The most exciting teams, players and themes of the 2019 MLB season

Contrary to what you might have heard, baseball is not dying. Baseball is well and wealthy and still extremely popular. It’s not perfect — there are too many strikeouts, and the pace of play has slowed, and these bad rebuilding teams don’t exactly inspire enthusiasm from their fan bases — but it’s still the best sport we have.

Most importantly, the level of talent is better than ever. The young players are better than ever. The pitchers are better than ever. As I heard National League MVP Christian Yelich say this offseason, the pitching is so good now that “every hit feels like a miracle.” After a controversial offseason, this feels like the most anticipated Opening Day in years. Finally, we’ll get to talk about games, results and action instead of contracts and free agents. Here are a few reasons I’m excited for the 2019 season to kick off.

Most exciting dudes in new uniforms

Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies: Is Harper overrated? Sure, at least based on his 2018 season. Will all eyes be on Harper after he signed his 13-year, $330 million contract? Absolutely. As my colleague Sam Miller wrote, “The odds are good he’s either going to be a lot better or a lot worse than his new bosses would dare forecast. Or both. Or neither but in a completely unexpected way.” He could be MVP, or he could hit .249 again. Following six straight losing seasons, expectations are sky-high in Philly after the offseason makeover that also added J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura and David Robertson. No player has more pressure on him in 2019 than Harper.

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Paul Goldschmidt, St. Louis Cardinals: It’s a cliché to say Goldschmidt was born to be a Cardinal: The quiet, unassuming superstar was traded to the franchise that succeeds without the national attention given to the bigger-market teams. His five-year, $130 million extension only solidified the belief that this is a perfect match. While it’s not completely accurate to say the Cardinals lacked power last season — they were fourth in the NL with 205 home runs — Goldschmidt gives the Cardinals that middle-of-the-order bat they’ve lacked in recent seasons. Key stat to watch: He got off to a slow start in 2018 when his strikeout rate skyrocketed. He fixed that, but in a tough NL Central, the Cardinals can’t afford a slow start, as they play the Brewers 10 times before the end of April, as well as the Dodgers, Mets and Nationals.

Yasiel Puig, Cincinnati Reds: Better players might have switched teams, but no change will be as fascinating as this one. Will Puig thrive outside the spotlight of L.A., where the fans grew to love him and his theatrics? (The loudest moment of the World Series came when Puig rocked Dodger Stadium with his home run in Game 4.) After adding Puig and Matt Kemp and — hopefully — improving their miserable rotation, the Reds are sleeper playoff contenders. They’ll need Puig to produce and remain focused even if he isn’t playing in front of 40,000 every night.

Most exciting ‘Whatever you can do, I can do better’ showdowns

Ronald Acuna Jr. versus Juan Soto: The sophomore sensations of the NL East finished 1-2 in the Rookie of the Year voting. Acuña is a popular MVP candidate. Soto is my MVP pick. Acuña hit .322/.403/.625 in the second half. If he does that for an entire season, he will win the MVP award. He’s good and isn’t shy about letting everyone know he’s good. Soto’s talents are maybe a little more subtle (such as plate discipline and drawing walks), but his .292/.406/.517 line as a 19-year-old is that of a hitting genius.

Mike Trout versus Mookie Betts: For maybe the first season in his career, Trout wasn’t the best player in baseball, as Betts won the MVP award while edging him in both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs WAR. Trout just signed a $430 million extension; Betts is two seasons from free agency but indicated that he’ll likely play things out and see what happens. Who’s better? Does it matter? We’re lucky to have these two great ambassadors playing the sport with great humility, work ethic and off-the-charts skill.

Matt Chapman versus Nolan Arenado: They’re in different leagues, but the battle for best defensive third baseman on the planet is absolutely on after Chapman’s breakout season with the glove, in which he led all players with 29 defensive runs saved.

Most exciting one-two punches

Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets: DeGrom finally got his money from the Mets, but Syndergaard is whining about a pre-Opening Day trip to Syracuse, where the team is merely working out and not even playing the club’s Triple-A affiliate. LOL, Mets. Even when everyone should be excited about the season, the Mets can’t get out of their own way. Let’s just get to the season and watch these two — hopefully — battle for Cy Young honors.

Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros: Verlander finished second in the Cy Young voting, and Cole finished fifth. The last pair of teammates to finish 1-2 in the voting were Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2001 and 2002 for the Diamondbacks.

Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Indians: Get healthy, guys!

Most exciting pitcher-versus-hitter confrontations

Max Scherzer versus Bryce Harper: The Nationals and Phillies will play 19 times this season. If we’re lucky, Scherzer will get five or six starts against his old teammate.

Chris Sale versus Aaron Judge: So far, advantage to Sale. Judge is 4-for-21 off him, with one home run and 14 strikeouts.

Jordan Hicks versus Javier Baez: Hicks has passed Aroldis Chapman as the hardest thrower, with an average fastball velocity of 101.7 mph in 2018. Baez has perhaps the quickest bat in the game. Hicks doesn’t always throw strikes. Baez swings at everything. Anything could happen in this matchup, from a 500-foot home run to Baez striking out on a pitch that hits the backstop.

Most exciting outfield: Boston Red Sox

Last year, I pegged the Cardinals’ trio of Marcell Ozuna, Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler. Oops. Fowler hit .180, Pham was traded, and Ozuna had a disappointing season as he played through a shoulder injury. I’m confident Boston’s trio of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi won’t suffer the same fate.

The Red Sox had the highest cumulative WAR from outfielders in 2018, at 18.6, edging the Brewers’ 17.9 mark (the Yankees were a distant third at 13.7). There is the possibility that the Red Sox group fares even better, as there was a lot of optimism in Red Sox camp that Bradley is poised for his best season yet. In 2018, the batted-ball metrics suggest that Bradley hit into a lot of bad luck in the first half, when he hit .210 with a .265 BABIP. In the second half, with more normalized batted-ball results, he hit .269/.340/.487. He still struggled against lefties (.185 on the season), but look for him to repeat his 2016 numbers and boost his WAR by two or three.

Most exciting ‘Can he do it again?’ players

Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels: We know he isn’t going to pitch, and he might not be ready to hit until sometime in May. His hitting was a huge surprise last year, as he hit .285/.361/.564 with big power to center and left-center fields. His isolated power number of .279 ranked eighth in the majors among players with 300 plate appearances.

Max Muncy, Los Angeles Dodgers: Guess who led the majors in isolated power? This guy, a guy who was released by the A’s in 2017 and spent all of that season in the minors. He led the majors in at-bats per home run (11.29), meaning that, yes, Max Muncy was arguably the best power hitter in the majors in 2018. How great is this sport?

Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers: In Yelich’s case, it’s not whether he’s a good player. It’s whether he can repeat his second half of all second halves, in which he hit like Ted Williams, nearly won the Triple Crown and did win MVP honors.

Most exciting minor leaguers not including Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Wander Franco, SS, Tampa Bay Rays: I almost feel a little guilty being this enthusiastic about a kid who hasn’t played above short-season ball, but Franco is so advanced with the bat that even scouts and prospect analysts aren’t shy about projecting future stardom. Franco hit .351/.418/.587 with 11 home runs and more walks than strikeouts in 61 games as a 17-year-old in the Appalachian League. Mitch Lukevics, the Rays’ director of minor league operations, has been with the franchise since the beginning and told me Franco is the best prospect the club has ever had — better than Evan Longoria or David Price.

Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates: The son of former major leaguer Charlie Hayes, Ke’Bryan is already considered a future Gold Glover at third base — well, assuming he can eventually wrestle that award from Nolan Arenado. It appears that his bat is starting to develop as well, after he hit .293/.375/.444 at Double-A in 2018 with good control of the strike zone and hit .355 with three home runs in 31 at-bats in spring training. The Pirates need a position player star to replace Andrew McCutchen, and Hayes might be it.

Alex Kirilloff, OF, Minnesota Twins: A first-round pick in 2016, Kirilloff missed all of 2017 with Tommy John surgery but returned in 2018 to hit .348 with 20 home runs and 44 doubles across two levels of Class A ball. Kirilloff has one of the best pure bats in the minors, so don’t be surprised if he hits his way into the big league lineup later this summer.

Most exciting rule change

One trade deadline! Most of the rule changes that were discussed recently wouldn’t come into play until at least the 2020 season, but the July 31 trade deadline rule is in effect for this season. That means none of those goofy August waiver deadline trades — such as the Astros acquiring Verlander on Aug. 31, 2017. Teams will have to decide a little earlier whether they are contenders or pretenders, and if somebody gets injured in August, there won’t be a trade market to replace him.

Most exciting sleeper Cy Young candidates

German Marquez, Colorado Rockies: I know, no pitcher who has to pitch half his games in Coors Field can win the Cy Young Award. That’s why Marquez is a sleeper. In his final 17 starts of 2018, he went 9-3 with a 2.47 ERA and 146 K’s in 113 innings.

Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals: Big-time stuff and big-time results as a rookie. He looked terrific this spring. If the Cardinals don’t hold down his innings — like the Dodgers seem intent on doing with Walker Buehler — Flaherty has Cy Young goods.

Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians: It seems unlikely that he would vault from the team’s No. 5 starter to a Cy Young winner, but Bieber is a strike-throwing machine who had a nearly 20 percent strikeout-minus-walk rate as a rookie. He throws hard enough at 92-94 mph, but he will have to improve his changeup to fare better against lefties (who slugged .547 off him). He’s another guy who had a great spring and admittedly is a deep, deep sleeper, but the positives are impressive.

Most exciting sleeper MVP candidates

Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia Phillies: I know voters are smarter these days, but he should get a ton of RBI opportunities hitting behind McCutchen, Segura and Harper. I think there’s more in his bat than the .246 and 34 home runs he had in 2018. If he hits .280 with 45 bombs and 140 RBIs, he’s going to get some MVP support.

Manny Machado, San Diego Padres: He isn’t a sleeper great player, but he’s a sleeper MVP candidate because nobody is really expecting the Padres to contend, and the MVP award heavily favors players on playoff contenders. But Machado has the sixth-highest projected WAR among position players (courtesy of ZiPS), and if the Padres’ young pitching somehow comes around in a hurry, maybe the Padres surprise and fight for a wild card.

Tommy Pham, Tampa Bay Rays: Hey, I did say sleeper, and winning an MVP award over Trout basically requires a Herculean season like Betts had in 2018. But the Rays are a popular playoff pick, and Pham finished 11th in MVP voting in the NL in 2017. He also put up 1.071 OPS for the Rays in 39 games. Now he just needs to do that over 150 games.

Most exciting thing about the Miami Marlins

I get it. It’s the Marlins. The fans were so disillusioned in 2018 after the club traded away Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna that Miami drew just 811,104 fans — the first club to draw fewer than 1 million fans since the 2004 Expos. I would expect plenty of choice seats to be available after the trade of J.T. Realmuto to the Phillies over the winter.

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Still, the young rotation could at least make the Marlins interesting. The club released veteran starter Dan Straily — admittedly, as much about hoping another team would claim him and his $5 million salary as a desire to go with youth — and told Wei-Yin Chen, the team’s highest-paid player, that he will start the season in the bullpen. The rotation will include Jose Urena (27 years old), Caleb Smith (27), Trevor Richards (25), Pablo Lopez (23) and Sandy Alcantara (23), who have 139 combined major league starts, 80 of those from Urena. Smith and Lopez had excellent spring trainings — yes, don’t overreact — and are two sleeper breakout candidates.

The point here: This is how excited we should be for the upcoming season. Even the Miami Marlins are worth checking out, at least a little bit. Enjoy your baseball.

Most exciting strategies

The opener: The Rays initiated the strategy last May — Sergio Romo, the Neil Armstrong of openers — and other teams later adapted the idea as well. The Rays’ plan to open the season with three starters and two openers in their five-man “rotation,” and we can look for more widespread usage throughout the season from other teams. The Mariners, in fact, have already announced that Yusei Kikuchi will be used as an opener every fifth start or so to preserve his innings. … Good luck guessing which start it will be, however.

The four-man outfield: We saw this a few times last season, most by the Twins, who were responsible for 68 percent of four-man outfields, mostly for lefty sluggers such as Joey Gallo and Matt Olson. As Mike Petriello of reported, however, we’ve seen more experimenting with four-man outfields in spring training, not just for slow lefty power hitters but also on right-handed hitters such as Aaron Judge and Kris Bryant.

The super super-utility guy: We used to have backup outfielders and backup infielders, and rarely did those paths cross. But Ben Zobrist — there are those Rays again — has made a nice living as a good player bouncing around the field. Now more and more teams are looking to find their own Zobrist, not just a backup guy who can play the field but a regular backup who can play the field and hit. The Dodgers already have Chris Taylor, the Yankees might use DJ LeMahieu all over the infield, the Mets plan on Jeff McNeil playing infield and outfield, Arizona’s Ketel Marte could shift between second base and center field, and Rockies rookie Garrett Hampson could see time at second and in the outfield.

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