Top storylines heading into MLB Opening Day

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

After a long winter, MLB Opening Day is upon us. Now that the games are here, our attention shifts from a brutally slow offseason to the season itself.

However, the offseason is still going for two of its biggest free agents. When (or if) they sign, they’ll make a big impact on nearly any team in the league. The Boston Red Sox enjoyed one of baseball’s best seasons in 2018. But they had a glaring problem and going into 2019, that still lingers. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado both signed massive offseason deals. Now, what impact will they make with their new teams?

With the 2019 season upon us, these are the top storylines to follow on MLB Opening Day and in the early part of the season.

Who will sign Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel?

Keuchel may not be the pitcher that he once was and Kimbrel’s shaky postseason didn’t help his cause. But it’s absolutely ludicrous that these two remain unsigned right now. A mediocre rotation would look pretty good with Keuchel in one of its first two spots. By the same token a mediocre bullpen would look a lot better with Kimbrel at the end of it.

These two should not be unsigned right now. But both are. And that gives essentially every team in the league a golden opportunity to get much better instantly. Now we just need to see who makes it happen.

How will the revamped Phillies look?

The Philadelphia Phillies were the talk of the offseason. Signing Bryce Harper grabbed the most attention. But the additions of Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, and David Robertson were also quite noteworthy. Now it’s time to see what those moves produce on the field.

On paper, Philadelphia should be one of the best teams in the National League. But the NL East is one of MLB’s best divisions. Overall, at least nine NL teams should be in the postseason mix. So, the Phillies do have their work cut out for them. As talented as Philadelphia is, this would not be the first team to flop on the field after a headline grabbing offseason. A strong start to the year will go a long way towards easing any concerns.

What does the Red Sox bullpen look like?

When we look at the defending champs, there’s not a lot to be uncertain about. The biggest potential problem for Boston is its bullpen. It was the part of the team that made the Red Sox and their fans most nervous in 2018. And things are no less shaky as we head into 2019.

Kimbrel is gone (though he could still be re-signed). Nathan Eovaldi brought a lot of stability to the bullpen in the 2018 postseason. He’s back, but in the starting rotation. Make no mistake, the Red Sox are well positioned to make another championship run. But few things can sink a team like a bad bullpen. This will be something to watch closely in the early weeks.

The encore performance of 2018’s top rookies

The 2018 performances from Shohei Ohtani, Ronald Acuna Jr., Juan Soto, and Gleyber Torres got the attention of baseball fans everywhere. Now it’s time for an encore.

Ohtani won’t be pitching this year. We probably won’t see him hitting at the MLB level until May. The other three, though, are ready to go. And now, they’re not catching anyone off guard. Pitchers everywhere have scouting reports on them. It’ll be up to the the sophomore studs to adjust to what those pitchers do. We’re looking quite forward to seeing it.

Clayton Kershaw’s rehab and health

We know that Kershaw is dealing with an injury to his throwing shoulder and is starting the year on the injured list for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But there are things worth keeping an eye on. One, while he’s on the shelf, are there any setbacks? Two, when he’s back, how sharp is he?

Any setbacks would be really bad for a 31-year-old pitcher, especially one with Kershaw’s injury history. And the Dodgers can potentially withstand some bumps with Kershaw when he returns. But if they’re finally going to win the World Series, he’ll need to be at his best for most of the year.

Is this Joe Maddon’s last run in Chicago?

The 2019 season is the last on Maddon’s contract with the Chicago Cubs. Maddon’s not the only skipper potentially in the final year with his team. But other than Bruce Bochy (who we know is retiring), nobody in a potential final season with his team has done what Maddon has done with the Cubs. He’s won a World Series (the first for the team in 108 years, no less) and has been to four straight postseasons.

Maddon’s season will be interesting on two fronts. Chicago could try to extend his contract. If not, we can believe that teams around the league are going to really give a long look at making room for Maddon. Chances are that Maddon’s status beyond 2019 won’t be known in the early weeks of the season. But what happens in the early going can and will provide a lot of speculation.

How soon other top prospects join Eloy Jimenez in MLB

The Chicago White Sox deemed Eloy Jimenez MLB ready right after he signed a contract extension. It supposedly had nothing to do with service time manipulation, though. And if you believe that, we have some oceanfront property in Kansas to sell you. Regardless of how shady that was, we now have to wonder which top-tier prospects will soon join Jimenez.

The two that come immediately to mind are Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Vladmir Guerrero Jr. (who is currently out with an injury) and San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. Others who can make a big impact include Forrest Whitley, Brendan Rodgers, Bo Bichette, and Dylan Cease, just to name a few. After such an impactful rookie class of 2018, we can’t wait to see what 2019’s group will offer.

With Manny Machado, are the Padres ready to compete in the NL West?

While signing Machado was a long-term move, let’s be real. The Padres didn’t make such a big commitment to go 78-84 in Year 1. They want to compete. And in the National League West, which boasts a solid top two with the Dodgers and the Colorado Rockies, that’ll be tough.

A lot of the burden will fall on Machado to be a star. But if San Diego is going to contend, the pitching will need to step up, as will the rest of the offense. As we’ve seen all too often with Mike Trout, a superstar alone can’t make a team contend. The Padres made a big offseason splash, breaking from the norm for that franchise. Now they have to live up to the hype.

Does Aaron Judge’s hot spring carry into the season?

For all intents and purposes, a fantastic spring validated Judge’s words that the injury that cost him so much of last season is a thing of the past. Now, we have to wonder how good Judge will be. Remember, this young player hit 52 home runs two years ago. This is his age 27 season, which is when power hitters tend to be at their best. A 60 home run season is not out of the question.

We also must remember that he plays on one of baseball’s best teams. The New York Yankees, this team set MLB’s single-season home run record for a team in 2018 despite Judge missing much of the year. That record may not last long. If the bat that tore up Grapefruit League pitching makes its way to the Bronx, watch out.

How will the Indians start?

A general rule of thumb is that you don’t want to overreact too much to what happens in the early weeks of season. This is especially true with a veteran team like the Cleveland Indians. But this particular veteran team is a little different. Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer are two of baseball’s best pitchers and the Indians reportedly shopped both in the offseason.

Now, if Cleveland starts well and remains in the mix, we’re not going to see a trade. But if the Indians start slow, it would not be surprising to see some guys on the move. And in Kluber, Bauer, and some of Cleveland’s other stars, the players on the move would be potential game-changers for whatever team landed them.