Baseball is back: What you need to know for the 2018 MLB season

If you've been hibernating since the Houston Astros won the World Series in early November, there's a fair bit of news to catch up on and still plenty of questions lingering ahead of the 2018 MLB season. Here are some answers to those questions along with a look at what to expect this year.

Major moves, new-look contenders make for an intriguing year ahead

New Yankee slugger Giancarlo Stanton, left, soon-to-be free agent Clayton Kershaw, centre, and World Series champ Jose Altuve all figure to be in the spotlight during the 2018 MLB season. (Getty Images/Associated Press)

Temperatures across Canada might not reflect this, but baseball season has officially arrived.

If you've been hibernating since the Houston Astros won the World Series in early November, there's a fair bit of news to catch up on and still plenty of questions lingering as the 2018 Major League Baseball season opens Thursday.

Here are some answers to those questions, along with a look at what to expect this year.

Can the Astros repeat?

It always feels like a safe bet to side with the defending champs, even though the last team to win consecutive titles was the New York Yankees, who won three straight from 1998-2000. The Astros had the most potent offence in the majors last season and should be among the highest-scoring teams again, barring any major injuries or drop-offs in production.

Houston has the potential to be a powerhouse for the foreseeable future, especially with its core of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman locked up through at least the 2020 season. The Astros further bolstered their starting rotation with the acquisition of Gerrit Cole to go along with Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander.

Murderers' Row 2.0?

The Yankees did a classic Yankee thing this off-season by adding National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton to a team that already boasted American League rookie of the year Aaron Judge.

Stanton came over as part of the latest Florida/Miami Marlins fire sale, injecting more offence into a Yankees lineup that last year featured Judge's behemoth bat along with catcher Gary Sanchez and shortstop Didi Gregorius. That's a move that would have delighted late owner George Steinbrenner — or at least the Larry David caricature of him.

Stanton and Judge will have to duplicate or better their home run outputs from last season in order to surpass past Yankee tandems like Babe Ruth and Lou Gerhig (107 combined HRs in 1927) as well as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (115 in 1961). Even if they fall short of those totals, New York is expected to be a powerhouse on offence, but an inconsistent rotation could spell trouble.

Had enough Yankee talk? Stick with us.

Contract-year champions?

Players in the final years of their current deals are always in the spotlight because it's never too early to start talking about next year's free agents. However, this past off-season proved that strong seasons don't necessarily guarantee massive contracts, drawing the ire of players and super-agent Scott Boras alike.

This year could see a return to big names earning big deals, especially if you look at some of the star players whose contracts are up at the end of the season:

  • Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals outfielder
  • Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles shortstop (he's shifting from third base)
  • Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher
  • Craig Kimbrel, Boston Red Sox closer

Josh Donaldson is also in line to become a free agent at the end of the season. The 2015 AL MVP avoided arbitration in the off-season by signing a one-year, $23 million US deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, but the 32-year-old could become a highly coveted rental player if the Jays find themselves out of the playoff race by the trade deadline.

Biggest impact on new team?

You mean besides Stanton?

In all seriousness, several players will be suiting up in unfamiliar colours this year and please forgive the casual fans who spend most of April asking "he's with them now?"

For starters, Yu Darvish signed with the Chicago Cubs, Jake Arrieta joined the Philadelphia Phillies and Alex Cobb was a recent addition to the Baltimore Orioles, with all three expected to contribute to their new clubs immediately. 

Eric Hosmer now plies his trade in the picturesque yet cavernous Petco Park as a member of the San Diego Padres, while non-rhotic cheers of "Just Dingahs!" heralded the arrival of slugger J.D. Martinez to the Boston Red Sox.

Both the San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Brewers added significant pieces in the off-season with the intention of returning to the post-season. The Brewers signed former Kansas City Royal Lorenzo Cain and acquired Christian Yelich from the Marlins (fire sale, remember?), while veterans Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria moved to the scenic side of the Bay Area (sorry, Oakland).

Oh, and there's also Shohei Ohtani, the hitting pitcher — or pitching hitter, depending on your fantasy baseball setup — acquired by the Los Angeles Angels. The Japanese phenom's impact as either an arm or a bat — or both — is still to be determined, but the Angels are looking to bounce back after missing the playoffs for the third consecutive year. A fully healthy Mike Trout should help things in Orange County.

So what does this all mean?

Baseball previews are best taken with a grain of salt, with the lone exception being Sports Illustrated's eerily accurate Astros prediction in 2014.

A lot can and will change once calls of "Play ball!" are heard in major league ballparks. By the time the All Star Game rolls around in July, the Minnesota Twins could be locked in a battle with Cleveland for AL Central supremacy and the Red Sox could be flying high following resurgent performances from Hanley Ramirez and David Price.

Or the Cubs could start off slow, ceding ground to a well-rounded Brewers team all while the Atlanta Braves reign atop the NL East, leave the Nationals and Phillies in their wake.

Again, these are all hypothetical scenarios, but if you're stressing because your favourite team is struggling early, just remember some classic clichés from fictional backstop Crash Davis and just take it one game at a time.


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