The 2019 season is now three weeks old, and already we're starting to see a divide between teams playing well and looking like early contenders and teams struggling out of the gate and looking for answers.
It's important to remember in the early going that a team's potential and overall outlook will still carry significantly more weight than anything it has shown over a handful of games. With that in mind, teams were restricted from moving more than five spots in either direction for this update.
Remember, this is a fluid process. Teams will 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 are the rankings:
Teams That Impressed
They lead the majors in team ERA (2.44) and starters' ERA (1.47), and the bullpen is anchored by the filthy duo of Diego Castillo (8 G, 9.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 9 K) and Jose Alvarado (8 G, 7.1 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 13 K).
With a sweep of the Chicago White Sox and a weekend series win over the Toronto Blue Jays, they now have the best record in baseball (12-4) and the best run differential (plus-38).
This team looks like the real deal, folks.
The Houston Astros join them atop the rankings after a 6-0 week that included sweeps of the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners.
Since stumbling to a 2-5 start, the Astros have won nine in a row, and they once again look like a force to be reckoned with in the AL West.
The pitching staff ranks fifth in the majors with a 3.17 ERA, while the offense leads the AL with a .280 batting average and is led by a red-hot Jose Altuve—more on him in a bit.
The St. Louis Cardinals move into the top five after pulling off a four-game sweep of last week's No. 1 team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. They're still chasing the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, and that's already shaping up to be quite the battle.
As we continue to adhere to the self-imposed rule of only moving teams five spots in either direction each week in an effort to avoid overreaction to a small sample size, the Seattle Mariners once again move up the maximum number of spots.
For a team that ranked No. 22 in the final preseason rankings, the M's have come a long way in a relatively short time. It's looking more and more like they could be a factor in the AL wild-card race.
Likewise, the San Diego Padres are now all the way up to No. 11 after picking up series wins against the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks last week. They started the season in the No. 17 spot. A starting rotation that was expected to be a major weakness has been a big reason for their early success, as they rank fifth in the majors with a 3.31 starters' ERA.
Further down the rankings, taking three of four from a free-falling Colorado Rockies team was enough for the San Francisco Giants to climb four spots.
With a middling offense, the Giants will go as far as their pitching and defense takes them this year. So far, so good in both areas. They rank third in the majors with a 2.75 ERA, and defensively, they lead all of baseball by a wide margin with 26 DRS.
Teams That Disappointed
After an 8-2 start to the season, the Los Angeles Dodgers had a rough go of it against the NL Central last week. The Cardinals swept a four-game series, and then the Brewers took two of three over the weekend.
The return of Clayton Kershaw on Monday could provide a spark, and they'll need to get back on track quickly if they hope to avenge the series loss to Milwaukee, since the two will meet again this coming weekend.
The Dodgers are not the only projected contender struggling.
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are both off to disappointing starts as well.
The Yankees went 1-5 last week, while the Red Sox have struggled to a 5.80 ERA and have now fallen the maximum five spots each of the past two weeks after opening the season in the No. 1 spot.
The Chicago Cubs continue to look more like a middle-of-the-road team than a title contender, and with the Brewers and Cardinals both playing well, they can't afford to fall too far behind in the NL Central race. While last week's series win over the Pittsburgh Pirates could be a jumping-off point, they're still sliding from their rough start after dropping five spots last week, too.
It's not quite time to push the panic button for any of these teams yet.
However, it might be for the Colorado Rockies.
Since winning back-to-back games against the Miami Marlins to start the season, the Rockies have gone 2-12 with a minus-40 run differential.
Surprisingly, the offense has been the issue. They've been shut out three times during that span and held to fewer than three runs a whopping nine times.
The Padres and Phillies await this week as they look to stop the tumble.
Players of the Week
AL Hitter: Jose Altuve, Houston Astros
Stats: 10-for-25, 6 HR, 10 RBI, 8 R
Nothing like a six-homer week in April to send you skyrocketing up the home run leaderboard.
With six long balls over a five-game stretch last week, Jose Altuve is now tied for second in the AL with seven on the season, trailing only Oakland Athletics slugger Khris Davis, who has 10.
After hitting 24 home runs in back-to-back seasons in 2016 and 2017, the Astros second baseman saw his home run total dip to 13 in 2018, albeit with his always excellent batting average (.316) still present during a 5.2-WAR season. That netted him a 13th-place finish in AL MVP voting.
Despite his past production, Altuve was as surprised as anyone when he became the first player of the 2019 season to homer in five straight games.
"I'm not the power hitter that we're all seeing right now, but I'll take it," Altuve told reporters on Saturday. "If I can keep hitting homers for my team, I'll be happy."
Altuve will look to do his part to extend the Astros' winning streak to double digits when they resume play in Oakland on Tuesday.
Tip of the cap to Austin Meadows, who went 12-for-22 with two doubles and four home runs last week.
AL Pitcher: Blake Snell, Tampa Bay Rays
Stats: 2 GS, W, ND, 12.0 IP, 7 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 20 K
Since getting touched up for six hits and five earned runs in six innings of work on Opening Day, reigning AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell has once again looked like an elite pitcher.
He's allowed just nine hits and one earned run in 19 innings over his last three starts, walking two and striking out 33 while holding opposing hitters to a .143/.169/.206 line.
Two of those starts came last week. He allowed six hits and one earned run with 11 strikeouts in six innings in a win against the White Sox on Monday. He then settled for a no-decision Saturday when he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and allowed just one hit with nine strikeouts before he was yanked after six innings and 82 pitches.
"We want to win the marathon not the sprint," Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder told reporters. "As important as pitching and the health of a staff is in 2019, I'm always going to err on the side of being conservative with our guys. That was the case last year, and I'm not going to change this year."
With Snell (2.16 ERA) guiding the Rays pitching staff to the best ERA in baseball, it's hard to argue with the results.
NL Hitter: Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta Braves
Stats: 12-for-22, 2B, 3B, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 7 R
Ronald Acuna Jr. is a prime example of why it's best not to overreact to a small sample size at the start of a new MLB season.
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year was hitting a lifeless .129/.289/.323 in 40 plate appearances entering last week, and he was still searching for his first multi-hit game.
The 21-year-old finally snapped out of it Monday with a 2-for-3 game, reaching base four times and hitting his third home run of the season.
That was the start of a three-game home run streak and a five-game multi-hit streak before he went 1-for-3 on Sunday.
"He's swinging the bat good, and it's going to end up being a lot of run production, too," Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters after Acuna crushed a 462-foot home run Thursday. "He's been hitting the ball so hard and not getting anything for it. Now, he's starting to find some holes and putting them in the seats."
The budding young superstar could be just getting started.
NL Pitcher: Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
Stats: 1 GS, W, 7.0 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 8 K
In a not-so-distant alternate universe, Luis Castillo is wearing a Marlins uniform and pitching a gem against the Cincinnati Reds.
Instead, it's the other way around.
The Marlins traded Castillo to the Reds prior to the 2017 season in the deal that brought Dan Straily to Miami. Two years later, Straily was released by the Marlins after two mediocre seasons, and Castillo is now one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball.
The 26-year-old closed out the 2018 season with a flourish, posting a 1.09 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and a .172 opponents' batting average in five September starts. He's picked up right where he left off this season with a 0.92 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and a dominant .082 opponents' batting average, allowing just five hits in 19.2 innings while striking out 25.
With his brilliant start Tuesday, he's now 2-0 with an 0.39 ERA in three career starts against the Marlins.
Must-See Upcoming Matchup
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Milwaukee Brewers (Thursday-Sunday)
After clashing in a memorable seven-game NLCS battle last season, the Dodgers and Brewers are again looking to contend for the NL pennant.
The Dodgers took the season series last year with a staggering plus-23 run differential in seven games, and they also got the last laugh during the postseason en route to clinching a spot in the World Series.
The Brewers will trot out Zach Davies, Jhoulys Chacin, Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff, while the Dodgers will counter with Julio Urias, Ross Stripling, Clayton Kershaw and Kenta Maeda in the four-game series.
Kershaw will be making his season debut Monday against the Cincinnati Reds after starting the season on the injured list while battling shoulder inflammation. He'll have some rust to shake off in his first start back, but his Saturday start could be telling.
With the Dodgers in a tailspin, this series could be big as far as an early righting of the ship is concerned.
After the Brewers came out on top this past weekend, the season series between these two teams will be finished by this time next week.
That is, unless they collide in October once again...