1. The Houston Astros out to prove they deserve the American League's best record. Nobody seems ready just yet to declare that the Astros are better than the Kansas City Royals or Detroit Tigers. That's understandable considering the Astros won just 70 games last year while the Royals and Tigers made the playoffs. Plus, it's easy to focus on the .229 team batting average and strikeouts (loads of them) and the shaky rotation depth behind Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh.
But the Astros do several things well. They hit home runs: 57, most in the majors, and 23 more than the Tigers and 28 more than the Royals. They're solid defensively, ranking tied for fifth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved at plus-13. The bullpen has been superb, with a 2.15 ERA that ranks second in the majors. And while the rotation ERA of 4.17 isn't great, it's not like the Tigers (3.92 ERA) or Royals (4.46) have stellar groups, either.
The Astros have played just nine of their 38 games so far against teams that currently have winning records -- seven against the Angels, who are a game over .500, and two against the Giants, who are two games over .500. They haven't played the Royals, Tigers or Yankees. Of course, if the AL West proves this mediocre all season, the Astros will continue playing sub-.500 teams. This week, however, they'll get a good test: After hosting the A's for three games they travel to Detroit for a four-game series.
2. Dan Jennings takes over as Miami Marlins manager. This is certainly the most out-of-the-box managerial hiring in a long time as Jennings -- the club's general manager -- takes over. The dual role isn't necessarily unprecedented; Whitey Herzog of the Cardinals and Billy Martin of the A's held both titles for a short period in the early 1980s. Others like Dallas Green have gone back and forth from the front office to the field. But it's difficult to envision somebody doing both jobs in 2015. What is a little unusual about moving Jennings to the position, however, is that he has no coaching or managerial experience on the professional level (he did coach in high school 30 years ago).
Sure, the lack of experience is a concern, but several recent managers have had success with no coaching or managerial experience, like Mike Matheny or Brad Ausmus. Of course, they were former players and Jennings was not. But is that really such a big deal? Jennings has been with the Marlins since 2002, drafting or trading for most of the players on the team. He knows the players and has relationships already with many of them. The tactical issues involved in managing aren't exactly rocket science. Communication isn't a skill that requires playing experience. A manager does have to have the respect of the players, but why should Jennings' lack of major league experience be an issue? Many NFL coaches, including Bill Belichick, never played in the NFL. Many NBA coaches never played in the league. It seems baseball is the outlier in thinking playing experience is important. I don't see why Jennings can't be successful.
The bigger issue is that the Marlins probably aren't much more than a .500 team at best. When they made a similar in-season change in 2003 with Jack McKeon and went on to win the World Series, that was a young team with a lot of talent, with Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis getting called up from the minors and helping out and a lineup that featured Ivan Rodriguez, Derrek Lee and Mike Lowell. Josh Beckett, Willis, Carl Pavano and Brad Penny anchored the rotation. For this team, it will be hoping for some areas of improvement: Christian Yelich is hitting .178; Mike Morse has two home runs a .271 OBP; and the rotation just got Henderson Alvarez back and hopefully Jose Fernandez later in the season; the ninth inning has been a problem with Steve Cishek losing his closer job. In the two-team wild-card era, anything is possible, but I'd still consider the Marlins long shots (FanGraphs gives them 10.2 percent chance at making the playoffs).
3. Bryce Harper versus Mike Trout. Well, they don't play each other, but Harper's red-hot start means we can start thinking about renewing the debate we had back in 2012. Trout ended up making that debate look silly, but Harper has been the best player in the game so far, hitting .338/.476/.729, leading the NL in home runs, RBIs, runs, walks, OBP and slugging. Since that three-homer game on May 11, he's hitting .564/.653/1.385, with nine home runs and 22 RBIs in 11 games. Game on, Mr. Trout.
4. Pitching matchup of the week: Clayton Kershaw versus Madison Bumgarner (Thursday). The two aces meet up for the third time this season as the Dodgers and Giants square off Tuesday through Thursday. On April 22, both starters gave up two runs but were out of the game when the Giants scored in the bottom of the ninth. On April 28, Bumgarner allowed one run and five hits in eight innings to beat Kershaw 2-1. Game on.
5. Here come the Chicago White Sox. They've won five in a row to claw back to .500 (it helps playing the Brewers and A's) and the week kicks off with a big game on Monday: Chris Sale versus Corey Kluber (coming off his 18-strikeout performance). The White Sox need to get Sale and Jeff Samardzija pitching better, as they've combined for a 4.79 ERA. Sale did look more like 2014 Sale in his previous outing, striking out 11 in eight innings against the Brewers.. There are still several holes on offense, but Melky Cabrera (.610 OPS) and Adam Eaton (.601 OPS) both have better numbers in them and Jose Abreu has been more solid than great. After four games against the Indians they get the Twins for three on this seven-game homestand.