The second series this year between the first-place Texas Rangers and their AL West rivals and defending World Series champion Houston Astros highlights the penultimate weekend of the first half of the 2023 MLB season. After this weekend, only one week of regular-season games remains and then baseball focuses on the All-Star break. The All-Star Game is at T-Mobile Park in Seattle on July 16.

The upstart Rangers, without a playoff appearance since 2016, are one of the biggest surprises in baseball, leading the league in runs scored and among the leaders in ERA, despite losing ace RHP Jacob deGrom. RHP Nathan Eovaldi, a far less-heralded free agent signing, seeks his 10th win on Friday night and is among the top pitchers in fantasy baseball.

The contending Astros have battled their own injuries to starting pitchers and key offensive pieces as well, with 2B Jose Altuve compromised for the past few weeks and OF Yordan Alvarez out since early June due to an oblique strain. LHP Framber Valdez is having a career season and he is scheduled to face Rangers LHP Martin Perez on Sunday afternoon.

Altuve has struggled in recent weeks and fantasy managers are panicking, as he shows up on ESPN’s most-dropped list. He’s not at the top of the list, but still, Altuve has hit 59 home runs, stolen 23 bases and scored 220 runs over the last two full seasons. When he hits well, the Astros score runs. Rookie C Yainer Diaz has also assumed a regular role, splitting time at DH with Alvarez out, and 1B Jose Abreu has rebounded after a slow start.

It may be a bigger weekend for the Astros, since they are currently out of an AL playoff spot, but the Rangers would not mind proving a point against their in-state rivals. Rookie 3B Josh Jung has struggled in June and become one of the most dropped third basemen in ESPN leagues, which is likely a mistake. Meanwhile, 3B Ezequiel Duran, in his second season, boasts a .900 OPS, and five multi-hit games in the past week. Stick with Jung over Duran, but perhaps both are worth rostering in deeper formats.

Other key divisional battles

  • Boston Red Sox LHP James Paxton and Toronto Blue Jays RHP Jose Berrios get this AL East series started on Friday night — probably. Paxton, who pitched only six times in the majors from 2020 through 2022, has been a revelation through eight starts with the Red Sox, but he left his most recent outing after four innings due to knee soreness. The Red Sox aren’t likely to take chances here but, as of now, they claim he will pitch. Berrios is having an excellent bounceback season, but perhaps fantasy managers cannot forget how poorly he pitched in 2022, as he remains available in many leagues.

  • The Miami Marlins cannot catch the slugging Atlanta Braves in the NL East this weekend, but it is an important series for the surprising second-place team, which has been outscored on the season. Rookie RHP Eury Perez faces veteran RHP Charlie Morton — 19 years his elder — on Saturday afternoon, while defending Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara goes Sunday against this year’s potential Cy Young winner Spencer Strider. Alcantara, his changeup deserting him, has permitted five runs in three of five outings and sports a bloated 4.82 ERA.

Five other pitching matchups to watch

  • Cal Quantrill (Guardians) at Justin Steele (Cubs), Friday: It’s the first game of Friday’s action and an early start at Wrigley Field (2 p.m. ET), so get those daily lineups in! The right-handed Quantrill makes his return from a month-long IL stint for shoulder woes, though fantasy managers should remain wary. Quantrill is not a big strikeout option to start with. The left-handed Steele has won both of his outings since coming off his IL stint, and he sure looks like an NL All-Star.

  • Shane McClanahan (Rays) at Bryce Miller (Mariners), Friday: McClanahan, the No. 1 pitcher on the Player Rater, left his outing last Friday versus the Royals (against his will) after just 3⅔ innings due to midback tightness, but the team claims the southpaw is ready to pitch. Miller, a right-hander who walked only three hitters over his first six big league starts, has since walked three in two of his last three appearances and has been a bit inconsistent. Miller is down to 43% rostered in ESPN leagues and he is facing a top offense.

  • Bailey Ober (Twins) at Kyle Bradish (Orioles), Saturday: The consistent RHP Ober seems to give the Twins six innings and three or fewer earned runs each time out, though he remains available in 60% of leagues. The readily available RHP Bradish has suddenly become a strikeout pitcher, amassing seven or more whiffs in three of four starts, and he is among the top-20 starting pitchers on the 30-day Player Rater.

  • Tanner Bibee (Guardians) at Marcus Stroman (Cubs), Saturday: Yes, more Guardians-Cubs! The RHP Bibee has won three of four starts, and he boasts a 3.79 ERA through 11 starts in his rookie season. He has surpassed 100 pitches in both of his last two starts, during which he struck out 13 hitters over 11 innings. The RHP Stroman, pulled from his outing last Sunday with a blister on his right index finger, has been a top-10 fantasy starter this season.

  • Zac Gallen (Diamondbacks) at Reid Detmers (Angels), Sunday: Gallen is another leading candidate for NL Cy Young honors. He has won his last three starts and 10 total for the season. Detmers seemingly cannot buy a win, as he has just one in 14 starts. That one came during a recent four-outing stretch in which he has permitted only three runs over 25⅔ innings, with 34 strikeouts. Get him now before the wins start arriving.

Five hitters to watch

  • Jordan Westburg, SS, Baltimore Orioles: Westburg only came up from Triple-A this week and already he has started at both second and third base. We always like more defensive versatility, and Westburg could force his way higher in the lineup soon as well.

  • Henry Davis, C, Pittsburgh Pirates: The first pick of the 2021 amateur draft certainly hasn’t seemed overwhelmed in his brief time in the majors, and it will be interesting to see if the franchise gives him time behind the plate. Davis has been handling right field but with star OF Bryan Reynolds due off the IL this weekend, things could change.

  • Maikel Garcia, SS/3B, Kansas City Royals: Garcia leads all Royals hitters in fantasy points over the past two weeks, which impressive both because he is a rookie and since he hasn’t yet hit for power. Roto managers love the stolen bases.

  • Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds: The upstart Reds host the San Diego Padres and perhaps three right-handed starters, meaning the lefty-hitting Votto should be in the lineup. We should get a better gauge on whether or not his early power surge is real.

  • C.J. Cron, 1B, Colorado Rockies: Cron recently came off the IL himself, but fantasy managers don’t seem excited about him — despite his 57 home runs over the last two seasons, 41 coming in home games in Denver. The Rockies host the Tigers at Coors Field this weekend.

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Fantasy baseball – Weekend preview June 29-July 2