MLB Power Rankings: Surprise Braves and Brewers Continue to Climb

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMay 21, 2018

ATLANTA, GA. - MAY 19: Dansby Swanson #7, Ozzie Albies #1, Ronald Acuna, Jr. #13, Johan Camargo #17, and Ender Inciarte #11 of the Atlanta Braves celebra after the game against the Miami Marlins at SunTrust Field on May 19, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

While the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros continue to battle for the No. 1 spot in our weekly MLB power rankings, the National League side of things remains in flux.

The Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewerstwo teams that have not made the playoffs since 2013 and 2011, respectively—now own the top spots among NL teams heading into the week. Who would have guessed?

Further down the rankings, a pair of small-market teams in the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays are showing some serious signs of life. They still have work to do offsetting slow starts, but they're climbing.

At any rate, this remains a fluid process, as teams rise and fall based on where they were ranked the previous week. If a team keeps winning, it will keep climbing—it's as simple as that.

Here's an updated look at where all 30 teams stand heading into this week's action.

 Updated Rankings 
1img New York Yankees (30-13)img
2img Boston Red Sox (32-15)img
3img Houston Astros (30-18)img
4img Atlanta Braves (28-17)img1
5img Milwaukee Brewers (28-19)img7
6img Los Angeles Angels (26-21)img2
7img Chicago Cubs (25-19)img1
8img Pittsburgh Pirates (26-20)img1
9img Seattle Mariners (27-19)img5
10img Philadelphia Phillies (26-18)img3
11img St. Louis Cardinals (25-19)img
12img Washington Nationals (24-21)
img4
13img Arizona D-backs (25-21)
img4
14img Oakland Athletics (25-22)img6
15img New York Mets (23-19)img
16img Cleveland Indians (22-23)
img6
17img Colorado Rockies (25-22)img
18img San Francisco Giants (24-24)img1
19img Tampa Bay Rays (22-23)img6
20img Toronto Blue Jays (22-25)img4
21img Minnesota Twins (19-23)img3
22img Los Angeles Dodgers (20-26)img1
23img San Diego Padres (20-28)img3
24img Detroit Tigers (20-26)img3
25img Miami Marlins (17-29)img3
26img Cincinnati Reds (16-32)img5
27img Baltimore Orioles (14-32)img5
28img Chicago White Sox (13-30)img2
29img Texas Rangers (18-30)img5
30img Kansas City Royals (14-32)img1

              

Teams That Impressed

The Milwaukee Brewers made the right decision with Jesus Aguilar, who was on the roster bubble this spring.
The Milwaukee Brewers made the right decision with Jesus Aguilar, who was on the roster bubble this spring.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The Atlanta Braves looked ready to take a step forward in the rebuilding process this season, but even the most optimistic fan has to be pleasantly surprised with how they've played so far this season.

With a 28-17 record, they hold a 1.5-game lead in the NL East standings, and their plus-65 run differential is second in the NL and fifth in the majors.

Veterans Nick Markakis (.931 OPS, 11 2B, 7 HR, 32 RBI) and Freddie Freeman (.999 OPS, 12 2B, 9 HR, 35 RBI) have joined burgeoning star Ozzie Albies (.903 OPS, 15 2B, 13 HR, 33 RBI) to lead an offense that is tops in the NL at 5.4 runs per game.

The young duo of Sean Newcomb (5-1, 2.39 ERA, 1.14 WHIP) and Mike Foltynewicz (3-2, 2.87 ERA, 1.34 WHIP) has paced the rotation, while the bullpen has posted a rock-solid 3.49 ERA. In other words, all the pieces are in place for this team to continue as a contender in 2018.

The Milwaukee Brewers, meanwhile, climbed seven spots this week and leapfrogged fellow NL Central teams in the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Brew Crew picked up series wins over the Arizona Diamondbacks and Minnesota Twins last week and have now won or split eight of their last 10 series.

Jesus Aguilar (1.003 OPS, 7 2B, 7 HR, 20 RBI), Junior Guerra (3-3, 2.98 ERA, 1.23 WHIP) and Josh Hader (16 G, 6/7 SV, 1.32 ERA, 18.4 K/9) have been unlikely standouts for a team that hung around the wild-card picture longer than expected a year ago.

The Seattle Mariners finished out the week by taking three of four from the Detroit Tigers, and they're now 17-11 in the month of May. Losing Robinson Cano to an 80-game PED suspension will make him ineligible for postseason play once he returns—something to keep in mind as the club pushes for its first playoff appearance since 2001.

Further down the rankings, the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays are also making some noise.

The A's went 6-1 last week with series wins over the Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, pulling their record over .500 in the process. Meanwhile, the Rays had a six-game winning streak snapped Sunday, during which time they too managed to return to the .500 mark.

Those two teams might not be legitimate postseason contenders, but don't be surprised if they continue to push for a winning record.

              

Teams That Disappointed

Can phenom Juan Soto provide a spark for the Nationals?
Can phenom Juan Soto provide a spark for the Nationals?Nick Wass/Associated Press

After finally climbing back into the top 10 last week, the Washington Nationals tumble down several spots after suffering a sweep at the hands of a Los Angeles Dodgers team that has been struggling mightily.

The Nationals have been hit hard by the injury bug, leading to the call-up of top prospect Juan Soto over the weekend. The 19-year-old had not played above the Single-A level entering the season but was off to a scorching start, hitting .362/.462/.757 with 10 doubles, 14 home runs and 52 RBI in 39 games over three minor league levels.

The biggest slide this week came from the Cleveland Indians, who dropped six spots and out of the top half of teams. The Indians had received the benefit of the doubt up to this point. They had never strung together enough losses to warrant a huge fall but were certainly not playing up to expectations.

Series losses to the Tigers and Astros last week proved to be the final straw. They've gone just 7-11 in the month of May and are now under .500 on the year.

There's still a wealth of talent on this roster, and even with a losing record, they sit atop the AL Central standings. But for now, they'll need to prove they once again belong among the league's top teams.

The Toronto Blue Jays briefly counted themselves among the league's top 10 teams earlier this season, but after a four-game sweep versus the A's, they're now three games under .500 and 4-11 with a minus-30 run differential in their last 15 games.

After climbing several spots with strong performances two weeks ago, the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles both tumbled with a combined 3-9 record last week.

A 2-4 record last week, including a 1-3 showing against the Chicago White Sox, was enough to drop the Texas Rangers to their lowest spot in these rankings in years, as they fall to No. 29.

At 12 games under .500, all signs point to them as sellers this summer. That could mean Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, Bartolo Colon, Jake Diekman and others hit the trade block in the not-too-distant future.

                 

MVPs of the Week

Hitter: Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants

Stats: 12-for-27, 2 2B, 5 HR, 11 RBI, 8 R

For the second time this season, Brandon Belt strung together a stretch of four consecutive games with a home run. The Giants offense has been inconsistent at best while averaging 4.2 runs per game, but Belt has been a clear bright spot.

All told, the 30-year-old is hitting .313/.413/.594 with 10 doubles, 11 home runs and 29 RBI in 44 games on the year.

While he's been a 3-plus WAR player on multiple occasions, Belt has never hit more than 18 home runs in a season, so he's well on his way to setting a new career high.

He appears to be the latest player to enjoy a power surge thanks to an increased emphasis on launch angle. His flyball (46.9 to 49.5 percent) and line drive (23.4 to 29.4 percent) rates are both up, while his groundball rate (29.7 to 21.1 percent) is way down.

        

Pitcher: Justin Verlander, Houston Astros

Stats: W, 9.0 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K

Facing a potent Los Angeles Angels lineup Wednesday night, Justin Verlander twirled a shutout for the first time this season and the eighth time in his storied career.

It took him 118 pitches to complete, and that ability to go deep into games is something the 35-year-old prides himself on at this stage in his career.

"As this game changes, I'm more and more of a throwback, and I want to be," Verlander told reporters. "I want to be the guy who can go out there and throw 120 pitches, and that's something I talked to skipper about when I first got here. ... I think it's an asset for me to be able to go out there and throw 120 and sometimes take the strain off the bullpen guys."

With the shutout, Verlander lowered his ERA to an MLB-best 1.05 on the season.

He also tallied the 2,500th strikeout of his career, punching out Shohei Ohtani for the first out of the ninth inning.

                

Video Highlights of the Week

Longest Home Run: Lewis Brinson, Miami Marlins (450 feet)

The future is bright for Lewis Brinson.

Acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers during the offseason as part of the Christian Yelich trade, Brinson is a legitimate five-tool talent for a team in the early stages of rebuilding.

However, he's hitting just .168/.213/.297 with a 32.1 percent strikeout rate on the year.

The Marlins will give him every chance to live up to his lofty ceiling, and blasts like this one he hit against Julio Teheran are a good example of the enticing raw power he possesses.

Teheran went up and in on him with a fastball, and Brinson showed the fast hands and bat control not only to keep the ball fair but to absolutely launch it down the left-field line.

         

Best Defensive Play: Josh Reddick, Houston Astros

If you've ever wondered what an "80-grade arm" looks like, take a look at Josh Reddick.

Mike Trout and Ian Kinsler, two relatively fast guys, never had a chance.

The 31-year-old threw them both out in the same game last week, giving him six outfield assists on the season to tie for the MLB lead.

He racked up a career-high 15 outfield assists back in 2012 when he won a Gold Glove, and he's well on his way to surpassing that total if he continues at his current pace.

Throw in his other strong defensive metrics (6 DRS, 19.2 UZR/150), and he should be firmly in the running for another Gold Glove, though he'll need to unseat Mookie Betts to claim the honor.

         

Must-See Upcoming Matchup

Los Angeles Angels vs. New York Yankees (Friday-Sunday)

Masahiro Tanaka and Shohei Ohtani
Masahiro Tanaka and Shohei OhtaniVictor Decolongon/Getty Images

Two of the top teams in our rankings will meet next week when the New York Yankees welcome the Los Angeles Angels to Yankee Stadium.

The series as a whole will be fun to watch with some of the game's most exciting talent on display.

Mike Trout and Aaron Judge lead the respective offenses, while ace Luis Severino (7-1, 2.35 ERA, 0.97 WHIP) will take the ball for the Yankees in the series opener opposite Andrew Heaney.

What could really make this series memorable is if the Angels decide to throw Shohei Ohtani in Sunday's game. That would line him up to start opposite fellow countryman Masahiro Tanaka.

Ohtani would be in line to start Saturday if the Angels followed a five-man rotation, but they've often gone with six starters this season. It wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see them push Ohtani back a day to set up the Sunday showdown.

The two pitchers only shared the Japanese League for one year in 2013, with Ohtani going 0-for-11 with six strikeouts while facing Tanaka as a hitter, according to Bryan Hoch of MLB.com.

Might the Angels consider forgoing the DH in favor of letting Ohtani swing the bat against his fellow countryman?

"We have considered it," Angels manager Mike Scioscia told reporters. "It would take an extreme, you know, something you might consider in September, if it was something that was really critical and you needed his bat in the lineup."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement that it's going to happen but also not a resounding no. Either way, those two head-to-head would be as exciting as any matchup we've seen so far this year.

       

All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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