his problems go beyond failure to properly locate his pitches, that could deal a deadly blow to the Giants' playoff chances — Barry Zito striking out a batter every other inning (and a first-pitch strike to just 11 of 32 hitters, as he did in last week's unlikely four-hit shutout) isn't going to keep working forever. Oh, and Brandon Belt's secure spot in the everyday lineup lasted exactly three games. Yes, the guy's hitting .143. But who are these alleged superstars not getting a chance to play while Belt's starting? Give the kid a chance already. A real chance.
Aroldis Chapman year-to-date: 8 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 15 K. Brandon Belt not starting is annoying. Chapman not starting is grounds for an Interpol investigation.
One of the many nuggets supplied by ESPN Stats & Info locks in on a stat called "well-hit average." Inside Edge, which does video tracking for ESPN, found that Ryan Braun led MLB in this department last year at .327, followed by Miguel Cabrera at .323. Based on Inside Edge's observations, the leader in this category so far this year is Omar Infante?! Infante's fourth homer of the year on Sunday brought his season line to .343/.361/.829, with a sky-high well-hit average of .371. Given that Infante hit .187, .197, and .230 in that latter department from 2009 through 2011, he's about as likely to lead the league in well-hit average by year's end as he is to keep up his pace of 72 homers, 108 RBI. What Infante does do well is hit for contact: He's on pace for just 18 strikeouts this year, a number that should go up, but maybe not spectacularly so given Infante's low 10.5 percent K rate last year. For a team like the Marlins whose best hitter (Mike Stanton) has whiffed nearly 29 percent of the time during his major league career, injecting a little offensive diversity with a contact guy could help.
Of course, Stanton's three-run homers will always give the team a bigger boost, and it's on that front that the Marlins should be concerned. Both Stanton and left fielder Logan Morrison are nursing knee injuries that figure to spur multiple days off from their manager, with the word on Stanton that he might not fully recover until next offseason. The Marlins' corner outfielders were already poor defenders, and Stanton botching what should have been a fairly routine fly ball Thursday against the Phillies highlighted the range issues his knee problems are causing. Heath Bell's taken flak for blowing saves early on, but the Marlins committed three errors in Saturday's ninth inning alone (one by Morrison), and continue to struggle to catch the ball on a near-daily basis.
Good recovery after a slow start, though sweeping the Royals falls into "keep your pants on" territory at this stage. Better news: Chris Perez has bounced back after a slow start, and Travis Hafner's hitting like vintage Travis Hafner, surging to .292/.393/.583 after Sunday's three-hit performance. Even-better-than-that news: Carlos Santana signed a five-year contract with a club option, as the Indians seized on the long-term deals for young players model forged by former Tribe GM John Hart. More interesting news to Scott Boras and maybe fantasy players than to the Indians: Johnny Damon, still a potential double-digit homers and steals guy but merely a decent hitter at this stage and an unusable fielder, signs a one-year deal to help patch Cleveland's severely depleted outfield.
Swept by the Yankees, followed by taking an impressive two out of three in Toronto. There are things to like, starting with Adam Jones busting out to a .343/.395/.657 start and Chris Davis (?!) at .346/.370/.577. But the Great Brian Matusz Excitement Tour already looks dead (21 base runners vs. five strikeouts in 9⅔ innings), and the two rotation standouts thus far, Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel, are largely getting by on good fortune (.162 and .206 batting averages on balls in play, respectively).
Finally, a standing O for three developments: the new/old Baltimore unis, the definitive Mark Reynolds GIF, and the incredible transformation of Robert Andino.
A winning record, but one built by beating up on a weak A's team. In perhaps the weirdest stat of the young season, Felix Hernandez already has three starts against Oakland. In the secretly frightening factoid of the young season, Felix Hernandez's velocity is down. Primo analyst and Mariners superfan Dave Cameron has the details. No need for panic after three starts, but if you can get a full, ace-caliber return for King Felix, you might want to dip your toe into your fantasy league's trade pool and see what transpires.
Some periodically inspired play from a woefully outmanned squad has the Astros in second place in the early season-slumping NL Central. The fans aren't necessarily buying it, which is always one of the biggest challenges for any team that commits to a total rebuilding job. Shopping closer Brett Myers, one of the few recognizable names on a young, deeply flawed roster, probably won't help attract more fans. But it's a smart move given Myers won't be part of the next winning Astros team, and given how many clubs might be interested now with all the closer injuries and meltdowns that have happened in the early going.
A four-game losing streak and one of the worst run differentials in baseball isn't even the worst news: Zack Greinke and his new agent, Casey Close, have tabled contract talks with the Brewers, setting the stage for the right-hander to be 1 or 1a on the free-agent market this winter (along with Cole Hamels). Buried beneath the Greinke story and the second-worst run prevention of any team to date are some interesting little process tidbits. Notably, the Brewers have become one of the shiftiest teams in baseball. Granted, shifts do you no good when you give up more home runs than any other NL team. But watching Rickie Weeks take two hits away from Ian Stewart last Monday thanks to successful shifts was a (modestly) encouraging sign.
1. When Jamie Moyer squared off against Madison Bumgarner last week, you'd have thought their 27-year age difference would have set the all-time record. Nope. That would be Satchel Paige (59 years old) vs. Bill Monbouquette (29) in 1965.
2. I was at a delightful Denver dive bar when Todd Helton lofted a moon-scraping fly ball just over the right-field wall and inside the foul pole for a walkoff home run Saturday night. The whole place went bonkers. Figured you should at least get a taste Helton is fired up as he leaps into the dogpile.
3. Michael Cuddyer: .371/.405/.657
When Tom Milone fired eight shutout innings against the Royals last Wednesday, he became one of just 24 pitchers in the past 20 years to throw seven-plus innings with zero runs allowed and zero strikeouts. Milone needed 93 pitches to get through his eight innings versus Jamie Moyer, who needed just 73 pitches to post the same line in 2001 (hat tip: FanGraphs).
Also, here's our early leader for Throw of the Year, by Josh Reddick.
Pedro Alvarez through 19 plate appearances: .053/.053/.211, 10 strikeouts, zero walks. Normally you ignore 19 plate appearances without a second thought. But Alvarez was awful all spring, after hitting just .191/.272/.289 last year in 74 games. There's a track record of success here, starting with Alvarez's rookie season (16 homers in 95 games) and going back to his minor league career and huge numbers at Vanderbilt. But there will come a point at which people will start to wonder if the Pirates' would-be star third baseman might be broken. We're not there yet, but it's getting tougher and tougher to keep the faith.
He's two starts into his 2012 campaign, and already Matt Garza looks poised for another big year (strikeout-to-walk rate better than 4-to-1, 1.23 ERA, 2.50 FIP). He's a free agent after the 2013 season. He was a top-10 National League starter last year. He's still just 28 years old. Pitchers are always a risky investment and the Cubs could be a couple years or more from contending, making a trade seem like the smart move. But teams have become increasingly reluctant to pay through the nose in prospects on any deal, even one that could land a staff ace. Could the Cubs opt to keep Garza via a long-term contract extension? Should they? The good news here is that as long as Garza continues to dominate, there are no wrong answers.
Ace Kansas City beat man Bob Dutton reported that Royals starters after one turn had collectively allowed just five runs in 30 innings. Through nine starts, they've now yielded 29 runs in 44⅔ innings.
Dale Scott may have cost the Padres Sunday's game. Tie score, top of the ninth, first and second, nobody out, cleanup hitter Jesus Guzman squares to bunt. The ball hits his bat and Scott raises his arms as if to indicate a foul ball. Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis plays through anyway, firing the ball to third for a force play, and ultimately starting an uncontested triple play, given Padres base runners held their ground after Scott's apparent initial foul call. Unfortunately for the Padres (though perhaps fortunately for those of us who yearn to one day get robot umpires), Scott changed his call mid-play, signaling that Guzman's bunt had rolled fair. It was such an odd sequence of events that even the great Vin Scully was fooled and nobody ever fools Vin Scully.
Here's the thing, though: Bunting with your cleanup man is something few (if any) teams would have done in that spot. Which tells us two things:
1. The Padres are so starved for wins that they're making trying-not-to-lose moves like bunting with their cleanup man up (who'd never sacrificed in 300 major league PA and had only a handful in the minors), two on, and nobody out in the ninth.
2. When your cleanup man is Jesus Guzman, that's a gigantic problem.
Terrible pitching (including Francisco Liriano turning back into a pumpkin two starts in after dominating in spring training), nonexistent hitting, and potentially another last-place season after the Twins reeled off a second straight AL Central title just two years ago. Here's one bit of good news: Last Monday, bottom of the third. A ball bounces no more than a foot or two in front of Chris Iannetta, with Joe Mauer on first base. Mauer immediately breaks for second and slides in ahead of the throw, a feat that required not only great instincts and anticipation but also speed and confidence in one's speed. Given Mauer's mounting leg injuries, which have cost him copious games and even raised questions about a position change, you look for even the smallest signs of health and encouragement. This was one.