Opening Day is almost here and the dawn of a new season begins the process of answering all the questions we’ve had about every team and every player all spring. That’s what a season does, right? We spend all this time making predictions and guessing what will happen when the games begin, but none of it matters until there are actual games to play … games that will answer every question we might have. This is the nice thing about baseball. Unlike the real world, eventually, in baseball, all the rhetoric and punditry fall away and are replaced by actual events. In the end, there is no debate. There are only facts.
So, what are the major questions heading into the season? What are the burning questions that need answers? Here are nine key ones. But there will be more. After all, that’s part of the fun: The games bring more questions to be answered.
1. Can the Dodgers repeat? Can they set a wins record?
OK, that’s kind of two questions, but let’s treat it as one since they are related.
Dodgers fans reveled in their first World Series title since 1988, and they should have. But you can forgive them if it didn’t all feel exactly right. They didn’t get to see a single home game at Dodger Stadium and the championship game happened in Texas against a team from Florida. Every title counts. But there’s no question the Dodgers would like to get one at home, in a full season, with a packed house at Chavez Ravine. They absolutely have the team to make it happen with essentially the same roster with which they blitzed the rest of baseball in 2020, plus defending National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer. The team is stacked top to bottom. Is Seattle’s 2001 record of 116 regular-season wins in sight? Winning one World Series is impressive. But the Dodgers are aiming for much more than that.
2. Can the Padres remain the most exciting team in baseball?
The Padres had the third-best record in MLB last year, but there’s no question they led the Majors in googly-eyed emojis. It was downright fun to cheer for the Padres. They were stacked with talent, they electrified a long-dormant fan base (even if they had to root from outside the gates of Petco Park) and they unleashed Fernando Tatis Jr., as close as you’ll find to The Face Of Baseball right now, on the world, to spectacular results. They responded exactly how you’d want them to by adding Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove to make their rotation as strong as their lineup. They’d be the favorites in any division other than the one they’re in. But are they making all this noise just to have a one-game Wild Card appearance staring them in the face? The Padres only get to be the new, fun thing once. Now what are they? Can they build on 2020? Can they, gasp, take out the Dodgers?
3. Is Mike Trout ever going to get a playoff victory?
Come August, Trout is going to turn 30 years old. That’s alarming: That makes a person feel downright elderly. And yet, the best player in baseball has still not won a playoff game. The Angels are doing whatever they can to rectify that; their lineup looks fortified, if not dominant. But it’s, as always, the pitching that will determine everything. The Angels have already wasted much of Trout’s prime. As great as he is, his title of “best player in the world” will only be further challenged in the years to come. That’s going to make it harder to get him that postseason breakthrough. How much time do they, and he, have left?
4. Can Tony La Russa and the young White Sox stay on the same page?
It remains remarkable to see La Russa back in a dugout. It has been 10 years! Yet there he is, the Hall of Famer, leading not just any team but one of the most promising, young and diverse in baseball. So far, when it comes to the new manager, there has been nothing but roses and bonbons tossed around White Sox camp. But will such happy vibes survive the rough and tumble of a regular season? La Russa was known to clash with players even when he wasn’t more than three times their age. Of course, he was also known to win all the time. As long as the White Sox are winning, everything should be peachy. But look out for that first extended losing streak.
5. Can Francisco Lindor be the savior of Queens?
The Mets’ trade for Lindor (and Carlos Carrasco) wasn’t just about improving the team on the field, though it certainly did that. It was about announcing a new era in Flushing, with a new owner who will do “whatever it takes” to get the Mets a championship. That’s exactly what Mets fans have been desperate to hear for decades, and the joyous Lindor is a perfect avatar for what the Mets want to be. Now they have to actually win. Oh, and make sure Lindor sticks around.
6. Are the Yankees ever going to reach the World Series again?
Speaking of New York baseball … as hard as it might be. The Mets (2015) have been to the World Series more recently than the Yankees (2009). The drought will reach 12 years this October if the Yankees don’t return. This team is favored to win the AL East and probably the best bet to win the American League. But they were last year, too, and the year before, and their rotation doesn’t look dramatically better than it did last year. (There are definitely a lot more pitchers. We’ll give them that.) How much more patience will the fans have? How much more will the team have?
7. Are the Blue Jays the most interesting team in baseball?
The Blue Jays may be short on pitching, but they’re doing their best to make up for it by being absolutely fascinating. They brought in the top free-agent hitter on the market in George Springer, adding him to a cadre of young stars who all have dads who your parents had baseball cards of 25 years ago. The Blue Jays could make a legit run at the Yankees this year, which means they could make a legit run at the World Series. But the fascinating question is: Where will this happen? Right now they’re in Dunedin, Fla. They might be in Buffalo at some point, and, lord willing, they could even make it back into Canada eventually. When they’re in Florida, expect many, many homers in that small ballpark. Who knows what to make of this team? Who knows where to make of this team?
Every year, it seems a new star explodes across the baseball horizon and changes everything. Maybe it’s Juan Soto or Ronald Acuña Jr. or Tatis Jr., but it’s always somebody. There are all sorts of candidates this year, but you know it’s going to be someone. One of the best things baseball has going for it right now is the seemingly endless supply of incredible young players. And the next one is often someone you never expected. Who will it be this season?
9. Where are all the pitching innings going to come from?
Of all the adjustments teams had to make during the COVID season of 2020, the biggest one might come this year when everybody has to make a huge innings jump. Protecting young pitchers is one of the most important things an organization has to do, and this year, innings have to be doled out over 162 games after a season in which there were only 60 games (not to mention the weirdness of everyone else throwing at the alternate sites). This is a year when innings eaters may be the most important assets a team can have. It may impact the game in ways that cannot be foreseen.