Welcome to Smile Politely’s Power Rankings for baseball, where our resident baseball fans-slash-editors mull over the majors and report back. In February, the three of us — Joel, Seth, and Doug — were talking before one of our weekly editorial meetings about the possibility of authoring this very column you’re now reading. We weren’t convinced that had the brains to back up our opinions, so we decided to partake in a round of Hot Stove League speculation concerning the upcoming season. We came to the conclusion that the best teams in their respective divisions were clearly the Dodgers, Cardinals, Marlins, Blue Jays, Royals, and Mariners. That much was obvious to even those who hadn’t already read thirteen magazine primers on the upcoming season. Collectively, our baseball savvy bulged from the pouch of our cheeks like a golfball-sized wad of chew.
So we dug deeper, speculating that come May 4 Jair Jurrjens, Dallas Braden, Kevin Millwood, Wandy Rodriguez, and Zach Duke would be among the Top 10 in the majors in ERA for starting pitchers. We felt certain that Kevin Youkilis would be hitting near .400 and Brandon Inge would have at least eight home runs and Carl Crawford (pictured right) would be 19-for-19 in steals after swiping six bases in one game. All the way back in February, Joel pegged Jorge Posada for a comeback year. Seth totally called Jason Bartlett as the clear-cut choice to lead all shortstops in hitting. And off the top of his head, Doug cited that the three closers in baseball who would survive April without surrendering a run would be Heath Bell, Ryan Franklin, and Frank Francisco.
Yep, we saw all that coming. So who else are you going to turn to for a monthly dose of major league baseball commentary? Thought so.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (20-8)
Los Angeles is probably the least surprising divisional leader in the majors. They play in the suspect NL West and feature a balanced lineup and plus pitching. Still, they have the best record in baseball and owned a five game divisional lead heading into play Tuesday eve. Praise be to all of the team’s free-agent signings: Manny, O-Dog, Randy Wolf are all performing at or above expectations, and Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Chad Billingsley, and Jonathan Broxton are playing like they want to make their first All-Star team. When the team gets Opening Day starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda back from an oblique strain, look out.
2. Toronto Blue Jays (19-10)
They’re hitting the crap out of the ball so far (5.9 runs per game), but they’re going to have to continue to do so to stay atop the AL East. We know you’ve been on to Scott Richmond (4-0, 2.67 ERA) from the beginning, so we won’t dwell on that. But fess up: you didn’t expect Aaron Hill (pictured right) to hit quite this well (.360/.404/.552), did you?
3. St. Louis Cardinals (17-10)
St. Louis has outscored its opponents by 31 runs this season, which is why they’re off to their best start since the 1940s. Credit the usual suspects — Albert Pujols, Ryan Ludwick, and a collection of solid if unspectacular starting pitchers — and a few unusual ones. The team’s primary utility infielders have combined to slug four homers, drive in 20 runs, and hit better than .300 while filling in for the injured Troy Glaus. Injuries are mounting though: Chris Carpenter, Khalil Greene, Glaus, and Rick Ankiel, whose face came out the loser in a collision with a wall earlier this week.
4. Boston Red Sox (17-10)
If the sound of “Sweet Caroline” means anything to you still, then you’ve probably got reason to sing this season. The BoSox are off to another good start, and it’s no surprise anymore; Beantown expects nothing less than a World Series title each year now that they’ve re-established their winning ways. Having just completed another sweep of their bitter rivals in the New York Yankees, the AL East seems like it could be theirs once the Blue Jays collapse in June. Goateed douchebag Kevin Youklis is on a tear (.393 BA, 1.224 OPS), but was put on the DL this week.
5. Florida Marlins (15-12)
Remember Week 1 of your fantasy league, when everyone was stumbling over themselves to pick up third baseman Emilio Bonifacio (pictured right)? Well, he’s now owns a .641 OPS. That summarizes the Marlins in a nutshell. They’ve lost six of their last ten and in late April dropped seven straight. That Jorge Cantu, though … boy can he hit! Too bad the same can’t be said for super-prospect Cameron Maybin (.208/.282/.325). It’s good to see Kiko Calero — one of the best names in baseball, hands down — back on the rebound.
6. Kansas City Royals (16-11)
It’s not too hard to pinpoint the biggest reason for the Royals’ hot start: Zack Greinke is 6-0 with a 0.40 ERA, and Zack Mania is in full swing. It’s great to see the Royals playing well, because I would contend that they have the best group of writers and bloggers covering them of any team in the big leagues. From Joe Posnanski and Rob Neyer to Rany Jazayerli and Bob Dutton, I’d put that crew up against anybody’s.
7. Seattle Mariners (15-12)
We don’t mean to be a wet blanket, but Russell Branyan (.233 career average, never hit higher than .257 in 12 seasons) probably isn’t going to be hitting .320 when you check back in August. But Seattle’s outfield defense is for real and the top three in their rotation (King Felix, Eric Bedard, and Jarrod Washburn) will stack up against any other trio in the league. Now, if they could avoid trotting out guys named Jakubauskas and Silva two out of every five days, they’d be in business.
8. Philadelphia Phillies (14-10)
Being the reigning World Series Champs isn’t easy. But over the last ten games, the Phillies have certainly returned to form. Part of the reason is Raul Ibanez, who is giving Albert Pujols nightmares about missing out on MVP. The stats thus far: .351 BA, 8 HR, 21 RBI, .417 OBP, .772 SLG. All of a sudden, Ryan Howard looks like a wuss.
9. Detroit Tigers (14-12)
The Tigers are in a lot better shape than they were at this point in 2008 (14-19). Everyone’s hitting except for Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen, and those two don’t figure to stay down long. Twenty-year-old Rick Porcello (1-3, 6.23 ERA) might be in a little over his head in a big league rotation, but Armando Galarraga (3-1, 3.07 ERA; pictured right) is proving that last year was no fluke. They’re no juggernaut, but they could be a factor in the AL Central race simply by treading water.
10. Chicago Cubs (14-12)
Mark DeRosa? Paging Mark DeRosa? Front office henchman Jim Hendry better be praying to the gods of slugging that Milton Bradley somehow finds his groove, or we might be looking at the trade equivalent of one Barry Zito a few years back. With Ramirez on the DL and Zambrano now joining him and Bradley just off it, the Northsiders are hoping their injuries have come and gone by mid-May. A recent surge at the plate keeps us just interested enough, but this team will need to explode soon in order to live up to expectations — and its salary.
11. Texas Rangers (14-12)
The Rangers are easily outpacing the competition in home runs hit; unfortunately, they’ve surrendered a good number, too. The classic can-hit, can’t-pitch Rangers are back, but with a twist. While the majority of the pitching staff sucks (Kevin Millwood will surely revert to his usual disappointing self in time), at least they have a closer who is slamming the door shut: Frank Francisco is eight-for-eight in converting saves and has allowed just eight baserunners in 13 innings.
12. New York Mets (12-13)
Now that the Mets have started to settle into their new home in Queens, it seems that their first winning streak is just around the corner, perhaps coming as early as tomorrow. Johan Santana is working the plate like his salary tells him to and Carlos Beltran is driving the ball well. What remains to be seen is if their pen can get more consistent and hold off late surges by opponents.
13. Minnesota Twins (13-14)
The team’s run-differential sucks (-30), as has their starting pitching (5.08 ERA); but adding Joe Mauer to the lineup makes everything look a lot better. Mauer made his season debut Friday, homering off Sidney Ponson in his first at bat. He’s hitting .467/.500/.800 in his first four games, even with an 0-for-5 Monday night. Oh, and Delmon Young (pictured right) sucks. Really sucks. Please trade him. I’m begging you.
14. Pittsburgh Pirates (12-14)
Pittsburgh: your major-league leader in Team ERA heading into play Tuesday night. Yep. Names like Ohlendorf (pictured right) and Maholm and Grabow strike fear into the hearts of opponents nightly. Offensively, Team LaRoche has a ways to go, although rooting for Nyjer Morgan to live up to his dream of being the next Juan Pierre is a lotta fun.
15. Cincinnati Reds (14-12)
Last year Edinson Volquez pitched like a Cy Young candidate. This year it’s been his fellow baby-faced teammate, Johnny Cueto (1.65 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 7.99 K/9). If Volquez can get his control issues ironed out (21 walks in 28+ innings), you might be looking at the NL Central’s best 1-2 punch atop a rotation. By the way, where can I sign up for the Joey Votto Fan Club?
16. Tampa Bay Rays (12-16)
We couldn’t agree where to stick the Rays. Joel thought they deserved a Top-10 slot while Seth thought they looked better in the 20s. No sense in panicking yet, but things aren’t going as perfectly for the 2009 Rays as they did for the 2008 version. Two unlikely culprits (B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro) are submarining Tampa Bay’s lineup, canceling out the fantastic contributions of Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria. The rotation’s been less than stellar as well, with three of the five starters sporting ERAs north of 5.50.
17. New York Yankees (13-13)
It’s hard, no matter who you are, to say good things about the Yankees unless you are a fan. The Steinbrenners are Baseball’s Blowhards: they spend more on talent than anyone, they tore down the House That Ruth Built to make even more moolah, and they are constantly making their own fans feel terrible about themselves (read: ticket prices). But, they always seem to be in the playoff race no matter the season. After missing last year for the first time since World War II or some shit, it seems likely that with a .500 start, trades are in the cards. Stay tuned for the soap opera of the summer when A-Roid returns shortly.
18. Milwaukee Brewers (15-12)
Yovani Gallardo looks to be ready to make The Leap, going 3-1 with a 3.02 ERA thus far and adding two homers of his own. If J.J. Hardy (.167/.234/.286) ever starts hitting and Mike Cameron (.307/.398/.625) re-ups his deal with the devil, they’ll be in business. The rotation clearly misses C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets, but what rotation wouldn’t?
19. Chicago White Sox (12-14)
Nobody’s going to run away and hide in the AL Central, so the little things can make a difference. That said, we won’t be looking back in October at the addition of Scott Podsednik (pictured right) to Chicago’s center field poo-poo platter as a turning point in the team’s season. The Sox still can’t score runs when they don’t hit homers and any rotation with Bartolo Colon and Jose Contreras at the back end can only carry you so far.
20. Atlanta Braves (11-15)
After a hot 5-1 start, the Atlanta Braves have cooled off as quick as anyone in the league. The batting needs to come around soon, as their best average tops at .308 (Y. Escobar) and their home run leader has smacked a whopping three shots (Francoeur). Bobby Cox is in his 20th year of his second stint in Turner’s dugout, but how long will his successes in the ’90s carry weight over into the next decade?
21. Arizona Diamondbacks (11-16)
All three of us ranked the D-backs at 21st, so they clearly belong here. Thank goodness for Dan Haren, the team’s saving grace and arguably the second-best pitcher in baseball this season (47 Ks to 7 BBs). The fact that he’s lost three games despite posting a 1.47 ERA and 0.74 WHIP is a testament to the pitiful stature of Arizona’s offense (four regulars are hitting at or below the Mendoza Line). Brandon Webb can’t return soon enough.
22. Cleveland Indians (10-17)
Opposing hitters are licking their chops right now when facing Cleveland. Check out this suckfest: Not a single hurler who has tossed ten or more innings this year has a WHIP under 1.50. The influx of Cubs hasn’t helped, either. Kerry Wood is 5-for-6 in saves but has a 7.20 ERA. Mark DeRosa (pictured right) is reaching base 29 percent of the time — not a particularly attractive rate for your No. 2 hitter.
23. Los Angeles Angels (11-13)
This is a better team than the way they are playing. Torii Hunter is hot and will keep that way, and the AL West is nothing to feel too worried about with a whopping four mostly underwhelming teams. The Angels are still my pick for the division and perhaps even the pennant. Just because Bobby Abreu is pushing 40 doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to play: he’s red hot with a .363 average.
24. San Francisco Giants (13-12)
This is a low rank for a team playing .500 ball with the reigning NL Cy Young winner in tow. But when your offense is anchored by Bengie Molina you’ve got to work hard for some respect. San Francisco has hit just 13 home runs this season. Maybe they should hire Bonds as a trainer?
25. Houston Astros (11-15)
Houston has won 11 games despite its best position player (Lance Berkman) hitting under the Mendoza Line. Props go to Wandy Rodriguez, who is at least temporarily spelling Roy Oswalt as the team’s stud pitcher.
26. Colorado Rockies (10-15)
Sitting in the cellar of the NL West is not a good place to be this year. With the Dodgers having all but wrapped up the division with sheet raw talent, the Wildcard is the best the other divisional foes can hope for. The Rockies are hitting to their potential with a +5 run differential despite a four game disparity in wins and losses, but their pitching is weak with a 4.88 ERA and giving up a whopping .277 batting average. Yikes.
27. Oakland A’s (9-15)
Oakland is lucky that its no-name pitching staff is holding things together (3.97 ERA), because its offense has been pretty rough (4.26 runs per game). Matt Holliday isn’t adjusting well to hitting away from the friendly confines of Coors Field (.223 average, just two homers). And guess what? Eric Chavez is hurt. No, I’m serious.
28. San Diego Padres (12-15)
9-3 to start the schedule and I am sure Shamu was doing flips for those first 12 days. Since then, just 2-12. Someone call Tony Gwynn and Steve Garvey. Fast.
29. Baltimore Orioles (10-17)
When your best starter has a 4.42 ERA and your leading home run hitter is so stoned that he can’t open his eyes for the photo, you know you’ve got a few kinks to work out of the chain. Duff at Charm City Cakes might be a good DH solution with the way these guys are playing.
30. Washington Nationals (7-17)
We all agreed on one thing — the Nationals blow hardest. It’s cool, Nats, you already have the first pick in the draft. You’re going to get Stephen Strasburg (fastball = 102+ mph; pictured right), so you can quit tanking now. Kidding aside, the Nats haven’t played as badly as their record indicates. Adam Dunn has been earning his keep in his first year with the club and Ryan Zimmerman has been justifying his big extension, too. Their pitching staff has been mediocre across the board. They won’t contend in the NL East, but it’d be surprising if they lost 100 games again.