10 storylines to monitor before Opening Day
We do not want breaking news at this point. We want boring. We want predictable. We want stories about packing equipment and loading trucks. We want to know about the rookies who've made the team and those who'll be back very soon.
We simply want everyone to put the finishing touches on Spring Training and be rested and ready for Opening Day on Thursday. With that in mind, this is written with fingers crossed and positive thoughts.
Now that Opening Day is finally upon us, here are 10 storylines to keep an eye on:
1. Shohei Ohtani finishes strong, and the Angels are committed to the two-way experiment.
Ohtani's fastball touched 98 mph in his final Cactus League appearance, and he'll likely open the season as manager Mike Scioscia's No. 3 starter. He's going to DH some, too, right from the get-go. Despite a spring when the results were sometimes ugly, the Angels leave Arizona encouraged that the 23-year-old rookie has a chance to be baseball's first true two-way player in 99 years.
2. The Cardinals need Greg Holland more than ever.
Nothing that happened this spring should dissuade the Cardinals from their unshakable belief that they're good enough to win the World Series (although they did get some tough news Sunday with Adam Wainwright opening the season on the DL). So much has changed in the past 12 months that it may take some time for all the pieces to fit just so. Now about that closer thing. Luke Gregerson will open the season on the disabled list, Alex Reyes is still weeks from returning and the young power arms in the Minors are not what a franchise wants closing postseason games. That's why the decision not to make a run at free-agent closer Holland is so puzzling.
3. Yep, Ryan Braun is going to play first base for the Brewers on Opening Day.
Braun has played 1,458 games, none of them at first base. That drought will end Thursday in San Diego when Brewers manager Craig Counsell writes his name into the lineup at first against Padres lefty Clayton Richard. Braun understands the switch from the outfield allows Milwaukee to put its best lineup on the field against left-handed pitching and has done his best to get comfortable in the new position. Spoiler alert: despite his lack of comfort, he has looked very good there in 41 Cactus League innings at first.
4. Can Clayton Kershaw actually get better? Judging by an insanely great spring, he just might.
They tell you spring numbers mean nothing. They tell you veteran guys are just working on stuff. On the other hand, none of this applies to Kershaw. Even when he's fine-tuning his repertoire in games that mean nothing, he reminds us that we've seen very few this good. In six starts this spring, Kershaw didn't allow a run in 21 1/3 innings with four walks and 23 strikeouts. Same as it ever was.
5. Greg Bird's luck is lousy, but the Yankees seem built to withstand this.
Bird's right foot injury could land him on the DL, the latest in a string of injuries that have slowed his career path. Even if the injury sidelines him for Opening Day, the Yankees have enough quality depth to minimize the loss. Most intriguing is rookie third baseman Miguel Andujar, who was sent to the Minors after a solid spring. He has been getting reps at first base. Also in the mix are three veterans: Neil Walker, Christopher Austin and Brandon Drury.
6. Rookie Scott Kingery's contract extension with the Phillies could set a tone for how things are done in the future.
One of the messages of this offseason is that teams are reluctant to pay mega-dollars to players in their age 34-35-36 seasons. Since players typically hit free agency when they're 28 or 29, that's going to force teams and players to adjust. Jose Altuve just passed up an opportunity to be a free agent at 29 when he signed a five-year, $151 million extension with the Astros. Could he have waited and gotten more in free agency? Sure, maybe.
Now the Phillies and No. 2 prospect Kingery, who will make his Major League debut this week, have agreed to a six-year, $24 million contract that includes three club options and could be worth $65 million. It buys out all of Kingery's arbitration seasons and possibly his first three free-agent years.
7. David Price just put the finishing touches on an excellent Spring Training.
When a player is coming off the kind of season Price had in 2017, a solid, uneventful Spring Training matters. Price finished his with a three-inning, one-run stint against the Twins, then went to the bullpen and threw another 30 pitches. Afterward, he told reporters this is the best he has ever felt in a spring start. If he lines up as a productive No. 2 behind ace Chris Sale, the Red Sox could be a formidable October opponent.
8. Ty Blach will get the Opening Day start for the Giants. His numbers against the Dodgers are interesting.
If Blach's dream was to start Opening Day at Dodger Stadium against Kershaw, the 27-year-old lefty is getting his wish. He's taking the place of the injured Madison Bumgarner, and his performance might tell us a bit about how the Giants will do in the wake of injuries to Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija. In seven career appearances against the Dodgers, Blach's numbers are plenty respectable: 2.23 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, .215 opponents' batting average.
9. Felix Hernandez will get his 10th consecutive Opening Day start for the Mariners, and he just might be the key to their season.
Hernandez is confronting something completely new in 2018: doubt. He made just 16 starts last season and had his highest ERA (4.36) since his second Major League season (2006). Hernandez showed up at Spring Training hoping to turn a large page, then promptly got hit with a line drive in his first start. All that said, he has made it to another Opening Day and says he feels fine and believes he can still pitch at the highest level.
10. Kyle Tucker had a great spring for the Astros. Preston Tucker had a better one for the Braves.
Sometimes, things work out just right. Tucker, 27, seems likely to start in left field for the Braves on Opening Day after a spring in which he passed every test, hitting .353 with a .431 on-base percentage. After getting buried in Houston's farm system last season, a trade to Atlanta has been everything he could have hoped for. Meanwhile, his 21-year-old brother Kyle likely will make his Major League debut for the Astros after a spring in which he hit .425 and homered four times in 40 at-bats.