10 storylines heading into MLB Opening Day

MLB Opening Day is one of the best days on the sports calendar. Since it’s spread out from Sunday-Tuesday, MLB Opening Day is technically one of the best three-day stretches on the sports calendar.

While Opening Day brings many unknowns, there are some definite storylines that have emerged through spring training and the offseason that should be watched closely through the openers and really, the first few weeks of the season.

Last season finished with the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets slugging it out for all the marbles. Conveniently enough, that’s where we get things kicked off for the upcoming campaign.

1. Matt Harvey’s health

Matt Harvey’s starts generally draw plenty of attention, but his first one in 2016 will raise more eyebrows than normal.

Harvey was shut down in the last week of spring training for what Marc Craig of Newsday later reported was a bladder infection. All signs currently point to him being okay, but that’s not a great way for anyone to start a season.

The Mets will open the season on the road against the Royals in a World Series rematch. Naturally, a World Series rematch will draw plenty of attention anyway, but the health of Harvey will be one of the biggest storylines of the opening week.

2. Kansas City’s revenge

Another juicy side plot from that series emerged on Tuesday when Craig reported that the Royals will reportedly seek revenge against the Mets for Noah Syndergaard throwing high-and-tight on Alcides Escobar in the third game of the World Series.

There’s really nothing surprising about this. In 2015, we learned a few things about the Royals.

One, they are a great, incredibly resilient team that can never be counted out.

Two, they’re not afraid to throw inside. Kansas City got into bean ball wars with the Oakland Athletics, Chicago White Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays last season.

With that in mind, we must remember a few questions when we’re watching those games.

One, who will they throw at? Remember, the games are in Kansas City, so Syndergaard will not be batting for himself. The Royals will have to throw at a New York position player.

Two, will one pitch be the end of it? The Royals have certainly shown that they’re not afraid to go inside more than once. Also, if they throw at someone, the Mets may well respond in kind.

The unwritten rules of baseball have potential to be on full display in this World Series rematch.

3. Early Arizona returns

Courtesy of Rick Scuteri, USA Today Sports

The Arizona Diamondbacks open the season with seven home games, meaning the fans in Phoenix will get to see Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller twice.

Greinke’s numbers in 10 career Chase Field starts are not terrible, but not quite up to the rest of his career stats. Miller’s numbers are awful, but he’s only started once in Arizona. Chase Field is one of the better hitter’s parks in the league, while both men have pitched in pitcher-friendly parks over the last few seasons.

It’d be foolish to react too strongly to the first two starts of the season for these guys.

Still, it can’t be forgotten that Greinke and Miller did not come cheap to the Diamondbacks. A few strong early starts, especially at home, will go a long way in settling the nerves of those who weren’t totally sure that the two All-Star pitchers were worth the cost.

4. Early San Francisco returns

The San Francisco Giants’ success since 2010 has certainly earned their front office some good faith with the fans, but they’re in a similar spot to Arizona. A lot of money was spent on Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, and neither man was particularly strong during spring training.

It’s easy to brush off spring training struggles. The games don’t count. Pitchers are down there to work on their command and not as much on throwing their best pitches, making them more vulnerable to get hit hard. The Cactus League tends to be very hitter-friendly, unlike San Francisco’s AT&T Park, which is one of the better pitcher’s parks in the league.

If Cueto and Samardzija show well early, then it’s as if the poor spring never happened. If they struggle early, then the anxiety that comes from a poor spring training is only multiplied until they settle in.

As was the case with Arizona, we can’t overreact too much to Cueto and Samardzija’s first few starts. That’s true if both men get lit up and fail to make it out of the first innings of their starts. Likewise, it’s true if each man throws a perfect game.

Still, the earlier that each pitcher gets settled in, the more likely a smooth season becomes.

5. Pablo Sandoval a Padre?

Pablo Sandoval

We learned Thursday that Pablo Sandoval will begin the 2016 season on the bench for the Boston Red Sox.

Late in spring training, it was reported that the San Diego Padres were scouting Sandoval. That prompted a simple question from Robert Murray of Baseball Essential.

Given that Sandoval is coming off of a terrible season in 2015 and will begin 2016 on the bench, it’s fair to say that Sandoval for James Shields is probably a reach for Boston, even if San Diego wants to deal Shields.

Any early season playing time that Sandoval does get will be important. He has to show the Padres, or any other team, for that matter, that he can still play at a high level.

If that happens, it’s still possible that Sandoval could be a decent player. Remember, he’s not even 30 yet. It’s possible that the Panda could show well enough to bolster his value in a potential trade. It’s not even entirely impossible that Sandoval could still be a valuable player for the Red Sox.

But if he gets limited early playing time or fails to produce when on the field, it’s also possible that the Panda may be on the scrap heap.

6. How do Cubs deal with hype?

Last season, the Cubs were a bit ahead of schedule. While they had some fine young prospects, few could honestly tell you know that they expected Chicago to win 97 games and make the NLCS in 2015.

This year is different. The Cubs enter 2016 with an unquestionably loaded roster and are on a short list of World Series favorites. How do they handle that?

Chicago starts the season with a rare two-game series in Anaheim against the Angels before heading to the desert for what should be four fascinating games against the Diamondbacks.

A lot can happen over 162 games, but how the Cubs handle the burden of expectation early will give us a good clue as to what our expectations should be going forward.

7. Yasiel Puig, for better or worse

One way or the other, Yasiel Puig will be a story from the beginning of the 2016 season through the end of it.

We know about Puig’s talent. We could count the Major League Baseball players who match Puig’s raw skills on one hand, with room to spare.

But we also know that he’s rubbed people the wrong way in Los Angeles. The 2016 season is a make-or-break campaign for Puig.

As we’ve gone over with the other players on this list, it’s a long season and it’d be unwise to react too strongly to the first few games of the season. Still, the Dodgers start with two road series against divisional opponents, playing three in San Diego and four in San Francisco.

There’s no better time than the beginning of the season to show that the talent supersedes the drama.

8. Marcus Stroman as an ace?

While David Price was only on the Blue Jays for a short time in 2015, he made a huge impact. Price not only left the Blue Jays in the offseason but went to the rival Red Sox.

Toronto’s new ace is Marcus Stroman, a man who missed nearly all of the 2015 season. Stroman is supremely talented. Right now, he seems up to the task and ready for the season to begin.

He’ll be very important for not only the Blue Jays, but the entire American League playoff chase. Toronto has a great offense, probably the best in the game. If Stroman is a legit ace, a real claim could be made that they’re the best team in the American League. If not, the American League East and American League Wild Card races are wide open.

Stroman’s first two starts are on the road versus the Tampa Bay Rays and at home against the Red Sox, two divisional opponents. This is a great chance for him to step up as an ace.

9. Justin Verlander, ace again?

Justin Verlander, MLB Opening Day

Justin Verlander posted his best numbers since 2012 last season, but did so in only 133.1 innings and 20 starts. He’s slated to take the ball for the Detroit Tigers on Opening Day against the Miami Marlins.

Verlander will be important to watch throughout the season. While he probably won’t be at his 2011-2012 peak again, he doesn’t need to be that good to be a front line starter.

If Verlander pitches as well as he did in 2015, only over 200+ innings and 30+ starts, then the Tigers should be playoff contenders again. If not, then it will be hard for them to compete in a very strong American League Central.

If Verlander is throwing strikes and allowing limited loud contact early on Tuesday against the Marlins, it’s a very good sign for Detroit fans.

10. White Sox drama

The drama surrounding the Chicago White Sox after the retirement of Adam LaRoche drew a lot of attention and opinions from around the baseball world. Last week, club owner Jerry Reinsdorf released a statement putting the issue to bed.

For now, the issue seems to be on ice. What will help keep the issue on ice would be if Chicago did what Reinsdorf said they’re now focused on doing and win games.

For the White Sox, a strong early start is important. If they win, then there’s no legitimate controversy. If they don’t, then we haven’t heard the last of it, whether Reinsdorf likes it or not.