BASEBALL 2018: Beastly teams, Ohtani and make way for MVs
Just the thought of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in the same lineup sent fans into a frenzy. Come opening day, all of baseball will see which teams really have the muscle.
A season of haves and have-nots begins March 29 with Derek Jeter’s pared-down Marlins playing the pumped-up Cubs. Later that day, the New York Yankees unleash their most potent pair of sluggers since Mantle & Maris.
MVP Jose Altuve and the World Series champion Houston Astros added ace Gerrit Cole to a rotation with Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander. The Dodgers and Indians are still poised after coming within one win of that elusive crown. The Nationals hired a new manager to help free agent-to-be Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg reach the top. And the Red Sox got the bopper they needed.
Where does that leave the Reds, Pirates, Tigers, Rays and A’s? Well, better luck next year. Or the year after that.
Major League Baseball is in a hurry these days, with record home runs and strikeouts the new norm. But please, get that last out in under three hours.
A season that will include games in Mexico and Puerto Rico is set to start. And, if all goes as planned, the final game will come in October.
Here’s an early best-of-seven:
Slugger J.D. Martinez moves to Boston, which hit the fewest homers in the American League. Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria go to the retooling Giants, Jake Arrieta joins the rebuilding Phillies, Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain become part of the Brewers’ outfield, Marcell Ozuna provides pop in St. Louis and Yu Darvish is now pitching for the Cubs. Also, six new managers: Alex Cora (Red Sox), Aaron Boone (Yankees), Dave Martinez (Nationals), Mickey Callaway (Mets) and Gabe Kapler (Phillies) try for the first time, and Ron Gardenhire (Tigers) returns after a four-year absence.
Babe Ruth or bust? We’ll see whether newcomer Shohei Ohtani becomes the most successful two-way player in the bigs since the Bambino. The 23-year-old Japanese star struggled at the plate and on the mound this spring, but it’s early. Tampa Ray reliever Jonny Venters has been out of the majors since 2012 while having three Tommy John surgeries. Alex Rodriguez, meanwhile, keeps getting more popular in retirement as he moves into the ESPN booth for Sunday night telecasts.
In a game of numbers, make way for some new letters to go along with ERA, OPS and WAR: MVs. Mound visits will be posted on scoreboards, tracking how many times catchers, infielders, managers and coaches go talk with a pitcher. It’s part of MLB’s new pace-of-play rules, designed to cut down the incessant back-and-forth between batteries. Teams are allowed six trips without making a change. After that, every visit requires a new pitcher. For sure, this will take a few weeks to sort out. And no shenanigans — what if a shortstop thinks a reliever is out of gas, and trots to the mound on his own to force a switch?
Giants ace Madison Bumgarner is among several banged-up stars who will miss opening day. Dodgers catalyst Justin Turner, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, Orioles closer Zach Britton, Milwaukee starter Jimmy Nelson and Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki are out, Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy is doubtful. Mariners ace Felix Hernandez is recovering from being hit by a line drive in spring training, which is how Bumgarner broke a bone in his pitching hand. Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel is healing from hand surgery, then will serve a five-game suspension for making an offensive gesture toward Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish during the World Series. Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco begins an 80-game drug ban, and will be ineligible if Minnesota makes the playoffs.
The plate will be tasty — at concession stands. In Texas, the Dilly Dog is a dill pickle, hollowed out and stuffed with a hot dog, served up battered and fried. PNC Park presents Greens and Grains that includes kale, quinoa, sunflower seeds and other healthy items. Fenway Park provides dessert, a creme brulee French toast topped with Vermont maple syrup. Want a bolder option? Try the Rocky Mountain Po’Boy at Coors Field. That’s Rocky Mountain oysters, topped with guacamole, pico de gallo and more, on a roll (um, Rocky Mountain oysters aren’t really seafood. In Colorado, that’s what they call cattle testicles).
All 30 teams will have expanded netting to protect fans, reaching at least to the far end of the dugouts. ... At Camden Yards, the Orioles will offer free tickets in the upper deck to kids 9 and under for the first month of the season. ... At the Coliseum, the A’s are opening a garden beyond the outfield seats, growing produce and flowers in redwood planters. ... At Dodger Stadium, there will be bar stools behind the plate, plus a painted blue seat in right field to mark where Kirk Gibson’s home run landed to win the 1988 World Series opener.
THE EX FACTOR
From Triple-A Pawtucket down to rookie Pioneer League Idaho Falls, extra innings will have a different look in the minors. Every half-inning will start with a runner on second base. They say it’ll shorten games and help preserve the arms of pitching prospects. They do this in the World Baseball Classic, international baseball and — heck — even Central Park softball. Purists, note: Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated this idea isn’t being considered for any major league games that count. For real, right?