Finally, baseball's Opening Day is here. The festivities began with a World Series rematch last night between the Mets and Royals, a pairing that few foresaw at the start of the 2015 season. This season will similarly generate a ton of storylines that we cannot predict now, but here are seven things to watch for in the first few weeks:
1. Can the Cubs' pitching keep distance with their rivals?
The Cubs were crowned the best team on paper heading into the 2016 season. And they were bound to be, considering how much baseball writers adore Cubs manager Joe Maddon and president Theo Epstein. The Cubs won 97 games last year even though they shared their division with the Pirates and Cardinals. And they've loaded up on talent since then, adding outfielder Jason Heyward and infieder Ben Zobrist.
The question going forward is the end of their rotation. They have reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta up top. But until the front office can get another hurler, manager Joe Maddon will be using his bullpen to keep 37-year-old John Lackey from being too exposed. That dynamic may also apply to Jon Lester as well.
The hype suggests that the Cubs will run away from the rest of the division. We should be able to quickly tell if the Pirates and Cardinals can keep up.
2. Is Harper moving into a new stratosphere of performance?
Every spring for some years now baseball writers remind readers and themselves of Bryce Harper's age. He's still only 23. In 2015 he put together one of the all-time greatest seasons in the history of the game. Just a taste: He had a .460 OBP, a 461 wOBA (weighted On Base Average), and a .649 SLG. All those numbers were tops in the National League. His body seems to be getting more durable; he played in 153 games last year, the highest of his career.
How could he improve? Well, with home runs going up, league-wide healthier legs, and a more permissive manager, we could see Harper add 20 stolen bases and come close to 50 home runs. He was able to stretch a double from a Baltimore chop this spring. If Harper has five attempts in April, get ready.
3. Will more players resist defensive shifting?
Clayton Kershaw made his feelings known to the press that he isn't comfortable with the data-driven changes to infield defense. A number of teams are clearly benefiting from smarter defense. But it would also add to our understanding of the game if players found a vocabulary to express (or stats to confirm) that they play worse when in unconventional defensive formations.
4. Is there any excitement beyond Kansas City, Toronto, and the state of Texas in the American League?
The American League seems to have lost some juice. The Yankees are no longer the big spenders. The Red Sox feel less and less like a baseball team and more like a curated baseball experience, with experimental exhibits like Hanley Ramirez at first base and Pablo Sandoval on the bench. David Ortiz is going on his own version of a retirement and tribute tour. Toronto is the consensus pick to slug their way back into the playoffs.
But beyond that? Mike Trout's talents seem buried on the Angels and in the AL West, which looks to be a straightforward contest between the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers. And the Royals are generating headlines with the word "dynasty" in it. It just doesn't feel as rivalrous, young, or exciting as the drama in the National League.
5. No championship for old men.
Maybe Detroit can help create drama. Maybe the team that always puts off trading their aging veteran stars and makes another run for the World Series can do it again. On paper the Tigers seem like the greatest team you could possibly field in 2009. That's still pretty good. If there is any fading of talent in Kansas City this year, the Tigers really are well-positioned to take advantage. They've added Jordan Zimmermann to the rotation, Justin Upton to the field, and the ageless Francisco Rodriguez to the bullpen. In a time when pitching seems to be getting weaker in the AL, the Tigers will be sending up a lineup of Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, and Victor Martinez. Every team seems to be trying to get younger. Let's see if this group of vets can reassert itself this year.
6. Who is the best Mets pitcher this year?
The most interesting competition in the NL East may be a a friendly intra-squad rivalry. The Mets have three pitchers who have a legitimate shot to be Cy Young winners. They are the pitchers who were able to defeat the Dodgers in a five-game series even though Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke pitched in four of those contests. Matt Harvey blasted by his innings limit and nearly bailed out his team's atrocious defense in the final game of last year's World Series. Will he improve another year removed from Tommy John surgery or regress under the cumulative workload? Will Noah Syndergaard pitch as he did in the playoffs, regularly touching 101 mph with bite when he needed it? And Jacob deGrom averaged nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings. A leader should emerge by mid-May.
7. Is baseball's broadcasting bubble going to pop?
Cord-cutting is already changing the business of ESPN. Now, the Los Angeles Dodgers' broadcast mess is becoming a true fiasco. A few years ago Time Warner Cable paid $8.3 billion for a quarter century of broadcast rights for Dodgers games. It then tried to make that deal work by pricing their Dodgers channel at extortionate rates to competing cable providers like Cox and Verizon in the Los Angeles market. They resisted, meaning that only Time Warner cable subscribers could watch Dodger games locally. Now the competitors have truly dug in their heals, and the long-term financial viability of the deal is in question.
Power will start shifting to rights-buyers. Ratings will be watched closely, especially as the end of the year brings on new collective bargaining negotiations between the player's union and the league's ownership. Can labor peace be had in an environment where shrinking revenue looks like a possibility?
Baseball is enjoying very good years. It is richer in talent than it has been for decades. The brainiacs in baseball and the economic structure of the league have brought about something like a parity that did not exist a decade ago. Don't miss it.