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Power Rankings: Cubs surge, Cards still on top

There was never any doubt that the second Wild Card was going to make September baseball a whole lot more interesting for several more fan bases, and, with less than a third of the season remaining, we're already seeing this come to fruition.

Depending on what your threshold is to define "contender," the second Wild Card has kept the hopes alive of several teams that don't even have winning records. For example, the Tigers are 56-61 and the White Sox are 55-60, and both are within 4 1/2 games of the second Wild Card. Taking that a step further, the Mariners are a whopping eight games under .500, but only six games out. Are they contenders? Not likely. But are they in this thing? Well ... not really. But, maybe?

Meanwhile, in the NL, it's quite the opposite. Three teams are realistically in the Wild Card race -- the Pirates, the Cubs and the Giants. That means the Nationals are either going to have to overtake the surging Mets or miss the postseason altogether, which just a couple of months ago seemed unfathomable.

This week's MLB Power Rankings show little movement with the elite teams, with one bold newcomer joining the top 5.

Biggest jump: The Cubs climbed four spots, from nine to five. Questions about the Cubs being too young and inexperienced for prime time have been, for the most part, squelched. Sure, they've had their growing pains, but they're also playing free and easy and somewhat stress-free, which is pretty much how you could describe their skipper, Joe Maddon.

Biggest drop: The Mets dropped from sixth to 10th, perhaps a reflection of their weekend sweep by the Pirates. Still, the Mets are firmly planted in first place in the NL East thanks to a fabulous run through the first half of August.

1. Cardinals: The starting foursome of John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez has a collective ERA of 2.51. Throw in a seemingly healthy Jaime Garcia, who held the Marlins to six hits over 8 1/3 innings in his most recent start, and it's difficult, if not impossible, to find a rotation better suited for an October run. The rest of August could bode well for St. Louis; sandwiched between home and road series with the Giants are road series against two mediocre teams -- the Padres (Aug. 21-23) and the Diamondbacks (Aug. 24-27).

2. Royals: The only division void of a true race is the AL Central, where the Royals separated themselves from the pack at a relatively early date and haven't let up since. That's good news for the back end of the bullpen, which recently ended a streak of preserving 111 straight wins when the Royals have a lead after the seventh inning. Few seem to be overly worried about the trio of Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland, but manager Ned Yost does have the luxury of using September to use them perhaps more sparingly in order to preserve them for October. Meanwhile, Johnny Cueto has been everything the Royals expected when they obtained him at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. He's allowed a total of six earned runs over four starts and has stabilized a rotation that needed a boost.

3. Pirates: The Bucs made it through a relatively difficult part of their schedule with mostly stellar performances, splitting a rain-shortened two game series with the Cubs before sweeping the Dodgers, winning one of three with the Cardinals and sweeping the Mets. While it's still looking like the Pirates are going to have to get to the playoffs via the Wild Card, they have a good opportunity to gain ground through the rest of August. They play only one contender for the rest of the month -- the Giants, whom they host later this week for four games. Otherwise, they have three at home with the Diamondbacks, four on the road with the Marlins and three at home with the Rockies.

4. Dodgers: The pitching acquisitions the Dodgers obtained at the Trade Deadline didn't have a great immediate showing, but things are improving, as evidenced by an acceptable outing by Alex Wood on Friday against the Reds. Mat Latos hasn't been good in two of his three Dodgers outings and still needs to show he can handle a starting job in a high-pressure market, something the former Padre/Red/Marlin hasn't had to deal with before now. Still, the Dodgers have an impenetrable twosome in Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw and an improving bullpen, giving them an advantage in the NL West race.

5. Cubs: The Cubs broke into the top 5 for the first time this season, and isn't it about time? They're in third place in the NL Central, but in every division except for the Royals-leading AL Central, they'd be in first. They could be setting themselves up for an epic one-game Wild Card showdown with the Pirates, which is how it would play out if the postseason started today.

And the rest of our top 20: 6. Blue Jays (5); 7. Yankees (7); 8. Astros (8); 9. Giants (10); 10. Mets (6); 11. Orioles (14); 12. Angels (11); 13. Nationals (12); 14. Rangers (13); 15. Rays (15); 16. Diamondbacks (17); 17. Twins (18); 18. Tigers (16); 19. Padres (NR); 20. Indians (20)

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.