They played a football game Sunday. There was a winner, a loser, a bunch of commercials and then a very special episode of "This Is Us."Now that you're caught up on all that stuff, let's talk about the important stuff: The ceremonial turning of the page to baseball season has
They played a football game Sunday. There was a winner, a loser, a bunch of commercials and then a very special episode of "This Is Us."
Now that you're caught up on all that stuff, let's talk about the important stuff: The ceremonial turning of the page to baseball season has begun. Pitchers and catchers will be reporting to Spring Training camps as soon as next week, and Opening Day is just seven and a half weeks away. The long -- and, in this case, exceptionally unusual -- offseason is just about over, folks.
With the Super Bowl in the rearview mirror, here are 10 of the many things that will make the 2018 Major League season special. (Note that this list doesn't even include the possible return of bullpen carts, which, if instituted, instantly jump to No. 1.)
1. Shohei Ohtani's arrival
It has been nearly 100 years since baseball had a two-way star, and Ohtani will arrive to Angels camp in Tempe, Ariz., in a matter of days with an opportunity to live up to the billing as the "Japanese Babe Ruth."
Having chosen the Halos over the rest of the MLB landscape and bypassed the possibility of a nine-figure payday had he stayed in Japan another two years and become an outright free agent, Ohtani instantly becomes baseball's most interesting player on a team that already had baseball's best, in Michael Trout. How and when the Angels utilize him at the big league level will be a sure source of fascination in 2018.
2. Bruised baseballs in the Bronx
Willie Mays-Willie McCovey. Hank Aaron-Eddie Mathews. Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig. There are certain dominant duos in baseball history that fire up the imagination, and Giancarlo Stanton-Aaron Judge has the potential to enter that player pairing pantheon. Last year, they combined to hit 111 home runs, which would have fallen just four shy of the record for two teammates. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit a combined 115 in 1961, which (temporarily?) stands as the only time in history that two teammates hit at least 50 in the same year.
With Stanton, Judge, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius and Greg Bird in the heart of the order, the Yankees have a real shot at the 1997 Mariners' record of 264 home runs.
"I feel sorry for the baseballs," Stanton told YES Network this offseason.
Love 'em or hate 'em, the Yanks are going to be baseball's biggest traveling attraction in 2018.
3. Houston's super starters
A loaded rotation has Houstonians particularly fired up for the title defense. Having already added Justin Verlander in a trade with the Tigers late in 2017, the Astros added another of the Rust Belt's best arms by swapping with the Pirates for Gerrit Cole this winter. With Dallas Keuchel in his contract year, Lance McCullers healthy and World Series hero Charlie Morton in tow, Houston's starting five might be unmatched. All of those guys are projected by FanGraphs to be worth at least 2.4 Wins Above Replacement this season. (And last year's Astros starting WAR leader, Brad Peacock, might not even have a guaranteed slot in this set.)
Keuchel called out Houston's front office for not making a major upgrade at last year's non-waiver Trade Deadline, and in the time since, the Astros have reeled in Verlander and Cole. Keuchel has a future as a lobbyist.
4. The urgency facing the Nationals and Indians
Cleveland hasn't had a World Series winner in 70 years. Washington hasn't had a World Series winner in 94 years -- and the Nats are one of just seven franchises without a title (a list shortened by the Astros' win last year).
Those historical realities present urgency enough, but there's added incentive for both of these clubs to get it done in 2018 given what they might lose prior to 2019. Bryce Harper is the game's most prominent pending free agent, and the reliance the Indians have placed on the back end of their bullpen the past two years (combined with the high price of 'pen help in the open market) makes the approaching free agencies of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen a big deal. These clubs both have the benefit of divisions lined up in their favor, but they have to capitalize on what are clearly championship-caliber cores come October.
5. Something big brewing in Milwaukee
This Hot Stove has been the Not Stove. But in a market largely bereft of boldness, the Brewers pulled off a sequence of stunners in a single January evening -- trading for Christian Yelich and signing Lorenzo Cain. Both of those guys are under team control for five years, but their arrival announces that Milwaukee is serious about immediate contention after a surprise 2017 that saw it finish just a game shy of a National League Wild Card spot.
The Brewers seemingly still have work to do, with an excess in the outfield and an interest in the starting pitching free-agent and trade markets. But if they prove to be for real, let the record show that they will have successfully rebuilt with just two losing seasons since 2014 -- an especially expedited process at a time when several teams are enduring prolonged ruts by design.
6. Red Sox-Yankees is a Thing again
For months now, we've been waiting for the Red Sox's "response" to the Yanks' Stanton swap, and maybe it still comes in the form of a J.D. Martinez signing. But for what it's worth, Boston's current roster is already projected by FanGraphs to win as many games (91) as New York's.
Say what you will about the way the national broadcast schedule became way too Yankees-Red Sox-centric after their epic 2003 and '04 postseason battles, but because of the history and the passion involved, the sport is a little more compelling when these two clubs earn their way into the limelight.
7. Potential returns to prominence
In this decade, the Giants and Cardinals have been responsible for 24 percent of all NL postseason spots, five of a possible eight NL pennants and four of a possible eight World Series championships. So it's a strange sight when neither club reaches the postseason, as was the case last year. San Francisco had baseball's worst record and has responded by trying to assemble its best lineup (circa 2013, at least) with trades for Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. St. Louis wasn't in quite that bad a shape, but consecutive Cubs crowns in the NL Central helped inspire the Cards to act aggressively in the trade for Marcell Ozuna, and there could still be more moves coming.
The Cubs and Dodgers have become the new class of the NL, facing each other in each of the past two NLCS. Can the Cardinals and/or Giants run them down in their divisions?
8. The Rockies' big bullpen experiment
In an offseason in which very few clubs have doled out significant free-agent dollars, the Rockies have signed three relievers -- Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee -- to sizable three-year commitments. Roughly one-third of their player payroll in 2018 will be devoted to five relievers (those three guys, plus Mike Dunn and Adam Ottavino).
That makes the Rockies poster boys for the game's ongoing bullpen revolution. So can it work in Colorado?
9. Ronald Acuna and the youth movement
Prospects are flying through systems and making an instant impact in today's game at a time when teams are (as this year's free-agent class can attest) taking every opportunity to go with the younger guy. Last year, the two teams with the biggest payrolls in the game at the time -- the Yankees and Dodgers -- got monumental boosts from raw and cost-effective rookies Judge and Cody Bellinger.
Acuna is MLB Pipeline's No. 2 prospect for 2018 behind Ohtani. Acuna's path to the big leagues was cleared by the Braves' trade of Matt Kemp, so we're likely to soon get our first look at a 20-year-old described as a generational talent -- a five-tool star with a whip-fast swing, power, speed and outfield flair. But it's not just about Acuna; it's about all the kids who will get their shot in '18, in many cases on win-now clubs. Look for Walker Buehler to at some point pair with Clayton Kershaw in the Dodgers' rotation, Victor Robles to stand near Harper in the Nats' outfield, Francisco Mejia to swing his way into the Indians' lineup and Gleyber Torres to fill a spot in the Yankees' infield, to name just a few.
10. The unknown
Baseball doesn't have a modern-day answer to the Patriots, with their eight Super Bowl appearances in the past 17 years. And that's the way we like it. This century has turned up 13 World Series-winning franchises, and predicting October outcomes in the Wild Card era has become a true fool's errand.
In part because of the aforementioned reliance on (and unpredictability of) youth, regular-season forecasts are fraught with frailty, as well. In 22 of the past 23 years, at least one postseason entrant had a losing record the year prior, and last year saw the Twins become the first team in history to reach October a year after losing 100 or more games. That's before you even get to all the individual surprises in the course of a season (let us never forget Scooter Gennett hit four home runs in a game last year).
Bring on the unknown. Bring on the baseball.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcasts and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.