Opening Day 2018: Top storylines

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Baseball just happens. That’s why our daily recap feature — returning Friday morning! — is called “And That Happened.” You can certainly understand what happened in a baseball game after the fact, but unlike a lot of other sports, you can’t really preview, break down, and analyze the heck out of a baseball game beforehand. You can talk a bit about each starting pitcher I suppose, but if you’re doing some “MasterLock Keys To the Contest” feature before each game, you really don’t understand how baseball works.

That’s OK, though. Hang out here a while and we’ll help you figure it all out. In the meantime, just know that there are over 2,000 baseball games in a year, any single one of them is as random as heck, and talking about any one of them before, say, Game 7 of the World Series as if it’s got themes and dynamics flowing through them sort of misses the point. Baseball washes over you in hundreds and thousands of plays and games over the course of seven months. It’s a glorious, mostly random waterfall.

Seasons as a whole, though, can have broad storylines. Or, at the very least, a handful of things upon which an inordinate amount of attention will be paid due to either hype or novelty or the continuance or interruption of patterns from seasons past. In the event you check out of baseball in the offseason and try to get back up to speed as the games start, here are some of the things that will likely be dominating the baseball conversation as the 2018 season gets underway:

The Era of the Super Teams is Here

We discussed this at length here, but the short version: there are seven teams — the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Astros, Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers — who seem to be mortal playoff locks, and twenty-three teams which are really, really far behind. There are many reasons for that — again, see here — but the practical effect of it is that there will not be a lot of drama in the division races this year. Maybe the Yankees or maybe the Red Sox take the AL East, but barring a rash of catastrophic injuries, the other five seem to be one-team races. All of the standings watching in 2018 will be about the Wild Card.

The Yankees Look to Bash Their Way to Glory

One of those super teams, the Yankees, has gotten more attention than most, mostly because they made the biggest acquisition of the offseason. That came when they traded for Giancarlo Stanton, who will slot into a lineup which already featured heavy hitters Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and a Yankees attack that led all of baseball with 241 homers last year. To get Stanton they gave up Starlin Castro, who hit 16 homers in 2017, but they recently went out and added Neil Walker who is capable of eclipsing that, especially with Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch. Projections from early in the offseason suggested that the Yankees could hit around 250 homers as a team. The all-time record for a team is 264. That’s a lotta dingers, but it’s certainly within reach.

Will the Home Run Surge Continue?

Baseball set a record with 6,105 home runs in 2017. That greatly surpassed the lofty totals of the so-called Steroid Era. The shape of the home run bell curve was different too. Rather than having multiple guys shattering individual records, everyone seemingly got into the act. There were 117 players who hit 20 home runs or more and 41 who hit at least 30. Many have suspected — and conducted experiments which suggest — a juiced baseball. While spring training statistics are notoriously unreliable in terms of predicting the regular season, the homer surge did continue in February and March, at least suggesting that we’re in for another dinger-filled year. Oh, and another year of strikeouts too, which go hand-in-hand with the longball.

The Shohei Ohtani Boom/Bust Watch

The early part of the offseason was dominated by the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, in which clubs jockeyed to sign Japan’s two-way sensation. In addition to his status as an elite pitcher and hitter, his age — he’s only 23 — and his price tag — low — made him the most attractive and intriguing Japanese player since Ichiro Suzuki  came here in 2001. The Angels won those sweepstakes, but Ohtani’s spring has raised eyebrows, and not in a good way. He has struggled mightily, both as a pitcher and a hitter, and it’s unclear what we can expect of him going forward. For now, though, he’s in the rotation and is expected to DH a couple of times a week. Expect his exploits to be covered in far more detail than most other rookies, for better and for worse.

Mound Meeting Moratorium

Commissioner Rob Manfred continues his almost monomaniacal quest to cut the length of baseball games and increase the pace of play. He held off on instituting a pitch clock for 2018 — look for that next year — but he did impose a new rule limiting the number of mound visits in a game.  Teams will now be limited to six non-pitching change mound visits per team per game, and one extra visit if the game goes into extra innings. This includes catcher-pitcher meetups to discuss signs. It’s not the most popular rule. Two catchers — Martin Maldonado of the Angels and Willson Contreras of the Cubs gave said they’d just incur the fines MLB promises to impose for violations of the rule rather than follow the rules. Also: there has been confusion as to what an umpire can and should do if a team makes a seventh mound visit? Some have said they should force a pitching change. Others have said they can’t do that, but they “must stop” the meeting. How they’re supposed to do that I have no idea. Body slams?

No one seemed to run afoul of the rule in spring training, but that doesn’t mean much given that the games don’t matter. Look for some controversy about the meeting rule early in the season now that things count.

Is There a Labor War Looming?

This past offseason was a train wreck for most free agents, with many taking far lower and shorter deals than expected and some — like closer Greg Holland — still looking for work on the eve of Opening Day. People spent all winter trying to figure out why the market played out the way it did. There are any number of factors which could’ve caused it, ranging from teams simply changing their focus, players and misjudging their value, a Collective Bargaining Agreement which discourages the signing of free agents and, possibly, collusion on the part of teams. Whatever went into it — a combination of those factors is my guess — the season begins with a lot of unhappy players, discord within the players union and increasingly loud calls for things to change the next time ownership and labor meet at the bargaining table. While that will not come until 2021, both sides begin their preparations for that years in advance, both in terms of organizing its ranks and in minor skirmishes here and there looking to test the other sides’ resolve.

That process will likely begin as early as this year. Look for situations in which the union and the league are unable to agree upon various matters that pop up as readily as they might’ve in years past. Look for tougher and more public fights regarding discipline for players. There will be tea leaves to be read and harbingers to behold in 2018, all of which could suggest how ugly things will get in 2021.

The Best Free Agent Class Ever Begins Its Walk Year

While the 2017-18 offeason was a cold one for free agents, many are expecting 2018-19 to be radically different. That’s because next offseason will feature perhaps the most star-studded free agent class of all time. As of right now, that class will be headlined by Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Clayton Kershaw, but could also include Charlie Blackmon, Dallas Keuchel, Josh Donaldson, Craig Kimbrel, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller and Daniel Murphy. Each of these guys is playing for big money in 2018 and, even if that doesn’t cause them to play better than they normally would, it’ll certainly cause them to be asked about it, constantly. Get used to hearing “all I care about is 2018 and what’s going on right now.” That’s a lie, of course, but don’t expect them to say any different.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today

ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.