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April 4 Weekend Series Rankings: NL West, NL East rivals meet

By Mike Axisa | Baseball Writer

More MLB: Scoreboard | Standings | Probable Pitchers | Sortable Stats | Odds

The first series of the regular season is in the book for all 30 clubs, so the daily grind of day in, day out baseball has set in. It's beautiful. Here is a quick reminder of what we're doing with these rankings every Monday and Friday:

The idea is simple: We're ranking the series (plural!) in tiers representated by delicious sandwiches. The first tier, meaning the best series, will be footlongs. The second tier is six-inch heroes, the third tier is wraps, the last little sliders. The bigger the sandwich, the more important the series. Got it? Of course you do.

The rankings are completely subjective, of course. They're based on the importance of the series, the pitching matchups, maybe a history of bad blood, all of that and more. If you disagree, great. Tell us about it in the comments.

The National League dominates the top of the rankings this weekend as rivals from all three divisions meet for a three-game series. Here are this weekend's rankings.

San Francisco Giants atLos Angeles Dodgers

San Francisco Giants (3-1) at Los Angeles Dodgers (4-1)
Friday: RHP Ryan Vogelsong (0-0) vs. LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu (1-0)
Saturday: LHP Madison Bumgarner (0-1) vs. LHP Paul Maholm (0-0)
Sunday: RHP Matt Cain (0-0) vs. RHP Zack Greinke (1-0)
Why Watch?
The Giants-Dodgers rivalry might be the best in baseball right now. These series always seem to feature great pitching performances -- San Francisco is very happy Clayton Kershaw is out with his back injury considering how he's dominated them throughout his career -- and late-inning dramatics. The Dodgers are a little vulnerable now with Kershaw and Brian Wilson hurt, so this is a good opportunity for the Giants to bank some important head-to-head wins in the NL West race.

What To Watch For: Brandon Belt, who has hit three home runs in his team's first three games. He broke out with 17 homers and a 142 OPS+ last year, so he's looking very much like a left-handed complement to the right-handed Buster Posey.

Atlanta Braves atWashington Nationals

Atlanta Braves (2-1) at Washington Nationals (3-0)
Friday: RHP David Hale (0-0) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-0)
Saturday: RHP Julio Teheran (0-1) vs. RHP Stephen Strasburg (0-0)
Sunday: LHP Alex Wood (1-0) vs. RHP Taylor Jordan (0-0)
Why Watch?
Just about everyone expects these two clubs to battle for the NL East crown this season, and this is their first meeting of the year. The Braves were hit with some pretty serious pitching injuries this spring, so their patchwork rotation will have to match up with two of the Nationals' aces. Zimmermann is nursing and illness and may not pitch on Friday, however. The division race figures to be close and these head-to-head games are very important regardless of the time of year.

What To Watch For: Zimmermann's health. It's just the flu, but he was scratched from Thursday's start and send home to Washington ahead of the team. If he can't pitch in the series opener, the club will likely have a bullpen game on Friday -- long reliever Ross Detwiler threw two innings on Thursday -- which could trickle down and affect the entire series.

St. Louis Cardinals atPittsburgh Pirates

St. Louis Cardinals (2-1) at Pittsburgh Pirates (2-1)
Friday: RHP Shelby Miller (0-0) vs. RHP Gerrit Cole (0-0)
Saturday: RHP Joe Kelly (0-0) vs. LHP Francisco Liriano (0-0)
Sunday: RHP Adam Wainwright (1-0) vs. RHP Edinson Volquez (1-0)
Why Watch?
This is a rematch of last year's NLDS, which went the full five games. Both teams made some tweaks over the winter but, by and large, these are the same two rosters as 2013. The cores are the same, that's for sure. Miller vs. Cole is the best pitching matchup of the weekend and if we hurry up, there is probably still enough time to petition St. Louis to start Wainwright on Saturday instead of Sunday. Wainwright vs. Liriano would be outstanding.

What To Watch For: Volquez, who was given a one-year deal worth $5 million this winter despite being one of the very worst pitchers in baseball last season. The Pirates lost A.J. Burnett and while having full seasons of Cole, Charlie Morton and Wandy Rodriguez will help, they need Volquez to be something more than awful if they want to challenge the Cardinals for the NL Central crown. He was terrible this spring (9.64 ERA) and the St. Louis lineup is unforgiving.

Baltimore Orioles atDetroit Tigers

Baltimore Orioles (1-2) at Detroit Tigers (2-0)
Friday: RHP Miguel Gonzalez (0-0) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (0-0)
Saturday: RHP Bud Norris (0-0) vs. RHP Rick Porcello (0-0)
Sunday: RHP Chris Tillman (0-0) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (0-0)
Why Watch?
The Orioles played the market very well this winter, adding Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz on affordable contracts late in the offseason. Cruz has already hit two home runs and the moves made them serious threats for a wild-card spot. They dropped two of three to the Red Sox earlier this week and now face another reigning division winner in the Tigers. This will be another nice, early test for Baltimore.

What To Watch For: Will the Tigers' offense click? They scored only four runs in their two games against the Royals, winning both in walk-off style. Ian Kinsler, Alex Gonzalez and Austin Jackson are off to nice starts, but just about everyone else has been slow in the early going, including defending two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera (1-for-7).

New York Yankees atToronto Blue Jays

New York Yankees (1-2) at Toronto Blue Jays (2-2)
Friday: RHP Masahiro Tanaka (0-0) vs. RHP Dustin McGowan (0-0)
Saturday: RHP Michael Pineda (0-0) vs. RHP R.A. Dickey (0-1)
Sunday: LHP CC Sabathia (0-1) vs. RHP Drew Hutchison (1-0)
Why Watch?
With all due respect to still only 25-year-old Pineda, who missed the last two seasons following shoulder surgery, this series is all about Masahiro Tanaka. The $155 million import (plus the $20 million release fee!) will make his MLB debut on Friday night and he'll be thrown right into the AL East fire. The Blue Jays can hit. Jose Bautista has been tearing the cover off the ball since the start of camp and Edwin Encarnacion is an underrated great hitter. This should be fun.

What To Watch For: Tanaka, of course. Yu Darvish struggled in his first MLB start (box score) and Daisuke Matsuzaka dominated in his (box score), so who knows how the latest Japanese star will handle the transition? We'll all get our first look at him tonight.

Texas Rangers atTampa Bay Rays

Texas Rangers (2-1) at Tampa Bay Rays (2-2)
Friday: LHP Joe Saunders (0-0) vs. RHP Jake Odorizzi (0-0)
Saturday: RHP Nick Martinez (0-0) vs. LHP David Price (1-0)
Sunday: RHP Yu Darvish (0-0) vs. RHP Alex Cobb (0-1)
Why Watch?
These two teams played a Game 163 to determine the second wild-card winner last year, a game in which Price threw a two-run complete-game. He is throwing the ball as well as he has at any other time in his career. The Rangers and Rays both figure to be in contention again and you know both teams want to win these head-to-head games so they can avoid another extra game come September.

What To Watch For: Darvish's return to the rotation. The start of his season was delayed by a stiff neck, so he's not coming back from a serious injury, but it is something that caused him to see a specialist and miss his Opening Day assignment. The Rangers are still without Matt Harrison and Derek Holland, so a healthy and productive Darvish is a must to remain in the race.

Milwaukee Brewers at Boston Red Sox

Milwaukee Brewers (1-2) at Boston Red Sox (2-1)
Friday: RHP Marco Estrada (0-0) vs. RHP Jake Peavy (0-0)
Saturday: RHP Wily Peralta (0-0) vs. RHP Clay Buchholz (0-0)
Sunday: RHP Yovani Gallardo (1-0) vs. LHP Jon Lester (0-1)
Why Watch?
For the first time since his 65-game Biogenesis suspension, Ryan Braun will be on the road and hear a chorus of boos. Fenway Park is known to be pretty vicious as well. He's really going to hear it. The Red Sox will also be at home for the first time this season and they'll receive their World Series rings on Friday.

What To Watch For: The Brewers only scored five runs in their three games against the Braves this week, and their offense is way too good to continue that. Their right-handed heavy lineup should break out with the help of the Green Monster this weekend.

Seattle Mariners at Oakland Athletics

Seattle Mariners (3-1) at Oakland Athletics (2-2)
Thursday: Athletics 3, Mariners 2 in 12 innings
Friday: RHP Chris Young (0-0) vs. RHP Dan Straily (0-0)
Saturday: RHP Felix Hernandez (1-0) vs. LHP Tommy Milone (0-0)
Sunday: RHP Erasmo Ramirez (1-0) vs. RHP Sonny Gray (0-0)
Why Watch?
Had Jim Johnson not melted down (twice) earlier this week, both clubs could have been 3-0 prior to meeting in last night's game. Coco Crisp gave the Athletics the win with a 12th inning walk-off solo homer. The Mariners dominated the Angels this week and are off to a very hot start while the A's are the two-time defending AL West champs. If Seattle wants to be the best, they've gotta beat the best.

What To Watch For: Given both his talent and inconsistent MLB career, I want to see if Justin Smoak's hot start is legit. He leads the league with seven runs driven in and had two hits in each of the three games against the Halos, including two doubles and two homers. Smoak did take an 0-for-4 on Thursday though.

San Diego Padres at Miami Marlins

San Diego Padres (1-2) at Miami Marlins (3-1)
Friday: LHP Eric Stults (0-0) vs. RHP Tom Koehler (0-0)
Saturday: RHP Andrew Cashner (0-0) vs. RHP Jose Fernandez (1-0)
Sunday: RHP Ian Kennedy (0-1) vs. RHP Nate Eovaldi (1-0)
Why Watch?
The Marlins scored 27 runs in their four-game series against the Rockies. They didn't score their 27th run until their 14th game in 2013. Can they keep up this pace? Probably not. Will I tune in so I can find out while watching Cashner vs. Fernandez and Eovaldi vs. Kennedy? You betcha.

What To Watch For: Chase Headley's bat. He battled a calf injury in spring training and has started the season very slow, going 1-for-12 with four strikeouts and two ground ball double plays. The Padres look like a team that can challenge for a wild-card spot this year, but they won't do that without Headley performing in a big way. Also, he's due to a become a free agent this winter, so the sooner he snaps out of his slump, the bigger the contract.

Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals

Chicago White Sox (2-1) at Kansas City Royals (0-2)
Friday: RHP Erik Johnson (0-0) vs. RHP RHP Jeremy Guthrie (0-0)
Saturday: LHP John Danks (0-0) vs. LHP Bruce Chen (0-0)
Sunday: LHP Chris Sale (0-0) vs. RHP James Shields (0-1)
Why Watch?
The first three games of the season did not go well for the Royals. They lost their first two games to the Tigers on walk-off hits and the third game was rained out, meaning young fireballer Yordano Ventura had his first start pushed back. Since Guthrie was originally scheduled to start the home opener, Ventura will work out of the bullpen until his next start. Bummer. Sale vs. Shields is still a dynamite pitching matchup.

What To Watch For: Royals catcher Salvador Perez has starred during the first week of 2014, going 5-for-7 with three doubles in the two games against Detroit. Young catchers usually need some time to make the adjustment from the minors to MLB, and Perez is now in his second full season. He's blossoming into one of the game's very best backstops.

Minnesota Twins at Cleveland Indians

Minnesota Twins (1-2) at Cleveland Indians (2-1)
Friday: RHP Danny Salazar (0-0) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (0-0)
Saturday: RHP Carlos Carrasco (0-0) vs. RHP Kyle Gibson (0-0)
Sunday: RHP Justin Masterson (0-0) vs. RHP Ricky Nolasco (0-1)
Why Watch?
The Indians come into the first home series of the season with two wins and one loss, but they could easily be 0-3 had Jim Johnson not imploded during his first week with the A's. These pitching matchups aren't all that exciting, but Salazar is one of the brightest young pitchers in the game and a reason to tune in. He had 65 strikeouts and 15 walks in 52 innings in 2013, his MLB debut.

What To Watch For: The Indians had the fifth best home record last season (51-30) and they're going to need similar success at Progressive Field in 2014 to hang with the Tigers (and possibly the Royals) in the AL Central. Three games against a bad team (sorry, Twins fans) is a great way to kick off the home schedule.

Cincinnati Reds at New York Mets

Cincinnati Reds (1-2) at New York Mets (0-3)
Friday: RHP Mike Leake (0-0) vs. RHP Jenrry Mejia (0-0)
Saturday: RHP Johnny Cueto (0-1) vs. RHP Dillon Gee (0-0)
Sunday: RHP Alfredo Simon (0-0) vs. LHP Jonathon Niese (0-0)
Why Watch?
Joey Votto and David Wright. Pretty simple. They are two of the very best players in all of baseball, and when they're both on the same field at the same time, it's something to watch and enjoy. Guys like Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson add to the excitement. Also, if you want to see a spectacularly bad bullpen, then you're probably going to want to watch this series. The Mets relief corps allowed 12 runs and 22 base-runners in 9 1/3 innings during their three-game series with the Nationals earlier this week.

What To Watch For: Billy Hamilton, who has looked completely overwhelmed at the plate so far this year. He's gone 0-for-12 with six strikeouts in his three games so far, so all those concerns about his ability to hit at the next level look very legitimate. Can't steal first base, kid.

Los Angeles Angels at Houston Astros

Los Angeles Angels (0-3) at Houston Astros (2-1)
Friday: RHP Garrett Richards (0-0) vs. RHP Lucas Harrell (0-0)
Saturday: LHP Tyler Skaggs (0-0) vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel (0-0)
Sunday: RHP Jered Weaver (0-1) vs. RHP Scott Feldman (1-0)
Monday: LHP C.J. Wilson (0-1) vs. RHP Jarred Cosart (1-0)
Why Watch?
The Angels didn't just get swept by the Mariners this week, they got completely dominated. Seattle outscored them 26-8 in the three games and won each by at least five runs. The Astros, meanwhile, are feeling pretty good about themselves after a successful series against the Yankees. Why watch this one? Well, that Mike Trout guy is pretty good.

What To Watch For: Two young pitchers, Skaggs and Cosart. The Angels tinkered with Skaggs' mechanics in the spring after acquiring him in a trade with the D-Backs, and all of a sudden he was throwing 93-94 pretty regularly, which is a huge bonus for him. Cosart has huge stuff, and after walking more batters than he struck out in 2013 (33/35 K/BB), he didn't walk a single batter in five shutout innings against New York on Wednesday. They aren't going head-to-head this weekend, but Skaggs and Cosart figure to have many battles over the next few years.

Arizona Diamondbacks at Colorado Rockies

Arizona Diamondbacks (1-5) at Colorado Rockies (1-3)
Friday: RHP Randall Delgado (0-0) vs. RHP Juan Nicasio (0-0)
Saturday: LHP Jorge De La Rosa (0-1) vs. RHP Brandon McCarthy (0-0)
Sunday: LHP Brett Anderson (0-1) vs. LHP Wade Miley (0-1)
Why Watch?
These two teams have played 10 games between them in 2014, and they are 2-8 combined. One win apiece. Futility can be fun to some extent, but the D-Backs in particular are better than their 1-5 record. The Rockies ... kind of a mess. Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo in Coors Field will be a blast. I set the over/under on their combined homers this series at 4.5.

What To Watch For: McCarthy came out in his first start throwing harder than ever before, sitting 91.4 mph with his cutter and 93.1 mph with his sinker according to PitchFX. In the past he sat 88-91 with both pitches. McCarthy was very good to start with, but if this newfound velocity is real, he could be the legitimate ace the team needs with Patrick Corbin injured.

Philadelphia Phillies at Chicago Cubs

Philadelphia Phillies (1-2) at Chicago Cubs (1-2)
Friday: LHP Travis Wood (0-0) vs. RHP Roberto Hernandez (0-0)
Saturday: RHP Jeff Samardzija (0-0) vs. LHP Cliff Lee (1-0)
Sunday: RHP Carlos Villanueva (0-2) vs. RHP A.J. Burnett (0-0)
Why Watch?
I picked both the Phillies and Cubs to finish last in their respective divisions, so I don't see many reasons to watch. Both teams lost two of three earlier this week, and all four losses were of the walk-off variety. That stings. Poor Villanueva has already taken two losses even though he's only faced eight total batters in two extra-inning games. Samardzija vs. Lee should be fun. Very different styles there.

What To Watch For: Emilio Bonifacio set a modern record with nine hits in his first two games, then he went 2-for-4 in the third game to lower his batting average to .688. He has a history of hot starts but never anything like this. How long will it last? I don't know, but it sure is fun.

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