I love the NBA, and the Association has been hogging the sports spotlight ever since the draft when Chicago traded Jimmy Butler to Minnesota. On Tuesday, Gordon Hayward, a very good player but hardly a superstar, got a four-year, $128 million free-agent deal to leave Utah for Golden State. The problem for the NBA is that there's really only two teams as things stand right now who can win it all next year and they are Golden State and Cleveland. Superstars are going to play with their friends for less money (Chris Paul to Houston, for example) to form superteams. If you aren't a fan of one of those clubs, you are out of luck. Now look at baseball. The Minnesota Twins lost a league-high 103 games last year, didn't add any big-ticket free agents this offseason and are in the AL Central (+900 to win at BetOnline ) and wild-card hunt. Arizona was 69-93 last year and is battling the Dodgers for the NL West lead - the Snakes at a minimum should get a wild-card spot. They are +600 to win the pennant. Milwaukee has the lowest payroll in baseball but leads the NL Central (+350 to win). My point being: the NBA offseason is wild, but it generally doesn't change much in terms of top contenders. Baseball's regular season continues to be much more interesting and parity is a good thing.
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Pirates at Cubs ( -167, TBA )
The lone matinee on the schedule with a 2:20 p.m. ET start and on the MLB Network. The Cubs have recalled Kyle Schwarber from Triple-A for this final series for the break (he was in the lineup Thursday for a makeup game vs. the Brewers). Schwarber appeared to have found his confidence down in the minors. The Cubs could use a little positive momentum heading into the break and Schwarber could help provide it. It's Eddie Butler on the mound for Chicago (4-3, 4.18). He has been about as good as the team could have hoped as a reclamation project. That said, Butler lasted only 3.2 innings last time out in Cincinnati and gave up four runs. He lost in Pittsburgh on June 16 (5.2 IP, 4 ER). Josh Bell is 2-for-3 with a triple and homer off him. The Pirates' Trevor Williams (3-3, 4.67) has allowed three earned or fewer in four straight starts. One of those was a no-decision vs. the Cubs opposite Butler on June 16 (5 IP, 3 ER). Addison Russell is 2-for-4 off him.
Key trends: The Pirates are 1-4 in Williams' past five in Game 1 of a series. The Cubs are 4-1 in Butler's past five in the same situation. The "over/under" has gone under in seven of Butler's past eight overall.
Early lean: Pirates.
Braves at Nationals (-265, 8.5)
If Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw starts on Sunday, as he's supposed to, that should make it a done deal that Washington's Max Scherzer gets the start in Tuesday's All-Star Game in Miami. Scherzer (10-5, 1.94) leads the NL in ERA, strikeouts (163), WHIP (0.77) and opponents' batting average (ridiculous .159). He shut out the Cardinals on two hits with 12 strikeouts over seven innings last time out, his eighth straight quality start. Scherzer is 1-1 with a 2.25 ERA in two starts this year against the Braves. Matt Kemp is just 6-for-41 off him with 11 strikeouts. Atlanta knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (6-5, 4.44) has allowed just two earned runs over 20 innings in his past three outings. He's 0-2 with a 7.79 ERA in three starts vs. Washington, though. Daniel Murphy is 4-for-6 with two homers against Dickey.
Key trends: The Nats are 6-1 in Scherzer's past seven vs. Atlanta. The under is 3-1-1 in Dickey's past five. It's 7-2 in Scherzer's past nine.
Early lean: Nats on runline and under.
Mets at Cardinals (-130, 8)
St. Louis reportedly is talking to Toronto about a potential trade for former AL MVP Josh Donaldson. That would cost plenty with Donaldson signed through next season, but the NL Central is wide open and the Cards want to go for it. The Jays, though, might opt to stand pat and try to contend despite being under .500. St. Louis starts Carlos Martinez (6-7, 3.15). He had been dominant in a four-start streak but allowed five runs and seven hits (season high) over five last time out in a loss to Washington. The Mets' Yoenis Cespedes is 3-for-9 off him with a homer. Jay Bruce is just 2-for-16. New York's Jacob deGrom (8-3, 3.55) will be on two days of extra rest. He was supposed to start Wednesday vs. Washington, but it was rained out and the Mets were off Thursday. DeGrom is 4-0 with an 0.84 ERA and 31 strikeouts over his last four starts.
Key trends: The Mets are 8-0 in deGrom's past eight on Friday. The Cards are 1-4 in Martinez's past five series openers. The under is 4-0 in deGrom's past four.
Early lean: Like under better than side (Mets).
Brewers at Yankees (-169, 10.5)
Also an MLB Network game. Milwaukee adds the designated hitter. Yankees DH Matt Holliday (virus) said he's aiming to return to the Yankees' lineup Friday. He landed on the 10-day disabled list June 25 with a viral infection but has been running and taking batting practice. Holliday has been a wise free-agent signing, batting .262 with 15 homers and 47 RBIs in 68 games. The Yanks start rookie lefty Jordan Montgomery (6-4, 3.62). He has been arguably the team's best pitcher for about a month with a 4-0 record and 2.59 ERA in his past five. No Brewers have seen him. Milwaukee's Junior Guerra (1-3, 4.93) has lasted just four innings in each of his past two and surrendered a combined 12 runs and 16 hits. His velocity is down. Holliday is the only Yankee to have faced him, going 2-for-3 with two RBIs.
Key trends: The Brewers are 10-4 in Guerra's past 14 on the road. The Yanks are 4-0 in their past four series openers. The over is 5-0 in Montgomery's past five.
Early lean: Yankees and over.
White Sox at Rockies (-181, 12.5)
Only the 13th all-time meeting between these two. The Sox lead the series, 7-5, including a 6-3 record at Coors Field. Chicago loses the DH, usually Matt Davidson. Colorado put first baseman/outfielder Ian Desmond on the DL earlier this week but is expected to activate outfielder Gerardo Parra from the DL on Friday in this interleague matchup. Parra has been out since early June with a quad injury. He was off to a nice start, batting .318 with six homers and 28 RBIs in 148 at-bats. The Rox are expected to go with rookie German Marquez (4-5, 4.41), who has been shaky in his past two and could lose his spot soon. He has never faced the White Sox. Chicago lefty Derek Holland (5-8, 4.52) has been in the big leagues since 2009, but it's his first look at Colorado. Holland is fading with a 1-5 record, 7.91 ERA and 10 home runs allowed over his last seven starts.
Key trends: The Sox are 0-6 in their past six interleague road games. The Rockies are 1-4 in Marquez's past five series openers. The over is 8-0 in Holland's past eight on the road.
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