Joe Maddon

Opening Day of the 2018 MLB season is looming. With that, it’s important to ask a number of questions about what might happen when the games start to count.

A big one, as it always is, revolves around the reigning champs. Do the Houston Astros have what it takes to end the nearly two decades of futility that has plagues previous World Series champions? It’s also fair to wonder how the New York Yankees, who might even be the team to beat in the American League, will embrace a much different role than the one they had in 2018.

The National League offers its share of questions, too. Will the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers finally meet the blinding expectations that they’ve had for so long? Will the Chicago Cubs find the championship mojo that they had in 2016?

These are just some of the questions that we have entering the 2018 MLB season. When all of them are answered, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect between now and the World Series.

Can the Astros be MLB’s first repeat champion in 18 years?

The New York Yankees won their third straight World Series on October 26, 2000. Since then, MLB has not seen another repeat (let alone three-peat) champion. Think of all that’s changed in the United States alone since that October day 18 years ago. We’re in a much different world.

Also consider that since the first World Series in 1903, MLB has never gone this long without a repeat champ. The Yankees finished a repeat in 1978 and MLB wouldn’t see another until the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992-93. That was the record. It’s not anymore.

Houston certainly has the firepower. The offense is stacked. The starting rotation has the newly acquired Gerrit Cole and now, Justin Verlander for a full season. There’s no reason to think that the Astros can’t win another title — except that no team has done it in nearly two decades.

Should Houston break that trend, it would end a historical run of futility for MLB’s reigning champs.

Is Shohei Ohtani really the Japanese Babe Ruth?

Ohtani will certainly be one of the more fascinating players to watch this year. The Los Angeles Angels rookie comes in with a lot of hype not only for his arm, but for his bat. While baseball has seen its share of pitchers who rake and has even had some players occasionally dabble in both hitting and pitching, MLB hasn’t really seen a two-way star since the days of Babe Ruth. Hence, the natural comparison.

It will be interesting to see if Ohtani can build on the recent success of Japanese players in MLB. If he can, then we may get to see Mike Trout in the playoffs for just the second time in his career. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, at all.

But really, it’s the two-way nature of Ohtani’s game that’s so fascinating. If he falls flat in at least one of the areas (and especially both), then we should expect to see future players continuing down the specialized path that we’ve seen for so long.

If Ohtani excels, he could be a trendsetter. If he thrives as both a hitter and pitcher, then we should expect to see more players like him in the coming generations. That’s just how sports work.

Given how specialized baseball has become, it will be fascinating to see if a player can set a trend going in the exact opposite direction.

Is this the last chance for the Nationals?

In 2012, Washington had the best record in baseball. They shut ace Stephen Strasburg down late in the season, not wanting to risk an injury to the franchise pitcher coming off of Tommy John Surgery. That postseason ended in heartbreak. But it also seemed inevitable that the Nationals would win at least one World Series at some point in the near future.

Five full MLB seasons have come and gone and Washington still lacks a championship. In fact, the Nats have yet to even advance to the NLCS. Now, we enter 2018 and we have to wonder, will this be the last stand in Washington?

Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Gio Gonzalez are all in the final years of their contracts. Anthony Rendon is in his penultimate arbitration year. Guys like Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman are locked up, but are also well past 30.

In 2012, it seemed impossible that this group wouldn’t win at least one championship. But as we enter 2018, there’s a real feeling that whatever happens, this year will be the final stand. If Washington doesn’t win a championship, this run will be one of the most disappointing for a franchise in recent memory.

Will the Yankees embrace the villain role?

Yankees introduce Giancarlo Stanton

The Yankees have been a lot of things throughout their storied history. But seldom has this team ever been the underdog. In 2017, however, things changed. New York was not expected to make the playoffs. It was not expected to beat the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS. It was not expected to beat the Astros in the ALCS. But the Yankees did make the playoffs, they did upend Cleveland, and nearly knocked off Houston.

In 2018, this team is now expected to win. Not only that, but the addition of Giancarlo Stanton gives this team something of a villainous feel. What will change remains to be seen.

The spotlight will intensify. The 2017 season was constantly filled with the idea that the Yankees were playing with house money. That’s clearly not the case in 2018. So, how will this team handle scrutiny that could come with a losing streak? How will it handle going on the road and being booed? New York teams of old have embraced that. But this team has yet to really experience anything like that.

One way or another, the added spotlight and the return of the “Evil Empire” will make the Yankees one of the teams to watch in 2018.

Will the Orioles change the 2018 landscape by selling?

So much about this season seems preordained. The Astros, Indians, Nationals, Cubs, and Dodgers will win five of the six divisions. The other will be won by the Yankees or Boston Red Sox, with the loser hosting the American League Wild Card Game. We’re only playing this season for seeding, and then to see who the other wild card teams will be, right?

One team that can really throw a wrench into the works is the Baltimore Orioles. No, Baltimore is not making the playoffs. The O’s will score a ton of runs, but the pitching is just not going to hold up. With guys like Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Brad Brach, and Zach Britton all facing free agency, the Orioles have potential trade chips that can make a massive impact on potential new teams.

The thing about baseball is that because the season is so long, the cream usually rises to the top by season’s end. It doesn’t always translate to the playoffs. But over 162 games, the best teams will usually prevail. But because there are so many games, the rosters are also far from a finished product on Opening Day. Trades happen and when they do, the entire outlook of a team can change.

That’s nothing new. What is uncommon is for one potential seller to have so many key assets that contenders would want. Expect Baltimore to struggle in 2018. But if the front office knows what its doing, the Orioles should be back on track with a slew of young prospects by season’s end. If that happens, then some real impact players will be moved by the deadline.

Are the revamped Phillies ready to compete?

From 2007-2011, the Phillies won five National League East titles, two National League pennants, and a World Series. Since then, however, Philadelphia has been in a state of hibernation. The signing of Carlos Santana should have been a signal that the Phillies were intending to compete again. If it didn’t, the addition of Jake Arrieta leaves no doubt. Rebuilding teams don’t usually sign players in their 30s to big-money deals.

Intending to compete and actually competing are two different things, though. The Phillies are still very dependent on a young group of players like Aaron Nola, Maikel Franco, Rhys Hoskins, J.P. Crawford, and likely Scott Kingery at some point.

Philadelphia does not feel like a team that will win somewhere between 78 and 84 games. This feels like a team that will either at least compete for a playoff spot (like the 2015 and 2017 Minnesota Twins), or one that will crash hard (like the 2016 Minnesota Twins). Category B would be more of the same for the Phillies. Category A would make the National League East anything but MLB’s worst division.

Can the Indians shake off two straight heartbreaking finishes?

We’d have to go back a good, long while to find a team that ended consecutive seasons in such a frustrating way as the Indians in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, Cleveland reached the World Series, had a 3-1 lead, blew that, and then lost a heartbreaking Game 7 at home. In 2017, the Indians seemed destined to reach the ALCS with a 2-0 lead in the Yankees. But New York would win Games 3-5 to take on Houston for the American League pennant.

To put it another way, Cleveland is 0-6 in its last six games that could have won a playoff series. That’s frustrating for any team. When you also hold baseball’s longest active championship drought, the frustration level is only amplified.

The Twins are good and the Chicago White Sox are rising. Still, the Indians are the best team in the American League Central. They should reach the playoffs with room to spare by season’s end. But much like the aforementioned Nationals and a team we’ll get to shortly, reaching the playoffs won’t be a successful season. Cleveland can really only call this season successful if it ends in a championship.

The tools to make that happen are certainly there. But those kind of expectations can be awfully hard to navigate.

Are the Cubs back to 2016 form?

Cubs

It almost seems ridiculous to look at the 2017 Cubs as a disappointing team. No, they didn’t repeat as champs. But they were the first reigning champions since the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals to win a playoff series or even qualify for the postseason. Still, there was a feeling that Chicago left a lot on the table.

As great as the Cubs were after the All-Star Break, they sleepwalked through the first half of the season and entered the break at under .500. But they also didn’t spend the 2017-18 offseason doing the media tours as reigning champs. While Arrieta is gone, Brandon Morrow and Yu Darvish will bolster the bullpen and starting rotation. Even better is that both men are coming from the Dodgers, Chicago’s opponent in each of the last two NLCS.

We’ve seen the San Francisco Giants win three titles in five years in this decade. Each title was followed up with a missed playoff appearance, which was followed up with another title. The Cubs are better now than the Giants were in 2012 or 2014. They have the roster that can get back to the championship and create a potential dynasty.

Come March 29, it will be time to make that happen.

Will Bryce Harper become baseball’s first $500 million man?

As we previously mentioned, Harper is a pending free agent. He’s set to cash in in a big way at season’s end, almost no matter what happens. But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Harper has a big year and wins the National League MVP.

Harper would really be entering unprecedented territory.

Generally speaking, players enter free agency in the middle or even end of their primes. But because Harper debuted at such a young age, he’s really only entering his prime. It sounds strange to say that about a player who’s already won an MVP. But objectively, it’s true.

Hitters generally hit their peaks in their late-20s and into the early-30s. Harper is only going to be 26 at season’s end. So, a 10-year deal will only pay him into his mid-30s. Now, as good as Harper is, 10 years at $500 million is probably not happening. While Scott Boras will do his best to convince teams otherwise, only so many teams can afford a $50 million a year player. At least one (the Yankees) will probably not be looking for an outfielder.

But now let’s stretch this out to a 15-year deal. That would cover most (or all) of Harper’s career. Certainly, $33.3 million a year is not outrageous. But it’s also not unprecedented.

Harper probably needs a monster year to make something like that happen. But if that happens, expect him to eventually sign for an amount that’s not only unprecedented, but until this point hasn’t even been discussed for another player.

Will the Dodgers finally break through?

Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner

At an event in July, Magic Johnson made it known that forĀ  Los Angeles, the only goal was a World Series title. At that point, the Dodgers were on their way to a fifth straight National League West title, but had perennially underachieved in the playoffs. They didn’t quite underachieve in the 2017 postseason, but didn’t win it all, either, falling at home in Game 7 of the World Series.

That does nothing to erase the win-now edict.

In one respect, things in Los Angeles may not be quite as desperate as they are in Cleveland or Washington. The Dodgers are not a smaller market team like the Indians, nor do they have the number of looming free agents that the Nationals have. But in another respect, Los Angeles has even more pressure.

The current ownership group has consistently spent crazy amounts of money to get this team a championship. It has not happened. Year after year, the Dodgers have fallen short in the postseason.

The potential finish line isn’t as close as it is elsewhere. But Los Angeles will not be able to spin anything short of a World Series title as a successful season.

Michael Dixon
Bay Area born and raised, I have extensive experience in both the print and online worlds. There are few things in this world I love doing more than talking sports.