Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies

Your Monday Morning Power Rankings

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The All-Star Break is here, and even though the season is more than half over, it’s that time when everyone assesses the so-called first half.  We’ll do the same here today. The rankings represent the current state-of-the-league, but the comments about each team are a bit more first-half all-encompassing.

As always, last week’s rankings are in parenthesis.

1. Phillies (1): They are who we thought they were. The best team in baseball. Not invincible as some predicted, but there are idiots who predict a lot of stuff.

2. Red Sox (3): Same story, though certainly a more tumultuous path to their current ranking. Slow start, pitchers’ injuries. It’s enough to keep them in a tight race. Probably tighter than everyone thought.

3. Yankees (2): It’s been a while since we’ve seen a combination of (a) a damn successful team; and (b) fan-base freaking out like we have with the 2011 Yankees. If you only paid attention to the commentary and not to the scores, you’d think they were .500 or something. Maybe worse.

4. Braves (4): Being 3.5 behind the Phillies is like being the plain Jane next to the homecoming queen. If the plain Jane were standing near anyone else, people would go “saaaay, look at her.”  I’d offer up the old Jan Smithers/Loni Anderson/WKRP analogy here, but every time I do that, I get about 10 pro-Smithers comments to every one pro-Loni comment. Which I get on some level — I’m a Bailey man myself — but it has made plain Jane/bombshell comparisons very, very tricky.

5. Rangers (11): Their place in the standings is about what we all expected. The number of games they are ahead of the second place team: not so much. Like a few teams, they look fabulous one week (like last week) and kind of blah the next. Hard to get a read, but you get the sense they’ll pull away eventually.

6. Giants (6): Winning close games, doing it without much offense. Yep, these are the Giants we’ve come to know and, well, know.

7. Angels (12): I thought they’d crater. I think a lot of people did. The only person I know who didn’t was my HBT Daily amiga Tiffany Simons, who predicted they’d win the AL West and bet me a nice meal in New York on the matter. The fact that they’re keeping it close has me worried. Then again, the fact that if I “lose” this bet, I take Tiffany out to dinner someplace in New York means that there really would be no losers here. Well, Tiffany maybe, but I don’t care.

8. Rays (5): Kind of what I figured. A little better than what I figured, but a solid third place with occasional friskiness seemed right. Losing Carl Crawford and all of that bullpen talent wasn’t nearly as big as some folks made it out to be given the young pitching. Of course, if you would have told me that they’d lose Evan Longoria for a while and that, when he came back, he’d be not-so-good, I would have guessed that they’d be behind Toronto at the moment.

9. Cardinals (8): Kind of the same thing here: a fair pick — not my pick, which I totally whiffed on (see Cubs below) — but a fair pick by anyone to be up at the top of the division. But not if you said that Pujols would struggle early and then break a bone in his friggin’ arm. Yet he did and he did and here they still are.

10. Diamondbacks (10): Anyone who says they thought the Dbacks would be here is lying. Show me the article with the time stamp verified by MLB authenticators and I’ll believe it, but this is not what anyone was expecting.

11. Brewers (9): Pre-season conventional wisdom was that the Greinke and Marcum moves could help fix the bad pitching and if that happened, watch out babies, because Milwaukee would be in it. Greinke has been the Brewers’ worst starter, but look out babies, Milwaukee is in it.

12. Pirates (14): Another shocker. I think people had generally positive thoughts about the direction of the team, but they were positive in the “OK, the sheer horror is probably over, so now we only have some run-of-the-mill misery ahead.” In contrast, this has been delightful.

13. Tigers (13)/Indians (7): The AL Central: everything you wanted in a division. And less.  Look, the Indians’ little run has been nice, but the fact that it has lasted this long without anyone else asserting themselves says less about the strength of the Tribe and more about the weakness of the division.

15. Mets (16): It was so easy back in February and March to feel like doom surrounded these guys, but so much of that was Wilpon/Madoff-related and relatively little of it was about the actual team. To me they felt like a .500 team. Maybe a skosh better if things broke right. Well, things have broke right. Or at least pretty darn well. I think folks should be pretty pleased about what has gone down, even if the future is uncertain.

16. Nationals (20): Another team that tells us how damn foolish we are to try to predict baseball. Did we expect this? Nah. Did anyone see Jim Riggleman quitting? Nah. Davey Johnson at the helm? Nah.

17. Blue Jays (18): In contrast, some things are kind of predictable: the Jays scoring well and hitting lots of homers yet being on the outside looking in in a tough division. Joey Bats is nice though.

18. Reds (15): Last year you got the sense that they caught every break. This year they have the best run-differential in the division yet they’re in fourth place. The worms turn, ya know?

19. Marlins (24): If, over the past 18 years, you said “the Marlins are gonna be a lot tougher than they seem on paper and than their payroll suggests, you’d be right most of the time. This is one of the few years you’d be wrong. Hanley Ramirez not showing up for most of the first half hasn’t helped. Nor has Josh Johnson’s injury.  This was not the team you’d guess would be most notable for hiring the second oldest manager of all time in the middle of the season. I’d guess that Kansas City or someone might, but not the Marlins.

20. White Sox (19): Adam Dunn: .160/.292/.305?  Hell, I would have guessed 10 games out of first, not just five. Either way, disappointing.

21. Rockies (17): Speaking of disappointing. Lots of smart folks figured they’d do better.

22. Twins (27): You could say disappointing here too. Or you could say: “Mauer and Morneau would have OPSs of .592 and .619, respectively, and they’d still only be 6.5 out?”  Eh, always look on the bright side of life.

23. Mariners (21): Down and up and down again, I still think you have to look on the season as successful so far, even with the current downward trajectory.  They learned that they can win with pitching and a couple of young bats at times. Even if more young bats to go along with Smoak and Ackley would be really, really useful.

24. Dodgers (26): Just dreadful. And unlike the Mets, they really can’t leave the business stuff to the side and just play because the empty seats and the much more high-profile nature of the business stuff makes it impossible to ignore.  Some nice pitching, give ’em that.

25. Athletics (22): Pretty dreadful here too. The idea was great: “OK, our pitching is awesome and our hitting sucks, so let’s try to fix the offense.”  The execution, though: not so good. They’re scoring fewer runs this year than last.

26. Padres (23): We now have scientific proof that, if you take away the lone elite bat from the lineup of a team that is always going to struggle to score runs, the prospects for success are somewhat diminished.

27. Royals (29): Early excitement notwithstanding, this is how it was supposed to be: awful pitching, some pop on offense, but mostly just vamping until the kids can mature.

28. Cubs (28): My pick of the Cubs to win the Central was not one of those deals where I would have been willing to bet the mortgage. I was feeling optimistic about a bunch of talented and overpaid people putting it together in such a way where the talent would show itself one final time. Bounce back seasons for Pena, Soriano and Ramirez. A good back end of the pen with Wood and Marmol. A pretty decent rotation, at least on paper.  Yeah, it would have taken some luck for it all to break right, but this struck me as a good break-right kind of club. And one, I must admit, that had I guessed right on, would have allowed me to look pretty damn clever come October.  Ah, well, you win some and you lose some. I mostly lose some when I try to make clever predictions.

29. Orioles (25): Amazingly, this wasn’t the .596 team Buck Showalter had after he took over last year.  I figured they would improve and, again, if everything broke right, challenge for 75-80 wins.  Not happening, though.

30. Astros (30): I got my Cubs, Steve Berthiaume has his Astros. Everyone has a pick like this from time to time. But really, that Astros pick was just nutso.

Wade Davis? Greg Holland? Who needs ’em?

KANSAS CITY, MO - AUGUST 21: Joakim Soria #48 of the Kansas City Royals throws in the eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium on August 21, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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The story of the two-time defending AL champion and current defending World Series champ Kansas City Royals cannot be told without talking at length about their bullpen.

In 2014, Wade Davis, Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera formed a shutdown brigade that not only made it next to impossible for the opposition to mount late rallies, but managed something which seemed utterly impossible before 2014: they turned Ned Yost into a tactical genius. Indeed, the only time Yost got criticism at all that fall was when he messed with the autopilot formula that had that three-headed monster handling the 7th, 8th and 9th innings.

Much the same happened in 2015, of course, despite Holland’s sharp decline and eventual injury. Davis and Herrera continued their dominance. They were joined by Ryan Madson and a cast of other effective relievers who, along with timely hitting, great defense and good health, helped propel the Royals to the title.

This year had not been quite the same story. Holland has been out all year and Davis, while effective when he’s pitched, has missed time due to injury. As has longtime contributor and presumptive next-man-up Luke Hochevar. Herrera is basically still Herrera, but Ned Yost has been presented with a decidedly different set of choices. Lots of choices and Ned Yost don’t always go together well, but lately that hasn’t mattered.

Last night the Royals’ bullpen came in to a close game and tossed three scoreless innings. That set a franchise record with 32 straight scoreless frames, besting the previous record set back in the club’s inaugural season in 1969. The streak is a huge part of why the Royals have won nine games in a row.

Unlike the success of 2014-15, the streak is not a three-man show. As Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star notes, eight different relievers have appeared for Kansas City during the streak, with Joakim Soria and Matt Strahm leading the crew with five and a third innings pitched. Herrera has tossed five scoreless. Otherwise it’s been a group effort with even Peter Moylan offering a couple of scoreless frames. And here you thought Moylan was, I dunno, gearing up for the upcoming Brisbane Bandits season. Nope.

The Royals are still not, in my view anyway, a lock to make the postseason. It’s a a crowded field right now. They’re seven and a half back in the AL Central and four back in the Wild Card with a bunch of teams in front of them. But they’re certainly playing themselves back into the conversation. They’re interesting. And they’re doing it in much the same way they’ve done it the past two years. Only with different dudes doing the do.

Video: Mookie Betts made a ridiculous throw last night

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 10.16.51 AM
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Mookie Betts was an infielder once upon a time and the knock on him both then and since his move to the outfield was that maybe his arm was not fantastic. As an infielder there was talk that he was better suited to the right side than the left. As an outfielder people were saying that, with work, his arm could be average and/or serviceable. Not bad, of course, but not anything to write home about.

Maybe we need to reassess that, because last night he uncorked one from right field that would make Dwight Evans says “dang, man.”

 

And the throw mattered, as Kiermaier represented the tying run in a game that, at the time, the Sox were leading 2-1.

Betts is a dangerous middle-of-the-order bat at age 23. And now he shows that he’ll nail a fast runner with a frozen rope if he has to. The guy is going to win an MVP award some day. And maybe not just one.