With less than one-third of the season in the books, it's still early enough that one big streak can dramatically affect our view of a given team. Last week saw several clubs reel off four-, five-, and six-gamers in either direction; one sad bunch ran their losing streak to 12. Players getting healthy, players getting hurt, and players starting to earn the first 1/240th of their contracts have all swayed the standings. Some people even took Streak Week literally.
Let's pull our pants back up and get to it. It's Week 8 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
1. Texas Rangers, 31-18 (280 RS, 181 RA) (Last week: 1)
When the Rangers moved Neftali Feliz to the starting rotation this spring, strong reactions cropped up on both sides. Team Don't Screw With a Good Thing wondered why the Rangers would move Feliz out of his closer role, given he'd been good-to-untouchable at the job for two years, both pennant-winning seasons. Team Why Waste a Good Starter in Relief was happy to see Feliz moved back to his natural starter's position, the one he held through most of his minor league career, when he struck out 328 batters in 277 innings. How Feliz fared this season in the rotation, and how the bullpen did without him, would mark another data point in the debate over reliever-to-starter conversions.
Feliz put up eerily identical numbers this year as a starter as he did last year in relief, striking out exactly 7.8 batters per nine innings and posting a 37.2 percent ground ball rate both times; he walked a few more batters and gave up more home runs, the latter due to natural regression in his home run-per-fly ball rate. Problem is, he's also now on the disabled list, suffering from elbow inflammation that may or may not be related to throwing six innings every five days instead of one inning every other day. And how has the bullpen responded without Feliz? Pretty much like this guy: 2.16 ERA, 5.3 K/BB, 8.3 K/9 IP. Mariano Rivera's career line? 2.21 ERA, 4.0 K/BB, 8.3 K/9 IP (hat-tip Baseball Prospectus's Sam Miller for the comparison).
So after all that fuss, moving Feliz to the rotation might not matter much at all. But it's a good reminder that one-size-fits-all philosophies don't make much sense, on either side. Daniel Bard's command got shot to hell with his move to the rotation. Chris Sale got moved from starter to reliever and back to starter, triggered an organizational power play over a potential move back to relief, then looked like vintage Randy Johnson in striking out 15 Rays on Monday. And as for The 30's never-ending #FreeAroldis campaign: A dose of writer humility is needed here. It's possible that the Reds are royally wasting an all-world talent by having him throw in 80 innings instead of 180. But Dusty Baker and other Reds coaches and staffers also know 800,000 times more about Aroldis Chapman than I ever will, even if we got in Aroldis's car, did 93 all the way across the country, and got matching LEVERAGE tattoos.
Somewhere there's a balance between appeals to authority and faux writer omniscience. We're working on it.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers, 32-16 (215 RS, 167 RA) (Last week: 3)
What kind of a season has it been for the Dodgers? Jerry Hairston, who's given us more than 4,500 plate appearances' worth of evidence that he's a lousy hitter (.260/.329/.374), comes off the disabled list, hits third (!) in his second start back and goes 5-for-5 in yet another Dodgers win.
Led by unlikely contributors like Hairston and folk heroes/comedy legends like A.J. Ellis, the Dodgers didn't miss a beat with Matt Kemp out of the lineup, going 9-5 with their perennial MVP candidate on the DL. They've played better defense than anyone in the league, reaped great pitching from many more sources than Clayton Kershaw, and yes, taken advantage of a National League (and NL West) that's down this year. And they probably get Kemp back Tuesday. Not bad.
3. Tampa Bay Rays, 29-20 (211 RS, 195 RA) (Last week: 5)
Losing your superstar is bad enough. Losing nine other players to the DL at the same time should be murder. But the Rays somehow went 4-2 last week before trotting out a Triple-A lineup to get annihilated by a lights-out Chris Sale on Memorial Day. The hope is that Desmond Jennings's knee will recover by next week, with Evan Longoria hopefully back by mid-June.
In the meantime, the Rays will need Joe Maddon to keep pushing the right buttons and/or pulling horseshoes out of his Merlot (depending on your perspective). The mad scientist's latest trick: moving Carlos Peña to the leadoff spot for the first time in 1,270 career games. Naturally, Peña immediately snapped out of a deep slump with the move. Skeptics would say (with good reason) that Peña wasn't going to struggle forever, and that his .550 slugging average while batting leadoff means nothing given that it's a five-game sample. Peña, Longoria, and Matt Joyce, all middle-of-the-order types who wouldn't lead off for anyone else, have hit .366/.480/.780 in 50 PA as leadoff hitters under Maddon. That's still not nearly a big enough sample size to mean anything. So let's just call it another fun data point for a manager who tries more weird things than anyone else.
4. Baltimore Orioles, 29-20 (223 RS, 210 RA) (Last week: 4)
The six-year, $85.5 million contract the Orioles gave Adam Jones last week elicited some lukewarm responses from some of the smartest baseball-writing folks in the biz. It's the optics of the deal more than anything that have given people pause: Jones is off to a blazingly hot start, hitting .308 with 14 homers and a .595 slugging average through Sunday. That's despite several of his peripheral numbers (including strikeout rate and walk rate) hewing to career norms; one-quarter of Jones's fly balls going for home runs has been the biggest driver of his 2012 success, and that's likely not a sustainable number. It's possible that the O's could have re-signed Jones cheaper had they pulled the trigger over the winter instead.
If I were an Orioles fan, none of this would bother me all that much. Even if Jones returns to the form he's shown over the past three years, that's a .280 hitter with 20-to-25-homer power who plays a premium position, and has a pretty good track record of health. In a baseball landscape where teams are rushing to lock up every good player they can at premium prices thanks to skyrocketing revenue streams, $14 million a year for that kind of player — even acknowledging Jones's lack of walks and disagreement over his defensive value — looks downright reasonable. Given the going rate of about $5 million per Win Above Replacement, Jones would need to deliver about four wins' worth of value to the O's in the next two years, followed by a gentle decline with age, to justify the contract. Given that he's 26 years old and likely just now entering his prime, that doesn't look like much of a reach at all.
5. Washington Nationals, 29-19 (188 RS, 159 RA) (Last week: 9)
The success of the Nationals starting rotation has been well covered, with Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg leading the way for baseball's deepest and best staff (though the Nats might come to regret their recent decision to replace Ross Detwiler with Chien-Ming Wang at SP5). But they've had help lately. Bryce Harper has caught fire, providing big contributions (.286/.372/.514) for a depleted offense that needed a lift (Ryan Zimmerman's slugging .366, Ian Desmond owns a .289 OBP, Danny Espinosa a 651 OPS). And then there's the Nats bullpen, which has shaken off not one, not two, but three closer changes to find a solid late-inning mix. Setup men Craig Stammen and Sean Burnett have posted ERAs of 1.33 and 0.67, with a combined strikeout rate of 10.2 K/9 IP. Best of all, new closer Tyler Clippard owns one of the most devastating changeups in the game and looks a lot like Napoleon Dynamite, 10 years later.
6. St. Louis Cardinals, 27-22 (259 RS, 190 RA) (Last week: 6)
The Cards were finally caught and passed by the Reds in the NL Central standings. But the team with the best run differential in the NL (by far) remains loaded, even with injuries to Lance Berkman and multiple other contributors. Writing for The Hardball Times last offseason, Matt Swartz showed that St. Louis gets more bang for its free-agent buck than any other team — and this was before los dos Carlos went nuts on the league in 2012. But the more impressive accomplishment is the continued success of the Cardinals' home-grown players. Drafting low every year and always lacking Bryce Harper/Mike Trout–caliber prospects, the Cards seem to graduate a raft of new talent to the big leagues every year, to great results. The latest contributor? Twenty-third-round pick Matt Adams, whose 3-for-5 performance Monday helped spur an 8-2 win over the Braves, raising his season line to .382/.417/.618 in his first nine big league games. If the Cardinals can ever get everyone back and healthy again this year, they're going to have two or three too many major league-caliber hitters on the roster. Tough problem to have.
7. New York Yankees, 26-22 (225 RS, 207 RA) (Last week: 8)
Finally FINALLY! the Teix has come back to the New York Yankees. We'd heard hints about the severity of Mark Teixeira's bronchial infection and the damage it inflicted on his performance. But Sunday's New York Times game wrap laid out just how bad it was:
Teixeira had had a severe cough and blocked air passages since April 12 and it was so debilitating at times that he had trouble breathing. It limited his time in the weight room and the batting cage, and sapped him of his signature power.
Two thoughts immediately spring to mind: (1) No wonder Teixeira couldn't hit; (2) Why the hell didn't the Yankees give the poor guy some rest? Fortunately for Teixeira and the Yankees, time heals all wounds. In three games at Oakland over the weekend, the Bombers' first baseman went 8-for-14, cracking three homers and three doubles. Teixeira followed that with a homer in Monday's game in Anaheim — making it four homers in four games. That performance, combined with a five-game stretch in which Yankees starters posted a 2.31 ERA, helped fuel New York's longest winning streak of the season, vaulting the Yankees right back into the thick of the AL East race. (Playing the Royals and A's probably didn't hurt either.)
8. Cincinnati Reds, 27-21 (192 RS, 181 RA) (Last week: 12)
The heart of Cincinnati's order, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce, combined to go 6-for-39 during last week's four-game set against Atlanta yet the Reds got the sweep. Pitching was the story, as the Reds held the Braves to just eight runs in four games: The resurgent Mat Latos completed a four-start stretch in which he noted 30 strikeouts and allowed just six runs in 23 innings, while Mike Leake temporarily saved his fifth starter job by striking out six and allowing just four base runners over eight innings. But a pair of unlikely offensive heroes also propelled the Reds' push into first place. Ryan Hanigan, the presumptive place-holder for top prospect Devin Mesoraco at catcher, has instead been one of the most productive backstops in the league, hitting .320/.383/.402. Meanwhile, Todd Frazier has been a mashing machine subbing for injured third baseman Scott Rolen, cranking 13 extra-base hits and slugging .579 in his 76 at-bats this year.1 Also, Frazier alternates Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Come Fly With Me" as his walk-up songs, which is impossibly cool. Also, Frazier just did something I've never seen any baseball player do, ever: He hit a home run no-handed, throwing his bat at the ball and sending it soaring into the left-center-field bleachers.
9. Chicago White Sox, 27-22 (230 RS, 199 RA) (Last week: 15)
Six in a row and 10 of 11 for the hottest team in baseball and the hottest player in the league: Paul Konerko. The ChiSox first baseman has gone 24 for his last 39, with five homers and 14 runs knocked in. The fact that Konerko's breezed through his mid-30s still at the height of his powers and hitting .395 this year has launched a wave of optimism that Paulie might have the goods to one day make the Hall of Fame. By advanced metrics, Konerko has no chance: Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference agree he's nowhere close, with FanGraphs crediting him with 31.2 WAR, well below the 60ish threshold where borderline-worthy candidates typically congregate. Both sites also only count one season of four wins or more in season, leaving Konerko's peak well short of those clocked by existing Hall of Famers. Konerko is 93 homers shy of 500 and 910 hits below 3,000, leaving him at least three more big seasons away from one milestone and four-plus from the other. Even if he reaches those plateaus, though, Konerko would lack the peak dominance that defines the best handful of first basemen of his generation.
In the here and now, though, Konerko's hit like an MVP candidate through the season's first 49 games, with heavy support from Cy Young candidate Jake Peavy and worthy sidekick Chris Sale, he of the 15-strikeout masterpiece against the Rays Monday. One of baseball's weakest divisions is up for grabs, and the Sox have as good a chance as anyone to win it.
10. Miami Marlins, 27-22 (196 RS, 198 RA) (Last week: 10)
The Marlins' 5-3 win over Washington Monday ran their record to an NL-best 19-8 for the month. The catalyst, yet again, was Giancarlo Stanton, whose 11th May home run turned the game the Marlins' way. Pretty disappointing blast by Stanton standards, though — the guy didn't even break anything. Here he is nearly taking out a pack of beer drinkers on the Budweiser Balcony a million miles from home plate; whacking the infamous home run sculpture; and destroying a panel on the left-field scoreboard after smashing a go-ahead grand slam off Jamie Moyer, with everyone in the stadium standing.
Still Giancarlo, bubalah try to use your powers for good, not for evil.
11. Atlanta Braves, 26-24 (236 RS, 222 RA) (Last week: 2)
A few weeks ago, a Braves fan named Everett Steele started printing T-shirts emblazoned with tomahawks and the name "Atlanta Barves" on them. It seemed like a harmless way to spoof a Twitter meme and maybe make a few bucks too, at a time when the Braves were winning. That is, until Major League Baseball sent Steele a cease-and-desist order on May 9. That day, the Braves owned a share of first place, with one of the best records in the majors. They're 7-12 since then, falling to last place in the NL East as they ride an eight-game losing streak. Various injuries and ailments for Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann, David Ross, and Chipper Jones have severely depleted the Atlanta lineup during that time, and Fredi Gonzalez's by-the-book-without-exception bullpen management has resulted in a very long, unnecessary vacation for his best reliever, one brought on by the supposed sanctity of the closer role. Of course, those are wholly reasonable, tangible reasons for Atlanta's hard times. For this misery to end, the Curse of the Barves must be expunged, by any means necessary.
12. Boston Red Sox, 24-24 (253 RS, 236 RA) (Last week: 13)
For all the DL stints racked up by key position players (Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross) and disappointing results from multiple stars (Adrian Gonzalez is on pace for the worst full season of his career, as is Dustin Pedroia and his recently jammed thumb), the Red Sox have scored more runs this season than any AL team that's not Texas. Give partial credit to Boston's affinity for post-hype prospects: Jarrod Saltalamacchia was Baseball America's 16th-ranked prospect before the 2006 season. After being one of the centerpieces of the infamous Mark Teixeira trade of '07 that stocked the Rangers' farm system, the catching-needy Red Sox picked up Salty for next to nothing at the 2010 trade deadline. He just turned 27 this month and now looks to be entering his prime, setting career highs in multiple offensive categories last year and now on pace for a 25-homer barrage. That power breakout includes a walk-off blast Saturday that doubled as Rays closer Fernando Rodney's first blown save of the year.
13. Toronto Blue Jays, 25-24 (237 RS, 216 RA) (Last week: 7)
Jays opponents tallied 47 runs during the team's five-game losing streak last week, with Texas obliterating Toronto pitching for 34 runs in a three-game set over the weekend. Eagle-eyed Rotowire writer Scott Pianowski notes that Brandon Morrow's early-season hype might've been ill-advised; the Jays right-hander owns a 0.41 ERA against teams below the top 13 in offense, but a 10.61 ERA against the Rangers, Orioles, and Rays. Meanwhile, Henderson Alvarez's league-worst 2.6 K/9 IP strikeout rate has finally caught up to him over his past three starts: 15 runs and 28 hits in 17⅓ innings. The Jays' starting rotation is one of the youngest in baseball with an average age of 24.8 years old; given that those starters rank 28th in team FIP and WAR, the more relevant question is, are they any good?
14. Cleveland Indians, 27-21 (214 RS, 229 RA) (Last week: 11)
Sweep the Tigers, then get swept by the White Sox, and you're right back to square one: A so-so first-place team hanging on to the top spot by a thread. Ubaldo Jimenez continued his disastrous season with a seven-run meltdown against the White Sox on Sunday. Jimenez now owns a 5.79 ERA and 6.03 FIP, with career-worst marks in strikeout, walk, and home run rates, including more walks than strikeouts per nine innings. Tribe brass is hopeful that top third base prospect Lonnie Chisenhall will fare well now that he's back with the club and that Michael Brantley will keep pulling off heists like these. But in the meantime, the Indians need pretty much any sentient being possible to replace Jimenez in the rotation, or they risk a near-auto loss every five days.
15. New York Mets, 27-22 (208 RS, 231 RA) (Last week: 18)
Sure, it was the Padres, but the Mets' back-to-back shutouts over the weekend highlighted unexpectedly great seasons from their top two starters this year. Johan Santana notched his first shutout since 2010 on Saturday, striking out seven and walking none in a four-hit masterpiece against San Diego. With his best strikeout-to-walk rate in half a decade and the lowest FIP of his career, the former Cy Young winner has improbably returned to vintage form. On Sunday, R.A. Dickey followed with 7⅓ innings of shutout ball, in which the knuckleballer struck out 10 batters, walked just one, and ceded just three hits. Dickey's career strikeout rate, comfortably below 6 K/9 IP for years, has spiked to 8.5/9 IP this year. He's throwing more knuckleballs and fewer fastballs than in any year of his career save one, with great success. He's also a podcast star and accomplished author. The Mets rank sixth in the majors in OBP this year, and dead last in defense per Ultimate Zone Rating. But the Santana-Dickey story line might be the most interesting one of the Mets' season and their reason for staying in the race when few expected it.
16. San Francisco Giants, 26-23 (200 RS, 197 RA) (Last week: 14)
It's all Melky Mania all the time for the Giants, understandably so given the left fielder's monster numbers. But the team's newly installed leadoff man has also helped the Giants' anemic offense: In his past five games, Gregor Blanco has gone 10-for-21 with four doubles, a triple, three walks, and two steals, hiking his season line to .290/.403/.411. Brandon Crawford is still batting second when he should be batting 14th, and Pablo Sandoval is still weeks away from returning. So the Giants will gladly welcome their upcoming cupcake schedule (two more at home vs. the hobbled D-backs, four against the Cubs, and three at San Diego) and hope their unlikely outfield stars can keep generating runs.
17. Los Angeles Angels, 25-25 (189 RS, 184 RA) (Last week: 20)
These are the Angels we were waiting for: Albert Pujols going 10-for-his-last-28 with four homers, Mark Trumbo doubling, tripling, and smashing a walk-off homer to hike his season line to .333/.388/.592, and 20-year-old Mike Trout hitting .306/.368/.514 as he challenges Bryce Harper for the title of not-yet-legal megaprospect having way too much success way too early. The trio helped shove the Angels to a seven-game winning streak, thrusting them right into wild-card contention after a horrific start. Led by Jered Weaver, the Angels lead the majors with a 2.95 ERA this month. But Weaver's status might be in jeopardy after the righty ace exited Monday's start with lower back pain, having thrown just 12 pitches. Weaver's only made one DL appearance in his six-plus major league seasons; a second one here would be terrible timing for an Angels team that's finally playing the way most expected after their offseason spending spree.
18. Philadelphia Phillies, 26-24 (208 RS, 199 RA) (Last week: 18)
Five wins in six games, Cliff Lee back off the DL, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard working their way back, a deep but winnable NL East and it might all go to hell if Roy Halladay's shoulder injury proves serious enough to knock him out for an extended period of time. The diagnosis for now is generic right shoulder soreness, and Halladay will see doctors today to gauge the injury's severity.
19. Detroit Tigers, 23-25 (210 RS, 215 RA) (Last week: 16)
A three-game sweep at the hands of the Indians last week appeared to bury the Tigers in a deep hole. But the beauty of playing in the AL Central is that a pushover opponent is often right around the corner, in this case the Twins. Now four out again, Detroit faces all the problems documented last week, plus one that wasn't: Miguel Cabrera's deceptively lousy season. The all-world slugger's hitting for less power (.187 ISO) than at any point in his career, with his worst walk rate since his rookie season. Cabrera's game-winning homer off Matt Capps Sunday continued his climb back after a slow start. But when your superstars and your supporting players aren't living up to expectations, you've got issues.
20. Pittsburgh Pirates, 24-24 (144 RS, 167 RA) (Last week: 24)
Lowest-scoring team in baseball? Helps to have James McDonald continue his path toward elite starter status with eight shutout innings against the Reds Monday. Also helps to have the second-lowest bullpen ERA in the league. And it damn sure helps to have a player so good he can rise above a miserable supporting cast and provide another glaring example of how overrated lineup protection really is.
21. Arizona Diamondbacks, 22-27 (203 RS, 221 RA) (Last week: 21)
Arizona's starting rotation, a huge strength last year thanks to co-aces Ian Kennedy and Dan Hudson, has been merely so-so this season, ranking ninth in the NL in WAR. There's reason to expect improvement soon, with Hudson tossing five functional innings in Sunday's return from a five-and-a-half-week DL stint. Hudson will be throwing to Miguel Montero for the foreseeable future, with the 28-year-old catcher inking a five-year, $60 million deal to stay in the desert. Call this the opposite of Adam Jones timing: Montero's striking out a career-high 24.8 percent of the time, hitting just .248 and slugging just .333 in his worst season to date as a full-time starter.
22. Houston Astros, 22-27 (202 RS, 198 RA) (Last week: 23)
Which NL team has the best team ERA in May? If you said the Astros, you nailed it: Houston's 3.06 ERA this month tops the league, even after Monday's doubleheader double loss yielded 16 runs to the Rockies. We covered Bud Norris's great May last week, but the bullpen deserves recognition, too. Wesley Wright, Wilton Lopez, and Brandon Lyon are all striking out more than a batter an inning this month, with Lyon yet to allow a single walk, homer, or run in 11 May innings too. Not bad for a guy who looked like he might be cooked after posting an 11.48 ERA last year, then missing the rest of the season with labrum and biceps injuries.
23. Oakland A's, 22-27 (162 RS, 195 RA) (Last week: 19)
Six-game losing streak for the AL's worst offense, riding an impossibly low .211 team batting average. You look at this lineup and wonder when spring training is going to end. Lineup Protection Is a Myth, Part 6,819: Josh Reddick, whose 14 homers and .568 slugging average have come with all the protection of a corgi alarm system.
24. Seattle Mariners, 21-30 (187 RS, 205 RA) (Last week: 22)
25. Kansas City Royals, 19-28 (186 RS, 214 RA) (Last week: 25)
If Eric Hosmer and his BABIPery of Death have been the year's biggest disappointment for Royals fans (a tough call so many worthy candidates), Mike Moustakas's solid second season has been a welcome oasis for another lousy ballclub in KC. Even after a recent cold streak, Moustakas is still hitting .267/.330/.466 while playing strong defense at third, making him the most valuable Royal position player so far this year by a mile. For a team trying to sort who they can rely on when they finally make a run at contention someday, a big year for Moustakas alone would be huge.
26. Milwaukee Brewers, 20-28 (209 RS, 235 RA) (Last week: 26)
Ladies and gentlemen, your official 2012 Milwaukee Brewers avatar.
27. Colorado Rockies, 19-29 (239 RS, 269 RA) (Last week: 28)
Sweeping the Astros in a Memorial Day doubleheader earned the Rockies this gigantic leap in the rankings. Something to savor while contemplating how Dan O'Dowd is the fourth-longest-tenured general manager in baseball.
28. San Diego Padres, 17-33 (158 RS, 215 RA) (Last week: 27)
CBS Sports's Jon Heyman argues that the Padres have been the unluckiest team in baseball this year. Our money's still on the Red Sox, who came into 2012 with much higher expectations and lost higher-caliber talent to injury than did the Padres, including 2011 MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury. Of course, given that Carlos Quentin's Padres debut after two months on the DL was met with something approaching this reaction, Heyman might have a point here.
29. Chicago Cubs, 16-32 (172 RS, 222 RA) (Last week: 29)
The Cubs' 12-game losing streak grew so soul-crushing that the team's fans nearly lost their minds on the speck of a fake rumor that top prospect Anthony Rizzo might possibly, maybe, have a chance to potentially come up to the big leagues this week. Whenever Rizzo does get promoted, this won't be nearly the dilemma some Cubs fans are making it out to be: Bryan LaHair did manage three hits in a Wrigley slugfest Sunday, but that came after a 2-for-29 stretch that reminded everyone that LaHair probably isn't a great long-term keeper at age 29 with a lifetime of minor league numbers behind him. Alfonso Soriano's started hitting a little in left, but if not for his stratospheric contract he'd be gone in a second. Plus, Joe Mather and Tony Campana aren't exactly huge obstacles if the Cubs want to move Rizzo or LaHair to a corner and live with David DeJesus in center for a little while. The Cubs have less impact young talent than virtually any other team. Rizzo's going to play and play soon, one way or another.
30. Minnesota Twins, 16-32 (189 RS, 268 RA) (Last week: 30)
Twins fans don't need any more reminders of how bad this team has been. So let's try this: You can count the 1-3-4-5 combinations that have been better than Denard Span (.306/.362/.404), Joe Mauer (.306/.412/.422), Josh Willingham (.271/.399/.535), and Justin Morneau (.240/.304/.529) on one hand. All right, maybe two hands. Tops.