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.

Royals fire manager Mike Matheny after 65-97 end to season

Minnesota Twis v Kansas City Royals
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred were fired by the Kansas Cty Royals on Wednesday night, shortly after the struggling franchise finished the season 65-97 with a listless 9-2 loss to the Cleveland Guardians.

The Royals had exercised their option on Matheny’s contract for 2023 during spring training, when the club hoped it was turning the corner from also-ran to contender again. But plagued by poor pitching, struggles from young position players and failed experiments with veterans, the Royals were largely out of playoff contention by the middle of summer.

The disappointing product led owner John Sherman last month to fire longtime front office executive Dayton Moore, the architect of back-to-back American League champions and the 2015 World Series title team. Moore was replaced by one of his longtime understudies, J.J. Picollo, who made the decision to fire Matheny hours after the season ended.

Matheny became the fifth big league manager to be fired this year.

Philadelphia’s Joe Girardi was replaced on June 3 by Rob Thomson, who engineered a miraculous turnaround to get the Phillies into the playoffs as a wild-card team. The Angels replaced Joe Maddon with Phil Nevin four days later, Toronto’s Charlie Montoyo was succeeded by John Schneider on July 13 and the Rangers’ Chris Woodward by Tony Beasley on Aug. 15.

In addition, Miami’s Don Mattingly said late last month that he will not return next season.