Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a look at the topics shaping the week ahead in Major League Baseball.
1. A Ray of light
The perception might have been that Joe Maddon was abandoning a declining situation to latch on with an improving one last fall. But, for now, the Rays not only have a better record than the Cubs, they also lead the AL East -- a position they'll try to defend against the Blue Jays and Red Sox this week.
Maddon is happy for his old club.
"I haven't seen them on TV much, really, but I read and I stay in touch with some of the coaches," he said last week. "If Cobber [Alex Cobb] was there with [Drew] Smyly right now, I'd say they'd be leading [the East] comfortably. Matty Mo's [Matt Moore] on the way, too."
Moore, working his way back from Tommy John surgery, made his fourth and possibly penultimate rehab start Sunday for Triple-A Durham. Jake Odorizzi is recovering from an oblique issue. Adding those reinforcements to the Chris Archer-led rotation will make this Rays club, which is a Major League-best 16-6 dating back to May 30, all the more dangerous.
"It just sounds like they're playing the same game -- pitching and defense and getting the hits when they need them and running the bases well," Maddon said. "I think they're getting some impact out of unlikely sources, and that's what they needed right now."
Yeah, who saw Joey Butler coming? The 29-year-old rookie DH was a Minor League free agent signing who has paid enormous dividends with a .336/.371/.531 slash through 151 plate appearances.
Steven Souza doesn't qualify as an "unlikely" source, because the Rays believed in him when they acquired him as part of the three-way swap that sent Wil Myers to San Diego, but the fact that the Rays have gotten far better value out of Souza (1.2 WAR, 14 home runs) than the Padres have gotten out of the injured Myers (0.5 WAR, five homers) might qualify as a surprise to some.
And after hitting into tough luck the last two years (.262 BABIP), Logan Forsythe has become the offensive weapon the Rays envisioned him to be, with a .280/.358/.435 slash.
The contributions from these less-heralded guys have offset the second straight substandard showing from franchise face Evan Longoria, whose sore left wrist has contributed to a .766 OPS that is 74 points below his career norm.
"In Longo's defense -- and he's not going to say this -- but the wrist is an issue," rookie manager Kevin Cash said. "He's not the same guy. But for Souz and Butler and Logan and a lot of guys stepping up at different times, we need that."
Cash, too, deserves credit for getting the most out of a club that has endured what could have been debilitating injuries. He's in the early Manager of the Year conversation, and that's all the more impressive considering the high standard set by his predecessor.
2. A Maddon-ing division
As far as Maddon's current club is concerned, the Cubbies have made their anticipated surge in the NL Central standings and become a winning ballclub this year. They are very much in the Wild Card running.
But a 37-30 record that would put them in prime position in the NL East or NL West is only good enough for seven games back of those ridiculous Cardinals in the Central.
After a four-game homestand against the West-leading Dodgers, the Cubs travel to face the Cardinals this weekend for what I'll call the Series of the Week.
"It's tough when they're that good and not blinking," Maddon said of the Cards. "But it's a long year. We haven't hit a really good streak yet. We've had some mini-streaks, we've been teetering, but I think there's a really good streak within us, and that's when you have to make up some ground. So of course I'm not losing any hope. I was part of a team [that was] 9 1/2 out on Sept. 1. So it's hard to get me to go into negative town, it really is."
It's easy to be positive about the Cubs with that lineup loaded with 25-and-under talent. The Cubs are so stacked at the moment that they don't have a position for Kyle Schwarber, who took advantage of a brief DH stint to go 8-for-his-first-22 with a homer and triple in his first five big-league games. They were already getting above-average output from highly touted rookies Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, so Schwarber fit right in.
"It's been nice," Maddon said of his young bats. "It's been a relatively smooth transition to this point and that speaks to the front office and how they've done it. I have a bunch of really high level young players that are also good character guys. They're on board."
3. "I want to see you be Brave"
Just think: If the Braves had any kind of a bullpen, they'd probably be leading the NL East right now. They entered the week with the second-highest relief WHIP (1.37) and the second-highest relief ERA (4.51) in the NL. The bullpen has been responsible for 15 of their losses.
And before you say keeping Craig Kimbrel would have fixed that, take note of his statistical regression and Cameron Maybin's surprise 111 OPS+. So far, the Braves have fared very well in that deal, even before you get into the prospect haul acquired.
Anyway, even with less-than-rousing relief, the Braves have managed to hover around .500 all year, which is plenty enough to be a contender in the weak East for now. They just swept a series against the Mets over the weekend, and now they've got a chance to make up ground on the Nats, who they trail by just two games, with a three-game series that begins Tuesday in D.C.
The Braves' John Hart-led front office deserves credit for doing exactly as it intended with the offseason overhaul. They dealt away Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis and, yes, have improved on offense with a squad that's more contact-oriented and less strikeout-prone. And Hart and assistant GM John Coppolella might have struck gold again over the weekend when they essentially bought a top prospect (Touki Toussaint) by taking on $10 million worth of Bronson Arroyo (and dealing away infielder Phil Gosselin).
Atlanta probably doesn't have enough to win the East outright this year, but, surprisingly, they are one league-average bullpen away from being in front of the Mets and Nationals.
4. Scher thing
Max Scherzer's last two starts? Eighteen innings, no runs, one hit, one walk, one hit by pitch (say it like Jerry Seinfeld says "Newman!": Tabata!) and 26 strikeouts.
Max Scherzer's next start? Friday against a Phillies team that entered the week with the second-lowest batting average (.236) in the NL.
So, yeah, you might want to try to check that one out.
One of the very few knocks on Scherzer going into free agency was that he doesn't finish games (he had just one career complete game at that point), but I'd say this past week-plus has answered that issue. Scherzer is the only pitcher since the deadball era to post a game score of at least 97 in consecutive starts. He darn near went all Johnny Vander Meer on us.
Maybe the Vander Meer family ought to be on notice when Scherzer takes the mound Friday. The statistical odds of his having another outing akin to his last two are extraordinarily thin. But the way Scherzer is controlling all his pitches and using a wipeout slider to great effect right now makes you wonder.
And bonus: Jose Tabata won't be around to screw anything up.
5. Quick hits
- All right, had a little fun at Tabata's expense, but, really, the hate directed at him in the Twitterverse was way overblown. For one, it's not Tabata's job to preserve history, it's his job to get on base. He put up one heck of a tough at-bat before Scherzer's slider ran inside. And watching that HBP in super-slow replay doesn't do justice to the real-time reaction required when you're standing in the box.
- Am I the only one rooting for a Cardinals-Astros World Series now?
- The aforementioned Cubs-Dodgers series this week is nice showcase of the NL's leading Rookie of the Year candidates -- Bryant and Joc Pederson. And Dodgers' shortstop prospect Corey Seager might be the next guy to join this season's great prospect promotion party. You can come up with a pretty darned good -- and worthy -- All-Star team just from the pool of guys 25 and under.
- A-Rod joined the 3,000-hit club last week. As explained in this piece, there aren't that many active guys likely to join him.
- The still-sagging Mariners surprisingly made Edgar Martinez their hitting coach over the weekend. With a .295 team OBP, you have to hope the M's can follow the lead of the guy who logged a career .418 OBP. Remind me again why Edgar is not in the Hall of Fame?
- Life isn't fair. The A's entered the week with the same run differential (plus-34) as the Yankees.
- Cole Hamels had to be scratched from his scheduled start Friday because of hamstring discomfort, but he's on track to rejoin the Phillies' rotation Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. Guessing some scouts will be there.
- Finally, as a baseball writer, I can only hope David Price is reading my stuff while using the bathroom between innings.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.