Opening Day Eve is the most optimistic time for every team, every player and every fan. If you don’t believe me, go check out the Orioles fans talking themselves into contending for the division title in yesterday’s comments section. God love the optimism that only the beginning of a baseball season can bring!
Deep down, though, there are a lot of folks in and around Major League Baseball who are entering the season under pressure, with a lot to prove or a lot to lose. Or some combination of all three. Who is under the gun in 2018?
This seems crazy, right? He’s the reigning NL MVP, he hit 59 homers last year and he’s going from a trash fire of an organization in Miami to the flagship of MLB’s fleet in the Bronx. He’s been all smiles this spring and for good reason.
True, but this is also New York. This city has held its stars — especially its imported stars — to a higher standard than is at all reasonable for years and years. Two players who carried the Yankees on their backs to World Series titles — Reggie Jackson and Alex Rodriguez — know all too well what high expectations can do in the Big Apple. If Stanton slumps and the Yankees with him, you KNOW there will be columns saying “the Yankees did just fine with only Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez hitting big last year. Why isn’t our $300 million man carrying his weight?” It’ll be an unfair attack if and when it comes, but since when has that stopped the New York press corps? All of that aside, there is ALWAYS more pressure in New York than anywhere else. Stanton will feel it by default.
Aaron Boone and Alex Cora
The Yankees and Red Sox each had great seasons last year. The Yankees and Red Sox each ended their seasons with a loss and watched their conquerers — the Astros in both cases — go on to glory. The Yankees and Red Sox each got rid of their old managers and brought in new blood. Both Boone, the Yankees’ new skipper, and Cora in Boston will be expected to improve their teams’ results, which means the Red Sox expect a deep playoff run and the Yankees are basically writing “World Series title or Bust!” on the back window of the team bus. Again, this is somewhat unfair pressure given the randomness of the postseason, but since when has fair had anything to do with expectations in Boston and New York? Things will be particularly tough in the case of Boone if the Yankees even mildly disappoint. “We brought back basically the same team that went to Game 7 of the ALCS AND added the best slugger in a generation and you lost in the ALDS?!” will be a pretty irresistible line of attack for many.
He’s one of the best talents in all of baseball. He already has an MVP Award under his belt. He is set to be a free agent after this season. He also, however, has a history of injuries that have derailed what would’ve otherwise been great years. I suspect he’ll get a record-setting free agent deal even if he does miss a month with a hamstring or something, but there’s still a lot riding on him hitting the market after a monster year, especially in an age when free agents as a whole are taking a beating. Harper obviously wants to do the best he can do regardless, but several hundred ballplayers are counting on him to raise the salary ceiling for those who follow him into the free market.
There was a time when many considered him the best young pitcher in the game. Since undergoing Tommy John surgery, however, Harvey has been unable to get back to his 2013 form, suffering major injury after major injury and, on occasion, showing an immaturity that does not suit a would-be superstar. At age 29, with his recent track record, it’s unlikely that he’ll ever be the star he once figured to be, but with a strong season he has a chance to avert a premature end to his career and to at least begin to mount a respectable third act.
The Dodgers and Nationals
All of the so-called Super Teams have high expectations, but the Cubs and Astros are the last two World Series champions and, among the others, the Dodgers and Nationals probably have a slightly shorter window of competitiveness than the other clubs. Clayton Kershaw, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy could be gone next year. Justin Turner isn’t getting any younger. Obviously each club could reload via the stocked free agent market this coming winter, but they’re each loaded now. I suppose ANY sort of a playoff run will be progress for the Nationals given that they’ve never escaped the NLDS, but with this potentially being their last year with Harper, they really want to make a strong push for a title. The Dodgers, obviously, came one game away from winning it all last year, but they don’t give out awards for being the best team over a 4-5 year stretch. To make their mark, they need to hoist a trophy.
The Giants were an old team entering last year, but one still thought to have gas in the tank in their mini-dynasty. A freak injury to Madison Bumgarner and a bunch of bad luck resulted in them being the worst team in the game. A lot of teams — especially in this era — would’ve just punted this past winter, tore things down and begun a rebuild. The Giants added players and enter 2018 as an old team with designs on competitiveness once again. It’s admirable that the front office and ownership is going for it, but I doubt they’ll get a third chance. If 2018 is a bust, the Giants will be under pressure to change course after this season which, obviously, puts pressure on them this season. That it has begun with Madison Bumgarner, once again, suffering a freak injury, is not a good omen.
On one level, since he’s making almost no money and is under team control forever, there isn’t a ton of objective pressure on Ohtani to shine in his first season for the Los Angeles Angels. On another level, the amount of press attention on him — both from the Japanese press and the American press — is insane, and a person nicknamed “The Japanese Babe Ruth” is inevitably going to be under serious pressure to perform. In spring the performance lacked, but he kept his composure admirably. We’ll see soon how he does once the games count. Both with the performance and the composure.
Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette
The Orioles manager and general manager have had considerable success in Baltimore, but after a disappointing season last year, they both enter a lame duck campaign which many doubt either will survive. Their past success and excellent reputations will always keep them from ignominy and unemployment, but on-the-field success or failure in 2018 may very well determine if they’ll get another job in their respective positions again or if, rather, they’ll each have to board the Special Assistant Express for the remainder of their careers.
Taking over as the manager for a rebuilding team that is poised to turn the corner is a pretty good gig. Doing so AND having that club make some pretty aggressive offseason moves like the Phillies did this winter (e.g. signing Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana and putting top prospect Scott Kingery on the Opening Day roster) is even better. Still, Kapler has something to prove to a lot of people, it seems. People who have, for several years now, grumbled about him being unconventional or weird or something less than a “baseball man.” I have argued on many occasions — see that link, for example — that this is baloney, but the talking point still exists. Almost no one who played in the bigs for as long as Kapler has, managed in the minors as Kapler has and worked in a front office as Kapler has is subject to this sort of treatment, but it feels like Kapler will be looked at askance unless or until he shows that he can make a double switch without the aid of a life coach, a mantra and an oil drum full of coconut oil. Which, now that I think about it, might take some of the pressure off. After all, if the expectations are so stupidly low, they’re easy to meet, right?
I don’t think there’s much pressure in being the manager of the Cincinnati Reds compared to being the manager of a lot of other teams, but Price is entering his fifth season at the helm of a club that has won 76, 64, 68 and 68 games over the past four years. At some point someone in the front office is going to catch heat for a rebuild that doesn’t show forward momentum, and when people in the front office feel pressure, the first person to feel pain is usually the manager. Beyond all of that, it’s rare for someone to lose for five straight seasons and keep his job regardless of the rebuild schedule, especially if he does not have a track record of past success. Which is to say that Price could really use an 81-81 season with at least a non-laughable argument lasting a couple of weeks past July that the Reds could get the second Wild Card.
Obviously everyone in baseball is under some amount of pressure. Pressure to perform, pressure to win, pressure to not get caught up in some dumb and distracting controversy. But from where I’m sitting, these guys and teams are the ones with the most on the line.