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Opening Day to cap week of intrigue in MLB

March 26, 2017

The trucks full of gear will soon be packed up and waved back to the 30 stadiums of Major League Baseball. The Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues will soon give way to the American and National. The weather will at times go from the balmy sun of Florida and Arizona to

The trucks full of gear will soon be packed up and waved back to the 30 stadiums of Major League Baseball. The Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues will soon give way to the American and National. The weather will at times go from the balmy sun of Florida and Arizona to the spring-like chill of April.
But there's no mistaking what's happening in the week ahead: Baseball officially will be back.
There are still quite a few exhibition games to play, loose ends to tie up and decisions to be made over the next six days. But on the seventh, Sunday, there will be three Opening Day extravaganzas as the 2017 championship season and annual 162-game grind begins again.
Sunday features three divisional matchups for the Opening Day slate. The Giants will visit the D-backs, the Yankees will visit the Rays and fans will get to see the defending World Series champion Cubs visit the rival St. Louis Cardinals in the nightcap. That will be a perfect prelude to Monday, when 13 more Opening Day games will get the season humming.
But first things first. There's plenty going on over the next six days that will have a serious impact on the season that follows.
Jockeying for positions
As the Spring Training schedules wind down, the furious competition for remaining roster spots heats up. There are several key battles to watch out for this week.
In the Bronx, it will be down to slugging youngster Aaron Judge vs. speedy veteran Aaron Hicks for the starting spot in right field.
"That's something that's probably going to come down to the wire," manager Joe Girardi said.

Same goes for the Dodgers, who are coming off another NL West title and will likely decide between left-handers Hyun-Jin Ryu and Alex Wood for the fifth spot in the Opening Day rotation while phenom southpaw Julio Urias goes to extended spring training so the organization can limit his innings and have him fresh for later in the season.
The Mets have a similar situation; their fifth starter is still up in the air and is presumably down to a duel between right-handers Zack Wheeler and Seth Lugo, both of whom are scheduled to pitch Monday as the team splits squads in Florida.

Elsewhere, the Royals will be deciding between Christian Colon, Whit Merrifield, Raul Mondesi and Cheslor Cuthbert to be their starting second baseman, and the Reds have three rotation spots and two bullpen gigs open.
Who's going to be the first-string left fielder for the Blue Jays? It looks like it's between Ezequiel Carrera, Melvin Upton Jr. and Steve Pearce, but all are likely going to make the Opening Day roster.
And in Detroit, center field seems to be between Michael Mahtook, Tyler Collins, Juan Perez and prospect JaCoby Jones.

Injury updates
The 2016 season, the offseason and the rigors of Spring Training have taken their toll throughout MLB, and some players and teams are already playing catchup for 2017.
The defending AL champion Indians, for example, still don't know whether left fielder Michael Brantley (right shoulder/biceps) will be ready for the Opening Day roster, but they do know that their second baseman, Jason Kipnis, will start the season on the disabled list because of right shoulder woes. Starter Carlos Carrasco (elbow) also might be a DL candidate.
The Dodgers are being careful with their reigning NL Rookie of the Year and MVP runner-up shortstop Corey Seager, whose oblique strain in early March stalled his spring preparation. Seager will likely miss the upcoming Freeway Series exhibitions against the Angels to get Minor League reps in hopes of being ready for Opening Day.

Otherwise, some teams have been hit hard. The Angels will be without first baseman Luis Valbuena (right hamstring strain) for four to six weeks and reliever Huston Street is still sidelined by a lat strain. Astros starter Collin McHugh will likely begin the season on the DL with a "dead arm," as will Marlins third baseman Martin Prado and Reds starter Anthony DeSclafani (UCL sprain).
The Rockies were hoping for a big bounceback season, but they're up against it a bit without Ian Desmond (fractured left hand) and David Dahl (rib), who will both likely open the season on the DL as well. The Tigers will be without slugger J.D. Martinez for three to four weeks because of a sprained ligament in his right foot.
Meanwhile, Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius is expected to be on the DL until sometime in May with a right shoulder injury, and now the Mets have an issue with left-hander Steven Matz, who reported elbow irritation and will miss at least one more start.
"It's worrisome that he continues to be injured off and on," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. "That's the difficulty. We don't think it's serious. On the other hand, starting pitchers are relied on every five days. I'm not sure exactly where this is going to take us."

Warming up in cool places
Exhibition games might not count in the standings, but they're still fun, and they can be even more fun when they move to different locales before the season begins. That will be the case toward the end of the 2017 Spring Training slate this week.
Games to watch include some new and some old.
The new will take place on Friday, when the Braves will play the very first game inside new SunTrust Park when they take on the Yankees. And the old will come in the form of the annual visit to Olympic Stadium in Montreal, which will play host to the Pirates and Blue Jays playing there Friday and Saturday.
Otherwise, the "third-deck effect" will be in full swing in the final exhibition matchups, with the Astros hosting the Cubs at Minute Maid Park on Thursday, the D-backs hosting the Indians at Chase Field on Thursday and Friday, the Dodgers and Angels going home and home on Thursday (Angel Stadium) and Friday and Saturday (Dodger Stadium), and the A's and Giants doing their late-spring Bay Bridge Series in San Francisco (Thursday-Friday) and Oakland (Saturday).

Doug Miller is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.