MLB power rankings: Most surprising team in baseball in NL Central

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Perhaps this is the apex. 

From here, maybe it is a long tumble back into mediocrity for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are coming off consecutive 100-loss seasons and finished last or next-to-last the past five seasons. 

Yet for the moment, there’s plenty to savor at PNC Park. 

The Pirates are off to a 16-7 start, their best since the 1992 club of Barry Bonds and  Doug Drabek and Co. won 16 of their first 22, before a seven-game NLCS loss and Bonds’ departure began a two-decade playoff slumber.

Ownership remains laser focused on operating a 21st century club at 20th century salaries, but a rogue band of homegrowns and retreads have defied the odds thus far. Sunday, Phillies castoff Vince Velasquez had perhaps the best start of his career, striking out 10 Reds and holding them to two hits in seven shutout innings for their seventh consecutive win. Five of their 16 victories have come against the Reds, and their sweep of Boston is their lone series win against a club with a winning record. 

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Tuesday, the Dodgers come town, starting a 12-game stretch that includes six against the Rays and Blue Jays. Perhaps the course will correct but for now, the Pirates are the biggest movers in USA TODAY Sports’ power rankings.

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This week’s rankings: 

1. Tampa Bay Rays (-)

It hurts losing burgeoning ace Jeffrey Springs to Tommy John surgery, but perhaps no other club is better equipped to handle it. 

2. Atlanta Braves (+1)

Biggest concern? Kyle Wright allowed 25 baserunners in his first 13 2/3 innings.

3. Toronto Blue Jays (+4)

Vlad Guerrero loves New York – beating it, anyway. 

4. New York Yankees (-2)

With Giancarlo Stanton out, lineup gets pretty thin in the bottom third.

5. Milwaukee Brewers (-)

Rookie Garrett Mitchell’s potential season-ending shoulder injury a big bummer.

6. New York Mets (+2)

Francisco Alvarez crushes first career homer; Brett Baty is on the clock.

7. Houston Astros (+2)

Sweep Atlanta and head to Tampa Bay for AL showdown.

8. Baltimore Orioles (+4)

Pitchers post 34-inning scoreless streak against punchless Nationals, Tigers.

9. San Diego Padres (-3)

Winning three of four at Arizona in Fernando Tatis’ return feels like a turning point.

10. Pittsburgh Pirates (+12)

David Bednar on pace for 56 saves.

11. Los Angeles Dodgers (-)

Three True Outcomes lives here: Lead NL in homers, walks, second in strikeouts.

12. Minnesota Twins (-8)

Only AL Central team with positive run differential.

13. Arizona Diamondbacks (+2)

Earning their way on: Last in majors with 45 walks, fourth in NL with .261 average.

14. Chicago Cubs (+4)

Did they fix Cody Bellinger? A .930 OPS, five homers, big boost.

15. Cleveland Guardians (-5)

Lefty Logan Allen wins in major league debut. 

16. Texas Rangers (+3)

Worth it: 5-0 in Jacob deGrom’s starts.

17. Seattle Mariners (-4)

Is this it? Jarred Kelenic smacks sixth home run, pushes OPS to 1.044.

18. Boston Red Sox (-2)

Masataka Yoshida first player to homer twice in one inning since 2013.

19. Philadelphia Phillies (-4)

Below .500 all year despite schedule loaded with Reds, Rockies, White Sox

20. St. Louis Cardinals (-3)

Will they finish behind Cubs for first time since 2018? Feels like it.

21. Miami Marlins (-1)

Sandy Alcantara misses start with mild injury – a rarity for ace who’s made at least 32 starts in every full season. 

22. Los Angeles Angels (-1)

Rookie catcher Logan O’Hoppe out 4-6 months with torn labrum.

23. San Francisco Giants (-)

Joey Bart boasts .382 OBP – but just one extra-base hit. 

24. Chicago White Sox (-)

Getting out-homered 29-23.

25. Cincinnati Reds (-)

A modest $53 million gamble on Hunter Greene, who has 5-14 career record.

26. Detroit Tigers (-)

Eduardo Rodriguez has 2.32 ERA, 25-5 strikeout-walk ratio

27. Colorado Rockies (-)

José Ureña’s 9.82 ERA includes three starts of less than four innings.

28. Washington Nationals (+1)

Ten total home runs – a mere 38 behind Tampa Bay.

29. Kansas City Royals (-1)

Kris Bubic’s Tommy John surgery ends what looked like a breakout year.

30. Oakland Athletics (-)

Record: 4-18. Run differential: -103. Money sought from Nevada: $500 million.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY