David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Welcome to Opening Day, a sacred Day of such vast importance that it always deserves full capitalization.
Because with it comes not only a fresh start, a blank slate and a daily schedule, but also a significant promise: summer. Last day of school. Five of the most glorious words in existence.
What other sport can promise that?
So book your vacations now…and book these predictions, too. Believe me, later this summer you will be lying on a beach somewhere, sand in your toes, thinking to yourself, How did that B/R guy do that, nailing the entire baseball season like that in March?
Nick Wass/Associated Press
Scoreboard since 2000: Boston Red Sox four World Series titles, New York Yankees two.
Red Sox: No lineup is more versatile in this division than that of the Red Sox, who can bludgeon you with J.D. Martinez or slice and dice you with Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts. In an age of strikeouts, Boston’s lineup is stocked with contact hitters, and that wins. Only the Pirates, Astros, Mariners and Indians struck out fewer times in 2018. The rotation is better than the Yankees’. Biggest question: Will kissing off closer Craig Kimbrel bite them?
Yankees: Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez will hang crooked numbers, but the early-season loss of ace-in-the-making Luis Severino to shoulder trouble and absence of CC Sabathia (heart, knee) has them playing from behind early. They need innings from James Paxton to get to what should be baseball’s best bullpen. Don’t sleep on Adam Ottavino, a sneaky addition to Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton and Dellin Betances in the pen.
Rays: The addition of starter Charlie Morton to Cy Young winner Blake Snell and last year’s arrival, Tyler Glasnow, doesn’t do much for the corrosive concept of “bullpenning,” but it gives a fun Tampa Bay team more weapons. Rays starters last year worked only 624 innings—fewest in the majors. They also won 90 games.
Blue Jays: Let’s just pick up with the same question we asked last year: When does Vladimir Guerrero Jr. get here? Come on, Toronto. Give the people what they want!
Orioles: The Birds opened last year with Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop…and lost a franchise-record 115 contests. This year…well, Camden Yards is a beautiful place to watch a game.
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
The All-Star Game will be played in Cleveland on July 9. That’s about as close as most of this division will come to anything All-Star-related.
Indians: Houston’s Division Series waxing of Cleveland is difficult to forget, especially when sizing up this year’s outfield: Leonys Martin, Tyler Naquin and Jake Bauers. Seriously? But with Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger rocking baseball’s best rotation, and most of the rest of the division rebuilding, there’s only one real threat to the Indians…
Twins: Adding Marwin Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz and Schoop makes Minnesota better—but good enough to catch the Indians? New manager Rocco Baldelli needs a lot of help from a rotation that could go either way with Jose Berrios (stud), Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda (hmmm…).
Royals: Shortstop Adalberto Mondesi is on deck for a breakout season and will be a lot of fun to watch while teamed with second baseman Whit Merrifield. Remember when designated hitter Jorge Soler was one of the Cubs’ hottest prospects? He serves as another example that it is smart to be wary of hyped prospects. It’s a bummer that catcher Salvador Perez is out for the season after Tommy John surgery.
Tigers: Miguel Cabrera is healthy, happy and motivated to prove he remains among the game’s elite hitters. Count me as a believer. But he doesn’t have much to work with teamwise.
White Sox: Chicago hitters led the majors with 1,594 strikeouts last summer, and I’m pretty sure Yoan Moncada had about 1,200 of them himself. Even White Sox fans cover their eyes when Moncada comes to the plate.
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Brother, can you spare a playoff game for Mike Trout?
Astros: Just wait until future ace Forrest Whitley joins Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. Looking to win their second World Series title in three years, Houston is stacked. The Astros could have a Cy Young winner (Verlander or Cole) and an MVP (Alex Bregman) on the field this year.
Angels: Baseball’s best player, Trout, has a new 12-year deal that leaves only one question: Can this organization put enough good players around him to play in October? This club hasn’t won a World Series under owner Arte Moreno (he took over after the ’02 win) and, incredibly, has never won a playoff game with Trout on the roster (the team’s only played three, in 2014). The Angels are more well-rounded this year but must stay healthy: They led the majors last season with 32 disabled-list moves and were sixth in 2017. Ouch!
A’s: They had a great season last year, but it’s difficult to see everything coming together like that again in 2019, especially with starter Sean Manaea likely out for the season after a labrum tear and Jharel Cotton still recovering from Tommy John surgery. First baseman Matt Olson broke a hamate bone while opening the season in Japan. Khris Davis again will put on a power show, but the fascinating thing will be to see whether he will hit .247 for a fifth consecutive season. You can look it up.
Rangers: We’ll all miss the retired Adrian Beltre, but there are signs the Rangers have bottomed out and will progress under new manager Chris Woodward. They’ll roll out an interesting, patched-together rotation of Mike Minor, Edinson Volquez, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn and Drew Smyly. If they could only pitch to Joey Gallo, they’d rack up the strikeouts.
Mariners: This is baseball’s witness protection team. Even hardcore Mariners fans have no idea who’s on the roster from day to day given general manager Jerry Dipoto’s wheeling and dealing. The game’s longest playoff drought (team motto: Making October tee times since 2002!) will continue.
AL Wild Cards
Rays and Yankees: The smart play would be to pick the Twins as the wild-card entrant along with the Yankees because they will rack up wins against the White Sox, Royals and Tigers. But Tampa Bay is legit.
Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
Clearly, the one division big enough to contain Bryce Harper.
Nationals: Wouldn’t it be something if Washington actually won a playoff series in the year Harper bolted? Don’t be shocked: The Nationals think they have a better overall team this season, with pieces that fit together better, too. And they may be right. Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg form a pretty good start to the rotation. Young Juan Soto, 20, is an absolute stud, and Victor Robles now has room to roam in the outfield. The additions of professionals Brian Dozier (second base), Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki (catcher) may well make the Nats better.
Phillies: They were better even before Harper arrived, when they acquired catcher J.T. Realmuto, shortstop Jean Segura, outfielder Andrew McCutchen and closer David Robertson. If ace Aaron Nola can repeat his 2018 heroics and Jake Arrieta has a few things left, Citizens Bank Park will be rocking again. Of course, given these demanding fans, the most asked question in the industry this spring was: When will Harper receive his first rousing boos from Philly fans? Odds are heavily in favor of Opening Day if he fails to drive in runs in a key situation.
Braves: Last season’s surprise division winners won’t sneak up on anybody this year. But they do still have Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman, and they’ve added slugger Josh Donaldson, so they may not need to sneak up on anyone. This division will be a slugfest all summer.
Mets: Spring training hadn’t even ended when Noah Syndergaard ranted about the club’s travel itinerary and failure to work out a contract extension for Jacob deGrom. The Mets got the deal done with deGrom. Now, if the rest of the club takes on the same ornery nature, this could be quite a summer. New closer Edwin Diaz and infielders Robinson Cano and Jed Lowrie give this club a fresh look. Is it the look of a contender? Could be.
Marlins: Rebuild. Lather, rinse, repeat. Rebuild. Lather, rinse, repeat. …
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
Is Great American Ball Park big enough to contain Yasiel Puig?
Cardinals: Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt can make magic together in the lineup. St. Louis has good rotation upside with Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson, and enticing bullpen pieces in Jordan Hicks, Andrew Miller and John Brebbia. This division will be fun, and the Cardinals’ three-year playoff absence will end.
Cubs: President of baseball operations Theo Epstein said over the winter that this will be a year of “reckoning” for the Cubs. Sounds scary, and it may be: Manager Joe Maddon is in the final season of his contract, and phenom Ian Happ was dismissed to the minors after a middling spring. There is a sense of urgency here, and with two good shoulders again, Kris Bryant is primed for a bounce-back season. So are the Cubs.
Brewers: Yes, their bullpen was fantastic last year, but will it repeat? Jeremy Jeffress’ shoulder is barking and Corey Knebel has a tear in his elbow. Josh Hader is all-world, but the rotation remains short, and manager Craig Counsell and Co. will have to match last summer’s display of creativity to get back to the postseason.
Reds: They could finish anywhere from first to fourth, but one thing they will not be with Puig is boring. His bat will do more damage in Cincinnati’s ballpark than a toddler set loose in a department store display of fine china. Their pitching has been awful in recent years, and Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood joined to help fix that. The equation is fairly simple: If the Reds pitch well, they will win.
Pirates: It must be so frustrating to be a Pirates fan and watch everyone else make moves while your team stands pat. The acquisition of starter Chris Archer last year was terrific, but the Buccos followed that with a winter of, essentially, silence. And yes, that includes adding Lonnie Chisenhall and Jordan Lyles.
Matt York/Associated Press
The last team to lose back-to-back World Series and then win the next year? The 1923 New York Yankees. Dodgers, your move.
Dodgers: There is so much depth here that yes, even though Clayton Kershaw will open the season on the injured list with shoulder trouble and is eroding before our eyes, the Dodgers should breeze to a seventh consecutive division title. Corey Seager is back at shortstop after he missed 2018, and file away the names Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, a couple of right-handed phenoms who should provide late-season help.
Rockies: Score one for manager Bud Black, under whose guidance Colorado has done what few thought could be done: pitched, pitched well and pitched consistently, even at altitude. Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Tyler Anderson and Co. also get a boost from the long-term extension awarded to Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado.
Padres: Manny Machado says he wants championships, an MVP award and more Gold Gloves. Just maybe, the vaunted Padres farm system can help him with that. Fernando Tatis Jr. will be a revelation at shortstop, and with Machado, Tatis, second baseman Luis Urias (when he arrives) and first baseman Eric Hosmer, some of the most fun someone can have in this game will be watching this infield defense at work. The rotation remains on training wheels, but you can see things getting better for this franchise.
Diamondbacks: The trick for the Snakes will be making this year more about who is there instead of who isn’t. Gone are Paul Goldschmidt, Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock. At 35, Zack Greinke is aging. (Though his long hair is back, so I told him this spring that I think that alone portends a solid season. He laughed.) Newcomer Luke Weaver, acquired in the Goldschmidt deal, is a key, and let’s see what outfielder Adam Jones brings.
Giants: Manager Bruce Bochy is retiring at year’s end, so can the old gang of Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Madison Bumgarner and Co. give him a rousing send-off? Sorry, the odds are stacked against it.
NL Wild Cards
Phillies and Cubs: Call it the Ryne Sandberg Invitational.
Nationals over Astros: Wouldn’t it be something if Washington not only won a playoff series in the first year A.B. (After Bryce), but if the Nationals then went on to win the National League Championship Series and World Series as well? Hey, it could happen. Scherzer on the mound, Soto and Anthony Rendon in the middle of the lineup, Sean Doolittle and Trevor Rosenthal in the pen…why not?
David Dermer/Associated Press
Alex Bregman, Astros (AL): Talk about a gamer who rises to the occasion. There are no limits for this gritty kid. And he wants greatness.
Juan Soto, Nationals (NL): The Nationals marveled at how mature he was even last year, at 19. Soto is wise beyond his years, powerful beyond his age and a superstar in the making.
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
Gerrit Cole, Astros (AL): He’s coming off a season in which he fanned a career-high 276 hitters and led the majors with 12.39 strikeouts per nine innings, the third-best K/9 mark in AL history (behind Pedro Martinez’s 13.20 in 1999 and Chris Sale’s 12.93 in 2017).
Max Scherzer, Nationals (NL): Jacob deGrom had a phenomenal 2018, but Scherzer, who led the majors with 300 strikeouts in 2018, continues to set the bar for consistency.
Rookies of the Year
Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays (AL): There’s greatness ahead, but that big body (6’2″, 250 lbs) is a concern. He needs to make sure he doesn’t add weight. Guerrero will open the season on the injured list with an oblique strain, which will only increase anticipation for his long-awaited debut.
Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres (NL): Five tools, man. He can run, hit (with power), field, throw. Hosmer said this spring that Tatis looks like Machado from 10 years ago. That is not an exaggeration.
Managers of the Year
Jason Behnken/Associated Press
Kevin Cash, Rays (AL): Tampa Bay either takes another step forward this year or goes crashing back. Here’s a vote for the former.
Dave Martinez, Nationals (NL): One year in, Martinez still has to prove he can manage. By the end of this Bryce-less summer, he either will have solidified his status or he will join the rest of the gang in the Nationals’ overloaded managerial discard bin.
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
Ready, set, go.
• For the first time in an MLB season, there were more strikeouts (41,207) than hits (41,020) last summer. Is the game capable of reversing that (yaaaawn) troubling trend?
• By changing teams, will Harper help Philadelphia finally win again, or will his departure aid Washington’s badly needed overhaul and allow the Nationals to finally win? Meanwhile, how will Harper and Phillies manager Gabe Kapler get along? Those are some definite Type A personalities.
• The continued neutering of managers: With front offices more analytically inclined than ever, the move is to hire young managers who will accept, ahem, lineup “suggestions” and other strategies from the baseball operations department. As the old-school skippers get chased away (and don’t you dare call these newbies “skippers;” they are little more than middle-managers), it’s also become a cost-saving method for clubs. A USA Today study last summer revealed that 21 of the 30 managers were earning $1.5 million or less, and only three were earning more than the average player salary of $4 million. With the Angels moving on from Mike Scioscia in ’19 (hello, Brad Ausmus), the Giants’ Bochy set to retire at season’s end and the Cubs’ Maddon on the hot seat, all three of those could be gone, too. Bochy and Maddon are earning $6 million each this year. Good luck to any manager who wants to reach that salary level anytime soon. The days of Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin, Tony La Russa and Lou Piniella, sadly, are long gone.
• Rules changes: The most significant changes this year are just one trade deadline, on July 31 (the pesky waivers Aug. 31 deadline has been eliminated), the reduction of six mound visits to five per team in a nine-inning game and the Home Run Derby now is worth $1 million to the winner. Next year is when it gets interesting, including a proposal that a reliever must face a minimum of three hitters unless the inning ends. We’ll break all that down next season.
• Will Bumgarner (Giants), Marcus Stroman (Blue Jays), Trevor Bauer (Indians) and Corey Kluber (Indians) be on the trade block come July, or will their teams stay in contention?
• The “reckoning” of the Chicago Cubs. Hey, those are Epstein’s words. Translation: The nucleus that won the 2016 World Series—Anthony Rizzo, Bryant, Addison Russell, Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and more—hasn’t won since and the clock is ticking loudly. Win now, or changes are coming.
• The NL East is the power division, as four of the five teams made significant moves to try to win this year. It will be a fascinating summer.
• Bullpenning: Tampa Bay helped make it hip last year, using it to great effectiveness. Milwaukee tried to punch a World Series ticket with it. Most baseball men doubt it is sustainable over a 162-game grind. And don’t mention it around Scherzer or Verlander, else you might get socked in the jaw.
• MLB attendance dropped below 70 million last summer for the first time since 2003. A total of 17 of the 30 clubs saw attendance declines, most notably in Toronto (from 3.2 million in ’17 to 2.3 million in ’18). MLB says bad spring weather had a lot to do with this, and maybe so. But nobody is buying tickets to see Sergio Romo start games (part of Tampa Bay’s opener strategy last season). And it’s become an all-or-nothing game: The combined rate of home runs, strikeouts and walks (the “three true outcomes,” in analytics parlance) was 33.7 percent in 2018. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since strikeouts were first recorded in both leagues in 1913, there have been only seven seasons in which homers, strikeouts and walks have accounted for 30 percent or more of all plate appearances. All of them have occurred since 2012. The attendance decline was the impetus for some of the rules changes, and you can bet MLB will be watching ticket sales closely in 2019.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.