Here's what we're most excited to see:
With the Twins and Rays, two likely playoff teams, meeting this weekend, our thoughts turned to successful small-market teams. What's your favorite small-market success story since MLB salaries exploded in the late 1990s?
Eddie Matz: Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, I have to go with the Rays and their six-year run from 2008 through 2013. When they made the World Series in 2008, their Opening Day payroll of $44 million was the second-lowest in baseball. Over the next five years, they averaged more than 90 wins per season, and they continued to do it with chump change. And a nonstop stream of draft hits that included David Price, James Shields, Evan Longoriaand Carl Crawford, just to name a few. (Honorable mention to the 2014-15 Royals.)
Sam Miller: Recency bias and all that, but there's something inspiring to me about what they've done in Cleveland these past seven years. This is one of the smallest markets in baseball -- the Indians were in the bottom third of attendance even the year after going to the World Series; they were the city in "Major League," for goodness sake -- but they never seem doomed or overmatched, never tear down and go into crass three-year rebuilds. They're now playing for their seventh consecutive winning season, and have made the playoffs four of the past six years; no American League team has won more games, despite modest (and sometimes worse) payrolls. And the great John Hart General Manager Tree that was planted in the early 1990s is now responsible for something like a third of all team executives in baseball.
David Schoenfield: The 2008 Rays are probably the biggest single-season surprise in this era, as they went from 10 consecutive 90-loss seasons -- every season of their existence -- to that World Series defeat and then were able to sustain it. But we haven't had a movie on that team, so I have to go with the Moneyball A's, who made four straight playoff trips from 2000 through 2003, winning, respectively, 91, 102, 103 and 96 games (and followed with seasons of 91, 88 and 93 wins, including a division title in 2006). Billy Beane had back-to-back 100-win seasons -- that's more 100-win seasons than the Red Sox have had in the past 72 years.
Coming off a 97-win season, the A's -- who host Houston this weekend -- were looking like a significant disappointment before running off a 10-game winning streak to get on the plus side of .500. Was that run a fluke or a sign that Oakland will be in the playoff hunt the rest of the way?
Matz: Considering last year's playoff run, Oakland's slow start this year was surprising. Considering the tough early-season schedule (11 April games vs. Boston and Houston), not so much. It's worth noting that the A's victimized two weak opponents during that recent streak (Tigers, Mariners). But it's also worth noting that last year's magical run started at almost exactly the same point in the season. So maybe there's something about May. (Didn't the Farrelly brothers already make that movie?) Oakland won't win the West, but it should definitely be in the hunt. If the A's can get some of their gimpy hurlers back in time (especially top prospect Jesus Luzardo), they might even be able to sneak past the Tampa York Indian Sox for that second wild-card spot.
Miller: The Moneyball A's of 2002 were under .500 in early June, and ended up winning 103 games and the AL West. The 2012 A's were at literally zero percent playoff odds at the start of July and ended up winning 94 games and the AL West. Last year's A's were under .500 in mid-June and ended up winning 97 games and the wild card. That's all to say that, beside the A's being a good team (97 wins last year!), they've got the era's best record of making midseason adjustments to turn stuff around, and I never say bad things about them between the months of May and August.
Schoenfield: I look at the rotation and have a hard time seeing the A's as a playoff team. But then I look at the non-Houston teams in the AL West and I can definitely see the A's as a potential playoff team. Bob Melvin and pitching coach Scott Emerson pieced together the rotation last year and they're starting to do it again, getting All-Star-caliber work from Frankie Montas plus solid results from Brett Anderson and Chris Bassitt. The A's won 97 last year thanks in large part to a 31-14 record in one-run games. They're 8-8 this year. My guess is they fall short ... unless they figure out how to beat the Astros a few times.
The Cubs and Cardinals square off in St. Louis. When the teams met previously, St. Louis had the best record in the National League at 20-11. Since then, the Cards are 7-17. What gives?
Matz: The offense has been all or nothing, with a heavy emphasis on nothing. Take away the three games in which they scored double digits, the Cards are averaging less than three runs per contest during their recent stink-a-thon. Pretty much everyone not named Matt Wieters is slumping. The back end of the rotation hasn't been good, and neither has the bullpen. But other than that, everything's hunky-dory in the The Lou.
Miller: They're 0-7 in one-run games during that stretch, which can make a team look (and feel!) a lot worse than they actually are. I'm not saying they've played well -- and seeing over-30 hitters such as Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina and Paul Goldschmidt in various states of decline is especially worrisome in this youth-centric era -- but it's not as though they're being dominated every day. This still looks to me like a competitive team that could post close to 90 wins.
Schoenfield: Maybe this is just who the Cardinals are? They won 88 last year, 83 in 2017, 86 in 2016, missing the playoffs all three years. One year it's the bullpen, one year it's the defense, one year it's the lack of power, last year it was blame Mike Matheny. It's always something. Maybe the front office just isn't building a good enough team. This year, it's not so much that they have bad players who are weighing them down, but only Paul DeJong is really having an exceptional season (although he's hit poorly with runners in scoring position) and the starting rotation has been extremely homer-prone. At this point, they're counting on a bunch of 30-somethings -- Molina, Carpenter, Goldschmidt, Adam Wainwright, Andrew Miller -- to improve, and that might not be realistic.
There's no shortage of interesting matchups this weekend. What are you most looking forward to?
Matz: When I first met Lucas Giolito at Nationals spring training a few years ago, I was convinced he was the next big thing. Not long after Washington shipped him to Chicago as part of the bounty in the Adam Eaton trade, I was convinced that Giolito was the next big flop. Now, after an awful 2018 campaign with the White Sox, he's crushing it. All of which proves ... I know nothing (Jon Snow). What I do know is that Giolito has been nearly unhittable lately, and I can't wait to see if he can keep it up against Cleveland on Sunday.
Miller: Last summer, when the A's took three out of four against the Astros (and lost the one only on a freakish walk-off play), that was when we all had to really sit up and pay attention to what was happening in Oakland. Realistically, the Astros are probably going to run away with the AL West this year. They're the best team in baseball. But the A's have a chance to make a statement this weekend, especially facing Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Schoenfield: Twins-Rays is fun, but the series will be played inside a half-empty domed stadium. Phillies at Dodgers, on the other hand, is also fun and will be played outside, with big crowds, fans booing Bryce Harper and cheering for Cody Bellinger, and Clayton Kershaw taking the hill Saturday. It's a potential playoff preview.
PICK 'EM TIME
The Red Sox and Yankees meet for a three-game series in New York, with Boston having ground to make up on its division-leading rival. Will the Red Sox win the series? (The finale is on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball at 7 p.m. ET.)
Matz: David Price, whose numbers at Yankee Stadium since joining the Red Sox have been scarier than Vincent Price, is slated to go Sunday. Could the Sox win? Sure. Will they win? In the words of Magic 8-Ball, "Don't count on it."
Miller: The Red Sox have played nine series against teams with .500 or better records this year, and they've lost seven of those series. As Eddie says, of course they could. But you'd have to strain the meaning of probabilities to conclude they're likely to win two out of three on the road against a superior Yankees team.
Schoenfield: The Yankees just tagged three home runs off my man Chris Paddack. Apparently nobody can stop these guys. It's Gio Urshela's world and we're all just along for the ride.
Two of the NL's top sluggers this season -- the Brewers' Christian Yelich and the Pirates' Josh Bell -- will be in Pittsburgh this weekend. Who will have more total bases: Yelich or Bell?
Matz: Hitters don't come any hotter than Bell, who has 34 hits in his past 33 at-bats. During that stretch, he has 35 homers and 141 RBIs. (Math myth notwithstanding, I'm taking Bell here.)
Schoenfield: As Ernest Hemingway wrote in "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life." Indeed. There is only now. And right now, Josh Bell is crushing it.
Miller: Wow, my colleagues are just completely ignoring that the most relevant thing we know about these players is that Christian Yelich is the better baseball player! So I'll take Yelich. And doesn't hurt that PNC Park, which favors left-handed hitters, has been Yelich's favorite road park in his career: .352/.414/.590 in 26 career games.
In a season of amazing rookie debuts, the Braves' Austin Riley might be rising to the head of the class.
Riley's total bases this weekend against the Tigers: over or under 9.5?
Matz: If a certain former Detroit hurler and lefty submariner were still playing, we could've been treated to Austin's power vs. Mike Myers. But alas, Myers retired over a decade ago. Instead, Riley gets the top of the Tigers rotation (Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull), which will help limit him to six total bases this weekend.
Miller: There is a Mike Mayers pitching for the Cardinals, but that's neither here nor there. Under.
Schoenfield: By my count, there have been 23 players with the first name of "Austin" to play in the major leagues -- and all but three of those debuted after 2000 (and most of those after 2010). One of those early Austins was Austin McHenry, who hit .350 with 17 home runs and 102 RBIs for the 1921 Cardinals -- ranking third in the National League in average, fourth in home runs and third in RBIs. He was 25 years old and his future was glimmering bright. He was hitting .303 the next year but feared he was going blind because he had trouble seeing the ball. He was sent home. He was dead from a brain tumor before the end of the calendar year. So, as you think of Austin Riley and his remarkable start, think of what could have been for Austin McHenry. Enjoy the ride. (I'll take the over.)
TWO TRUE OUTCOMES
Each week, we ask our panelists to choose one hitter they think will hit the most home runs and one pitcher they think will record the most strikeouts in the coming weekend. Panelists can pick a player only once for the season. We'll keep a running tally -- and invite you to play along at home.
Home run hitters
Matz: Mike Trout
Miller: Josh Bell. Yes, I'm taking him over Christian Yelich. There's no rule about consistency in this feature.
Schoenfield: I was going to pick Mike Trout and write, "Time to stop fooling around with dumb picks like Ian Desmond." Alas, Eddie beat me to him. I'll go Cody Bellinger. Time to stop fooling around with dumb picks like Ian Desmond.
Matz: Gerrit Cole
Miller: Caleb Smith
Schoenfield: Justin Verlander