Whether you are a die-hard fan who has been counting down the days until the new season begins or someone who waits until Opening Day arrives to get excited, the return of baseball is something to celebrate.
We’ve enlisted ESPN.com’s Bradford Doolittle, Sam Miller, Jeff Passan and David Schoenfield to provide an Opening Day prediction, state of the franchise, fact you need to know and inside information on all 30 teams to get you ready to watch your team take the field for the first time in 2019.
Jump to each Opening Day matchup:
BAL-NYY | NYM-WAS | STL-MIL | ATL-PHI | DET-TOR
ARI-LAD | HOU-TB | CHC-TEX | LAA-OAK | SF-SD
CLE-MIN | COL-MIA | PIT-CIN | CHW-KC | BOS-SEA
Believe it or not, the Orioles have won a division title more recently than the Yankees. The Yankees have gone six seasons since their last AL East title in 2012, although they are coming off their first 100-win season since 2009.
With Luis Severino injured, Masahiro Tanaka draws the Opening Day start, but all eyes will be on an offense that slugged a major league record 267 home runs in 2018. Are 300 home runs possible? Maybe so. Aaron Judge looks poised for a monster season, and the Yankees will be counting on more than 56 combined home runs from Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez.
What you need to know about the Orioles
Doolittle’s state of the Orioles: After a nice five-year run of winning seasons that peaked at 96 wins and a trip to the ALCS in 2014, Baltimore has crashed back to earth after a two-season free-fall that culminated in a franchise-worst 115 losses in 2018. While the minor league system is on the upswing, a new front office staff has only just started to sift through the wreckage.
Passan’s inside intel: The Orioles’ pitching in a nutshell: Max Scherzer’s final start of the spring included 12 strikeouts. The most strikeouts of any Baltimore pitcher for the entirety of spring: Andrew Cashner with 14. … Pitching help is coming for Baltimore. One scout called 20-year-old D.L. Hall, a first-round pick in 2017, “the best pitcher I saw this spring.”
Miller’s fun fact:: The most runs any major league team has allowed in the past decade is 894 — the 2017 Tigers — but this year’s Orioles are projected by PECOTA to allow 895, which is truly stunning given the typically conservative nature of team projections. So who is the pitcher to watch? Paul Fry, a lefty reliever with 38 career innings and a slider he throws almost half the time, is projected to have the lowest ERA on staff. It’s projected to be the 472nd lowest ERA in the league, which is more than there are pitchers on major league rosters, but somebody has to be the staff ace.
What you need to know about the Yankees
Doolittle’s state of the Yankees: The Yankees remain the Yankees, even if they are a little less decadent and a lot more efficient than they were during the days of Boss Steinbrenner. The Bombers haven’t had a losing season since 1992, and after what now appears to be the epitome of a “soft” rebuild, New York is coming off a 100-win season with a glut of young stars, resources to add more, and keen hopes of snapping what is, for this franchise, an epic nine-season title drought.
Passan’s inside intel: Even without Aaron Hicks’ injury, Greg Bird and Luke Voit could have hit themselves into a timeshare at first base and DH. “I’d rather have both of them than [Brett] Gardner,” a scout said, and his sentiment was shared by others. When Hicks returns, Stanton could stay in left field and Judge in right if the Bird-Voit experiment works as it did this spring. … Pitching help may already be there for the Yankees, who have two starters learning new pitches: Tanaka a knuckle-curve and Gio Gonzalez a cutter. … Only five of the Yankees’ first 28 games are against teams that were over .500 last year.
Miller’s fun fact:: Yankee Stadiums have always famously benefited left-handed pull hitters, and since 2000, the Yankees have given more plate appearances to left-handed batters than any team. But this year’s lineup — especially if Voit wins most of the playing time over Bird — will be heavily right-handed, with Gardner perhaps the only regular lefty bat. But no matter: The Yankees last year had the best opposite-field power in baseball, with a league-high 56 opposite-field homers — 55 of them hit by their massive right-handers.
Spring must-read: Everything you need to know about Severino’s injury
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Yankees 7, Orioles 3. Judge and Stanton both go yard in a victory for the Yankees.
Here’s your marquee matchup of the day. The new-look Mets face the Bryce Harper-less Nationals in a showdown featuring Jacob deGrom and Scherzer, who finished 1-2 in last year’s National League Cy Young voting. The Mets ace went just 10-9, but with a 1.70 ERA, and finished the season with a record 29 consecutive starts allowing three runs or fewer. Scherzer went 18-7 with a 2.53 ERA and a career-high 300 strikeouts.
What you need to know about the Mets
Doolittle’s state of the Mets: The Mets have won five pennants and two World Series during their 57 seasons but have always seemed to run on this cycle: Break through with a young roster full of glitzy stars, appear to be on the cusp of a golden age and end up with a postscript comprised of unrealized potential. Rather than tear down and begin again, the Mets hired agent Brodie Van Wagenen to squeeze a little more from its latest fading core of phenoms with an aggressive off-season plan.
Passan’s inside intel: The Mets’ decision to keep Pete Alonso served as an excellent reminder that service-time manipulation is an active choice teams engage in. One Mets player this spring said the change in culture is “huge” compared to last year, and each little effort to win adds to a big difference. … One scout on new Mets second baseman Robinson Cano: “I don’t care how old he is. He’ll be able to hit when he’s 60.”
DeGrom’s heater. Mad Max’s change — and three more unhittable weapons. We combine baseball’s best stuff into one dominant ace. Check out the ultimate pitcher
Miller’s fun fact:: The Mets last year allowed just 26 bases on wild pitches, the fewest by any team since 2011. The next lowest team total was 39, the league average was 62, and the Pirates took 95. While Mets pitchers are collectively terrible at holding runners on — they allowed the most steals in the National League — their ability to keep the ball out of the dirt limited the merry-go-round.
Spring must-read: Mets delivered on intense pressure to lock up deGrom (ESPN+)
What you need to know about the Nationals
Doolittle’s state of the Nationals: The Bryce Harper Era has come and gone with the Expos/Nationals franchise still aching for its first-ever NL pennant. Washington is on a run of seven straight winning seasons, and despite the loss of its franchise star, the outlook remains bright in D.C. A solid core of star veterans remains, led by Anthony Rendon, Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Trea Turner. More than that, Nats fans can turn their full attention to the rise of star 2018 rookie Juan Soto and the ascension of fellow outfield phenom Victor Robles. Harper may be gone, but the Nats’ title hopes are not.
Passan’s inside intel: Hot take right out of the gates: The Nationals’ outfield is going to be better this year without Bryce Harper than it was last year with him. Scouts are raving about the 20-year-old Soto, using the initials M.V.P., and are thrilled to see what 21-year-old Robles can do in a full season in center. If Adam Eaton can stay healthy, it’s a top-five outfield.
Miller’s fun fact:: Not only did Soto show up with an extraordinarily mature approach at the plate as a teenager last season, but he also showed the in-season growth associated with youth. In the first half, Soto’s chase rate was the 48th best in baseball, out of about 300 batters. In the second half he was sixth, just ahead of Alex Bregman. (This coincided with the league’s first big adjustment against him, a shift away from fastballs.) The next step — combining that eye with selective aggression in the zone — would push him into the Joey Votto tier of elite approaches.
Spring must-read: Life after Harper? Soto can be what Bryce was … and more
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Nationals 2, Mets 1. Both starters dominate, and it comes down to the bullpen. The Nationals walk it off against Edwin Diaz in the ninth.
The Brewers are coming off their first division title and playoff appearance since 2011, while the Cardinals are coming off a third straight playoff-less season, the first time that has happened since 1999. The Cardinals made a big splash in the offseason, acquiring perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt from the Diamondbacks and then signing him to a five-year extension that will keep him in St. Louis through 2024.
Christian Yelich, the NL MVP after hitting .326/.402/.598 and coming close to a Triple Crown (he was first in batting average, two behind Nolan Arenado in home runs and one RBI behind Javier Baez), leads the Milwaukee offense that hopes to improve on its seventh-place ranking in runs scored.
What you need to know about the Cardinals
Doolittle’s state of the Cardinals: The Cardinals haven’t had a losing season since 2007, but after finishing three straight seasons out of the playoffs, Redbird fans, who are — let’s face it — a little bit entitled, are aghast. Lucky for them, so was the club’s usually risk-averse front office, which went out and traded for a perennial MVP threat in Goldschmidt and then, late in spring training, signed him to a contract extension. St. Louis is a big part of why the NL Central looks so tough on paper, and the Cardinals have every reason to set their sights on the franchise’s 12th World Series crown.
Passan’s inside intel: As vaunted as other bullpens may be, the Cardinals could have the best 1-2-3 punch in baseball with Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks and Andrew Miller. Reyes, who looks like he’s at least 50 pounds over his listed weight of 175, has filled out and found even more in his gifted right arm. “His stuff is gross,” one scout said. And that’s alongside Hicks, who may throw harder than any pitcher in history. Miller is the left-handed complement, giving Mike Shildt a menagerie of options. …Worth keeping an eye on: how the Cardinals balance the plate appearances of Harrison Bader, Marcell Ozuna, Dexter Fowler, Tyler O’Neill and Jose Martinez. Five guys, three outfield spots, countless difficult decisions.
Miller’s fun fact:: O’Neill is, aesthetically speaking, a unicorn. Out of more than 500 everyday big leaguers, he had the 20th fastest sprint speed last year. Out of more than 400, he had the ninth-hardest exit velocity in the second half. He has a comic book body, all muscles and clinging fabrics, and he drilled Triple-A pitching last year. He also whiffed on 47 percent of his swings in the majors, easily the worst in the league. There should be a camera isolated on him at all times.
What you need to know about the Brewers
Doolittle’s state of the Brewers: The past two seasons, the Brewers have successfully transitioned from one era of contention to another, without having really ever bottomed out. After just missing the postseason in 2017, the Brewers won a 163rd-game tiebreaker in Chicago to take the 2018 division title and ended up falling just one game short of the NL pennant, which would have been the franchise’s first. (Milwaukee won the 1982 AL pennant.) One of just seven franchises without a World Series title, the Brewers have returned mostly the same roster in an effort to finally get over the top.
Passan’s inside intel: Brewers third baseman Travis Shaw had an impressive spring. Striking out 22 times without walking is awfully difficult to do. … Milwaukee’s homegrown rotation is the envy of plenty, and the addition of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta for a full year, plus the return of Jimmy Nelson, only strengthens the Brewers as they look to exploit this window of winning.
Miller’s fun fact:: The Brewers are committed, more than perhaps any team in history, to protecting their starters from the third-time-through-the-order penalty. Last year, their starters faced exactly 18, 19 or 20 batters 38 times, the most such starts in baseball. These weren’t their starters’ best performances — collectively they had a 4.53 ERA in those 38 starts — but the Brewers reaped the benefits of extra at-bats from pinch-hitters and more innings from their super-strength bullpen. They went 23-15 in those 38 games.
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Cardinals 4, Brewers 2. Miles Mikolas, one of last year’s biggest surprises with an 18-4 record and 2.83 ERA, pitches well, and that vaunted bullpen trio shuts it down.
The Braves limp into the start of the season as projected Opening Day starter Mike Foltynewicz (elbow) and fellow starter Kevin Gausman (shoulder) will open the season on the injured list.
After signing a $330 million deal over the winter, Philadelphia’s new superstar takes the field in front of his new home crowd for the first time. Don’t miss Harper’s debut!
Watch Braves-Phillies, 3 ET on ESPN+
The Braves won the NL East last year by going 28 games over .500 within the division, including 12-7 against the Phillies, but this looks like a stronger Phillies team with the additions of Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura and David Robertson. Aaron Nola had a brilliant 2018, finishing third in the Cy Young voting with a 2.37 ERA and .197 batting average allowed. Harper will be the center of attention, but the showcase showdown will be Nola versus MVP candidate Ronald Acuna Jr.
What you need to know about the Braves
Doolittle’s Braves outlook: The Braves snapped a four-year streak of losing seasons with an NL East title in 2018, having quietly entered into and exited a full-on rebuild before the subject of tanking in baseball became such a hot topic. With a top-ranked farm system ready to augment a roster full of players still savoring the fresh taste of postseason action, Atlanta has only just stepped through its latest window of contention.
Passan’s inside intel: A scout 21-year-old right-hander, Bryse Wilson, will be taking the mound in Game 2 of this series: “He’s a middle linebacker on the mound. I love his makeup, I love how he attacks. Not sure about his stuff beyond the fastball, but he’s the kid who figures it out.” … Wilson was the first from the Braves’ monster 2016 draft to make the big leagues. He won’t be the last. Right-hander Ian Anderson has serious helium. Huge left-handers Kyle Muller and Joey Wentz may be a year off, but they’re on the rise as well.
Miller’s fun fact:: When pitchers threw Freddie Freeman a first-pitch strike last year, he swung at it a remarkable 75 percent of the time, easily the highest rate in baseball. Second on that leaderboard: Ozzie Albies — the precocious second baseman who often batted in front of Freeman — at 70 percent. They tied for the second-most hits on the first pitch and each slugged over .600 when making contact on the first pitch. Those two lead something of a teamwide philosophy: The Braves put 25 percent more 0-0 pitches in play, compared to the average team, and they slugged .612, the sixth-highest in baseball, on those pitches.
Spring must-read: Young arms could carry Braves in stacked NL East (ESPN+)
What you need to know about the Phillies
Doolittle’s state of the Phillies: Of the 16 franchises who made up the big-league landscape for the first half of the 20th century, the Phillies have the worst collective winning percentage. Philadelphia has been in continual existence since 1883, yet owns the same number of World Series crowns (two) as the Marlins. After five years of rebuilding, the Phillies pushed into contention in 2018 before fading, then went out and signed Harper to a 13-year contract as the jewel of an aggressive winter acquisition campaign. The latest golden Phillies age has dawned.
Passan’s inside intel: One of the most-asked-for players on the trade market this winter was Phillies right-hander Nick Pivetta, whose underlying spin metrics left teams believing he has ace potential. The Phillies saw it, too, and held on figuring he’s at least a run — maybe two — better than his 4.77 ERA last season. … Despite signing in March, Harper played in nearly as many spring games as starting second baseman Cesar Hernandez and more than starting center fielder Odubel Herrera.
Miller’s fun fact:: Last year’s Phillies were the worst defensive team by defensive runs saved in at least a decade, failing to play above-average defense at any position. The friction of this defense didn’t afflict every pitcher’s stats equally, but the Phillies’ 3-4-5 starters — Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin — had a collective ERA (4.68) almost a run higher than their FIP (3.78) suggests it should have been. Philadelphia’s winter spending spree means new defenders at five positions, and the Phillies now project to be merely bad, rather than disastrous, in the field.
Spring must-read: How Phillies’ 2018 clubhouse issues caused by Fortnite led to a smashed TV
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Phillies 4, Braves 3. Yes, Harper has a flair for the dramatic. He’s homered five times in seven career Opening Days. Make it six.
Don’t tune in expecting to watch Vladimir Guerrero Jr. play, because it makes too much sense for the 20-year-old phenom to begin his career at home before a sold-out crowd on Opening Day. Instead, he’ll begin the season in Triple-A. The Jays have finished under .500 the past two seasons following back-to-back playoff trips, and while they’re in the midst of a rebuild, they’ll hope for bounce-back seasons from Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez to give them a chance at surprising. They went a combined 8-15 in 39 starts with a 5.21 ERA. As for the Tigers … well, there’s always the hope they’ll finish better than 64-98 this season.
What you need to know about the Tigers
Doolittle’s state of the Tigers: The Tigers hovered around contention for more than a decade, and even won a couple of AL pennants in hopes of landing a championship for late owner Mike Ilitch. With the roster aging and the payroll bloated, Tigers GM Al Avila entered into a much-needed rebuilding phase in 2017, one that remains in its early stages as the 2019 season dawns.
Passan’s inside intel: Similar to what the Tigers’ Opening Day opponent is going through with Guerrero Jr. this spring, an urge to hold back Casey Mize could befall Detroit this year as it considers whether it’s worthwhile to start the No. 1 overall pick’s service clock in what’s shaping up to be a miserable season. Mize, by the way, added a breaking ball to an already-obscene fastball-splitter-curveball arsenal.
Miller’s fun fact:: The Tigers enter the season with little hope of competing but some hope of trading Nicholas Castellanos for a big haul in the near future. But those hopes might depend on Castellanos making major improvements in his second season in right field. As it stands now, Castellanos rates as the worst defensive player in history through age 26, by defensive runs saved. He ranked last among all outfielders in the Statcast-derived outs above average last year, and since 2016 he ranks 42nd in baseball at the plate (by OPS+, minimum 1,000 PA), but just 125th in total WAR.
What you need to know about the Blue Jays
Doolittle’s state of the Blue Jays: The Blue Jays’ run at a third franchise championship fell short with a 2015 ALCS loss to Kansas City, a push that ended with the dismantling of Toronto’s power lineup that featured sluggers Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson. All are gone, and the Blue Jays have cleared the decks for a promising wave of young talent headlined by the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year, Guerrero Jr. The Jays have to face down problems with its ballpark and revenue streams, but seldom is a rebuild accompanied by as much anticipation as this one.
Passan’s inside intel: An oblique strain allowed Toronto to sidestep any questions about its motivations in keeping Vlad Jr. off the Opening Day roster. Now the Blue Jays must be careful with their prized prospect, as oblique injuries have recurrence issues. … With Guerrero and shortstop Bo Bichette on the way, and the potential emergence of catcher Danny Jansen, outfielder Teoscar Hernandez and second baseman Lourdes Gurriel, the Blue Jays’ offensive core could be excellent. Pitching remains problematic.
Miller’s fun fact:: The Blue Jays got Elvis Luciano in the Rule 5 draft due to a quirk in his eligibility, as he’s many years younger than typical Rule 5 picks and wasn’t anywhere close to the big leagues. Toronto would have to keep him on the big league roster all year to keep him, and despite a bad spring training, Luciano is still in the mix, which gives us a fun experiment to watch: What happens when a pitcher in short-season ball jumps four levels and has to face major leaguers for a year?
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Blue Jays 8, Tigers 2. The Jays pound three home runs and win big.
Clayton Kershaw won’t be starting for the Dodgers. Neither will Rich Hill. Both will begin the season on the injured list, with Kershaw’s shoulder inflammation more concerning than Hill’s MCL strain in his left knee. Walker Buehler is healthy, but the Dodgers are already focused on limiting his innings, so he won’t get the ball in the season’s first series. That leaves Hyun-Jin Ryu, but all he did in 2018 was post a 1.97 ERA in 15 starts. Yes, the Dodgers are deep in starting pitching, which is why they are consensus favorites to capture their seventh straight division title.
The Diamondbacks have lost Goldschmidt, Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock (to the Dodgers), so the rotation will have to carry the load. Zack Greinke makes his fourth career Opening Day start but seeks his first Opening Day win.
What you need to know about the Diamondbacks
Doolittle’s state of the Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks went from 93 wins, and an NL wild-card berth, to 82 during a winter marked by a pivot to a “soft” rebuild. What this means in practical terms is a big-league roster with but one star-level player (Greinke) and a bottom-five farm system that badly needs to be beefed up if Arizona is going to move beyond mediocrity anytime soon.
Passan’s inside intel: Slowly but surely, Greinke is working on an awfully compelling Hall of Fame résumé, with a Cy Young Award, five All-Star Games, five Gold Gloves and what’s now approaching 3,000 innings. And he’s not stopping with his wide array of pitches, either. One scout spotted Greinke working on a cutter recently and said despite his diminished velocity, Greinke, 35, looks as good as he has in years. His intellect and incredible knowledge of the game could allow him to pitch deep into his 30s.
Miller’s fun fact:: Last year, the Diamondbacks began using a humidor to offset the offense-boosting effects of Arizona’s dry desert air, and it worked. This year, they’ll replace the infield grass — which gets dry, hard and fast — with synthetic turf. It won’t dramatically change anything, but last year’s Diamondbacks pitchers had the highest groundball rate in baseball, and over the past decade the Diamondbacks’ hard infield has turned about 10 outs into singles and 10 singles into extra-base hits each year.
What you need to know about the Dodgers
Doolittle’s state of the Dodgers: The Dodgers have won 91 or more games in each of the past six seasons, all of which ended with an NL West division title. The last two of those campaigns have also yielded the franchise’s 23rd and 24th NL pennants, yet the World Series title drought has stretched to 31. With a deep big-league roster, deep pockets and a deep farm system, L.A. has it all — except that fourth win in a Fall Classic.
Passan’s inside intel: Scouts are curious to see Kershaw healthy so they can assess how much velocity separation exists between his fastball and slider. While a large gap is not imperative, the two were so similar during the World Series that one Red Sox hitter copped to not caring which of the two he threw. … Even with Kershaw hurt, the Dodgers have plenty of pitching options. Buehler is a Cy Young winner-in-the-making. Julio Urias’ stuff has been tip-top as he gets his shot following a bad shoulder injury. Tony Gonsolin, the Dodgers’ minor league pitcher of the year, is an incredible athlete (with an incredible mustache to boot). And the biggest stuff of all belongs to Dustin May, a 6-foot-6 flamethrower with a mane of red hair that gave him a classic comparable/nickname mash-up: Gingergaard.
Miller’s fun fact:: The 2018 Dodgers were the least clutch team this century, by a lot: Their OPS in high-leverage situations was just 73 percent of their overall OPS, and their lack of clutch hitting cost them nine wins — basically, one whole Mike Trout — all by itself. Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger and the now-departed Yasmani Grandal were the three least clutch hitters in baseball, and Joc Pederson, Justin Turner and (also-departed) Yasiel Puig were all in the 10th percentile. Team clutchness shows essentially no correlation from year to year, so the Dodgers — according to everything we’ve been taught — should be safe. But it’s one to watch.
Spring must-read: ‘Cody’s gotta be our guy’: Bellinger ready for star turn in L.A.
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Diamondbacks 5, Dodgers 1. Greinke silences the Dodgers bats as Arizona wins.
This is the other must-watch game of the day since we get Justin Verlander and Blake Snell — last year’s 1-2 finishers in the American League Cy Young voting. Verlander is probably still hot about finishing second to Snell in a close vote — Snell had 21 wins and a 1.89 ERA, but Verlander threw 33.1 more innings.
Verlander just signed a $66 million extension that will keep him in Houston through 2021. “I don’t want to be anywhere else,” Verlander said. And would he? The Astros are coming off back-to-back 100-win seasons and seek to become the first team since the 2002-04 Yankees to reach 100 three years in a row. He makes his 11th career Opening Day start. Snell, meanwhile, enters with a nine-game winning streak as he won nine of his final 10 starts of 2018, allowing just eight runs in 57.2 innings in that stretch with 84 strikeouts. He’s out to prove one Cy Young Award is not enough.
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What you need to know about the Astros
Doolittle’s state of the Astros: The Astros remain squarely in the midst of the most successful era in the history of a proud franchise, even though Houston fell short in the defense of its 2017 World Series crown. Houston has won 101 and 103 games the past two seasons, retains a young roster and has managed to also keep its prospect ranking in the upper third of the majors. The Astros aren’t going away anytime soon.
Passan’s inside intel: An NL scout on the Astros: “They’re the best team in baseball. I don’t think it’s close.” … More scout likes and dislikes from Astros camp. Likes: Forrest Whitley — who should be in the Astros’ rotation by May — and third baseman Abraham Toro-Hernandez. Dislikes: Top prospect Kyle Tucker, whose arm-barred swing has taken him out of favor with some in the organization.
Miller’s fun fact:: Houston was one of the earliest teams to appreciate the value of catcher framing, and according to Baseball Prospectus’ metrics, the Astros catchers have saved 77 runs with framing since 2014. But with the acquisition of catcher Robinson Chirinos, Houston will have an odd platoon this year: Max Stassi was baseball’s best framer last year, while Chirinos was 42nd out of 47. Watch to see how the Astros assign starts to each catcher, to see whether Chirinos learns the skill in real-time, or whether the Astros have decided to simply quit caring about the diminishing value of this skill.
What you need to know about the Rays
Doolittle’s state of the Rays: According to Cot’s Contracts, the Rays begin the season with a $59.9 million payroll, of which $7 million is in the form of residuals that won’t go to the players on the actual roster. Yet the Rays won 90 games last season, remained in wild-card contention in the final week, and project to be in the thick of the AL playoff chase in 2019. This, in a nutshell, is the history of the Rays franchise and why their cutting-edge, hyperefficient methods have been something of a bane to the MLB Players Association. The Rays were perhaps foretold by greedy owner William Hulbert way back in the 19th century when he said, “It is ridiculous to pay ballplayers $2,000 a year, especially when the $800 boys often do just as well.”
Passan’s inside intel: More than one scout declared this spring that Tampa Bay has usurped San Diego for the best farm system in the game. By the end of the season, the scouts suggested, Wander Franco, a switch-hitting shortstop who turned 18 less than a month ago, will be the best prospect in baseball. And the emergence of Shane Baz — acquired in the Chris Archer deal — and Matthew Liberatore, a first-round pick in 2018, only has added to the Rays’ riches. … The Rays aren’t sure where utility man Brandon Lowe is going to play this season. They just know that after he finished on a month-and-a-half-long jag with an OPS near .900, it’ll be somewhere.
Miller’s fun fact:: In the two weeks between the All-Star break and the trade deadline last year, Tommy Pham hit an unexceptional .289/.372/.421 for the Cardinals, at the end of which the Rays traded for him. But Pham also had the sixth-highest exit velocity in baseball during that stretch, and that might have been prophetic: Pham would go on to have the fifth-highest exit velocity in baseball after the trade and hit a Mookiesque .343/.448/.622 over two months for Tampa Bay. The down-ballot MVP candidate in 2017 is a dark horse to be the first Tampa Bay Ray to ever finish in the top five in MVP voting.
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Rays 3, Astros 2. Lots of strikeouts. But Lowe — who had a big spring — gets the walk-off hit in a 3-2 victory for the Rays
For most teams, 95 wins and losing the division title in a tiebreaker would qualify as a successful regular season. Not for the Cubs, who led the division by five games in early September only to see the offense collapse down the stretch and then score one run in losing the tiebreaker game and the wild-card game. Despite averaging 97 wins and making the playoffs all four seasons as Cubs manager, Joe Maddon’s job is clearly on the line in the final year of his contract.
There is less pressure in Texas, where Chris Woodward takes over from Jeff Banister, but the rotation is counting on three starters coming off injuries (Edinson Volquez, Drew Smyly, Shelby Miller).
What you need to know about the Cubs
Doolittle’s state of the Cubs: The Cubs won their first two World Series titles in back-to-back seasons in 1907 and 1908, went 108 years without a third, then set the baseball world on fire with their 2016 championship season. That seminal campaign was supposed to mark the onset of a new ivy-covered dynasty, but a subsequent pair of seasons with 90-plus wins have ended in postseason disappointment. If that stretches to three straight non-title seasons, change could be afoot in Wrigleyville.
Passan’s inside intel: “Kris Bryant,” one Cubs official said, “is on a mission.” As extension season 2019 thinned out the crop of future free agents, nothing materialized between Bryant and the Cubs — not with Bryant coming off his worst season as a big leaguer. Bryant’s goal isn’t just a comeback; it’s a reminder that he’s one of the best players in baseball and that he warrants a generational-type deal even if he doesn’t reach free agency until around his 30th birthday. … With Addison Russell suspended and Ian Happ in the minor leagues, David Bote — 18th-round pick, career minor leaguer until last season — stands to pick up at-bats for Chicago. He has elite exit velocity on balls in the air, though Max Stassi and Pedro Alvarez did too last season, so a bigger sample is necessary to render judgment on the 25-year-old Bote.
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Miller’s fun fact:: Spin rate isn’t the end-all any more than velocity or control alone are, which is why Dillon Maples is no lock to stick in the Cubs’ bullpen yet is impossible to look away from. In limited big-league action last year, he had the highest spin rate in the majors on his four-seam fastball, the third-most spin on his curveball, and the fourth-most on his slider, which he threw almost 70 percent of the time in Chicago. He struck out 84 batters in 44 innings split between Triple-A and the majors, while also walking 44. As Cubs catcher Taylor Davis put it this spring, Maples is “outrageous.”
Spring must-read: What can go right — and wrong — for Cubs in 2019
What you need to know about the Rangers
Doolittle’s state of the Rangers: Another one of baseball’s seven franchises with zero World Series titles, the Rangers are coming off a couple of enigmatic seasons on the heels of their 95-win season of 2016, campaigns that teetered in the awkward place between trying and not trying. With a starting rotation made up of red-flag health risks, the 2019 season looks like more of the same, though Texas hopes its group of potentially solid position players will soon be complemented by a wave of young arms, hopefully in time for the team’s move into a new stadium in 2020.
Passan’s inside intel: Long shot though it may be, the Rangers’ entire rotation could find itself on the trading block this June. Mike Minor spent all offseason on it, and the Rangers repeated their excellent deal with him by signing Lance Lynn. The other three members — Smyly, Miller and Volquez — each are on low-cost one-year deals. … Under-the-radar prospect alert: Left-hander Brock Burke, acquired by Texas in the Jurickson Profar deal, impressed evaluators this spring.
Miller’s fun fact:: Rougned Odor remains the most prolific bunter against the full infield shift: He had (depending on your definition of a shift) at least 16 bunts against such defenses last year, double No. 2 shift-bunter Matt Carpenter’s total, more than triple any other American Leaguer, and 10 more than his own AL-leading total the year before. Just six of those bunts went for hits — which goes to how hard it is to do successfully — and defenses still shifted him more than all but 16 other batters last year, which discounts the postulate that defenses will stop if a batter lays a few down.
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Cubs 9, Rangers 5. Bryant is healthy. He homers and drives in three as the Cubs win a high-scoring opener.
Hey, it’s always fun to watch the best player in the game, and Mike Trout’s record-setting $430 million contract extension only seems to put more pressure on the rest of the organization: Can the Angels build a winner around their franchise icon? Shohei Ohtani, of course, won’t pitch this year and won’t be ready to join the lineup as a DH until May, and there are already concerns with the rest of the rotation as Andrew Heaney has some elbow inflammation and Tyler Skaggs is behind schedule with forearm fatigue.
The A’s, meanwhile, looking to repeat last year’s surprise wild-card spot, had a rough two games in Japan against the Mariners, starting 0-2 and then having first baseman Matt Olson land on the injured after needing surgery on his right hand after a hamate injury suffered on a foul ball.
What you need to know about the Angels
Doolittle’s state of the Angels: On one hand, the Angels are still a 59-year-old franchise with but one pennant and one World Series title, and have managed to squeeze into the playoffs just once during the first seven marvelous full seasons of Trout’s career. On the other hand, Trout’s decision to commit to the Angels through the age of 39 means that L.A. will enter each campaign in the foreseeable future with the sport’s best cornerstone piece, and the Angels’ once-barren farm system is shooting up the rankings under GM Billy Eppler.
Passan’s inside intel: As Eppler does his best to cobble together a starting staff, scouts are raving about 21-year-old left-hander Jose Suarez, who more than held his own at 20 in the hitter-friendly Triple-A PCL last year. One scout threw out a Johan Santana comparison, thanks to Suarez’s short stature and vicious changeup, while another said he’s Santana “plus 50 pounds and minus the command.” … Ohtani’s return to full-time DH duty after undergoing Tommy John surgery is on schedule. He’s due back in early May.
Miller’s fun fact:: When Ohtani comes back to claim the DH spot, the Angels might run the slowest platoon in baseball history at first base. Justin Bour took an extra base (e.g., first to third on a single, scoring from first on a double) in just 6 percent of his chances to, the lowest rate in baseball, while Pujols’ 17 percent rate was seventh lowest. Pujols was the slowest runner in baseball, according to Statcast sprint speeds. Bour’s sprint speed was faster than only 10 players’, including six catchers and the now-retired Victor Martinez.
Spring must-read: Trout’s greatness, as told by the back of his baseball cards
What you need to know about the Athletics
Doolittle’s state of the A’s: After the Moneyball heyday of the early 2000s, Oakland’s GM has managed to open up contention windows for two or so years a couple of times, before being forced to strip down and begin again. This time, coming off a 97-win playoff season with a roster featuring very young stars like Olson (who begins the season in the injured list) and Matt Chapman, we may be looking at the dawn of another era of sustained winning in Oakland. Bolstering those hopes are the improving prospects for a long-awaited new ballpark by the bay.
Passan’s inside intel: Like last year, when the A’s won 97 games, their starting rotation is a work in progress. One particularly bright spot: 26-year-old right-hander Frankie Montas, who once upon a time was a top prospect and three trades later has earned a rotation spot on the strength of a new pitch. Montas is throwing a splitter — “It’s nasty,” one scout said — that can complement his still-righteous high-90s fastball. For now, Montas is little more than a flyer. But if he sticks, and Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk return healthy, that’s the makings of a better rotation than Oakland has had in years.
Miller’s fun fact:: The A’s had one of baseball’s best offenses last year, and on the road — where their hitting stats escape the punishment of their spacious home ballpark — they had the best. But against pitches 97 mph or faster, it was baseball’s very worst offense. This quirk doesn’t matter much in the regular season, but it’s terrible news for any team that wants to advance in October, when such velocity is about twice as common as in the regular season. A whopping 40 of the 116 pitches the A’s saw in the wild-card game registered 97 or higher.
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Angels 6, Athletics 4. Trout homers twice, Angels win.
We get the first game of Bruce Bochy’s final season as Giants manager and the first game for Manny Machado in a Padres uniform. The Giants were actually competitive for half a season last year: On July 1, they were 45-40 and just 2.5 games out of first place. They’d go 28-49 the rest of the way, however, to finish under .500 for the second straight season. While they pursued Bryce Harper, they didn’t land him, so it was mostly a quiet offseason for a team that will have one of the oldest lineups in the league.
The Padres, meanwhile, will have one of the youngest teams, especially in the rotation where Eric Lauer and Joey Lucchesi are the most experienced of the group — and they were both rookies last year. Still, Machado and the arrival of Fernando Tatis Jr. — who has shown his superstar potential throughout spring training — will at least make the Padres much more interesting than they’ve been in a long time.
What you need to know about the Giants
Doolittle’s state of the Giants: It was good while it lasted. Under Bruce Bochy, the Giants clawed and gritted and gutted their way to three titles in five seasons with largely the same core of beloved veterans. Some of those — Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Crawford — are still around, but the architect of those teams (Brian Sabean) has been replaced by new analytics-age exec Farhan Zaidi, and Bochy is entering the last season of his storied managerial career. The path between one prolonged period of contention and the next one is usually not too scenic, and the one the Giants have just started across is unlikely to look anything like the Golden Gate Bridge.
Passan’s inside intel: Quiz time: The Giants’ Opening Day roster includes two of the following names. Michael Reed, Luke Jackson, Oliver Drake, Connor Joe. Who are the two actual Giants? … Like the aforementioned four, Joey Bart is a first-name-as-a-last-name guy. He could be with the Giants by midseason, depending on Posey’s capacity to catch consistently. One scout suggested Posey has struggled to generate power because a lack of drive in his legs. Bart, San Francisco’s first-round pick last year, won’t have any issues hitting for power. … The answer, by the way: outfielder Michael Reed and utility man Connor Joe.
Miller’s fun fact:: The worst outfield spot in the National League, according to PECOTA, is the Giants’ right field. At 0.2 projected wins above replacement, it’s nearly a win worse than the second-worst outfield spot in the National League, which is … the Giants’ left field. That’s actually tied with the other second-worst outfield spot in the National League: the Giants’ center field! The upside is that any threesome they throw out there will be younger and rangier than last year’s unit, which had the league’s worst defensive efficiency on fly balls.
What you need to know about the Padres
Doolittle’s state of the Padres: The Padres won 90 games — but missed the playoffs — in 2010, and have since lost at least 85 games in each season of this decade. After an ill-fated payroll splurge in 2013, the Padres dove head-first into a full-on rebuild under GM A.J. Preller that has netted them perhaps the best farm system in baseball. However, the Padres have accelerated expectations over the past two winters by investing in, first, Eric Hosmer, and this winter in Machado, who has the opportunity to become the first true face of the Friars since Tony Gwynn retired. Hopes are running high in San Diego.
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Passan’s inside intel: The small-market Padres signed a star even though he cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The small-market Padres rostered Tatis and Chris Paddack for Opening Day without any service-time manipulation. If the baseball gods are just, they’ll reward San Diego for showing what a desire to win looks like in an era when it’s so rare. … Paddack, in the words of one scout, “has the best makeup of a pitching prospect I’ve seen in a decade.” The stuff is great, too, though one official who knows Paddack well cautions he might not be ready to dominate. Which is fine. Remember, the Padres got him June 30, 2016, when they dealt Fernando Rodney to the Marlins, who were 41-38 and clearly not contenders. Owner Jeffrey Loria, ever wise, told the front office to get a reliever anyway. It cost them Paddack. … One scout’s bold prediction on massive Padres outfielder Franmil Reyes: “He’s going to lead the league in home runs.”
Miller’s fun fact:: The last thing the Padres surely hoped for when they signed Hosmer to an eight-year deal was that their new slugger would turn into the league’s most groundball-oriented hitter. Hosmer was the only qualifying hitter in baseball with a negative average launch angle, sinking from 3.8 degrees in 2017 (and 5.5 degrees in 2015) to -1.2 degrees in 2018.
Spring must-read: Machado’s arrival accelerates Padres’ path to postseason
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Padres 5, Giants 3. The big guy — that’s Franmil Reyes — pops one out, and Lauer continues a strong spring with a victory.
This looks like a good opportunity for the Twins to maybe steal a couple of games early against the Indians, who will start the season with MVP candidate Francisco Lindor on the injured list while fellow MVP candidate Jose Ramirez is questionable after suffering a knee bruise on a foul ball Sunday. Jason Kipnis is also out. Not injured: Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber in what should be a powerhouse rotation. Berrios draws his first Opening Day assignment after going 12-11 with a 3.84 ERA. He threw one shutout in 2018: in his first start of the season.
What you need to know about the Indians
Doolittle’s state of the Indians: The Indians are working on a streak of six straight winning seasons, a stretch in which they’ve won 90 or more games four times, made the postseason four times and won the 2016 AL pennant. Nevertheless, the Indians haven’t been able to snap the franchise’s 70-year-long title drought, nor have they cashed in at the box office in terms of banner attendance. Suddenly, Cleveland looks like a cash-strapped franchise on the decline, hoping to squeeze another division title or two out of its star-laden core before it all disintegrates.
Passan’s inside intel: One reason Cleveland is comfortable at least discussing trading Bauer or Kluber: Shane Bieber, once seen as a back-end-of-the-rotation control-and-command guy, looks like at worst a No. 3 and probably more. In the minor leagues, Bieber’s fastball sat 88 to 92 mph. Now it’s closer to 93 to 94, and one scout called his slider a “wipeout.” His changeup, always good, is improved as well. With Clevinger’s leap forward last year and Carrasco still excellent, consider this: All five Indians starters would likely start Opening Day for three of Cleveland’s AL Central rivals.
Miller’s fun fact:: If baseball does indeed implement new rules in 2020 mandating pitchers face at least three batters per inning, Oliver Perez might be the face of the victims. Perez had 33 outings last year of two or fewer batters — the most in the AL — and had his most successful season in over a decade. He had a 1.39 ERA, struck out 43 batters against only four unintentional walks. The bad news is that this could be his final year in such a precise role. The good is that he was even better against righties last year, and Cleveland could try to start expanding his role.
Spring must-read: Young Indians inherit great expectations after winter turnover (ESPN+)
What you need to know about the Twins
Doolittle’s state of the Twins: The Twins have bounced between low-level contention and noncontention all through the current decade, which has included six losing campaigns, a division crown way back in 2010 and a surprise wild-card berth after an 85-win season in 2017. After an offseason of midlevel acquisitions, the Twins are hoping to end up near the ceiling of its lower-middle-class existence in 2019.
Passan’s inside intel: The man, the myth, the legend: Twins catcher Willians Astudillo did not strike out and walked once in 52 times up this spring. Over 2,461 career minor league plate appearances, Astudillo has walked 85 times and struck out 81. … At 25 years old, Byron Buxton may be facing his last shot with the Twins before a change of scenery is necessary. Minnesota isn’t giving up on him yet, nor should it, not with the talent he showed this spring. … Lindor should return soon from a right calf strain — and Indians fans, in the words of Paul Dolan, better “enjoy him,” because even as San Diego guarantees $300 million to Manny Machado, Dolan, the owner of a team with higher revenues, won’t consider going there.
Miller’s fun fact:: The Twins had the most aggressive third-base coach in baseball last year: Their runners scored from second on singles more than any other team, and from first on doubles more than all but one team. They also got thrown out at home more than any other team. The man who was doing all that presumed arm-waving, Gene Glynn, has now been replaced by Tony Diaz. Now we’ll find out whether it was Glynn or the Twins players themselves driving that action.
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Indians 3, Twins 2. The Twins never got going last year, including a 9-15 record through April that included four walk-off losses. The bullpen is a question mark and remains so after Berrios exits with the lead only to see Cleveland rally.
The Rockies nearly won the first division title in franchise history last year, tying the Dodgers only to lose in the tiebreaker game. After back-to-back wild-card trips, however, they have their sights on something bigger than a division title. They locked up Nolan Arenado to a long-term deal and they’re hoping the 1-2 duo of Kyle Freeland and German Marquez can replicate last year’s success. The key to the Rockies’ success the past two seasons: They’ve finally won on the road, going 44-38 last year and 41-40 the year before.
Three teams lost 100 games in 2018 … and the Marlins weren’t one of them. The lineup once again looks anemic, but the rotation could actually be halfway decent. In a tougher NL East, however, they will be hard-pressed to avoid 90-something losses.
What you need to know about the Rockies
Doolittle’s state of the Rockies: For the first time, the Rockies enter a campaign on the heels of back-to-back playoff appearances, though this remains a franchise with a lot of “never-haves.” Colorado has never won a division title or a World Series, nor has it had a player go into the Hall of Fame under its banner. After locking up franchise face Arenado during spring training, the Rox look like a club ready to start checking off a lot of those unchecked boxes.
Passan’s inside intel: The defection of DJ LeMahieu to the Yankees hasn’t left the Rockies struggling at second base. Ryan McMahon was arguably the best hitter in the Cactus League and Garrett Hampson one of the most dynamic athletes, and both should see plenty of plate appearances this year. … Breakout alert, though it’s not really much of a breakout because he was so good last year: Rockies starter Marquez, who had a better strikeout rate than Luis Severino, Aaron Nola, Corey Kluber and others.
Miller’s fun fact:: The first team to make the playoffs without a single complete game was the 2015 Pirates, followed by the 2016 Blue Jays, and that was it. But the 2018 postseason had three such teams: the Dodgers, Brewers, and these Rockies, who also had their best starting staff in history. Pitching at altitude adds extra physical strain, and the Rockies invested heavily in relievers who could reduce the load on the starters. The super-bullpen wasn’t so super, after all, but the shorter outings might have paid off for the starters.
Spring must-read: Arenado’s record deal a win for Nolan and Rockies
What you need to know about the Marlins
Doolittle’s state of the Marlins: No franchise has had a stranger history than the Marlins, who have the second-lowest composite winning percentage of any franchise and just two playoff berths in 26 seasons of existence. Yet both of those postseason breakthroughs ended in World Series crowns. A third remains a highly distant possibility after the inaugural season of a new ownership group led by Bruce Sherman and Yankees legend Derek Jeter ended with 98 losses and a per-game attendance figure lower than what the Cubs draw during spring training.
Passan’s inside intel: Scouts differ on who they like best among the Marlins’ young and surprisingly decent rotation. One prefers 23-year-old Pablo Lopez (“The change is legit”) while another fancies 27-year-old Caleb Smith (“Swing-and-miss fastball and slider”). With Dan Straily released, the age of the Marlins’ opening-week rotation goes 27, 25, 23, 23, 27. One evaluator on the Marlins’ offense: “They’re going to score 75 runs less than last year,” which is saying something, because they plated a major league-worst 589 runs.
Miller’s fun fact:: After trading J.T. Realmuto, the Marlins have now traded 23 of their all-time top 25 players by WAR, which raises the question of who would come next. Among their current players, Martin Prado — a veteran utility man now on the Marlins’ bench — is the active career WAR leader, with 6.7. That’s 33rd on the franchise’s all-time list, but Prado is unlikely to move up. Brian Anderson, a rookie last year, is next with 3.3 WAR, which is 66th. That makes him the current face of the franchise, and puts him probably two good seasons from joining the train of Marlins’ greats in the trade history. This is a very bad team.
Spring must-read: What’s it like being a Miami Marlin?
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Rockies 5, Marlins 0. Arenado and Trevor Story go yard while Freeland tosses seven scoreless innings.
The Reds were active in the offseason, trading for Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, while the Pirates … well, they acquired Erik Gonzalez, who has 79 strikeouts and nine walks in his big league career, and he’ll be their starting shortstop. Still, don’t sleep on the Pirates as the rotation could be very good. Jameson Taillon had a breakout season with a 3.20 ERA, including a strong second half, and makes his first Opening Day start.
What you need to know about the Pirates
Doolittle’s state of the Pirates: The Pirates have operated smartly and efficiently under GM Neal Huntington, winning 75 or more games in each of the last seven seasons. However, that Vulcan-like approach has worn thin in Pittsburgh, as the fan base has raced right past apathy and gone straight to angry. The Pirates had another quiet winter, though this time is might have been justified, as they retain a middling roster that could soon be augmented by high-ceiling prospects like Mitch Keller, Cole Tucker and Ke’Bryan Hayes. If the Pirates push into surprise contention and prove willing to maximize that development with in-season aggression, it’s not too late to win back those passionate Bucs fans.
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Passan’s inside intel: The Pirates have a sneaky-strong bullpen, with breakout seasons from Richard Rodriguez and Kyle Crick complementing Felipe Vazquez’s typical excellence. … The Jake Fox Award for spring training home run champion goes to Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang, who is back after missing nearly two years because alleged drunken-driving incidents inhibited his ability to get a work visa. … Worth watching: In more than 50 plate appearances this spring, Joey Votto didn’t have an extra-base hit.
Miller’s fun fact:: If the Yankees are the perfect version of a modern bullpen — an average fastball of 95 mph, dominance from the fifth inning through the ninth — the Pirates were the uncanny valley version. Pittsburgh relievers also averaged 95 mph, matching the Yankees for the best in baseball, and for good measure also threw more fastballs than any other team’s bullpen. But the Pirates were just so-so after the starter left, with a collective ERA and WPA around the league average. Most of those fastballs are back this year, though, and the Pirates’ bullpen has the raw stuff to become something special.
What you need to know about the Reds
Doolittle’s state of the Reds: The Reds have been in rebuild mode for five years now, the last four of which yielded no more than 68 wins and all of which displayed a persistent inability to turn minor league pitching talent into big league pitching production. Tired of running in place, Cincinnati beefed up the veteran presence on its roster over the winter by targeting a group of veterans on expiring contracts, such as mercurial ex-Dodger Puig, and opens the new season hoping to force its way into contention in the strong NL Central.
Passan’s inside intel: The Reds’ mandate to win from ownership led the team to trade for Puig, Wood, Kemp and Roark, plus acquire Gray and give him a contract extension. “I still think they might be the worst team in the division,” said one scout who has tracked the Reds all spring. … He was impressed by top prospect Nick Senzel, who transitioned from second base to center field with aplomb, only to get sent down to protect his service time, at which point he suffered an ankle injury that will keep him out for up to two months. Compound that with the loss of second baseman Scooter Gennett for between two and three months, and the Reds’ season is starting as so many recent ones have ended.
Miller’s fun fact:: For the past five seasons, the Reds have had Billy Hamilton — perhaps baseball’s fastest man — covering ground in center field. But Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park has the fourth-smallest outfield in baseball, strangling some of Hamilton’s range. Now, the Reds will make the most of their small confines: Center field will likely be manned by either Scott Schebler, who would be one of the slowest center fielders after spending last year in right; Senzel, who has never played a pro game in the outfield and has mostly held third base; or, in a substitute role, Michael Lorenzen, an athletic pitcher who is preparing for a two-way role.
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Pirates 6, Reds 2. Taillon deals, Pirates win.
The good news in this one: The White Sox signed Eloy Jimenez to a long-term contract, so there will be no service-time manipulation with him and he’ll begin his career on Opening Day. As for the rest of this game: Both teams are coming off 100-loss seasons, so viewer beware.
What you need to know about the White Sox
Doolittle’s state of the White Sox: Just as their North Side rivals were stepping to the fore, the South Side ChiSox decided to reset after more than a decade of mediocrity followed their 2005 championship. Now, a brimming farm system is starting to yield star-level talent, and with an improved performance from their young roster, the White Sox are positioned to seize the AL Central crown one of these years when Cleveland inevitably relinquishes its stranglehold on the division.
Passan’s inside intel: Even with their improvements this winter, the White Sox will start with a payroll below $100 million for the third consecutive Opening Day. … Among Alonso, Tatis, Paddack and Jimenez — the only one of the four who signed a long-term deal — that’s four more young players starting the year in the big leagues than one might’ve thought. And in guaranteeing Jimenez $43 million, clearly the White Sox believe he’s going to be a star.
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Miller’s fun fact:: The White Sox had the youngest average hitter in baseball last year, a consequence of the multiyear rebuild they’re in the middle of. Such youth is part of the process, and seems promising, but it doesn’t assure anything in the short term: Since 2000, each year’s youngest offense has improved by only about one-tenth of a run per game the following season, and only two of 18 teams — both of them recent Astros clubs — made the big leap of at least a half-run per game.
What you need to know about the Royals
Doolittle’s Royals outlook: The Royals went splat after a five-season run of solid play that included two pennants and Kansas City’s second World Series crown in 2015. Efforts to restock the farm system remain a work in progress but, in the meantime, the Royals are embarking on an interesting effort to swim against current analytical tides by assembling baseball’s fastest group of position players. Contention seems like a long shot, but the Royals can accomplish a lot by merely outrunning low expectations.
Passan’s inside intel: One of the best stories of the spring belongs to Kyle Zimmer, the fifth overall pick in the 2012 draft who has thrown 42 1/3 innings since 2016 and didn’t pitch last year. Arm troubles looked to be the death of his career. Zimmer worked himself back into pitching shape at Driveline Baseball, and he looked the part of an elite reliever during spring training, allowing one run in 12 2/3 innings while pumping a high-90s fastball and two good off-speed pitches. … Two years after opening the season with a $143 million payroll, the Royals begin opening day under $100 million. More than $25 million of it is tied up in two players on the injured list (Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez), another $16.5 million for a pitcher demoted to the bullpen (Ian Kennedy) and $20 million more for a veteran in the final year of his contract (Alex Gordon).
Miller’s fun fact:: Whit Merrifield led the American League in stolen bases last year, and had an excellent 82 percent success rate, but he’s not exceptionally fast: His sprint speed was 50th last year. Adalberto Mondesi is exceptionally fast — 11th in sprint speed — and, with 32 steals in just 291 plate appearances, he would have led the majors in steals if he’d played a full season. The Royals like to run, and under first-year first-base coach Mitch Maier, they ran successfully. Which is all prologue to this: Billy Hamilton is now their everyday center fielder. If Hamilton is ever going to break the basepaths, this it his chance.
Spring must-read: Why baseball needs Royals to overachieve (ESPN+)
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Royals 5, White Sox 4. Brad Keller has that sinker working like last year and the Royals start the season on the right foot.
The Red Sox begin defense of their title and Chris Sale, appropriately, will get the ball after signing a five-year, $145 million extension last week that goes through the 2024 season. Sale’s message to the rest of the league: “We want to build something that is sustainable for years to come. Especially in this day and age when half the league isn’t trying to win anything, we have a team that’s trying to win every year.”
The Mariners are 2-0 after their two wins in Japan, but expectations aren’t high after they traded or lost five of their top six players from 2018. Still, there could be some pop in the lineup if Domingo Santana, Jay Bruce and Tim Beckham find their 2017 grooves.
What you need to know about the Red Sox
Doolittle’s Red Sox outlook: The Red Sox have been up and down over the last half decade, but since two of the “up” seasons have ended with the eighth and ninth World Series crowns in franchise history, no one is complaining in Beantown.
Boston’s roster of in-their-prime young veterans is poised for high-level contention for a couple of years at least, and perhaps more if talents like reigning AL MVP Mookie Betts can be locked up for the long term.
Passan’s inside intel: And here is a not-so-hot take: The Red Sox’s Opening Day bullpen will look nothing like the one it takes into October. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier are sorta-closers right now for manager Alex Cora, and the rest of the relief corps is rather fringy. Some high-upside options do exist, whether it’s Jenrry Mejia, the one-time Mets closer coming back from a lifetime PED ban, or Durbin Feltman, the 2018 draft pick with fastball velocity (up to 100) that belies his size (5-foot-11). Another name worth remembering: Darwinzon Hernandez, a lefty who may be the best prospect in Boston’s organization. … The Red Sox are doing everything they can to avoid luxury-tax hell, and trying to maneuver beneath the $208 million threshold in 2020 is a legitimate possibility. If they don’t, the Red Sox’s base tax on every dollar over the threshold stays at 50 percent — and their top-end tax rate is 95 cents on the dollar. It’s possible. It also could necessitate some painful roster rejiggering.
Miller’s fun fact:: The Red Sox didn’t use any lefty reliever in a specialist role last year, and they consequently finished last in baseball in batters faced with the platoon advantage. (Four lefties spent some time in the bullpen, but all faced at least three-quarters right handers.) Boston did little to upgrade the bullpen this offseason, letting Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly leave as free agents and handing closing duties to a righty (Barnes) with two career saves. They also didn’t acquire a lefty, so converted starter Brian Johnson will be the main southpaw out of the bullpen.
Spring must-read: Mookie Betts might actually be the best athlete on the planet
What you need to know about the Mariners
Doolittle’s Mariners outlook: Like the Diamondbacks, the Mariners have embarked upon a “soft” rebuild, at least as the season dawns. Seattle retains enough quality veterans that a surprise run at .500 isn’t impossible, but it’s unlikely as the realities of a thin rotation and a weak bullpen set in. Seattle has been jogging on the mediocrity treadmill for five years and for a franchise that is just one of two that has never won a pennant, that wasn’t going to get them where they need to go, no matter how many trades Jerry Dipoto makes.
Passan’s inside intel: The quick-and-dirty report on Yusei Kikuchi, whom the Mariners guaranteed $56 million with an opt-out after his third season: The stuff is quite good — solid fastball, above-average slider, solid curveball and changeup. The command needs work. He could be a strong midrotation sort. … “Tell you who can really hit,” one scout said. “Jarred Kelenic.” He is the 19-year-old who was the centerpiece of the Edwin Diaz/Robinson Cano salary-dump trade to the Mets. Another acquisition who has impressed: Jake Fraley, the outfielder Seattle received in the Mike Zunino deal.
Miller’s fun fact:: Seattle’s plan of moving superfast second baseman Dee Gordon into center field last year didn’t work at all, and Gordon’s “play deep and just run in” strategy couldn’t save it. Ultimately, all five Mariners who started games at the position ended up with negative defensive runs saved, with those five cumulatively playing deeper than any other AL team. Gordon et al will be replaced this year by superfast center fielder Mallex Smith, whose positioning last year was right at the league average.
Schoenfield’s Opening Day prediction
Red Sox 3, Mariners 1. Sale spoils the home opener with 12 strikeouts and the bullpen holds on to open the title defense with a victory.