MLB Power Rankings: August 20th to 26th

In this week’s rendition of The Waiver Wire’s Power Rankings, we’re going to introduce a new theme. 

This week, we’re going to highlight the player that is either has the most to prove to their club in the remaining six weeks (for non-playoff teams) or the player that will be most critical to a team’s run towards October. Gotta love the dog days of summer!

1. Washington Nationals (+0, 75-46, 1st in NL East)

The obvious focus is on Stephen Strasburg and if Washington is actually going to follow through on the innings limit. So, for that reason, we’re not going to select Strasburg as the most important Nat. Instead, the responsibility is going to fall on the shoulders of Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. Its going to be their responsibility to keep the league’s best pitching staff afloat with or without Strasburg, and they’re more than capable of doing just that.

2. Cincinnati Reds (+0, 74-48, 1st in NL Central)

With Joey Votto still injured, the Reds are continuing to mash and win ball games at an impressive clip. The offense is going to be there, so the critical piece will be coming from the pitching staff, specifically Mat Latos. His recent turnaround has fueled the Reds charge to the top of the baseball world, and if he keeps this up, the playoff rotation the Reds can put together with him and Johnny Cueto with their other-worldly bullpen is just unfair.

3. New York Yankees (+1, 72-49, 1st in AL East)

C.C. Sabathia is battling an elbow injury, so somebody needs to step up and lead the rotation in his absence. I’m not sure many people would’ve thought Hiroki Kuroda would be the guy to do it for them, but that’s what its shaping up to be. How well Kuroda pitches down the stretch and into October could dictate how far the Yankees can go this postseason.

4. Texas Rangers (-1, 70-50, 1st in AL West)

They traded a lot to get him, and Ryan Dempster has not earned his keep with his new team yet. The Rangers need Dempster to return to the form he had in Chicago. They’re not going to win with Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish alone at the top of the rotation. You can hit all you want, but if you don’t have someone that can keep runs off the board in return, you aren’t going to win anything.

5. Atlanta Braves (+0, 70-51, 2nd in NL East)

The pitching staff is very deep, so unlike the four teams ahead of the Braves in the PR, the pressure is on the offense. Chipper Jones and Jayson Heyward have been dynamic all season, but it’s Freddie Freeman who will determine how deep this Atlanta line-up can be. He has all the potential in the world, and he’s starting to live up to it with a late season surge. 

6. Tampa Bay Rays (+2, 67-54, 2nd in AL East)

This is a completely different ball club when Evan Longoria is healthy and producing. Its really that simple. Should Longoria stay healthy for the rest of the season and into the playoffs, the outlooks of this Tampa Bay team improve dramatically, if that’s not the biggest understatement in baseball.

7. Pittsburgh Pirates (-1, 67-54, 2nd in NL Central)

In case you haven’t noticed at all, Andrew McCutchen is the National League MVP. He’s the heart and soul of this Pirates team that is flirting with the post-season. Without him, this is an under-.500 squad. So, yeah, I’d call him very important.

8. Los Angeles Dodgers (+4, 67-55, 1st in NL West)

Believe it or not, I don’t think the most important Dodger is Matt Kemp or Clayton Kershaw. Instead, I think the most important story line that will continue to play out this year is the turnaround for Hanley Ramirez. If you haven’t been watching Los Angeles baseball recently, HanRam is back to his batting champ ways that he had with the then-Florida Marlins in the mid-2000s. His bat is the most important in the Dodgers line-up because he can squeeze between Kemp and Andre Ethier and really make this line-up scary talented.

9. Chicago White Sox (+0, 65-55, 1st in AL Central)

Just about everything has to continue to go right for the White Sox in order for them to hold of the Tigers, who are lurking and hanging around this AL Central race. Paul Konerko has served as the de facto team captain for the last couple of years, and he’s been producing at an All-Star level this year. A.J. Pierzynski may be having the most surprising season, and Adam Dunn may be supplying the most pop, but this is Konerko’s team. His level of performance dictates everything else.

10. Baltimore Orioles (+0, 66-55, 3rd in AL East)

Its a lot of pressure to put on a 20-year old infielder, but Manny Machado is the clear difference maker for this crop of O’s. What level Machado is able to perform at determines how high the Orioles can climb. As goes Machado, so goes this team. That may become a theme for the next decade or so.

11. San Francisco Giants (-4, 66-55, 2nd in NL West)

This was a pretty terrible week for the Giants. Not only are the Dodgers scolding hot, but Melky Cabrera is out for the rest of the regular season after a positive drug test. So, the question remains: who will lead this team to the finish line? When the Giants won the World Series, the offensive spark plug was Buster Posey, and that has to be the same this season. He’s been playing like an MVP in the second half, and he’s going to have to continue in order to lead this team.

12. Oakland A’s (+2, 65-55, 2nd in AL West)

I said it last week kind of jokingly, but its actually the truth. Yoenis Cespedes is the man in Oakland, much in the same way Evan Longoria is in Tampa Bay. And, like Longoria, there are constant injury concerns with Oakland’s center fielder. He needs to stay in the line-up if this team wants to live the dream and get into October baseball.

13. St. Louis Cardinals (-2, 65-56, 3rd in NL Central)

The Cardinals have been a team that’s confused me all season. To me, I feel this is a club that should be at the top of the division with all the talent they have. That group is led by Carlos Beltran, who is having himself a late-career renaissance. He’ll have to keep it up late into September if the Cardinals can stay in the Wild Card race.

14. Detroit Tigers (-1, 64-57, 2nd in AL Central)

Miguel Cabrera. This guy is an incredible offensive weapon. A lot of people talk about how great Albert Pujols has been in his career so far. But, if there is a player that could even come close to his equal, its Miggy. Who cares where he plays defensively. The dude can mash. And he’s going to be the thumper in a line-up that includes Austin Jackson and Prince Fielder.

15. Arizona Diamondbacks (+1, 62-59, 3rd in NL West)

Unfortunately in Arizona, there’s this feeling that their most recent surge is a bit of a too little, too late situation. What may be even more unbelievable is when I tell you the player that’s going to make the difference for Arizona down the stretch is first basemen Paul Goldschmidt. He’s been the most consistent player all season in the desert, and they’ll need his reliability down the stretch if they want to get back in this race.

16. Los Angeles Angels (-1, 62-60, 3rd in AL West)

I still can’t quite believe the Angels are on the outside of the playoff race looking in this deep into the season, especially after they got Zack Greinke at the deadline to make their rotation dominate. The story line, as its been since his call-up, is Mike Trout. He has the Rookie of the Year race locked down, so the question remains: can he be the first rookie since Ichiro to win both ROY and MVP in the same season? How well the Angels play in the next six weeks may determine that.

17. Boston Red Sox (+0, 59-63, 4th in AL East)

We have officially entered the “player with the most to prove” part of our rankings. Which means, yes, I’m officially putting the lid on the Red Sox up-and-down nightmare. To me, the player with the most to prove in Beantown is Adrian Gonzalez. He’s the highest paid Sox, he has been in the middle of every controversy and he is straight up under-performing. He has to earn his paycheck, plain and simple.

18. Toronto Blue Jays (+0, 56-65, 5th in AL East)

A lot of what has gone wrong with the Blue Jays season is due to injuries, so its hard to pinpoint which player has the most to prove. I’m going to saw Brett Lawrie, who, when healthy, has been about what people expected. A strong end to his season will only help expectations for next year in Toronto be higher than this year.

19. Seattle Mariners (+3, 58-64, 4th in AL West)

Pick your young offensive weapon, and he has a lot to prove. Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak are supposed to be the backbone of the Mariners line-up for years to come. None has stepped up in the manner the team has hoped. There seems to be time for Ackley and Montero to turn it around, but time is working against Smoak it seems. Put up or shut up time.

20. New York Mets (-1, 57-64, 3rd in NL East)

Johan Santana. Plain and simple. He’s on a current run of five straight starts that may be the worst five starts for any pitcher in the history of baseball. That’s how bad its gotten for the same guy that threw the first no-hitter in team history. I don’t know if shutting down Johan is the best option for him, but pitching him is hard to watch right now. I honestly don’t know who Santana is right now, or what I should expect from him moving forward.

21. Philadelphia Phillies (+2, 56-65, 4th in NL East)

Cliff Lee. Here’s a guy the team considered moving in order to clear salary space for Cole Hamels. He has gone through one of the most difficult seasons of his career, and his lack of wins is such a baseball oddity. He needs to return to his top-of-the-rotation form.

22. Miami Marlins (+2, 55-67, 5th in NL East)

I’m not certain who is still going to be a Marlin any more in order to have a lot to prove. They seem to be building the future around Giancarlo Stanton, who is one of the best young hitters in the entire game. However, I also believed that Hanley Ramirez was once the same player, and the Marlins had no problem moving him. Writing about the Marlins just gets me upset sometimes.

23. Kansas City Royals (+3, 54-66, 3rd in AL Central)

This is not the season the Royals had in mind for Eric Hosmer. He’s supposed to be the rock and power in the middle of the line-up that guides everyone else. Hasn’t been the case this season. There is more than enough time in Hosmer’s young career to become that guy. Hopefully 2012 is just a lost season for him.

24. Milwaukee Brewers (-3, 54-66, 4th in NL Central)

Yovani Gallardo. He’s, once again, the ace of this rotation, and he needs to perform like one. Its not going to happen for Milwaukee this year. But, next year, the expectations are going to be completely different. Oh, it’ll also help if Rickie Weeks starts hitting baseballs again.

25. Cleveland Indians (-5, 54-67, 4th in AL Central)

Ubaldo Jiminez. I was wary of the trade last year when it happened, and this is exactly why. Is this year’s version of Ubaldo the true version? Or is he the same guy that once won 15 games before the All-Star break.

26. San Diego Padres (-1, 53-70, 4th in NL West)

Well, they locked up Huston Street, and he immediately got himself injured. If there was a reason to ever sell high on Huston Street stock, this was it. They decided not to, and now they have to hope he returns to health and All-Star form.

27. Minnesota Twins (+0, 50-70, 5th in AL Central)

Justin Morneau. Slowly he’s returning to form from his pre-concussion days. The numbers aren’t going to show it this year, but its getting there.

28. Chicago Cubs (+0, 47-73, 5th in NL Central)

Starlin Castro. He may be the best young shortstop in the game, and he has a fancy new contract to show it. However, he needs to keep his head in the game and maximize his potential. The Cubs are betting $60 million over the next seven years that it’s going to happen.

29. Colorado Rockies (+0, 46-73, 5th in NL West)

Anybody that throws a baseball and wants to have a future in Colorado. Their entire pitching staff has failed them this year. It would be unfair to say Tulo, because we know what he can do when he’s healthy. He’s just not healthy. The pitching…that’s a different story.

30. Houston Astros (+0, 39-83, 6th in NL Central)

Everyone. Who’s for real? Who’s not a part of the future? Who! I say! Who!