Beyond the goings-on north of the border, we've got a playoff rematch from last season and a big AL East rematch from last weekend, among other intriguing series. Here's what we're excited about this weekend and how we think things will play out.
Two of the AL power teams meet as the Indians face the Astros, with the series finale on Sunday Night Baseball (ESPN, 7 p.m.). If you had to pick one pair, which team's left side of the infield would you take: Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman of Houston or Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez of Cleveland?
Sam Miller: Not Tatis/Machado? (No, not Tatis/Machado, not quite.) At this precise moment, with Lindor still catching up after an injured spring, and Ramirez still in a serious rut, I'd go with the Astros' pair. But give me any longer time frame than this precise moment, and I'll take Cleveland's. There are quite possibly three Hall of Famers in this group -- I couldn't for the life of me say who I'm predicting won't make it -- but Lindor could be an inner-circle inductee, one of the 30 or 40 greatest players of all time and maybe the one active player most likely to elevate to the Mookie & Mike tier.
David Schoenfield: Ramirez hit his second home run Wednesday, but that only underscores what Sam pointed out: He has been slumping for a long time now. Since last Aug. 18, he has played 61 games and hit .173/.290/.283. That's a long stretch of not just terrible production for a superstar, but terrible production for Hanley Ramirez, and the Indians just released Hanley. Until Jose starts hitting, the answer for 2019 is Correa and Bregman.
Eddie Matz: Injury or no injury, Lindor was my preseason pick to win the AL MVP. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it. On top of that, if we're talking about left sides of infields, how can we not factor in defense? Since the start of 2016, Bregman and Correa have combined for minus-three runs saved. Meanwhile, Lindor and Ramirez are at plus-40. Granted, most of that is Lindor (he's a defensive Paul Simon, and Ramirez is clearly Art Garfunkel), but duos are duos. And I'm taking Cleveland's here.
The Pirates-Dodgers series should be interesting. L.A. leads the NL in runs scored and OPS, and Pittsburgh's pitching has been outstanding (3.29 team ERA, MLB-best 2.7 WAR for SPs). How long can the Pirates' pitchers keep it up?
Miller: Jameson Taillon was the much-talked-up breakout ace candidate this offseason -- and he was easy to talk up, on account of his having already broken out in the second half last year -- but I also had at least one smart friend giddily high on each of Joe Musgrove, Jordan Lyles and Trevor Williams. That's to say that the latter trio's excellent pitching isn't totally out of nowhere. But it's also to note that those giddy forecasts were outlier opinions, and my friends aren't actually that smart. Some regression is due soon.
Schoenfield: Is the rotation going to have a 2.45 ERA all season? No. Does it have a chance to be one of the three best in the National League? Yes. Their dominance is a little unconventional for 2019-style baseball as the rotation ranks just 17th in the majors in strikeout rate, but they throw strikes and have induced weak contact thanks to the highest chase rate so far. Speaking of second-half breakouts, Trevor Williams now has a 1.67 ERA over his past 18 starts. He just might be really good, getting ground balls with that sinker.
Matz: Pitcher WAR? Are we really leaning on pitcher WAR here? Regardless of what stat you choose to measure the success of Pittsburgh's pitching, the honeymoon's about to end. Don't get me wrong -- the Pirates' rotation is definitely better than most people realize. But the schedule has been kind so far. Half of Pittsburgh's first 22 games came against teams that are severely challenged offensively (Reds, Tigers, Giants). In those games, Pirates pitchers gave up an average of 2.3 runs. In their other 11 games against legitimate lineups (Cardinals, Cubs, Nationals, Diamondbacks), they gave up 5.4 runs per contest. So what's up next for the Bucs? Seventeen straight against teams ranked in the top half of MLB in scoring. Fifteen of those 17 are against clubs ranked in the top seven (Dodgers, Rangers, Cardinals, Diamondbacks). Gulp.
You may have heard some big-swinging rookie is about to make his debut in Toronto. We've got a whole roundtable devoted to Vlad Guerrero Jr., but what do you think we'll see this weekend at Rogers Centre?
Miller: Probably a lot of camera cutaways to a familiar Hall of Famer in the crowd and, hopefully, a lot of swinging. I don't think there's any question Guerrero is going to be a very good ballplayer -- even within the realm of You Can't Predict Baseball, there are limits to what you can't predict -- but what I'm expecting are signs that Guerrero will be a unique, mold-breaking offensive force, a batter who does things nobody else does in a way nobody else does. I expect to see some really fun two-pitch at-bats: first-pitch fastball at the up-and-away edges of the strike zone, fouled away; second-pitch slider scraping the bottom of the zone, lined off the wall. Maybe right through the wall.
Or something like that. The truth is that most of us have only the caricatured vision of Guerrero, informed by incredulous scouting write-ups, a few absurd highlight videos and the Pavlovian response to hearing the name "Vladimir Guerrero" again. This weekend, we'll get to see him fill out the vision more completely and start to become his own ballplayer with his own name.
Schoenfield: Instead of sad Maple Leafs fans, we'll see happy Blue Jays fans! It's weird. That 2015-16 playoff run already feels like another generation ago (in a way, it was, since the Jays have turned over almost the entire roster). Vladdy Jr. will inject some life not just in the lineup, but in a fan base that -- as we saw in the 2015 playoffs -- will support this team with enthusiasm if there's a winning product to cheer. Guerrero won't turn the Jays into instant contenders, but he's going to hit and has a chance to become a transcendent force at the plate. It all starts this weekend in maybe the most-anticipated debut since Bryce Harper.
Matz: It should be a nice soft landing for Vladito (not that he needs one). The first two starters he'll face (Brett Anderson and Mike Fiers) both rank in the bottom 10 in the American League in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and Oakland's Sunday starter (Chris Bassitt) isn't a big bat-misser, either. Combine all that with VGJ's supernatural control of the strike zone, and good-ish things should happen: Guerrero goes 3-for-11 with a walk and a double. And an error.
Writer's choice: What's the one thing (other than Baby Vlad) you're most looking forward to seeing this weekend?
Miller: Cody Bellinger's .400 chase? I know that sounds absurd, since it's only late April. Bellinger isn't even a high-average type of hitter, and I haven't really cared about batting average in forever. But I love anything that creates day-to-day tension and, other than a long hitting streak, nothing in baseball is as tense, as easy to follow, and as unforgiving as a .400 chase. I'm going to enjoy it while I can, since these days .400 chases almost never make it very far into May.
Schoenfield: The Rays-Red Sox series at Fenway will be interesting as Boston pulled a sweep last weekend in Tampa, but I want to see how Jacob deGrom fares Friday against the Brewers. One day his elbow is "barking," then a few days later he's suddenly OK. He was brilliant in his first two starts (no runs, 24 strikeouts) and not brilliant for two starts before his IL stint (nine runs, five home runs, 12 strikeouts). Needless to say, the Mets need brilliant deGrom if they're going to win the NL East.
Matz: Kirby Yates flirting with history. It probably won't happen, but Yates has a chance to set the record for most saves in a single month. San Diego's closer -- who took over after the Padres traded Brad Hand last July -- is at 12 saves right now, most in the majors. If he saves all three games against Washington, he'll tie the record shared by Lee Smith, John Wetteland and Chad Cordero. If Yates gets four saves in San Diego's five remaining April games, he'll have the record all to himself. And if that happens, there's a good chance that the Padres (the Padres!!!) will have entered May atop the NL West.
PICK 'EM TIME
Vlad Guerrero Jr.'s debut in Toronto is generating a lot of buzz, but it is fighting for attention up north with the Raptors in the playoffs and the Maple Leafs' postmortems.
Attendance at Rogers Centre for the three-game series: Over or under 65,000?
Miller: Under. Guerrero's late debut merely reinforces the larger truth that Toronto's front office doesn't believe this season is worth caring about. He's certainly worth a bump, but the Blue Jays drew only 60K Friday-through-Sunday in their opening weekend of the season.
Schoenfield: I'll go over. I think they can get an extra 7,000 in walk-up sales over that first weekend.
Matz: Over. Toronto drew just under 60K in each of its first two weekend series at home. I have to think that Guerrero is worth at least an extra couple of thousand per game. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Jays draw 30,000 for his debut.
Two of the top-scoring offenses in the AL meet when the Mariners host the Rangers (Friday, 10:10 p.m., and Sunday, 4:10 p.m., on ESPN+). Who will have more total bases this weekend: Texas' Joey Gallo or Seattle's Mitch Haniger?
Miller: Or better, who will allow more total bases this weekend, the Rangers (5.60 team ERA) or the Mariners (4.33)? Gallo is certainly having a moment -- his exit velo is 5 mph higher than last year, and the highest in baseball -- but Haniger at home is the right bet here.
Schoenfield: Haniger is having a weird season. He's striking out more and walking less than last year, but his isolated power is way up, and he has 19 extra-base hits already. Gallo is crushing baseballs, however. Plus, Yusei Kikuchi will have an abbreviated outing Friday, and Marco Gonzales started Thursday, so Gallo should feast on some right-handed pitching. I'll go with Gallo.
Matz: Haniger has always crushed Texas pitching (1.016 career OPS). He also has great numbers against Saturday starter Mike Minor. Gallo will get his, but Haniger will get more.
Who do you like Sunday night -- Indians or Astros?
Miller: I like the Astros every day of the week, every time of the day, and against every team in baseball.
Schoenfield: Carlos Carrasco seems like a wild card since he left because of a leg injury after four innings in his previous start. Wade Miley has been pretty good, and with Ramirez struggling and Lindor just getting going, the Cleveland lineup remains weak. Astros.
Matz: Carrasco is banged up, and the Astros have lost exactly once at home this season. Plus, they're the Astros. I'll take Houston.
TWO TRUE OUTCOMES
Each week, we'll 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.
Editor's note: One of our contestants has asked to have some information formally put on the record. The floor recognizes Mr. Schoenfield:
Schoenfield: I would like to point out that I did not receive credit for the two home runs Eddie Rosario hit last Thursday, AFTER I made him my selection. Granted, he still hit three for the weekend, but crediting him with him five home runs would further cement the genius of the pick. So. As for this week, what the heck: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.