MLB Power Rankings 2012: Early Contenders That Must Not Be Underestimated

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 24, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 23:  Matt Kemp #27 of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Andre Ethier #16 celebrate after scoring on a two-run single by Juan Uribe #5 during the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Dodger Stadium on April 23, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

You know what April baseball means?

Not a whole heck of a lot. As we so often say, baseball season is not a sprint. It's a marathon. And every good marathoner will vouch that a strong finish is exponentially more important than a strong start.

So five or so months from now, a good percentage of this April's hot starters are going to be long gone from the playoff picture. Only a couple are going to stick around.

I'd like to point out the hot starters that actually have a shot at maintaining their early success. I'll touch on each of them as I move through my weekly MLB Power Rankings.

Josh Hamilton has an AL-high 1.217 OPS.
Josh Hamilton has an AL-high 1.217 OPS.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

1. Texas Rangers (13-4, Previous No. 1)

Do I really need to warn anybody not to underestimate the Rangers?

I do? OK, fine. Don't underestimate the Rangers.

Texas is a ridiculously strong team, which you can see reflected in its league-leading +49 run differential. This early in the season, that's just insane.

2. Detroit Tigers (10-6, Previous No. 2)

The Tigers didn't look so hot against the Rangers in their four most recent games, but I for one am not concerned in the slightest. The Tigers are a great team, and they'll be even better once their team batting average rises from .246 and their team slugging percentage rises from .389.

3. Washington Nationals (12-4, Previous No. 4)

Gio Gonzalez hasn't allowed an earned run in either of his last two starts.
Gio Gonzalez hasn't allowed an earned run in either of his last two starts.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Nationals are in first place in the NL East, which, on paper, is one of the deepest divisions in Major League Baseball.

There's no way this is going to last, right?

Actually, I think it will. I picked the Nats to win the East this season, and the main reason I did so was because of their pitching. Even I didn't think the Nats' pitching would be as good as it has been, though, as the Nats lead baseball with a 2.34 team ERA. Their rotation ERA is 1.82.

That obviously cannot be maintained, but nobody should be surprised if Washington's rotation ERA stays among the league leaders this season. If that happens, the Nats will stay in contention.

4. New York Yankees (10-6, Previous No. 7)

The Yankees are walking proof that a good bullpen can do wonders for your chances. Their rotation ERA is an ugly 5.72, but their bullpen ERA is 2.10. That ties them with the San Diego Padres for the best bullpen ERA in the business.

Are you watching this, Red Sox?

5. St. Louis Cardinals (11-6, Previous No. 3)

Carlos Beltran has five more home runs than Albert Pujols.
Carlos Beltran has five more home runs than Albert Pujols.Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The Cardinals have cooled off some in recent days, but they still look like the best team in the NL Central. 

Anticipating a decline? Don't. These Cardinals are legit.

The Cardinals are going to succeed primarily on the strength of their offense. They were one of the top offensive teams in the league last year, and they haven't skipped a beat this year despite the absence of Albert Pujols. This is because their lineup is actually deeper this year than it was last year, which is impressive.

Pitching-wise, the Cardinals have benefited from some hot starts; there's no doubt about that. But just wait until Adam Wainwright comes around and Chris Carpenter returns from injury. 

6. Los Angeles Dodgers (13-4, Previous No. 5)

Matt Kemp's 1.466 OPS will punch you in the face.
Matt Kemp's 1.466 OPS will punch you in the face.Harry How/Getty Images

The Dodgers are a great story. Unfortunately for them, they seem to be a great story that everyone is anxious to see go away.

I'll say this about the Dodgers: Nobody should be shocked at what Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are doing this season. Kemp showed last season how good he could be, and Ethier was a very productive hitter when he was healthy in 2009 and 2010.

Will LA's pitching hold up? Well, I have great faith in Clayton Kershaw to keep producing. The question is if Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly can keep it up. I think Lilly will be fine, but Billingsley must regain the control he showed in his first three starts. If he can't do that, this rotation won't look so good.

Regardless, I do like LA's chances to at least stick around in the race. It finished last season hot, so this hot start isn't such a huge fluke.

7. Atlanta Braves (10-7, Previous No. 12)

The Braves have been on fire since starting the season with four straight losses. The scary part is that their pitching hasn't really come around yet, and it's going to. They were in the race last year, and they'll be in the race this year.

8. Tampa Bay Rays (9-7, Previous No. 9)

The Rays are not unlike the Braves. Their offense has been surprisingly productive, but their pitching has struggled to round into form. Their rotation can do better than a 3.75 ERA, and their bullpen is not going to struggle as badly as it's struggled so far. The return of Kyle Farnsworth will help a lot.

9. Toronto Blue Jays (10-6, Previous No. 20)

Jose Bautista (R) can do a lot better than a .393 slugging percentage.
Jose Bautista (R) can do a lot better than a .393 slugging percentage.Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

Fear the Blue Jays, my friends.

The Jays have some great arms in their rotation, and they're going to be dangerous as long as Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek pitch effectively. The two of them have tremendous stuff, but I wouldn't call either of them reliable. Time will tell.

What's really scary about the Jays is that they're fifth in the league in runs scored, and Jose Bautista hasn't even heated up yet. The Jays are always on the periphery of contention, but they'll actually be able to contend this year if their pitching holds up and Bautista rounds back into his MVP form.

10. San Francisco Giants (9-7, Previous No. 15)

Matt Cain has been worth every penny.
Matt Cain has been worth every penny.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Giants have two legit aces in Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, and Tim Lincecum made big strides in his fourth start. Just as important, Ryan Vogelsong has picked up where he left off last season, and Barry Zito hasn't been a liability (yet).

Also, the Giants are off to a strong start offensively. The biggest concern they have right now is the loss of Brian Wilson, but their bullpen is deep and talented enough to compensate for his absence. 

The Giants are a serious threat in the NL West.

11. Arizona Diamondbacks (9-8, Previous No. 6)

The D-Backs have been up and down since their season-opening sweep of the Giants. What worries me is that their pitching hasn't really gotten on track yet, and their bullpen has fallen back to earth after a strong start. The D-Backs are going to have to pitch better in what appears to be a very crowded NL West.

12. Chicago White Sox (10-6, Previous No. 16)

Mr. Perfect.
Mr. Perfect.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Chicago's offense has been just about as mediocre as many of us expected it would be. What's catching us by surprise is how good its pitching has been.

I'm not sold yet. The White Sox have shown any glaring signs of being a fluke team, but they're definitely overachieving in the early goings, and they've sent some mixed messages in their last eight games. 

I'm not ready to buy them, but I'm not ready to sell them either. For now, I'm merely willing to pay attention.

13. Cleveland Indians (8-6, Previous No. 22)

The Indians have won seven of nine, but their recent success has come against the likes of Kansas City, Seattle and Oakland.

Plus, the Indians are succeeding despite mediocre offense and mediocre pitching. I'm not going to be surprised if I have to move them back down by rankings pretty soon.

14. Philadelphia Phillies (7-10, Previous No. 8)

The Phillies are in trouble. Their pitching has been great, but now, Cliff Lee is on the disabled list. Worse, their offense has been even worse than many of us expected it to be, and now, Hunter Pence is dealing with a bum shoulder (see Philadelphia Inquirer).

Not good.

We're waiting...
We're waiting...Harry How/Getty Images

15. Los Angeles Angels (6-10, Previous No. 10)

The Angels will be better. Their starting pitching is capable of doing better than a 4.10 ERA, and Albert Pujols is not going to go homerless all season. Angels fans should be patient.

16. Miami Marlins (7-8, Previous No. 14)

I have no idea why the Marlins have been so inept offensively early on this season. What I do know is that it's not going to last. Once the Marlins start hitting, they're going to be a very dangerous team.

17. Baltimore Orioles (9-7, Previous No. 19)

I'll give the O's credit for winning three out of four at the White Sox, but I'm still not willing to buy the notion that this team's pitching is as good as it's been. The Orioles are one of this April's biggest overachievers.

18. Colorado Rockies (8-7, Previous No. 24)

The Rockies won four out of five very quietly last week, which included taking two out of three on the road against the Brewers. Good stuff, but the Rockies won't stay hot for long with a rotation ERA over 5.00.

19. Milwaukee Brewers (8-9, Previous No. 17)

Milwaukee's starting rotation hasn't gotten on track yet. Once the the Brewers' rotation ERA starts to plummet from 4.93, it'll be fine. The Brewers will have to settle for being a mediocre offensive team, but that won't matter once their pitching shows up.

20. New York Mets (8-8, Previous No. 11)

The Mets have lost five or six, and neither their offensive numbers nor their pitching numbers look particularly impressive anymore. All is right with the world.

START THIS MAN.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

21. Cincinnati Reds (7-9, Previous No. 18)

The Reds are still struggling offensively, which is a huge disappointment. Pitching-wise, Mat Latos has been a huge disappointment, and the back end of their rotation has been awful. Now's the time to insert Aroldis Chapman.

22. Oakland Athletics (8-10, Previous No. 27)

I wish Bartolo Colon would start every night for the A's, as his pitching has proven to be one of the season's most pleasant surprises. It's too bad the A's are a joke offensively.

23. Boston Red Sox (5-10, Previous No. 13)

The Red Sox snapped their five-game losing streak in Minnesota on Monday, but there are still reasons to be concerned. Jon Lester has struggled to put hitters away in his last two starts, and Boston's bullpen benefited from much-needed good luck on Monday night. The Red Sox won't be able to breathe easy until luck has nothing to do with the bullpen's success.

24. Pittsburgh Pirates (6-9, Previous No. 28)

The Pirates are dead-last in baseball in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. They've played well recently, but the ceiling for this Pirates team is very low.

25. Seattle Mariners (7-10, Previous No. 21)

The Mariners are just fine when they're playing the A's. Against everyone else, they're getting owned and having perfect games thrown against them.

How is Jason Marquis still in the major leagues?
How is Jason Marquis still in the major leagues?Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

26. Minnesota Twins (5-12, Previous No. 25)

The Twins looked to be on the way up after splitting at Yankee Stadium last week, but three straight losses have put them back in their place. There's not much they can do with MLB's worst rotation ERA.

27. Houston Astros (6-11, Previous No. 23)

The Astros have lost 10 of 13 after starting the season 3-1. They look a lot like the team we expected them to be, though you have to give their offense props for being better than advertised.

28. San Diego Padres (5-12, Previous No. 30)

The Padres have won two in a row thanks to great pitching performances from Cory Luebke and Anthony Bass. But then again, they got those performances against the Phillies. So yeah.

29. Chicago Cubs (5-12, Previous No. 26)

The Cubs have won two of three, but they're still awful. Pretty sure I don't need to justify that claim.

30. Kansas City Royals (3-13, Previous No. 29)

The Royals have lost 11 games in a row, the last 10 of which have come at home. Yikes.

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