Everybody is rested and ready for the second half of the MLB season, with several intriguing matchups right out of the gate. Here's what has our interest:
With the Braves facing the Padres this weekend, thoughts turn to the teams' young stars. If you were starting a franchise today and could choose one, whom would you pick: the Braves' Ronald Acuña Jr. or the Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr.?
Eddie Matz: Wow. That's a tough one. Like, impossible. They're both young studs who play premium positions up the middle and are positively oozing with the kind of flair and marketability that puts tooshies in seats. I'll be a little ageist here and go with Tatis. He's more than a year younger than the other guy, which means that when I give him a record-setting, 20-year, $1.2 billion contract to be the cornerstone of my franchise, I'll get more value on the back end of the deal than I would with that old graybeard Acuña.
Sam Miller: Oof. This feels like it could be some sort of a parable, in which a man finds two equally stunning treasures in a cave but can carry only one out with him; he is unable to reject either one, though, and he dies in the cave. I'm dying in a cave right now. My morning is ticking away as I stare at this choice and try to figure out which of these players I am willing to leave behind. OK: In the majors, Tatis has been better, but Acuña has been longer. The "safe" pick is Acuña because we've seen him play 200 games in the majors at a close-to-MVP level. Tatis is slightly riskier, with only 55 major league games (and, of course, the tools and the minor league performance). But in those 55 games, Tatis has been the better hitter, the better baserunner, the better defender and the sport's most exciting player. He's already had the 28th-best season by a 20-year-old in the past 100 years, and he has played only 55 games. I'll risk it: Tatis.
David Schoenfield: Just so you know, I'm officially changing my name to David Schoenfield Jr. Of course, that doesn't help me answer the question. So much we don't know yet. Who develops the better plate discipline over the long term? Is Tatis' injury in May a sign that he will be injury-prone? Does Acuña eventually grow resentful that his contract is so team-friendly that he loses an edge? I guess I'll go Tatis, if only because he looks so good on defense that he could be a Gold Glove shortstop and I'm not convinced Acuña has quite the same upside on defense (although he's pretty good as well).
The Indians have an opportunity to start the second half with a bang and make up some ground in the American League Central when they host the Twins. Will Cleveland rally in the second half and win its fourth consecutive division title?
Matz: Indeed it will. The Indians played much of the first half without Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco. Despite that, and despite Minnesota doing juggernaut things, the Indians have awoken from their annual spring slumber and are within striking distance. Clevinger is back, and Carrasco and Kluber might not be far behind. Jose Ramirez is due for some major regression (in a good way), and Francisco Lindor isn't banged up like he was in April. Oh, and thanks to the emergence of Oscar Mercado and Jordan Luplow, an outfield that was supposed to be a black hole has been more like a gray hole (in a good way).
Miller: The playoff odds at FanGraphs say a 13% chance, which shows some momentum (Cleveland bottomed out at 4%) but also the unlikelihood of it all. The Twins aren't some fraud, waiting to get caught and scolded for being where they're not supposed to be; they have the highest team slugging percentage in baseball history right now. And they're in so many trade rumors that we can expect them to add a small handful of wins by the trade deadline.
Schoenfield: I'll stick with the Twins. Their lineup is clearly deeper and better than Cleveland's, and they have a legitimate ace in Jose Berrios to help carry the rotation. Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson are solid, and Martin Perez and Michael Pineda fill out a very good five-man rotation. The bullpen has been better than expected, and the Twins have the payroll flexibility to add a couple of pieces. They do have 13 games remaining against each other, so Cleveland has a chance if it fares well in the head-to-head meetings, but I like the 25-man depth on the Twins' roster.
The Astros and Rangers square off for a four-game set at Arlington. What's your favorite in-state matchup these days?
Matz: I know it's a little premature, but ... I'll go with Jays-Rays. I realize that the Rays are still in a monogamous relationship with Florida. And that if/when they do start philandering with Quebec, that's technically not a state, but rather a province. And that Toronto and Montreal aren't even in the same province. But Ontario and Quebec are adjacent to each other, which is almost like being in the same state. Beside, to be completely candid, there is no current in-state matchup that floats my boat. So Jays-Rays it is.
Miller: It's got to be the Dodgers and the Padres, right? The best team in the National League against the youngest, the best player in the NL against the most exciting, the hegemonic powerhouse against the ascendant revolutionaries? It'd be even better if the Padres were within 10 games of first place, but there is a sense watching these two teams play that such a race is imminent and that these games are part of that story.
Schoenfield: This isn't answering the question, but maybe it's time for division realignment? How about a division with the Phillies, Pirates, Indians, Reds and Tigers? An East division with the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Nationals? A sisters-of-the-poor division with the Orioles, Rays, Marlins, A's and Royals? The Central Division would be the Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, Twins and Cardinals. Let's make it happen. Best in-state matchup? I'm with Sam: The Padres-Dodgers rivalry has a chance to be something special in the next five years.
You've had a few days to recharge (and change the batteries in your remote control). What else do you plan on keeping an eye on this weekend?
Matz: Twins at Indians. The Tribe have Clevinger, Trevor Bauer and Shane Bieber slated to go, while Minny has Gibson, Odorizzi and Berrios. So no excuses here about how this team got lucky and missed that team's number so-and-so starters. The Twins were one of the best teams in baseball during the first half, and Cleveland has been playing as well as anybody lately. These division rivals face off a total of 13 times from here on out. Depending on how this first series shakes out, it could make for a very interesting stretch run in the AL Central.
Miller: It's going to be a letdown to go from Home Run Derby Vlad to .741 OPS Vlad, and I don't believe Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is capable of letting me down any longer; ergo, I don't believe he will have a .741 OPS for long. Big weekend coming for him. Five homers in Yankee Stadium. (It suddenly occurs to me that, after his first All-Star Weekend appearance, in 2012, Mike Trout's second half also started in New York. The way he took over that stadium that weekend is perhaps my most enduring memory from his career to date.)
Schoenfield: We have a World Series rematch in Fenway with the Dodgers and Red Sox and it feels like a golden opportunity for the Red Sox to finally kick things into high gear. The Sox enter the second half with a four-game winning streak, so imagine the momentum they can get going with a sweep of the Dodgers -- because after that they play seven games against the Blue Jays and Orioles (but then 14 straight against the Rays and Yankees). But if the Dodgers go in and sweep, you could see things turn south for the Sox in a hurry, especially if they struggle in that 14-game stretch against Tampa and New York.
PICK 'EM TIME
The Battle of Bryce is renewed when Harper's old team, the Nationals, faces his current team, the Phillies, in a matchup with NL East and wild-card implications. But we're sticking with the Bryce storyline: Will Harper have more hits or strikeouts this weekend?
Matz: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin have all been locked in lately. Harper has more K's than hits against that trio in his career. He also has more K's than hits against the Nats this season. Most important, he has more K's than hits on the season -- and it's not particularly close. He'll finish the series with five whiffs and four knocks.
Miller: With Strasburg, Corbin and Scherzer starting those three games? You'd have to really believe that Harper rises to the moment to bet on hits.
Schoenfield: Harper has hit pretty well against the Nats so far in 11 games: .270/.449/.514, with 12 walks and 13 strikeouts (and 10 hits). Seems like the Nats have pitched him pretty carefully, which means more walks and fewer hits. So I'll go strikeouts.
The wild and wacky NL Central features a Pirates-Cubs matchup at Wrigley. Pittsburgh took three of four at home vs. Chicago last week. Will the Cubbies turn it around and win the series this weekend?
Matz: Among NL teams, only the Dodgers were better at home than the Cubs during the first half of the season. The Pirates held their own on the road (22-24), but holding their own won't get it done this weekend. Cubs take two of three.
Miller: This is the only good division race we have right now. It's playing out exactly as we'd all hoped it would at the beginning of the season, with all five teams playing well but not too well, all five teams within a winning streak of first place and a losing streak of last. I do think the Cubs will ultimately win the division -- on paper they're probably the best team, they've played the best (i.e., they have the best run differential) and they've got the slim lead in the standings -- but I think it's more likely they spend at least a day in fourth place than they run away with it. The Cubs' three starters this weekend -- Yu Darvish, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana -- all have ERAs between 4.90 and 5.40 over the past 50 days. I'll take Pittsburgh here.
It's a World Series rematch this weekend at Fenway as the Dodgers face the Red Sox, with the finale on Sunday Night Baseball (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). Who wins?
Matz: Boston hasn't done that well against southpaws this season. In related news, L.A.'s Sunday starter (Hyun-Jin Ryu) throws with his southern paw. As for the Dodgers, they seem to crush paws of all directions. I'll take the Tinseltowners.
Miller: The Red Sox pitching staff got a week of rest; the Dodgers sent their three aces to Cleveland. It's pretty clear the Dodgers are the better team this year -- hence the disproportionate All-Star representation -- but the Red Sox have home field in this series, more urgency in their current situation and the fuller benefit of the four-day break, so I'll pick them.
Schoenfield: It looks like Ryu versus David Price on Sunday night. Price has quietly been very good, with a 3.24 ERA/2.84 FIP. He hasn't allowed a home run in his past six starts and has really had just one bad outing all season. Ryu, of course, has been the best pitcher in baseball, with just that one bad outing at Coors Field. So it will be a low-scoring game, the bullpens will come in and ... the Dodgers will win.
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: Shohei Ohtani
Miller: Vlad Guerrero Jr.
Schoenfield: Eugenio Suarez
Matz: Matthew Boyd
Miller: Charlie Morton
Schoenfield: Masahiro Tanaka