It’s that time of year again: Winter is retreating, spring is spring-ing, and Opening Day is nearly upon us. Between reading up on all of our MLB preview content and plotting which possibly (likely) horrific new ballpark foods to try this year, the Ringer staff broke down the 10 things we’re most excited to see this MLB season.
The Wild-Ass NL Pennant Race
Michael Baumann: The American League has the three best teams in baseball (the Astros, Yankees, and Red Sox), but the larger portion of MLB’s good teams are in the National League. The top three free agents this past offseason—Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Patrick Corbin—went to NL clubs that missed the playoffs last year, while the league’s two economic juggernauts, the Dodgers and Cubs, pretty much stood pat. The Cardinals traded for Paul Goldschmidt, the Mets brought in Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz, and even the Reds (the Reds!) traded for Yasiel Puig and look like they’ll make a run for the postseason. Somewhere between 11 and 13 NL teams have a legitimate shot at the playoffs, and most of those teams have exciting young players who’ll be getting their first taste of the national spotlight. This year, you might as well ignore the American League until the inevitable Red Sox–Astros ALCS rematch and instead focus your attention on the six-month ladder match that will be the 2019 NL pennant race.
Shohei Ohtani As a Full-Time Hitter
Ben Lindbergh: Sure, Shohei Ohtani was more exciting as a full-time two-way player than he will be as a one-way player, but half of Ohtani is as fascinating as all of anyone else. Among players with at least 300 plate appearances, Ohtani was a top-10 hitter in baseball last year, and that was with a long list of obstacles potentially holding him back: the pressure of attempting a two-way experiment that hadn’t been seen in a century compounded by a rough spring training; learning a new league, language, culture, and collection of opposing pitchers; an adjustment to his hitting style on the eve of Opening Day; hitting only half the time as he rested on the days bookending his pitching appearances; missing almost a month midseason with a UCL sprain; and, down the stretch, playing with the knowledge that he’d have to have Tommy John surgery as soon as the season was over.
The Angels may not activate Ohtani until May, but when he returns, we’ll find out what he can accomplish in the lineup on an everyday basis, a year closer to his physical prime and with only continued TJ rehab to complicate his hitting routine. With some of those rookie-year distractions stripped away, we’ll get an even clearer conception of his talent—and, depending on his performance, ignite a debate about whether the Angels will jeopardize his bat by letting him return to the mound when he’s fully operational in 2020. If we want to be worthy of Ohtani as a two-way player, we should cherish him even when he’s temporarily bound by the same limitations as most mortal major leaguers.
Tim Tebow’s Major League Debut
Julie Kliegman: A friend who was at the Mets’ Grapefruit opener this year texted me a photo captioned “Here comes your man.” Look, I don’t want to be excited for Timmy’s call-up. I am not sure whether he can play major league baseball. I am also not sure whether he can play minor league baseball. But I do know he’s a boon for #content.
I’m told New York will be in the thick of a four-way National League East pennant race. I’m not convinced, even though the Mets have tried everything in their power to win the offseason: stockpiling first basemen, hiring a walking conflict of interest, and maybe even undercooking chicken. If the Amazins stumble early, the only reasonable option left will be to ship Tebow downstate from Syracuse, where he’s expected to start the season in Triple-A.
Would I be more excited if he were prepping to make his Alliance of American Football debut? Sure, but I’ll take what I can get. Give Fred Wilpon a way to maybe, finally, sell a handful of tickets and perhaps one of these shirts. Give me hand, foot, and Mets disease. Give me famed two-sport athlete Timothy Richard Tebow in Flushing, Queens.
Nathan Eovaldi’s Encore Performance
Jack McCluskey: How do you follow up a performance so powerful that it brought your teammates to tears?
Nathan Eovaldi’s career record in the World Series is 0-1. That fact is incredibly misleading, though, because Eovaldi’s final performance in the 2018 Fall Classic—the one that saddled him with that L, and led Rick Porcello to weep openly afterward—was transfixing.
The final line: six innings, three hits, two runs, one earned run, one walk, six strikeouts, 97 pitches. The lasting image: the burly Texan, a two-time Tommy John success story, leaving the field in the 18th, defeated but somehow defiant after throwing his high-90s heat far longer and better than anyone had any right to expect on a day’s rest (he’d thrown a clean inning of relief in each of Games 1 and 2).
Eovaldi’s always had talent, but after arriving in Boston in the middle of the 2018 season, he seemed to harness it: His 3.33 ERA and 2.88 FIP in 11 starts with the Red Sox represented career bests, and his 1.61 ERA in the postseason hinted at an even higher ceiling.
It would be foolish to expect Eovaldi to sustain his stellar playoff form for a full season—like expecting a sprinter to win a marathon by just running the entire 26.2 miles at a dead tilt. But I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does as an encore.
Finding Out Whether Trevor Bauer Can Live Up to [Gestures Vaguely] All of … This
Katie Baker: There are only so many MLB players who have any sort of X factor, who are capable of generating intrigue and drawing in casual fans. It’s not even strictly talent dependent; ask commissioner Rob Manfred, for example, and he’ll awkwardly infer that Mike Trout isn’t one of the guys on that list. Bauer is, though: He jolts his brain; he clinically savages his own teammate; he is low-key skinny-fat; he is extremely online; he is a real pain for a batter to face. If a unit of cryptocurrency became sentient and started a company with your worst roommate from college, that business would be Bauer. Bauer is just stating the facts, ma’am, and he will not be apologizing. He is maybe the Elon Musk of baseball, in that sometimes you do, indeed, gotta hand it to him, but most other times he’s just kind of a dick. Which is all to say: Bauer is the “may you live in interesting times” curse come to life, and I genuinely can’t wait to watch him on the mound this season.
Seeing Vlad Jr. Ascend to His Throne in Toronto
Zach Kram: Shohei Ohtani aside, it’s hard to remember a more anticipated MLB debut than Guerrero’s. A medley of factors are in Vlad’s favor: his name and his father’s fond legacy; his highlights, like the walk-off homer he slugged in front of a delirious Canadian crowd last spring; his outlandish numbers, like the .402 (.402!) batting average he maintained across 61 Double-A games; the fact that the Blue Jays’ brazen service-time shenanigans serve in part to increase interest in his performance.
But beyond all those reasons is the simple reality that a bat like young Vlad’s tugs at the heart. Guerrero isn’t a five-tool player whose value stems from DRS margins and healthy walk rates—as important as those traits may be in a valuable major leaguer—but rather a pure and so far unbesmirched batter. He appeals to the basest baseball desire: He hits the ball often and he hits the ball far. If only Toronto would let him do so in the majors.
Bryce Harper Finding His Walk-Up Music
Tyler Tynes: Philadelphia is the crown jewel of our country. And part of being the crown jewel is reminding others of your shimmer. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a cadre of big, beefy baseball bros wanted to propel our tragic club to celestial heights. J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, and that one pitcher guy are bound to make us a playoff contender again. The biggest of the haul is Bryce Harper, a perm-coiffed crowned, home-run hammering, baseball wunderkind likely to set South Philly ablaze.
I have one request for you, Bryce: Walk up to “White Iverson” by Post Malone. It’s not because this song is good. It’s not even because Post Malone is good. But since you want to fully lean in to God’s Country and our stunning iconography, what’s more Baseball Boy Who Wears No. 3 than walking up to the most I Am White and Want to Be Like No. 3 song of our lifetime? Next to, like, whatever the Dropkick Murphys sing. Don’t do it for me, Bryce. Do it for all the drunk wahoos who will be wearing your shirsey and flicking bogies into the outfield all summer while muttering parables about Sam Hinkie. This is what you wanted 13 years of, right?
The Royals Being Good at One Thing, and That Thing Being Base-Stealing
Bobby Wagner: The 2019 Royals are not going to be a good team. As someone who is bound by fan law to hate the Royals after they beat the Mets in the 2015 World Series, that has me pretty excited. The rest of the baseball-viewing public might need more of an incentive to get them to tune into Kansas City games, though. To that I say: meet Adalberto Mondesi, Billy Hamilton, Whit Merrifield, Terrance Gore, and a 1980s mind-set centered on the analytics of stealing bases. Mondesi, Hamilton, and Merrifield are projected to steal the second-, fourth-, and seventh-most bases in MLB this season, respectively. The Royals are going to steal in bunches, and if you, like me, think that base-stealing is an art on par with watching Joey Votto take a walk or Yasiel Puig stick his tongue out, this may be the team for you. I can’t wait to see what feats are born from this Frankenstein team of bad, young, fast baseball players with nothing to lose.
The Yankees Breaking Their Own Home Run Record
Danny Heifetz: Home runs are the best thing about baseball, and last season, the Yankees hit the most home runs of any team ever. Therefore, the 2018 Yankees were the best baseball team ever.
Now that you know the truth, rejoice! Because the 2019 Yankees are going to break their own home run record. Last year’s squad smashed 267 dingers despite Aaron Judge playing in just 112 games and Gary Sánchez (who was in the minors for so long I wondered whether he was an accounting loophole that only existed on paper, like Randall Stephens in The Shawshank Redemption) appearing in only 89. Both Judge and Sánchez are good bets to outperform their totals from last year. Yes, shortstop Didi Gregorius is hurt to start the year and Greg Bird is definitely an accounting loophole that only exists on paper (IL paperwork, to be specific). But the team has Luke Voit, who is the fourth-best hitter in baseball and will get far more at-bats in 2019, and DJ LeMahieu and Troy Tulowitzki were added this offseason. If the Yankees can even barely outpace what they did last year and add three more home runs to their 2018 total, they would be the first team to ever average 10 home runs per week.
Puig Being Puig—Now in Cincinnati
Paolo Uggetti: All I need to do to get excited about the Cincinnati version of Yasiel Puig is look at his Instagram. Among the offerings are images and videos of Puig dancing on a bus, wearing a WWE belt, doing caption contests, and of course, promoting T-shirts with his cartoon face on them. This is just a sample of the off-field Puig experience, but what’s far more exciting is what he’s going to do now with a brand-new team and fan base that’s hopefully ready to embrace his high jinks.
On the Reds, Puig is going to be able to go full Puig. No longer in the outfield platoon system of the Dodgers, he is set to be a full-time starter on a team that could use his daily escapades if only to save themselves from relative anonymity. When I wrote about Puig back in 2017, I was told that he only wanted to play for the Dodgers, Marlins, or Yankees in his career. Cincinnati wasn’t on the short list, but there’s something to be said for a larger-than-life personality like his going to a place that isn’t bigger than he is. It makes for a perfect stage to shine on.