Cream rising to the top in latest Rankings
Reds, Rangers appear likely to break away from the pack
It's early August and it's getting hotter and hotter, and we're not just talking temperatures. We're talking baseball -- pennant races, to be exact. And while many of the best teams are separating themselves from the pack with inspired play, plenty of potential contenders are just hitting their stride.
But as we drive away from the non-waiver Trade Deadline and steam ahead toward October, which team is the best in the game?
Is it the Cincinnati Reds, who have pulled away in the National League Central under the inspired leadership of manager Dusty Baker, whose blend of young and veteran talent is jelling at the right time? Maybe it's the Texas Rangers, who have rebounded from a lull and have seen their lead in the American League West grow again in recent days.
What about the Washington Nationals? They've got the best pitching in both leagues and are getting healthy up and down the lineup while their young phenom, outfielder Bryce Harper, continues to learn and amaze with each passing day.
And it would be unwise to count out the Yankees, who have been on top of the AL East for most of the season, and are finding new and different ways to win with a lineup and pitching staff that's been banged up but never counted out.
Then again, it might not be one of those four teams at all. It could be the Braves, Pirates, White Sox or Angels, all of whom have looked good on the field lately and have made key additions at the Trade Deadline.
Or it might be a team that appears to be a long shot right now but will begin playing its best baseball of the season right now, when it counts the most.
For the third season, MLB.com has set up a panel of experts to vote on the top 15 teams each week. Three former Major League players -- Larry Dierker, Mitch Williams and Frank Thomas -- are part of the process, as are columnist Peter Gammons and Carlton Thompson, vice president and executive editor of MLB.com. Former general manager and current MLB.com analyst Jim Duquette, along with MLB.com columnists Mike Bauman, Hal Bodley, Anthony Castrovince, Richard Justice, Matthew Leach and Jesse Sanchez, are also part of the group.
Agree? Disagree? The power to rank the teams is yours.
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Dusty's team didn't win on Sunday, but that was an anomaly of late. That starting rotation is beginning to look as good as any in baseball, with Mat Latos seeming more and more like his 2010 self. The offense is getting contributions from everyone. Dust-iny, anyone?
They're going to need more than what they got from Derek Holland last week. They're going to need more from Ryan Dempster than what he showed in his Texas debut. But Josh Hamilton is getting hot again, and the power-packed Rangers are still in first place. Go figure.
Jayson Werth is back, Harper is hot again, and Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler remain the starting rotation for manager Davey Johnson's young and dynamic club. Yes, this team is very much for real. The question now: How far will the Nats go?
Somehow, skipper Joe Girardi's boys keep winning games every which way. It could be home runs by Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano or Mark Teixeira. It could be pitching performances by Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, Hiroki Kuroda or a suddenly sizzling CC Sabathia. They just get it done.
Jason Heyward is living up to his promise. The pitching rotation has been makeshift at times, but is doing enough to keep this team going. The bullpen? Stellar. The prognosis? You can't count them out.
One of the feel-good stories of the season still feels good, even if the Reds do look like they might run away with the division. What can you say about Andrew McCutchen, or about A.J. Burnett, for that matter? Some cagey Trade Deadline moves might give this team a Wild Card ace up the sleeve.
Manager Robin Ventura's group is proving that a mini-surge by the Detroit Tigers wasn't going to break them, and now the South Siders are north of the Tigers in the standings. Kevin Youkilis has not only proven he's got legs left. He's helped galvanize this team, rounded out the offense and put the White Sox right back in the postseason picture.
There have been some pitching problems of late, but manager Mike Scioscia is confident those are just blips on the radar. And speaking of radar, has anyone realized that Albert Pujols is scalding hot and has more RBIs than anyone since May 1?
You've got to admire GM Brian Sabean for doing it again and going for it with a bold Deadline pickup. Outfielder Hunter Pence won't win the pennant for these guys singlehandedly, but he should provide more offensive continuity for a club that could use it.
Kyle Lohse pitched like a master on Sunday night, and Adam Wainwright went a full nine innings on Saturday. That means a lot for a team that seems to do its best when it hangs in there and gets a chance to surprise people in late September. Stay tuned.
Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, say hello to Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, Randy Choate and Brandon League. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti was more aggressive than anyone at the Deadline and after, and the Dodgers seem to be responding in kind. The battle for the NL West should be a doozy all the way.
Doug Fister is pitching like an ace again, and that could be huge for the Tigers, who have seen Justin Verlander slow down just a tick from his usual otherworldly status in his past few starts. You've still got to fear and respect any lineup with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in it. An imminent return to health by Andy Dirks could really help, too.
How do they win games? Who knows? They just do. Manager Bob Melvin really has these guys playing like a team, and if slugger Yoenis Cespedes can stay healthy for the rest of the season while the young pitching, including Dan Straily, continues to shine, this club could remain intriguing. Oh, and Brett Anderson could be back soon, too.
The Rays are hanging in there in the AL East, and a big reason is the pitching. Matt Moore is coming into his own, which is a scary proposition for opposing hitters. Skipper Joe Maddon still has these guys believing, which is always more than half the battle.
Somehow, manager Buck Showalter still has this team in the mix, tied for second place in the AL East and with a winning record. The acquisition of Joe Blanton didn't happen, but young Chris Tillman has improved and might be the pitcher the organization always thought he could be, which would be a good omen down the stretch.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.