Opening Day will arrive on March 29, the earliest start in Major League Baseball history, excluding special international events. We will see the first full slate of Opening Day games in 50 years -- going back to the year of the pitcher -- and the first time 30 clubs all start on the same day.
The regular season will even start on a Thursday this time, so we already know that 2018 will begin with a different look, at least procedurally. What happens after those 15 games signal the return of real baseball is anyone's guess, of course. As the midnight cleanup goes on and the countdown begins for pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training, the first order of this New Year is to reset and pose 10 questions that loom especially large right now:
10. How many jewel events in Washington this year? One is certain: The All-Star Game presented by Mastercard on July 17 at Nationals Park. It will be the first Midsummer Classic in the nation's capital in nearly a half-century. As for the other, the Nationals and Mariners are the only active franchises that never have appeared in a World Series, and the former is hoping to make it happen in 2018. New manager Dave Martinez is tasked with changing the habit of four Division Series eliminations in the past six seasons, and he inherits three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and an experienced cast. The Nationals have fine-tuned this offseason with the additions of right-hander Brandon Kintzler and first baseman Matt Adams. Can they go beyond?
9. What will Yu do? And in addition to Darvish -- who was an All-Star again in 2017, but he struggled mightily in the World Series -- which teams will land free agents J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Jacob Arrieta, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier? There are many more questions to be answered on the free-agent market, so we'll just group them here, along with many other intriguing names still available.
8. What about baseball's new 30-30 club? That's how many years of mileage the Dodgers have gotten out of Kirk Gibson's home run off Dennis Eckersley and that shocking upset of the A's in 1988, and it's also the age Clayton Kershaw will be on Opening Day. The time is now for a club that came so close in 2016 before the Astros celebrated on its turf in Game 7. Can Kenley Jansen and the Los Angeles bullpen be as dominant as last year, or did Houston finally expose a weakness? Kershaw comes off a season in which he went 18-4 with a 2.31 ERA and 202 strikeouts, but he was denied a fourth National League Cy Young Award due to missing a month, and it remains to be seen whether he can stay healthy after going on the disabled list three times in the past four years. Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Corey Seager and Yasiel Puig all return, and we're still waiting to see what the Matt Kemp deal means.
7. Will the air ball revolution continue? MLB shattered the single-season record in 2016 with 6,105 home runs -- compared to 4,186 in 2014 -- and Statcast™ shows why the trend is likely to continue. Obviously, we have seen some well-known stories like Turner, Murphy, Martinez, Josh Donaldson, Chris Taylor and Yonder Alonso openly saying they were trying to get the ball off the ground, and in the wake of their success, we could see more. Mike Petriello notes the annual MLB overall launch angle has gone up each year of Statcast™: 10.1 degrees in 2015, 10.8 in '16 and 11.1 in '17. Another way to look at this trend is to study the MLB overall groundball rate, which has dropped each year: 47 percent in 2015, 46.1 in '16 and 45.3 in '17.
6. Can the Indians put it all together? The longest active team title drought is Cleveland's dating to 1948, but the past two years have shown just how close Terry Francona's club is to the promised land. In 2016, the Tribe lost Game 7 of the World Series to the Cubs in extra innings. Last season, they gave us an AL-record 22-game winning streak and their 102 wins was the most in franchise history other since they won 111 in 1954 ... yet they stumbled against a hot Yankees club in the AL Division Series. Carlos Santana is gone to Philadelphia, but Cleveland signed Alonso, who is coming off a career year -- .266/.365/.501 slash with a .366 wOBA, 132 wRC+ and 2.4 WAR (per FanGraphs) in 521 plate appearances with the A's and Mariners.
5. Who will have lasting power this time? Milwaukee led the NL Central most of the first half in 2017, and was up by 5 1/2 games at the All-Star break, but fortunes quickly changed and the Cubs again clinched the division. Chris Sale dominated the regular season, striking out a career-high 308 batters in his first season in Boston ... but he fizzled twice against the Astros in his first taste of the postseason. Harper wound up with a 157 OPS+, but just imagine his numbers if he hadn't missed a month-and-a-half with an injury down the stretch. And what about the Hall of Fame ballot? Edgar Martinez was at 81 percent and Trevor Hoffman at 79 percent with nearly a third of the votes known, according to tracker Ryan Thibodaux, but will they have lasting power to finish at or above the 75-percent threshold for enshrinement? The Hall of Fame ballot announcement is on Jan. 24, live on MLB Network and MLB.com, and Chipper Jones, Jim Thome and Vladimir Guerrero seem on their way to Cooperstown based on public ballots.
4. One marquee AL East third baseman moves, but what about the other? The last time we went into an even-numbered year, the question was whether the Giants could win a fourth consecutive World Series championship in years ending in an even number. Alas, they were the Cubs' first postseason victim in 2016. Now here we are again, with lowered expectations after a last-place '17, but we still have a big question to ask: Can Evan Longoria right that ship after leaving his longtime home with the Rays? Meanwhile, the Orioles are reportedly still fielding calls about Manny Machado, with Baltimore needing a haul of young, controllable arms.
3. Will Shohei Ohtani reach his goals? When he announced the Angels as his team of choice, it was because he "felt a strong connection with them and believes they can best help him reach his goals in Major League Baseball." Those goals, of course, are revolutionary in MLB as Ohtani wants to hit and pitch like an early Babe Ruth. Ohtani will join Garrett Richards at the top of the starting rotation, and the club is also expected to insert Ohtani into its lineup as a part-time designated hitter and a left-handed power complement to Michael Trout and Justin Upton. Will Jose Pujols be able to play more first base and thus help accommodate those goals?
2. Can the Astros end MLB's record streak? Or will MLB be looking at 18 in '18? The annual question in this story must be asked again, because Houston will try to break MLB's record run of 17 consecutive years without a repeat champion. It is the longest active streak in global professional sports, dating to the Yankees' 1998-2000 reign, and the ultimate sign of competitive balance. Houston will bring back American League MVP Jose Altuve, World Series MVP George Springer, and a clutch left-side infield of Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, but will it have the same drive it carried in 2017 for a whole community? The Astros were 10-0 in all of Justin Verlander's starts after his Trade Deadline acquisition from the Tigers, until he finally lost in Game 6 of the Fall Classic, so we also wonder whether he can keep that up at the age of 35.
1. Will the Yankees follow their title pattern? The Bronx Bombers won the World Series in 1938, '58, '78 and '98. They think the parts are there, especially with Giancarlo Stanton added to a club that was one win shy from the Fall Classic in 2017. The biggest question within that question is how many home runs this team can hit, because All-Stars Aaron Judge (52 in 2017) and Gary Sanchez (33) are back. It should be noted that the Yankees also won the World Series in 1928, a decade before this current pattern started. Hey, what do you expect from a franchise that has retired two No. 8s? Maybe it is their year.