NOW the season heats up. Just ask Jered Weaver. The big trades are all complete. New nameplates have been sewn with care onto the back of uniforms. Division opponents start playing more often. Clint Hurdle has two months to learn how to manage his bullpen … although he better figure it out in two days.
A terrific week of big series began with the Indians and Red Sox and Asdrubal Cabrera hitting a home run off Daniel Bard and off a woman’s knee in right field at Fenway Park. She had the seam marks to prove it hit her and not the top of the wall. If the Indians make the playoffs, they should invite her to throw out a first pitch at a postseason game.
CC Sabathia was dominant again, John Mayberry hit a ninth-inning homer for the Phillies and then Shane Victorino hit an extra-inning home run to win it, the Pirates dropped their fourth in a row and Zack Greinke outpitched Chris Carpenter as the Brewers kept up their dominant ways at home. Ian Kennedy pitched great and Matt Cain was cruising until a five-run sixth inning.
It’s so good we get to do it again Tuesday. In my opinion, there are still 14 teams still in the playoff chase. Sorry, Cincy, you’re not one of them. Here’s my list of the best teams moving forward from this point on and into the postseason. Call it an August reseeding -- taking the overall winning percentage of teams heading into Monday’s action, but rearranging them into a new order. My opinion will probably change. I’ll be wrong somewhere. That’s baseball. That’s why we love it.
1. New: Phillies. Previous: Phillies.
They still have the great rotation, and the idea of starting Vance Worley in Game 4 of a playoff series no longer seems like such a crazy idea. They still have the bullpen combo of Antonio Bastardo and Ryan Madson (three home runs allowed in 78 innings), arguably as good a 1-2 punch as any team in the National League, right up there with Atlanta’s Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel. And now they’ve added the much-needed right-handed bat in Hunter Pence.
2. New: Rangers. Previous: Red Sox.
Entering Monday, Rangers relievers ranked 11th in the American League in ERA and tied with Oakland for the most losses. But they shored up their biggest weak spot by adding Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, two of the best relievers in the business. Those two have combined for a 113/15 strikeout/walk ratio with just 51 hits allowed in 95 innings. Neftali Feliz is now the third-best reliever in the Texas bullpen. Throw in the fact that most postseason games are played at night (which will make Josh Hamilton very happy) and the rotation is much better than you think (C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando all have road ERAs of 3.13 or lower) and the Rangers have the confident strut of a team expecting a repeat trip to the World Series.
3. New: Red Sox. Previous: Yankees.
With Clay Buchholz possibly out for the season with a stress fracture in his back, the Red Sox rotation still remains a big question. No, Erik Bedard is not exactly a sure thing, especially considering he hasn’t been healthy enough to start a game in September since 2006. The offense is terrific, but right now John Lackey and his 6.20 ERA is your No. 3 starter.
4. New: Giants. Previous: Braves.
No, Carlos Beltran alone doesn’t completely remake the Giants’ lineup, but the rotation is deep and full of Proven Winners©. Jeff Keppinger and Orlando Cabrera aren’t great, but at least give manager Bruce Bochy versatility and more matchup possibilities. Bochy needs to figure out how to get Brandon Belt in there more often, but he’s got two months to figure out the hot hitters and best lineups. With the rotation and deep bullpen, the staff should be well-rested heading into October.
5. New: Yankees. Previous: Giants.
The Yankees do have the fifth-best rotation ERA in the AL, so it remains underappreciated. But you have to wonder how much Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia will have left in the tank as the season progresses. The team has production issues at catcher with Russell Martin (.201/.309/.287 since a hot April), DH with Jorge Posada (Yankees DHs rank 11th in AL in OPS) and possibly shortstop. A big plus: CC Sabathia looks dominant right now and is certainly capable of pitching on three days’ rest in the postseason, if needed.
6. New: Braves. Previous: Rangers.
The Braves got exactly what they needed in Michael Bourn, a leadoff hitter and center fielder. The Braves had ranked 26th in the majors in leadoff on-base percentage, so Bourn should be a huge positive there. What the Braves didn’t necessarily fix, however, is their feeble attack against left-handed pitching: Their .637 OPS against lefties ranks last in the NL. It still looks like a lineup that will struggle against left-handers, and their wild-card lead over Arizona is only three games, so pay attention to how many lefties they face over these final two months.
7. New: Tigers. Previous: Brewers.
I love what Detroit did, adding Doug Fister and David Pauley to shore up the rotation and add depth to the bullpen. Pauley is a valuable reliever who can pitch more than one inning at a time (he’s pitched more than an inning in 14 of his 39 appearances) and will help bridge the gap to Jose Valverde. Fister is unknown outside of the Pacific Northwest and deep fantasy leagues, but he’s a solid pitcher who will improve the rotation. Add in the return of Carlos Guillen, the addition of Wilson Betemit and the continued awesomeness of Justin Verlander, and this isn’t a team you want to face in a five-game series.
8. New: Cardinals. Previous: Diamondbacks.
Are the Cardinals really that much better than they were a week ago? Edwin Jackson is inconsistent, Rafael Furcal is hitting under .200, Jon Jay may be exposed with regular playing time and Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski are … well, Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepcyznski. Of course, there’s also the chance Jackson will pitch well, Furcal’s glove alone will be an improvement over Ryan Theriot, and Tony La Russa’s brain waves will turn Octavio Dotel into a dominant pitcher again.
9. New: Diamondbacks. Previous: Angels.
Arizona made two minor moves in starter Jason Marquis and ROOGY Brad Ziegler. I’m skeptical about Marquis pitching well in Arizona (he has a 4.44 road ERA this season), but this is a team I just have a feeling will hang in there. Other than San Francisco, the NL West could be easy pickings the rest of the way, allowing Arizona to stay close in the wild-card race (if not the West race). Plus, Justin Upton is red hot right now and rookie first baseman Paul Goldschmidt will be given the chance to improve the team’s production from that position.
10. New: Brewers. Previous: Tigers.
The injury to Rickie Weeks is huge. Francisco Rodriguez is only a minor addition. Casey McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt are still in the lineup. The Brewers are 21-35 on the road. On the other hand, they just won their seventh in a row, John Axford has been nearly lights out as the closer, and Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are still in the lineup.
11. New: Angels. Previous: Cardinals.
The Angels will go as far as Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana can take them, but it will be difficult for Weaver and Haren to pitch as well over the final two months as they have the first four. Even if they do, they still have a starting outfield with OBPs of .246, .317 and .307. It’s near impossible to win with production like that from your outfield.
12. New: Indians. Previous: Rays.
A big win over Boston on Monday begins a crucial set of games for the Indians -- they play the Red Sox, Rangers, Tigers, Twins and Tigers again over their next 18 games. In fact, they have 12 games remaining against Detroit -- 12 games that could decide the division title. As much I think Ubaldo Jimenez will help (3.38 road ERA this year), even if he allowed 1.5 runs less per start than, say, Carlos Carrasco, that’s only about 16-17 runs saved over 11 starts. Not insignificant, but not enough to push Cleveland past Detroit unless the offense starts hitting like it did Monday night.
13. New: Pirates. Previous: Mets.
OK, c’mon, it’s a great story. I hope they stay in the race. But this is still a team that ranks 12th in the NL in batting average, 14th in home runs, 13th in on-base percentage and 14th in slugging percentage. Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick are minor upgrades at best.
14. New: White Sox. Previous: Pirates.