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Baseball season is almost here
Technically, it already started. The Mariners and A’s played a special two-game series in Tokyo last week that counted in the standings and gave us our last taste of the great Ichiro before he retired. But Major League Baseball’s official Opening Day is today, with all 30 teams in action.
The baseball season always sneaks up quickly (bet you’re still wearing your winter coat) so here are a few top-line things to get you in the loop before the first pitch.
Some big stars switched teams. Two got filthy rich. Slugging outfielder Bryce Harper left Washington for a 13-year, $330-million US contract with Philadelphia. Powerful shortstop Manny Machado ditched the World Series runner-up Dodgers for a 10-year, $300M deal with San Diego. Not as splashy but still key: St. Louis traded for MVP-calibre first baseman Paul Goldschmidt from Arizona. Meanwhile, the best player in baseball, Mike Trout, is staying put for awhile after getting a 12-year, $426.5M extension from the L.A. Angels. That’s the biggest contract in North American sports history.
Things are up for grabs in the National League. The American League… not so much. The World Series champion Red Sox are coming off one of the best seasons of all time, and the Yankees may win 100 games again. So, yeah, the old AL East duopoly is back. 2017 champ Houston looks like it’ll run away with the AL West again. Cracks are starting to show in Cleveland, but it won’t take much for them to win the weak AL Central for the fourth year in a row. The NL is a lot more competitive: the Dodgers are still big favourites in the West, but the East and Central both have four teams you could see winning the division. Good thing, because a big chunk of the AL seems to be accepting its fate and punting on the season.
So who’s going to win the World Series? Betting odds always give you a good idea of who the real contenders are, and bookies have the Yankees as slight favourite to win their first championship in a decade. Close behind are the Red Sox, Astros and Dodgers. Then there’s a pretty big gap before the next teams. So chances are it’ll be one of those four that wins it all.
The Blue Jays could be tough to watch — except for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Toronto finished a dismal 73-89 last year and projects to be in that neighbourhood again as it rebuilds in the harsh AL East. Gone from last year (and from the Jays teams that made runs at the World Series in 2015 and ’16) are Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, J.A. Happ and manager John Gibbons. New skipper Charlie Montoyo’s No. 1 job is overseeing the development of Vlad Jr. He’s a phenomenal hitter, the top prospect in baseball and potentially the only good reason to watch the Jays this year. But you won’t see him at a big-league plate for a few weeks. He’s recovering from an oblique injury and the Jays were going to keep him down for a few weeks anyway in order to delay his eventual eligibility for free agency (a loophole baseball needs to close, by the way). If you’d like a (slightly) more optimistic Jays outlook, check out this season preview by CBC Sports’ Myles Dichter.
Four-man outfields are a thing now. Always great when slo-pitch bleeds into real baseball. Minnesota pioneered this alignment last year, and it looks like more teams might deploy it against power hitters who swing for the fences all the time (a subset of batters that seems to get bigger every year). This is just the latest defensive innovation that’s smart but also makes the game less exciting. Others are the infield shift and the “opener” — a relief pitcher who handles the first inning or two.
New rules are coming. The analytics revolution was fun back when it lifted the underdog Oakland A’s and gave us one of the best sports movies ever made. But then the Ivy League-bred front offices solved baseball, and a lot of their best practices aren’t pretty. So, in an effort to slow the rise of relievers (and all the strikeouts and boring mid-inning pitching changes that come with them), MLB and its players agreed to make pitchers face a minimum of three batters (or at least get to the end of the half inning). That starts next year. For now, just some half measures to try and spice things up: teams get one fewer mound visit per game, there will be a single trade deadline instead of two, and a $1-million US prize for the Home Run Derby winner.