The Week Ahead: Like it or not, Interleague play is back

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Remember the novelty of Interleague play when it first came into existence back in 1997?

Fans in Atlanta could see the New York Yankees in person. NL greats like Barry Bonds and John Smoltz would make appearances in AL cities. And places with multiple teams playing in separate leagues – like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and the Bay Area – had the rare chance to see their local rivals square off on the diamond.

Of course most of that excitement has worn off by now. You don’t even need the MLB Network or a satellite dish to watch the Yankees just about every week. A simple television setup that includes ESPN, TBS and FOX will do just fine. And if you have more exotic tastes – Pirates anyone? – you can watch almost any game on the Internet.

But even if Interleague baseball has sort of worn out its usefulness, it, like Spencer Pratt, is not going away anytime soon.

So prepare yourself for the return of Interleague play for a 13th straight season beginning with a host of three-game series this weekend. And unlike The Hills you’ll actually get some matchups worth watching, including Yankees-Mets, Red Sox-Phillies, Angels-Cardinals, Giants-A’s and Tigers-Dodgers.

Those are some pretty good showdowns, and it’s all just a teaser for a much more extensive run of Interleague games covering the bulk of June. Sure, some of the excitement has worn off. And perhaps it takes away a little bit of novelty from the All-Star game and World Series. But it will still be a treat.

The shine may be off the apple, but it still tastes pretty good.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH (non-interleague)

Red Sox at Yankees, May 17-18: Wait didn’t these guys just play? Lighten up Francis, that was more than a week ago. Besides, this is only a two-game series, and the matchup ESPN loves the most (which means YOU WILL LOVE, IT TOO!) will only happen 10 more times this season. This is barring, of course, some sort of playoff matchup.

Giants at Padres, May 17-18: The Giants enter the week on a three-game winning streak to pull within 1/2-game of the NL West-leading Padres. (Yes, you read that right). If you like pitching, defense and speed (except for Bengie Molina) this series is for you.

Rays at Yankees, May 19-20: The two best teams in baseball – at least if you go by overall record and things like this — square off in the Bronx. Too bad it’s only a two-game series.

Twins at Red Sox, May 19-20: A tasty treat between one team that used to be great and another that could be on its way to greatness. I’ll let you figure out which is which. And I pity any left-handed hitters in Thursday’s Francisco Liriano-Jon Lester matchup.

Rockies at Astros, May 19-20: OK so this isn’t a great matchup by any means, but in the same way that every team is represented in the All-Star game, I aim to mention every team in this space at least once this season. So congratulations, Astros, this is your day! At least we have a Roy Oswalt-Ubaldo Jimenez matchup to look forward to on Thursday.

ON THE TUBE
Monday, 7:05 p.m. ET: Red Sox at Yankees (ESPN)
Wednesday, 7:05 p.m.: Rays at Yankees (ESPN)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Cubs at Rangers (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Tigers at Dodgers (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Yankees at Mets (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Red Sox at Phillies (FOX)
 Sunday, 1:35 p.m.: Red Sox at Phillies (TBS)
Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: Yankees at Mets (ESPN)
*Check local listings

And for those of you who have asked for a schedule of MLB Network games, you may find that here.

Are you on Twitter? You can follow Bob here, and get all your HBT updates here.

Jose Canseco to join NBC Sports California as an A’s analyst

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Hey, I have a new coworker: Jose Canseco has been hired by NBC Sports California as an Athletics pregame analyst.

OK, maybe he’s not technically a coworker, as the folks at NBC Sports California — formerly CSN Bay Area — and I do not hang out at the water cooler, have potlucks in the conference room or exchange secret Santa gifts at Christmas time, but dang it, I’m gonna TELL people I work with Jose Canseco. The only downside will be people assuming that, because he and I are on the same team, my performance is something less than authentic. Or, perhaps, Canseco may write another book and tell all of my secrets.

Anyway, Canseco will be part of NBC Sports California’s A’s Pregame Live and A’s Postgame Live shows. Live TV can be hard. I’ve done a bit of it, and there is certainly more to that gig than meets the eye. You can’t always prepare for what happens on the fly. I’m sure Canseco will do well, however, as he’s great with coming up with the best stuff off the top of his head.

2017 Preview: Cleveland Indians

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Cleveland Indians.

The Cleveland Indians almost won the World Series without their best hitter for the whole season and two of their starting pitchers for the playoffs. This year that hitter — Michael Brantley — is back and the starters — Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — are healthy. Oh, and they added arguably the best free agent bat available in Edwin Encarnacion.

Baseball teams love to downplay their expectations, but given where the Indians are at the moment, anything less than another American League Pennant will have to feel like a disappointment, right? Fortunately for the Indians, they stand as the favorites to do just that.

They didn’t lose much in the offseason. Yes, World Series hero Rajai Davis is gone, but the Indians outfield will be fine if Brantley remains healthy. Mike Napoli‘s loss will be felt but it will be made up for with Encarnacion’s bat and probably then some. Coco Crisp left too, but he was not a key part of the equation.

The biggest losses are guys from last year who will start the year on the disabled list, most notably Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. Kipnis is just starting to work out following time off to rest his sore shoulder. Chisenhall ran into a wall the other day and is being evaluated. There is no sense that either will miss extended time, however.

Otherwise, the lineup should score a lot of runs, with on-base machines Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor setting the table for Encarnacion, Brantley and Carlos Santana, who is entering his walk year. The Indians trailed only the Red Sox in runs scored in the American League last year and they should score a lot of runs this year as well.

The strength of the club, however, remains its pitching. Corey Kluber looked like his old Cy Young self last year, particularly in the playoffs. Danny Salazar built on his excellent 2015 season in the first half before falling prey to injury. Carlos Carrasco posted an ERA+ of 141 before breaking his hand and Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer both stood out for fourth and fifth starters.

The bullpen is excellent too, as relief ace Andrew Miller is joined by Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and newcomer Boone Logan make up one of the relief corps in baseball.

Pitcher health is probably the biggest uncertainty for any contender, but the Indians have the best pitching in the AL if everyone stays healthy. And maybe even if one or two guys don’t.

It’s hard to find much fault with the 2017 Cleveland Indians. They are the class of their division and, while the slog of the regular season turns a lot of surefire contenders into hash before it’s all said and done, there is no reason to look at the Indians right now and think of them as anything other than the best team in the American League.

Prediction: First place, American League Central.